THERE HAS been mixed reaction across the industry following the cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing’s proposed breakdown of the £160m convergence cashpot – which will be used, in part, to plug the Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme shortfall.

It was announced earlier this year that the current LFASS funding levels would drop from 100% to 80% with Mr Ewing promising the industry that he would do whatever he could to find the money to top up the scheme.

It appears that he has found that extra cash in the form of the convergence pot and has proposed that the first tranche of £80m coming to the sector this financial year will see £13m dedicated to LFASS with a much higher £35m predicted to be scooped out of the second £80m pot the following year – to meet further LFASS reductions.

The National Farmers Union for Scotland has called out the government's proposal: “We cannot agree with Scottish Government’s proposition to use any of the £160 million to address the budget shortfall that exists in the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme for 2019 and 2020 scheme years,” stressed NFUS president Andrew McCornick. “In year one, it appears Scottish Government intends to strip £13 million from the pot to fund an LFASS-type grazing scheme to cover the LFASS shortfall. It is likely that a further £39 million from year two’s £80 million could well be used to fill the holes in the 2020 LFASS budget.

“Using this money, rather than finding that LFASS funding shortfall from usual budgetary sources, dilutes what this funding could have achieved,” he continued. “This funding was derived through pillar 1 direct support and should be spent through pillar 1 direct support means.

“We do support using the funds to increase the basic payment scheme rates in Regions 1, 2 and 3 with extra weighted support to the Region 2 and Region 3 budgets for more marginal land. We also support top ups to the coupled beef and sheep schemes.

“However, the weightings to the regional rate top ups by Scottish Government justifiably support the hills and uplands but do not accurately reflect the hugely valuable contribution of all land in Region 1,” he explained. “As well as highly productive arable land, most of the Region 1 land is grassland and more support here would, in turn, have better supported all our vulnerable livestock sectors.

“Unfortunately, the approach Scottish Government intends to take will immediately lower what all three regional payments could have been and that will have a significant impact on all sectors, especially those underpinned by Region 1 permanent pastures and grassland,” he concluded.

Scottish Conservative MSP Edward Mountain went as far as to label the government’s proposal as a ‘great rural robbery,’ referring specifically to the cash commitment to LFASS. During Mr Ewing’s parliamentary statement on his proposal, Mr Mountain asked, ‘would it not be fair for the government to pay that to the farmers first and then pay the rest of the money to farmers as it was allocated?’, to which Mr Ewing replied, ‘No, I completely reject that assertion. There is no evidence whatsoever to back that up and I think I’ll just leave it at that.'

Mr Mountain commented: “The fact that the Cabinet Secretary refused to engage with a question from someone who has 35 years of farming experience highlights how he wants to hide from scrutiny.

“Farmers in less favoured areas need to be supported and the Cabinet Secretary had promised to find a new process to ensure £13m of LFASS funds went to farmers,” he continued. “However, the SNP Government is wrong to change how it is allocating the Convergence funding at the expense of farms in Region 1 areas. The Cabinet Secretary is robbing Peter to pay Paul and that is deeply unfair,” he stressed.

Scottish Land and Estates welcomed a significant proportion of the government’s proposal to be directed to marginal and remote areas, however stressed that it was a missed opportunity to support new entrants and farming resilience schemes: “The government’s announcement states that a significant proportion will be going to those farming in our marginal and remote areas and this is to be welcomed, albeit that money is being used to top up LFASS support which was likely to be reduced to 80% of previous levels for 2020,” commented Head of Policy Stephen Young.

“That said, in many respects there are missed opportunities in this funding allocation. Scottish farming’s biggest issue is resilience and profitability – a small slice of this funding could have been used to deliver an element of knowledge exchange to tackle this concern.

“Similarly, we are concerned that this funding will only be used for existing payment recipients. Topping up the National Reserve with a small sum, open to all new entrants, would be perfect for investing in farming’s future,” he suggested.

“We would have liked to have seen greater discussion with the industry on this allocation and we would welcome the chance to do that before the second tranche is allocated. This may also present a good opportunity to intensify discussions on the future of upland, and all rural support more generally,” he urged.