Rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon gives her views on this week's Scottish budget.

There is no doubt this is the most challenging budget for Scotland since devolution. The UK Government has seen fit to give us a worst-case Autumn Statement and cut the capital allocation by over 10%.

Capital is key – it is what we invest in infrastructure to enable sustainable growth, and enables farmers and crofters to invest in vital equipment, facilities, and activities that improve productivity.

When Scotland was in the EU, we benefitted from the longer-term certainty of a multi-year budget to help ensure the needs of rural Scotland were best served. That long-term certainty and its flexibility have been lost due to Brexit and the UK Government's further 10% cut to the capital budget merely exacerbates the consequences of a Brexit Scotland did not vote for.

Despite this, I am determined to do all I can to provide stability and security and that is why, critically, regardless of choices in England - we will be maintaining direct payments at current levels.

Our approach has been a different one – to get funding into bank accounts at the earliest possible opportunity this year, in recognition of the cost of living and inflationary pressures rural businesses are experiencing.

By December 2023, over half a billion pounds in basic, Greening, Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS), Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS), and Forestry Grant Scheme payments had been paid out. To put that in context, only a few years ago, LFASS payments were starting several months later in May, not December.

Our different approach is, I believe, the right one – to keep farmers and crofters supported financially for what they do currently while working with them and our agriculture stakeholders to develop - methodically and carefully - a new, improved, rural support framework. One that supports food production and helps our nature and climate.

At the same time, we have provided additional funding for the first transition steps towards that new framework – grants for carbon audits, soil testing, and animal health and welfare plans. Importantly, we ensured that where farmers and crofters are asked to do new things we support that specifically - and do not expect it to come from existing support payments.

That is what NFU Scotland argued for, and that is what the Scottish Government agreed to provide. And it is that process of working together which is delivering benefits for farmers and crofters all over the country.

But I also know NFUS members and The Scottish Farmer readers may be concerned at what the headline figures for this year’s rural budget might suggest. Dig deeper, though and you will see that the funding for basic and Greening payments stays the same as in previous years, as does the LFASS.

Of the underspend that has been utilised for other Government priorities, £15 million is coming back into the portfolio in 2024-25. This is based on previous spending patterns and it will be returned to ensure it delivers for the needs of the rural economy.

I want to reassure readers that the Scottish Government is committed to the remaining deferred sums of the agricultural budget returning to this portfolio in the years ahead. This is ring-fenced funding, which means it has to be returned. The Deputy First Minister has given me her assurances on that point and made it clear in her Budget statement.

This tough budget settlement has involved difficult choices being made across the whole of the Scottish economy and society. Every portfolio has had to make tough decisions – ours is no exception. But that is the result of being at the mercy of a UK government that does not care about the same things we do, like supporting sustainable food production, becoming more food secure, or enabling farmers and crofters to contribute to tackling climate change and restoring nature.

The risk of course is that they keep cutting the Scottish budget settlement, including for agriculture and rural communities. The fight to ensure Scotland gets its rightful, fair share of future funding is one I hope we can take on together.