Chapter 11 Rural Economy and Connectivity
The Rural Economy and Connectivity portfolio is responsible for agriculture and crofting, connectivity - including 100 per cent broadband coverage - cross government coordination on islands, fisheries and aquaculture, food and drink, forestry, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, rural Scotland and transport.
The majority of the portfolio spend is focused on delivering improvement in accessibility through investment in transport, and by funding schemes that support and build growth in the rural economy. Such investment is targeted to ensure key sections of the population, such as older and disabled people, are able to access sustainable and reliable transport options, and to support rural, island and coastal communities and sectors.
Key Strategic Priorities
The portfolio's budget will continue to support sustainable development, investment and initiatives which help to drive forward Scotland's rural economy, protecting livelihoods and jobs. This includes the distribution of EU funding for farming and food production, fishing and a wide range of rural development activities. Our funding of Highlands and Islands Enterprise will be used to support economic development projects with businesses and communities in some of Scotland's most fragile areas and remote communities.
In the coming year, an Islands Bill reflecting the unique needs of Scotland's islands will provide more power and protection for island communities, including measures to ensure other relevant policy matters are 'island proofed' in the future.
We will also introduce a Forestry Bill which will ensure that we have control over all aspects of forestry in Scotland, enabling us to maximise the sector's contribution to the rural economy.
Our existing broadband investment programme will continue with the budget for this increasing, so that by the end of 2017 we will see fibre optic broadband in at least 95 per cent of premises and in all by 2021. This will boost opportunities for both businesses and individuals, particularly in rural, islands and coastal areas.
A significant part of the portfolio's budget in 2017-18 will continue to be spent on improving Scotland's transport infrastructure. This will improve connectivity by making sure that all modes of transport, as well as day-to-day services, are accessible to all in both urban and rural locations.
We will work with disabled people's organisations and transport providers to monitor and report on actions in relation to our recently published Accessible Travel Framework.
Equality Implications of the Draft Budget 2017-18
The portfolio has been able to protect spend in a number of areas with key equality implications in 2017-18. This includes schemes that will particularly benefit those living in rural and remote locations, those on low incomes, and those returning to employment.
We are committed to the continuation of the Air Discount Scheme at the current 50 per cent discount rate. This will ensure that those living in some of the most remote parts of Scotland continue to benefit from reduced air fares.
We will sustain our funding of Road Equivalent Tariff, ensuring that island communities can travel on lifeline ferry services at an affordable cost. The scheme particularly benefits islanders on low incomes. It also assists young people below the age of 16 who pay an even lower fare.
Funding for the National Entitlement Card will continue, providing free bus travel on local or Scottish long-distance buses for Scotland's older people and disabled people. The scheme has positive impacts on the physical and mental wellbeing of cardholders, reducing isolation and helping disabled users to access employment and educational opportunities. During 2017-18, we will engage with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure the sustainable future of the concessionary bus travel scheme. In the coming year, we will also start work to deliver three months' free bus travel to those receiving the new Jobs Grant as well as free bus travel for Modern Apprentices aged under 21.
Through our funding of the ScotRail franchise, we will provide reduced fares for job seekers and the newly employed on all routes.
Our record level of investment in active travel will be maintained ensuring that cheaper, healthier and greener forms of travel are available to more. This may benefit those who live in less affluent communities where car ownership is lower and levels of walking tend to be higher.
As well as sustaining the funding for Scotland's lifeline ferry services, we will continue to invest in making ferry infrastructure accessible for all passengers. The Ferries Accessibility Fund will support a wide range of improvements across the network which will include accessible toilets, tactile signage, and the provision of more disabled parking spaces at harbours and on vessels.
Funding received from the EU will continue to be used to support the LEADER approach which encourages rural communities and businesses to come together to develop and implement their own Local Development Strategies according to local priorities. Funding to Local Action Group projects is calculated by combining the area's population and the Socio-Economic Performance Index for rural and coastal Scotland. The budget for the approach will be more than doubled in 2017-18 which will positively impact on various equality groups. Projects supported by this funding include those which enable younger people to find employment, through to the planning of services for older people and other more vulnerable groups.
Our commitment to extend the Scottish Government's superfast broadband programme, so that every premise in Scotland is able to access it by 2021, will bring benefits to all businesses and communities in Scotland. This will particularly impact those living in rural communities by providing increased opportunities for employment and learning. This investment also opens up greater opportunities for individuals with accessibility issues which can have a positive impact on people's quality of life.
Overall, the equality assessment of the draft budget has found that decreases in spend across the portfolio, such as on rail and ferry infrastructure, have limited equality impacts.
This assessment of the 2017-18 Rural Economy and Connectivity budget has highlighted its positive impacts on equality and shown the limited equality impacts of reduced spend. The budget reflects and protects ongoing commitments to the rural and island economy, broadband and transport.
Email: Paul Tyrer