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An action plan for rural Scotland

16 Feb 2015

The Scottish Conservatives have today launched an action plan for rural Scotland calling for more powers and more opportunities for all.

The plan ranges from a call to accelerate the roll out of superfast broadband to increasing the number of affordable homes for families who can’t afford high rents.

Scotland is already becoming one of the most centralised countries in the western world, the party warns today, with too much power concentrated in the M8 corridor.

Today’s plan is focused on spreading power down into our towns and villages – giving communities the right to decide on windfarms in their area, and demanding a review of the Police Scotland set up.

It also is aimed at delivering more opportunities for rural areas – supporting upgrades to transport infrastructure and a balanced package of land reform proposals.

The plan is grouped into six key areas:

SUPERFAST BROADBAND FOR ALL: we plan to get all of rural Scotland online to help families, businesses and charities.

A LOCAL POLICE FORCE: we back a review of the national police force to ensure it is fully accountable to rural communities.

A COMMUNITY RIGHT TO BLOCK WIND FARMS:
we will back local councils who want to put a stop to new wind farms and ensure people whose property prices dropped due to farms are compensated.

BETTER COMMUNITY TRANSPORT: buses are a lifeline for rural communities so we will boost subsidies to increase the number and scope of routes.

BALANCED LAND REFORM: we will oppose moves to erode property ownership – but we also back a crackdown on tax avoidance by landowners and support funding for communities which want to lease land for the long term.

MORE AFFORDABLE RURAL HOMES: we back incentives for rural property owners and buyers to encourage them to provide affordable housing.

The plan was launched today at the Stirling Livestock Auction, attended by party leader Ruth Davidson and enterprise spokesman Murdo Fraser.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said:

“To realise Scotland’s potential, we need policies to boost the whole country. It’s time we heard the voice of rural Scotland.

“Scotland is one of the most centralised nations in the developed world and it can seem to many that it is run entirely from within the M8 corridor.

“We want to ensure that power and opportunity is spread right across Scotland.

“That means expanding policies like superfast broadband to every home so that no matter where you live, families, businesses and communities can have a better future.”

Scottish Conservative enterprise spokesman Murdo Fraser said:

“Our plan is to hand power and opportunity back to local rural communities. Land reform is part of that but we need to think much bigger than the SNP’s narrow ideological focus.

“Take broadband. If you’re a young entrepreneur living in rural Scotland with a great idea for a new start-up tech business, you shouldn’t have to go to the city to get a decent internet connection.

“So our priority for rural Scotland is to accelerate the roll out of superfast broadband to 95 per cent of homes in rural Scotland.

“We’ve delivered rural broadband for 200,000 homes in Scotland in the last five years, but we need to do much more.

“On law and order, people need to feel like their local community is being respected. So we back a review of the national police force to ensure we don’t have a one-size-fits-all police service.

“Let’s hand more power back to local councils. It should be up to local communities whether they want a new windfarm on their back door.

“So we support councils getting the right to block new windfarm applications – and compensation from developers for people whose properties fall in value as a result.

“On transport, we need more support for the buses that provide a lifeline for so many villages and towns. And for families who can’t afford rents in rural Scotland we want to see more affordable homes.

“On top of that, let’s have genuine land reform that works for the countryside. What matters in rural Scotland is not who owns land, but how it is used. Current land reform plans by the SNP Government are indicative of a central-belt government that doesn’t get rural Scotland.

“Our plan is for responsible land use for the long-term. The SNP’s plan to erode property rights and tax rural estates’ sporting rights will simply cost jobs and deter investment.

“We need a balanced plan which backs the principle of property ownership but which also cracks down on tax avoidance by landowners and gives support for communities which want to lease land for the long-term. That way, they can plan for the future.

“In summary, our plan is to link up rural Scotland, give communities real power, and back genuine land reform which gets the best use of our nation’s most precious natural asset.

“It’s time Labour and the SNP sat up and took notice.”

 

The full text of the  rural action plan is as follows:

RURAL ACTION PLAN

February 2015

SUPERFAST BROADBAND FOR ALL: we plan to get all of rural Scotland online to help families, businesses and charities.

Prioritise and accelerate rural superfast broadband rollout 

  • Nothing is more important than broadband in rural Scotland – for families, businesses and the third sector
  • Over £400 million is being invested in Scotland already
  • More than two million homes and businesses have been linked to the superfast network, including 220,000 premises in Scotland
  • We will make it our priority to speed up the delivery of the 95% target and look for solutions and funding to cover the remaining 5% – work has already begun on this

Refocus and double the funding of Community Broadband Scotland 

  • In addition to the superfast rollout, there are several alternative broadband solutions that are available to customers
  • Currently, the Scottish Government is funding a Community Broadband Scotland scheme through which communities can apply for funding to get broadband delivered through a range of alternative solutions
  • £5m was originally provided in August 2012 until March 2015, which was extended by a further £2.5m until March 2018
  • It is, however, not open to individuals, businesses or third sector organisations, in contrast with the Welsh Access Broadband Cymru scheme
  • We want to transform CBS into a Rural Broadband Fund, double the amount of its funding to £5m and refocus it so that it offers support to individuals, businesses, third sector and communities which have not yet been reached by the superfast rollout

 

A LOCAL POLICE FORCE: we back a review of the national police force to ensure it is fully accountable to rural communities.

Review the local accountability of our police service

  • Recent revelations surrounding armed police and stop and search made it quite clear that there are serious issues with the accountability of the new single police force
  • We have called for a thorough review of the arrangements in place and believe this must include looking at how local accountability can be restored
  • We believe the review should, in particular, look at the possibility of a two-tier police service, which would combine national strategic co-operation with local autonomy

 

A COMMUNITY RIGHT TO BLOCK WIND FARMS: we will back local councils who want to put a stop to new wind farms and ensure people whose property prices dropped due to farms are compensated.

 Allow a moratorium on wind farm applications

  • Latest figures reveal that planning authorities deal with three wind farm  application a day, clogging up the planning system
  • When local councils demanded a moratorium on wind farm applications the Scottish Government said this would be an “unprecedented step in Scottish planning practice”
  • With a moratorium on shale gas exploration announced recently the precedent has now been set

 Discontinue business rates exemptions for large-scale renewable projects

  • Conservatives have committed to ending all onshore wind subsidies for projects granted planning consent after the General Election
  • Scotland also operates a renewable energy relief scheme, under which renewable energy projects are entitled to a discounts on their business rates
  • We would limit this to only small- and medium-scale renewable schemes with a rateable value of less than £1m

 Introduce a compensation scheme for loss of property value due to onshore wind developments

  • In the past we have highlighted Denmark as a country from which we could import a system of compensation for loss of property value due to onshore wind developments
  • Local residents who believe the value of their home will drop because of wind turbine developments can apply to a valuation authority which can rule the developer having to pay compensation
  • In all there are five valuation authorities covering the whole country, each consisting of a lawyer and an expert in assessing real property value in the local area.
  • The drop in value has to be estimated at over 1% and it does not apply to small turbines (under 25m tall) or offshore developments
  • If the property is located within a distance smaller than 6 times the height of the turbine there are no fees to apply – if the distance is greater the fees are waived if the claim is successful
  • As a rule claims made during the planning process, but can also be made at later stages in exceptional circumstances

 

BETTER COMMUNITY TRANSPORT: buses are a lifeline for rural communities so we will boost subsidies to boost routes.

 Increase support for community transport schemes

  • Community -and charity- run buses are essential to rural Scotland. For older people especially, these are often the only direct link to health care as well as friends, family or recreation
  • The funding for community transport schemes is patchy and inconsistent at best, with a comprehensive national strategy absent
  • We believe the National Concessionary Travel Scheme should be extended beyond commercial operators to community transport and the Scottish Government should reimburse the full value of a ticket
  • As we have previously argued, it would be fairer to align the NCTS with the State Pension Age – Audit Scotland calculated this would save £40 million annually (in 2010 based on 65 SPA), some of which can be used to support community transport
  • A start-up transport capital fund should also be introduced as the initial costs can be the most discouraging element when considering community transport projects
  • The fund would also provide support to install ticketing machines to deal with the extension of the NCTS

 

BALANCED LAND REFORM: we will oppose moves to erode property ownership – but we also back a crackdown on tax avoidance by landowners and support funding for communities which want to lease land for the long term.

Increase transparency of land ownership

  • There are elements of the Scottish Government’s land reform agenda that we support and we believe a transparent register of land ownership is in the interest of us all
  • This will help tackle tax avoidance, but it can also make it easier for communities to register their interest in community buyouts and long leases

  Offer long lease funding for communities via the Scottish Land Fund

  • The Scottish Land Fund currently provides financial support to communities which want to exercise the community right to buy
  • Community buyouts, however, are not the only form of land use – sometimes long leases are preferable to communities as well as landowners
  • The Scottish Land Fund should be opened up to provide funding to communities interested in entering long leases

 Fundamentally review state-owned and state-managed forestry

  • Scottish Ministers own around 34% of the forest resource in Scotland, approximately 481,000 hectares
  • We accept that some level of state ownership is essential and beneficial in non-commercial forestry, but we see no reason why commercial timber production should be owned by the state
  • Other commercial activity (primarily tourist/recreational) forests could also be reformed, with state ownership remaining, but other community/private management models which ensure any profits are reinvested back in the asset should be trialled
  • Forest parks, as a free recreational resource, with a wide range of environmental, health and conservation benefits should be retained in public ownership

 

MORE AFFORDABLE RURAL HOMES: we back incentives for rural property owners and buyers to encourage them to provide affordable housing.

Introduce conditional incentives for affordable rural housing and broaden housing grant availability

  • In rural areas especially, we have a range of empty properties that could be brought back or converted to be used as affordable housing
  • Affordable rented housing is broadly defined as mid-market or intermediate rent at lower than market rent levels
  • Fiscal and non-fiscal incentives that help rural private owners bring properties into the affordable sector would have an exponentially positive effect
  • The Scottish Government has the power to introduce conditional stamp duty exceptions for private buy-to-let investors who would have to offer affordable rents
  • Rural property owners could also be incentivised through long term rent guarantee schemes, where they provide long-term (up to 10 years) affordable housing in exchange for guaranteed rent income, paid even if the property goes empty for a period of time
  • Existing stock will always only be a part of the solution – we need to look at how to support community and private developers interested in affordable housing
  • A bigger proportion of grant funding also has to extend beyond Registered Social Landlords (in 2010/11 this was only £5m out of £470m) to include community and private developers looking to develop new affordable housing

 

Notes to editors:

Many of these recommendations are drawn from the Scottish Conservatives’ Rural Commission which reported in August 2013.

A full copy of that report can be found here: http://www.scottishconservatives.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Rural_Com_13-FINAL.pdf