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Monday, April 26, 1999 Published at 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK

Scotland 'defined' by land ownership

Rural issues are likely to be on the early agendas for the parliament

BBC Scotland rural affairs correspondent Ken Rundle reports

Whatever the wish lists the parties proclaim during this election, it is most likely that issues surrounding rural Scotland will be among the first to be addressed by the new MSP's.

While health, jobs and education rank high in the public priorities, decisions over their future may be dictated by wider policy.

It is probably over more emotive issues like land reform that the parliament can make an early, uniquely Scottish statement.

The ownership and stewardship of land lies at the heart of the debate over what defines Scotland.

In the progress towards devolution there has been a refocusing of attention on the part land issues have played in Scotland's past and must play in its future.

[ image: Land ownership is an area where MSPs can make a mark]
Land ownership is an area where MSPs can make a mark
Every party has recognised this and made its own contribution to the arguments which come at a time when serious questions would be asked about the future of rural Scotland anyway.

The previous Conservative and now Labour governments have made progress on a range of issues with several major reports awaiting consideration by the new regime.

High on the list are radical reform of land ownership, including the abolition of the old feudal system, revision of the legislation surrounding crofting and community control and a long awaited look at the agricultural tenancy system.

As if this was not enough to make the country's traditional land-based industries nervous, there are serious plans to create Scottish National Parks, beginning in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and also the Cairngorms.

Right to roam

Proposed legislation over the right to roam and changes to the planning laws are all challenging long held beliefs about the role of Scotland's working countryside at a time when they are already under pressure from CAP reform and world trade negotiations.

It is now widely accepted that the Common Agricultural Policy is unsustainable in its present form.

Despite the billions spent farm incomes are falling and rural communities are in decline. This coincides with consumer concern over the safety of their food and way it is produced.

They worry about welfare and the environment and demand a greater say in the running of a countryside they increasingly value for leisure, landscape and amenity.

Rules unchanged

The problem is that while many accept the name and aim of the game has changed, many of the rules have not.

[ image: Market wants cheap food]
Market wants cheap food
Despite some tinkering, the CAP with its subsidies and bureaucracy remains as the major influence on farmers' decisions about their incomes.

The market wants cheap affordable food which demands economies of scale, intensification and technology.

Pressure groups clamour for the retention of the small family farm, a ban on genetic engineering and an unspoilt countryside.

So farming and forestry organisations are preparing to lobby the new parliament for help in squaring some of those circles.

They know that while Westminster-based ministers will negotiate in Brussels, often Edinburgh will decide on how funds are distributed.

They need the new parliament to give clear guidance on the kind of Scottish countryside it wants in future and then play its part in getting the necessary framework in place.

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