A way forward?

Nick Joy argues that the problems with bureaucracy are deep and endemic.

Don’t get me wrong: I think that Professor Griggs’ views are accurate and the work of rebuilding the framework on which our industry is regulated is critical. But where is the win for government in actually doing something? We like to think that government is incompetent or malign but actually more often than not, it suits government to have a complicated and inefficient system.

Let me give you some examples. Currently, the planning system requires large numbers of administrators, sub-contracted experts and local council departments. In a world dominated by parties which believe in employing more and more people in government, this fits very well.

There have been many leaders in the last 25 years who supported this idea, but it stems from a basic misunderstanding of where money comes from. It should be obvious, however, that you can’t employ people by paying them from the taxes that come from their wages. You have to create the wealth to pay those wages and fund state from the tax on it.

Complication and obfuscation suits government, and the enmity between the wild and farmed lobbies has suited government very well. “Peace-making” committees like the tripartite working group seemed to be designed to achieve consensus but such committees were actually formulated to ensure no such consensus actually happened.

There are few votes in rural Scotland. The fact that the rural industries are critical both to the economy and food security has mattered little till now and anyway, with their legal or academic backgrounds, politicians are either uninterested or unable to evaluate those factors. Letting rural interests fight means that there is little consensus in the rural electorate and thus no coordination. From that logic, parties can assume that finding a solution would only serve to create stronger campaigning groups that might notice the government’s lack of interest in rural industries.

There is not enough of an incentive to make the system work

Reorganisation of government departments rarely happens, because those in the departments don’t want it and they are the people advising government. To reorganise a regulatory system involves the loss of roles and re-tasking. Neither of these are popular. Political realists are unlikely to tackle such issues unless they see significant gains in doing so.

I have spent a considerable proportion of the last years working on a wind turbine project with an old friend. When the project started, I thought that I already understood how unfit for purpose the planning system is in Scotland. It has since become even more obvious how poorly designed it is, how overly complicated and often utterly absurd.

The power in the system lies with experts who often only work a couple of days a week or with agencies that won’t define the parameters they are working to until a final submission, which has cost a fortune, is provided.

Advice from the authorities tends to be very limited. It is almost as if agencies have worked out that if they don’t give you guidance more people will apply. This would benefit them two ways, if it were true. First, they would be able to show how effective they are, by refusing a large number of applications. Secondly, they keep themselves employed or even grow their departments to handle these projects.

There have been many attempts to try and create a system which delivers, and delivers quickly. I shall not mention the idiotic suggestion a few years ago that a single objector should be regarded as significant to an application.

I remember when the idea of a time limit was brought in; and I remember being told by SEPA (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency), who couldn’t process an application quickly enough to beat the clock, that if we complained they would simply reject the application.

I have been asked to withdraw a letter, or an application would be refused. There have been so many cases where the system is clearly wrong but the department uses their power to ensure its continuation. I’m sure that there are many other instances and I would like to hear yours – you can get in touch via editor@fishfarmermagazine.com. I will of course keep everything you tell me anonymous.

I am sure some will think I am being unduly cynical, but the more you work with the planning process, the more it looks as if there are many decent people trapped in a dreadful recirculating system.

Our regulators are often overworked and undervalued, but too often those who lead these organisations have agendas and do not value the people who really understand the issues.

I know many people who work in the regulatory area and their frustration is evident. This is not to say that there are only good people. I have met and debated with a number who have their own undisclosed agendas, using their position to attack the particular industry of which they disapprove. This will always be so but the system should be designed to minimise their impact and, ideally, expose them.

So, I wish the idea well but I fear that our regulatory system will be sorted out about the same time that our rural roads stop having potholes!