Barriers to growth

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Scottish salmon is booming – that was certainly the message from the annual export figures last month.

Production is up, exports are up and prices are starting to get back to where they were so everything in the Scottish salmon garden is rosy, right?

Well, not quite. A key measure of success is not how you are doing against your own previous performance, but how you are doing against your competitors and, on this measure, our report card might well read: “Could do better”.

The global market for salmon is growing at about 8% per year. Scotland used to have a solid 10% share of that market.

Now Scotland has a 6.6% share and it is dropping all the time. Without a decent boost in production, Scotland’s share could slip to 3% or even lower.

The reason is simple: salmon farming in Scotland is not growing at the pace of its competitors.

Scottish salmon farming is growing at about 1.4% per year. Norway’s salmon farming sector is growing at three times that rate, while salmon farming in Iceland grew by a mighty 35% last year.

Why are we sluggish compared with our Scandinavian neighbours? Because the regulatory processes in Scotland make salmon farming a more expensive, cumbersome and bureaucratic business than elsewhere.

It costs more to grow salmon in Scotland. Crucially, it takes longer to get permissions to farm and all the barriers seem harder to navigate than in other countries.

But, at long last, there may be some light at the end of what has been a frustratingly long tunnel for our farmers. It has been delivered by a business expert and experienced academic, Professor Russel Griggs OBE.

Professor Griggs was tasked by the Scottish Government with reviewing the regulations governing salmon farming and coming up with something more efficient, speedier and better.

His report has just been published and it could – if properly and carefully implemented – give our farmers the helping hand they have been so desperate for.

One of the biggest problems in fish farm planning has been the four different bodies and five different consents that are needed.

We have long argued that we don’t want to do away with any of these, but that there must be a better way of dealing with these permissions than going from one body to the next, with each of these bodies having a say on the consent process of all the others.

Surely it would be better to have a single body in charge and all the relevant regulators feed their views into that one organisation. This, after all, is how it is done elsewhere and other countries don’t seem to have the problems that we do.

This seems to be what Professor Griggs is recommending. He has called for the creation of a “single consenting document”, which would deal with all the consents in a single process.

He doesn’t explicitly mention a “single determining authority”, but this does seem to be what he is recommending. We await clarification on this, but are optimistic that, at last, the current torturous process, which can take years, will be speeded up.

Professor Russel Griggs

Professor Griggs has also recommended a single licensing payment for salmon farms, a fee that will cover the costs of all the regulatory bodies involved and, crucially, provide resource for community benefit.

This is something our sector supports. We want to see clarity over the licensing process and we want to see the money our farmers spend on licensing used to support the communities where we farm.

Professor Griggs was not specific on whether the Scottish Government or the salmon producers should be responsible for allocating the money locally. Both options have merits, so we will wait to see how that one pans out.

Professor Griggs called for a project board to be set up to implement his report and for that board to establish the framework for future regulation, following his recommendations.

The make-up of that board and the framework it comes up with will be vital. We are adamant that if that project board follows not just the letter but the spirit of Griggs’ recommendations, then we will have a better, more efficient, more transparent and competitive regulatory regime for salmon farming in Scotland. But if that project board comes up with a framework that is too cautious and retreats back into the bureaucracy of the past, nothing will be achieved.

It is absolutely essential, therefore, that the Scottish Government drives forward with the implementation of this report with conviction and speed.

This report cannot be left to gather dust and it cannot be watered down by bureaucrats resistant to change.

After all, in his report Professor Griggs makes it clear that the precautionary principle has been allowed to take the place of proper science and real evidence in the past and this cannot be allowed to happen in the future.

Much has been made of the remarks in the report referring to the hostility that has existed for too long between the salmon sector and some parts of the regulators.

Professor Griggs said he had never come across such deep-seated levels of mistrust between a sector and regulators and this made working relationships “challenging”.

Those comments came as no surprise to anyone in Scottish salmon who has had to wait hundreds of days over the deadline for consents to be issued by regulators. Those poor relationships have been forged in a cauldron of delays, red tape and bureaucracy, and are the end result of endless frustrations.

We hope that if the Griggs report is implemented quickly, properly and in the spirit which he intended, then it will not only heal those fractured relationships, but put salmon farming in Scotland on a path to proper, long-term sustainable growth.

If that happens, then perhaps we will be able to compete with our Scandinavian neighbours on something approaching a level playing field – which should make the release of our annual export figures in the future even more of a celebration than they are just now.

Hamish Macdonell is Director of Strategic Engagement, Salmon Scotland.