Unintended consequences

When all of this palaver started about coronavirus, writes Nick Joy, I was one of the people who consistently mispredicted what the outcomes would be. I simply could not believe that any government, whatever the shade, would be dim enough to shut down the economy.

Even at the beginning the average age of people dying was well over 80 and as life expectancy in the UK is around that figure, I assumed that, when this was balanced against the sort of tax penalty that will face the young, the government would opt for very strong advice but let the economy continue. I watched with dismay as share values crashed and the government borrowed huge sums of money.

Last winter, again I predicted that the government would never lock the economy down again as they must have learned from the first time. Wrong, wrong and wrong again!

As I am one of those older people (not quite 80 yet!) I feel that I must apologise to all of the young folk who will pay the consequences in the form of tax for a long time to come. I did not choose the government’s way but that is the way of a democracy.

The law of unintended consequences is usually quoted in relation to bad things that come unexpectedly from a decision intended to be good. I will define it, however as this: there is rarely a decision that does not have unforeseen consequences.

In this case, a bad decision (in my view) has had a number of good consequences. To give a general example, the stamp duty exemption was supposed to be extremely expensive to fund for the government but the rise in house prices has meant the exchequer has received around the same income that it normally would from this source.

For the area in which we farm, one unintended consequence has undoubtedly been the increase in “staycations”, a horrible word and – for where my old farms are – the wonder or nightmare of the North Coast 500.

Hotel and B&B prices have gone through the roof, as I’m sure readers know, and the flow of money to these fragile areas has increased radically. How this plays out in the long run defies prediction, but even with my history I am going to try!

My guess is that it will stabilise and then decline a bit over time as foreign holidays become available again. The prices of UK holidays have risen sharply and this will make foreign competition more attractive. The decline in air travel inevitably means that flights will become more expensive, however, so it will take time for this change and there will be a new normal.

I used to travel from Inverness to Scourie in the 1990s and early 2000s. Leaving early I would rarely see more than 10 cars on the whole trip. Now I would expect to see that per mile at the least. As I am travelling to Orkney on Monday, I will be experiencing the joys of the North Coast 500 for myself.

Meanwhile, will there be any hope for the poor guy trying to go to work past endless campervans and holidaymakers? I’m afraid I doubt there will be for some time, as there is no time to upgrade the infrastructure and no indication that government is particularly minded to, even if they could afford it.

Maybe there could be some good that comes out of this boom. We now have people from all over the country coming to our farming areas. These people have been bombarded with bad reports about the environmental impact of our industry. What a fantastic opportunity to get our own message, and the truth, out there!

Are we targeting all of the local hotels to use our product? Are we offering leaflets and information about the local farms? I don’t know, as I have been travelling to other parts of the country, hopefully soon to be rectified. I miss it very badly. However, we all know there are numbers of people travelling to our areas who know little about what we do. Surely it is not a complicated thought to suggest this is the time to start thinking about how we can take advantage of this obvious opportunity.

Having said that, how about creating a series of open farms up the West Coast to allow people on holiday with little to do, to visit and learn how we do what we do. Given that some deluded regions of the world are stopping the development of marine fish farming, surely it is better to spend this money now before we find ourselves in the headlines again.

Perhaps we do have to accept the decisions of government and their unintended consequences, good or bad, but maybe we can create a few intended consequences of our own!