The widespread and clearly expressed concerns that have been raised throughout the country about the Scottish National Party's proposal to lease substantial areas of the most commercially successful parts of Scotland's national forest urgently need to be brought before the Parliament. The contracts will last for decades, deprive the Forestry Commission Scotland and 18 future Scottish Governments of the revenue from forest that was planted at public expense and, in the process, damage the Forestry Commission's ability to manage the strategic change that is needed in our forests.
We are not opposed to all the suggestions that the minister has made. Indeed, the proposal to enable the Forestry Commission to enter into joint renewables ventures to plant more forests was in our manifesto and we strongly support it. However, we are opposed to the main proposals on leasing, which are set out in the policy memorandum and financial memorandum to the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill. They are ill thought out and lack a published business plan. Moreover, the Government has given no substantive answers to a series of questions on fundamental aspects of the proposals.
It is unacceptable that ministers, who have had 22 months to work up proposals for the bill, have suggested the major leasing proposals at the 11th hour. As people in the industry have put it to us, they are a bolt from the blue. The Rural Affairs and Environment Committee will be put in an unacceptable position because, in two weeks' time, it will be expected to consider the implications of those huge proposals in one brief meeting without having seen the full results of the hurried consultation, which was put together at the last minute.
The consultation closed on Tuesday and we waited until then so that people could pass us their
The minister keeps attempting to reassure people by saying that the leasing proposals are just ideas, but it is stated clearly in the financial memorandum to the bill that the Government intends to secure powers through the bill to make secondary legislation on the release of capital from the national forest estate through the letting of timber-cutting rights. The memo is clear that it would be
"a 75 year lease over about 100,000 hectares (or up to 25% of the national forest estate)" but is extremely vague about the income: it could be an up-front payment or an income stream. That is a pretty basic issue to pin down at the start.
Without guarantees, this is money up for grabs by a cash-strapped Government. The proposals would mean the SNP borrowing from the future. It would take at least two years for a lease even to be drawn up. At a conservative estimate, the steady income stream to the Forestry Commission is £10 million to £15 million in today's money, so we are talking about a minimum loss of £750 million for a paltry income of maybe £200 million—if there are no plans to spend it. The sums simply do not add up. It is a bad deal for Scotland but a really good deal for one lucky private investor.
The proposals are a damaging diversion from the debates that we should be having on the other parts of the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill. We are concerned about biodiversity, the promotion of access and the loss of jobs, particularly in fragile rural areas. Understandably, forestry workers are deeply concerned about jobs, but they are also concerned about the integrity of the Forestry Commission and the sustainability of Scottish forestry for the years to come. They are not reassured by the minister's comments about their jobs. Many of them work in our most remote rural areas and they understand employment law and the financial imperatives of a single employer that would want to recoup the money that it has paid up front as fast as possible.
Industries that rely on the long-term contracts that the Forestry Commission manages are also deeply concerned. They know that, even when wood prices drop, they have long-term contracts with the commission that deliver a steady stream of wood. They believe that the proposals will cause irreparable damage and cost jobs. The
The processors are not the only ones who are worried. Climate change means that we need more wood for our sustainable construction industry, and the renewables industry needs more wood for local supply. There is no point in developing local biomass plants if the wood pellets are imported while Scottish wood is exported abroad. The Forestry Commission guarantees that that does not happen, but that guarantee would be lost under the proposals.
Environmental non-governmental organisations are also worried about the loss of biodiversity and the loss of the strategic management and experience that the Forestry Commission brings to our forests. They would rather that the commission focused on other challenges, such as the stewardship of our peat bogs, which is vital if we are to tackle climate change.
Forestry expansion must be underpinned by a coherent land use strategy—we must put the right tree in the right place at the right time. We have mountain biking facilities that simply would not have been developed without the Forestry Commission's long-term partnership, investment and expertise. Multi-use forests are in the public interest and we must not damage that interest in the future.
The plans do not add up and are deeply unpopular. The Forestry Commission trade unions' petition has already been signed by more than 3,000 people and the Labour Party's petition has attracted more than 800 responses. People have expressed their views strongly. I will quote one comment from our website:
"As a lifelong member of the SNP, I am appalled and embarrassed by this proposal. If money is needed to fund an extra 10.000 hectares of new plantations, then it should come from the Carbon Emmission Reduction Target program (CERT) funded by the energy utilities who are the major CO2 polluters, and not from a flawed, irresponsible and uncosted adventure to privatise our greatest national sustainable asset, ie our land and all that grows on it."
Our motion asks for the plans to be dropped now. They will be deeply damaging to jobs not only in future but now. We are in a deeply difficult national financial situation and the last thing that the Government should do is make that worse. Alternatives exist, so let us focus on them. Let us sort out the rural development plan. Less than £1 million out of the £14 million woodland challenge fund has been allocated so far this year; that is not good enough. We should look at the new revenue streams from renewables and look at community participation.
The SNP Government must do the right thing: dump these unpopular, ill-thought-out, damaging proposals. Let us focus on the way forward.
That the Parliament notes widespread and clearly expressed public concern about the potential effects on biodiversity, access, employment and the ability of Forestry Commission Scotland to continue to carry out its functions effectively as a result of the Scottish Government's proposals to lease large tracts of the forestry estate to the private sector for decades into the future; notes that the Parliament is being asked by the Scottish Government to scrutinise a proposal that it has now said does "not necessarily represent the best or only option" to achieve its objectives; also notes that the Scottish Government has not set out what it believes would be the other or better options; further notes the lack of published detail or business plan and the inability of the Scottish Government to answer a series of questions on the full implications of its proposals at this time, and calls on the Scottish Government to reconsider its plans to proceed with the leasing proposal and end the uncertainty surrounding the proposals by dropping the provisions that would permit this from the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill.
I will deal with facts, which were in short supply in the speech that we have just heard from Sarah Boyack and will be in short supply in the speeches that we will hear from the Liberal Democrats, who made an entirely fact-free contribution to the consultation.
I will start with some facts that might be hard for the Labour Party to take. The great defender of Forestry Commission jobs is the party that, when in power, lost 1,000 of them from 1999. Those jobs were lost under Labour and the Liberal Democrats; our proposals would increase employment in rural areas.
Alas, the other fact with which I must deal is the history of consultation under Labour and the Liberal Democrats, in which the decisions were made before the consultation papers were issued. I understand those people who have difficulty taking my assurances at face value. For years, they have had ministers in Scotland whose assurances meant nothing, so I say at the outset that my assurances are to be trusted. [Interruption.] I know that it is an unusual concept for Labour to think of trust and ministers in the same sentence, but the reality is that there will be no loss of jobs, biodiversity or access.
I will not take an intervention from Mr Hume at any stage today.
There will be no difficulties of the type that has been talked about. It is scaremongering.
Let us go to the facts. Scotland's forests represent one of our biggest assets in terms of natural and financial capital. A lot more forest needs to be planted to help us to achieve the world-leading climate change ambitions on which this Administration has led and which the United Kingdom Government is merely following.
On what basis can I say that? The 2006 Stern report on the economics of climate change, which highlighted the importance of effective, early action, said:
"Encouraging new forests, and enhancing the potential of soils to store carbon, offer further opportunities to reverse emissions from land use change".
The AEA Technology report on policy options, "Mitigating Against Climate Change in Scotland", identified increasing woodland area as a high-priority, cost-effective measure. A total of 10,000 hectares of new woodland each year would lock up an additional 4.4 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2050. For comparison, 4.4 million tonnes of CO2 is equivalent to 44 per cent of road transport emissions in Scotland in 2006. It would make a significant contribution. It is a pity that the Labour Party talks about action against climate change but is not prepared to do anything.
Let us talk about how the proposals came about. For years, people have approached the Forestry Commission and asked to buy its land. As forestry minister, I will not sell Forestry Commission land. However, we need to consider creative ideas. When Rothschild came to us with a creative idea, I considered it and rejected it, because it was a proposal for 100 per cent of the forest estate. I needed to find a creative way to deal with the issue. The creative way is to take the 25 per cent package, get the value from it and invest that money so that we can grow more trees in Scotland. That is essential. Moreover, by putting that in the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill, we guarantee that it will be used in that way because it would be ultra vires if it were not.
We have a win-win situation in Scotland. We have the potential to meet the target of 10,000 hectares, which existed throughout the Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration but was never even approached. We can meet that target. Because we have access legislation, we can guarantee access. Because the proposals deal with specific areas, we can ensure that things such as the 7stanes and rallying are maintained and enhanced. We can ensure that leisure access takes place. All those things are guaranteed.
Where are the downsides? There is a downside for scaremongers and for those who want to make political capital out of the proposals. The reality is that there are no downsides for Scotland and none for those who work in forestry.
The biggest criticism that the Labour motion makes is of being open-minded. I find that fairly astonishing. Of course, I am prepared to consider alternative ideas. That is what a consultation is about. I have invited those ideas, and I am grateful to the trade unions, for example, for coming up with the idea of increasing the amount of repositioning. However, there is a problem in that, because some of the arguments that we have heard against leasing, for example to do with the potential danger to the Galloway forest park, would, if they were true, be exactly the same if the land were to be sold, yet those are the precise areas that Labour is proposing to sell. Its proposal is not worked through or worked out.
An agreed repositioning package was started by Labour, which we have continued. The solution to the problem of how we plant 10,000 hectares of new woodland each year is not to sell more land to do so, because that will endlessly diminish the forest estate. The solution is to use the resource imaginatively and boldly, which is what the senior lecturer in forestry at the University of Aberdeen, Andrew Cameron, suggested. He said that if we invest the money in that way, we will plant trees.
There are three classic ways of increasing tree planting. First, there are tax concessions. The Government cannot offer those. The second is borrowing. The Government cannot borrow—that restriction was imposed on us by Labour. Thirdly, there is this proposal. We need more trees. If there is a better proposal in the chamber, let it come forward. If not, let us ensure that we do something about climate change instead of just talking about it.
I move amendment S3M-3325.1, to leave out from "widespread" to end and insert:
"the consultation on climate change and forestry that has just closed; welcomes the widespread agreement that there must be a significant planting increase to assist the process of combating climate change; is grateful to all those who brought a variety of ideas and views forward, and looks forward to a report to the Parliament on the outcome of the consultation."
I declare an interest as a farmer and a member of NFU Scotland.
The Scottish Conservatives support the Government's target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. We acknowledge how difficult that will be. However, that is a long-term problem that requires thought-through solutions so, although I understand the Government's desire to make a start on carbon reduction, I remain as yet unconvinced that the proposal to lease 25 per cent of Forestry Commission land in Scotland is the best way forward. However, we shall see.
First, it is important to note that the short consultation on the proposal ended only two days ago, and it has so far been impossible to examine the responses. Indeed, as Sarah Boyack said, the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee wrote to the minister expressing its
"dismay and frustration" at being
"asked to commence scrutiny of the proposals without any awareness of how consultees have responded to them".
The Parliament finds itself in that position today.
Of course, as one would expect, the Scottish Conservatives approach the proposal with an open mind, unlike the Liberals who, in their uniquely childish way, memorably claimed that Christmas trees and Christmas cards would be a thing of the past if the Scottish Government pressed on with its plans to sell off Scottish forests.
I have sympathy with the concerns that Sarah Boyack raises in her motion, although it is tempered by the knowledge that she and her party voted down the budget yesterday, which will reduce the Forestry Commission budget this year by £3.5 million. Calling on the Government to drop the leasing proposals today without even taking note of the responses to the consultation smacks a little of a knee-jerk response and shows little respect for the consultees. I would have expected a more reflective and open-minded approach from her of all people.
What is needed is not a poorly thought-through scheme from the Government, a knee-jerk response from Labour or scaremongering from the Liberals, but a joined-up, thought-through proposal, to be put on the table and set in the context of an integrated and strategic land use policy. A spatial planning exercise and full land use review needs to be conducted and should, if possible, reconcile all of Scotland's competing land uses.
I entirely agree that land use is a substantive issue. I am sure that the member will acknowledge that the work that has been done by the Scottish Government in its land use research, and the land-use policy that will come to fulfilment later this year in a land use event, are useful contributions.
Absolutely. I acknowledge that, but the proposals are ahead of that, and need to be part of that integrated approach.
Increasing forestry cover by 50 per cent by 2050 has to be reconciled with the need to produce more food from our land. Make no mistake—that planting target, if met, will be at the expense of food production on our hills and uplands, because that is where the trees will be put. The concerns of the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association about the timing of secondary legislation, about how many leases might be entered into, about how viable the remainder of the Forestry Commission becomes, if the proposals materialise, and about the future of the timber processing sector all need to be answered.
RSPB Scotland and others have concerns about how the Government can ensure, over the 75-year period, that the £200 million raised by leasing will be reinvested in forestry and not used, say, to help to pay for the new Forth bridge. At the moment, the bill gives no guarantees on that. The RSPB and the SRPBA are concerned that extra forestry planting on the land on which that planting would take place may not be the most efficient way of combating carbon emissions. They believe that a more detailed scientific and cost-benefit analysis is needed.
The legitimate concerns of the unions, the staff of the Forestry Commission, and others in road haulage and downstream industries must be addressed—I hope that the minister can do that—as must the concern about continuity of timber supply to processing industries in good times and bad. Those are just a few of the questions that I would have liked to pose to the minister in the short time available.
The proposals thus far are not well enough developed to enable us to take a view. We do not know what views have been expressed in response to the consultation, but sufficient criticism and doubts have been aired for us to question the viability of the proposals. That is why the Conservatives remain to be convinced of the merit of the leasing proposals. However, we await with bated breath the answer to the questions posed by us and by the consultees and other parties, and thereafter we will come to a view.
I move amendment S3M-3325.1.1, to insert at end:
"and to subsequent detailed parliamentary scrutiny of any proposals brought forward as a result of the consultation."
The Government's proposal to auction off one of Scotland's most prized natural assets for a one-off, bargain-basement sum, under the guise of perhaps using the money for climate change measures, does not add up. What is in effect the sell-off of the most commercial part of the public forestry estate will not benefit Scotland, nor will it solve the many issues of climate change. It is at best naive and at worst reckless. There has been widespread opposition to the proposal from environmental groups, business and the public. Community groups could be left out in the cold as their local woods are snapped up by investors, and there is also a question mark over the future of leisure tourism. The economic future of rural communities is under threat.
No one can guarantee that sawmills and other companies that have been dependent on wood as their raw material for 75 years will have the same cutting contracts with private landlords that they currently have with the Forestry Commission. The minister cannot guarantee that there will be no redundancies in the commission. The jobs guarantee that he talks about, and the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, mean nothing.
The minister should listen. He might learn something.
The TUPE regulations state that employees' terms and conditions may not be changed unless for an
"economic, technical or organisational reason"— that is, for every reason under the sun. How can the Forestry Commission guarantee its workers' jobs if 25 per cent of its most commercial land is no longer in its management and up to 40 per cent of its timber income is lost overnight? That will leave it in a vulnerable position.
Under the proposal, we could not have the level of woodland investment that we have had under the Forestry Commission, so there is no prospect of new tourism initiatives such as the 7stanes project and no prospect of expanding or
What is the point of having a not-for-profit trust? Surely the Forestry Commission acts like a trust anyway and is fully accountable. The proposal is "unnecessary and overbureaucratic"—not my words but those of the trade unions. In an answer to a parliamentary question from Peter Peacock, Mr Russell even admitted that leasing might bring a lower return than joint ventures, so why propose leasing? The proposal is nothing more than an instant cash-generating scheme that involves selling the nation's family silver. I remind members that £200 million equates to only £2.66 million a year for 75 years, but we would lose £17 million a year in timber income. That is absolute madness. In addition, the private lessee might have access to Scottish rural development programme funds and therefore cost the Government even more. That is poor maths.
One of the thousands of people who replied to my forestry survey said:
"If I'd had any inkling of what we were in for, Alex Salmond and his cronies would never have got my vote. Being a party to their vainglorious appropriation of the Scottish Parliament will be a thing I regret for the rest of my days."
It is. Here is another quote:
"The authors of this consultation have grossly underestimated the effects on investments and jobs. There's a significant risk to the supply chain and there's been a suspension of major capital expenditure, risking rural employment."
Those are the words of 19 major timber companies that need their wood supply if they are to survive.
The proposal is madness and I call for it to be dropped. I move amendment S3M-3325.2, to insert after "future":
"; recognises with concern that the loss of potentially 100,000 hectares of estate earmarked for this lease option represents 35 to 40% of Forestry Commission Scotland's (FCS) timber income and 25% of its land mass; notes that diminishing FCS income by such a significant proportion could lead to the loss of investment for new leisure and tourism facilities, other woodland initiatives and research and development on renewable energy and could, in the longer term, threaten existing facilities and projects due to a restricted maintenance budget; further notes the potential detrimental impact that giving away full cutting rights could have on sawmills, smaller timber contractors and timber companies that often rely on cutting contracts granted to them by FCS to sustain their businesses; believes that the lease option has been drawn up without considering the impact on rural and remote communities and without
This morning's debate is an important one for many of my constituents. In rural areas there are not many permanent full-time jobs. Those that are created by the Forestry Commission are often the backbone of fragile rural communities and make them sustainable. We should also take into account the boost that forestry activity gives through temporary work at felling time and the commission's work to encourage public access and tourism.
The Minister for Environment has said again and again that Forestry Commission employees need not fear for their jobs and that they can either transfer to the lease company or remain within the Forestry Commission. However, in many of the areas that I represent, that is not an option. There will be no local forestry jobs with the commission if cutting rights are leased. Forestry Commission staff who have attended information workshops were told that the position for all staff was just as stark. If they refuse to transfer to the new company, they will be deemed to have resigned—no redundancy, no choice, no option.
However, it is not just commission staff who face an uncertain future. Employees in the downstream industries such as wood processing and sawmills also face uncertainty. Those industries need a stable supply of wood if they are to continue to operate. A private company with cutting rights will have no loyalty to those industries. It could be argued that the company will be dependant on the industries if it is to sell its timber, but things can change quickly. The timescale that is being discussed makes it impossible to predict what the economic position will be, or indeed what the needs of the industry will be. On today's figures, Scotland is being sold short, but how short time alone will tell.
Cutting rights are not the only concern of the downstream industries, as they are also concerned about the research and development of timber products. Many processors do not have the resources to fund research, and anything that affects the budget and scope of the commission will certainly affect research. The uncertainty that the proposal has created is causing problems now. A few weeks ago, I spoke to someone who works in the processing industry, who told me about an exciting new project that uses Scottish timber in construction. The project was in the early stages of development, but it has stalled because of the uncertainty that the proposals have created. How many other projects have stalled? At a time when the Government should be providing stability
The UK Forest Products Association says in its response to the consultation that the policies
"could irreparably damage the forest products sector".
That is a real concern. We should consider the experience of other countries that have gone down the same route and regretted it. For example, Sweden lost more than 20 sawmills after it sold substantial parts of its forestry.
Our rural economy is fragile. Many areas never experience the economic boosts that come to our more urban areas. Jobs are interdependent. The loss of one job can undermine a teaching job or even the local school, and that can have a knock-on effect on the local shop or post office. Many of the jobs that will be lost under the proposals are in our remote and rural areas. The fact that the Forestry Commission provides public access and encourages tourism in its forests means that the proposal will have further job implications, but I do not have time to discuss those today. Tourism is important in remote and rural areas, but private investors do not have a social responsibility to protect those jobs.
We are in the middle of a severe economic downturn. Is this the time to tell people that their jobs are at risk and create uncertainty in our wood processing and sawmill industries? This is the time for the Government to provide leadership and stability. I ask the minister to do that by withdrawing the proposals and investing in our forestry industry to provide security. I support Sarah Boyack's motion.
This is a silly and premature debate, but I am grateful to Sarah Boyack for one thing: she seems to agree that this is a "cash-strapped Government". I hope that the minister will ensure that that is extracted from the Official Report and quoted back at Labour as often as necessary, because those were her words. I am fascinated by the Labour Party's opposition to private investment. Strangely, we do not hear Labour express that opposition when it comes to hospitals and schools, so I am slightly confused about where the principle lies at present.
Let us cut to the chase. Are Labour and the Lib Dems now saying that increasing forest cover from 17 per cent to 25 per cent is not to be welcomed? In any case, how do they imagine that that can happen without an increase in employment? I do not know how on earth we could increase the forest estate without increasing the number of jobs.
At no point in the last year has there been the slightest cheep from Labour to the effect that it does not agree with the afforestation proposal, so I am puzzled. I remember that the sale of forest estate was included in the budget projections as a way of raising capital to start the process. I do not remember any Labour or Lib Dem member questioning the principle at that point. Indeed, when I checked, I could not find any Labour or Lib Dem member even asking a question on the subject. Who did? Well, I did, and so did John Scott.
We queried the view that, to increase the estate, the Government has to sell. On the face of it, that is a paradox. The minister thinks that he has come up with a cunning plan and he has put it out to consultation. That means that it is out to discussion and that nothing is set in stone. Labour must not apply its own notion of consultation to what the Government does. What we have is a real consultation.
I agree that the timing is bad. I have already written a grumpy letter to the minister in my capacity as convener of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, but committees in the Parliament have been put in impossible positions since 1999, so there is nothing new in that.
If Labour is not opposed in principle to sale, and if it has only just discovered that principle, why is it so opposed to leasing?
There have been so many red herrings so far that the debate should have been on fisheries instead of forestry.
Labour members might well argue that such a long lease—which, by the way, is very typical of commercial leases—is tantamount to a sale, but they can take it from me that a lease is not a sale. If they do not believe me, they need only look at any legal text book for the reality.
However, we have already established that Labour is not opposed in principle to sale. This is the problem: what the Government is proposing is not a massive sell-off at all but the fact is that if we do not raise substantial amounts of money, we cannot undertake the new planting. The proposal is in the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill for a reason, and I note that Labour has avoided that context completely in this debate.
Although carbon sequestration is not the only component in the approach to meeting emissions targets, it is an important one.
If I raised some of these questions with the minister, he would no doubt ask me how I would raise the money. In turn, I ask Labour whether it has a cunning plan for raising £150 million to £200 million for carbon sequestration.
In 1918, in the dying days of the first world war, the country was ravaged by conflict, our young people had been sacrificed on the battlefield, and our economy was in free-fall. That was the context in which the Forestry Commission was born, with the aim of replanting, rebuilding and renewing a crucial asset that appeared impossible to replace.
Of course, the idea seemed oxymoronic. How could we replace native Caledonian pine forests that were hundreds of years old? However, in the 1920s and 1930s, those foresters of old did what it said on the tin: they replanted our forests with fast-growing and mainly, though not exclusively, non-native species.
As we all know, the picture today is very different. Our living forests play a number of roles in climate change mitigation, industry and construction, job creation, biomass, housing, leisure, and biodiversity. That is why this debate is so important.
Politicians meddle with the structure of our forest assets at their peril. As many of us will recall, the Conservative Government of the mid-1980s decided—to its credit, I have to say—not to sell the Forestry Commission. That is why it beggars belief that the Scottish Government has effectively resuscitated a totally discredited idea under the guise—
—has the opportunity to reject a proposal that has even the staunchest Scottish National Party supporters scratching their heads in disbelief. I thank my colleagues for their support for that part of my speech.
Where on earth did the idea come from? What evidence is there that there is any support for the idea of leasing vast areas of Scotland's public forests to speculators for the next 75 years? I am not saying that we should not explore how to maximise the ways in which our public forests can work for us—indeed, Sarah Boyack has already suggested joint ventures for renewable projects—but I must challenge the minister to explain in his winding-up speech how the overall figures stack up. For example, we have been told that the national forest estate is worth about £850 million and that the Government wants to raise £200 million from leasing vast areas of forest. However, £850 million is the most optimistic valuation of the estate in a stable land market. The market reality is that, by flooding the market with an enormous area of land, the Government will lower the price and value of the assets.
Moreover, the creation of leases with the highly restrictive clauses that the minister mentioned will have a negative effect on the value of the assets, which might mean that even greater than expected areas of Scotland's forests have to leave public ownership in order to raise the necessary cash. If the idea is pursued, any future Government's ability to manage the forests will be hamstrung for 75 years, irrespective of new knowledge or developments in climate change, land use or any social, economic or environmental policy. A quarter of our national forest estate will effectively be exempt from public intervention until 2084. That cannot be right.
The minister tells us that this is not a back-door sale, because only trees will be sold; the land itself will remain in public ownership. However, the land is relatively worthless without the trees that are planted in it. That fact, coupled with the length of the proposed leases, shows that this is asset stripping of almost eye-watering magnitude.
Will the minister explain in his winding-up speech why the Government felt it necessary to discuss the proposal with Mrs Thatcher's favourite privatisation consultants, the City of London merchant bankers Rothschild? Will he also confirm that it was Rothschild that suggested that 75-year leases were the best way of selling off the management rights to Scotland's national forests?
I hope that the minister is genuine in his repeated assurances that the leasing proposal is
In this debate on the Forestry Commission, we should get a few things in perspective. The commission owns about a third of Scotland's forests, which means that, under the proposals, 25 per cent of a third of the existing forests might be leased. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the organisation has been cut back again and again, and 1,000 jobs have been lost. However, no debate has been called on that by those on the Labour benches who were in power at the time. Because of those losses, the Forestry Commission's ability to carry out its work is now underpowered, and the vast majority of its 1,400 workers are now in the business not of planting trees but of managing the forest in the public interest. As a direct result of that, however, those jobs have been saved.
Nevertheless, we have to try to extract some value and create the potential for more planting. We should remember what happened in the past. Dr Andrew Cameron, for example, has pointed out:
"In 2006, only 4,000 hectares of new forest were planted in Scotland, the lowest level in more than 60 years. At this rate, achieving 25 per cent forest cover would take ... 150 years."
We have to accelerate that process and, as Dr Cameron has made clear, the Government has to be creative and imaginative in that respect.
I find the false prospectus in the Labour motion and the Liberal Democrat amendment absolutely reprehensible, because it does not address how we have reached this point and how we should move forward in a devolved situation in which we have very limited means of raising cash.
I might give way to the member in a moment, but I want to make some progress.
John Scott spoke about where we might plant and suggested that planting should not interfere with our food supplies. We have lost a lot of stock, particularly cattle and sheep, but that has happened in areas where the soil has a high peat content and where trees do not need to be planted. The land use strategy that we are
I made it clear in my opening speech—and have made it clear from day one—that we strongly support measures such as joint ventures for renewables that ensure that money is recirculated back into our forests. However, the current grant system needs to be sorted out. There are opportunities for increasing the number of trees that are planted, but the work needs to be carried out properly.
As Dr Cameron made clear, the method that the member has proposed will take 150 years.
Creative leasing has been trialled in other countries. In fact, the environmental management of leased forests in Alberta in Canada has been acknowledged as being of a higher standard than that of state forest services.
I am sorry, but I do not have time.
We are set in a debate full of the scaremongering that puts words into the mouth of John Farquhar Munro, who is not in the chamber. He said:
"A century on from the date George Orwell imagined, we are being offered destructive privatisation, thinly disguised by Ministerial double-speak."
That kind of piffle leaves Parliament in a position in which there can be no forestry development, so I cannot accept the motion or the Liberal amendment. We must support the Government's position.
When I first heard of the proposal to lease Scottish forest land for 75 years, I could not believe it; I found it mind-boggling, and immediately lodged a motion. I recognise the Government's commitment to increase forest cover from 17 to 25 per cent, but I am dismayed by the proposal to lease Scottish woodland to commercial companies for up to 75 years.
If we lease land to a company for 75 years, and it invests heavily in that land—with, I hope, a policy of planting some deciduous, late-maturing timber—it will never reap the benefits, unless it has a guarantee that it will be able to renew the lease in 75 years' time. Realistically, however, we would not have the opportunity to change our minds about the leases in 75 years' time; we would be committing ourselves to selling off our Scottish forestry land for ever. Once we leased the land, it would be almost impossible to get it back.
I will quote from the Scottish Wildlife Trust's consultation response a couple of times. The minister and other members have talked about the lack of access to consultation responses, but they are now available.
Sweden has been mentioned as an example. The SWT says:
"the Swedish Government sold a substantial part of its NFE to a single company in 1992. A decade later the same company were experiencing extreme financial difficulties and ended up raising timber prices using its power as a semi-monopoly. Since then an estimated 20-30 sawmills have gone bankrupt, or been sold to Russian or Baltic owners, reducing forestry employment and capacity within Sweden. The Government has since offered to buy a 30% shareholding in the forests and subsequently the remaining 70% under certain conditions."
The Swedish Government would have to raise an awful lot of money to buy back its forestry estate. I am not scaremongering, because that actually happened in Sweden. I would like to know the Government's answer to that point.
The SWT consultation response gives some answers to the question that the minister flung back at members this morning. He asked how else the money could be raised. The SWT's proposes, first, that we
"ringfence the money raised from joint renewables ventures ... for woodland creation. Estimates suggest that annual net income from joint ventures might be expected to be £10m/yr by 2012 and 30m by 2020."
Over a period of 75 years, that would raise £750 million times two—at least—which is a considerable sum. We would be into the billions of pounds after 75 years.
The SWT continues:
"These sums would be easily enough to ensure an increased rate of woodland planting to over 10,000 ha/yr".
Another of the SWT's proposals is that we could
"ensure better take up of future woodland grant schemes through better and simpler SRDP scheme design, adequate per hectare payments and reduction of administrative 'red tape'".
I know that the SNP is very keen on reducing red tape.
We could also
"continue to run the National Forest Land Scheme, reinvesting the money from sales into land purchase in priority woodland creation ... take more opportunities to deliver low cost woodland creation on the PFE through measures to encourage extensive natural regeneration ('re-wilding') ... negotiate the abolition of the charge which FCS pays on the capital value of the NFE to HM Treasury. This charge is currently a significant financial burden"—
Finally, the SWT strongly advocates
"the development of an 'integrated land use strategy'", and integration is what I want to come out of the debate. Recently, we have had debates on flooding, which should be considered as part of an integrated strategy. We have not yet had a debate on the provision of timber for construction purposes. We are desperately short of wood for construction in Scotland, and I would like that issue to be addressed, too.
Scotland's forests are among our most precious natural resources. They are an integral part of the landscape in many parts of the country. Those of us who have a personal, political or geographic rural hinterland might sometimes take the forests for granted. For those with a more urban perspective, there is always the possibility that more can be done to make sure that they have access to, and an appreciation of, our woodlands, which are so healthy for body and soul.
I know how popular with tourists from across the country and around the world some of the Forestry Commission land is in my South of Scotland region. Those forest spaces include smaller areas, such as the West Forth woodland near Lanark, which are popular with day-trippers from the cities because they are within easy reach of major population centres and provide important opportunities for outdoor recreation, fresh air and exercise.
The Forestry Commission plays an important role in managing those tracts of land; in total, it manages about one third of Scotland's woodland. The land that the commission controls is much
There is no doubt that Scotland's forests face a challenge. The previous Administration set a target of increasing forest cover by 25 per cent, and we all accept that an ambitious target is necessary if we are to protect our natural heritage and ensure that we get the full benefit of the carbon emission reductions that forests can provide. That is why the Scottish Government has embarked with an open mind on the consultation, which outlines the different options for managing and growing our forests in the years to come.
Members will be aware of newspaper reports of plans to sell off to private hands publicly owned forests for ever as a way of earning a quick buck for the Government. However, the Labour Government in London is consulting on proposals for private involvement and ownership of Forestry Commission land in England that are far more radical than those of the Scottish Government. The Labour Government is giving far fewer assurances and guarantees than our Minister for Environment has given about jobs, access and biodiversity, which are mentioned in Labour's motion.
These days, the default Opposition tactic seems to be to scaremonger rather than to promote any positive or constructive alternative approach. Labour claims that jobs are at risk under the Government's proposals. However, the effect of allowing the Forestry Commission Scotland to enter into joint ventures for the development of renewable energy projects could generate up to £30 million per year by 2020, and leasing the land could generate up to £200 million, which could be reinvested in woodland. We know that the Labour Government likes to pump cash into banks and businesses so that they can turn round and lay off staff, but here in Scotland, the investment proposed by the Scottish Government will safeguard and most likely generate jobs in the forestry industry.
There are practical jobs to be done on the land, as well as a range of important management and promotional functions, such as those that are carried out from Braidwood house in Lanarkshire. That work could also benefit from the investment.
I will address the leasing issue in a bit more detail because it is perhaps on that issue that the scaremongering of most Opposition politicians has been extreme. In 1998, the National Audit Office explicitly recommended leasing over privatisation, citing the success of the New Zealand model in guaranteeing public access under the new management arrangements. The Woodland Trust
I am tempted to accuse the Labour Party of not being able to see the wood for the trees in its motion. Labour members claim to be outraged at consultation options that will safeguard jobs, access and biodiversity through continued public interest in land that is owned and operated by the Forestry Commission Scotland, but they are content to let colleagues in London consider outright privatisation of forests elsewhere in the United Kingdom. They seem to reject everything that the Government's consultation suggests, but offer nothing constructive as an alternative.
Scotland's forests are far too important to be turned into sticks for political parties to beat one another with. I support the Government's attempts to find sensible and viable ways in which to manage and grow our woodlands, and I encourage members of all parties to do likewise.
I regret to inform my friends in the Scottish National Party—I have some—that I rise to my feet as a scaremonger. David Stewart rightly touched on the history of the Forestry Commission. On 1 September this year, it will be 90 years since the Forestry Act 1919 came into being. As David Stewart mentioned, the act was about securing the nation's interest in a strategic reserve of forestry products.
The theme of my speech will be that, alas, the Government is not taking the people who know about forestry—or the people of Scotland—with it. I will read several quotations. The first is from a gentleman who lives in my constituency and who is very knowledgeable about forestry—Reay Clarke. He will be known to many members with Highland connections. In a letter, he states:
"I think the proposal is that forestry companies will pay rent for forest lands where they will fell trees and sell them. The rent money will then provide cash for government to give out grants for more planting or re-planting. However why should the F.C. not fell and sell these same trees from these same forests and so gather in equal amounts of money for future grant aid?"
The letter continues:
"The Forestry Commission is grossly under rated. Despite operating under the whims of ever changing government policies"—
I accept that point—
"in just 80 years F.C. has created a national asset of great forests".
Mr Clarke says that forests are a "national reserve" of great value to the nation. He continues:
"This leasing proposal is the latest whim and it distracts all in the F.C., from commissioners to forest workers, from their primary task of tending Scotland's forests."
I am grateful to Robin Harper for referring to the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which has produced detailed proposals on how the money could be found, which the Scottish ministers should consider closely. David Grundy of the SWT has said:
"We firmly believe that the wildlife living within our national forests will be safer under the expert stewardship of the Forestry Commission Scotland as opposed to a large commercial company which will naturally put economic considerations first".
Almost every year since I was first elected in 1999, I have made it my business—and it has been my pleasure—to join the Forestry Commission in the summer to see different aspects of its work. I have seen with my own eyes the time and trouble that it puts into creating walks for the general public—I am thinking of the Morangie forest near my home town of Tain. I have also seen its work on wildlife conservation, such as the efforts to maintain the number of capercaillie, again in Easter Ross. I have come to appreciate the Forestry Commission's expertise and knowledge. I have also come to appreciate the fact that a finely balanced sum is involved in which the money coming in equals the money going out. It would be dangerous to remove a large part of the capital or the resource, even if for only 75 years.
Highland Council has come out against ministers' proposal to lease forests. The RSPB has doubts about it, as does Reay Clarke, whom I quoted earlier. I have had representations from people who work in forestry and who are deeply concerned about the proposal. A good Government has to take people with it. At this stage, that is certainly not happening—it is not happening with my constituents, at any rate. When the company Balcas decided to come to Invergordon to make wood pellets, the amount of forestry in the area and the activities of the Forestry Commission were part of its calculations. The decision might have been different if the situation had been different. Reference has been made to the timber processing sector. There are grave doubts out there.
I hear Rob Gibson using the word "scaremongering" from a sedentary position—I will use it myself. If representing the comments of Highland Council, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and my constituents is scaremongering, so be it. I am happy to stand up and be counted on that. The
The debate has provided a useful opportunity to air the arguments pertaining to the Government's proposals for leasing a significant part of the forest estate to the private sector, which have provoked strong reaction from many quarters. As John Scott made clear in his opening remarks, the Scottish Conservatives have an open mind on the proposals, but we remain to be convinced that they are the right way forward. There are serious issues to be considered, many of which we have heard about this morning.
We accept that forestry can play a significant role in tackling climate change, not only by locking up carbon, but by providing the wood that is increasingly used by the construction industry as a substitute for concrete and steel. Wood is also important as a fuel, with biomass now regarded as having the potential to make a serious contribution to the achievement of Scotland's renewable energy targets. We also accept that significant new forestry development is needed to bring Scotland's tree coverage anywhere near the level in Europe. Woodlands are home to numerous species of insects, plants and animals, thus benefiting the country's biodiversity. Thanks to the Forestry Commission and others, many forests have been opened up in recent years for valuable recreational activity and sporting events.
The 39 per cent growth of commercial forestry in the past decade is indicative of its economic potential. We can understand the Government's interest in exploring a possible role for the private sector in the future management and development of some commercial aspects of the Forestry Commission's work. The commission has done a great deal of excellent work over the years, but there are concerns that some of its activities do not always give good value for money and may sometimes hinder rather than help the private forestry sector. On the other hand, we fully appreciate the legitimate concerns that have been expressed by the Forestry Commission and other stakeholders. We would need stringent conditions to be applied to any leasing arrangements to ensure that Forestry Commission standards were maintained; that employees were retained under present conditions; and that the environmental and social benefits of our woodlands were secured.
I do not have time to take interventions.
We would also need to be sure that the funds that were raised from any leasing arrangements would be used for climate change mitigation.
An issue of particular concern, which has been raised by the RSPB and the NFUS, is that the proposals that are under discussion have been made in a policy vacuum and in the absence of any overarching land use strategy. However, we acknowledge that, as the minister said, the Government is considering that point. An increase in Scotland's forest coverage from 17 to 25 per cent would have significant implications for agriculture, as good agricultural land would be likely to become woodland. In a nation where much agricultural land has already been used, and is still being used, for housing and industrial development, and in a world where demand for food is escalating, any plans to divert major tracts of land from primary food production will have to be thought through carefully.
It would be foolhardy to consider forestry in isolation. Instead, it should be considered in the round, alongside other competing land uses, in developing a strategy for the future. For now, we remain open minded about the Government's proposals in its consultation on the forestry provisions in the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill and will therefore support the Government's amendment at decision time, together with the addendum to it in John Scott's name. We look forward to considering the various views and ideas that emerge in response to the Government's proposals; to discussing the outcome of the consultation in due course; and to detailed scrutiny by the Parliament of any proposals that the Government produces thereafter.
I will briefly address some of the points that have been raised. John Scott and Nanette Milne made points about the important issue of woodland creation at the expense of productive land for food production. We need a more systematic approach to land use. Activity for farming enterprises to diversify and increase sustainability should focus on planting lower-quality land. We remain aware of the issue and will continue to consider it.
David Stewart made a thoughtful speech, although I did not agree with all of it. The Forestry Commission's role has always involved operating in conjunction with the private sector. A public-private balance has always been necessary to increase woodland in Scotland, so it is not a new thing. He also raised the spectre of Rothschild on the horizon, which he called "Thatcher's favourite privatisation" organisation. Of course, it is also new Labour's favourite privatisation organisation, so perhaps that is not a fruitful line of inquiry for Mr
"the idea of leasing should be considered in any future programme".
So the idea of leasing in this context has been around for more than 10 years. It has always been around—as Elaine Murray admits from a sedentary position—and was in the previous forestry strategy. Although leasing is not a new idea, I believe that its time has come.
I wish to make one or two keen points in response to Robin Harper. He asked important questions and I want to answer them, but some were lengthy, so I offer him the opportunity to sit down and discuss the answers. I will address two of them briefly. We saw an example in Sweden of what not to do, how to do it on far too big a scale and in a way that monopolises the market. We have a mixed forestry in Scotland, which will produce much better results. There are other possibilities, of course, as I have said constantly during the consultation. I have also said that we need action now and resources as soon as possible. If we can take a mixed approach to planting trees, I will be happy, but we need to plant trees. That is an absolute that must be understood in this debate. Unfortunately, although Robin Harper and others made some good suggestions, we have heard none from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
I will now offer some clear guarantees. We have heard scaremongering on a grand scale this morning, so I will put the facts on the table: first, long-term contracts will be honoured; secondly, biodiversity and access are guaranteed by law; thirdly, there will be no effect on leisure and tourism; and fourthly, triple assurances on jobs have been given, and there will be new jobs. Those are all facts.
As I said, we have heard scaremongering on a grand scale: if I may pick out an individual for dishonourable mention, it is Mr Jim Hume. I offer Parliament three brief cameos of the campaign since 4 November. Those who are connoisseurs of such things will remember seeing a stunning photograph of a group of Lib Dems wearing helmets in a forest in the south of Scotland. I presume that the helmets were worn to keep the ideas out rather than the brains in. Remarkably, the Lib Dems were in a forest that is not even affected by the proposal. They were led by a man—Mr Tavish Scott—who posed fetchingly like a young Viking on a bike. It is baffling why a man with no forests in his constituency is fighting against a plan to sell forests that does not exist. That is liberal democracy for you.
It goes further. Unfortunately, I was struck down by the lurgy after Christmas. I was lying in bed on 6 January feeling rather sorry for myself when I was cheered up by Jim Hume. He appeared on Radio Scotland in an interview after he had issued a press release about the threat to the Christmas tree that our proposals would produce. I have in front of me a transcript of the interview. I ask connoisseurs of such things to listen to this. In response to Mr Hume's assertion that there would be no Christmas trees next year, Gary Robertson said:
"Yes. But it's just not true is it?"
No, I am not taking an intervention. I thank Mr Hume, but I do not need any alarming this morning.
Finally, let me bring in—gone but not forgotten—Mr George Lyon, who has been stamping round Argyll with that poor craitur Alan Reid, stirring up apathy everywhere he goes. I want Mr Hume to think about what the news website for Argyll says.
No, I will not. The news website says
"There is nothing so tired, so dispiriting and so empty-headed as politicians focused only on scoring party-political points rather than doing their best for Scotland. There is nothing so dishonourable as politicians who don't do their homework while confidently trotting out wildly inaccurate statements for political benefit. ... In every respect" they do
"not trouble themselves with the documented facts and it is a dilution of the currency of trust on which democracy depends. And it is irresponsible to frighten and destabilise people about the security of their jobs when no threat to them exists."
That is true. That is what the Liberal Democrats and Labour have done; it is dishonourable. Let us now speak the truth about this great proposal that will plant trees in Scotland, fight climate change and preserve jobs. I commend the proposal to the chamber.
That was an excellent example of defence by attack. Yet again, those of us who raised legitimate concerns about the proposals have been accused of scaremongering by the minister and his colleagues. Indeed, in answer to oral questions last week, the minister stated that our behaviour had been "disgraceful". Unfortunately for the minister—Jim Hume alluded to this—a diverse range of individuals, local and national organisations oppose the proposals. Trade unions, the UK Forest Products Association, Scottish Environment LINK, RSPB Scotland, NFU Scotland, the Scottish Tourism Forum, the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, the organisers of the Merrick car rally in Galloway, Dumfries and Galloway Chamber of Commerce and Tory-controlled Dumfries and Galloway Council are just some of those who have expressed concerns. Are those organisations scaremongering? Are they behaving disgracefully?
As Sarah Boyack described, the forestry trade unions are not convinced by the minister's so-called triple guarantee. Forestry workers who do not wish to be transferred to the private investor's employment have been told that the Government will "make every effort" to find them another post in the Forestry Commission. However, many forestry workers live and work in remote locations with few employment prospects and it might not be easy to find alternative employment in the same locality. My colleague Rhoda Grant illustrated the consequences for remote and rural communities of the loss of those jobs. Workers who transfer will do so under the TUPE regulations, but TUPE is in force for only three years after transfer and so will not protect them from the potential that they will be made redundant after transfer has happened.
What about the effect on the Forestry Commission's income? Dumfries and Galloway Chamber of Commerce—hardly a Labour-controlled organisation—has calculated that implementation of the proposals could reduce the commission's income by £10 million a year. Other calculations have put up that loss to £17 million a year. Over 75 years, £0.75 billion that could have been spent on forestry will have been lost to the Forestry Commission. Dave Stewart described to us the reasons why even the £200 million that the Government thinks it might get will probably not be realised.
Dumfries and Galloway Chamber of Commerce asks, what are the consequences of the loss of that income for the management and planning of forests? What are the consequences for mountain biking, car rallies, sled-dog competitions and a range of other activities? Those are not my fears, but those of the Dumfries and Galloway Chamber
Although the biodiversity duty under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 would apply to land in the public forest estate that is leased to private interests, private investors will not have the same motivation to encourage and cherish biodiversity as the Forestry Commission, which is directly accountable to Scottish ministers.
NFU Scotland and Scottish Environment LINK are both also seriously concerned that private investors would be eligible for grant payments under the Scottish rural development programme. That is because a large company might have expertise that would make it more likely to get those difficult grants.
The lease of 25 per cent of the forestry estate is proposed—the most productive and commercial part of the estate. It is estimated that around 50 per cent of production on Forestry Commission land could be controlled by the private investor.
Forestry science is complex and I would not like decisions to be made without the science being properly considered. I understand that around half of the carbon that is sequestered by trees is in the root system and therefore remains in the soil after the timber has been harvested. Early disruption of the soil can cause the carbon to be released back into the atmosphere. The Scottish Woodland Trust has therefore raised concerns about the rapid cycle of replanting. The private investor, keen to maximise the profits obtained from the land that it has leased, is more likely to replant areas shortly after harvesting, disturbing the root systems of the harvested trees and releasing carbon into the atmosphere, therefore acting in opposition to the purpose of the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill.
A large company would be at an advantage compared to small organisations. The Scottish rural development programme is very difficult to access.
The UK Forestry Products Association is concerned that small local Scottish businesses such as sawmills could be under threat if the proposals are implemented. Robin Harper explained extremely eloquently the problems in Sweden, which we cannot guarantee would not arise here. We are concerned about the future of our sawmills. Would a private investor be able to guarantee the stream of product in the way that the Forestry Commission has done? There have been no assurances that anything other than the
The Minister for Environment has stated that he is entirely open to other ideas, so I will conclude by giving him some other ideas, not just for forestry but for carbon sequestration, which is important in relation to climate change. The Government could first consider protecting and, where necessary, reinstating organic matter-rich soils, such as peat land and blanket bog, which can sequester and store carbon. Secondly, it could encourage the use of wood for fuel and construction and—thirdly—the use of local timber wherever possible in order to minimise carbon emissions from transport. Fourthly, it could extend crop rotations to maximise carbon storage and promote the use of high-quality hardwoods, Fifthly, the SRDP could be reformed to maximise support for planting woodlands, timber production and natural flood prevention schemes, which are the sort of things that we talked about last week during our discussion of the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Bill.
My sixth suggestion—in which I agree totally with John Scott—is that the Government could consider developing a comprehensive land-use policy that maximises the potential of the land to tackle climate change and its effects. That would best be achieved if Scottish ministers retained direct control of the forest estate. My seventh suggestion echoes what Sarah Boyack said. It is unfortunate that various members seemed to be deaf to what she said this morning. We could gain income from renewables through joint ventures. We welcome joint ventures and the possibility of not only increasing the amount of renewable energy but increasing the income to the forest estate.
Those are seven suggestions for the minister. He should not say that we, or others, have not offered any suggestions, because we have offered seven alternatives. It is not necessary to lease out the forest. The idea has been around for a long time and it has been rejected repeatedly, even by the Conservatives—even by Margaret Thatcher and Sir Michael Forsyth. It has also been rejected by Labour politicians—it was rejected by some of my colleagues when it came over their desks. I ask the ministers to please reject it again. Let us go forward together with other suggestions for how to combat climate change.