I refer members to my register of interests.
I am glad to be able to speak in the debate today—especially as we await the final plans from the Scottish Government on the future arrangements for forestry management.
There is great deal of consensus across the chamber on the goals and priorities for forestry management; we all recognise that forestry is a vital part of the rural economy. I particularly welcome Jim Mackinnon’s report, which is a practical and clear document that includes many good recommendations.
With Scotland’s forestry sector currently contributing around £1 billion a year and supporting 25,000 jobs, it is vital that we encourage what can be described only as a growth industry. It is also important that forestry is valued in its own right, and for our professionals to demonstrate that planting trees will secure the long-term supply of productive timber, sustain jobs in rural areas and help Scotland to achieve its ambitious climate change targets.
As forestry will soon come under the direct control of Scottish ministers, we must ensure that it does not become subject to the whims of electoral cycles: the industry requires a long-term view and a consistent mindset. My colleagues and I are clear that we must retain the knowledge, experience and long-term planning that we currently have in the Forestry Commission Scotland. Indeed, I argue that we should strengthen and develop that skills base.
I welcome the new increasing annual target, which will rise to 15,000 hectares of new trees by 2025. I believe that the target is achievable, but I am concerned that, with the Government having missed its targets of 10,000 hectares being planted every year since 2012, we are setting ourselves up for failure, unless the process of applying for permission to plant is simplified and sped up, and has costs removed from it.
Less than 20 per cent of Scotland’s land area is currently forest, which compares poorly with Spain, which has 37 per cent, with Finland, which has 73 per cent and with the EU average, which is 37 per cent. In north-east Scotland, 17 per cent of agricultural land is currently reported as being farm woodland, which is slightly more than 80,000 hectares.
I have a good example. I know a north-east farmer, Mr John Munro, who has demonstrated the potential benefits of farm woodland on his farm. After buying 60 hectares of heavy clay land in 1991, John set about establishing commercial woodland—mostly Sitka spruce. Since then, he has succeeded very well. He is taking advantage of high-quality wood that is ideally suited to timber processing, and the work to deliver his wood stock over the winter ties in well with his farm business. He is also now making profit and employing a member of staff.
That model is absolutely the norm in Scandinavian countries. Across Finland, Sweden and Norway, most farmers are also foresters, so there is nothing unusual about a farmer harvesting crops over the summer and using the same equipment and tractors to harvest timber over the winter months. I argue that we need a complete change of mindset in the farming community here if we are to encourage more planting by farmers. Unlike Scandinavians, Scottish farmers are not natural planters of trees and there is little history of farming and forestry being integrated in Scotland. The argument has often been that good sheep country has been used for planting trees on and that livelihoods have been lost, as a result. However, it is often the case that using such land for trees will provide just as many jobs and deliver more output per acre than when it is used to farm sheep.
I will not at this point. I am sorry; I do not have much time.
I am convinced that there are large swathes of land in Scotland where sheep have already gone off the hill. Those areas have not been planted and are basically abandoned. They are a valuable resource and could be a real source of income for the landowner, but they are being wasted.
I agree with much of what James Mackinnon says in his report, but I disagree with his suggestion to have accredited agents who have the authority to certify planting applications. I believe that that decision needs to be taken by the FCS, but the FCS needs to tell its staff to be decisive and get on with it. I agree that informing and engaging communities should happen earlier and should be proportionate to the scale and impact of any scheme.
Although subsidies cover the first 10 years of planting, it takes decades more for trees to become mature enough to be valuable and to provide real income for the grower. How do we support farmers who are, in effect, losing income from their farmland over a long period?
Perhaps, when the cabinet secretary presents the draft forestry bill to Parliament, he will consider ways in which we could encourage the growth of farm woodland. That would assist in making farmers less dependent on volatile food prices by diversifying their businesses, and is vital if we are to deliver our tree-planting targets.
Brexit undoubtedly poses a challenge for funding new forests post-2020, but the answer is simple: the money must be allocated. Reports tell us that we are on course to import nearly 80 per cent of our timber needs by 2050. We must do better than that, so it is vital that we act now to ensure a strong forestry production sector for the future. Of course, we must ensure that we are planting the right trees in order that we create forest that is of real value for sawmills and will not just end up as expensive firewood.
Since around 2005, we have failed to meet our target of 10,000 hectares and, unfortunately, two thirds of the woodland that we have planted has been hardwood, which has limited industrial use. Those species are not the trees that our sawmills require; the failure to plant sufficient high-quality pine forests should have been seen much earlier and measures taken to rebalance planting. I am thankful that that has now been done.
I am fully on board with focusing on Sitka planting, as is outlined in Jim Mackinnon’s report, but we cannot just roll out Sitka and ignore other commercial species. There are clear advantages to Sitka. Its rotation age is only 40 years, rather than 80 years, as is the case with Scots pine and larch. However, I fully recognise that the days of blanket planting of a single species are gone, and that a well-designed forest will have open spaces and different varieties, in order to encourage biodiversity.
I move amendment S5M-03573.1, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert
“recognises the importance of retaining local expertise and cross-border joint working and urges that the end result of this process is not needless centralisation; welcomes the future increase in the Scottish Government’s annual target to create 15,000 hectares of woodland per year, but notes that it is not meeting current, lower targets; recognises that forestry has an important role to play in achieving Scotland’s climate targets; calls on the Scottish Government to take effective action in order to deliver the target and maintain the National Forest Estate as an asset for the nation, and recognises that forestry is a long-term project that requires a long-term vision for a thriving sector.”
You are tempting me, Presiding Officer.
We welcome the further devolution of the Forestry Commission, which should help the Scottish Government to achieve its planting targets. However, we also want to examine how we use our forests and how we grow timber. We agree that the responsibility for forestry should be devolved but, alongside that, we need to work with other parts of the UK to preserve the benefits of working together in areas including research and disease control. Neither the UK nor the devolved Governments will alone have the resources to replicate what has been achieved through shared resources, so we urge the Scottish Government to look for ways in which research could be carried out as a joint venture throughout the UK, to replicate the research and development work that people really value. The same is true of disease control, as currently happens. The UK works well in that area through animal health work and interagency working, so it would be desirable to link disease control with planting, along with devolution of forestry to the Scottish Government.
Concerns have been expressed about how forestry will be managed going forward, about the changes to the role of the Forestry Commission, and about the perception of a land agency that will cover much wider issues than forestry. There is a fear that it will become a faceless bureaucracy that is one step away from Government but impenetrable and unaccountable, and that it will be run by career civil servants who know nothing about forestry. We are told that one of the benefits of the Forestry Commission is that it is staffed by foresters who understand the industry and its producers. We are therefore not persuaded that one large organisation trying to do so many jobs will work. That also smacks of centralisation.
I agree that the blanket planting of Sitka spruce throughout Scotland was one of the worst things that happened. It was done mostly for tax breaks, so I am glad that the cabinet secretary has acknowledged that and given a commitment that it will not happen in the future. However, we need to plant more, and the Scottish Government has, as has been stated—including by the cabinet secretary—failed to reach targets year on year. We therefore need a strategy that works. The Mackinnon report looks at ways of achieving that by cutting through red tape, which is to be welcomed.
However, we agree with Confor about the role that is proposed for certifying forestry schemes below the threshold of environmental impact assessment. That should be carried out by Forestry Commission staff, not by private agents, because certifying agents to do that work will boost their business while bringing detriment to other businesses,
My reading of the report suggests that many of the problems are due to the people who are involved and their knowledge of the system. That suggests to me that the systems that are in place need to be changed and that staff require better training.
Systems have to be in place to allow a more streamlined application process for schemes that do not require an environmental impact assessment. Likewise, it needs to be clear where more in-depth applications are required.
To allow the system to work, we need a national plan that says where we will encourage tree planting and where we would not necessarily want it—for example, on good agricultural land that is required for food production, or in areas where planting would have a detrimental environmental impact. We need a plan that looks at where forests are required not just for land use and wood production, but for environmental and recreational uses. Forests that are close to towns and cities provide timber very close to market and excellent recreational areas. That encourages people out into our forests for the good of their mental and physical health.
However, areas that lend themselves to planting are often on poorer land, so they are away from towns, cities and easy access. We have a lot of land-locked forests that are ready for harvesting, but getting the timber to market is a real problem. Rural roads are often narrow, poorly constructed and poorly maintained. A large number of heavy timber lorries can cause a lot of damage and therefore impact on other road users.
Where possible, forest roads should be designed to get the timber as close as possible to A-class roads and railways. The railway is ideal: many tracks in our rural areas are underused and have the capacity to take timber, but that needs planning, proper sidings and loading equipment to get the timber on to the rail line.
I cannot take an intervention. I am sorry.
That would, of course, require Government funding, which has too often been not well thought out or sustainable. Past planting grants have led to people chasing the funding. Funding needs to be in place that ensures that planting happens in the most appropriate places, and there needs to be a clear plan for how to access the timber.
We will support the Conservative amendment, which makes many of the points that we are making, albeit that it does so slightly differently. We share concerns about the Green amendment, but we have the disadvantage of speaking before that party, so it cannot make its points before we have spoken. We do not wish for national forestry to be privatised, and there is a fear that the Green amendment might lead to that. However, I look forward to listening to what the Greens say.
We welcome the debate and having time to consider planning how we can deal constructively with forestry. We will support the Government to reach its planting targets and hold it to account if it does not do so.
I move amendment S5M-03573.2, to insert at end:
“; recognises the opportunities that forestry provides for community action and in tackling climate change; notes the importance of cross-border working to tackle issues of research and development and disease prevention in any proposed structure; welcomes the recommendations in the report, Analysis of Current Arrangements for the Consideration and Approval of Forestry Planting Proposals (Mackinnon report), after a series of failed planting targets; encourages the new strategy to take account of the diversification of forest land use into areas such as recreation and leisure; notes serious concerns about the need for more robust deer management, and recognises the importance of a strong transport infrastructure for forestry products through continuing to support the Timber Support Fund.”
I welcome this debate on developing forestry in Scotland, as it is nine years since the subject was last debated in Government business.
I started my working life in forestry, destroying the birks of Aberfeldy to plant conifer plantations on behalf of Midland Bank in the 1980s. I then went on to the University of Aberdeen to study forestry. When I was at university, I campaigned against the afforestation of the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland. Years later, I learned that I was blacklisted from employment in the forestry sector as a consequence of that. Therefore, I have some experience of the topic.
We are a bit disappointed by the Government’s lack of ambition for forestry. The 50th anniversary of the Forestry Act 1967 will be on 22 March this year. Notwithstanding devolution in 1999, the statutory framework for forestry and the responsibilities of Forestry Commission Scotland have moved on little.
We welcome the complete devolution of forestry, of course, but in addition to reforming governance and introducing new mechanisms to achieve afforestation targets, a new act could open with a new suite of statutory purposes for forestry policy in Scotland, including climate change mitigation, supporting the rural economy, advancing land reform and environmental restoration, and promoting social policy in the fields of health and wellbeing. In particular, a new act should incorporate a statutory duty on ministers to promote sustainable forest management and implement United Nations sustainable development goal 15.2, which is:
“By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally”.
In that light, our amendment calls for two elements of a more ambitious approach to the future of forestry in Scotland. The first relates to the ownership of Scotland’s expanding forest cover, which is dominated by those who live far away from the land that they own, often in offshore tax havens, and whose motivations are often limited solely to the financial and tax advantages that are associated with ownership.
A few years ago, I undertook a study of the pattern of private ownership of Scotland’s forests. When I asked Forestry Commission Scotland about the source of the ownership data that it submitted to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in 2011, I was astounded to be told that it was based on estimates that were in turn derived from a UK-wide survey that was carried out in 1977.
Unlike the situation in most European countries, the Scottish Government and Forestry Commission Scotland collect minimal information on forest holdings and publish nothing. We now know that Scotland stands at the extreme end of countries in Europe, with the most concentrated pattern of private ownership. In Scotland, more than 44 per cent of forest holdings are of over 100 hectares. Sweden has the next highest level, at 10 per cent, and the European average is 0.7 per cent.
The majority of Scotland’s private forest area is owned by absentee owners, a third of whom live outside Scotland. Across Europe, by contrast, forestry is owned by co-operatives, communities and municipalities. In countries such as Sweden and Finland, companies such as Södra and Metsäliitto Co-operative own extensive forest, which is managed on behalf of their members.
The second part of my amendment relates to reform of the governance of the national forest estate. I heard what the minister said and I look forward to further discussions on the matter.
Twenty-five years ago, I asked a prominent historian of the Highlands and Islands, Dr James Hunter, to write an editorial for a magazine that I was editing about the future of forestry in Scotland. Contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, he noted:
“The Forestry Commission is to Scottish forestry what collectivisation was to Soviet agriculture.”
He went on to argue for reform in how state forests are managed. He made the very good point that public ownership of land does not necessarily mean state ownership; real public ownership means ownership by the public.
It is a common belief that the Forestry Commission owns the national forest estate, but it does not. All land that is managed by the Forestry Commission is owned by Scottish ministers. Section 3 of the Forestry Act 1967, which the Government is intent on repealing, makes it clear that the Forestry Commission is merely the manager of land that is placed at its disposal by Scottish ministers. A new forestry act should allow a much wider range of bodies, such as community groups, environmental charities, co-operatives and local councils, to be appointed by Scottish ministers to manage parts of the national forest estate, which would remove the monopoly that the Forestry Commission enjoys.
I have two further matters to raise in the short time that I have available. The first is on achieving the Government’s target for forestry expansion, which will be challenging. The Forestry Commission briefing that the minister helpfully distributed yesterday makes it clear that, although we know where forest expansion should happen in broad terms, it is not happening. Given the climate change imperative of forestry expansion, we need to develop new mechanisms through planning and fiscal policy to make new forestry obligatory.
Secondly, the Forestry Commission’s repositioning programme is based on recommendations from a 2004 review. In an answer to a written question in October 2016, I was told by the minister:
“The Scottish Government has yet to decide on any further sales programme beyond those areas already notified.”—[
, 27 October 2016; S5W-03745.]
I understand that the minister possesses lists of new proposed sales of the national forest estate. I would welcome his confirmation of that and I ask him to let Parliament know of such plans as soon as possible.
Is Scotland simply a resource colony for distant corporate, industrial and financial interests, or is it a country that is to be developed for the benefit of the communities that live and work in rural Scotland?
I move amendment S5M-03573.3, to leave out from “calls on” to end and insert:
“; further recognises that forestry expansion should form part of the land reform agenda to increase social and co-operative forest ownership, and calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward proposals for reform of the governance of the National Forest Estate to enable a wider range of bodies to manage it.”
I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer for the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity.
Forestry, woodlands and trees are of great importance to Scotland’s rural communities. Forests contribute to the local economy by providing jobs and creating wealth. They attract visitors and create opportunities for our tourism sector. They are important to our cultural heritage, having inspired generations of artists and writers. Long-established woodlands form part of the historic environment, as evidence of earlier settlements and land use patterns.
The forestry industry contributes almost £1 billion a year to the Scottish economy and supports more than 25,000 full-time-equivalent jobs. The national forest estate is one of Scotland’s greatest natural assets and it generates £395 million and 9 million visitors each year.
Dumfries and Galloway, where I was born and where I live now, is one of the most wooded regions of Scotland. The region produces about 30 per cent of Scotland’s annual timber harvest and has a major processing capacity through two large sawmills at Lockerbie and Dalbeattie, in addition to a number of smaller facilities. The timber industry employs about 3,000 people across the region.
The industry’s continued growth and increased mechanisation have led to a recognised skills gap. Last year, I welcomed the Minister for Employability and Training to Dalbeattie to visit forestry machinery supplier Jas P Wilson, which is an example of a company that is working with young people to fill some of the skills gaps. The minister met apprentices and found out more about the company’s partnership with Dalbeattie high school. Minister Hepburn saw at first hand the really positive work that the company has been doing to offer work experience for pupils, which has in some cases led to full apprenticeships that are paid at the living wage. Offering our young people meaningful training opportunities in local businesses is vital to our region’s economy and will help to address national skills shortages in important areas of activity such as the forestry industry.
I am pleased that the SNP Government will introduce a forestry bill to complete the devolution of forestry. The bill will ensure that the Scottish Government has control of all aspects of forestry and will transfer the powers and duties of the forestry commissioners, as they relate to Scotland, to Scottish ministers. It will establish a forestry and land management body to focus on the development of the national forest estate.
As has been mentioned, a detailed analysis by Jim Mackinnon of the challenges that the sector faces was published in December. It outlined a number of recommendations to reduce the complexity and costs of tree planting, all of which the cabinet secretary has accepted in principle. The actions will include streamlining the process to approve sustainable planting schemes; earlier engagement between tree-planting businesses and communities; and the establishment of a dedicated national Forestry Commission Scotland team to deal with complex proposals. Those actions will help to ensure that we reach our manifesto commitment of planting 10,000 hectares of trees every year until 2022 and will also help to hasten the approval of planting. That will help to end the uncertainty over the future of forestry, which will encourage more private investment in the sector.
Stuart Goodall, the chief executive of Confor, recently praised the cabinet secretary for his “real political will” to tackle barriers to greater tree planting and his commitment to work with the sector to reach the target of planting 22 million trees a year. Those actions are especially important given the substantial support that the sector receives from the EU.
At this time of uncertainty for many rural industries, the Scottish Government is focused on creating stability and continuing investment in the sector. It is of extreme importance to reassure investors that Scotland is open for business. The Scottish Government has held summits with the forestry sector to listen to their concerns and ambitions. The cabinet secretary has also met leading representatives from forestry management and investment companies to provide reassurance that the Scottish Government is committed to seeing the forestry sector thrive.
As well as recognising the sector’s economic importance, it is crucial to recognise the role that forestry has to play in achieving Scotland’s climate targets. Trees and woodland can help us to adapt to the existing and future impacts of climate change by providing opportunities to store carbon, combat air pollution and reduce the risks of flooding.
In 2009, the Scottish Parliament passed the most ambitious climate change law anywhere in the world, and we have met six years early the headline target of reducing carbon emissions by 42 per cent by 2020. Scotland’s draft climate change plan, which was published last week, sets out how we intend to continue that progress, and forestry is an important piece of the jigsaw. By 2032, Scotland’s woodland cover will increase from around 18 per cent to 21 per cent of the Scottish land area, and, by 2050, Scotland’s woodlands will be delivering a greater level of ecosystem services such as natural flood management and biodiversity enhancement.
The forestry sector is important in many capacities. I hope that we will see support for the Government motion across the chamber and support for the action that the SNP is taking to deliver our tree planting targets, instil confidence and stability in the sector and maintain the national forest estate as an asset for the nation.
Although the forestry sector employs more than 25,000 people across Scotland, the industry is of particular importance to the economy of rural Scotland, including in my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries. Indeed, Dumfries and Galloway has the largest forest park in the UK, is one of the most afforested regions in Scotland and produces around 30 per cent of Scotland’s annual timber harvest. The timber industry is a major employer in the region, and it supports around 3,000 jobs across all sectors. Many members will have heard of BSW Timber in Dalbeattie, which has one of the largest sawmills in the country.
I want to direct my remarks at the governance of the sector. As we know, the Scottish Government recently consulted on the future of forestry in Scotland ahead of introducing its forestry bill to Parliament. One of the central themes of that bill will be new organisational arrangements for the Forestry Commission Scotland and, in the recent consultation, respondents were specifically asked about their views on the establishment of a dedicated forestry division in the Scottish Government and an executive agency to manage Scotland’s national forest estate.
I look forward to seeing what the Scottish Government proposes in its bill, but the cynic in me is more than a little concerned that we are again witnessing an attempt by the Scottish National Party Government to centralise and interfere—this time with forestry—with little regard for the wider implications that that will have for the industry.
If the Government decides to press ahead with absorbing the Forestry Commission into the Scottish Government, an approach must be taken that recognises the long-term nature of forestry as an industry. Excessive tinkering in line with electoral cycles should be avoided at all costs. Furthermore, I urge the cabinet secretary to ensure that, under the new arrangements, a new Government department would be underpinned by some form of independent or external scrutiny.
It is in all our interests that Scotland has a viable forestry sector, from which the benefits for local economies, communities and the environment can be maximised. Whatever is decided, I urge the Government to come to a decision as soon as possible, because at the moment there is a great deal of uncertainty, which is impacting negatively on the industry. Indeed, the concern was raised in Forestry Commission Scotland’s annual report for 2015-16 that
“uncertainty over its future organisational status poses difficulties in managing business as usual and has led to increased losses of key staff”.
Concerns about the proposed changes have been raised by a number of organisations, such as the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere Partnership. In its response to the consultation, it highlighted a feeling that the changes would ultimately result in the centralisation of services and decision making. It went on to make the very valid point that one of the main strengths of the current arrangement is regional management, which allows for a local approach involving a strong local knowledge base that the local community can easily engage with. In many sectors, the SNP Government talks the talk about a more local approach, but up until now it has not walked the walk. Perhaps it is time for it to do just that.
T he Woodland Trust highlighted the risk of professional skills and expertise being lost if a new Government department were to be set up. Such expertise and knowledge are essential to the successful management of our forests.
I do not claim that the current arrangements are perfect and that no changes are needed, but the Government must adopt an evidence-based approach and heed the concerns of stakeholders to ensure that any proposals truly improve the current system and bring tangible benefits. We cannot have what is simply another SNP exercise in centralising power.
I urge MSPs to read James Mackinnon’s analysis of the current arrangements for the consideration and approval of forestry planning proposals to get an insight into some of the problems that the sector faces. It is clear that there is a strong desire across the entire sector for things to work more effectively.
When the cabinet secretary introduces the forestry bill, Scottish Conservative members will be constructive and open minded. In making changes, it is important to guard against losing things that currently work, and I will be looking out for any attempt by the Government to become cumbersome in asserting its authority.
Scotland needs a thriving forestry sector. Today’s debate has provided us with the opportunity to recognise the importance of forestry to our economy, our rural communities and our environment. We will wait to see what lies in store for the sector, but we must avoid a micromanagement approach that results in a loss of expertise and local knowledge from the sector.
I will make some observations for what I think is likely to be a consensual debate—we are all travelling in the same direction on forestry, which is good.
Forestry, of course, has always provided a strategic product. For example, in 1511, the Great Michael was launched—the biggest capital ship in the world, at 1,000 tonnes in weight and 73m in length. The wood for the Great Michael required every tree in Fife to be cleared and timber to be imported from the Baltic and France. In that sense, timber played an important part in the 16th century in national life, and following the building of the Great Michael, a huge tree replanting programme was required.
The Forestry Commission was founded by the Forestry Act 1919 in the aftermath of the first world war, when France had 40,000km of trenches that were largely lined with timber. The percentage of the UK that is covered by forests has dropped to about 4 per cent of the coverage that existed in 1919. Timber is not simply an amenity in terms of forests or something that feeds industry; it is a matter of strategic interest.
“Pinch it—take it over!”—[
Official Report, House of Commons,
9 December 1919; Vol 122, c 1144]
I think that we have become a little more sophisticated in our approach to that issue since then. Nonetheless, where the land is to come from for planting trees is a substantial issue. I agree with Peter Chapman that we need to find ways of showing farmers that there is an intrinsic value for them and their businesses in making some of their land available for forestry.
I have some interest in using forests for shelter, and I think that farmers will find that it is useful for that purpose in some circumstances. I say that because where we live we are surrounded by trees on three sides and would be pretty open to the elements if that was not the case. The trees are also an amenity for us because in the forest that surrounds us we have foxes, roe deer, badgers, weasels, barn owls, buzzards, woodpeckers and a raft of other creatures. That situation is true of forests across Scotland and the UK.
Forests are a national asset and have things that are of interest to everyone. They draw the attention of not simply the industrial interests of bodies such as the Confederation of Forest Industries but of everyone who can benefit emotionally, practically and economically from forests. For those who, like me, enjoy walking, forests are among the most attractive places to go walking, provided that there are forest trails. The bit of forest around where I live is an example of the errors that have been made in the past, because the forest paths are all but overgrown and the forest has never been thinned. I think that the person who planted it—by the way, I am not sure who that was, which addresses Mr Wightman’s point—basically took the money and ran. It will probably cost more to take that forest down than the economic benefit that it would be likely to realise.
The management of forests is very important indeed, which is why I very much welcome Jim Mackinnon’s report on forestry, which is well informed and well researched. Jim Mackinnon is an excellent fellow, with only one major defect to his name: he is a supporter of Forres Mechanics Football Club—how sad is that?
I am pretty sure that he supports Forres Mechanics. I apologise to Jim Mackinnon if I am wrong about that, but I am pretty sure that I am correct.
In Scotland, we have beautiful land and opportunities for planting more forests. Rhoda Grant was correct to say that we must plant them where we can harvest them. I would have liked to intervene on the one point that she missed, which was that in some places there is the opportunity for the marine removal of forests. I saw an effective scheme in that regard when I visited Raasay to open a new pier there when I was a minister. I think that that was the last time that I met Charles Kennedy. We had an excellent chat, as we always did when whenever we met.
The number of jobs in forestry is already substantial, but it can increase, because the number of uses to which we put forest products is increasing. They are now part of biomass and more of our houses are timber framed, so it is important that we have access to a ready supply of forestry goods.
Forestry also helps in relation to climate change, particularly where there are new plantings, because young trees are particularly well-adapted to absorbing CO2
, whereas older, established forests that are left to moulder, perhaps like the one that surrounds our house, are less adept at absorbing CO2
. We therefore have to make sure that we replant after we grant permission for forests to come down.
I welcomed last week the assent from members on the Tory benches—from Mr Chapman—to our share of the support for agriculture and forestry remaining the same after 2020. I want that to be delivered, because it is important for the forestry industry, as it is for rural Scotland as a whole.
Trees cover 18 per cent of the land area of Scotland. Our forestry resources represent 45 per cent of the United Kingdom total and 60 per cent of UK softwood production. Forestry contributes almost £1,000 million a year to the Scottish economy and it supports 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs. Private plantings cover more than 965,000 hectares, and the national forest estate covers 640,000 hectares—some 8.2 per cent of Scotland.
Those impressive statistics emphasise the enormous importance of woods and forests to Scotland’s people, communities, economy and environment, and they explain this Government’s unequivocal commitment to forestry and to maintaining the national forest estate. That commitment is backed by ambition, which we now want to extend. Having considered the progress that has been made towards meeting the annual planting target of 10,000 hectares, we have extended our ambition. The draft climate change plan that was published last week by my colleague Roseanna Cunningham proposes to increase that target so that, by 2024-25, we are creating 15,000 hectares of woodland a year.
As one of very few economic activities that absorb more carbon than they produce, and one that supplies low-carbon materials for building, forestry is crucial to our environmental objectives. Trees remove about 10 million tonnes of CO2 each year, and are home to more than 200 plant, bird and animal species, including some that are unique to Scotland.
Some will rightly question that increased target, given that, as I fully acknowledge, we have not yet managed to meet the previous annual target, but I hope to be able to reassure them today about why I consider the new target to be achievable, and I want to reassure the Conservatives and Labour that our approach will also address the sort of issues that their amendments fairly highlight. At this point, I can say that I am minded to accept the Labour and Conservative amendments, in a perhaps unprecedented display of magnanimity on my part. I wanted to extend that magnanimity to the Greens, and would have done so, were it not for the fact that, unfortunately, their amendment is just a bit too prescriptive; accepting it would pre-empt the debate on the forestry bill and pre-empt a proper consideration of the views of the consultees, whose views we need to take fully into account. However, if it helps, I can say that I am happy to meet representatives of the Green Party and will discuss their position sympathetically.
I thought that it would be useful to ad lib at that point, but I will go back to my script now—I am sorry about that.
We are putting in place all the necessary components for success: funding, appetite, process, innovation, land, skills and political will. We intend to increase the financial support that is available for tree planting and management from £36 million to £40 million in the current year—provided that our budget is supported, as I hope that it will be—and I will seek to take every opportunity, resources and future budgetary pressures allowing, to seek to invest more funding in planting, and to be an advocate there anent.
Although our target has been challenging, a lot of tree planting has been happening in Scotland. Between 2007 and 2015, this Government supported the creation of more than 54,000 hectares of new woodland with investment of more than £230 million.
Our globally renowned processing sector has also made significant, welcome investments in recent years, which is a sure sign of confidence in and by the industry. That includes firms such as James Jones & Sons, and inward investors such as Norbord, which operates inter alia in my constituency. In 2015, the timber harvest was nearly 7 million tonnes—seven times the size of the 1976 harvest. Interest in investment in forestry in Scotland is growing steadily. In 2015-16, Scotland created 83 per cent of all new woodland in the UK. Timber production in Scotland has grown by 23 per cent since 2007 and timber availability is projected to expand further to 11.9 million cubic metres by 2025.
The streamlining of processes is enabling that trend. The new forestry grant scheme has been well received. Since the scheme opened in October 2015, Forestry Commission Scotland has approved more than 7,400 hectares of new planting; 71 per cent of that approved planting is productive, while 29 per cent focuses on other benefits, such as biodiversity or flood alleviation.
We can streamline the approval process further and create more certainty for investors. Last summer, I appointed former chief planner Jim Mackinnon to review and identify how the process could be improved. I have accepted Mr Mackinnon’s recommendations in principle, and Forestry Commission Scotland’s plan to implement those recommendations will be published shortly. The plan will be key to delivering our new planting targets.
The availability of land is also key. Currently, Scotland has only 18 per cent forest cover, compared with 37 per cent for the European Union as a whole—twice as much—and 31 per cent worldwide. A study has shown that 30 per cent of our land is suitable for growing trees, without using prime agricultural land or planting on important conservation sites. There is clearly room for growth.
I believe that the case for increased woodland creation is compelling, but I know that others remain to be convinced. Some are particularly concerned about the prospect of a return to 1980s practices when a monoculture approach to conifer plantation was implemented. Let me be clear. The Government will not oversee any return to the bad old days of blanket forest planting. Ours is a modern vision, in which woodland expansion must respect modern standards of sustainable management, such as the UK forestry standard. We will work closely with local authorities and communities to tackle the issue of the availability of land.
We also want sustainable, mixed land use, which is why I am pleased to support the work on sheep and trees that is being led by the National Sheep Association to promote the benefits of tree planting for sheep farming. That does not mean sacrificing one land use for another. Farming and forestry can work well together when managed in an integrated way. Scotland has plenty of land that is not prime agricultural land or valuable habitats for wildlife and where planting trees is absolutely the right thing to do. That will be our focus.
To meet our tree-planting ambitions, we must keep skilled professionals working across all sectors. We need more young people to take up careers and opportunities in forestry and to join the many forestry apprentices who are now working in the sector. The work of organisations such as the Scottish forest and timber technologies industry leadership group, outdoor and woodland learning Scotland and Lantra is crucial in that regard. We should use all available powers and levers to establish modern statutory and operational arrangements to support this valuable and growing sector.
That is why I intend to introduce a bill in this parliamentary session to complete the devolution of forestry and provide a new legislative framework. Although we have consulted on our draft proposals and are currently considering responses, I want to reach out across Parliament to offer to work with members to get that framework and those arrangements right.
To go back off-spiste for a moment, I omitted to say earlier that we have also worked with the Liberal Democrats prior to today. That underscores the fact that I am determined to work with all members to try to get these matters right.
Our aim is to preserve the knowledge, skills and expertise that we have in place and to ensure that those are deployed to best effect in localities and communities. However, we want to build on the success of Forest Enterprise Scotland to create an enhanced development and management body that will allow us to maintain and, indeed, grow the national forest estate as an asset for the nation.
Forest Enterprise Scotland is already a partner with the private sector and communities in the management of land, supporting 11,000 jobs, many in rural areas. That work involves spending over £50 million with predominantly small and medium-sized enterprises working on the estate. The estate also supports over 100 projects with rural and urban communities on work including urban regeneration, renewable energy, affordable housing, leisure, recreation, mountain biking and opportunities for community businesses. I hope and am sure that I will receive many examples of those good works from members across the chamber during the debate.
To date, managing the estate has involved small, discrete purchases and disposals of appropriate land and forests, and that careful approach will continue. We should also, however, consider how to make best use of the resources that are realised from such sales.
If we are to develop fully the potential of trees, woods and forests for Scotland, and if we are to increase their contribution to our communities, our economy and our environment, we need to work together. I hope that we can do so in this Parliament. However, there is a greater role for people and communities to play. Currently, over 200 community groups all over Scotland are involved in managing woodlands and forests. I intend to ensure that many more are involved and included in the future. I want to add to the success of the 31 communities that already own over 10,000 acres transferred under the national forest land scheme.
The largest forest owner in Scotland is in fact the Government. As the Greens do, the Government wants to see ownership increasingly devolved to communities. Today, I can advise that Forest Enterprise Scotland is developing a new community asset transfer scheme—a digital resource to provide more information and support to communities that are seeking to buy or lease parts of the national forest estate.
To conclude, modern Scottish forestry is indeed a rare thing. It is a win for communities, a win for the economy and a win for the environment. Our forests come in all shapes and sizes: the productive spruce forests of Galloway, the iconic native pinewoods in my constituency and treasured small pockets of well-used local woodlands and glens scattered throughout our villages, towns and cities.
A study by WWF that was published in 2016 highlights the challenges. Unless we produce more of our own timber and reduce dependency on imports, the current ratio of domestic to imported supply can be supported only until 2030. If we do not plant more trees, the UK will by 2050 be importing nearly 80 per cent of the timber to meet its demand. Surely we should all work together to tackle that.
That is why, in moving the motion in my name, I seek the support of everyone in the Parliament in a shared national endeavour to develop fully the enormous potential offered by planting more forestry and woodland.
That the Parliament acknowledges the contribution that woods and forests make to Scotland’s people, communities, economy and environment; notes ministers’ intention to complete the devolution of forestry so that its management in Scotland is fully accountable to ministers and to the Parliament; welcomes the future increase in the Scottish Government’s annual target to create 15,000 hectares of woodland per year; recognises that forestry has an important role to play in achieving Scotland’s climate targets, and calls on the Scottish Government to take effective action in order to deliver the target and maintain the National Forest Estate as an asset for the nation.
As we have heard, forestry bestows on us numerous benefits. The forest policy group depicts the scope excellently, stating that woodlands can double as
“a bank, playground, meeting place, nature reserve, classroom, larder, gym, mental health spa, and centre for the rehabilitation of those who need help to re-orientate their lives.”
Forestry is particularly salient to my portfolio as it is the only sector to deliver a net emissions reduction, acting as nature’s benevolence in the climate change challenge. However, the fact that the volume of carbon that is sequestered is set to decrease in the coming years represents a significant missed opportunity. The draft climate change plan, which sets out the Scottish Government’s renewed ambition for woodland creation, is therefore to be welcomed.
The RSPB has stated:
“woodland management grants and subsidies must be better targeted to ensure that wildlife is protected and the negative effects of climate change are mitigated, whilst still supporting rural livelihoods and economy.”
I agree with that view, and I hope that the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity does, too.
Agroforestry provides opportunities for multiple benefits. That fits interestingly with the comments of others, such as Peter Chapman, about efforts to encourage farmers to plant more woodland. The significance of agroforestry is recognised by the Forestry Commission Scotland. It is also interesting to look to France, where the law that the French Government passed on the future of agriculture, food and forestry, which was definitively adopted in their Parliament, supports agroforestry. In addition, the UK Committee on Climate Change has stressed the need to address barriers to and awareness of agroforestry.
We must constantly be aware of and challenge ourselves to ensure that we consider the tensions between forestry planting and peatland restoration in relation to both climate change and protecting our fragile ecosystems and wildlife.
In seeking to protect our forests and woodlands, it is also essential that we address the challenging issue of deer management, which we discussed this morning in committee. In my view—and that of others, I believe—we need more robust management structures to protect our trees.
Rhoda Grant has already explored the need for collaborative research on tree health across the UK. I also highlight the importance of the provenance of seedlings and highlight the work of nurseries such as Ravenswood Nursery in Cleghorn in South Scotland in relation to that ambition.
There are rich opportunities for community ownership of woodlands and forests. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitments today and I also listened carefully to the Green Party’s comments on that. Small parcels of land near—or indeed in—villages and towns can be used for recreational use and contribute to biodiversity through community management. There are also more adventurous opportunities, such as in South Scotland, where a wealth of woodland sites are already owned and developed by community groups.
Those sites add diversity to the forestry culture and they are often due praise for their focus on community and on conservation. The Gordon Community Woodland Trust is a prime example of such progressive work. The group purchased the Berwickshire site in 2002 with financial assistance from the Scottish land fund, which was the first funding for land purchase outwith the Highlands. Today, the woodland is a far more accessible space and it is used by mental health outreach groups and the local primary school, among others. It is managed by motivated and dedicated volunteers in the community, and it turns a small profit from Christmas tree sales and delivers huge benefits for community cohesion. We need structures that enable more community and co-operative ownership around Scotland.
There is an exciting range of opportunities for uses of wood in my region—South Scotland—that have not been mentioned by others. There is the opportunity to use small-scale biomass to tackle rural fuel poverty. There is also industrial biomass that is on quite a small scale, such as at BHC Ltd in Carnwath, which owns forestry to provide fuel for use in biomass boilers in its factory. There is the use of native wood in house building and there are also many art and craft opportunities with wood, as many of our native woods, from holly to oak, are fine for carving. I highlight the example of the Tweed valley forest festival, which will take place in October. MSPs can promote such issues in their own regions and constituencies.
I want to highlight the land use strategy and one of the UN sustainable development goals that was already mentioned by Andy Wightman. I commend them both to the cabinet secretary as opportunities for forestry focus. The status of the land use strategy merits further consideration. The what, where and why of tree planting can be addressed through the guidance that the strategy and the bill could bring. As for UN sustainable development goal 15.2—I will not read it out again as another member has done that—it is a global aspiration that we should contribute to. As the cabinet secretary said, there should be a shared national endeavour and we can explore the way forward together.
I will look at the issue from the standpoint of meeting our sequestration targets and the role that farming can play in that. That is not to diminish the importance of forestry from a commercial and economic perspective. The sector contributes £1 billion a year to the Scottish economy and supports 25,000 jobs. That really matters and, from a reducing emissions perspective, so does using wood in construction instead of other materials.
As convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, and given that this Parliament today commenced its scrutiny of the new climate plan, I want to focus on carbon sequestration at the initial stage. That said, there is a common thread running through the replanting issue, whether it is approached from the perspective of climate change, biodiversity, flood management, health benefits, water quality or commerce. Those are the raft of challenges that require to be overcome if we are to start planting 10,000 hectares a year and to move on to 15,000 hectares a year by 2024-25, and if we are to increase woodland cover from 18 to 21 per cent by 2032. Those challenges will require action.
It is only fair to offer some perspective on the issue. Although the 10,000 hectare target has not been reached to date, Scotland was responsible for 83 per cent of the new woodland created across these islands in 2015-16 and, in terms of delivery and ambition in that area, we are light years ahead of England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
However, the fact is that we have set targets and we will require a change in attitude and approach if we are to get to the planting levels that we require to secure all those necessary benefits and to ensure that there is not a crisis in access to wood for commercial purposes in years to come. We need to get over the old mantra that planting trees on less productive agricultural land is a sign of farming failure. We must find a means of making it easier for tenant farmers to plant on their farms without suffering detriment. We also need to identify parcels of land of the kind that Peter Chapman mentioned that are not currently utilised for any meaningful purpose and which would be suited to hosting forestry on whatever scale. Further, we need to deploy the land use strategy on a regional and more local scale to ensure that we begin to integrate land use far better than we have done up until now.
Implementation of the Mackinnon report where it identifies ways to remove barriers to planting will help us on this journey, as will, in terms of enticing farming participation, the move to allowing farmland planted under the forestry grant scheme to still be eligible for basic payments. If that is topped up by the Scottish Government’s planned exploration of a scheme that would see farmers paid for sequestering carbon through tree planting from 2020 onwards, as identified in the climate change plan, we might just secure a real breakthrough.
Although we should be demanding much more of farmers by way of emissions reductions without increasing financial support, there is nothing wrong with incentivising them to deliver new step change behaviour that brings about measurable carbon sequestration benefits. Some good work is going on already in terms of establishing new woodlands and improving the management of existing small-scale ones.
With regard to the latter, I was interested to hear recently about LEADER funding being used to support the first stage of the innovative Argyll small woods co-operative project, which is helping farmers and other small woodland owners manage those woodlands. In terms of the former, some interesting work is going on in central Scotland, with the central Scotland green network providing support and advice to farmers within the green network area around opportunities for woodland creation. That is laying the foundations for farmers to access the Scotland rural development programme forest grant scheme. In the past 15 months, 1,500 hectares of woodland creation has been approved and supported by £10 million in funding.
Clearly, courtesy of Brexit, the future nature of LEADER and the SRDP are in doubt, along with a 55 per cent underwriting of the forest grant scheme from the European agricultural fund for rural development, but in the short term at least, those funding streams are accessible for these important purposes and to establish some momentum.
However, in increasing planting in keeping with the woodland carbon code, we need to be mindful of another environmental impact—that of deer. The deer management issue is one that the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee has been wrestling with these past few months, concluding its extensive evidence gathering only this morning. The public purse in Scotland is facing an annual bill of around £30 million to install new fencing and repair existing protections to keep deer out of our current forest footprint and allow it to flourish.
As we deploy public money to fund new planting, with all its sequestration benefits, we must seek to reduce the risk of the double whammy of having to then increase spend on measures to protect that investment from the impact of deer. I believe that the central Scotland green network scheme already has a fencing element in the funding. We will always need to fence, but I contend that we need to strike a better balance between that and culling.
Another challenge for forestry is coping with the ravages of disease: 12,000 hectares of publicly owned woodland have had to be cleared over the past six years in response to disease impacts. It therefore makes sense that, although full control over forestry will pass to Scotland, we will still maintain cross-border co-operation on plant health, alongside developing common codes and shared research. The UK forestry standard is helpful, for example, in resisting the pressure from some quarters to allow planting on peat of a depth of more than 50cm, which is completely counterproductive in carbon sequestration terms.
It is welcome that the standard is to be revised to improve the sustainability of woodland development. However, I note—as other members have—the concerns of respected bodies such as the Woodland Trust on an aspect of full devolution of forestry functions. As we have heard, those bodies are fearful of the consequences of forest policy and regulation being moved in-house, as it were, to be overseen by a forestry division of the Scottish Government. The concerns around the impact of that may well be unfounded, but I hope that the cabinet secretary will address them directly in closing and that, more importantly, the Scottish Government will proactively engage with those who hold those concerns in order to secure support for and confidence in future governance of the sector.
New woodland in the correct location, with the appropriate species, planted well, is not only good for the environment but vital to the economy.
It is widely recognised that by 2035, we will not be producing enough timber to satisfy the needs of our timber processors—processors that the cabinet secretary and I know well, such as Gordon’s in Nairn, Norbord in Inverness and James Jones in Mosstodloch.
There are suggestions that the industry can offset that by “smoothing”, which means reducing harvesting in the lead-up to and post the critical period—in effect, putting the handbrake on our industry, which is not something that I would naturally ever encourage. However, with the long lead-in time for timber production, I see little option at this stage.
Why has this come about? The simple answer is that the Government has failed to reach the planting targets that it set itself—a deficit that has been repeated every year since 2012. Before anyone says that because forests take, in some cases, 60 years to mature, even if we had reached the targets, we still would not have had enough timber, I point out that that would be wrong. Forestry starts producing timber from around the 18-year point and, although not substantial saw-logs, it is timber that can be used.
How far behind the planting targets are we? To reach the target that was announced in 2012 of 100,000 hectares by 2022, we needed to plant 10,000 hectares per annum. As we enter 2017, we are considerably behind that target. The industry tells us that we will need to plant 13,000 hectares per year up until 2022 if we are to make up the shortfall and reach the Government’s target. The latest indications from the Government suggest that it will be happy with 10,000 hectares per annum, although there is no clear evidence that that is likely; indeed, it seems very unlikely given the evidence that I have seen.
I want to look at the reasons for failure and at what we might do. I will talk about two areas: grants and the consultation process.
An analysis of previous applications suggests that grants for costs for the establishment of forestry need to be in the region of £4,500 per hectare. Simple maths suggests that, to achieve a target of 13,000 hectares per annum, the budget should be in the region of £59 million. If the new target of 10,000 hectares per annum is accepted, the budget will need to be £45 million. The fact is that the figure that has been set aside for planting in the 2017-18 budget is £40 million.
I have heard arguments that the budget was set on the basis of the forestry grant applications that the Forestry Commission sees coming forward. Of course, that is a circular argument because if potential applicants cannot see sufficient grant funding, they will not bother to apply, simply because the application process is long, tortuous and expensive. If someone does not have a reasonable chance of success, why would they bother?
I turn to the consultation process. First, although I broadly welcome the report by Jim Mackinnon, there are some bits that I do not agree with, and perhaps I can discuss those further with the cabinet secretary at another time—although while he is still abiding by his 2017 resolution. I speak from bitter experience when I say that consultation processes can be soul destroying. I still bear the scars from some that I have been involved in, in particular one for a scheme aimed at recreating 1,000 hectares of new Caledonian pine forest in the Cairngorms. Although I accept the need to protect the environment, that particular scheme seemed to tick all the boxes, but it still took 10 years to be approved and I cannot remember how many site meetings and consultation reports were required. It is no wonder that trees do not get planted.
Therefore, I believe that the Government, working with all the other agencies that rightly have a say, needs to identify areas where we should see forestry planting. It should then produce maps showing where there is a presumption in favour of forestry and instruct the Forestry Commission conservancies to follow that map and to support the Government in their decisions regarding applications.
In summary, I am truly concerned that the timber supply will not meet the demands of our industry, especially when we reach 2035; I support the Government’s original planting ambitions and am disappointed that we have failed to achieve them; and it is clear to me that the Government has not allowed sufficient grant support to achieve its new, downwardly adjusted targets.
I support a lot of what Jim Mackinnon says in his report, but I want to look more closely at the way forward for the Forestry Commission and the use of certified agents. The Government must make the application process a lot easier, with a presumption in favour of forestry planting in specific areas to speed up the process. Sadly, I have serious concerns that if those issues are not addressed, Scotland’s forestry will be held back. The knock-on effect will be bad for the environment and the industries in the forestry sector, especially the industries in my region and the cabinet secretary’s constituency, where they are important in providing not only employment but skills and training for people.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate on the forestry sector in Scotland, particularly as I am a member of the Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee.
In my remarks, I intend to echo much of what has been said by my colleagues, although maybe not by Mr Mountain. In particular, I will reiterate how valuable the forestry sector is to Scotland and the actions that the SNP Government will take to showcase how much it values the sector.
Scotland’s forests and woodlands are one of our greatest and most valuable rural assets. The sector is worth £1 billion per annum and supports approximately 25,000 jobs. It is clear that the forestry sector has the potential to continue to grow—I know that that is a pun—and to go from strength to strength. It is the SNP’s ambition for it to expand, flourish and continue to support employment growth for Scotland’s rural economy.
It is incredibly important to remember that the forestry sector not only does well for Scotland’s economy but plays a hugely important role in tackling climate change, protecting and growing biodiversity, natural flood management and improving general health and wellbeing throughout Scotland. In short, the sector contributes much more than money to our nation. That, I am sure, is why the SNP Government is determined to reduce the complexity, duration and cost of tree planting applications and why, as members are aware, it commissioned a report by Jim Mackinnon CBE.
The report made a number of recommendations, which the cabinet secretary has accepted in principle, but the Government went further: in her programme for government, the First Minister outlined a commitment to announce actions to speed up and streamline approval procedures for sustainable planting schemes. The Scottish Government is exploring the options for stimulating increased planting and has plans to announce later in the year actions to speed up the planting process, particularly for sustainable schemes.
It is important to note that the industry’s success lies in the relationship that has developed with our committed cabinet secretary. Indeed, I note that Stuart Goodall, the chief executive of Confor, said:
“Scotland is planting, on average, over 15 million trees a year and the Cabinet Secretary is working with the sector in a determined drive to” plant more.
“There is an understanding of the benefits and a real political will to tackle the barriers to greater tree planting.”
That is a welcome reflection, as it shows that the Government is not only working to fulfil its commitments but is fostering a relationship with the sector that will enable it to go from strength to strength.
I highlighted the benefits of the forestry sector for climate change. I will reflect on that point, because climate change is being questioned by some across the world—or perhaps just across the Atlantic—although it is a very real issue indeed. We have a proud record of work to tackle climate change. Our First Minister represented us at the UN global climate change summit in France not long ago, and our continual punching above our weight in our efforts to tackle that important issue is well noted.
Our plans, as outlined in the draft climate change plan, show that we are not resting on our laurels but working hard to make the change that we need. That is why we have an ambition for Scotland’s woodland cover to go from around 18 per cent to 21 per cent of the Scottish land area by 2032. That is important because those new woodlands will absorb greenhouse gases and provide the forest products industry with confidence to continue to invest in Scotland, which means more development and job creation.
Of course, our commitment, words and ambitions are met with practical support too. That is why the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution outlined in his draft budget an increase in the funding for tree planting schemes from £36 million to £40 million, in addition to our commitment to deliver for woodland creation and improvement through the forestry grant scheme.
Although I am sure that members will wish that we get through a debate without mentioning Brexit, I point out gently that the Scottish forestry sector receives significant EU funding, namely from the European agricultural fund for rural development. That fund reimburses 55 per cent of the forestry grant scheme and it is estimated that, over the period 2014 to 2020, it will make available £252 million.
The final point that I wish to make is that the SNP Government will introduce a forestry bill, which I believe will deliver on our commitment to keep the Forestry Commission as an asset for our country and will ensure that, rightly, the Scottish Government has control of all aspects of forestry. It will also put in place new arrangements for how forestry is governed and supported that will help us to deliver on our overall ambitions for the sector.
Again, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I look forward with pleasure to continuing to support this SNP Government and an excellent cabinet secretary, who is delivering the SNP’s manifesto commitments to ensure the best possible future for the forestry sector in Scotland.
I am not after a job, but there we are.
The Liberal Democrats fully recognise the contribution that Scotland’s woods and forests make to our people, communities, economy and environment. We welcome moves to fully devolve forestry in Scotland so that it is fully accountable to the Scottish Parliament. We are also fully supportive of the Scottish Government’s plans to increase the annual target for planting new woodland from 10,000 hectares to 15,000 hectares.
However, if we are to be successful in meeting that new target, the necessary resources to achieve it have to be in place. Although I recognise that the Scottish Government is increasing the annual level of funding for specific grant aid from its current level of £30 million, it is increasing it by only £4 million to £34 million in next year’s budget. When the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee took evidence on the matter, Stuart Goodall from Confor said:
“It is quite clear that if the Forestry Commission is going to deliver the objectives that the Scottish Government has set, the budget will be insufficient.”—[
Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee,
23 November 2016; c 36.]
We also received written evidence on the inability to meet planting targets due to lack of funds. We were told that, although the demand in the application process for this current financial year might well exceed 10,000 hectares for the first time, funding might not be sufficient to meet that demand—and that is with demand set at 10,000 hectares not 15,000. Therefore, at first, I was sceptical that having failed to reach the 10,000 hectares new planting target since it was established five years ago, simply changing the target to 15,000 hectares a year would be good enough.
By the way, I thought that Edward Mountain’s contribution to the debate—when he spoke about his personal experience—gave us a valuable insight into the problems that people face. In these debates in Parliament, it is important that we hear from people who have experience in farming and managing land.
In discussions, the cabinet secretary has made it clear that there will be a stepped approach to achieving the new target. The aim is to raise the target to 12,000 hectares in the period from 2020 to 2022, 14,000 hectares for the period from 2022 to 2024 and 15,000 hectares by 2025. That approach strikes me as being far more achievable than the previous one, and informing the spokespeople of all the parties in the chamber of that change is a helpful and constructive approach to the subject.
Jo O’Hara from Forestry Commission Scotland has made it clear that past problems have been addressed. She states that she is aware of more than 11,000 hectares of schemes that are under preparation for planting in 2017-18 and is confident that at least 9,000 hectares of new woodland will be created.
The Mackinnon report, which has been referred to in the debate, has identified a number of mechanisms to streamline the approval process. Delivery of those mechanisms is a priority for the Forestry Commission and we are being told that that has led to an increase in investor confidence. We hope that that is, indeed, the case.
It is clear that as the target for new woodland increases over the next few years, the planting budget must increase with it. Of course, that is a matter for future Scottish Government budgets. We will have to see whether the Scottish Government gets its budget for next year approved in the vote next Thursday. I have my doubts about whether it will pass next week—I do not think that it will—so I am not going to look too far ahead to the budgets to come.
It is a clue—Mr Simpson is pretty switched on.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats will be supporting the Conservative and Labour amendments. It is good of the Scottish Government to have said that it will accept the Conservative amendment, since it takes quite a chunk out of the motion. That is a positive step. We will support the Government’s motion today, with its modest budget increase for forestry, even if, next week, we might vote against the budget as a whole.
I note my registered interest regarding forestry and biomass heating.
The forestry sector has long been the backbone of our rural economy. Throughout Scotland, forests provide jobs and income for many people. Given that forests play such a key role, one would think that it would be a priority of the Scottish Government to ensure that we have enough skilled professionals to keep the sector alive. However, time and again, the Scottish Government has failed to train the next generation and we now face an ever-widening gap between demand for and supply of skilled labour. That is totally unacceptable.
I am not a lone voice on that. In response to the Scottish Government’s future of forestry consultation, Aberdeenshire Council laid it bare. It stated that the Scottish Government should not be following the path in which it underrepresents the commercial and economic impact of forestry. In the same consultation, those stakeholders who truly know the sector talked of the increasing centralisation of policy.
I cannot comment on Mr Stevenson’s contemporaries, who I am sure he is referring to. However, we will talk about how many forestry students there are in Scotland now, which I think is more important.
Unfortunately, forestry is just the latest addition to the central Government grab. It has happened in policing, education, fire services, council funding, health boards and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and now it is forestry. It is no wonder. There is an ever-widening gap between activity on the ground and those who make the decisions. We have a central Government that does not acknowledge the need for more skills and labour and a forestry sector that is increasingly in despair over how it will lose forestry expertise as it morphs into a bureaucracy covering all land issues—a Jack-of-all-trades but master of none. It is no good further centralising forestry management. Such a solution has led us to the chronic problem that we have today.
It will come as no surprise to the cabinet secretary that the number of Scottish students enrolling in forestry at university has decreased by a staggering 43 per cent since 2003. The number of students studying forestry at the University of Edinburgh is now near zero, while the University of Aberdeen has had to merge its once-renowned forestry department. The lack of interest is of no surprise, given that the route of being a forestry expert or chartered forester in a stand-alone Forestry Commission will disappear.
We need to take a proactive approach to getting the next generation excited about Scotland’s forests. No one knows how to do that better than local communities and, dare I say it, businesses that operate in the forestry sector. That is why tours are organised regularly for local schools to visit my biomass facility in Banchory. I know that I would disappoint Ms Martin if I did not mention an interest of mine. Students from Aboyne academy and Banchory academy are taken round the facility and have to find answers relating to their fuels topic in the curriculum. The pupils and teachers leave with a much greater understanding of the workings and economics of biomass and timber supply operations. I cannot guarantee that those children will go into the forestry sector, but they will have an understanding of what the sector can offer them.
If the Parliament wants to represent all of Scotland, it needs to listen to those who make our economy function. We hear stories from forestry companies of having to go to other sectors to persuade their employees to retrain. How did we arrive at this state of affairs? The fact of the matter is that the Scottish Government should have been planning for this. It is not some flash-in-the-pan issue; it is a subject and a sector that can plan by the decade. The Government has had nearly a decade of failing to understand it. It knew that we had a massive skills gap and it chose to ignore it. Cabinet secretary, why not break the habit of a lifetime and listen to our forestry experts?
I refer members to my register of interests as a local councillor in Dumfries and Galloway.
I am sure that members will forgive me if I am somewhat parochial in my contribution to today’s debate. My home region of Dumfries and Galloway has one of the highest concentrations of forestry in the UK; 31 per cent of the land is covered with woods and forests, which exceeds the Scottish average of 18 per cent that the cabinet secretary referred to earlier. The 211,000 hectares range from the great spruce forests of Galloway and Eskdalemuir through the traditional estate forests such as those of Buccleuch Estates Ltd to the small native and farm woodlands that are so important to the beautiful landscape of the region.
Not surprisingly, Dumfries and Galloway is a major timber-producing area, harvesting some 30 per cent of Scotland’s home-grown timber annually. As a result, it is home to some of the top sawmills in Britain, such as BSW in Dalbeattie and James Jones & Sons near Lockerbie, as well as a number of smaller mills, all of which process local timber. The region is also home to Scotland’s largest biomass power station near Lockerbie, which burns about 475,000 tonnes of wood per year, displacing up to 140,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.
We have many local engineering companies that design and build forestry and timber transport machinery, supporting the industry locally but also selling equipment across the world. In addition, we have some of the largest forestry plant and equipment suppliers in the UK.
Unlike in many other parts of Scotland, the majority of the timber that is grown in Dumfries and Galloway is processed within the area, reducing our carbon emissions, supporting a low-carbon economy and crucially retaining and creating badly needed local employment. The timber industry is unquestionably one of the most important employers in the region, with more than 3,000 jobs across all sectors, many within some of the most remote rural areas. With timber production continuing to increase as post-war forests reach maturity, there is potential for more employment opportunities; that growth is almost unique for industries in a rural economy.
With those growth opportunities also come a number of challenges, which I want to touch on briefly. The first challenge is ensuring that there is sufficient planting to support the industry’s expansion. We know that we have a relatively healthy timber supply until the late 2030s, but then there is a projected drop-off. That is why I support the Government’s new target to plant 15,000 hectares of new forestry each year by 2025. However, the reality is that the Government has no choice but to expand beyond its original 10,000 hectares annual target if it is to meet the aim of 100,000 hectares of planting by 2022, because past targets have, as the cabinet secretary readily acknowledges, been missed.
A lack of local or regional targets in the national strategy and a past forestry grant scheme that was seen as slow and bureaucratic have resulted in those targets being missed. The sudden rise of onshore wind farm developments in recent years in many areas also led to a loss of existing and proposed woodland. A great deal of work needs to be done to deliver the Government’s targets, and I welcome the Mackinnon report, which offers a number of very positive and sensible ways forward to remove the barriers to planting.
Of course, we do not just need to plant and grow the trees. We need to harvest them and remove them and that is the next challenge that I want to touch on. The minor road network in many regions such as Dumfries and Galloway, which is so important to the transfer of timber, has not changed a great deal over the years and the capacity to take timber haulage can be very limiting. There are many narrow and structurally weak roads locally that are incredibly challenging for articulated vehicles, and any increase in heavy traffic on minor roads can lead to disruption for many local communities. The rural roads that serve our forests remain a potential barrier to the supply chain and future increased planting.
That is why the strategic timber transport fund in Scotland has been vital since it was established over a decade ago, distributing some £25 million to 119 projects throughout Scotland with a total value of some £55 million. I can think of many projects across Dumfries and Galloway, such as the Eskdalemuir bypass, that have benefited from that fund. I hope that the Government will continue the fund, but I urge the cabinet secretary to look at the level of intervention.
At present, projects are generally supported up to a maximum of 50 per cent of eligible costs, with local government or private industry having to meet the remaining 50 per cent. Given the current pressures on council budgets, I hope that the Government will consider an intervention level of at least 80 per cent or, in some exceptional cases, full funding. The level of intervention for projects that have exceptional environmental, community and social benefits is already 80 per cent and that is also the level that the Government provides for major flood prevention schemes. Increasing the intervention level of the strategic timber transport fund at a time when councils are facing cuts is more likely to ensure that bids come forward and that the fund is fully utilised.
The final challenge that I want to touch on is the completion of forestry’s devolution. I accept that incorporating the management of the forestry estate into the Scottish Government provides a framework for an integrated land management unit, which allows for a more holistic overview of the management of the forest estate. However, the current forestry model provides a great deal of engagement at local level between stakeholders from communities and local authorities on the management of the estate.
In Dumfries and Galloway, the estate is governed by two forest districts: Galloway district and Dumfries and Borders district, which between them cover 171,000 hectares. In addition to the production role, the current arrangements have played a crucial part in developing the wider health and recreational benefits of forests in Dumfries and Galloway, from the development of the 7stanes cycling project to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in Galloway forest park. Galloway forest park attracts 1.1 million visitors a year and is so successful that in my view the next logical step is to develop it into Scotland’s next national park. Like the cabinet secretary, I have wandered off the script a little.
Given the positive role of local forest districts and their outreach functions, it is crucial that they are reflected in any new management proposals. We need to guard against either an overly centralised structure, which sadly is too often what we get with structural change, and we have to ensure that any new structure not only focuses on timber production, which is crucial, but recognises the wider role of the forestry estate in supporting local biodiversity targets, health and recreation and, of course, tourism, which is vital to a region such as Dumfries and Galloway.
I welcome the motion and agree that forestry has a crucial role to play in achieving Scotland’s climate targets. I declare a special interest as the species champion for the yew, which is thought to be Scotland’s oldest tree, in the form of the famous Fortingall yew in Perthshire.
I pay tribute to the work of Woodland Trust Scotland. The trust owns and manages more than 60 sites across over 11,000 hectares in Scotland, including Den wood, near Oldmeldrum, in my constituency. I met some of its representatives their to discuss the work that they do.
Although it is important that we continue to plant more trees and do everything that we can to meet the Scottish Government’s ambitious targets, it is essential that we do our utmost to protect and conserve our existing forests and woodlands.
As well as providing a number of walks and a habitat for wildlife including buzzards and roe deer, Den wood is used by a local group called gardening4kids. The group runs outdoor classes based on forest school principles and is extremely valuable in teaching youngsters from our local schools about the environment. As any pedagogue will tell you, outdoor education is invaluable. A cursory look at how much time the top-performing Finnish schools spend in woodland classrooms is surely an indication of its value.
Woodlands such as Den wood are an important educational resource. They provide an illustration of the development of forestry in the 21st century and show it to be much more than just the management of timber supply. By working with children’s groups such as gardening4kids, we help them to understand how important forests and forestry are to our society.
Yesterday, I visited Fintry school, near Turriff, which has been awarded its fourth green flag. It knows the importance of tree planting, and the cabinet secretary will be delighted to hear that it has done its bit in helping us reach our target: last year, it planted 60 trees in the school grounds.
As well as its economic, educational and wider environmental importance, forestry can play a significant part in the nation’s flood prevention strategy. My constituency of Aberdeenshire East was one of the areas that was heavily affected by storm Frank last January, with residents in Inverurie, Ellon, Methlick, Fyvie and Rothienorman among those who were impacted by the floods at that time. Even before storm Frank hit, the average cost of flooding in Scotland was estimated in 2015 to be £280 million per year. Of course, the psychological and emotional cost—as many of my constituents know—is significant and cannot be measured. Bodies such as Confor, the Woodland Trust and the WWF have all proposed that strategic tree planting be made a key component of efforts to mitigate flooding. Indeed, the SNP manifesto supports the planting of woodland, which can help prevent flooding and assist in water basin management.
Work is on-going to develop strategies for the Don, Ury and Ythan rivers in my constituency, to prevent and/or mitigate any future floods. The process can feel frustratingly drawn out to residents whose lives have been upended by the recent floods, but it is essential that we do not make things worse in our haste to make things better.
It is vital that all avenues are explored in ensuring that the devastation in the wake of storm Frank is not repeated. In addition to conventional prevention techniques, and as part of an anti-flooding strategy, tree planting could play a significant role.
In 2011, the Scottish Government noted that the state of knowledge of the effectiveness of natural techniques in flood prevention, such as tree planting, was evolving. Much research is still to be done in that area. However, in a study published in March last year, led by the Universities of Birmingham and Southampton, scientists found that planting trees could reduce the height of flood water in towns by up to 20 per cent. Dr Simon Dixon, the study’s lead author from the University of Birmingham’s institute of forest research, said:
“We believe that tree planting can make a big contribution to reducing flood risk, and should be part of a wider flood risk management approach, including conventional flood defences.”
An example of tree planting being employed as part of a flood mitigation strategy is in the previously flood-hit town of Pickering in North Yorkshire, where more than 40 hectares of woodland were planted. A study of that scheme indicated that flooding was prevented that would otherwise have occurred. While tree planting was only one part of a range of measures, it was a significant part.
In closing, I suggest that our tree-planting scheme could help with the Scottish Government’s aim to deliver on its manifesto commitment to meeting its climate change targets and to aid the prevention of flooding. Many of my constituents would be very supportive of such moves.
I thank all who have contributed to the debate this afternoon. I repeat the comments that I made in response to the cabinet secretary’s speech: we look forward to discussing further our ideas for the new forestry bill.
As an overarching aim, we want the bill to be much more ambitious. I will cite another example. If we want forestry expansion, I do not think that we can rely on so-called traditional investment routes. There is no reason why we should not launch a national people’s forest, which could be crowdfunded by the people of Scotland. There is money there for people to invest in forests, and we need to tap into the non-traditional routes.
Peter Chapman talked about forestry being a long-term business, and we would all agree with that. He also talked about the fact that there is little history of farmers doing forestry, and I am sure that he is well aware that that is because of the lack of land reform in Scotland. Most of the land in Scotland was managed by tenant farmers and it was not until 2003 that this Parliament gave tenant farmers the right to plant trees—and even then, that right was constrained. Across Europe, land reform led to the pattern of small-scale farm forestry that we see in countries such as Austria and France. Nevertheless, we will support the Conservatives’ amendment this evening.
Rhoda Grant talked about the importance of getting timber to market, and we agree. However, too often timber is taken to markets that are far too far away. I remember that in 2012 the former environment minister, Paul Wheelhouse, launched a £3 million pier on the island of Mull to take timber away from Mull to distant markets. We do not agree that that is a good use of public money. The forest economy of Mull should be developed on Mull. That is the approach taken by other European countries. For example, some years ago, I visited a commune in Norway that was of a similar size to Mull and had similar forest cover. That island has two sawmills and a large prefabricated timber house-building project. It exported high-value products, which is what places such as Mull should do. No minister in Norway would stand up and say that they were proud of spending £3 million to export raw materials from the Norwegian countryside.
Emma Harper talked about the importance of investors and of Scotland being open for business—but who are those investors? I despair at her lack of curiosity. I could sit down with her and talk about the people who own the forests in Dumfries and Galloway. Many of them are absentee or in offshore tax havens, and there is one Russian oligarch. Large areas of forestry and plantations are behind locked gates and there is no community benefit.
Finlay Carson and Alexander Burnett talked about the Scottish Government’s tendency to centralise things. In many instances, I share that sentiment, but I do not understand the critique in this instance. The national forest estate is owned by the Scottish ministers—that is about as centralised as we can get—and Forest Enterprise Scotland is accountable to them. In fact, the Scottish Government’s proposals for forestry in its proposed bill will make very little difference. I hope that, if the Conservatives are as critical of the tendency to centralise as I am, they will join the Greens in supporting our amendment and in trying to get more decentralisation of forest management and ownership across Scotland.
Stewart Stevenson talked about strategic interests. I agree with him. Historically, there has been cross-party support in the Parliament for forestry expansion.
Claudia Beamish talked about more community and co-operative ownership. I very much endorse that. She also talked about the biomass initiative in the south of Scotland that Colin Smyth also referred to. She also spoke about local approaches, and such things have always underscored the need for a local approach. In France, for example, 30 per cent of the public forests are owned not by the state, but by the local communes. That is why many of those forest communes are very wealthy. They own the land and the trees, and they can develop the local economy.
Edward Mountain talked about indicative forestry maps. We had them in the 1980s—I remember them, and I am sure that he does, too—as a response to the controversy over planting in places such as the flow country. We now have the land use strategy, which has the potential to allow indicative maps to be produced. Given our climate change obligations, once areas in which we should expand forests are identified, planting should be obligatory. The voluntary approach has failed. I would include very vulnerable land, such as the hillsides above the A83 and the Rest and Be Thankful. If Scotland were a normal European country like Switzerland or Austria, there would be protected forests. It would be illegal for any owner or manager to graze those hills, as happens now. There would be a criminal sanction for that.
Gillian Martin mentioned the importance of forestry in the context of flooding, and for children. Across Europe, family forestry is widespread and vertically integrated. For example, the 54,000 forest owners in the south of Sweden own the processing company to which their timber is sold.
I conclude by repeating our view that there are massive opportunities with a new forestry bill. The Government’s existing goals for the bill are limited, though welcome. We look forward to further discussions with the Government on how to make the forestry bill suitable for the 21st century.
The debate has been really good, and there has been a lot of consensus. The value that forestry provides has been acknowledged. Indeed, the debate has shown the breadth of value that forestry provides in relation to climate change, biodiversity and economic and community wellbeing. The points about those issues were well made.
I did not touch on the environment much in my opening speech. Claudia Beamish and Graeme Dey talked about the use of wood and forestry for carbon sequestration. We almost take that for granted, but there are stages in how we should use timber to get the best carbon sequestration. We should look at high-end uses to start with—producing furniture, for example, and recycling it when need be—processing and, finally, heat. If we could build that approach into our forestry plan, we would make the best use of our woodlands. Suffice it to say that, depending on the need for biomass, for example, it is always better to grow that very close to where it will be used.
We need to look at our natural hardwoods. Others might disagree with me, but some of the natural hardwoods that have been planted have never really been managed properly. They need to be properly managed to get the maximum use out of them.
Claudia Beamish talked about the important issue of deer management. If we are to have good-quality forestry, we need to ensure that the trees are not grazed when they are young, especially by deer, but also by sheep and cattle.
Claudia Beamish also talked about peatlands and the conflict that there sometimes is between protecting peatlands and forestry. We need to be very clear about that. We need to plan how we take forward our forestry to make sure that we do not interfere with other things that are good for the environment and that we maximise its impact.
I am still not totally clear about what the Greens are trying to achieve through their amendment. The Forestry Commission Scotland and all of Government should encourage community ownership. When land ownership is in the public domain, they should look at how they can work with communities and others to manage it and, where it is right to do so, transfer it into community ownership. We would expect that approach to be in place for the Forestry Commission Scotland, as well as for Government and local government organisations.
Non-governmental organisations can own forestry and, as landowners, they tend to be more sympathetic to community needs. However, they are still landowners, so they can buy and trade their forestry on the open market. I would not want them to be treated the same as community landowners, hence my concern about the Green amendment remains. We are sympathetic to the direction of travel, but we are not clear about whether there would be unforeseen circumstances. Such forestry could end up in private ownership. We would not want that, and neither would the Greens.
Stewart Stevenson talked about marine transportation. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being on Raasay. It was a beautiful day. I did not see timber being extracted by boat, but I am sure that that happens. Certainly, the pier looked as though it could more than cope with that. We need to look at those methods of timber extraction, because—
That is even better, because it can be used elsewhere.
Colin Smyth’s points about narrow and weak roads in rural areas were absolutely right. He made a plea about the strategic timber transport fund. Such funds help local communities and local government to put in place methods of timber extraction. I very much hope that the Government will look constructively at what he said and see how it can help to promote the scheme with local government and others.
I agree with Andy Wightman’s point about timber transportation. Where possible, timber should be grown close to where it will be used. However, if we are to use timber properly, that approach is not always possible, because some of the need is in our urban areas, while the best land for growing timber is often in rural areas.
We talked about planting. There was much agreement that a lot more planting is needed and should be encouraged. Maybe the funding that follows planting could also dictate where the planting happens, so that it takes place in the best possible areas.
Alexander Burnett talked about skills, and of course we need to ensure that the right skills are in place. We also need to address the gender gap in the forestry sector and encourage women to become involved. It is a perfect career path for women and we need to make sure that they find the sector accessible.
It has been a good debate. I welcome the minister’s commitment to listen—not only to the debate, but as the bill progresses through the Parliament. I look forward to many more discussions about forestry and how we can make the bill work for all Scotland.
Along with the majestic mountains, rugged coasts and rolling hills, forests form one of the iconic images of Scotland’s natural beauty. They are rich, biodiverse habitats that act as a huge carbon sink, provide us with raw materials and help to support 25,000 jobs, as well as contributing £1 billion to our economy. Our forests are to be truly cherished. Finlay Carson made that point well when he flagged up how important the sector is to his constituency, as did Colin Smyth.
Andy Wightman revealed that he was blacklisted by the forestry sector. He also mentioned the Scottish Government’s lack of ambition and promoted forest communes. Unfortunately, we do not agree with those points, but I think that we can all agree on the need to plant more trees.
Stewart Stevenson spoke about making the case to farmers for the intrinsic value of forestry. Claudia Beamish outlined the French model—an agroforestry approach—in an interesting speech. Graeme Dey highlighted deer management and the cost to the public purse of fencing. Those were all worthwhile contributions to the debate.
We acknowledge that the SNP Government recognises the value of forestry, as can be seen in its plans to expand the area of forestry in Scotland. Anyone who cares about our environment and our economy would welcome such an expansion.
In last week’s draft climate change plan, the SNP Government announced that it would increase the current target for woodland creation by 50 per cent in order to plant 15,000 hectares of woodland per year. Mike Rumbles asked how, given that the SNP Government has not met the current target yet, the Parliament can be assured that it will meet an even bigger target. The SNP Government also said that it would plant 100 million trees by the end of 2015, but it missed that target by more than 11 million trees.
Edward Mountain flagged up the lack of funding in the area, but Fergus Ewing sought to assure the Parliament, and I respect that. I also welcome Fergus Ewing’s commitment to work across the chamber for the benefit of Scotland and to continue to meet his new year’s resolution on that approach.
However, we see inaction on the impact of invasive rhododendrons on Scottish woodlands. Although that impact has been described by one ecologist as the biggest ecological threat that Scotland faces, barely more than one tenth of rhododendron spread has been removed over the past five years. I urge the SNP Government to tackle the problem rather than leave it to landowners alone.
We have a number of concerns about the SNP Government’s proposed organisational arrangements for the Forestry Commission. The proposals could lead to the type of centralisation and political interference that might undermine the goals that we all share—a point that Peter Chapman and Alexander Burnett made. Furthermore, Rhoda Grant raised concerns about career civil servants running our forestry sector—a point that we also agree with.
On the other hand, there are occasions when central leadership is required. In January 2015, the biorefinery road map for Scotland was launched to much fanfare. That was right, as the sector is in dire need of leadership. Overall, that means a more active role for the Government in not stepping back but stepping up to back business and ensure that more people, in all corners of the country, share the benefits of its success. That approach is similar to the modern industrial strategy that the UK Government recently launched, which will make Britain and Scotland—with the Scottish Government’s support—stronger, fairer and more successful than they are today.
Biorefining means the integrated production of materials, chemicals, fuels and energy from biomass. Timber value chain co-products such as tree stumps, brash and thinnings, as well as residues, could provide a valuable feedstock for a biorefinery. The first stage of feedstock analysis has been beset with delays. However, 2017 is the year that is outlined in the road map for feasibility studies of the three main feedstocks, following technical appraisals, to build a compelling case for biorefinery construction in Scotland, so it is not too late for the road map to be delivered. I urge the cabinet secretary to ensure that it is delivered on time.
Forestry represents a massive opportunity to deliver positive economic and environmental impacts for Scotland. Scottish forestry needs a Government that will show leadership and recognise what we can do better; a Government that supports stakeholders, not one that walks away from problems; and, most of all, a Government that puts results before rhetoric. I urge the chamber to support the amendment in Peter Chapman’s name.
It has been an excellent debate, which Maurice Golden concluded in the constructive and positive fashion in which most members made their contributions. I am grateful to all members who have taken part in the debate, and I think that the wider community of people who are interested in forestry as a livelihood, a passion or a hobby will feel that it has provided a lot of support for their respective aims and visions of what they wish to achieve from forestry in Scotland.
I want to try to address many points that have been made in the debate, but if I fail to do so—it would be impossible to address all of them in eight minutes—I ask members who are particularly keen for me to respond to them to write to me, please. I repeat the offer that I made exclusively to the Greens earlier: if members wish to meet me to discuss matters, especially as we proceed with the proposed forestry bill, my door is open. I am keen to have discussions so that we can iron out potential areas of disagreement—which Mike Rumbles kindly mentioned we have. A bit of prior discussion often enables us to do that. Exchanges in committee also serve that purpose, as Edward Mountain indicated.
There is an important role for regional policy to play, as one of the Conservative members—I am sorry, but I cannot remember who—mentioned. We strongly believe that there should be a regional approach. The Scottish local authorities’ forest and woodland strategies are used to identify suitable areas for woodland expansion. It is not for me to determine where those areas are. If I were to do that, it would be inappropriately centralist. It is for locally elected councillors, working with their communities and community councillors, to do that. The Scottish Government believes that local authorities should play that important role. It is essential that we have a partnership with local authorities, and that is how I seek to deal with them in my areas of responsibility.
Colin Smyth mentioned woodland loss and compensatory planting. Although that is an issue, according to the information that I have, which comes from a report that was published just last year, only a very small part of woodland loss—0.12 per cent of the total forestry area—is attributable to woodland being lost through renewables schemes. We welcome the compensatory planting that is required of developers by local authorities as a way to plant more trees, on which the debate has also focused.
Timber transport is an extremely important issue that was mentioned by all the Labour speakers in the debate, and on which Rhoda Grant majored. The budget continues to support the timber transport scheme, which has provided nearly £25 million to 134 projects since 2005. Of course we want to work effectively with local government to maximise what we can do.
Many members mentioned the importance of business. In my constituency, we live less than 1km away from BSW Timber’s Boat of Garten mill, which I visited again recently. Edward Mountain mentioned the mills of Gordon Timber and James Jones. Such mills are at the root of rural life and work in many parts of Scotland, including the Highlands and Islands, the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, as members including Emma Harper said.
The processing industry has pointed out that the long-term forecasts for softwood production show a peak in the 2030s followed by a trough, which now falls within the timeframe for long-term loans. It is concerned about the availability of future investment funding. That is one of many reasons why we need to up our game in what Mike Rumbles rightly characterised as a stepped increase. It can only be a stepped increase, because capacity cannot double in a year. It takes some time for nurseries to increase their stock, as I learned when I visited Christie-Elite Nurseries not so long ago. The capacity of contractors—who are, I point out, reliant on many migrant workers from the EU, whom we hope will still be welcome in Scotland—to do the work is another factor in our inability to go from where we are now to planting 15,000 hectares a year straight away, but I was pleased that members recognised that we are, as the information that Jo O’Hara provided demonstrated, making progress thereanent.
Many members talked about devolution of forestry, and I am pleased by the broad support in principle for that. I emphasise that in completing that devolution we want to ensure a number of things. First, we will work with the UK on forestry disease and research issues. Assurance on that was sought and is given: we will continue with that work. Secondly, will our actions be accountable? Yes—of course they will. They will be accountable to the Scottish Parliament—both to committees and to individual members in their work, which I think will ensure even greater accountability. Thirdly, will a new era of centralism be brought in whereby I will play the role of centralist-in-chief? I think that I would be miscast in the role of a Scottish Strelnikov; I do not see myself in that light, nor do I intend to apply for the part. We will work in partnership with local authorities and communities, because that is the correct way.
We are already engaging with industry: I have held two summits and met non-governmental organisations, and will meet them again shortly. We are analysing the consultation responses, which will be published in February, and we are committed to introducing the bill in this session, in accordance with our manifesto pledge.
I acknowledge that we have not planted enough trees and that we need to do a variety of things in that regard. One of them, as Alexander Burnett rightly said, concerns skills development. I am pleased that the Forestry Commission has led by example in that regard: 98 apprentices have gained employment with the Forestry Commission, and its graduate development programme has employed 15 graduates since 2007. The Scottish school of forestry at Balloch, near Inverness in my constituency, does a great job and will continue to do so. However, Mr Burnett was correct to raise the issue of skills, because we have to work together more to encourage more young people to pursue what I think would be a terrific career for many of them.
I want to mention also the excellent work that Jim Mackinnon CBE carried out after being asked so to do by me last summer. He visited a huge number of people, gave freely of his time and produced a very valuable report. The Forestry Commission is about to publish a delivery plan, and we will listen carefully to the points that will be made. I suggest that members might benefit from reading paragraph 61 et sequentia of the report, which talk about the role of accredited specialists. That is an idea that is worthy of strong consideration, although there are arguments against it. However, a reading of those paragraphs from the report would perhaps address some of the perfectly understandable doubts that we have heard expressed.
Deer fencing is, of course, an essential tool in ensuring successful establishment of new woodlands. Private forestry is likely to continue to rely principally on fences to protect woodland creation schemes. However, as Rhoda Grant, Andy Wightman and Graeme Dey pointed out, we need robust deer management, and in order to do that we need to work in collaboration with bodies such as the Association of Deer Management Groups and all interested parties, to find a way ahead.
Mr Wightman enlivened the debate with his contribution and his novel suggestion that forestry should be made obligatory. I am not quite sure how that suggestion could accord with article 1 of the first protocol of the European convention on human rights. If he knows how that could be done, I ask him to write to me thereanent. However, I feel that it is far better to work to persuade those involved in land management in Scotland that forestry is a sensible long-term investment—as, indeed, it is, in the right place, at the right time and in the right way—than it is to tell them “You must do this”, even were it legal to do so, which I suspect one would find it is not.
I think that I am due to close, Presiding Officer, unless I have another few minutes to carry on, in which case I will.
I close by stating that we are absolutely committed to furthering the cause of community ownership of woodlands in the same way as we did—I played a part in this when I was the energy minister—when we encouraged community ownership of renewables. There is an overwhelming opportunity now for us to work together—the private sector, the public sector, NGOs, professionals, the Scottish Government, local authorities and communities throughout Scotland—to find ways of continuing the good work that has been done, with over 30 community ownership schemes, and to build on new and innovative ways of carrying that out.
I thank all members for what has been one of the most positive and constructive debates in this session of Parliament—at least, of those in which I have taken part.