I am delighted to open the stage 1 debate on the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill. The framework that the bill will create is key to the Government’s wider ambition for forestry to play its role in creating a sustainable, productive and thriving rural economy. The sector as a whole is already worth nearly £1,000 million a year and supports 25,000 full-time-equivalent jobs. The bill’s measures will also support delivery of planting targets as part of our climate change ambitions and will help us to achieve wider social and environmental outcomes.
Forestry is already broadly devolved. Ministers set Scottish forestry strategy and policy and provide funding via the Scottish budget. The bill will complete the devolution of forestry. It will transfer the functions of the forestry commissioners—in so far as they relate to Scotland—to Scottish ministers and will establish a modern legislative framework for the regulation, support and development of forestry in Scotland.
The current legislation, the Forestry Act 1967, has served the sector well, but it was drafted for post-war circumstances and in turn is based on 1919 legislation. It is time for forestry legislation in Scotland to catch up with modern forestry practice. As well as seeking to deliver improved accountability, transparency and policy alignment, the bill places duties on ministers to promote sustainable forest management—accepted good practice on managing forestry—and to set out a long-term strategic vision for the sector via a new Scottish forestry strategy.
The bill also enables more effective use of Scotland’s publicly owned land. Ministers will be responsible for managing the national forest estate to contribute to multiple outcomes. Ministers will be able to reach voluntary agreements with others to manage land on their behalf.
I welcome the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s report, which recommends that the Parliament supports the general principles of the bill, and I want to thank members of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, and other parliamentary committees, for their careful and thorough scrutiny at stage 1. That was, of course, made possible by thoughtful contributions from the many stakeholders who have engaged with the bill process, some of whom I met immediately before coming down to the chamber, which may have made me somewhat late, Presiding Officer, for which I humbly apologise.
All of that has been evident in the broad consensus that has been achieved to date, and I hope that that continues through the bill process. That said, the committee made a number of helpful recommendations and observations in its report. I issued a response to that report on 3 November and I look forward to hearing and listening carefully to all the contributions in this debate ahead of stage 2.
The requirement for ministers to prepare and publish a forestry strategy has been widely welcomed. The committee made recommendations about how that strategy should align with wider duties and policies, consultation arrangements and review periods. I will consider all those recommendations carefully.
I acknowledge the views that the committee expressed on the compulsory purchase of land. I give my assurance that I am listening and will consider the issues fully.
On completing the devolution of forestry, I acknowledge that there remains concern about the new organisational structures for the sector. I assure members that we are taking a considered approach and will continue to engage with staff and stakeholders as the work progresses to establish the new forestry agency—forestry and land Scotland—and the dedicated forestry division. As recommended in the committee’s report, I will provide a comprehensive statement setting out how we will manage and administer forestry in the future.
Of course, some aspects of forestry by their nature require co-ordination and co-operation across boundaries and borders. They include the commissioning and delivery of forestry research and science; the protection of trees from pests and diseases; and agreement on codes and standards for the sustainable management of our forests. I am pleased to announce that I have agreed with my United Kingdom and Welsh counterparts new arrangements for sharing responsibility for those matters. One Government will co-ordinate delivery of each function on behalf of all three and, in future, the Scottish Government will take the lead on the UK forestry standard, the woodland carbon code and forestry economics.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement and the role that the Scottish Government will play in leading on those key issues. Will the cabinet secretary advise members on the arrangements that are being made for the future of the forest research agency, which plays a key role throughout the UK in forestry science and expertise?
Yes. That is a good question. I am aware that research on forestry is carried out in various parts of the United Kingdom, and that is a good thing.
The forest research agency will remain intact as an agency of the forestry commissioners, which will ensure that expertise in forestry science, statistics and inventory is maintained. To enable that to happen, new governance, commissioning and funding arrangements will be agreed between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. I am grateful to my counterparts in the UK, who have agreed in principle that those arrangements should be established. They are sensible and to be welcomed.
The bill and its measures will help to underpin our shared national endeavour to expand Scotland’s woodland area to secure future timber supply. Growing more timber helps to contribute to our wider economic ambitions by growing jobs and securing and creating business opportunities in the sawmill and timber processing sectors. The timber development programme is also helping to support the development of innovative wood products and promote greater use of Scottish wood in everything from offices to housing.
To help to increase the pace and scale of planting, we have increased grant funding for woodland creation by £4 million and provided more attractive grant rates for native woodlands in Highland. Mindful of the impact of timber extraction on communities and the wider environment, we have committed £7.85 million under the strategic timber transport fund to improve timber transport infrastructure.
Our fundamental commitment to maintaining the national forest estate sits at the heart of our approach. We are committed to restoring 500 hectares of ancient woodland and establishing 650 hectares of new woodland. That will include work with partners to identify areas of vacant and derelict land for restoration.
We want to sustain the productive capacity of the estate, which is 3 million cubic meters of timber each year, but the estate delivers far more than timber. It plays a key role in tourism and leisure all across the country. Each year the estate welcomes 9 million visits. Our tourism partnership, Forest Holidays, goes from strength to strength. An £11.3 million cabin investment at Glentress is about to be submitted for planning consent. Local communities are also key to our ambitions. Currently more than 40 local partnerships are involved, offering tourism activity at Laggan, community allotments at Lesmahagow and Fort William, and ecotourism on Mull and Skye.
Over the past 10 years, 13,000 acres of the national forest estate have been transferred to community ownership. That includes land at Abriachan, Arkaig and Tighnabruaich. Through the community asset transfer scheme, we are aiming to transfer a further 700 acres this year; the first successful transfer was announced just last week on Skye.
In closing, I have set out the purpose behind the bill and highlighted its key objectives. I have also sought to place the bill and its measures in the wider context of policy and the approach to forestry and woodland. I believe that we can move forward with the bill’s general principles, and I am keen that we continue to maintain our consensual approach to modernising the legislative framework for forestry. I will therefore continue to work across the chamber to that end, to ensure that the bill becomes law, enabling Scotland’s forests and woodland to make their full and vibrant contribution to our economy, our environment and the people of Scotland.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. As you say, I am speaking this afternoon as convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. Sadly, as time is a bit limited, I cannot cover all of our report. However, I note the cabinet secretary’s detailed response, which was received last Friday, two working days before the debate.
The clear message that came through the evidence sessions was that the professional way that the staff of the Forestry Commission and Forest Enterprise undertook their work is recognised. The committee feels that it is very important that their skills are maintained and not lost. I note that the cabinet secretary, in his response, agrees.
We have heard that the Scottish Government proposes to split the functions of the Forestry Commission between a Government division and a new land management agency. Although that proposal is outwith the scope of the bill, we heard wide-ranging concerns about it from stakeholders. The Scottish Government should provide further reassurance to those stakeholders and the committee.
The Government needs to articulate how it will manage its forestry responsibilities; it also needs to provide much more detail on the creation of the proposed land management agency and how the new agency will work with the forestry division. The Scottish Government should also set out how forestry-related skills and expertise will be retained and developed under the new structure.
The committee felt that a clear, positive message should be sent to the industry and forestry staff about the importance of the industry as a whole. We believed that a simple way of doing that would be to designate the head of the proposed new forestry division as chief forester. I note that the Government will consider that idea further, and we welcome that.
We acknowledge the importance of the forestry strategy and recognise that timber production is vital to the rural economy. Forestry is a long-term industry that requires a secure future. It needs a strategy that enables producers, millers and merchants to invest in the expansion of their industries. The committee therefore felt that the bill must contain a statement of an overarching and high-level objective for the strategy that includes how forestry issues such as land use, planning, community empowerment, climate change and biodiversity will interact, as they clearly need to. It must also include a commitment to review the strategy every five years and to refresh it every 10 years. Therefore, amendments to the bill will be needed, and we welcome the Government’s acknowledgement of that in its response to the committee.
The committee has listened to stakeholders and believes that we need some clarity about definitions. In our report, we asked for terms such as sustainable forest management and sustainable development to be defined in the bill. We therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to include definitions of those terms in the strategy document.
I turn to forestry health and research. As the cabinet secretary said, tree-related diseases do not respect national boundaries, and nor should forestry research. The committee recommended that the Government should lodge an amendment to the bill to strengthen its provisions relating to tree health and other forestry research from a power to a duty. We also recommended that a framework agreement for a united UK approach to forestry research and tree health should be agreed and in place before the relevant sections of the bill come into force. I am therefore delighted that the cabinet secretary has announced today that that will be taken into account.
I turn to an area that caused the committee some difficulties. When it came to the acquisition and compulsory purchase of land for forestry reasons, we heard that such a power was in the 1967 act but that it had never actually been used. After considerable deliberation, the committee accepted the need for the retention of compulsory purchase powers to unlock the potential in forestry land. However, the majority of the committee felt that the Government had not provided sufficient justification for its proposed extension of compulsory purchase powers to cover sustainable development. We therefore recommended that the bill be amended and called on the Government to remove that provision. We note that the Government has said that it will consider that further and we urge it to do so. The cabinet secretary has said today that he is listening to appeals on that subject.
On land disposal and forest rationalisation, we recommend that, due to the long-term strategic nature of forestry, a commitment to reinvest capital from land sales in capital assets should be set out in the forestry strategy to ensure security and continuity over time. Although the Government acknowledged our views, it has not offered any undertaking in its response.
The committee questioned the definition of community body that is used in the bill and asked whether there needs to be a specific section on community bodies, given that section 17 allows Scottish ministers to sell, lease or gift land to anyone. The committee called on the Scottish Government to explore that issue further to determine whether the provisions on community bodies are required.
The committee agreed that a more appropriate definition of felling was required. We noted the Scottish Government’s reassurance that the felling directions contained in the bill will not be used to force private forestry owners to fell against their wishes. The committee was also of the view that the registration system for forestry operations should be proportionate and cost and resource effective.
On finance, the committee seeks reassurance from the Government that there will be no reduction in the financial transparency of the new forestry organisation.
On costs, we recognised the strength of the Forestry Commission brand and recommended that if a rebranding exercise must occur, costs be kept to a minimum. That might be achieved by a rolling approach, for example only changing branding when vehicles or equipment are replaced.
The committee acknowledged that the current Forestry Commission information technology system is not fit for purpose and will require an upgrade. Naturally, there were some concerns about Government-procured IT systems, and we look forward to seeing further detail from the Scottish Government on the exact costings.
Our report raises many issues, and the committee looks forward to seeing positive action on all our recommendations. Subject to responses to the points that we have raised in the report, the committee recommends that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the bill.
I am glad to speak in the debate, because forestry is a vital part of our rural economy. Scotland’s forestry sector currently contributes some £954 million per year to the economy, and supports 26,000 jobs. I believe, however, that we can do better. Planting more trees will secure the long-term supply of productive timber, create new jobs in rural areas, help Scotland to meet vital climate change targets and reduce timber imports.
Given that the UK is the second-largest importer of timber in the world, I cannot stress enough that we must do better. That is why I welcome the newly increased planting target, which will increase to 15,000 hectares by 2025. I believe that the target is achievable, but we have seen failings on the Scottish Government’s part before; it has missed its 10,000 hectare target every year since 2001. The 2025 aim will not be met unless the process of applying to plant trees is made easier and less expensive, and unless the forestry bill is fit for purpose. It is important that the timber that we grow is largely the productive timber that our sawmills and the economy need. Too much of what has been planted recently has been amenity woodland.
I agree that there is a debate to be had. In the past, one was either a farmer or a forester, and the two did not go together. We need to try to break down those barriers. I accept much of what has been said on that.
Given that I have spoken about agriculture, I need to declare an interest. I did not think that I was going to stray into that area, but here we are: I have already done it. I thought that we were on trees.
Where was I? I have lost my place.
It makes sense that we work together within the UK to ensure the health of our trees and to co-operate to stamp out disease; for example, on the spread of larch disease, which I have spoken about previously. The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee recommends that the Scottish Government develop an amendment to the bill to strengthen from a power to a duty the cross-border provisions relating to tree health and research.
There must be no reduction in Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the Scottish Government's performance in meeting targets following the reorganisation. Regular reviewing of progress is important, so we expect the Scottish Government to report back to Parliament on the progress that has been made towards meeting the expansion timetable.
The committee also recommends that the forestry strategy be reviewed every five years and refreshed every 10 years. The committee accepts that the current powers of compulsory purchase in the Forestry Act 1967 should remain in place for use in only the most exceptional of cases. However, the case has not been made for an expansion of those powers. A majority of the committee believe that it would be wrong for ministers to seek new powers to purchase land compulsorily for “sustainable development”. That poorly defined term would hand huge powers to ministers, which we do not believe is justifiable. At the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s evidence session on 7 June, the Scottish Government’s forestry and land management bill team failed to provide clarity on what constitutes “sustainable development” in the event of a compulsory purchase order being issued. We have seen vague definitions being used for crucial aspects of legislation before: they create ambiguity and unintentionally raise concerns among stakeholders. We need in the forestry strategy clear definitions of what “sustainable forest management” and “sustainable development” mean, so I welcome the Government’s willingness to consider providing more clarity.
The committee welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to provide a more appropriate definition of “felling”. The committee notes the Scottish Government’s reassurance that the felling directions in the bill would not be used to force private forestry owners to fell against their wishes. The system for registering notices to comply must also always be simple and cost effective.
I hope that the reorganisation will be achieved without the taxpayer funding unnecessary and expensive rebranding. I fully support the committee’s recommendation that rebranding be rolled out only as vehicles and equipment need to be replaced
It is also vital that estimates of the cost of the new IT system be provided to Parliament at the earliest opportunity. The Government has already presided over the common agricultural policy information technology fiasco, the effects of which are still impacting on rural communities. What safeguards will be in place to ensure that there is not another such debacle?
We welcome the bill, but some work is still required for it to become fully fit for purpose. We all want more afforestation and more skilled jobs to be created in our remote and rural communities, so we must work together to ensure that that becomes a reality and that we finally see the renaissance of Scotland’s woods and forests for the benefit of generations to come.
The bill is required to take account of devolution of the Forestry Commission. However, the status of the new organisation was not a foregone conclusion. The Scottish Government decided not to continue with the Forestry Commission Scotland, but instead to take its functions in-house. Although the bill does not deal with that, there are significant concerns surrounding the decision and whether it is the best way forward, so I am glad that the cabinet secretary said in his opening remarks that he is giving that further consideration.
There are concerns regarding the loss of expertise and the potential that the new organisation will be staffed by career civil servants rather than by foresters. If the cabinet secretary continues with his proposals, it would be useful if he would consider how foresters could be placed in positions of influence in the new body. A number of suggestions that might provide some comfort were made to the committee—including, for instance, the creation of a post of chief forester, along the lines of the chief medical officer. The role would be that of an advisor to Government, but with the freedom to fight the corner of forestry within Government.
There are also calls for the setting up of an advisory group representing the industry and forestry communities in order to ensure that the new organisation stays close to the forestry sector and to the communities in which it operates. That could be a national committee with regional fora that could take advice from people in those communities. The new organisation must also have an eye to the social and economic impacts of forestry. It needs to be responsive to communities and to the needs of the environment, as well as to ensure that forestry flourishes. Those suggestions would all work towards keeping the organisation as close as possible to the people whom it serves in the industry and in communities.
The part of the bill that is most contentious among committee members is on the power of compulsory purchase for sustainable development. The evidence is clear that it is extremely difficult to exercise compulsory purchase and that the whole process requires review. However, it is also acknowledged that possession of the power would be an incentive for landowners to act in the interests of sustainable development; because of that, the power should remain in the bill.
At the moment, there are forests that are landlocked and it is impossible to harvest the trees. Some of those forests have been taken over by local communities that are able to utilise the timber locally, but that does not meet the national need for timber. If we are to substantially increase forestry, we must find ways in which land that is suitable for planting can be made more accessible. That land tends to be in remote areas where roads are few or, where there are roads, they are unable to take the strain of the heavy traffic that would be used to harvest the trees. It might be that landowners should work together to set a network of forest tracks through adjacent forestry or other land, which would enable harvesting. If a landowner was obstructive in that, the compulsory purchase power might bring them to the negotiating table.
There are other concerns about definitions. The definition of “sustainable development” is well used and recognised in other legislation, but there are concerns regarding the definition of “sustainable forest management”, which is new in the bill. The Scottish Government has made it clear that the definition might change over time, so it should not be included in the bill because that would be restrictive.
Options that have been suggested that could provide clarity include there being a working definition in the forestry strategy. My main concern about that is that it could impact on the definition of “sustainable development”, which would be detrimental. It would be preferable if the Scottish Government could, in the strategy, highlight the direction of travel towards attaining sustainable forest management. That would deal with any possible confusion.
There are specific provisions in the bill to delegate powers to communities. The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee received evidence that those powers may not be necessary. Given that the Scottish Government has also included the power to delegate functions to “any person” or organisation, it is not clear why the additional section on communities is required. Does the Scottish Government envisage circumstances in which communities would require additional powers and, if so, what are they?
There was also confusion about what the bill says about different types of land. It uses the terms “forestry land” and “other land”, but it is not clear why land that is held under the bill is defined in that way. Is all land that is held under the bill to be used for the purpose of sustainable management of forestry and, if not, for what purpose is it to be held? There is obviously unplanted land that is owned to promote forestry—that is, land that is used for fire breaks, for aesthetic purposes, for environmental purposes and so on. Is that defined as “forest land” because it is held for the specific reason of supporting forestry, or will it be termed “other land”? We need clarity on those categories of land, so that there will be no confusion.
There was a unanimous call for the strategy to be widely consulted on and for there to be greater parliamentary scrutiny of it. Given that a great deal of detail will be in the strategy rather than in the bill, we need to get it right. Is it possible that a committee of Parliament could be charged with taking evidence to scrutinise the strategy and reporting back to the Scottish Government?
We welcome the bill and the cabinet secretary’s agreement to consider again the organisational concerns that have been raised. I hope that he will also take on board the positive suggestions that we have made to improve the bill. We support the general principles of the bill.
The cabinet secretary took us back to the origins of the Forestry Commission in the 1919 bill, but I want to take us 400 years further back because, of course, the product of forestry is a strategic material. When James IV built the Great Michael, with its 10-foot-thick Scottish oak hull, that required that all the trees of Fife be cleared. Also, then, as now, we had to import wood from France and the Baltic states, and to use wood from forests across Scotland. Wood has been a strategic material for a long time. Indeed, when Henry VIII saw what James IV had done, he decided that he would build a boat that was even bigger than the Great Michael, and which, at 1,000 tons, was the biggest boat in the world. Flodden cut short the ambitions for use of the Great Michael, of course.
In 1919, we were responding to the strategic imperative to have wood for the trenches of the first world war, but it was clear that there was insufficient wood. Wood was recognised as an important strategic part of military operations.
However, as Peter Chapman reminded us, forestry is also of economic value. It might constitute but 1 per cent of our gross domestic product, but where that 1 per cent lies, it is very important to the communities that plant and sustain our forests, and to the sawmills that depend on predictable long-term access to wood. As it was in the 1500s, so it is in the 2000s.
Indeed, forestry is a very personal thing for many people. One of my late councillor colleagues—my good friend, Councillor Mitchell Burnett—who knew he was dying from a carcinoma, held on long enough to ensure that he got permission from Aberdeenshire Council for his grave to be on the edge of the forest that he was bequeathing to his daughter.
Forestry is the kind of long-term business whose interests we have to protect. The issue of sustainable forest management has come up several times already in the debate: it is important that what we do with land is sustainable. The debate around the meaning of “sustainable” is such that it will mean slightly different things in slightly different contexts. That is why it is proper that the meaning is not defined in the bill but is expressed clearly and unambiguously elsewhere so that we can discuss and challenge it.
The committee divided on the matter of compulsory purchase. Indeed, it is worth reminding members that the committees of this Parliament are rather freer from the strictures of the whip system than other parts of our operation perhaps are. When committees are working well, they seek to look objectively at the evidence that is before them so that individual committee members can come to their conclusions. The committee’s Scottish National Party group, because it is not a group, divided such that two were on one side of the argument and two were on the other side.
No—this is not a political point, but just a point. I think that there might be a member of the committee within the SNP group that Mr Stevenson has ignored. I think that there are five people in his group, not four. However, as Mr Stevenson was at the meeting concerned, I am sure that he will be able to comment on that, on reflection.
No, Presiding Officer—I am constantly told by colleagues and even by friends that I am a larger-than-life character, so I count as one and a half and thus, when I add Fulton MacGregor to me, that is two and a half out of five. I jest. Edward Mountain, our ever-diligent convener, is of course correct. As a mere mathematician, I am arithmetically challenged by his intervention, which I accept because it is entirely correct.
I welcome the attention to the definition of “felling” in the bill, because it is important that we get that right. It is worth reminding ourselves that nature fells woods, as well. Where my wife and I have stayed for the past 14 years, we are surrounded on three sides by about 40 hectares of forest that appears to have been all but abandoned, and nature is busily felling what appears to me to be a mature forest. It is important that some aspects of that are addressed as we progress the bill.
I was delighted to hear the cabinet secretary referring to Abriachan, of which I have fond memories. I visited there when I was about three or four years old, as we went up in an old American ex-army jeep to Claude McLennan’s croft at the top of Abriachan, which at that time was a very primitive place indeed. The community there having the opportunity to take some control of its own destiny will be a way in which Abriachan will have fundamentally changed since I visited it in—I think—the late 1940s.
The important thing in the bill that I welcome, but which others have mixed views on, is what is essentially the separation between policy and operation. That will lead us to a clearer way in which to take matters forward.
It was my delight previously to be the minister who was responsible for the Forestry Commission Scotland and, in particular, to see the highly automated sawmill at Nairn, in the cabinet secretary’s constituency, which illustrates how the forestry industry is a high-tech industry of economic and environmental importance to Scotland. I support what is proposed in the bill.
I declare an interest as a farmer and an owner of land on which there is some woodland.
I welcome the stage 1 debate on the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill, which will transfer the powers and duties of the Forestry Commission in Scotland to Scottish ministers. Under devolution under the Scotland Act 1998, the bill has been on the cards for some time. It will wind up the Forestry Commission as a UK cross-border authority and, as well as transferring powers and duties to Scottish ministers, will transfer responsibilities and liabilities for staff and property.
The bill will repeal the 1967 act in Scotland and underpin new cross-border arrangements, as well as creating new organisational structures for forestry land management in Scotland. There is a lot to do and it is important to get the bill right, given what a strategic resource our timber has become and is in Scotland, supporting around 26,000 jobs and close on £1 billion gross value added annually.
The Scottish Conservatives welcome much of the bill but, in the time available, I will focus on what needs to be improved and where we believe change is necessary. First, we are concerned about the lack of clarity around key definitions, particularly the definitions of forestry land, sustainable forest management, sustainable development, community body and felling. I note and welcome the fact that Fergus Ewing has stated in his letter that he will make amendments at stage 2 to clarify at least some of those definitions.
We have concerns about the expansion of compulsory purchase powers for sustainable development. The Government has not made the case for expansion of those powers, and as the powers in the 1967 act have lain unused for 50 years, it is less than obvious to me why they have to be enhanced beyond the provision in the 1967 act.
No, thank you.
We are also concerned about community bodies and community empowerment, what constitutes a community body and why there are so many definitions in different legislation of what constitutes a community body.
Unlike the 1967 act, the bill is not well structured or easily understood. Too much definition of key terms and policy intent is left to subsequent ministerial intervention. This style of creating vague and ambivalent legislation has, I regret to say, become one of the defining features of the Scottish National Party Government in recent years. I cite as evidence the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 and the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, to name but three. It is simply not good enough for poorly thought-out, poorly drafted and defined and poorly constructed legislation to be laid before Parliament regularly. It runs the risk of bringing Parliament into disrepute.
Furthermore, we are concerned about the development of yet another new information technology system, especially given the as yet unanswered governance questions about the failed CAP payment delivery system as well as the NHS 24 IT system and the failed i6 system for Police Scotland.
We also have concerns about the reinvestment of funds generated from selling off the forestry estate. It is important that such income be reinvested into the purchasing of land for further afforestation.
Although we support the modest expansion of planting targets, it is vital that provision is also made for the future harvesting of crop on new land through the roads infrastructure, which is already under enormous pressure in Ayrshire, south-west Scotland and, indeed, elsewhere.
Industry stakeholders and I would also like more information on how cross-border arrangements will be managed once the bill passes into law. We would welcome that information at the earliest possible opportunity, although the cabinet secretary did make an announcement in that regard today, which I was certainly pleased to hear.
Another concern, and one that was highlighted by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, is that the legislation has been introduced in the absence of a full consultation on the development of a Scottish Government policy on exemption from the offence of illegal felling. Indeed, the DPLR Committee has recommended that the Scottish Government should lodge amendments to the bill at stage 2 that will make provision for exemption from the offence of unauthorised felling. I welcome the fact that a consultation is now under way, but it should have been done before.
Further, the DPLR Committee has concerns about the need for clarity in the forestry strategy on how the relevant provisions of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill, taken in conjunction with the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, will apply to forestry and sustainable development.
I congratulate Forestry Commission Scotland on its enormous success in the post-war delivery of the timber resource that we have in the United Kingdom and note the long-term approach that it has taken. I hope that the Scottish Government will put in place similar structures that will develop a similar long-term developmental view and build on the asset that we currently enjoy.
The Forestry Commission Scotland brand is one of the most successful and trusted brands in the United Kingdom. I hope that we in Scotland will be able to continue that good work as we go our own way, following the passing of the bill.
I think that it would be true to say that all the committee members and the vast majority of the people of Scotland consider forestry to be a very good thing and that it should be encouraged.
We may not have met our planting targets in recent years but, as the report says, the details of targets and how we get there need to be in the strategy rather than in the bill.
The committee visited a number of forests and forestry-related sites, such as the new forestry pier on Mull. It was extremely good to see investment in such an asset.
We have heard evidence on a wider range of issues than those in the bill. That was very useful in emphasising, for example, the need to take a long-term view of forestry, the need for tree planting to be more mixed than in the past and the processing industry’s need for stability and long-term planning. We have also heard that, in the past, there might have been too hard and fast a line between what land was for forestry and what land was for farming and that there could perhaps be more room for interaction and overlap, making it easier for land users to change the use and even to have mixed use in some places, which would benefit the tree-planting targets, as well as animals, by giving them shelter in bad weather for example.
The aim of the bill is to complete the devolution of forestry, which we heard has been broadly welcomed. With so much land in Scotland—actually, or potentially—consisting of forests, it certainly makes sense that we should be responsible for the sector here in Scotland.
We spent a fair bit of time on definitions, such as what “sustainable forest management” means and whether it should be in the bill. In paragraph 60 of our report, we recommend that the definition should be
“included in the ... Strategy. The same applies to the term ‘sustainable development’ which is used in relation to ‘other land’.”
I like a bill or an act to have as much of the main content in it as possible. However, I also agree that we do not want to have too much detail in primary legislation, where that detail can be become outdated and would take a fair bit of time to change. Therefore, having the definitions in the forestry strategy seems to be a pretty reasonable position on which we can agree.
It quickly became clear to the committee that the definition of “felling” as “intentionally killing a tree” needed improvement; I am glad to see that the Government agrees.
On compulsory purchase, it is perhaps not surprising that there were a variety of views on the REC Committee. Some of our more right-wing landowning members perhaps saw no place for compulsory purchase and considered that the rich and the powerful should be allowed to do whatever they wanted. At the other end of the spectrum, some might like to see more public intervention on how our land is used. However, the majority of the committee considered that there was a place for compulsory purchase broadly in line with the previous arrangements.
John Scott, who did not take my intervention, made the point that compulsory purchase legislation has not been used in the past. That is certainly the case on the surface, but in reality we do not know how effective the legislation has been, because it has always been there in the background when negotiations have been taking place
It has not been used in the sense of someone going to court to go through the process of compulsory purchase. However, if I am sitting down with someone to negotiate land issues, my having, in the background, the power of compulsory purchase could have an impact on our negotiations. That came up clearly at committee. No one can prove that the existence of the power has an effect, but I think that we all accepted that it probably does.
I want to touch on a few issues to do with the financial memorandum. First, Scottish Environment LINK pointed out that Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland currently have separate budgets, so the two figures that we see in the Scottish budget each year might be reduced to one figure in future. However, I think that the Government has now reassured us that it intends to provide more information, rather than less, after the reorganisation. It will be for our committee and the Parliament as a whole to hold the Government to account on its commitment.
Secondly, there will be IT costs, and everyone gets nervous when IT is mentioned. However, all national Governments, local government and the private sector have traditionally had problems with forecasting IT costs exactly. That is a challenge, but it is not just a challenge for this place. The committee was informed that even without the bill there will be IT costs, because the existing Forestry Commission computer system is not considered to be fit for purpose. In its response to the committee, the Government said that
“more information will be provided prior to stage 3”.
That is welcome.
Thirdly, the committee discussed the whole question of rebranding of signs, uniforms, vehicles and so on. This is perhaps unusual for a UK institution: the Forestry Commission has a pretty positive image among the public, so it is understandable that witnesses, including trade unions, said that they did not want to lose that. Witnesses also did not want a lot of money to be spent on repainting vehicles if the money could be used to plant trees. However, if we are to have a new organisation, with a new name, some money will have to be spent. It was reassuring to hear that reserves will be in place, so that current spending budgets can be protected. The compromise position, which members mentioned, and which I think that the committee accepted, is that changes can be made over time rather than in one big bang. Perhaps the Forestry Commission signs and vehicles can be repainted gradually over time, in an approach similar to the one that ScotRail took when it rebranded its trains.
We have had a number of briefings, and I thank the organisations that provided them, in particular the Scottish Wildlife Trust, RSPB Scotland and the Confederation of Forest Industries UK, or Confor. SWT and the RSPB made the point that the bill should make specific provision for biodiversity and native woodland creation. Many members agree with the principle; the questions for me are, first, whether we would be duplicating what is stated elsewhere, and secondly, whether such provision would be better placed in the strategy than in the bill.
As we have heard from many members, our forests and woodlands are precious natural resources. The Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill is important for the future of Scotland, for a wide range of reasons
Scrutiny of some of those reasons is the responsibility of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, of which I am a member. I was delighted to be asked by that committee to be its reporter for the bill. I thank the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and its convener for the welcome that I received at the relevant meetings, and I thank my committee’s clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre for their support throughout the process, which led to my committee’s letter to the REC Committee, for its consideration.
I will highlight the main points of the letter and, if I have time, make one or two points of my own. I emphasise the importance that my committee attaches to the bill’s overarching policy objectives, specifically in relation to forest functions. From our perspective, effective forest management offers the opportunity for multiple environmental and land management benefits. We said in our letter:
“The Committee is unclear as to what degree wider policy objectives, including those relating to biodiversity, deer management and climate change, are reflected in the Bill and in particular, are to be taken account of in the preparation of the Forestry Strategy.”
I note that the Scottish Government response states that better alignment will be considered at stage 2.
My committee also
“considers there is merit in including the need to have regard to biodiversity in deer management requirements on the face of the Bill.”
I note that the Scottish Government response states:
“there are a large number of policies, statutory duties and frameworks which are relevant to the economic, environmental and social outcomes of forestry, hence we will consider these matters carefully in order to avoid limiting the scope of the linkages catered for by any amendment.”
At this stage, our committee is still considering an amendment, but we are happy to be involved in dialogue on that.
I draw focus to the term “sustainable development”, the definition of which regularly emerges as an ongoing challenge for legislators. In the previous session of this Parliament, the RACCE Committee, of which I was a member, grappled with that term in relation to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 and reached a similar conclusion to that of our committee. In our letter, we state:
“We consider that the definition of sustainable development is widely understood and it is unnecessary to include this in the Bill.”
In this context, our letter does stress our view that
“the duties to promote sustainable forest management and sustainable development in Sections 9 and 13 should also be on every public body and office-holder and not just Scottish Ministers.”
I note the Scottish Government response that
“the duty is placed on the Scottish Ministers in the context of their new functions for forestry regulation, development and support. These functions rightly sit with one body.”
I will take that back to our committee and discuss it with members in detail.
My committee was
“unclear as to what the issue or problem the Part 3 provisions in relation to sustainable development are intended to address ... the circumstances in which the provisions are intended to be used; how they will result in the establishment of a ‘land agency’; and how this relates to the Scottish Land Commission.”
The Scottish Government response states:
“The purpose of the wider land management powers (those linked to furthering sustainable development), is to create more flexibility in the use of the Scottish Ministers’ land (the National Forest Estate) and enable a wider land management role for the new agency ... to help manage other land, including publicly-owned land, in the national interest”.
That will aid our committee discussions prior to stage 2.
We regard the acquisition, compulsory purchase and disposal of land clause as a backstop arrangement and recognise its importance as such. However, the bill
“gives Scottish Ministers compulsory purchase powers in order to further the achievement of sustainable development for the first time. When questioned, the Scottish Government did not provide a rationale for the extension of those powers”.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am sorry; I am a bit unclear about whether the member is talking about her views or is representing the views of her committee. The views that she is representing as coming from that committee have not been transmitted to the committee of which I am the convener. I would be grateful if that could be clarified.
With respect, the points that I am making are quotes from our letter to the REC Committee. I will be happy to discuss the matter afterwards with the convener. I have already expressed my recognition of the welcome that I received there.
On the broad land management purpose of the bill, my committee asked for clarification before stage 2 of section 13, as we were
“concerned that the consultation that informed the Bill did not seek views on this”.
It appears that Scottish Government officials were unable to set out why the powers in section 13 on management of land for further development were needed or in what circumstances those would be used. From the Scottish Government response, I understand that they relate to flexibility.
In our letter, we make reference to other land and argue that we can see
“no justification for a difference in approach” in the bill between national forest land and other land. Again, we ask the Scottish Government to reflect on that before stage 2.
The definition of a community body in section 19 is, in my committee’s view, already clearly defined in previous legislation. In this bill, it
“differs from the definition in previous legislation dealing with similar issues.”
That could cause confusion on a complex issue. We address that in more detail in our letter and ask the Scottish Government to reflect on it prior to stage 2.
In relation to the delegation of functions to community bodies, my committee is unclear how the bill adds to the community empowerment agenda or to what is already provided for in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.
The final issue from my committee’s perspective is that of tree health, which is part of our remit and which I know is treated with the utmost seriousness across the Parliament. We emphasise the necessity of cross-border co-operation on that, and I was pleased by the cabinet secretary’s explanation of the division of labour in that area.
I hope that the issues that the ECCLR Committee raised in its letter to the REC Committee are found to be of value, and we would be pleased to have dialogue on them with the Scottish Government and the convener of the REC Committee—I do not think that I have time to address what he said in his intervention now.
I express my pleasure at being able to contribute to today’s stage 1 debate on the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill as the fifth SNP member of the Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee.
Although I represent
Uddingston and Bellshill, which is an area in the central belt of Scotland that, beyond our exceptional Strathclyde country park, does not necessarily come to mind when the forestry sector is discussed, the sector is one that I have been a champion of throughout my time in this place, including my time on the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. It forms an important part of Scotland’s economy and contributes to our vibrancy as a nation. Given the sector’s importance in Scotland, it is only right that it should be fully accountable to our Scottish Parliament and to the Scottish ministers, and that is what the bill provides for.
The bill will improve the accountability and transparency of legislation, modernise the current legislative framework and enable more effective use to be made of Scotland’s publicly owned land, on which many members across the chamber can agree. I am glad that the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee supports the general principles of the bill. In particular, I note that the committee heard that the majority of stakeholders very much welcome the opportunity for forestry matters to be fully devolved to Scotland and recognise the need to update our forestry legislation, which, as I have mentioned, is one of the key pillars of the bill.
The devolution of forestry was a manifesto commitment of the SNP in our 2011, 2015 and 2016 manifestos, and we remained committed to bringing it about in our 2016-17 programme for government. That leads me to another of the bill’s key pillars—the improvement of accountability, transparency and policy alignment. That is an important area, because there is some confusion about the extent to which forestry is currently devolved. At present, the Scottish ministers determine the strategy and policy for forestry in Scotland but, since devolution, the management of forestry, including the management of the national forest estate, has remained with the Forestry Commission—a UK non-ministerial department and a cross-border public authority.
Rightly, the bill will bring about the transfer of the powers and duties of the forestry commissioners in Scotland—including in relation to plant health—to the Scottish ministers. That will mean that the responsibility for all plant health in Scotland will reside in one place. Ultimately, it will fall to the Scottish ministers to promote sustainable forest management and to publish a forestry strategy.
Crucially, the bill not only creates a legal duty to promote sustainable forest management but establishes a modernised legislative framework that fully supports, regulates and promotes the development and growth of forestry in Scotland. I believe that the bill will bring about a new future for the industry.
The final pillar of the bill that I wish to reflect on is the fact that it will enable effective use to be made of Scotland’s publicly owned land by making the Scottish ministers responsible for managing the national forest estate to deliver economic, social and environmental outcomes. That includes the ability to enter into arrangements to manage other people’s land, including that of public bodies. That fulfils a further manifesto commitment to establish a land management agency and will enable ministers to delegate land management functions to community bodies.
In my remaining time—I will try to stay within my seven minutes, as I do not want to get cut off—
Okay. I will keep going.
I wish to reflect on the additional steps beyond the bill that are required to complete the devolution journey and to give further recognition of the importance of the sector in Scotland beyond that which I have stated.
It is important to state that the bill is not the end point in completing the journey of the devolution of forestry, as there will be two further pieces of work once the bill has completed its passage. Indeed, the bill is the first of three principal activities that are required to complete the devolution of forestry.
The first piece of work is the passage of secondary orders under the Scotland Act 1998 in the UK Parliament to wind up the forestry commissioners as a cross-border public authority and to make other consequential provisions in the light of the bill. That will help to establish new collaborative cross-border arrangements with the UK Government and the Welsh Government, which have been managed hitherto by the Forestry Commission, and to make arrangements for transferring some of the forestry commissioners’ property and liabilities to the Scottish ministers. Financial, business and regulatory impacts will be considered as part of the development of those orders, in line with standard requirements.
The second piece of work is the establishment of new organisational arrangements by transferring to the Scottish Government the activities that are presently delivered by the forestry commissioners in Scotland through Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland.
I am sure that members agree that Scotland’s forests and woodlands are among our greatest and most valuable rural assets. The forestry sector is worth £1 billion per annum and supports 26,000 jobs. On every occasion on which I speak in the chamber on the forestry sector, I like to reiterate that, although the sector is incredibly important to our economy, it plays a hugely important role in tackling climate change, in protecting and growing biodiversity and in natural flood management. It also contributes to the improvement of general health and wellbeing across Scotland.
I am delighted that the bill will help to continue the journey towards the devolution of the forestry sector. That will enable us to work together collectively to deliver for that important sector and for Scotland.
I, too, welcome the bill and support its principles.
Like other members, I thank the organisations for their briefings.
Much has been made of the number of jobs that forestry supports. I have the figure of 25,000 jobs, but I have also heard that the industry supports 26,000 jobs—if that is 1,000 extra jobs since my briefing, that is great—and that it is worth £1 billion.
It is significant that Confor has said that
“the bill must provide the right assistance”.
The right assistance, of course, is not mutually exclusive work in the industrial and environmental aspects. The Scottish Wildlife Trust has said:
“Scotland’s woodlands are currently not realising their full potential for helping Scotland adapt to climate change. More connected riparian woodlands for example, could prevent flooding; reduce erosion; improve water quality; and allow wildlife to move through the landscape.”
That is of growing importance. As quite a number of members have said, woodlands are an important carbon sink to help to mitigate climate change.
The issue that we always encounter with bills is what is and is not stated in them. Our stage 1 report talks about
“planting targets and a commitment to appropriate levels of reforestation in the Forestry Strategy.”
Confor seeks an amendment to include planting targets and future wood supply.
We have heard that the forestry industry is a long-term one, and the strategy’s review period has been the subject of much discussion. It is important that the review period includes consultation with all the forestry stakeholders. It has been said that the sector depends on a long-term vision, and something jumped out at me in the cabinet secretary’s response to that. He said:
“For example, there is a known unintended consequence of the current seven year cycle for the CAP in that it leads to a suppression of woodland creation”.
We certainly do not want that, and we do not want the uncertainty that Brexit will bring. Long-term assurances are important to the industry, and I am pleased that the Scottish Government will reflect on the strategy. It is important that the strategy is a living document.
There is also a call for a strengthened commitment to reforestation, which can be seen as going hand in glove with that. The Scottish Wildlife Trust certainly sees the strategy as an opportunity to increase the quality of Scotland’s native woodlands.
Forestry is everywhere. We have heard from members with urban constituencies that there is an impact in those places. I commend the work that is being done in the hearts of our cities and across the country by organisations such as the Woodland Trust and community groups.
It is also good that the Scottish Government acknowledges the interest that stakeholders have in the organisational arrangements and that it is going to provide a statement.
There is clearly a lot of affection for the Forestry Commission. I am a former employee of it, and my father and my father-in-law were employed by it. It is important that the concerns are recognised—indeed, we heard that reiterated in the cabinet secretary’s speech. In the social and environmental sector of forestry, small businesspeople and enterprises are grateful for the technical support, advice and financial stimulus that they receive from the Forestry Commission. In a communication to me, they expressed concern that it will be “submerged into Victoria Quay”.
I am happy to give the reassurance that that should not happen. Moreover, we recently extended grant finance to small cabinetmakers and joiners who are using Scottish woods, and they are delighted.
I am grateful for that assurance from the cabinet secretary. The communication that I mentioned went on to say that the Forestry Commission is a rural success story, and that is certainly how I see it.
The concerns that exist around that could, in part, be offset by something that the committee proposes—the establishment of a chief forester post. That would be entirely consistent with having a chief planner, a chief medical officer and a chief scientist, and it would send a clear signal about the commitment to the forestry profession. I note that the Scottish Government has said that it will consider the proposal. I hope that it will be given real, detailed thought.
On the definition of sustainable forest management, I have looked at what the Scottish Woodland Trust and Confor say about the definition that they would go with, and their views seem identical. The definition goes on about the
“stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains, and where appropriate enhances, their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity and vitality and their potential to fulfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions at local, national and global levels, and does not cause damage to other ecosystems.”
That brings me to what we heard from the cabinet secretary about the cross-border and tree health issues. I found that very reassuring, and I understand that there is a letter to the committee about that.
I will move quickly on to the strategic timber transport fund, which has been alluded to. It is actually cheaper and more environmentally friendly to transport timber to Norbord from Argyll via boats, so I would commend that approach.
On the management of land by Scottish ministers, I do not share the concerns that many members have expressed. As my colleague John Mason highlighted, it is right to have a range of options available to people in land negotiations, and compulsory purchase powers is one of those options. From my previous employment as a councillor, I am aware of a ransom strip. People will understand that the public good cannot be held back in that way.
Similarly, I look forward to the definition of “sustainable development” in the bill, although I have no issues with that. As I said, I was happily one of the minority.
What is set out in the bill is important. I would like to see native woodland creation targets in legislation, as they tie up with sustainable deer management, which is also important. I do not think that many members have commented on the fact that funds that are raised from disposals from the national forest estate should be reinvested. I hope that we will get a long-term commitment from the Scottish Government to do that.
Despite John Mason’s apparent surprise, I do not think that it came as a surprise to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee that the Forestry Commission Scotland is held in extremely high regard by its stakeholders, people in the sector, its staff and the public as a whole. Its branding is instantly recognisable and there has rightly been a high level of interest in the current proposals and what they will mean for the industry and the environment.
Anyone who has read the committee’s report or watched any of its meetings will know about the high level of scrutiny that we have, rightly, given the bill. It is a hugely important piece of work that will help the Scottish Government not only to achieve its planting targets but to diversify the forest estate and contribute to conservation, biodiversity and meeting our climate change targets.
As John Mason mentioned, the committee visited Mull, where we heard about forestry on the island. We were a little bit nervous about midges that day, but Stewart Stevenson told us that they fly only when the wind speed is less than 5mph and we were lucky that there was a breeze that day. I also went out with the Forestry Commission for a day in Sutherland, and we heard hours of evidence on the bill here in the Scottish Parliament.
I thank all those who took the time to come to the Parliament or to submit written evidence. It is great to see that so many individuals and organisations are passionate about forestry and woodland in Scotland. I also thank the committee clerks, SPICe, my fellow committee members and the members of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee—particularly Claudia Beamish.
Our main objectives for the report were to understand the current functions of the Forestry Commission and Forest Enterprise Scotland, to find out how the proposals would work under the Scottish ministers, as is proposed, and to put forward our recommendations to the Scottish Government. As the cabinet secretary laid out in his opening remarks, the bill has three main aims: to improve accountability and the transparency of the legislation, to modernise the current legislative framework and to enable more effective use of Scotland’s publicly owned land.
I will explain where we are and what is proposed. Forestry Commission Scotland currently provides policy, advice, regulation and grants, and Forest Enterprise Scotland is an executive agency of the Forestry Commission that manages the national forest estate. The new structure proposes that the Forestry Commission’s functions be carried out by a dedicated forestry division of the Scottish Government, which will be responsible for grants, regulation, support and development, and that Forest Enterprise Scotland will become forestry and land Scotland, which will still manage the national forest estate.
I am pleased that the Scottish Government has agreed with several of the recommendations in the stage 1 report and that several more are under consideration. Agreement has been reached on the inclusion of an acceptable definition of “sustainable forest management” and a working definition of “sustainable development” in the Scottish forestry strategy. There is also agreement on the integration of the goals of the forestry strategy with the UK forestry standard and on the provision of guidance on felling to private forestry owners as well as on the need to look at the definition of felling. In addition, agreement has been reached on the proposal that registration for notices to comply should be proportionate and cost and resource effective, and that the rebranding costs should be kept as low as possible. As has been stated, the committee recommended that vehicles should be rebranded only when that is necessary.
The committee heard from many people about the opportunities that the bill presents, but we also heard a number of concerns that must be addressed. The Scottish Government must allay any concerns that have been raised by stakeholders about the new set-up giving control to Scottish ministers, and we have heard from the cabinet secretary that that will happen.
The Scottish Government should also give consideration to the post of chief forester and should give cast-iron guarantees that there will be no loss of expertise or specialisms, citing examples of how those will be retained and developed further. Consideration must be given to a regular review of the forestry strategy at least every five years, with a full refresh every 10 years, and Parliament must have the opportunity to scrutinise the strategy before it is agreed. Consultation with stakeholders must be thorough and wide.
We would like to see an overarching, high-level statement of ambition that makes it clear that modern forestry strategy and practices will reflect an integrated approach to land use, community interests, planning, biodiversity and the environment. We all agreed that cross-border working on tree health, disease and forestry science is essential and must continue and be strengthened, and I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement on that today.
For the existing staff and for the people who may wish to make a career in forestry in the future, as well as for the health and expansion of our forest estate and for the wellbeing of our citizens in both rural and urban areas, given the current climate, it has never been more important that we get forestry right. The committee supports the general principles of the bill, and we ask that the Parliament do likewise.
The Liberal Democrats support the bill. It is right that we update the legislation on forestry to ensure that we have a thriving and profitable industry. I am encouraged by the improved targets for tree planting that the cabinet secretary outlined and I wish him well in achieving them. Let us hope that we achieve them over the next few years.
In its report to the Parliament on the bill, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee makes a number of recommendations to improve the bill, which we fully support. I am, of course, a member of the committee, which took a great deal of evidence from stakeholders in its stage 1 inquiry.
One of the most important areas of concern in the bill has been the separation of the Forestry Commission’s functions. The committee has called on the Scottish Government to provide further reassurance about the practical implications of its proposals. I am pleased that the minister acknowledges that in the Government’s response to the committee’s stage 1 report.
The other contentious issue in the bill is extending the powers of the Scottish ministers for the compulsory purchase of land. Real concern was expressed to the committee about why, given that the compulsory purchase powers in the 1967 act have never been used—I repeat, never been used—ministers wish not only to transfer them to the new legislation but to extend them. I do not like the idea of Parliament giving up its powers to ministers at the best of times, but to extend further the powers of compulsory purchase that were given to ministers back in 1967 and have—I will say it for the third time—never been used seems to me to be bizarre in the extreme.
I take it that, when the member talks about the powers being used, he means people going to court. Does he accept that they have an application short of going to court, which is about dispute resolution?
Whichever way we look at it, the powers have never been used—I say it for the fourth time in case people do not understand that.
I have to say to John Mason that I, for one, am not rich. I do not consider myself powerful and I am certainly not a landowner. I do not support those unnecessary measures, so I do not know whom he was targeting. Perhaps he was targeting someone else—that is not for me to say—but he is not quite right.
The evidence to the committee on the matter was clear, and I was pleased when the committee did its job in a vote—a vote that, I am also pleased to say, did not simply divide along party lines. That is really important. The committee recommended that the Government should change its mind on the matter and that the compulsory purchase powers in the 1967 act should be transferred to the bill—I was not particularly keen on that but I agreed the report—but not extended.
I hope that the Government listens to the committee. I notice that, in his written response, the minister notes the recommendation. I hope that he does more than that and lodges amendments at stage 2 to reflect it. That is the parliamentary committee doing its job. We are here to take evidence, listen to it and, without partisanship, try to get the best results on the matter. We are all in favour of the bill and we want to make it work.
I hope that the Government recognises that, because the bill can be further improved in other ways. I would like to see an amendment at stage 2 to make it clear that the strategic objectives of any land acquisition and disposal should be set out in the Scottish forestry strategy. Otherwise, there is no guarantee or requirement for there to be any strategic plan for acquisition or disposal and the whims of ministers would rule.
I return to the fact that I have always believed that it is wrong to give too much power away to ministers. I made that point to Ross Finnie when, as rural affairs minister, he introduced legislation in the first two parliamentary sessions and I voted against him. I make the point again. It is not a party political point. Parliamentarians should be wary of handing over unrestricted powers to ministers of any political hue. I am not attacking the current minister; I am talking about ministers of any political party.
In conclusion, Presiding Officer, this is a good bill and the Liberal Democrats are happy to support it. However, as I have pointed out, there is room for improvement and we would indeed like to see it improved. Thank you.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. As a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I support the general principles of the bill.
It has been an interesting learning curve for me, with my background primarily in social work and social science. I learned a lot through the bill, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have done that.
A strong forestry sector is important to a vibrant Scotland and it is important that forestry in Scotland is fully accountable to the Parliament. The bill makes forestry fully accountable to the Scottish ministers and the Scottish Parliament, and, as I said, it is an important economic sector in Scotland, worth £1 billion annually.
The committee heard from a range of stakeholders, as others have mentioned, who welcome the opportunity to fully devolve forestry matters to Scotland and recognise that there is a real need to update forestry legislation.
Completing the devolution of forestry has been a long-standing commitment of this Government, and I am pleased that we are now taking steps to complete the process. By doing so, we will ensure that the economic, social and environmental benefits that are already delivered by forestry in Scotland are protected and nurtured. It is safe to say that this Government is committed to ensuring that forestry can deliver more in the future, and we hope to provide stability and a long-term plan for the industry.
Sustainable forestry is at the heart of the bill, and by putting safeguards in place that ensure that our forestry land is being used in a way that promotes sustainable forest management, we are suitably protecting the industry. That is important for ensuring that our forests provide biodiversity, productivity and regenerational capacity, and it ultimately ensures that no damage is done to other ecosystems. That approach is in line with Forest Europe’s definition of forest strategy.
I also want to comment on the idea of enhancing a sustainable domestic timber sector. We must do so while recognising the important contribution that forestry makes to rural communities across Scotland. I believe that the creation of the new forestry bill allows us to redefine forestry and ensure that our industry is ready for the future. I believe that we will now be able to ensure that any long-term economic impacts, as well as the environmental sustainability of a vital industry in Scotland, are safeguarded.
Presiding Officer, native woodlands are beneficial to us all. They provide a habitat for a wide range of species, and they provide environmental benefits, as others have said. They can even act as a social space for us all to enjoy. Woodland habitats can give people the opportunity to interact with wildlife in a natural setting, both in an informal way and in the promotion of more formal activities such as environmental education.
As I have said in the chamber before, I like Munro climbing—in fair weather, I must add. There is nothing better than being up there when there is also forest and the smell of pine. I know that anybody else who walks through the forest will agree with that. Just at the weekend I took the family to Cuningar loop, which is not in my constituency—if my geography is right, it is in Clare Haughey’s; if not, I apologise to the member.
Am I? Thank you, John. It is a fantastic facility.
Back in my constituency, I recently met with Charles Dundas from the Woodland Trust and had a walk around Drumpellier country park. I had not been aware prior to that that there is ancient woodland there but I am quite proud of that fact now.
One per cent of Scotland is covered in ancient woodland, and now I have found out that some of it is in my constituency, which is really good. During that walk we also spoke about deer management, an issue that has been raised by the Scottish Wildlife Trust as well as others.
It is probably worth saying that that was not the only time that I have had contact with the trust on constituency matters. Recently I was involved in a community dispute in which a local company cut down a number of trees that had been in place for more than 20 years without notice or consultation to residents, who considered the trees to be part of their home. Although it would not be appropriate to get into more detail here in the chamber, the case highlights the need for some of the aspects of community involvement that the committee took evidence on.
Woodlands are natural deer habitats, and the creation of a new woodland would ensure that deer have a suitable habitat and allow them to colonise appropriate areas. Like John Finnie, I would be inclined to consider the Woodland Trust’s suggestion that all owners and managers of private forest and woodland have a responsibility to ensure that arrangements are in place to manage deer.
I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government acknowledges the concerns expressed by stakeholders. As set out by the cabinet secretary,
“the Scottish Government acknowledge the importance of retaining the local office networks and sustaining opportunities for interchange between agency and division.”
That is in response to concerns about a potential loss of expertise and skills. The Scottish Government goes on to say:
“The issue of skills retention is a focus of the ‘New Agency’ and ‘New Division’ projects under the recently established Forestry Devolution Programme.”
“These projects will be identifying ways to continue to recognise and value engagement with the professional bodies and identify jobs requiring specific professional qualifications, such as in forestry.”
I will touch briefly on compulsory purchase orders. I will get involved in a maths dispute here, but I believe that I was 33 per cent of the SNP team that was in a minority on the committee, with Stewart Stevenson accounting for the other 66 per cent. My view on that—
I could not possibly comment on that, although he certainly managed to dig himself out of a hole earlier with his one and a half members point.
On a serious note, I return to compulsory purchase orders. I mentioned my previous experience in social work because CPO reminds me of a child protection order, which is what we used to mean when we said CPO. John Finnie made an important point about legal status. Child protection orders are rarely used and accessed and it is probably not too extreme to imagine a day when we would not need CPOs.
I will develop the point anyway, which is that we would not want CPOs not to be there. When child protection or other processes go through, they work on the basis that such orders are in place and could possibly be used. I am coming to the end—
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcements, but we on these benches are not alone in holding serious concerns about the bill. Scottish Land & Estates stated that it has
“a major concern with the government’s current proposals” and that the bill is
“poorly structured in contrast to the Forestry Act 1967”.
Bidwells has highlighted its
The Institute of Chartered Foresters
“considers that significant amendments are required”.
NFU Scotland highlights the bill’s potential for
“undermining relations between farming and forestry.”
Furthermore, the Community Woodlands Association seeks greater clarity about a number of definitions in the bill. I am glad that I find myself in the company of many reputable and knowledgeable stakeholders in highlighting my concerns about the bill in its current form.
There are two areas of significant concern: the lack of clarity on key definitions, and the expansion of compulsory purchase powers. The “Oxford English Dictionary” defines clarity as
“the quality of being clear and intelligible”.
The bill fails to provide a clear and intelligible definition of “forestry land”, “sustainable forest management”, “sustainable development” and “community body”. Once again, legislation that lacks clarity has been introduced to the Parliament. We witnessed that during stage 1 of the Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill, in which vague definitions were applied to “wild animals” and “travelling circus”.
During an evidence session in the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s meeting on 7 June, the Scottish Government’s forestry and land management bill team could not provide reassurance about how compulsory purchase could further the achievement of sustainable development.
Key definitions within the bill have worryingly been left to the discretion of ministerial interpretation.
In order to provide the transparency and confidence that the forestry sector requires, ministers must ensure that these definitions are given further clarity if the bill is to move forward to the next stage. I am glad that the cabinet secretary, in his letter to the committee convener, Edward Mountain, has indicated that he will review certain measures in the bill regarding vague and unclear definitions.
I believe that an expansion of the existing compulsory purchase powers is not required. The current powers found in the Forestry Act 1967 have not scarcely been used—they have never been used by the Scottish ministers. A further enhancement of those powers would only reaffirm the mantra of this SNP Government and see further unnecessary centralisation of power.
The use of compulsory purchase powers has also been raised recently in the discussion paper published by the Scottish Law Commission, which noted the
“peculiarly disturbing circumstances of losing ... property under a statutory process” and went further to state that
“It is of the highest importance that, as it affects ordinary people, the legislation should be as clear as possible.”
Stakeholders are also concerned about the use of compulsory purchase. NFU Scotland is
“sceptical that two of the fundamental principles of valuations for compulsory purchase ... are being consistently and rigorously applied”.
Those principles are that
“the seller and purchaser are both ‘willing’ and that the seller is ‘no better or worse off’”.
We have seen this happen already, through what some people see as the mishandling of the compulsory purchase orders along the Aberdeen western peripheral route.
I therefore believe that the compulsory purchase powers under this bill are at best unnecessary and at worst a power grab by the Government.
I welcome some aspects of the bill, namely a routine review of the forestry strategy and the strengthening of provisions related to tree health, which I believe will be beneficial to my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries where, as everybody knows, we are campaigning to establish Scotland’s next national park, which would take in the whole of Galloway forest park. However, in order for the bill to provide for the action it seeks, fundamental changes must be made to its current form.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate legislation that will have a major impact on an important sector within my South Scotland region.
As we have already heard, forestry plays an invaluable role in many aspects of Scottish life, contributing to climate change mitigation, biodiversity, flood management, health and wellbeing and of course tourism. It is estimated that the sector supports around 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs across Scotland, and £954 million of gross value added. It is particularly important to rural economies.
My own home region of Dumfries and Galloway has one of the highest concentrations of forestry in the country, with woods and forests covering some 31 per cent of the land. 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, to the small native and farm woodlands that are so important to the beautiful landscape of Dumfries and Galloway. Not surprisingly, the region is a major timber-producing area, harvesting some 30 per cent of Scotland’s home-grown timber each year, and is home to Scotland’s largest biomass power station.
The timber industry is responsible for more than 3,000 jobs in Dumfries and Galloway, many of which are in remote rural areas. It is therefore an economic and environmental imperative that the bill adequately supports the forestry sector and the associated industries.
I am happy to support the general principles of the bill and I welcome its broad aims. In addition to the need to fully devolve forestry powers, I support the need to promote accountability, transparency and policy alignment in this area. Likewise, any endeavours to modernise the sector and improve the effectiveness of how we use Scotland’s publicly owned land are very welcome.
However, there is more to be done to ensure that the bill fully supports those aims, and I commend the work done by both the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee in scrutinising the bill.
It is important to acknowledge that many aspects of forestry interrelate closely with other policy areas and I hope that the Government will accept the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s call for the development of an
“overarching, high-level statement of ambition, on the face of the bill, that makes clear that modern forestry strategy and practices will reflect an integrated approach to land use, community interests and the environment”.
I appreciate the need for the full devolution of forestry matters, but it is important that the existing engagement between stakeholders from communities and local authorities is not compromised in the process. Bringing the management of the forestry estate into the Scottish Government’s remit risks the potential for overcentralisation, which has been a habit of Government in recent years, and we must be careful to guard against that. Local forest districts and their outreach functions play a crucial role, and it is vital that the new structure reflects that. In Dumfries and Galloway, the estate is governed by two forest districts—Galloway district and Dumfries and Borders district—that, 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 the area, from the development of the seven stanes cycling project to the Scottish dark sky observatory in Galloway forest park, which, I hope, will become the Galloway national park in time. It is vital that we maintain the role that is carried out by forest districts in any new structures.
The bill will also bring into force the proposed restructuring of the Forestry Commission but, as they stand, the plans have failed to win support. In its report, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee noted
“wide-ranging concerns expressed by stakeholders at the separation of the functions of the Forestry Commission”.
In particular, I highlight concerns that the scope, focus and resources of the forestry division might be diluted over time, and that the separation of the division and the commission might result in a loss of professional forestry expertise. The bill and the discussions around it provide an opportunity to examine the issues and to work to address concerns on the matter.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement that it will produce a statement setting out how it will manage and administer its forestry responsibilities and the relationship between the forestry division and the agency. It is essential that the statement provides assurances on those issues and clarifies what will be done to ensure that the separation of the commission’s functions will not weaken the total capacity of the two organisations. I am glad that the Scottish Government is considering the committee’s recommendation that significant changes to the arrangements that are set out in the statement must be notified to the Parliament and be subject to further consideration.
The introduction of a statutory requirement for a Scottish Government forestry strategy that is based on sustainable forest management is a welcome change, and I am glad that the Scottish Government has agreed to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s recommendation that a working definition of the term “sustainable forest management” is given to provide clarity on what exactly is expected. I also welcome calls to include a statutory process to ensure that regular revision and review of the forestry strategy is undertaken. I appreciate that there is a balance to be struck between providing flexibility and certainty, but the committee’s recommendation for the strategy to be reviewed every five years and refreshed every 10 years is a reasonable one.
Another key concern that was raised in submissions to the committee was on the topic of devolution and its impact on research capabilities and scientific expertise. The south of Scotland regional forestry forum highlighted that issue, stating:
“It is essential that Britain’s current forest research capability is not lost, and that discussions on a cross-border approach to Forest Research reach a successful conclusion.”
Likewise, the National Trust for Scotland asked for clarification on how cross-border co-operation will develop, and the committee’s report noted the widespread view that
“the research functions of the current UK wide Forestry Commission are crucial to the continuing health of Scotland's forests.”
That is a crucial point to take into consideration during the devolution process.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to provide regular updates on the progress of its discussions with the rest of the UK on the issue, and I am glad that it has recognised the importance of ensuring that an appropriate framework for cross-border research is in place before the bill comes into force. However, there is still a lack of clarity on the purpose of the compulsory purchase powers that are conferred by the bill, and on the provision that relates to sustainable development. The current widespread lack of confidence in that aspect of the bill must be addressed if the Scottish Government is to take forward that particular provision, no matter the support that exists.
The full devolution of forestry powers is a valuable opportunity to improve our approach to the sector, which is of great importance to thousands of my constituents. There is significant scope for progress and, for that reason, I am happy to support the general principles of the bill. However, as it stands, it requires work to be done before it is fit for purpose and I am glad that the Scottish Government has already agreed to a number of the committee’s recommendations. I urge the Scottish Government to give further consideration to the other points that have been raised in the chamber and by stakeholders around Scotland.
Following on from the successful transfer of the Crown estate to Crown Estate Scotland, with Scottish ministers now responsible for all Crown estate assets in Scotland and all revenue profit going to the Scottish Government, this bill now makes forestry fully accountable to Scottish ministers and the Scottish Parliament. It has always struck me that not having forestry matters fully devolved to Scotland was messy, to say the least, so I am glad to see the situation being tidied up, albeit with continuing cross-border working on tree health and other matters. There is no doubt that a strong forestry sector, worth £1 billion annually, as we have heard, is important to a vibrant Scotland, and it is also vital that forestry in Scotland is fully accountable to this Parliament.
I hope to cover three main strands in my speech today: woodland deer management; sustainable forest management; and biodiversity.
We know from the work that was done on deer management by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee and the work that has been done by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee since its formation last year that there are too many deer in Scotland. According to the Scottish Wildlife Trust—I thank it for the briefing that it provided in advance of today’s debate—there are an estimated 85,000 to 100,000 roe, sika and fallow deer in privately owned Scottish forests, and 40,000 to 45,000 on the national forest estate; and between 45,000 and 60,000 red deer in private forests, and 40,000 and 45,000 on the national forest estate.
We also know that 30 per cent of all deer culling in Scotland has been carried out by the Forestry Commission or Forest Enterprise Scotland in the national forest estate, which, unbelievably, costs the taxpayer more than £3 million a year—that does not include the cost of deer fences, which is another story. That is clearly disproportionate, given that the national forest estate covers only 6 per cent of the land area. The creation of new woodland, which the bill will enable, will also create new deer habitats. It should therefore go without saying that it is surely the responsibility of all owners and managers of private forests and woodland to manage the deer that live on their patch—as Fulton MacGregor and John Finnie said, that includes culling.
Part of the application process for new woodland grant schemes concerns deer management, which has to be considered. Surely what the member asks for is already happening and the issue is simply one of implementation. Does he agree?
Implementation is key, absolutely.
As I have suggested, such action would clearly help the timber crop, improve woodland biodiversity, significantly reduce the impact of deer grazing on nearby agricultural crops and, of course, reduce the risk of road traffic collisions with deer, which some of us have experienced.
Given the unexpected knowledge that I have gained on the issue of deer management through serving on the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee in the previous session of Parliament for four years and through my membership of the current Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, I have a lot of sympathy for, and fully understand, the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s call for there to be a legal requirement for forest owners to take adequate and appropriate steps to manage and control deer. I suggest that there is a strong argument for the SWT’s assertion that the bill should be amended to incorporate a duty of sustainable deer management for all forest owners. Having a plan in place to manage deer would clearly reduce the damaging impacts that deer can have and would create economic opportunities through the letting of deer stalking and the resultant venison sales. That would tie in well with the recommendations in the 2016 report on deer management by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee.
Turning to biodiversity and sustainable forest management, I am pleased to note that, although the bill does not define sustainable forest management, the policy memorandum uses the widely accepted definition from the 1993 pan-European ministerial conference on the protection of forests in Europe. However, I understand that the Government has accepted the committee’s recommendation that, for as long as sustainable forest management is the goal, the accepted definition should be included in the forestry strategy, which is welcomed. The definition fits well with the requirement for Scottish ministers to set out their objectives, priorities and policies with respect to the promotion of sustainable forest management.
On the issue of compulsory purchase order powers being extended to include sustainable development, I am pleased that the cabinet secretary indicated in his opening remarks that he is in listening mode. However, my family was subjected to CPOs in the past and I can testify to the fact that, whether we like CPOs or not, the threat of them helps to concentrate minds—I have experience of that.
Biodiversity must remain on the radar of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. I note in the RSPB’s briefing the request that biodiversity be given more distinct recognition in the bill, in addition to other environmental considerations such as flood water management and carbon sequestration. The RSPB also suggests that the bill be amended to include a duty to develop a statutory method of assessing sustainable forest management, which seems to me to be a reasonable request. I look forward to possible consideration of that at stage 2 and stage 3.
The creation of this bill redefines forestry in Scotland for the 21st century, ensuring the Iong-term economic and environmental sustainability of a vital industry. I welcome the devolution of forestry to Scottish ministers and the fact that forestry will be fully accountable to this Parliament. In my view, that is long overdue, but it is another step in the right direction.
Scotland’s land and forests are vitally important resources for many in our country. For example, I have observed Assich forest near Nairn, where the developer has done one cycle, if not a second. There are those who find it not sustainable, but I understand from foresters that it is the only sustainable forest in Scotland. It is incumbent on us to be responsible in how we legislate for our land and forests, focusing on putting in place best practice to benefit Scotland as a whole.
The forestry sector alone is worth almost £1 billion per year to the economy, supporting more than 26,000 jobs and, of course, the families who rely on them. However, it is also important to consider environmental concerns. Continued afforestation is of undoubted relevance when trying to limit levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the bill bears a number of similarities with many that have come before the Parliament—not least the Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill—in that, although well intentioned for the most part, it is poorly written and vague to the extent that its fundamental aims lack substantive clarity.
I have read the cabinet secretary’s letter to Edward Mountain. Given that the cabinet secretary had the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s recommendations for almost a month, it is regrettable that his response snuck out on the Friday afternoon before this debate—I missed it because I was occupied over the weekend.
The cabinet secretary has said that he might consider some amendments to the bill, but I believe that the Government should have been much clearer, much sooner. An example of that can be seen in the definition of “sustainable forest management”, which should be simple. However, the Scottish Government did not even think to define the term in its key forestry bill, which meant that concessions were forced from the cabinet secretary before the bill even made it to stage 1. It is important that we have strict definitions when ministers wish to grant themselves sweeping new powers to adjudicate on the matters concerned, otherwise we risk a situation in which the Government can hide poor performance and implementation behind vague terms of reference, which would simply not be good enough. I urge ministers to consider amendments in that area.
With that in mind, I have real concerns over the expansion of compulsory purchase powers that the bill would give ministers, which has been mentioned often in the debate. For example, it was not long ago that the SNP was cheering on such orders to facilitate Donald Trump’s Balmedie vanity project. That did not exactly go well. In addition, the Scottish Government is totally inexperienced in making compulsory purchases for the purpose of sustainable development. There are currently no examples of Scottish ministers using the powers of compulsory purchase in the context of forestry. Of course, they will probably need to figure out what it all means first.
For clarity, the Scottish Government and local authorities are very experienced in making compulsory purchase orders in general and I cannot imagine that the purpose being for sustainable development will make the process different in any material way.
All situations have their own competence. If ministers do not have experience in the forestry context, they will not be competent to make those orders.
I recommend that ministers think again about whether those provisions are really necessary.
I am worried about the requirement for a totally new IT system. Rural Scotland is still paying for the Scottish Government’s incompetence in that area, although I suspect that the cabinet secretary hoped that we had all forgotten about that.
I share the concerns that my Conservative colleagues have raised on the defining of a community body, and the proposals in section 17 on the sale, lease or gift of land to anyone whom ministers see fit. The cabinet secretary has agreed to explore the need for potential amendments, and it would be a serious error of judgment were that to fall by the wayside. We would prefer to see any funds that were raised from the sale of forestry land being reinvested in continuous afforestation rather than grants, and I hope the Scottish Government will take that on board.
The bill will have profound effects on our rural economy, but its drafting is simply not up to the required level. The bill also fails to strike the correct balance in many areas. It goes too far with compulsory purchase powers and IT systems, but not far enough when it comes to reinvesting in afforestation for the future.
There is much still to do with the bill, and I hope that ministers will take on board my legitimate concerns and not remain blinkered in their approach to rural Scotland. Although I support the bill in general terms, we ask that our proposed amendments be allowed to go through.
In 1918, in the dying days of the first world war, the country was ravaged by conflict, our young people had been sacrificed on the battlefield, and our economy was in freefall. That was the context in which the Forestry Commission was born, with the aim of replanting, rebuilding and renewing a crucial asset that appeared impossible to replace. The idea seemed to be oxymoronic. How could we replace native Caledonian pine forests that were hundreds of years old? However, in the 1920s and 1930s, those foresters of old did what it said on the tin: they replanted our forests with fast-growing and mainly, though not exclusively, non-native species.
As we all know, the picture today is very different. Our living forests play a number of roles in climate change mitigation, industry and construction, job creation, biomass, housing, leisure and biodiversity. That is why today’s debate is so important.
The bill includes devolving forestry to Scottish ministers, and it is my hope that that will offer the opportunity to better integrate forestry with other rural land uses in Scotland. We must recognise the important economic benefits from forestry. Rural areas are often the most vulnerable, and as a Highlands and Islands MSP, that is very close to my heart.
However, forestry offers us so much more. It provides leisure spaces, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, erosion reduction, water quality improvement, timber production and a biodiverse habitat for many of our native species. Many of our native woodlands provide a home for at-risk species in Scotland, whose population has been in decline, so it is not just the area of forestry that we need to improve, but the quality. Increased tree planting for the sake of it is not enough. It must be done in the right area, and with the right tree species, or it could do more harm than good. In its excellent briefing, the RSPB makes the point that biodiversity and environmental benefits are not always fully interlinked, and that they must be kept separate in order to support both. That is true for rural and urban areas. The word “forestry” brings to mind acres and acres of trees, but it also covers tree planting in urban areas, which is very important for increasing green spaces, which can help with the mental and physical health of local communities.
The powers are moving to Scottish ministers, but it is vital that the skills and the knowledge of Forestry Commission Scotland staff are maintained. The very nature of forestry involves long-term planning—many of our man-made ancient forests exist only because of the forward thinking of our forebears. As the Greek proverb goes:
“A society grows great when old men”— and women—
“plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
This has been an excellent debate, started by the cabinet secretary, who stressed the importance of sustainable management in forests, with new commissioning and funding across the UK to expand timber supply. I, too, welcome the strategic timber fund. I am sure that the cabinet secretary will say a bit more about that in his winding-up speech. If I picked him up correctly, I understand that the plan is to transfer a further 700 acres to community ownership this year.
Edward Mountain made an excellent speech as the convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. He talked, quite rightly, about keeping—and increasing—the skills of foresters; he also talked about having a long-term strategy with objectives that are reviewed. I also agree with his points about the need for more clarity on the definitions.
A common theme among members was the need to get the IT systems right. How many times in this Parliament have we touched on a new IT system that has failed? Let us get it right in this instance.
Peter Chapman made a number of points with which I agree. For example, an amendment to the bill about the cross-border work on tree health is vital, and a review of progress on planting expansion timescales must be reported to Parliament at an appropriate stage.
Rhoda Grant set the context of the devolution of the Forestry Commission. A common theme in the debate was the creation of the important role of the chief forester, who will effectively fight the corner of foresters within the Scottish Government. As Rhoda Grant said, it is crucial to look at the socioeconomic role of forestry and the needs of local communities.
As always, Stewart Stevenson was entertaining. He talked about his time fighting the first world war—or maybe I misunderstood that. He certainly talked about the important role that timber played in the first world war. He made the interesting point that he counts as one and a half members within the SNP group—nobody in the Parliament has ever doubted his important role.
John Scott—quite rightly—raised the need for clarity on the definitions, particularly the definition of community bodies.
Overall, this has been a first-class debate. We know the big picture—the forestry industry needs stability to allow it to invest and to grow to ensure that it thrives for future generations. It also needs knowledge. I restate my earlier point: although civil servants are specialists in what they do, it is important that the knowledge held by foresters within the commission is not lost. On behalf of the five trade unions that represent Forestry Commission Scotland, I would appreciate it if the cabinet secretary could assure me that the skills of the staff will be maintained and that the unions representing them will be fully engaged during the negotiations about all aspects of the staff transfer.
Labour’s position is clear: we support the general principles of the bill. I urge all members to support it.
I welcome the opportunity to close the debate for my party. As a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, and as an MSP who represents a region that contains valuable public forestry, especially on the Isle of Arran, I have a vested interest in getting a successful outcome for the bill. From listening to today’s speeches, it is clear that there is still work to be done as the bill progresses through Parliament.
The committee recommendations include a number of pertinent points, including the need for the Scottish Government to provide clarity on how it will administer its forestry functions. Conservative members support the proposal to create the position of chief forester.
The committee also recommended that the bill should have an overarching aim, objective or mission statement. What should the bill seek to achieve? What long-term outcome should result from the reorganisation?
The committee recommended that the costs of rebranding be minimised where possible. It also suggested that the financial reporting and auditing functions that are available to Parliament in respect of the current bodies be carried forward to the new structure. Transparency must prevail, scrutiny must be forthcoming and accountability must not be diluted as a result of the integration.
My colleague Peter Chapman noted the importance of working with other parts of the UK to ensure the health of our trees. He also said that the wealth of expertise in the Forestry Commission should not be lost as the bill is implemented. David Stewart reiterated that point. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comment that cross-border co-operation will continue in a formal setting. Conservative members welcome the constructive approach that all Governments are taking to the issue.
Peter Chapman also made a pertinent point about our ability to meet planting targets, which have been missed every year since 2001. If we are to meet the targets, we must have an honest and frank debate about the planning process and the costs of planting.
In his speech, my colleague Finlay Carson highlighted two areas of concern about which many other members spoke: the lack of clarity in key definitions, and the expansion of compulsory purchase powers. I hope that the Government will take into account the constructive comments of the committee and individual members about the definitions, and I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to listen to the concerns about additional compulsory purchase powers. Rhoda Grant made an interesting point about scenarios in which compulsory purchase powers might be required, but our understanding is that the Government already has sufficient compulsory purchase powers, which we are happy to have rolled forward from the Forestry Act 1967. The ambiguities in, and concerns about, the provisions on purchase for sustainable development must be taken into account. By a majority, the committee agreed that no case has been made for additional powers, as Mike Rumbles said.
My colleague John Scott warned against Parliament producing poorly drafted legislation. I value his experience in scrutinising bills, and I agree with the sentiment of his speech. He thanked the Forestry Commission Scotland for its hard work to date: I am sure that all members would do the same.
To our huge surprise, Stewart Stevenson delivered a fascinating insight into the history of forestry in Scotland. We were also reminded of his previous ministerial importance in the matter—indeed, in any matter. We learned today that he is worth 1.5 normal MSPs. We are forever grateful for his enlightening—and inflated—presence in Parliament. [
.] Mr Stevenson also made an interesting point about the structure of Holyrood committees. My experience of the committees in the Scottish Parliament has been overwhelmingly positive.
John Finnie made an interesting point about the needs of small businesses in the forestry sector, especially those that derive social benefit from Scotland’s forests. He was seeking confirmation that grants to such bodies will be protected, so it was good to hear the cabinet secretary provide that confirmation.
My committee colleague Gail Ross talked about the huge amount of scrutiny that has been done of the bill at stage 1. I thank the many stakeholders who provided fascinating evidence, which is testament to the scrutiny that the Scottish Parliament is giving to a bill that will lead to the disappearance of a well-respected body from Scotland’s rural landscape.
It is unfortunate that the debate was not entirely consensual. Another Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee colleague, John Mason, painted a quite unwarranted picture of the committee’s make-up. His comments were uncharacteristic of him. To my knowledge, no member of the committee has a declared interest in forestry, and every member of the committee has approached the bill with nothing but good will and good intent. To suggest otherwise is quite churlish, so I hope that John Mason will reflect on his comments.
Colin Smyth made a valuable point about the creation of a new national park in the south of Scotland. The debate about that will no doubt continue outside the debate about the bill.
Angus MacDonald touched on the importance of deer management—a matter about which we have talked in great detail in Parliament. He made the point that as we create new woodland—it is right to do so—we might increase the deer population. That, too, is perhaps a debate for another day.
I ask the cabinet secretary to reflect on the following points. Let us address the definitions issue and produce a bill that is watertight and lacks ambiguity. Let us heed the majority recommendation to exclude compulsory purchase powers from the bill, and let us take on board the committee’s suggestion about the position of chief forester.
Let us also remember that the Forestry Commission’s success in Scotland to date has had much to do with its neutrality and its expertise, which we would hate to be lost as the changes are implemented. The Forestry Commission Scotland brand is a strong one, so I implore the cabinet secretary to ascertain whether the UK body will allow the brand to continue under licence in Scotland.
With billions of pounds of gross value at stake, and given the environmental and social benefits that Scotland’s forests bring, it is vital that the concerns that have been expressed today be taken on board as we progress to stage 2.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the debate, which has included excellent contributions by members from across the chamber, and has been largely consensual, as Jamie Greene just said.
Reference has been made to Stewart Stevenson’s contribution. Roald Dahl wrote the series “Tales of the Unexpected”: I often think that Mr Stevenson’s speeches are the parliamentary equivalent of those excellent fictional works. Today’s episode—which was somewhat extended, I thought—concerned the Great Michael. I had thought that he might be taking the Michael, but it was just about the making of the Michael. There was a point in there, as always—the huge importance of forestry to Scotland throughout a number of centuries, and not just of late.
Before I go on to answer as many key points as possible, I want to say that I cannot answer them all, but I am committed to, and would like to take part in, bilateral meetings with representatives of each of the other parties, if they wish, in order to see whether we can make progress prior to stage 2. I find that to be a good way to work with colleagues, so my door is open to them to take up that offer quickly, if they wish to do so. I hope that stage 2 can be a collaborative exercise and that we will work together to improve the bill. I accept that there is scope for improvement, although the bill is substantially sound.
I will start with organisational structures, which Rhoda Grant and many other members raised. The new structures will preserve the current distinction between the Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland. As Gail Ross pointed out, FCS will become a dedicated forestry division that will be responsible for grants, regulation, and support and development. Forest Enterprise Scotland, which is already an agency, will become forestry and land Scotland, which will be an executive agency of Scottish Ministers, and will be responsible primarily for management of Scotland’s national forest estate.
David Stewart and Rhoda Grant mentioned the importance of the staff, as did members in the Conservative ranks. They are absolutely right. One of my pleasures over the summer was to visit all the conservancies in Scotland with senior representatives of the forestry commission, including Scotland’s forestry commissioner Jo O’Hara, who is here listening to the debate. That allowed me to see at first hand just how dedicated the staff are, and how they regard it as not just a job but a calling. I hope that I was able to provide assurance on and clarification of what we all want from the bill, which is greater accountability and transparency and greater focus on forestry than has been possible while accountability has been so diffuse.
In response to Mr Stewart and Ms Grant, in particular, I am happy to confirm that the staff’s expertise will not be lost. The staff transfer to the Scottish Government will maintain the strong public sector role in forestry policy and delivery. We will minimise disruption to staff and we will help to ensure business continuity. I have had numerous lengthy meetings with trade union representatives, which have been extremely productive. The “Cabinet Office Statement of Practice: Staff transfers in the Public Sector”, which is known as COSOP, applies when staff are transferred between civil service departments. I mention it because it is important to stress how much we value the Forestry Commission and Forest Enterprise staff and the work that they do.
We need to increase the pace and scale of tree planting in order to meet our ambitious annual planting targets, towards which we are making good progress. In response to Mr Chapman—I am sorry, it might have been Mr Mountain—I say about the speed and protracted process to obtain permissions that we have addressed that by asking the former chief planner for Scotland, Jim Mackinnon, to look at the whole process because he is an expert in that area. He came up with 21 recommendations, which we have accepted and which will nearly all have been implemented by the end of this year. There has been substantial buy-in to the process that he set out. That progress has been welcomed. Stuart Goodall said:
“I am heartened to see pragmatic, workable proposals to ensure we finally achieve the tree planting rates necessary to deliver the sector’s full potential”.
In the past year, Scotland has been responsible for 70 per cent of new tree planting in the UK, so although it is fair to point out—as members have done—that we have not yet reached our target, I am confident that we will do so fairly soon. I know that because of the level of activity in nurseries, which have massively increased their stock with a view to achieving greater sales. Forestry is a long-term business in which people plan well ahead, and I know from my visits to Christie-Elite Nurseries Ltd and Alba Trees plc nurseries that they are planning for that future. We value their contribution thereanent.
Forest Enterprise Scotland is a very successful commercial organisation; in 2016, its income amounted to £85 million. As well as selling timber, it sells venison and receives a substantial income from renewable energy developments. The substantial income that it derives from the portfolio that it has built up enables it to supplement its commercial activities. [
Thank you for resuming order, Presiding Officer—not that I had done anything to provoke disorder, but there we are.
We will certainly consider the compulsory purchase powers at stage 2. I am considering carefully the comments that we have received from stakeholders and what members have said today. The point has been made by various members, including Angus MacDonald, that it is not necessary to use the power to prove that it is necessary—in other words, it is wrong to infer that, because the power has not been used since 1967, which is 50 years ago, it is not necessary. It is a backstop, so I caution that having a power of last resort can be valuable in bringing negotiations to a conclusion, even if the power is never used.
I am very sorry, but I do not think that I have time to do so. I would be happy to meet Mr Rumbles to have a lengthy discussion with him on the matter, if he so wishes.
I think that I should be fair and act on the basis of equal opportunities: in other words, I will not take any interventions. I am very sorry—it is not personal. However, I would be happy to meet Mr Mountain. I am taking on many challenging tasks, Presiding Officer.
The IT system was mentioned. I stress that it needs to be replaced anyway. We have confirmed that the cost of doing that will not exceed the upper estimate in the financial memorandum. I will, of course, update members as soon as further information is available. In addition, rebranding costs will be kept to a minimum. That is the approach that I am taking, and I am delighted to hear that it is one that members support.
Definitions have occupied quite a lot of time in the debate. I do not doubt that they are important, but I point out to members that the phrase “sustainable development” is generally well understood and widely used in legislation. In fact, it was no less a figure than the then Lord President, Lord Gill, who said in his judgment in the case of Pairc Crofters v the Scottish Ministers:
“In my view, the expression sustainable development is in common parlance in matters relating to the use and development of land. It is an expression that would be readily understood by the legislators, the Ministers and the Land Court.”
Therefore, the difficulties are perhaps not as acute as some members have suggested, but I am happy to undertake to give the matter further consideration.
Many references have been made to timber transport on rural roads—David Stewart referred to it—and by sea. As John Finnie mentioned, timber is taken by sea from a large number of places around the country, and that is a good thing. Rail freight, where there are opportunities for it, is an equally important matter to which we are paying close attention.
In conclusion, I say that David Stewart’s speech was excellent. In it, he set out the historic context of what we are doing. The Forestry Commission is 98 years old. Lord Lovat, who was from the Highlands, was its first chair. He was an extremely distinguished man in many ways, and is regarded as the father of the Forestry Commission. I know that because over the summer I read the history of the Forestry Commission in Scotland. That has just reminded that I had better give that book back to Jo O’Hara. She should remind me to give her her book back, because I have finished it.