Rhoda's speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
7 November 2017
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.