Andy Wightman: Forestry Bill an opportunity to move away from corporate forestry
THE FORESTRY BILL could move Scotland away from being a “resource colony for distant corporate, industrial and financial interests” towards a more shared model of ownership, according to Scottish Greens spokesperson Andy Wightman.
The Holyrood Parliament debated the future of the forestry – which covers 18 per cent of Scotland – and plans to modernise government policy following the full devolution of the issue.
Campaign groups have called for the planned Forestry Bill to be far more radical in countering the concentration of ownership in forests, and to provide a greater public and community stake in how the national forestry estate is run.
The Forestry Policy Group, commenting on the debate, said it demonstrated “an interesting split amongst MSPs: those who want more of the same for forestry; & those who want to reshape it.”
At the vanguard of calling for a change in forestry policy was Andy Wightman – the life-long land reform activist and author – who began his speech by noting he had been blacklisted within the corporate forestry sector due to his campaigning efforts.
He told the chamber: “Our amendment calls for two elements of a more ambitious approach to the future of forestry in Scotland. The first relates to the ownership of Scotland’s expanding forest cover, which is dominated by those who live far away from the land that they own, often in offshore tax havens, and whose motivations are often limited solely to the financial and tax advantages that are associated with ownership.
“In Scotland, more than 44 per cent of forest holdings are of over 100 hectares. Sweden has the next highest level, at 10 per cent, and the European average is 0.7 per cent.
“The majority of Scotland’s private forest area is owned by absentee owners, a third of whom live outside Scotland. Across Europe, by contrast, forestry is owned by co-operatives, communities and municipalities. In countries such as Sweden and Finland, companies such as Södra and Metsäliitto Co-operative own extensive forest, which is managed on behalf of their members.”
Scotland hosts almost half of the entirety of UK forestry – including 965,000 hectares of private planting, and 640,000 hectares in the Forestry Commission estate owned by Scottish Ministers.
Currently the government plans only minimal restructuring of the large forestry estate, which is the largest single part of the government’s landholdings.
The 2016 bill consultation – which concluded in November – focused on “new organisational arrangements”, “effective cross-border arrangements”, and “legislation and regulation” surrounding the replacement of the 1967 Forestry Act.
Wightman argued the bill should go far further: “A new forestry act should allow a much wider range of bodies, such as community groups, environmental charities, co-operatives and local councils, to be appointed by Scottish ministers to manage parts of the national forest estate, which would remove the monopoly that the Forestry Commission enjoys.”
Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity Fergus Ewing MSP focused on the administration and economic status of forestry as an industry
“Is Scotland simply a resource colony for distant corporate, industrial and financial interests, or is it a country that is to be developed for the benefit of the communities that live and work in rural Scotland?”, he asked.
Land reform was a key proposal in First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s first programme for government. A land reform bill passed into law – but it had a rocky ride including seeing its proposals voted down by SNP members for not going far enough.
Protests also demanded a full ban on the 750,000 acres of Scotland registered in tax havens – including forestry land.
Commenting during the debate, Labour MSP Rhona Grant hoped there would be a move away from tree planting for tax avoidance reasons.
“I agree that the blanket planting of Sitka spruce throughout Scotland was one of the worst things that happened,” she said. “It was done mostly for tax breaks, so I am glad that the cabinet secretary has acknowledged that and given a commitment that it will not happen in the future.”
Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity Fergus Ewing MSP focused on the administration and economic status of forestry as an industry, and the new bill’s role in modernising that administration.
“To meet our tree-planting ambitions, we must keep skilled professionals working across all sectors. We need more young people to take up careers and opportunities in forestry and to join the many forestry apprentices who are now working in the sector,” he said.
Ewing accepted the Labour and Conservative amendments to the motion – but rejected Wightman’s proposals for being “too prescriptive”.
He did, however, note that forestry does serve a social purpose for issues like “urban regeneration, renewable energy, affordable housing, leisure, recreation, mountain biking and opportunities for community businesses.”
“As the Greens do, the Government wants to see ownership increasingly devolved to communities,” he noted.
“Today, I can advise that Forest Enterprise Scotland is developing a new community asset transfer scheme—a digital resource to provide more information and support to communities that are seeking to buy or lease parts of the national forest estate.”
Tory spokesperson Peter Chapman, whose party have historically opposed land reform, said: “I am convinced that there are large swathes of land in Scotland where sheep have already gone off the hill. Those areas have not been planted and are basically abandoned.”
MSPs and campaigners await the full government response to the forestry bill consultation before the publication of a draft Forestry Bill.
Picture courtesy of Parliament TV
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