19 January 2009

Labour has hit out at Environment Secretary Mike Russell for a series of evasive replies to parliamentary questions regarding the SNP government's proposals to lease a quarter of Scotland's forest estate over 75 years to private firms.
Sarah Boyack, Labour's Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, has written to the Minister calling for him to answer her concerns over the ill-thought plans.
Ms Boyack said:

"Mike Russell has dodged some serious questions about these proposals, such as which areas will be leased, how much would be raised and when income from the leases would be generated.  There are also no answers on what the size of blocks to be leased would be, although the Minister has stated that "there may be good arguments for a single lease" (S3W - 18404).

"It simply isn't good enough at this stage to send back the same standard reply to legitimate questions. What is clear is that there is no viable business plan in place, which is quite frankly astounding.

"It is becoming increasingly likely that the Minister has ploughed ahead with a consultation without giving much thought about the wider impacts that these proposals will have on the forest estate.

"If forests are leased out for the next seven or eight decades, it will be damaging for public access, wildlife projects and it will chip away at the achievements of the Forestry Commission to date.

"I don't believe the public want the government to sell off the family silver or for private firms to take over forests which Scottish Ministers hold in the public interest. There is a groundswell of opinion against these plans and hundreds of people have signed our online petition. It's time to drop these damaging plans and focus on positive alternatives."

A copy of Sarah Boyack's letter:
Dear Mike,

Consultation on Leasing Government Forests to the Private Sector

I have noted that you have said that a great deal of the comments on your proposals for leasing 25% of the Forestry Commission estate is "short-sighted, uninformed and I misleading".   I want to ensure that Labour comments do not fall into these categories so I would be grateful if you could answer some basic questions mainly about the financial information underpinning your proposals.   I would like to explore how your sums add up and it is impossible to examine your proposals in any depth as the consultation document is almost entirely lacking the information that is required.   Moreover, I and colleagues have asked a variety of parliamentary questions aimed at eliciting some basic information and have received almost universally an answer that we are in the middle of a consultation - with no substantive replies.

I note that the consultation document itself states that the extra planning arising from the investment of the income from leasing would increase new forest planning from 4,000 hectares a year to 10,000 and you have repeated that claim in speeches you made in December, I would like to understand the assumptions and calculations behind this statement.

Firstly what is your estimate of the amount that the private sector will be prepared to pay for the leases?  I have seen the figure of 200 million quoted.  Is that the figure you are using?  If not what is your estimates of leasing income of the amount that will be available each year to support increased planting grants?

Turning to these grants, what is the increase in the planning grants per hectare you have used to support your assessment of delivering 10,000 extra hectares of the new planting each year?  I am of course particularly interested in the grant levels for commercial softwood as these are likely to be the ones most used by commercial operators.

Also on grants, are you proposing that commercial companies operating the leases from the Commission should receive grants when they replant forest land after felling. If so can you tell me how much of the sum available each year from leasing income will be used for such replanting grants?  I would also be grateful if you could indicate how this sum will change over the leasing period in the light of the different maturity of the estate at different times.
The Forestry Commission has always said that some of the profits from its commercial forests is diverted to help fund those forests which fulfil other elements of its forestry remit e.g. nature conservation, education leisure etc.  Can you please tell me what has been the amount of commercial forestry income that has been diverted in the last few years for such purposes?  Presumably this flow of money will dry up after leasing and I want to know what your plans are for replacing the money to ensure that the Commission's work on nature conservation and access is not cut back.

Finally it is important that we are clear what forests we are talking about.  I would like your reply to include a list of those forests that comprise the 25% most commercial as defined by the Commission.  Could you let me know the names of the forests and their location?

In view of the importance of this issue I would appreciate an early reply to allow us to assess the robustness of your plans and come to considered conclusions.

Yours sincerely



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