29 January 2009


Speech by Elaine Murray in the Scottish Parliament debate on Forestry

That was an excellent example of defence by attack.

Yet again, those of us who raised legitimate concerns about the proposals have been accused of scaremongering by the minister and his colleagues.

Indeed, in answer to oral questions last week, the minister stated that our behaviour had been "disgraceful".

Unfortunately for the minister—Jim Hume alluded to this—a diverse range of individuals, local and national organisations oppose the proposals.

Trade unions, the UK Forest Products Association, Scottish Environment LINK, RSPB Scotland, NFU Scotland, the Scottish Tourism Forum, the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, the organisers of the Merrick car rally in Galloway, Dumfries and Galloway Chamber of Commerce and Tory-controlled Dumfries and Galloway Council are just some of those who have expressed concerns.

Are those organisations scaremongering?

Are they behaving disgracefully?

As Sarah Boyack described, the forestry trade unions are not convinced by the minister's so-called triple guarantee.

Forestry workers who do not wish to be transferred to the private investor's employment have been told that the Government will "make every effort" to find them another post in the Forestry Commission.

However, many forestry workers live and work in remote locations with few employment prospects and it might not be easy to find alternative employment in the same locality.

My colleague Rhoda Grant illustrated the consequences for remote and rural communities of the loss of those jobs.

Workers who transfer will do so under the TUPE regulations, but TUPE is in force for only three years after transfer and so will not protect them from the potential that they will be made redundant after transfer has happened.

What about the effect on the Forestry Commission's income?

Dumfries and Galloway Chamber of Commerce—hardly a Labour-controlled organisation—has calculated that implementation of the proposals could reduce the commission's income by £10 million a year.

Other calculations have put up that loss to £17 million a year.

Over 75 years, £0.75 billion that could have been spent on forestry will have been lost to the Forestry Commission.

Dave Stewart described to us the reasons why even the £200 million that the Government thinks it might get will probably not be realised.

Dumfries and Galloway Chamber of Commerce asks, what are the consequences of the loss of that income for the management and planning of forests?

What are the consequences for mountain biking, car rallies, sled-dog competitions and a range of other activities? Those are not my fears, but those of the Dumfries and Galloway Chamber of Commerce.

What are the consequences for all the activities that have been developed so successfully in the Ae and Galloway forests?

The world mountain biking championships are coming to Dumfries and Galloway this year because of that success—what are the consequences of the loss of that income?

Although the biodiversity duty under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 would apply to land in the public forest estate that is leased to private interests, private investors will not have the same motivation to encourage and cherish biodiversity as the Forestry Commission, which is directly accountable to Scottish ministers.

NFU Scotland and Scottish Environment LINK are both also seriously concerned that private investors would be eligible for grant payments under the Scottish rural development programme.

That is because a large company might have expertise that would make it more likely to get those difficult grants.

The lease of 25 per cent of the forestry estate is proposed—the most productive and commercial part of the estate.

It is estimated that around 50 per cent of production on Forestry Commission land could be controlled by the private investor.

Forestry science is complex and I would not like decisions to be made without the science being properly considered.

I understand that around half of the carbon that is sequestered by trees is in the root system and therefore remains in the soil after the timber has been harvested.

Early disruption of the soil can cause the carbon to be released back into the atmosphere.

The Scottish Woodland Trust has therefore raised concerns about the rapid cycle of replanting.

The private investor, keen to maximise the profits obtained from the land that it has leased, is more likely to replant areas shortly after harvesting, disturbing the root systems of the harvested trees and releasing carbon into the atmosphere, therefore acting in opposition to the purpose of the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill.

A large company would be at an advantage compared to small organisations.

The Scottish rural development programme is very difficult to access.

The UK Forestry Products Association is concerned that small local Scottish businesses such as sawmills could be under threat if the proposals are implemented. Robin Harper explained extremely eloquently the problems in Sweden, which we cannot guarantee would not arise here.

We are concerned about the future of our sawmills.

Would a private investor be able to guarantee the stream of product in the way that the Forestry Commission has done?

There have been no assurances that anything other than the existing contracts of up to five years will be honoured.

The Minister for Environment has stated that he is entirely open to other ideas, so I will conclude by giving him some other ideas, not just for forestry but for carbon sequestration, which is important in relation to climate change.

The Government could first consider protecting and, where necessary, reinstating organic matter-rich soils, such as peat land and blanket bog, which can sequester and store carbon.

Secondly, it could encourage the use of wood for fuel and construction and—thirdly—the use of local timber wherever possible in order to minimise carbon emissions from transport.

Fourthly, it could extend crop rotations to maximise carbon storage and promote the use of high-quality hardwoods,

Fifthly, the SRDP could be reformed to maximise support for planting woodlands, timber production and natural flood prevention schemes, which are the sort of things that we talked about last week during our discussion of the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Bill.

My sixth suggestion—in which I agree totally with John Scott—is that the Government could consider developing a comprehensive land-use policy that maximises the potential of the land to tackle climate change and its effects.

That would best be achieved if Scottish ministers retained direct control of the forest estate.

My seventh suggestion echoes what Sarah Boyack said. It is unfortunate that various members seemed to be deaf to what she said this morning.

We could gain income from renewables through joint ventures.

We welcome joint ventures and the possibility of not only increasing the amount of renewable energy but increasing the income to the forest estate.

Those are seven suggestions for the minister.

He should not say that we, or others, have not offered any suggestions, because we have offered seven alternatives.

It is not necessary to lease out the forest

The idea has been around for a long time and it has been rejected repeatedly, even by the Conservatives—even by Margaret Thatcher and Sir Michael Forsyth.

It has also been rejected by Labour politicians—it was rejected by some of my colleagues when it came over their desks.

I ask the ministers to please reject it again.

Let us go forward together with other suggestions for how to combat climate change.


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