29 January 2009

 

Speech by Sarah Boyack in Scottish Parliament debate on Forestry

 

 

The widespread and clearly expressed concerns that have been raised throughout the country about the Scottish National Party's proposal to lease substantial areas of the most commercially successful parts of Scotland's national forest urgently need to be brought before the Parliament.

The contracts will last for decades, deprive the Forestry Commission Scotland and 18 future Scottish Governments of the revenue from forest that was planted at public expense and, in the process, damage the Forestry Commission's ability to manage the strategic change that is needed in our forests.

We are not opposed to all the suggestions that the minister has made.

Indeed, the proposal to enable the Forestry Commission to enter into joint renewables ventures to plant more forests was in our manifesto and we strongly support it.

However, we are opposed to the main proposals on leasing, which are set out in the policy memorandum and financial memorandum to the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill.

They are ill thought out and lack a published business plan.

Moreover, the Government has given no substantive answers to a series of questions on fundamental aspects of the proposals.

It is unacceptable that ministers, who have had 22 months to work up proposals for the bill, have suggested the major leasing proposals at the 11th hour. As people in the industry have put it to us, they are a bolt from the blue.

The Rural Affairs and Environment Committee will be put in an unacceptable position because, in two weeks' time, it will be expected to consider the implications of those huge proposals in one brief meeting without having seen the full results of the hurried consultation, which was put together at the last minute.

The consultation closed on Tuesday and we waited until then so that people could pass us their

comments.

The Scottish Parliament information centre tells us that ministers will not see a full report of the consultation until the end of February and the responses will not be made available to everybody until March.

When we have asked questions, we have been told that we are scaremongering and being deeply misleading, but we have referred back to the initial consultation document, which gives no detailed information.

The minister keeps attempting to reassure people by saying that the leasing proposals are just ideas, but it is stated clearly in the financial memorandum to the bill that the Government intends to secure powers through the bill to make secondary legislation on the release of capital from the national forest estate through the letting of timber-cutting rights.

The memo is clear that it would be :

 

"a 75 year lease over about 100,000 hectares (or up to 25% of the national forest estate)"

but is extremely vague about the income: it could be an up-front payment or an income stream.

That is a pretty basic issue to pin down at the start.

Without guarantees, this is money up for grabs by a cash-strapped Government.

The proposals would mean the SNP borrowing from the future.

It would take at least two years for a lease even to be drawn up.

At a conservative estimate, the steady income stream to the Forestry Commission is £10 million to £15 million in today's money, so we are talking about a minimum loss of £750 million for a paltry income of maybe £200 million—if there are no plans to spend it.

The sums simply do not add up.

It is a bad deal for Scotland but a really good deal for one lucky private investor.

The proposals are a damaging diversion from the debates that we should be having on the other parts of the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill.

We are concerned about biodiversity, the promotion of access and the loss of jobs, particularly in fragile rural areas.

Understandably, forestry workers are deeply concerned about jobs, but they are also concerned about the integrity of the Forestry Commission and the sustainability of Scottish forestry for the years to come.

They are not reassured by the minister's comments about their jobs.

Many of them work in our most remote rural areas and they understand employment law and the financial imperatives of a single employer that would want to recoup the money that it has paid up front as fast as possible.

Industries that rely on the long-term contracts that the Forestry Commission manages are also deeply concerned.

They know that, even when wood prices drop, they have long-term contracts with the commission that deliver a steady stream of wood.

They believe that the proposals will cause irreparable damage and cost jobs.

The sawmill sector is made up of successful Scottish family businesses that want to expand but which worry about the implications of one big company coming in and vertically integrating the whole operation.

The processors are not the only ones who are worried. Climate change means that we need more wood for our sustainable construction industry, and the renewables industry needs more wood for local supply.

There is no point in developing local biomass plants if the wood pellets are imported while Scottish wood is exported abroad.

The Forestry Commission guarantees that that does not happen, but that guarantee would be lost under the proposals.

Environmental non-governmental organisations are also worried about the loss of biodiversity and the loss of the strategic management and experience that the Forestry Commission brings to our forests.

They would rather that the commission focused on other challenges, such as the stewardship of our peat bogs, which is vital if we are to tackle climate change.

Forestry expansion must be underpinned by a coherent land use strategy—we must put the right tree in the right place at the right time.

We have mountain biking facilities that simply would not have been developed without the Forestry Commission's long-term partnership, investment and expertise.

Multi-use forests are in the public interest and we must not damage that interest in the future.

The plans do not add up and are deeply unpopular.

The Forestry Commission trade unions' petition has already been signed by more than 3,000 people and the Labour Party's petition has attracted more than 800 responses.

People have expressed their views strongly. I will quote one comment from our website:

"As a lifelong member of the SNP, I am appalled and embarrassed by this proposal. If money is needed to fund an extra 10.000 hectares of new plantations, then it should come from the Carbon Emmission Reduction Target program (CERT) funded by the energy utilities who are the major CO2 polluters, and not from a flawed, irresponsible and uncosted adventure to privatise our greatest national sustainable asset, ie our land and all that grows on it."

Our motion asks for the plans to be dropped now.

They will be deeply damaging to jobs not only in future but now.

We are in a deeply difficult national financial situation and the last thing that the Government should do is make that worse.

Alternatives exist, so let us focus on them.

Let us sort out the rural development plan.

Less than £1 million out of the £14 million woodland challenge fund has been allocated so far this year; that is not good enough.

We should look at the new revenue streams from renewables and look at community participation.

The SNP Government must do the right thing: dump these unpopular, ill-thought-out, damaging proposals. Let us focus on the way forward.

I move,

That the Parliament notes widespread and clearly expressed public concern about the potential effects on biodiversity, access, employment and the ability of Forestry Commission Scotland to continue to carry out its functions effectively as a result of the Scottish Government's proposals to lease large tracts of the forestry estate to the private sector for decades into the future; notes that the Parliament is being asked by the Scottish Government to scrutinise a proposal that it has now said does "not necessarily represent the best or only option" to achieve its objectives; also notes that the Scottish Government has not set out what it believes would be the other or better options; further notes the lack of published detail or business plan and the inability of the Scottish Government to answer a series of questions on the full implications of its proposals at this time, and calls on the Scottish Government to reconsider its plans to proceed with the leasing proposal and end the uncertainty surrounding the proposals by dropping the provisions that would permit this from the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill.

 

 

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