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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 05 February 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Forestry Strategy 2019 to 2029, Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Point of Order, Decision Time, World Cancer Day 2019


Forestry Strategy 2019 to 2029

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Fergus Ewing on the publication of “Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-2029”. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement.


The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy (Fergus Ewing)

As the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, I have a clear ambition for forestry. I want Scotland to have more trees and woodlands. The passage of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Act 2018, with new powers and the full devolution of forestry, will help us to achieve that.

To fulfil one of the key statutory requirements of that act, I am pleased today to publish “Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-2029”. The strategy signals the start of a new era for forestry in Scotland. We are building on the success of more than 100 years of effective stewardship and growth in forestry and woodlands. The United Kingdom Forestry Act 1919 laid the foundations for the thriving Scottish forest and woodland sector that we enjoy today.

Forests and woodland now cover nearly 19 per cent of our land, and Scotland plants more trees than anywhere else in the UK does. However, we want to do more, and Scotland’s forestry strategy sets out our vision for the future.

By 2070, Scotland will have more forests and woodlands, which will be sustainably managed and better integrated with other land uses. They will provide a more resilient and adaptable resource, with greater natural capital value, which will support a strong economy, a thriving environment and healthy and flourishing communities.

We developed the strategy in close consultation with others. That consultation included a reference group that comprised representatives from the forestry, land use, environment and community sectors; a 10-week-long online consultation on a draft strategy that elicited more than 400 responses; and a programme of meetings across Scotland that involved more than 250 people from more than 120 organisations. I thank everyone who gave their time, expertise, views and knowledge to the process. I hope that members can see how those who were involved helped to influence Scotland’s forestry strategy, which will help us to deliver its objectives.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I note that growing trees is a long-term business. We aim to deliver our 50-year vision through a 10-year framework that seeks to do three key things: to increase the contribution of forests and woodlands to Scotland’s sustainable and inclusive economic growth; to improve the resilience of Scotland’s forests and woodlands and increase their contribution to a healthy and high-quality environment; and to increase the use of Scotland’s forest and woodland resources to enable more people to improve their health, wellbeing and life chances. To achieve those objectives, we have identified six priority areas for action, which provide the Government and all its agencies with a route map for identifying and resourcing activity.

To deliver our vision will require sectors, businesses, communities and professionals to continue to work together, therefore I am also announcing that we will establish a national group to advise on implementation. Our two new forestry agencies—Scottish Forestry, and Forestry and Land Scotland—will also focus on implementing the strategy, and we will develop a process for monitoring and reporting on progress, which will chart actions taken and their impact as well as measuring success.

Progress and success will, of course, require funding. The Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to providing support for tree planting and woodland maintenance and creation, but we have had no such clarity from the United Kingdom Government on future funding streams. We know that contracts that have been entered into by the end of 2020 will be honoured, so we encourage everyone who is planning to plant trees to apply for and agree grants now. However, beyond that, we need the UK Government to share our commitment to forestry and to agree in principle to provide the Scottish Government with the funds that it needs. I hope that the Parliament will support our efforts to achieve that.

Forestry is undoubtedly a hugely productive use of land. It contributes £1,000 million in gross value added to the economy; provides a home to 172 protected species; removes 12 million tonnes of CO2 a year from the atmosphere; supports approximately 25,000 jobs; and enriches the lives of the millions of Scots and visitors who live, work and play in Scotland’s woods and forests. However, let me be clear: future development must work in harmony with other land uses. One of the key points raised in the consultation was the need to ensure that success in forestry does not come at a cost to other land uses. We have therefore ensured that the core principle of integrated land management, as specified in the land use strategy, is embedded throughout, to ensure that forestry, farming, tourism, conservation, community and recreational interests work together to help get the best from our land.

That requires appropriate leadership from Government. In my time as cabinet secretary thus far, I have taken decisive action to reinvigorate this vital sector, which is now seeing a period of great investment and optimism. Planting rates are on the upturn: last year, we had the best year for productive planting in decades. Meanwhile, we are also supporting the delivery of more than 3,000 hectares of new native woodland, thereby meeting a key biodiversity commitment. I am committed to meeting our targets for new woodland creation and to ensuring that we continue to manage our 1.4 million hectares of existing forests sustainably. This critical, renewable resource needs to be managed so that it sustains and increases the substantial environmental, social and economic benefits that it already provides, and addresses the problems that may have been caused by poor planting in previous generations.

In summary, there is great dynamism in forestry in Scotland at the moment. If our forestry strategy is to succeed, planting trees and maintaining and investing in woodlands and forests must become a shared national endeavour. I look forward to continuing to work collaboratively across all sectors to realise our vision and achieve our ambitions, and to involving the Parliament. The 2018 act requires the Government to report back to Parliament on progress that has been made on implementing the national strategy. I look forward to doing so and to reporting on how Scotland’s forests and woodlands are increasing their contribution to the success of our country and its people.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. I refer members to my entry in the register of interests that relates to forestry.

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the publication of the Scottish Government’s new strategy. We broadly support its principles and ambitions and its focus on a sustainable forestry sector. We also welcome its long-term approach.

Given that the average lifetime of a commercial woodland is 30 to 40 years, it is surely right to set a 50-year timescale. We recognise the importance of the industry and note that, in 2017, planting in Scotland accounted for more than three quarters of all tree planting in the UK.

In relation to the cabinet secretary’s comments on UK Government funding, I note the UK Government’s commitment to protect the entire envelope of pillar 1 and pillar 2 funding until 2022, and suggest that he has the clarity that he claims he lacks. In any event, given that forestry is now fully devolved, that the Forestry Commission Scotland is wholly funded and that Forest Enterprise Scotland is partially funded by the Scottish Government, his own portfolio budget is plainly important.

I want to ask two questions. First, given the Government’s failure to meet planting targets in the past—for example, in 2017, when it failed to meet its 10,000 hectares of planting per year target—is the cabinet secretary confident that he can deliver 15,000 hectares per year from 2024-25?

Secondly, given the increasing tension that exists between agriculture and forestry, is he confident that, with the increased targets, expansion of the forestry sector can occur without detriment to the livestock farming sector in particular?

Fergus Ewing

I welcome the support of Mr Cameron and his party for the broad thrust of the strategy, and I hope that we can proceed on a cross-party and consensual basis.

Mr Cameron said that the UK Government has guaranteed the envelope of pillar 1 and pillar 2 funding until 2022, but I say to him—with due respect—that that is not the factual situation. The factual situation is that the assurance that has been provided by the UK Treasury in respect of pillar 2 funding for forestry applies to contracts that will have been entered into by 2020, but it does not extend to 2022. Indeed, that was the very request that I made when I met Mr Gove at the beginning of January. I pointed out that the fact that the assurance in relation to funding extends only to 2020 is impairing investment at the moment. As I understand it, my interpretation is shared by Confor, which wrote to Mr Gove. I would be happy to share the correspondence that I have seen thereanent.

I hope that, because Mr Cameron thinks that the funding is guaranteed until 2022, once he finds out that that is not the case, he will support my efforts to make sure that it is made the case without further delay. The current uncertainty is impairing investment right now, but it could easily be dispelled. Given that about half of the £40 million in grants from the Scottish Government comes from Europe, it is plain that if Brexit takes place, that European proportion of the funding will need to be replaced.

On our ambition, I am working hard to achieve our targets this year. Mr Cameron is right to say that we fell short last year. That was not good enough, which is why I am determined that we will do better. Through the various steps that we are taking—which I do not have time to enumerate, but which have been welcomed by the sector—I am determined that we will achieve our targets next year. I have made that very clear to my colleagues Jo O’Hara and Simon Hodgson, who is the new chief executive of FLS.

Mr Cameron also asked about the interrelationship between farming and forestry. He has a point—the issue is undoubtedly a concern to some farmers. Others, who have participated in agriforestry schemes—as more people are doing—take a different view. I am pleased to assure Mr Cameron that such matters are dealt with in the strategy on pages 23 and 41, inter alia. There is an emphasis on integrated land use, which is about planting the right tree in the right place at the right time. For example, it is not appropriate, by and large, that trees be planted on prime arable land. I am sure that that would be recognised by all.

The matter that Mr Cameron has raised is an important one. I am pleased that he has raised it and am happy to give him the assurances that he has sought.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for providing advance sight of his statement. There is nothing in it to disagree with, but there is very little detail on how it will be implemented. The document is an overview rather than a strategy; it is a strategy on how to form a strategy.

The Scottish Government has missed targets on planting and on biodiversity, but the strategy shows little leadership on how we could meet targets in the future. The only thing that is new is the national group on implementation of the strategy that is being set up. Could the cabinet secretary provide some more detail on that? What will the group’s remit be? Who will sit on it? Will it be permanent or transitional? How will it interact with Scottish Forestry and Forestry and Land Scotland? More important, who will turn the overview into a strategy that will make a lasting difference to forestry?

Fergus Ewing

I was heartened by the first sentence that Rhoda Grant uttered, so let us focus on the positive. In all seriousness, I say that the document is a strategy and not an action plan or a framework for action. The inner leaf of the forestry strategy sets out three objectives, which I have read out, and six priorities for action. Plainly, I have agreed that we will report to Parliament on progress that we make, as we are obliged to do under the 2018 act.

On the group whose formation I announced today, we will make an announcement in due course, but it will include all the relevant key voices in the forestry world. Its purpose will be to help to inform, shape and benefit the action plan.

I am delighted that we have made substantial progress in forestry in recent times. Last year, we had the largest amount of planting for some considerable time—decades, I believe—and I expect that we will surpass that next year. I am confident that, provided that we get from the UK Government a fair and reasonable settlement on funding, and provided that the doubt about funding beyond 2020 is dispelled as quickly as possible so that we can remove the question mark that is hanging over the industry, as it has argued is the case, I am confident in expecting that we will meet our targets in future years.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing an advance copy of his statement. I welcome the strategy document, particularly given that we need only get as far as page 2 to find a mention of increased native woodland cover, which is positive.

I want to ask about reinvesting in the forest sector money from disposal of public forests. There are several mentions of the contribution to sustainable economic growth, but that point is not specifically covered. There is an oblique reference on page 40, which states:

“Any funds received as a result of disposing of land will be used solely for the purpose of carrying out Scottish Ministers’ functions”.

Will the cabinet secretary give an indication of what that money will be used for?

Fergus Ewing

Again, I am grateful for the broad welcome for the strategy document from the Green Party, and I am pleased that the strategy specifically contains the targets to which John Finnie has alluded.

The strategy sets out a number of objectives and priorities that encapsulate a range of activities. The objective to plant trees and restock is perhaps the principal one, but alongside it we have activity relating to recreation, tourism, renewables, health and wellbeing and mental health, so it is reasonable to assume that the funding that is available to Forestry and Land Scotland and Scottish Forestry will be usable for all those purposes and not only for purchasing land. For example, it could be used for mental health programmes to build on the good work in that regard, or to expand the renewables potential of our estate.

Obviously, the funding must be used for the purposes of the bodies, as set out in statute and in the strategy, but I can certainly give a commitment that the money will not be siphoned off and used for other purposes elsewhere. We very much welcome the fact that we are able to focus on those other areas as well as on the core objective of forestry.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

The Liberal Democrats support the Scottish Government’s forestry strategy, which is the right way forward, and we wish the cabinet secretary well in implementing it.

On the wider issue of future financial support, will the cabinet secretary ensure that a forestry organisation is asked to take part in the new group that is being set up to advise him on the long-term future of financial support for the wider rural economy post-Brexit, because forestry is an important sector?

Fergus Ewing

Yes, I will.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

The strategy sets out a welcome 50-year vision and high-level objectives for the next 10 years. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done, particularly between now and 2070, when I will be 124 years old. How will the cabinet secretary monitor delivery of the plan and achievement of its objectives? In particular, I am thinking about the shortfall in softwood from 2030 to 2050, which is referred to on page 20 of the strategy document.

Fergus Ewing

I doubt that I will be around to listen to the excellent speeches that Mr Stevenson will make in his 124th year. That will be my loss, as must be apparent to everybody.

To be serious, though, I note that progress will be monitored in numerous ways. First, I already receive regular reports from the senior management of Forest Enterprise and the Forestry Commission, and that will continue to be the case.

Secondly, there is, as is set out in the 2018 act, a statutory duty to report back to Parliament that it is incumbent on the Government to fulfil. As a result, there will be continued democratic scrutiny.

As for the problem of the dip in total output that is expected in the 2030s, which Mr Stevenson also raised, that is a result of insufficient planting in the past, and will be rectified best by improving our planting rates and meeting our planting and environmental targets. That is precisely what we are setting out to do.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

First, I declare an interest in a farming partnership in which the land in question has an element of timber.

I did not think that I would be asking the same question as John Finnie, but I am delighted to do so. I want to push the cabinet secretary on the issue of acquisition and disposals, as set out on page 40 of the strategy. At the moment, we are disposing of more land than we are acquiring, with the money going on daily running costs. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that there is a level or percentage at which he will stop the sale of land? For example, will he stop the sales when we own only 60 per cent of what we have today? I should say that I broadly welcome the rest of the strategy.

Fergus Ewing

I hear what Mr Mountain has said, and I would be very interested to receive from him, preferably in writing, an analysis of the facts that lead him to reach the conclusions that he has voiced, because they are not as I would expect them to be.

We must allow the statutory bodies the freedom to act and go about their business with regard to disposals and purchases. Broadly speaking, the forest estate comprises 650,000 hectares, around 450,000 of which are made up of woodland. As a result, not all land owned in the forest estate is actually covered by trees.

Moreover, that land is used for various purposes such as recreation, and I would also point out that more than 40 community sales account for some of the sales in that respect. We do not expect to get that land back, because the whole point of such sales is to benefit communities. Land is made available for renewables, communities, recreation and many other purposes, and the strategy recognises that it is correct for us to do so.

I am very happy to come back to this issue, as I expect we will, and if Mr Mountain cares to go to the trouble of putting something in writing, setting out the facts on which he has based his conclusions, I will certainly look at it carefully and reply to him at that point.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement and welcome the publication of the strategy. What consideration has been given to Confor’s report, which recommends that a study be funded to assess the benefits of a strategic approach to significant new and continued investment in infrastructure and targeted funding for restocking and new planting in the north of Scotland?

Fergus Ewing

I welcome Confor’s suggestion, particularly because it is right that there should be a focus on the northernmost part of the mainland of Scotland, which is Gail Ross’s constituency. There is existing forestry in the area, but some of it is entrapped because of timber transport issues. I am very pleased that we have been able to provide very substantial support to address some of the pressures on timber transport and that that has been appreciated by the sector. It has allowed access to mature forests that would otherwise become windblown and, in some cases, potentially valueless.

The study will also recognise the potential for future planting and restocking in the north of Scotland and what will be required in that respect. I very much look forward to working with Confor and Gail Ross, who has championed this issue for her constituents, over the coming weeks and months.

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

During the progress of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill, there was constructive engagement with unions by Labour MSPs on the bill’s complexities. However, union engagement does not feature in the cabinet secretary’s statement or the strategy. How has the cabinet secretary engaged with the unions on the national reference group? How does he intend to involve unions in the national group to advise on the implementation of the forestry strategy and the further development of the land use strategy, which underpins the way forward?

Fergus Ewing

Claudia Beamish is correct that I made a point of engaging with the workforce representatives from the variety of unions that comprise the Forestry Commission trade unions. In fact, the member will be pleased to hear that I had a lengthy meeting with the trade union representatives just last week, at which we had a very useful discussion and I undertook to continue with that engagement.

My approach as a minister has always been to have sufficiently regular engagement with the trade unions to ensure that their concerns are properly heard by the Scottish Government. That is exactly what I shall continue to do and we shall give careful thought to what additional role the trade unions may be able to play. Generally speaking, my approach is that their participation is not a liability but an advantage.

The Presiding Officer

We have five more questioners and only two and a half minutes; I ask for succinct questions and answers, please.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

We have had evidence at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee that there was traditionally quite a solid line between farming on the one hand and forestry on the other. Does the cabinet secretary think that the two could be more combined? For example, hill sheep farmers would sometimes benefit from having some trees on their land.

Fergus Ewing

Yes, I do. There is a substantial role for agriforestry. I am not a farmer, but I understand that agriforestry includes, for example, the creation of shelter belts that can protect against the risk of hypothermia in cold weather for livestock, which is a very serious problem on some exposed land. Agriforestry can also provide flood management options and, on an economic level, a form of diversification for farms. There is therefore a lot of scope for more being able to be done in agriforestry. I am determined to see what opportunities there are to make that as swift and smooth as it can be.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement and the commitment to planting more trees and improving the sustainability of forestry in Scotland. As the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill went through the committee, I pushed for an amendment to place a duty on ministers to make arrangements for research into tree health and the promotion of cross-border sustainable forest management. Despite that amendment being agreed to, there is no reference in the strategy to what research will be done to ensure that our trees remain healthy, particularly in cross-border forests. What arrangements have been made regarding tree health research?

Fergus Ewing

As we undertook to do during the debates on the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill, we have dealt with and are on course to fulfil our obligations in respect of co-operating with other parts of the UK and their Governments on forestry and tackling disease.

I draw Mr Chapman’s attention to page 33 of the strategy, which deals with the importance of tackling all those matters. He is absolutely right to allude to their importance, because there are very many serious diseases that can have a significant impact on forestry and have done so in the past. That is why it is important that we have a clear, strategic overview of how we tackle those matters, which is precisely what we have.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

The excellent support that Forestry Commission Scotland staff have given as partners in the delivery of branching out courses in Forestry Commission woods—for example, at the Tyrebagger woods near Aberdeen—has highlighted the benefits of woodland spaces to people’s mental health.

How has the cabinet secretary ensured that the voice, views and experience of people working in forestry and woodlands, as well as the general public who benefit from access to forests and woodlands, have influenced the development of the strategy?

Fergus Ewing

We have sought to listen to those voices and Maureen Watt is quite correct to point to them. The point about wellbeing is covered on pages 26 and 35 of the strategy. The member refers to a particular course of branching out near Aberdeen. I agree that the branching out programme has been a successful and popular mental health programme. We have included the point about mental health in the strategy. It is an element of work that is relatively new for the Forestry Commission. I have spoken to some of the staff in the Perth office who will be rolling it out. They were really enthused about how recreation in the forest has been able to provide improvement and a sense of wellbeing for those who are suffering from mental health issues.

Branching out is an example of the new ways in which we can use our forest estate to good effect, and I would like to work with others to see what more we can do to build on that successful programme.

The Presiding Officer

I apologise to Colin Smyth and Richard Lyle, who have waited patiently to ask their questions. I am afraid that we have run out of time—we have gone more than two minutes over.

Edward Mountain

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The cabinet secretary said that, from his recollection, he was not clear that the Forestry Commission had sold more land than it had purchased. The Forestry Commission’s figures, which were published earlier, show that since 1999, purchases are at £79 million and disposals are at £147 million. It is clear that that is the position and I would not want the cabinet secretary to have misled the Parliament.

The Presiding Officer

That is a point of political debate, not a point of order. The point has been noted. However, information can be exchanged in other ways.