Seminar discusses full devolution of forestry to Scotland

3 November 2016

The £1 billion forestry and timber industry is hugely important to Scotland’s rural economy - and modernising and simplifying its governance can make it even more successful, Fergus Ewing told a seminar in Edinburgh.

Mr Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, outlined plans to complete the full devolution of forestry to Scotland with new legislation to replace the Forestry Act 1967 being put forward in June 2017.

The proposals include bringing the functions of Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) into a new Forestry Division of the Scottish Government - and the creation of Forestry and Land Scotland, replacing Forest Enterprise (FE), which currently manages the National Forest Estate of about 640,000 hectares. There will be continued cross-border cooperation with the UK Government over issues like plant health and disease and common codes and forestry standards.

The event, The Future of Forestry in Scotland, was organised by The Scotsman Conferences, in association with Confor, and sponsored by legal firm Turcan Connell. It was held to highlight the consultation on the new legislation, which ends next Wednesday [November 9th].

Fergus Ewing said the changes were about delivering a “fully accountable” forestry service. Adam Gillingham, a partner at Turcan Connell, said a large number of pieces of legislation had an impact on forestry and added: “We are in a somewhat confusing and arguably out of date situation whereby the National Forest Estate is funded by the Scottish Government and managed by Forestry Commission Scotland.” Mr Ewing said there would be a “resolute” focus on forestry, with the potential to examine other landholdings in future “if the Scottish Parliament so wished” - and that Scotland would not go down the 'one body' route of Wales, where forestry expertise and focus is seen to have lessened under Natural Resources Wales.

“Forestry and wood processing makes an enormous contribution to rural Scotland, supporting 25,000 jobs. There is a hint of Cinderella in the way it is perceived, but it is really important and we are committed to realising its potential,” he said.

Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor, welcomed Mr Ewing's challenge to outdated perceptions of forestry, using infographics to show the growth in economic impact and job numbers in the industry since 2008 - a period during which many other industries have declined.

As well as supporting economic growth and employment, forestry was crucial in the effort to meet climate change targets and building more homes, Mr Ewing stressed. “Wood should take on the mighty brick and increase its use in construction," he said. 

Meeting tree planting targets of 10,000 hectares a year was vital to future success, the Cabinet Secretary insisted: “We have a lot of work to do and will not achieve the targets overnight, but we can do it by working as a team. We need to do it because there is a big gap [in timber supply] emerging and we need to ensure we keep investment coming in.” Stuart Goodall said the future looked much more hopeful thanks to Mr Ewing’s commitment to meet planting targets and said “roller-coaster planting" in the past made it very hard for businesses to plan ahead. This led to one tree nursery burning two million young trees earlier this year because there was no market for them.

Mr Ewing said it was also important to tackle perceptions by highlighting not only forestry and timber’s £1 billion economic contribution, but the fact it is now an “incredibly sophisticated” and technologically advanced sector which should be attractive to new entrants. Mr Goodall said the majority of employees in forestry businesses came from the local area and would continue to do so - but seasonal work like planting needed some itinerant labour and it was important this would be available after Brexit.

Mr Goodall said Brexit presented an opportunity to look more widely at land use after the focus on farming subsidy under the Common Agricultural Policy: “My personal plea is not just to move current structures around but to look at all land uses equally with a view to making our rural areas successful. Forestry needs to be part of much wider policy thinking and we need to engage communities much more. Local authorities can invest in forestry and get a good return and provide local community benefits at the same time. Without forestry, Scotland will not hit its greenhouse gas reduction targets.”

The full devolution of forestry was "a journey we need to travel on together", said Mr Ewing, adding: “I’m hoping we can have maximum consensus and not too much politics involved. We want to take people with us.”

Mr Ewing said there was an important role for communities to play, with Jonny Hughes, Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, saying there were real opportunities to create 'bottom-up' jobs at local level. Mr Hughes said he understood the economic benefits of proposed new legislation, but called for a stronger focus on the environmental and social benefits.

Liz Barron-Majerik of the Scottish School of Forestry at Inverness College UHI said Brexit and the Enterprise & Skills Review provided major challenges for the sector - and that it had to “make particularly clear how important it is in economic terms” to ensure it did not lose out.