Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill
The Bill passed through Stage 3 in Holyrood on 20 March with unanimous support from MSPs. However the critical amendment for the forestry sector, introduced by Claudia Beamish MSP, was carried by 63 votes to 61.
The Scottish Government (SG) proposal was that the Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) should become a new agency called Forestry and Land Scotland. Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) with responsibility for policy, regulation, grants and licenses would become a new SG division within the Environment and Forestry Directorate.
A delegation comprising Pat Hunter-Blair and myself for RSFS, Syd House for ICF, Charles Dundas for the Woodland Trust and Willie McGhee for the Forestry Policy Group met Fergus Ewing on 21 February to express our concerns and propose a solution. This group, together with Reforesting Scotland and Ramblers Scotland, believed that the proposal, as it stood, would have led to a gradual loss of professional forestry expertise within the Division. SG's intended increased new planting target from 10,000 to 15,000 hectares would require a commensurate staff expansion. New forestry graduates are already in short supply.
We also feared that, over time, senior positions in the Division would be filled by non-foresters and that eventually the Division could be merged with other divisions. SG was emphatic that this would not be the case stating, for example, that the Division would be called Scottish Forestry and headed by the Chief Forester. We were not convinced and I have asked Fergus Ewing in the strongest terms not to use the title of our well-respected Journal. Indeed I think the proposed use of our title is one example of how little his team know about our sector. We saw a loss of accountability to stakeholders as there would no longer be a National Committee for Scotland with non-executives bringing their different perspectives.
We proposed a single agency responsible for all the present Forestry Commission functions. SG was emphatic that this was impossible since the agency might not be able to carry forward funds from one accounting year to the next. This would apply if grant funding was increased to a point where less than 50% of the agency's income came from trading. In the end the critical Labour amendment called on ministers to establish "a single agency or two agencies". This was a pragmatic solution and, after receiving many letters, MSPs approved it.
Ministers now have till April 2019 to lay before parliament their detailed plans. I am delighted that RSFS was able to play a leading role in achieving this result and thank all those members who wrote to their MSPs.
James Hepburne Scott, RSFS President