Monday, 3 October 2016

Consultation on the future of forestry: my response

My house, in the middle of my, err, wood.
This is my response to the Scottish Government's current consultation on the future of forestry. It isn't terribly exciting, but it's here for the record. The consultation questions are in italics. It may be noted that some of my responses are somewhat tart.

1 Our proposals are for a dedicated Forestry Division in the Scottish Government (SG) and an Executive Agency to manage the NFE. Do you agree with this approach?

Yes

2 In bringing the functions of FCS formally into the SG, how best can we ensure that the benefits of greater integration are delivered within the wider SG structure?

While I understand the motivations for bringing an arms-length public body back into government and broadly agree with the approach, any benefits are for government. It won't really have any significant effect on forests, foresters, forest managers or the public at large.

What additional benefits should we be looking to achieve?

We should be seeking to achieve much greater local and community control of Scotland's forests.

The Forestry Commission was set up with two primary objectives: to provide a strategic timber resource, and to keep people on the land. It largely succeeded in the first, and wholly failed in the second; and I would argue that it failed primarily because of over-centralisation, taking all decision making power and planning away from communities, and consequently deskilling them.

3 How should we ensure that professional skills and knowledge of forestry are maintained within the proposed new forestry structures?

By keeping the central unit extremely small, and devolving as much capacity as possible to communities.

4 What do you think a future land agency for Scotland could and should manage and how might that best be achieved?

All land is local. There is no place for a central land agency, except as a co-ordinator of last resort. Land is a matter for community councils, not central government.

5 Do you agree with the priorities for cross-border co-operation set out above, i.e. forestry research and science, plant health and common codes such as UK Forestry Standard?

No

6 If no to question 5, what alternative priorities would you prefer? Why?

It is completely the wrong time to be talking about 'cross border arrangements', since we do not know what nation we will be in in five years time, let alone which trading blocks.

Of course tree diseases do not respect international frontiers and some degree of co-operation will be needed in future, but it would be completely wrong to predicate these arrangements on the continued existence of the UK, since that frankly isn't very likely.

7 Do you have views on the means by which cross-border arrangements might be delivered effectively to reflect Scottish needs?
For example: Memorandum of Understanding between countries? Scotland taking the lead on certain arrangements?

In the immediate future, when we do not know what future constitutional arrangements and treaty obligations will be, we should proceed on the basis that Scotland may or may not be in any of the UK, the EU, or the EEA. We don't know, and we can't pretend we know. So without behaving undiplomatically, we should not predicate arrangements on the assumption of any of these positions.

It would, obviously, be in the interests of Scottish forestry (as of all other aspects of Scottish life) to resolve this uncertainty sooner rather than later.

8 Should the Scottish Ministers be placed under a duty to promote forestry?

Yes

9 What specifically should be included in such a general duty?

Forestry is, in much of Scotland, not a very certain commercial investment, but has many non-commercial benefits, in the form of environmental improvements and amenity, carbon capture and storage, carbon-neutral domestic fuel, flood water control, wildlife habitat, and so on.

Forestry has particular importance in binding topsoil on steep hillsides, preventing erosion, and, gradually over time, improving soil fertility. And, as deforesting hill land has been a primary cause of catastrophic flooding in Scotland's towns and lowlands, it is reasonable to charge those who maintain deforested hill land with the cost of that flooding.

But forestry as a major land use cannot be considered in isolation from the more general issues of land reform. The land, in Scotland, is overwhelming in the hands of a tiny plutocratic elite. It cannot be justifiable to spend public money bribing the already very wealthy to mitigate the harm they cause to their poorer neighbours.

Consequently, public subsidy to forestry should be limited strictly to

  1. community owned land, or
  2. holdings of fewer than 100Ha.

10 Recognising the need to balance economic, environmental and social benefits of forestry, what are your views of the principles set out in chapter 3?

The principles set out in Chapter Three are apple pie; I doubt you will find any voices disagreeing with the thought that forestry should be promoted, nor that it should be sustainable, nor yet that the environmental, commercial and amenity interests should be 'reasonably' balanced.

The principal that governance of Scotland's forests should be repatriated to Scotland is in my view a good one, but as this will be an almost inevitable consequence of the chaos and catastrophe of Brexit it hardly needs comment.

In short it matters less what the principles are, and more how they are applied. But there is one principal that might well be added:

Forest policy should aim to promote community ownership and diversity of ownership of Scotland's forests.

11 Are there any likely impacts the proposals contained in this consultation may have on particular groups of people, with reference to the ‘protected characteristics’ listed in chapter 4? Please be as specific as possible.

There are many people in Scotland who are now landless, who wish to have access to land, and who are denied access to land by the pattern of land ownership. It would be wonderful if a consequence of the changes in this proposal were that it should make land available to such people. However, the thing which characterises these people is that they are rural and that they are poor, and neither of these things is a 'protected characteristic'.

12 Do you think that the proposals contained in this consultation are likely to increase or reduce the costs and burdens placed on any sector? Please be as specific as possible.

I see no reason why they should do either. The proposal is to replace one system of public administration with another, which will have broadly similar remit and competences.

13 Are there any likely impacts that the proposals contained in this consultation may have upon the privacy of individuals? Please be as specific as possible.

These proposals cannot be considered other than in the context of land reform, and, in particular, reform to land ownership documentation. It is essential that the beneficial ownership of Scotland's forests, as of Scotland's other land assets, should be on public record. This has an impact on the 'privacy' of Scotland's elites, and may be expected to be resisted vigorously by them. It is, ultimately, on its courage and its preparedness to stand up to elites in the public interest that this government will be judged.

14 Are there any likely impacts that the proposals contained in this consultation may have upon the environment? Please be as specific as possible

We may hope that repatriating the governance of Scotland's forests may result in better environmental management at the margins, but since this will be essentially the same officials administering broadly the same policy it is inconceivable that there will be significant impact.

15 Do you have any other comments that you would like to make, relevant to the subject of this consultation, that you have not covered in your answers to other questions?

Events march on. As I write, the date for the UK government to make its Article 50 declaration, and, in consequence, the likely date of the next independence referendum, has just been set. It is highly likely that this consultation will be overtaken by events.

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