Forestry devolved to Scots Parliament, at ‘arms length’

Forestry in Scotland is to be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament for the first time after MSPs backed the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill.

However, opposition MSPs successfully changed the bill to mean the £1 billion industry and its 25,000 jobs will be overseen by two “arms-length” agencies rather than a government department.

The Scottish Government will create two new agencies and intends to retain the expertise and skills of existing Forestry Commission staff in the new arrangements.

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said: “I am extremely proud to have been the Cabinet Secretary to lead this landmark legislation – the first ever bill on forestry in the devolved era – and crucially, the legislation fully devolves forestry to Scotland.

“It is disappointing that we will now not be able to forge ahead with our planned arrangements but I will absolutely respect and deliver the will of Parliament.

“In working out how to deliver what Parliament wants, I will do all I can to provide as much pace, clarity and certainty to ensure that the staff working currently in Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland can move swiftly and seamlessly to the new administrative arrangements.

“They are key to the future of forestry –our ambitions will not be delivered without their skills and expertise and I want them to feel valued and respected in the process ahead.

“The Act will give Scotland the modern framework needed to support more tree planting, sustain existing woodlands and create new ones, while also maintaining our forests.

“We have a sector worth £1 billion to our economy, supporting over 25,000 jobs, and providing huge social and recreational opportunities for all our population.

“Our forests, woodlands and trees form a key part of our countryside – they are natural assets I am determined to nurture and grow for current and future generations.

“The bill introduces new statutory requirements to promote sustainable forest management and to produce a forestry strategy, as well as putting in place the foundations of a modern, flexible and more effective regulatory regime for felling.”

The Labour Party’s Colin Smyth said it had been “vital” to change the Bill to “address the concerns of key stakeholders who fear that taking powers currently with the Forestry Commission and passing them to a government department was simply more centralisation.”

Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Rumbles said: “Opposition parties have united today to curb the power ambitions of SNP ministers.

“In doing so they have offered welcome protections to a strong and effective forestry agency.”

The removal from the Bill of a compulsory purchase power to “further sustainable development” was welcomed by Scottish Land & Estates.

“Following an amendment by Conservative MSP Edward Mountain — supported by all opposition parties — the substantial widening of compulsory purchase powers was rejected by MSPs,” said Scottish Land & Estates.

“Compulsory purchase powers existed in previous legislation which would allow the Forestry Commission to purchase land for the purpose of sustainable forest management.

“Despite this power never having been used, the Scottish Government wanted to keep the existing mechanism and also widen it substantially to include the power of purchase for land to further sustainable development.

“This widening of CPOs was voted down by MSPs.”

Sarah-Jane Laing, Executive Director of Scottish Land & Estates, said: “We have been consistently opposed to the inclusion of such a wide-ranging CPO power in the legislation, not least bearing in mind the fact that the existing powers have never knowingly been used.

“Whilst the Scottish Government said that the power would be rarely used, we believe insufficient justification was provided as to why this power was needed in the first place.

“We believe that there was also a significant difference between the power which the Scottish Government perceived as being in the Bill and the power which was actually conferred by the wording of the legislation.”

Scottish Land & Estates said it was also pleased to see amendments from Green MSP Andy Wightman leading to the publication of information on ownership and management of forestry passed by the parliament.

Laing added: “We were also pleased to see Andy Wightman’s amendment passed to increase transparency around the ownership and management of forestry.

“This is firmly in keeping with our own objectives expressed in our Landowners’ Commitment and as we move towards increased openness through the completion of the Land Register, it is only correct that other legislation that deals with land management, such as this forestry bill, addresses these same principles.”