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7 November 2017

S5M-08677 Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-08677, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on stage 1 of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill.

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15:11

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

The cabinet secretary took us back to the origins of the Forestry Commission in the 1919 bill, but I want to take us 400 years further back because, of course, the product of forestry is a strategic material. When James IV built the Great Michael, with its 10-foot-thick Scottish oak hull, that required that all the trees of Fife be cleared. Also, then, as now, we had to import wood from France and the Baltic states, and to use wood from forests across Scotland. Wood has been a strategic material for a long time. Indeed, when Henry VIII saw what James IV had done, he decided that he would build a boat that was even bigger than the Great Michael, and which, at 1,000 tons, was the biggest boat in the world. Flodden cut short the ambitions for use of the Great Michael, of course.

In 1919, we were responding to the strategic imperative to have wood for the trenches of the first world war, but it was clear that there was insufficient wood. Wood was recognised as an important strategic part of military operations.

However, as Peter Chapman reminded us, forestry is also of economic value. It might constitute but 1 per cent of our gross domestic product, but where that 1 per cent lies, it is very important to the communities that plant and sustain our forests, and to the sawmills that depend on predictable long-term access to wood. As it was in the 1500s, so it is in the 2000s.

Indeed, forestry is a very personal thing for many people. One of my late councillor colleagues—my good friend, Councillor Mitchell Burnett—who knew he was dying from a carcinoma, held on long enough to ensure that he got permission from Aberdeenshire Council for his grave to be on the edge of the forest that he was bequeathing to his daughter.

Forestry is the kind of long-term business whose interests we have to protect. The issue of sustainable forest management has come up several times already in the debate: it is important that what we do with land is sustainable. The debate around the meaning of “sustainable” is such that it will mean slightly different things in slightly different contexts. That is why it is proper that the meaning is not defined in the bill but is expressed clearly and unambiguously elsewhere so that we can discuss and challenge it.

The committee divided on the matter of compulsory purchase. Indeed, it is worth reminding members that the committees of this Parliament are rather freer from the strictures of the whip system than other parts of our operation perhaps are. When committees are working well, they seek to look objectively at the evidence that is before them so that individual committee members can come to their conclusions. The committee’s Scottish National Party group, because it is not a group, divided such that two were on one side of the argument and two were on the other side.

Edward Mountain: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I will, in a minute.

Fulton MacGregor and I joined Rhoda Grant and John Finnie in suggesting that extension of the compulsory purchase orders, which might never be used, would take people to decisions a bit faster. Mr Mountain might have come to a different view.

Edward Mountain: No—this is not a political point, but just a point. I think that there might be a member of the committee within the SNP group that Mr Stevenson has ignored. I think that there are five people in his group, not four. However, as Mr Stevenson was at the meeting concerned, I am sure that he will be able to comment on that, on reflection.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: It is unlike Stewart Stevenson to make a factual error.

Stewart Stevenson: No, Presiding Officer—I am constantly told by colleagues and even by friends that I am a larger-than-life character, so I count as one and a half and thus, when I add Fulton MacGregor to me, that is two and a half out of five. I jest. Edward Mountain, our ever-diligent convener, is of course correct. As a mere mathematician, I am arithmetically challenged by his intervention, which I accept because it is entirely correct.

I welcome the attention to the definition of “felling” in the bill, because it is important that we get that right. It is worth reminding ourselves that nature fells woods, as well. Where my wife and I have stayed for the past 14 years, we are surrounded on three sides by about 40 hectares of forest that appears to have been all but abandoned, and nature is busily felling what appears to me to be a mature forest. It is important that some aspects of that are addressed as we progress the bill.

I was delighted to hear the cabinet secretary referring to Abriachan, of which I have fond memories. I visited there when I was about three or four years old, as we went up in an old American ex-army jeep to Claude McLennan’s croft at the top of Abriachan, which at that time was a very primitive place indeed. The community there having the opportunity to take some control of its own destiny will be a way in which Abriachan will have fundamentally changed since I visited it in—I think—the late 1940s.

The important thing in the bill that I welcome, but which others have mixed views on, is what is essentially the separation between policy and operation. That will lead us to a clearer way in which to take matters forward.

It was my delight previously to be the minister who was responsible for the Forestry Commission Scotland and, in particular, to see the highly automated sawmill at Nairn, in the cabinet secretary’s constituency, which illustrates how the forestry industry is a high-tech industry of economic and environmental importance to Scotland. I support what is proposed in the bill.

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