08 February 2012

S4M-01532 Special Areas of Conservation (Designation)

Meeting of the Parliament 08 February 2012
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The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-01532, in the name of Jamie McGrigor, on the designation of special areas of conservation. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with alarm concerns expressed by local communities in the Western Isles regarding procedures and scientific data used by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) for designating special areas of conservation (SAC) in East Mingulay and the Sound of Barra; notes that the concerns were assessed by SNH, which, in the case of the East Mingulay consultation process, deemed them to be unfounded, and notes that the designation process is continuing for both sites, despite continuing local concerns and what it understands to be government-sponsored evidence of substantial economic damage and little quantifiable benefit as a result of SAC status.

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The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): I will start by acknowledging some important points. There is absolutely nothing unreasonable about people in Barra—Homo sapiens—seeking to protect their economic and environmental interests. In that regard, I acknowledge the substantial contribution to informing the debate that the local MSP, Dr Alasdair Allan, has made. Barra residents Angus Brendan McNeil and Donald Manford have also been in touch with me, as have others.

That leads me to an issue that may perplex some people. I assure members that SNH provides advice but, as Claire Baker correctly said, the minister decides. I do not necessarily have the free hand that some people might wish me to have, but I have the power to protect local interests. For the avoidance of doubt, I shall exercise that power in the following way.

If—for the avoidance of doubt, I said “if”—I designate the Sound of Barra, my objective is to do so when three conditions are fulfilled. First, I will invite local interests to participate in the development of a management plan that has the objective of protecting those interests. In particular, it should maintain a sustainable scallop fishery, the existence of which has, over many years, influenced the local environment such that it is optimised for that activity. The second condition is that any such management plan provides a continuing role for local interests in management of the area. Thirdly and necessarily, any package of proposals has to conform to European Commission rules.

Members might ask what I mean by “local interests”. I recognise that that term must include local fishing interests, local fish processing interests and local environmental and community interests.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con): I spoke in the debate on the issue that took place 10 years ago. Does the minister accept that the problem remains the same? Plus ça change. It is not that anyone doubts that there is a need for a designation; the issue is the manner in which the process is gone about. That is what needs to be addressed, and the Government agencies need to be held to account by ministers in that regard.

Stewart Stevenson: I will say more on that, because I do not reject the point that is being made.

I am asking my officials to bring forward proposals that address the issue of management, so it is vital that local fishing interests engage in the process that I have just described.

In the limited time that is available to me, I would like to respond to a few of the points that members have made. Jamie McGrigor mentioned the Halcrow report. It is worth saying that the value of identifying potential impacts is that it informs the decision of this Government and this minister and enables me to be aware of the need to safeguard vital services, and to ensure that there is a thriving local economy.

It is worth saying that there are some things in the consultation that might be of interest. The Sound of Barra is referred to on page 14 of the consultation, which shows that the significant impact of the Eriskay causeway has not been reflected in damage to the environment in relation to things such as reef. I had not heard about the issue for creel fishermen in Strangford Lough—I will follow that up after the debate—although I have examples of places in Scotland where we do not appear to have such problems.

Alasdair Allan said that we have to work on the basis of scientific rather than economic issues. Tavish Scott said that economic issues can be part of the decision-making process, but they cannot form part of the scientific advice. However, I can, of course, consider economic issues, and members can be assured that I will so do. I smiled at the mention of Marine Scotland simply because it is my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment who looks after that organisation rather than me. Ministers are responsible, and that is absolutely correct.

It is some time before I expect to receive the report. When I do, I will consider it.

I want to address the point that John Scott and others have made. I fully accept that relations between SNH and local people have broken down. I cannot allow that situation to endure, but I recognise that it will not be possible to fix it quickly. Rebuilding trust will extend well beyond the resolution of the issue that is currently before us. Part of that process will involve my officials being party to more of the discussions. However, it is necessary to avoid an extended period of reflection on what has been. We must focus on what happens next.

One issue that has exercised the Barraich has been the limitation—which derives from EU law and court judgments, not from SNH’s preferences—that, when considering possible SAC designations, only environmental issues can be considered. That has caused huge angst—even at a substantial distance, I have felt the intense frustration that it has caused for those who are concerned, quite properly, about economic impacts.

The good news is that, in considering the management of SACs, the Government’s view is that we should take account of economic factors. The law permits that. Indeed, in certain cases, an adverse environmental impact may be contemplated when there are “Imperative Reasons of Overriding Public Interest”—that is a quote from the relevant directive.

Jamie McGrigor: Will the minister take on board the fact that windows of economic opportunity are not an overburdening factor in the Western Isles? Windows of economic opportunity must be grabbed, not thrown away.

Stewart Stevenson: I wish that we all had four hands to grab them with. In the relatively brief meeting that I was able to have with the people from Barra who are with us tonight, I committed to have further engagement on economic issues, so I am on song with the member’s point.

I take the opportunity to thank those who have travelled here, at no minor expense, to listen to the debate and to meet me. I trust that they feel that, although there is a distance to travel on the issue, the minister has been listening to the MSP for the Western Isles, to this debate and to people beyond. I ask the people from Barra, when they go back there, to highlight that the minister has visited Barra many times over a 30-year period. I absolutely understand, and I am committed to ensuring the economic viability of the island both now and in the future. We need to work together—in the Parliament, but more fundamentally with local people on Barra—to deliver on that commitment, and we need to rebuild trust.

Meeting closed at 17:45

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