Political parties outlined their ambitions for Scottish forestry at an online hustings held at the start of the campaign period.

POLITICIANS from all the main parties were united in their support of forestry at a pre-election online hustings event ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections.

Organised by Confor, the event gave each speaker the opportunity to outline their party’s forestry and wood priorities for Scotland, and was followed by a Q&A session.

David Lee chaired the panel, welcoming viewers by commenting: “The forestry and wood processing industry in Scotland is in a very healthy state. Scotland is planting around 80 per cent of all the new woodland in the UK and there are positive signs that the latest target of 12,000 hectares in the year to the end of March will be met. Scotland is also the only part of the UK to have set clear targets for wood use in construction, with the aim of increasing the amount used from around 2.5 million cubic metres now to 3 million by 2031–2.

“The title of Confor’s manifesto for the election highlights this positive position. It is called ‘Building a Greener Future’, reflecting the vital importance of tree planting and wood use in Scotland’s environmental as well as its economic future. The manifesto calls for momentum on planting and wood use to be maintained, as well as ensuring the growing industry is supported by investment in skills, timber transport and innovation.”

Arranged in alphabetical order, each panellist spoke for around three minutes about their policy priorities for forestry and wood.

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Catriona Bhatia, Scottish Liberal Democrats spokesperson on rural economy and tourism, said: “There is no good reason why Scotland and the whole of the UK cannot be world leaders in reforestation and native planting. We want to support  a major expansion of Scotland’s woodlands while simultaneously increasing reliance on sustainable materials by forcing a radical shift away from disposable plastics.”

She said the Scottish Lib Dems supported the increased use of timber in housebuilding, working with planning and building control, and backed the Confor manifesto call for a forestry and timber innovation hub to commercialise low-carbon, wood-based products to add economic value. She added that it was important for careers in forestry to be promoted and available to all Scotland’s young people, not only those in rural areas.

Speaking for the SNP, Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism from 2016 to 2021, said the forestry and wood sector had seen an “increase in self-worth and importance” in Scotland. Cross-party support had been vital in the success of the industry, as had the strong and mutually beneficial relationship between Confor and the Scottish Government, he said.

Mr Ewing highlighted new support for those looking to plant smaller woodlands and continued investment in timber transport, including the Rannoch rail project, which he said would take 50,000 tonnes of timber off the roads every year for the next decade. 

“There are lots of positives, but we need to be more ambitious,” he said. “The way ahead is more plantings – a mixture of productive and native species, while remembering the need for security of supply for the industry, and upskilling – particularly on the contracting and operational skills side.” 

He also stressed that a change in building regulations was needed to remove inbuilt barriers to timber use. He added he was pleased there was so much cross-party support for forestry, “because political stooshies rarely achieve anything”.

Rhoda Grant, Rural Economy and Tourism spokesperson for Scottish Labour, said forestry and wood processing provided “well-paid permanent jobs which are few and far between in rural communities”. She said: “Woodland is a very cost-effective way of increasing carbon sequestration and will help us reach climate change targets. We also need to look at the use of wood in construction to lock that carbon away for the longer-term.”

Jamie Halcro Johnston, Scottish Conservative Rural Economy and Tourism spokesperson, said: “I share a very optimistic view of the forestry sector. Forestry is a key part of any future rural strategy and it is clear that a vision for growth is essential. The forestry and wood industry is a model of sustainable growth, promoting biodiversity and supporting low-carbon operations.” The challenge for the parties was to “listen to, support and collaborate” with industry, he added.

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Mark Ruskell, Scottish Greens’ spokesperson on Climate, Energy, Environment, Food and Farming, called for a step change in planting to increase forest cover (almost 19%) to the European average (nearly 40%), alongside a five-fold increase in native forests. He said this would require a retargeting of the grant programmes available. However, he added it was important to end the “unhelpful binary debate” of  commercial forestry on one side and native forestry on the other. He said: “There are great opportunities between these two poles to create productive forests which present economic opportunities but can also deliver public goods like biodiversity, nature restoration and public access.” He said the “elephant in the room” remains land ownership, adding that it was important to simplify the process of community asset transfer.

Ahead of the Q&A portion of the event, Stuart Goodall, Confor’s CEO, said there had been many positive developments in the five years since the last Scottish Parliamentary hustings event and he was excited to work with the new Scottish government to take the sector forward, adding: “My challenge to the parties now is to keep the momentum going.”

Questions covered subjects ranging across COP26, skills, the need for native and commercial forestry, and the role of farmers in tree planting.

Fergus Ewing said there were many “practical questions” to be addressed if Scotland was to drive up planting from 11–12,000 hectares annually at the moment to 18,000 hectares by 2025 – including “capacity, skills, nurseries, seedlings, availability of people to do the work, streamlining processes further and building on the Mackinnon report.” He said more investment would have to come from the private sector to meet these ambitions.

He also highlighted new funding support for tree nurseries, a partnership between the Scottish and UK Governments, which meant that some young trees would be grown in English nurseries for planting in Scotland. “We need to move up a gear in ambition in the UK as a whole and Scotland could plant trees for England because we have the landmass asset.”

On the subject of COP26, Mark Ruskell said countries from around the world would be looking to Scotland to see what a post-industrial economy can do to restore its environment, and predicted the next big debate will be around biomass. He said: “It has a strong role to play in Scotland, but there is too much reliance in some countries on big solutions like biomass.” He added the Scottish Government needed to get to grips with changing land management and be more ambitious about farm forestry.

Rhoda Grant said COP26 offered “a huge opportunity to share expertise and gain expertise from other countries”. When looking at innovation, she said the industry shouldn’t only look at commercial crops, it should also consider native woodlands. “We need to look at better ways to manage our native woodland to make it more productive,” she said.

Jamie Halcro Johnston said: “The situation in Scotland is a good news story. I do agree with Fergus about the potential role of the private sector and other investors, but there is more that needs to be done both here and in the rest of the United Kingdom. There are still issues around transport infrastructure.”

Speaking on the subject of farmers, Catriona Bhatia said she believed they are more open-minded about planting, but wanted to know what support they were going to get. “They’re not going to get EU support, so we need to devise a scheme that allows them to do that.”

The 2021 Scottish Parliament election will be held on 6 May.

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