On the 24th January I spoke at a debate on Forestry and its impact in Dumfries and Galloway. You can watch and read my contributions below.
I refer members to my register of interests as a local councillor in Dumfries and Galloway.
I am sure that members will forgive me if I am somewhat parochial in my contribution to today’s debate. My home region of Dumfries and Galloway has one of the highest concentrations of forestry in the UK; 31 per cent of the land is covered with woods and forests, which exceeds the Scottish average of 18 per cent that the cabinet secretary referred to earlier. The 211,000 hectares range from the great spruce forests of Galloway and Eskdalemuir through the traditional estate forests such as those of Buccleuch Estates Ltd to the small native and farm woodlands that are so important to the beautiful landscape of the region.
Not surprisingly, Dumfries and Galloway is a major timber-producing area, harvesting some 30 per cent of Scotland’s home-grown timber annually. As a result, it is home to some of the top sawmills in Britain, such as BSW in Dalbeattie and James Jones & Sons near Lockerbie, as well as a number of smaller mills, all of which process local timber. The region is also home to Scotland’s largest biomass power station near Lockerbie, which burns about 475,000 tonnes of wood per year, displacing up to 140,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.
We have many local engineering companies that design and build forestry and timber transport machinery, supporting the industry locally but also selling equipment across the world. In addition, we have some of the largest forestry plant and equipment suppliers in the UK.
Unlike in many other parts of Scotland, the majority of the timber that is grown in Dumfries and Galloway is processed within the area, reducing our carbon emissions, supporting a low-carbon economy and crucially retaining and creating badly needed local employment. The timber industry is unquestionably one of the most important employers in the region, with more than 3,000 jobs across all sectors, many within some of the most remote rural areas. With timber production continuing to increase as post-war forests reach maturity, there is potential for more employment opportunities; that growth is almost unique for industries in a rural economy.
With those growth opportunities also come a number of challenges, which I want to touch on briefly. The first challenge is ensuring that there is sufficient planting to support the industry’s expansion. We know that we have a relatively healthy timber supply until the late 2030s, but then there is a projected drop-off. That is why I support the Government’s new target to plant 15,000 hectares of new forestry each year by 2025. However, the reality is that the Government has no choice but to expand beyond its original 10,000 hectares annual target if it is to meet the aim of 100,000 hectares of planting by 2022, because past targets have, as the cabinet secretary readily acknowledges, been missed.
A lack of local or regional targets in the national strategy and a past forestry grant scheme that was seen as slow and bureaucratic have resulted in those targets being missed. The sudden rise of onshore wind farm developments in recent years in many areas also led to a loss of existing and proposed woodland. A great deal of work needs to be done to deliver the Government’s targets, and I welcome the Mackinnon report, which offers a number of very positive and sensible ways forward to remove the barriers to planting.
Of course, we do not just need to plant and grow the trees. We need to harvest them and remove them and that is the next challenge that I want to touch on. The minor road network in many regions such as Dumfries and Galloway, which is so important to the transfer of timber, has not changed a great deal over the years and the capacity to take timber haulage can be very limiting. There are many narrow and structurally weak roads locally that are incredibly challenging for articulated vehicles, and any increase in heavy traffic on minor roads can lead to disruption for many local communities. The rural roads that serve our forests remain a potential barrier to the supply chain and future increased planting.
That is why the strategic timber transport fund in Scotland has been vital since it was established over a decade ago, distributing some £25 million to 119 projects throughout Scotland with a total value of some £55 million. I can think of many projects across Dumfries and Galloway, such as the Eskdalemuir bypass, that have benefited from that fund. I hope that the Government will continue the fund, but I urge the cabinet secretary to look at the level of intervention.
At present, projects are generally supported up to a maximum of 50 per cent of eligible costs, with local government or private industry having to meet the remaining 50 per cent. Given the current pressures on council budgets, I hope that the Government will consider an intervention level of at least 80 per cent or, in some exceptional cases, full funding. The level of intervention for projects that have exceptional environmental, community and social benefits is already 80 per cent and that is also the level that the Government provides for major flood prevention schemes. Increasing the intervention level of the strategic timber transport fund at a time when councils are facing cuts is more likely to ensure that bids come forward and that the fund is fully utilised.
The final challenge that I want to touch on is the completion of forestry’s devolution. I accept that incorporating the management of the forestry estate into the Scottish Government provides a framework for an integrated land management unit, which allows for a more holistic overview of the management of the forest estate. However, the current forestry model provides a great deal of engagement at local level between stakeholders from communities and local authorities on the management of the estate.
In Dumfries and Galloway, the estate is governed by two forest districts: Galloway district and Dumfries and Borders district, which between them cover 171,000 hectares. In addition to the production role, the current arrangements have played a crucial part in developing the wider health and recreational benefits of forests in Dumfries and Galloway, from the development of the 7stanes cycling project to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in Galloway forest park. Galloway forest park attracts 1.1 million visitors a year and is so successful that in my view the next logical step is to develop it into Scotland’s next national park. Like the cabinet secretary, I have wandered off the script a little.
Given the positive role of local forest districts and their outreach functions, it is crucial that they are reflected in any new management proposals. We need to guard against either an overly centralised structure, which sadly is too often what we get with structural change, and we have to ensure that any new structure not only focuses on timber production, which is crucial, but recognises the wider role of the forestry estate in supporting local biodiversity targets, health and recreation and, of course, tourism, which is vital to a region such as Dumfries and Galloway.