When a landowner or forest agent plans an area of new planting, they are guided to consult with the local community. Since 2016, this guidance has extended to encourage applicants to do a ‘pre-application’ consultation, to give communities a reasonable chance to engage with the plans and to provide comment. Rates of new planting have increased since then, a development which is widely welcomed. However particularly in areas where commercial conifer is expanding, there is an accompanying sense of concern among some communities. Yet these concerns are often seen as ‘anecdotal’ and not representative of most rural people.
It’s important to try to understand these experiences better. So we designed a questionnaire to summarise communities’ experiences of new planting applications. We invited contacts to respond to it, and in turn to invite others. We emphasised in our covering email that we wanted to identify both good experiences and more difficult ones, in order to identify helpful approaches. By using a questionnaire, we aimed to document experience in ways that made it straightforward to analyse. We’ve had 20 responses so far, many of them from the south of Scotland where current planting rates are highest, but also some from Argyll and central Scotland. Respondents include community councils, landowners, and local wildlife groups.
This sample represents a toe in the water; it probably includes some of the worst examples but it may not be representative. Nevertheless there is enough poor experience just in this sample, to point to significant concerns.
With this blog, we want to highlight these preliminary trends, and invite further responses to make this a more rounded study.
Things that go well
Three examples described situations where agents started out not being aware of community realities, but were willing to listen and adapt. One describes good interaction and an agent who learnt from local people’s knowledge of the wildlife; this was in a situation where the landowner included conservation in the management objectives. Two others ended up happy after initial upsets around early plans which ignored the many private water supplies in the area.
Things that are often problematic
Communication is often reported to be poor. Community councils and local residents in particular often say that the process has not been explained to them. Some communities or residents found out about a new scheme by chance or (in one case) after the application had been approved. A common key issue is poor access to data, with some parties unwilling to share data on which they are basing their plans. Community groups frequently said they had no feedback to their inputs – whether from the agent or Scottish Forestry – and were unable to say whether there had been no response to consultation or no info about how an application was modified. Many said they had no opportunity to meet the agent or owner, and that a personal appearance would help to defuse tensions.
Private water supplies cause an unnecessary amount of stress. The survey included several examples where the forest agent was unaware of them and as a result, even when addressed, the damage to local opinion was already done.
Cumulative impact of multiple schemes was flagged up – not surprisingly – in the areas where rapid afforestation is taking place.
Access often isn’t considered in new planting schemes despite guidance from the UKFS, and it’s not clear how effective community consultation is in changing this.
Finally, a surprising number of examples pointed out mistakes on the register, particularly in relation to the nearest town, but even in one case making a mistake in the local authority area.
Our preliminary conclusions from this stage in the survey is that current conditions and process are resulting in a lot of people who describe themselves as ‘unhappy’, ‘upset’ and angry. Probably much of this can be avoided. The examples where communication with an agent was appreciated highlight the value of interpersonal skills and respect for local knowledge and sense of place. Small changes could have big positive local impacts.
We’d like to include more examples, from further across Scotland, and including more positive experiences. In particular we’d like to hear of examples that can help learn from what works well. We would like to hear from agents who would like to share their experiences. In addition to ‘things that tend to go wrong’, we’d like to be able to say more about ‘things that tend to go right’ and ‘things that work to help the things that have gone wrong, go right’. So consider yourself invited – please get in touch.