Now that the dust has settled after the referendum it is clear that the wider outcomes are more far reaching than the actual vote – Scotland has been changed by the process. The appetite for constitutional change among a large part of the Scottish people has not diminished, but careers along with its own momentum. These are exciting times and full of opportunity for those of us who want to help foster more inclusive and socially-just forms of forestry. The Scottish Government is working on the Community Empowerment Bill and has recently published the Land Reform Consultation; and the Smith Commission report has set out its views on further powers to be devolved from the UK Parliament, with the expectation that it is the beginning of a process, not the end of it.
What does the referendum mean for forestry?
We expressed a desire for a fairer society: The appetite for a more equitable society amongst the Scottish electorate was clear. However, the Scottish landscape is one of inequitable ownership of land and forests, and one which excludes most of the Scottish people from meaningful involvement in land management. This should give everyone in forestry pause for thought.
We asked for more democratic control closer to communities: In a world of increasing globalisation, the Scottish electorate has expressed a clear desire to bring democratic control closer to the people. This desire for more decisions to be made “at the lowest level possible, and the highest level necessary” is one that should be adopted by our land use policy and land management institutions.
We looked abroad at how other countries work: The political and economic models in small countries, from Ireland, to Scandinavia, and Switzerland and even Singapore were scrutinised in the debate. Our preoccupation with the other side of the Atlantic was temporarily averted. A small country like Scotland can learn from other small countries that there are far more inclusive ways of delivering forestry.
The importance of Scotland’s trade and financial relationships with the rest of the UK: In trade terms the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish economies are intertwined and to a large extent mutually dependent. The difficulties, real or perceived, of altering trade relationships between Scotland and the rest of the UK were a big factor in the referendum debate.
What might the Land Reform consultation and proposed Land Reform bill mean for forestry ?
Better information on land ownership: The Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) report informed us that we already have most of the powers required to make fundamental changes to the way that land is owned and managed in Scotland. The Land Reform consultation and proposed Bill make a start on addressing some of the issues. The proposals to improve how information on land ownership is held will provide a solid foundation for those of us concerned with the pattern of land ownership and how to improve it.
Improving deer management: The proposals for improving deer management show a clear direction of travel regarding tightening up government oversight of this public resource where voluntary private management arrangements are inadequate. This is wholly in line with FPG’s thinking.
Non-domestic rates: The removal of the exemption from business rates for shooting and deerstalking businesses will bring them back into line with other rural ratepayers. As the LRRG report noted, ‘sporting rates’ have the potential to be one of the tools available to help deliver the Scottish Government’s Land Use Strategy and other rural objectives, not least those for forestry.
More powers for Forestry Commissioners: this proposal forms part of the Land Reform consultation, with the implication that FCS could get involved in a broader range of land management activity.
What might the Community Empowerment Bill mean for forestry ?
A Revision of the National Forest Land Scheme: The NFLS will require overhaul to reflect the intentions of the Community Empowerment Bill (CEB), in particular the more flexible definition of community groups eligible for asset transfer. This should allow a much broader range of groups to make use of what has undoubtedly been an extremely helpful scheme, unique amongst public bodies.
However there is still an issue around existing legislation only permitting forest leasing to certain community groups constituted as Companies Limited by Guarantee, and it would be helpful if this option could be extended.
The Smith Commission Report
Capital Gains Tax and Inheritance Tax. These tax powers are powerful influences on private forest ownership, but the Smith Commission did not recommend their devolution; they will remain – for now – reserved to Westminster. FPG considers that devolution of these tax powers might have provided a means for Scotland to reform the forest sector and extend ownership patterns. However the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry into Land Reform has highlighted the effect of these tax reliefs on land values, and may recommend change in its final report.
Forestry for “the greatest good of the greatest number of people for the longest time”
Gifford Pinchot was the first director of the US Forest Service, and a prominent US politician. He set out a famous (in forestry circles) principle – one which has maintained its currency for over 100 years: that forestry should be for “the greatest good of the greatest number of people for the longest time”. Now that the political landscape in Scotland has shifted, we finally have opportunities to move forestry in Scotland towards that goal.