MSPs pass ‘landmark’ Scottish forestry Bill

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Opposition MSPs have united to block plans to bring forestry under the direct control of the Scottish Government.

While Holyrood approved landmark legislation devolving control of the sector – which is worth almost £1 billion a year to Scotland – they also backed Labour amendments requiring ministers to set up a single agency or two agencies to take over the work of the Forestry Commission.

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said while this was not the approach he favoured he accepted that “Parliament has legislated for ministers to establish two Scottish Government executive agencies to deliver their functions”.

Conservative MSP Peter Chapman had stated: “We did not want to see the Scottish Government take all of these functions into central government.”

He added that the amendments made to the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill would ensure that “all agencies remain outwith government and at arms length”.

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Meanwhile Labour’s Colin Smyth said it had been “vital” to change the Bill to “address the concerns of key stakeholders who fear that taking powers currently with the Forestry Commission and passing them to a government department was simply more centralisation”.

Mr Smyth added: “It was also clear that SNP plans would have made it easier to privatise the forestry estate which they tried to do in 2009.

“The SNP’s unsavoury attempts to push people into line behind those plans backfired spectacularly and failed to address the real concerns that their proposed new structures would lead to a loss of expertise.

“The Forestry Commission has been a successful brand and that would have been lost under the SNP’s centralisation agenda.”

Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Rumbles said: “Opposition parties have united today to curb the power ambitions of SNP ministers. In doing so they have offered welcome protections to a strong and effective forestry agency.”

But Mr Ewing insisted the the passing of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill was still a landmark for the Parliament

He said: “The powers and duties held by the Forestry Commissioners insofar as they relate to Scotland will be transferred to Scottish ministers, and the management and regulation of forestry in Scotland will become fully accountable to this Parliament.”

The Rural Economy Secretary added: “For the first time there will be a requirement to prepare a forestry strategy, and a duty to promote sustainable forest management.”

He stated: “Today is an historic occasion. This Bill is the first forest legislation since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999.

“The Forestry Commission was established in 1919 to expand forest and woodlands after these were depleted during the First World War. It has achieved a great deal from which it can take pride, but administrative arrangements need to change with the times, and nearly a century on the arrangements for forestry should reflect devolution, and I am determined forestry will be at the heart of the work of the Scottish Government.”

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