WHETHER Scotland votes Yes or No in September’s referendum, it is vital that efforts continue to rebalance the economy.
We have seen the enormous dangers of relying too heavily on big finance and consumer-driven growth, with massive trade deficits resulting. Successful European economies like Germany and Sweden have retained strong manufacturing and export sectors – and we need to commit to this for the long-term too, irrespective of the constitutional outcome in the autumn.
We have excellent examples of manufacturing and export strength in Scotland and one of these sectors – forestry and timber – also fits snugly with the low-carbon priorities of our political parties. As well as supporting almost 40,000 jobs and adding around £1.6 billion to the economy annually, the forestry and timber sector is making a significant contribution to meeting Scotland’s world-leading climate change targets.
In addition to the obvious environmental benefits of trees soaking up carbon, there are other, perhaps less obvious, advantages – carbon is stored in wood products and wood is an extremely energy efficient building material. The energy needed to produce a tonne of concrete to the point of use is five times that of sawn softwood, glass needs six times more energy and steel 24 times more. Also, when wood comes to the end of its life, it can be burned as a fuel – the ultimate renewable material.
We need politicians across the spectrum to commit to supporting manufacturing from domestic timber, to support market development and innovation, and to tackle punishing energy levies on low-carbon wood products.
The need to reflate the economy ahead of the 2015 Westminster election is likely to tempt the UK government to fall back into short-term thinking, characterised by the recent help to buy/lend schemes for housing. We need more houses, but driven by sustainable demand and support – and built with sustainable materials, like wood.Scotland’s wood-manufacturing sector is a success story, delivering growth during the downturn and exporting to the rest of the UK and beyond. Confor research shows the growth in UK wood production over recent decades, centred in Scotland, is reducing annual imports to the value of over £1bn.
A number of Scottish wood businesses have made multi-million pound investments in recent years and many Scottish forestry and timber businesses are innovating – like James Jones & Sons, a well-known name in communities like Dumfries, Angus and Moray. Their JJ-IntelliRoof product – a fully-engineered, ready-to-install, insulated and watertight “Room in Roof” – is a superb example of forward thinking.
Whether we have an independent or a devolved Scottish Government after September, manufacturing with a strong focus on co-operation between policy-makers and manufacturers must be supported to ensure the sector evolves, innovates and flourishes in a competitive world, where the UK remains the ninth-biggest manufacturing nation.
It is crucial that we get the policy environment right; Confor is currently negotiating with the UK government on reducing energy taxes on sawmills, as such taxes make it harder for mills to compete with imported timber products and more carbon-intensive building materials. Scottish sawmills are taking further action to reduce their energy consumption, strengthening the competitive green advantage of wood products.
It is also vital that the sector has sustainable supplies of wood for the future. Forestry and wood processing is a classic long-term business, making decisions based on 15-20 year cycles. If we are to guarantee major on-going investment in a low-carbon, Scottish success story, we need to protect and expand our forestry resource.
The Scottish Government, through forestry minister Paul Wheelhouse and enterprise minister Fergus Ewing, have offered their support, and we need them to deliver on that – and for their eventual successors to do the same. A rebalancing of the economy won’t happen overnight or even in one parliamentary term.
The best days for Scotland’s forestry and wood sector are still ahead of us. Rural jobs, carbon reduction, income to manage our forests and a stronger, more balanced and more sustainable economy are there for the taking if we support this vital sector. However, the support must be cross-party and it must continue, whatever happens on 18 September.
• Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor www.confor.org.uk