Stuart Goodall: We must be able to see wood for trees

While Scotland has a major role in the UK forestry sector, it is dependant on working with its neighbours says Stuart Goodall
Scotland is the powerhouse of the UKs forestry industry. Picture: Allan MilliganScotland is the powerhouse of the UKs forestry industry. Picture: Allan Milligan
Scotland is the powerhouse of the UKs forestry industry. Picture: Allan Milligan

Against a backdrop of constant debate about further powers for the Holyrood Parliament, full devolution of forestry policy and delivery to Scotland is coming to a conclusion.

There is a real opportunity now for Scotland to take a lead in refashioning how forestry is regulated and supported across the UK – and to benefit from that leadership role.

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In the post-devolution, post-referendum landscape in which we find ourselves, we can expect to see the full devolution of cross-Border services currently provided by a GB Forestry Commission. These include HR, finance and IT, though it is less clear what will happen with the highly-respected research and statistical services.

Interestingly, there remain very significant common forestry challenges and interests across the components parts of the United Kingdom, not least continued and unpredictable attacks from pests and disease – and ensuring that forests and wood products fulfil their potential to sequester and store carbon to help meet post-Kyoto climate change targets.

Can Scotland seize this leadership opportunity, drawing together the environmental, economic and social benefits of forestry while addressing these very serious UK-wide problems?

It is undoubtedly the powerhouse of the forestry and wood processing sector, with one of the UK’s two research centres (at Roslin, Midlothian), high-level timber engineering expertise at Edinburgh Napier University and some of the most advanced and innovative sawmillers in the world, including James Jones & Sons, Glennon Brothers and BSW.

Scotland also has significant producers of wood panel products, including Norbord, and some of the most reliable and professional forest management companies, like Scottish Woodlands and Tilhill. Scotland’s forestry and timber sector contributes close to £1 billion to the economy annually, with companies investing around £50 million a year in their businesses.

These businesses “export” the majority of their product south of the Border, meaning it is in Scotland’s interests for the UK as a whole to protect and promote forestry and to consume home-grown wood products.

From a position of strength, Scots-based businesses, working with the Scottish Government, can shape how forestry works across borders, to the benefit of the UK as a whole and Scotland in particular – building capacity in research and innovation, in forest monitoring and statistics.

In this respect, we could learn from the forestry and timber behemoth of Canada. On a recent study visit, Andy Leitch of Forestry Commission Scotland and I saw how the Canadian provinces work with federal government on major issues of common interest, and how a province like Quebec can work within this framework to promote its own forests and businesses.

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A council of forestry ministers provides a forum for provincial and federal government to address over-arching issues like the public image of the forestry and timber sector, sustainability, and innovation and research.

There could be a similar role in future for a council of forestry ministers, with representatives from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland joining a forum to tackle similar issues, and why should a Scottish minister not convene this group?

In terms of strategic supply, all the home nations benefit from reducing imports and committing to using more home-grown wood products – with rural Scottish businesses benefiting disproportionately due to the strength of the industry here. The rest of the UK buys significant quantities of Scottish wood products and it is vital that there is a full recognition of how Scotland manages its forests sustainably. It could even set a benchmark for a common UK standard in which Scotland takes a lead in defining.

The forestry council could also bring together finance for key services like forest research, plant health and statistical analysis – all areas which require a critical mass of resource that is difficult to achieve in individual devolved administrations. Such services have worked well for forestry in areas like tree breeding and testing wood products for use in construction, as well as providing the central data to plan future investment and to tell us if we are managing our forests sustainably.

Scotland currently has much of this resource, but could expect a poorer or less expert service if all these areas are devolved. Instead, if it is shared, an ambitious Scotland can grow its expertise and supply the rest of the UK.

This is a great chance for Scotland to adopt a leadership role in driving forward a successful forestry and wood processing sector across the UK – not just as a secondary partner or a passenger, but very much sitting in the driving seat and reaping the rewards.

Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood