SEEING THE £1bn industry feature so prominently in the SNP Holyrood manifesto is great news, writes Stuart Goodall
Forestry and timber is a £1 billion industry in Scotland, supporting more than 25,000 direct jobs. Yet despite its size and success, it has historically been difficult for forestry to win a high profile against the other rural industries beginning with F – farming and fishing.
So I was delighted to see forestry feature so prominently alongside the other F words in the SNP’s 2016 Holyrood manifesto.
As the leading trade body for forestry and wood-using businesses (around 2000 of them), Confor was invited to the glitzy launch of the document in front of almost 1,500 people in Edinburgh.
When the manifestos were handed out just before Nicola Sturgeon took to the stage, I flicked through swiftly and anxiously and was very pleased with what I found - the chunkiest section on forestry in a leading party’s manifesto in living memory.
And it included real commitments: a pledge to plant 10,000 hectares of new woodland (around 20 million trees a year) until 2022; an equally important promise to speed up the pace of applications and planting approvals; and a recognition to support tree planting which can help prevent flooding.
This was excellent news, especially as another big request had been met just before the election, when the Scottish Government pledged further financial support for the Strategic Timber Transport Fund, which is supporting rural infrastructure and taking enormous quantities of timber off public roads.
So far, so delighted. But manifesto pledges are just that - pledges - unless they are converted into firm commitments, then delivered. How do we achieve that? First of all, by working with the new Scottish Government, including a refreshed ministerial team, and the influential RACCE (Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment) committee.
Confor has always challenged governments to act, but at the same time offered practical solutions. We know the 10,000 hectare planting pledge can be delivered, and will work with Government to deliver it. In recent years, the SNP Government has done well, but come up slightly short on planting targets. This time, we are determined to help them to hit the spot. The pledge to “hasten the pace of application and approval of planting” will be a big part of that. If we can prevent brilliant schemes like Jerah, near Menstrie in Clackmannanshire, being mired in over-the-top bureaucracy and delay, we can hit those targets.
Make no mistake, meeting the planting targets will deliver tangible benefits – high-quality, well-paid rural jobs and economic growth, and a supply of timber to meet an increasing demand for wood products, including much-needed new homes.
Nicola Sturgeon has put employment and economic growth at the heart of her new agenda for Government and I’ll be reminding the First Minister and her colleagues at every opportunity that direct employment in forestry and timber in Scotland increased by 50 per cent during the economic downturn of 2008-2014, as other sectors stagnated or declined.
That was largely down to investment by the industry on the back of confidence that Government will work with the industry to secure sustainable supplies of wood - but we need to put more trees into the ground over the next few years to maintain that confidence.
So the future looks bright for forestry in this parliamentary term; not least because it is not just the SNP which understands and supports the goals of the forestry sector. It is an area where a minority government should find comfortable consensus. Our pre-election conference heard MSPs from all parties reinforce the need for more planting to deliver that unique range of economic, environmental and social benefits which forestry brings - including Andy Wightman, recently elected as a Green MSP for the first time.
The Conservatives’ rural spokesman Alex Fergusson may have retired, but his successor Finlay Carson will have a strong understanding of the role of forestry as a bedrock employer in south-west Scotland, where complex, high value supply chains have developed, linking forests all the way through to sawmills.
I very much look forward to seeing a modern strategy for forestry emerging during this parliament, one which reflects its growing economic significance. Forestry is no longer the f-word not to be spoken in rural Scotland; it is to be shouted from the rooftops, especially if the trusses and beams in those rooftops are made of wood.
• Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood, www.confor.org.uk