According to Michael Gove, the publication of the UK Government’s new Agriculture Bill is a ‘historic’ moment. That remains to be seen.
The draft Bill incorporates sections covering Wales and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland. The Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, has been critical of the Bill as “a missed opportunity for the UK Government to deliver on promises made during the referendum and since – namely that Scottish farmers would continue to receive at least the same level of funding as they currently do in the event of Brexit.”
He also said that the bill “could create sweeping unilateral powers that could constrain policy choices in Scotland”. While the future for the rural economy in Scotland is yet to become clear, one thing we do know is that Scotland has, as Andrew McCormick, president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, said “an opportunity to move out of the shadow of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)”.
This is vital for the future of Scotland’s rural areas, both economically and environmentally, and it will involve embracing land use in its widest sense.
Confor has championed the idea of rewarding land managers for delivering “public goods” rather than simply rewarding specific activity, as has been the case under CAP.
The term ‘public goods’ needs definition (some have argued that ‘public benefits’ would be a better description), but it’s vital that it includes producing wood as well as the wider facets of sustainable forest management.
In our low-carbon world, wood delivers significant public goods – it locks up carbon, enhances biodiversity, displaces more energy-intensive materials like steel and concrete and can provide well insulated, high performing homes that require little energy to heat.
Producing wood also supports well-paid rural jobs. Greater wood production also means we can reduce our reliance on imported timber – taking greater responsibility for our own environmental footprint rather than exporting it overseas.
One of the public goods identified in the new Agriculture Bill is “mitigating or adapting to climate change” – will that be replicated in Scotland?
The CAP has been a major obstacle to the expansion of forestry and has often set farmers against foresters when the two groups should be working together.
Integration has been difficult to achieve when policy and delivery mechanisms exclude forestry and when farmers are penalised for planting trees by potentially losing access to future annual support payments.
In Scotland, there has been a positive, cross-party approach in recent years to forestry and the wide-ranging economic, environmental and social benefits it can provide.
Around 80 per cent of new planting in the UK is currently happening in Scotland. If England and Wales can follow Scotland’s lead, then there might be a chance of making an impact on another 80 per cent figure – the amount of timber the UK is importing.
This frightening statistic means the UK is the second largest global net importer of wood products (after China). The UK overtook Japan earlier this year.
Wood is a traditional material that keeps reinventing itself for modern times and it will be a vital material for the 21st century, with suggestions that global demand could triple by the middle of the century. In that context, we need to take more responsibility for producing more of what we want to consume.
The Agriculture Bill provides the opportunity for the rest of the UK to map a better future for rural areas. Scotland has led the pack in recent years and we will be looking to the Scottish Government to maintain that position and deliver significant public goods to our communities.
Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor: Promoting Forestry and Wood.