Thirty years ago, from 3-14 June 1992, countries met in Rio de Janeiro at the ground-breaking Earth Summit. The conference agreed the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21 and the Forest Principles. The conference also agreed two legally binding treaties, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Despite these agreements, progress on securing the future of the planet has fallen way short of the ambitions of those who gathered in 1992.

For example, the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions ever released into the atmosphere have been emitted SINCE the Climate Change Convention was signed in 1992 (see image above) Although rates of deforestation have slowed since 1992, deforestation remains a significant global phenomenon (see image below).

Graph from FAO, State of the Word’s Forests 2020

As part of an international coalition of NGOs concerned with deforestation in the North, Reforesting Scotland published the Scottish Forest Charter (6.6Mb pdf) in association with The Ecologist magazine. We used it to lobby world governments at Rio and to highlight the role played by northern countries in historic (and continuing) deforestation. I was empoloyed by Reforesting Scotland 1990-1993 and continued as its voluntary International co-ordinator for a further two years. Thirty years on, it is instructive to read the Charter and reflect on the extent to which its ten principles have been implemented in Scotland.

Opening pages of the Scottish Forest Charter

We called for expansion of Scotland’s forest cover to deliver primary objectives of protecting soils, water, biodiversity and climate and a series of secondary goals including timber production, recreation and spiritual values. We called for

  • a resource owned and managed by local businesses, communities and individuals
  • that delivered a wide range of local benefits
  • a radical increase in timber production and,
  • effective carbon management and budgets.

Reading through the Charter today, thirty years later it is evident that we remain a long way from realising its ambitions. Deforestation continues even in our National Parks (see below) and forestry expansion remains dominated by external capital encouraged and supported by generous Government grants and tax breaks.

Deforestation and soil erosion in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park on an estate in receipt of Scottish Government agricultural subsidies. Photograph taken March 2019.

With official Government ambitions to increase forest cover in Scotland, it remains deeply concerning that management such as that pictured above continues across vast areas of Scotland and that new forest resources remain dominated by absentee investors and corporations.

If you are interested in how we could achieve the scale of reforestation needed (40% by 2040) as opposed to the current target (25% by 2050), have a read of the Woodland Nation report (3.7Mb pdf) I commissioned and published in 2021. Sub-titled “pathways to a forested Scotland owned by the people” it is the most ambitious programme of land use transformation for people, the climate and the economy ever published. I will be blogging more on this in future.

Meanwhile I hope you enoy reading the Scottish Forest Charter.

On 15 October last year, I was preparing to leave home and travel to the Isle of Skye to visit my parents for the weekend. Shortly before I left, an email arrived from John Clegg & Co. advertising for sale 6,356 acres of land owned by Scottish Ministers in Strathnaver, Sutherland at offers over £1,850,000.

Aware that 2014 is the bicentenary of the infamous Strathnaver Clearances, I was surprised to see that the sales particulars not only included one of the best-preserved Clearance Villages at Rosal but described the land as “one of the last wilderness areas of Scotland”. (1) In further banal witterings, the sales brochure went on to opine that “ruined settlements of Rosal Village in the north of the forest and Truderscaig in the south, provide a fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land”

So, before leaving the house, I wrote a quick blog to express my doubts about the wisdom of this sale and the vacuousness and offensiveness  of the blurb. Within twenty-four hours, I was told that the land would be withdrawn from the market. The Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse had asked Forestry Commission Scotland to halt the sale and a FCS spokesperson said that “We are no reviewing options.” (see Herald report).

Today, Rosal Forest is back on the market (5.9Mb pdf brochure here and 3.7Mb plan here).

Rosal Village in 2013 sale

Rosal Village excluded from 2014 sale

Rosal Clearance village has been removed from the sale and the nonsense about “wilderness” and “fascinating insights” has also now thankfully been omitted. A total of 5,962 acres of land is offered for sale at offers over £1.750,000. The sale forms part of the Forestry Commission’s “re-positioning” programme whereby, “subject to the approval of Ministers” land is sold and the proceeds used to invest in projects that “increase the contribution of the national forest estate to the delivery of Forestry Commission Scotland and wider Government objectives.”

Whilst this development is welcome, wider questions remain about the elite interests that continue to dominate private forestry in Scotland (see e.g.  here and here plus a research report from Feb 2012). For now at least, Scottish Ministers appear to have taken account of the historic significance of one of Scotland’s most important historical sites relating to the “ongoing struggle for ownership of this land.”

UPDATE 1 1512hrs 7 April 2014

Forestry Commission Scotland issued the following Media release today.

7 APRIL 2014 NEWS RELEASE No: 16241

Rosal clearance village secure for future

In recognition of the cultural and historic significance of Rosal clearance village, Forestry Commission Scotland is to continue managing the historically significant site as part of the National Forest Estate.

After consulting local community groups, the Commission will retain the historic village and 100 hectares surrounding it.

Working with local community groups, this will ensure the village is accessible and well interpreted as part of the wider Strathnaver Heritage Trail.

There had been plans previously to sell the whole of Rosal Forest but this was halted after concerns were raised over the future of the historic village.

The Rosal village is the remains of a once thriving Highland township, which was cleared of its inhabitants to make way for sheep back in the early 1800s.

Tim Cockerill, Forestry Commission Scotland’s manager in the North Highland’s said:

“We have fully consulted local groups again and have now taken positive action to ensure Rosal Village is protected as part of Scotland’s National Forest Estate.

“We are now exploring ways with the local community on how we can work closer together over the promotion and management of Rosal village in the future.”

The rest of the woodland area is due to be sold as part of Forestry Commission Scotland’s ‘re-positioning programme’. Under this programme, land delivering relatively low public benefits is sold to fund the purchase of new land which can bring about wider benefits.

In this case, some of the money raised will be invested in the creation of new woodland and recreation facilities at Sibster in Caithness and the recently announced starter-farm for new farmers at Achnamoine near Halkirk.

The sale of the rest of the woodland could also provide buyers with a secure supply of timber in the north of Scotland. This could be especially attractive to companies wishing to develop bio-energy projects in the area.

Lotting of the land for sale is not practical in this case, although it is the Commission’s preferred option as a way of offering more opportunities for woodland purchase to a wider range of people.

Communities can acquire land for sale through the National Forest Land Scheme, but there has been no interest in this case following ongoing discussions with local stakeholders.

Notes to news editors
1. Forestry Commission Scotland is part of the Scottish Government’s Environment & Forestry Directorate www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

2. For news, events and recreation information log on to www.facebook.com/enjoyscotlandsforests For Twitter: www.twitter.com/fcscotlandnews

3. Tha FCS ag obair mar bhuidheann-stiùiridh coilltearachd Riaghaltas na h-Alba agus a’ riaghladh nan 660,000 heactairean ann an Oighreachd na Coille Nàiseanta, a’ dìonadh, a’ cumail smachd air agus a’ leudachadh nan coilltean gus buannachdan a thoirt dha coimhearsnachdan, an eaconamaidh agus, ag obair an aghaidh atharrachadh gnàth-shìde. www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

4. Media enquiries to Steve Williams, Forestry Commission Scotland press office 0131 314 6508.

(1) For further information on the historic sites in Strathnaver, see Strathnaver Museum page.

UPDATE 2 2100hrs 26 October 2015

Royal Forest was sold in June 2015 to Simon Brooke Mackay (Lord Tanlaw) and Rina Siew Yong, both of Queenstown Road, London, for £1,500,000

On 23 February 2014, the Sunday Herald revealed that Timothy Congdon, UKIP’s economic spokesperson, had benefitted from wind energy developments on his land in Argyll and Caithness.

Today (4 March) it was revealed that he has stood down from the post.

Timothy Congdon’s website is here. He regards himself as the “best economist in British politics” Nowhere does he declare his interests as a major landowner in Scotland. Given the absence of a freely-available online register of who owns Scotland, I have spent £21.60 in order to make transparent his landholdings which cover 6237 acres of land in Argyll and Caithness. The details which follow reveal 6 out of his 8 landholdings in Scotland. The website currently records them as separate holdings but in fact the Argyll properties are all contiguous with one another.

ARGYLL-SHIRE

Achaglass

Gartnagrenach

East Ronachan

North Ronachan

Sheirdrum Hill

CAITHNESS

Phillips Mains Woodland

Hollandmey Farm Forest

In addition, he has interests in a 329 acre Moodlaw forest in Dumfries-shire.

This matter not only concerns transparency but a wider issue of why so much (55%) of Scotland’s privately-owned forests are owned by absentee owners. Fully a third of Scotland’s privately-owned forests is owned by owners who live outside Scotland – in the rest of UK, Europe and offshore tax havens. For further analysis, see a report I wrote two years ago in February 2012.

 

FOR SALE

Rosal Forest 6356 acres

Offers over £1,850,000

“A unique opportunity to acquire a large commercial forest situated in one of the last wilderness areas of Scotland surrounded by stunning scenery. Offering a significant volume of commercial conifer timber, areas for replanting and excellent deer stalking potential, all set within a unique landscape in the North of Scotland. Sporting rights included.

Rosal Forest is located within one of the few remaining wilderness areas in the north of Scotland. The area is known as Strathnaver and Naver Forest, renowned for its excellent salmon and trout fishing and deer stalking. 

Human settlement in this area dates back at least 6,000 years, but Strathnaver is known more for the Sutherland Clearances of the 1800’s when the locals were displaced from their lands to re-settle on the coast or travel by sea to the eastern seaboard of America and New Zealand to make way for a new era of sheep farming. Indeed, within Rosal Forest there are many historical features dating back to this period and beyond. The ruined settlements of Rosal Village in the north of the forest and Truderscaig in the south, provide a fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land.”

Scottish Ministers are selling Rosal Forest in Strathnaver, Sutherland. Included in the sale are numerous clearance villages including one of the best preserved at Rosal itself (see sales brochure 6.5Mb and  sale plan 3.9Mb pdf).

This forest will probably be sold to an absentee investor from England, or a Russian oligarch, or a multinational timber corporation. Scottish forestry will remain in the hands of elites as it currently is and as highlighted in this report from last year.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Strathnaver Clearances.

“..one of the few remaining wilderness areas in the north of Scotland

A fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land.”

Indeed.

UPDATE 16 October

At 1530 today, a Scottish Government spokesperson said “Rosal has been removed from selling agent’s website.”

It is probably quite appropriate that today, within 24 hours of publishing her Interim Report, the Chair of the Land Reform Review Group, Alison Elliot, is giving the keynote address to Scottish Land and Estates AGM at Perth racecourse. (1) No doubt she will receive a warm welcome and a rousing cheer from the landed class and its legal and financial advisers as the latest attempt at kick-starting land reform withers and dies on the vine of complacency and ignorance. See previous blogs on the topic and, in particular the immediately previous one for a foretaste of developments today.

The Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) was announced by Alex Salmond at a meeting of the Scottish Cabinet on Skye in 24 July 2012. On 23 August it’s remit was published and on 8 October the Group’s advisers were announced. Given that nothing had happened on the land reform front for a decade, this development was widely welcomed at least among those who believe that Scotland needs land reform.

Yesterday, the Group published its Interim Report together with an analysis of the evidence submitted to the Group. Following the previous resignation of Professor James Hunter, it was also announced that the one other member with (limited) experience of land reform has also resigned – Dr Sarah Skerrat. She is the co-author of the report along with the one member left from the original Group – the Chair Alison Elliot.

The Interim Report fails to deliver anything meaningful and effectively kills off any prospects of radical land reform due to one significant (and for those unfamiliar with the topic not immediately obvious) and devastating revelation in the report.

wrote at the time the group was established that whether any of the wicked issues like “inflated land values, affordability of housing, succession law, tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, theft of common land, land registration laws, common good etc. etc. etc.” got looked at depended on 1) a definition of land reform and 2) the remit of the group. Last August, I welcomed the remit as wide-ranging and I did so because on a straight reading of the words, it was just that. For the avoidance of doubt it is worth re-stating the preamble and three key tasks that the Group was set.

The Scottish Government is committed to generating innovative and radical proposals on land reform that will contribute to the success of Scotland for future generations.

The relationship between the land and the people of Scotland is fundamental to the wellbeing, economic success, environmental sustainability and social justice of the country. The structure of land ownership is a defining factor in that relationship: it can facilitate and promote development, but it can also hinder it. In recent years, various approaches to land reform, not least the expansion of community ownership, have contributed positively to a more successful Scotland by assisting in the reduction of barriers to sustainable development, by strengthening communities and by giving them a greater stake in their future. The various strands of land reform that exist in Scotland provide a firm foundation for further developments.

The Government has therefore established a Land Reform Review Group.

The Group will identify how land reform will:

1) Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;

2) Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;

3) Generate, support, promote, and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland

The emphasis is mine and I interpreted the three tasks as relating broadly to 1) individuals 2) communities and 3) governance. Others may read it differently of course but it appears to provide a wide framework of analysis. It follows on from a preamble that highlights structural problems, progress to date and community ownership as representing one strand of land reform.

Yesterday that remit was ripped up.

Section 4.4.2 contains the first clue in a passage that tenant farmers across Scotland have reacted to with a sense of anger and betrayal.

This aspect of rural Scotland is clearly problematic and requires sensitive and expert attention. For the LRRG to address these issues would be to interfere with the work of the TFF [Tenant Farming Forum] and to stray considerably away from our remit which focuses on communities rather than relationships between individuals. Having spent time on the issue during the first phase of the review we would be interested in sharing perspectives with the TFF through our advisers as appropriate but we do not intend to report further on this matter, except where it can be addressed within the context of community ownership” (my emphasis).

This a kick in the teeth for Scotland’s tenant farming sector. As the Group noted, some tenants were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlord hear they were expressing these views in public.” (2) Now they learn that, after patient and diligent engagement with the Group, their concerns are to be addressed by a talking shop in which the lairds have a veto.

But the revelation goes way beyond the immediate concerns of tenant farmers

It redefines the remit of the group as focussing on “communities rather than relationships between individuals“. This redefinition is confirmed by Sections 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 of the report which interpret each of the three aims in the remit as relating solely to community ownership. Section 4 opens with the claim that,

The group was given a wide-ranging remit which entailed a review of the legislation of 2003 as well as the task of considering how the benefits of community ownership could be extended to more communities through the exploration of new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland” (my emphasis).

It concludes by announcing that “some more technical issues that are frequently raised in discussions of land reform – the position of the Crown Estates, common good land, taxation and succession” have not been considered but the Group “may do so if they are likely to throw light on the other topics on the Phase 2 agenda.”

So these important topics (not to mention tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, housing tenure, land information etc.) will only be considered if they have a bearing on advancing community ownership.

I was thus wrong when I welcomed this wide-ranging remit because I failed to understand what it meant.

Either that or, effectively, the Group has re-written its remit so as to exclude concerns relating to anything other than community ownership.

Has the Scottish government approved of this redefinition or was I alone in having interpreted the remit wrongly? From the Media Release issued, it appears that the Minister, Paul Wheelhouse agrees with the Group that the Review is, in fact, about community ownership.

“The LRRG has made good progress over the past few months as they have travelled across Scotland meeting a wide range of people with an interest in land reform and in an effort to understand how Scottish Government can utilise Scotland’s land and assets to empower Scotland’s communities – both rural and urban.  The interest in the review has been great with the Group receiving over 475 responses to their initial consultation.

 “I now very much look forward to the next stage as the LRRG move into the second phase of it’s work looking at radical options for community land ownership before the final report in 2014.” (my emphasis)

So it must be me then. I just misunderstood the remit. This is not a land reform review group – it is a community ownership review group.

Given the coverage in the media today (a few sentences in the Herald’s farming page and a brief interview with myself on BBC Radio Highland (itself quote a reflection on the marginal significance now attached to land reform), it is clear that land reform is effectively dead as a matter of public policy. That does not reflect my own experience of speaking to thousands of people across Scotland over the past couple of years (during which events less than a handful of people ever appeared to have heard of the LRRG) but it does sit comfortably with elite Scotland’s view of the world.

What makes the report hard to understand is that there are flashes of radicalism like this.

Scotland has significantly large private landholdings and the discretions of ownership allow a few people to make decisions about large parts of the country’s land resource and also in some cases about the options available to people who live their lives on it. While many of these will be good decisions, it is an expression of the material inequality in the country that this situation obtains.”

But then there is a complete and utter failure to say anything at about how this is to be dealt with.

Perhaps it is time that the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament called the group in for another chat.

Finally, as I have made clear in the past, I remain concerned at the lack of transparency in the proceedings of the Group and in particular its refusal to publish the evidence being submitted to it until April 2014. I thus submitted a Freedom of Information request for this information – something that respondents were made aware was a possibility in the Call for Evidence. I was thus rather surprised to read in Section 2.5 Alterations to timescale the following claim.

Immediately after the deadline for submissions in January, a Freedom of Information request was received that the full set of submissions should be made public. This request was dealt with by the Secretariat but it did have an impact on how the group approached analysis of the submissions. Uncertainty over whether confidential responses would be made public worried some respondents and did nothing to enhance the trust some people felt towards the group or the process.”

For the record I never asked for confidential responses to be released and there is a perfectly legitimate exemption under FoI legislation to cover this. To blame an FoI request for undermining trust in the group is frankly pathetic.

(1) Perth racecourse is on Scone Estate – land subject to a heritage tax exemption for allowing public access (map here).

(2) Interim Report page 14

UPDATE – further media reports.
BBC Highlands & Islands online 21 May
BBC Naidheachan online 21 May
Herald 21 May
Herald 22 May

I studied forestry at Aberdeen University at the time of the rapidly expanding afforestation of the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland. One day, the Chief Executive of Fountain Forestry, the company that was the leading player in this misadventure, gave a lecture to us. Afterwards, he invited questions. “Why, I asked, was the Government giving huge tax breaks to folk like Terry Wogan and Shirley Porter – the vulgarians of the metropolis in London – to plant trees in the far north of Scotland? Why did it not simply award the money in the form of grant aid to the crofters and farmers of the region to plan the trees instead?” It was a naive question but I quickly learnt that asking such questions was not welcome, even in a University where asking questions is meant to be what one does.

Ever since then I have been curious as to why a land use with so much potential to revitalise rural economies, support communities and provide a home and workplace for families like it does in the rest of Europe should instead be an elite formation designed to enrich a landed class drawn from anywhere but the locale. Some of the facts behind this are explored in a recent report I wrote – Forest Ownership in Scotland.

The topic is brought to mind today by the advertisement of a 403 hectare forest for sale in Kincardine-shire. Burn of Sheeoch (pictured above & sales brochure here) is offered for sale by Bidwells at a guide price of £2,500,000. It was bought in 1982 for £441,000 by the Post Office Staff Superannuation Fund from Baron Craigmyle and planted in 1983-84 with substantial public grants. In 1995 the Fund sold it for £200,000 to Spero Nominees Ltd., a nominee company with a fully paid-up share capital and total assets of £4 and wholly owned by Deloitte & Touche Holdings Ltd. (see below).

In other words this forest was acquired by a global accountancy firm on behalf of someone – we know not whom. In 2007 the land was transferred for free to a company called Walbrook Trustees (UK) Ltd. which is wholly owned by Barclays Wealth Advisory Holdings (Guernsey) Ltd. The 2012 accounts of Walbrook describe the company’s principal activity as the “provision of trust services“. It made no profit or loss in 2012, has total assets of £7,650 and “it is anticipated that the Company will be put into Member’s Voluntary Liquidation during 2013“.

But not before Roderick Leslie Melville has earned a nice commission on  a sale of £2.5 million which will be paid to a ghost company in Guernsey about to go into liquidation. The forest “benefits” from a Long Term Forest Plan approved by Forestry Commission Scotland in April 2013 providing access to a “range of forest management grants“.

The seller (Wallbrook, Guernsey, soon to be liquidated) will also be “entitled to share in the benefit of any renewable development at the property and receive 50% of all payments by or on behalf of the landowner within the 10 years following sale and shall be entitled to these payments for a period of 25 years from the date the first payments are received.”

So my naive question of 30 years ago remains unanswered. Vast sums of public money have subsidised the creation and ongoing management of this forest and future revenue streams of public money for renewable energy contracts will also flow to some anonymous offshore nominee company following receipt of a capital tax free payment of £2,500,000.

I don’t understand why the Scottish Government and Parliament continue to preside over such a scam.

The Forestry Commission is planning to sell the 790 hectare Tioran Forest on the Isle of Mull and have advised the community that it has the opportunity to acquire it under the National Forest Land Scheme (NFLS).

I have blogged about Mull and forestry already and how it appears that the Scottish Government is intent on turning the island into a resource colony for distant multinational corporations. The sale of this large public forest adds to that sense of unease.

This sale raises further important questions, however.

If the community is to be successful in taking ownership of this land (and it appears keen to do so), it will have to pay the full market price for the property. I don’t know how much this forest is worth but I would guess one would not get much change from £1 million. Where is a fragile community to raise such a sum of money?

If we are serious about community forestry, there is a better way to go about this. The Forestry Commission owns no land. It is not a landowner. Instead, the land that it manages across Scotland is owned by Scottish Ministers and the FC merely manage it on their behalf.

Section 3(1) of the Forestry Act 1967 states clearly that

3 Management of forestry land.

 (1) The Commissioners may manage, plant and otherwise use, for the purpose of the exercise of their functions under this Act, any land in Scotland placed at their disposal by the Scottish Ministers under this Act or in England and Wales placed at their disposal by the Minister under this Act, and—

(a) the power of the Commissioners under this subsection to manage and use any land shall, without prejudice to the generality of that power, include power to erect buildings or execute works on the land;

(b) any timber produced on land so placed at the Commissioners’ disposal shall belong to the Commissioners.

As an alternative to the complex and expensive process of buying this land, Scottish Ministers could, since the FC no longer with to manage it, simply appoint an appropriately constituted community body on Mull and “place” the forest “at their disposal” under an agreed scheme of delegated authority. This would require a modest amendment to the Act to the effect that Ministers have the power under secondary legislation to appoint other bodies as capable of having the Scottish Ministers’ estate “placed at their disposal”.

No money would change hands. The forest would remain in public ownership and would be managed by local people for the benefit of the Mull economy.

The silliness of the proposed NFLS transfer is illustrated by a similar situation in Cowal, Argyll. On 22 February 2013, Colintraive and Glendaruel Development Trust was awarded a grant of £311,500 from the Scottish Land Fund to part finance the acquisition of the 615 hectare Stronafian Forest in south-west Cowal. The Scottish Land Fund monies come not from the National Lottery as was the case ten years ago (when I was a member of the Fund) but from Scottish Ministers. It is part of the Scottish Consolidated Fund – taxpayers money.

So Scottish Ministers paid £311,500 to Colintraive and Glendaruel Development Trust to part finance the acquisition of a forest being sold by …. Scottish Ministers!

In other countries across Europe, public forests are not the sole responsibility of the State. Regional Governments, Counties and Communes and Municipalities own extensive forests. See the map below for an illustration of this where in France over 20% of public forests are owned by Communes.

See previous blogs which highlight this here and here together with a report and essay on forest ownership in Scotland.

Some years ago I edited an editorial by the historian, James Hunter , in which he observed that “the Forestry Commission is to Scottish forestry what collectivisation was to Soviet agriculture.”

Why is Scottish forestry policy so primitive?

When I was at University in 1980s studying forestry, Forestry Commission land was being sold off and the private sector was booming with generous tax breaks on offer to investors to plant trees. Particular controversy erupted over the rapid expansion of afforestation in the so-called “flow country” of Caithness and Sutherland where one company in particular, Fountain Forestry, was recruiting wealthy investors such as Shirley Porter and Terry Wogan to buy land and plant trees. The tax incentives were significant and on one occasion when the Director of Fountain Forestry came to Aberdeen to give a lecture I asked a question at the end hits talk. “Why“, I asked, “is the government giving millions of pounds in tax relief to very wealthy pop stars and celebrities in London to buy and afforest land 500 miles away in Caithness and Sutherland. Why does the government not simply give this money as grants to the landowners and farmers in the north of Scotland?”

I don’t remember his answer but I do remember being asked afterwards by my Professor why I had asked such a “provocative” question. I had not realised that it was anything other than a straightforward question about forestry policy but I quickly realised that any question about power, land and money made a lot of people rather uncomfortable. For me this was all the encouragement I needed to find out more. My activism on this and other issues at the time probably cost me a career in forestry which was at that time dominated by the aristocracy and big landowners.

So when, 25 years ago today, Nigel Lawson stood up in the House of Commons and abolished this tax dodge I was delighted. The announcement was a shock to the forestry world and a reminder that gravy trains don’t last forever. The budget was memorable also as the occasion when Alex Salmond got thrown out of the Chamber for interrupting Lawson’s speech. Anyway, here is the relevant passage (the whole speech is available on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website).

I now turn to income tax.

The way to a strong economy is to boost incentives and enterprise. And that means, among other things, keeping income tax as low as possible.

Income tax has now been reduced in each of the last six Budgets—the first time this has ever occurred. And the strength of the economy over that period speaks for itself.

However, reforming income tax is not simply a matter of cutting the rates. I also have to look at all the various allowances and reliefs to ensure that they are still justified. With this in mind, I have a number of proposals to announce.

First, forestry. I accept that the tax system should recognise the special characteristics of forestry, where there can be anything up to 100 years between the costs of planting and the income from selling the felled timber.

But the present system cannot be justified. It enables top rate taxpayers in particular to shelter other income from tax, by setting it against expenditure on forestry, while the proceeds from any eventual sale are almost tax free.

The time has come to bring it to an end. I propose to do so by the simple expedient of taking commercial woodlands out of the income tax system altogether. That is to say, as from today, and subject to transitional provisions, expenditure on commercial woodlands will no longer be allowed as a deduction for income tax and corporation tax. But, equally, receipts from the sale of trees or felled timber will no longer be liable to tax.

It is, perhaps, a measure of the absurdity of the present system that the total exemption of commercial woodlands from tax will, in time, actually increase tax revenues by over £10 million a year.

At the same time, in order to further the Government’s objectives for the rural areas, I have agreed with my right hon. Friends who have responsibilities for forestry and for the environment that, in parallel, there should be increases in planting grants. Full details of the new grant scheme will be announced next week.

The net effect of these changes will be to end an unacceptable form of tax shelter; to simplify the tax system, abolishing the archaic schedule B in its entirety; and to enable the Government to secure its forestry objectives with proper regard for the environment, including a better balance between broad-leaved trees and conifers.

 

Campaigners are today celebrating the “saving” of England’s public forests. But what about the real issue of who owns England’s publlic forests? And what if all that has happened is that the UK government is preparing to hand the entirety of England’s public forests over to an industry-dominated quango?

The UK Government today published its response to the Report from the Independent Panel on Forestry (IPF) which was set up to review the future of England’s forests in the aftermath of the huge public outcry over plans announced in 2010 to sell parts of the English Public Forest Estate. In this brief blog I want to draw attention to Section 9 and some interesting proposals on ownership of England’s forests.

It is popularly thought that the Forestry Commission GB (FC) owns the public forest estate in Great Britain (state forests in Northern Ireland are managed by the Forest Service of Northern Ireland). In fact the FC owns no land at all. The public forests across GB are owned by Government Ministers. In Scotland this the Scottish Ministers. In England it is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and in Wales it is Welsh Ministers (though the FC in Wales is about to be merged into a new body Natural Resources Wales from 1 April 2013).

The outcry that followed the UK Government’s plans to sell “up to all” of England’s public forests led to a huge public campaign to “Save Our Woods” and to the establishment of the IPF and a today’s announcement from DEFRA. The public in England clearly want “their” forests to stay in “public ownership”. But this begs the question of what form of public ownership is best suited to serving the interests of the public. My own view at the time was that England’s forests are not really public forests at all – they are state forests owned by a Government Minister who has the freedom to do as he or she likes within the law and subject to Cabinet approval. The public are not involved at all (and the same applies in Scotland and Wales).

I wrote an article for the Observer at the time arguing that if folk want public forests they needed to think about ownership and consider a new model of public ownership that is removed from Government and is more local and accountable to “the public”. I cited the example of public forests in France, for example, where 20% of public forests are owned by 11,000 communes (30% of France’s 36,700 communes or municipalities).

So it is with some interest that I note that the UK Government intends to abolish Forestry Commission England and replace it with a “new, separate Public Forest Estate management body to hold the Estate in trust for the nation.” (Section 9 of DEFRA Response). The response, however, avoids the question of ownership. This new body will manage the English Public Forest Estate but it will not hold legal title to the land and will thus be in the same relationship to Government as the FC is today – the manager of state-owned land.

This proposal is fraught with risks for those who think they have “saved England’s forests for the public”. The Confederation of Forest Industries (CONFOR) has issued a statement welcoming the Government’s response in enthusiastic terms. I would not be surprised if in a few years time the new management body emerges as an industry-dominated quango, liberated from all but the remotest of control from DEFRA and in charge of the English Public Forest estate. I fail to see how that addresses the principal concern of campaigners – to keep England’s forests in public ownership and under public control.

Clearly this proposal provides a whole range of new uncertainties about the future of English forestry and there is a real danger that the new body will become captured by corporate elite interests. The move also heralds the end of the Forestry Commission itself which will soon no longer be a GB body given its forthcoming abolition in Wales. In Scotland, the FC is not devolved although forestry policy is as is the ownership and management of the Public Forest Estate in Scotland (and FC GB has its headquarters in Edinburgh). The Forestry Commissioners remain a body corporate appointed by the Queen but for how much longer? Do the developments in England signal the final full devolution of forestry to Scotland and the end of the Forestry Commission here too?

More importantly, the English proposals provide an ideal opportunity to challenge again the notion of state ownership of England’s forests and devise a new model of public ownership that is local and democratic. In my response to the Land Review Policy Group in Scotland (link available on this page), I argue that: –

“The Forestry Commission in Scotland should be reformed. The state forest service should be made more locally accountable through regionally elected Forest Boards responsible for developing strategic plans for forestry in each region of Scotland. Management of the national forest estate should be opened up to a wider range of bodies than the Forestry Commission. Currently, the estate, which is owned by Scottish Ministers, is put in its entirety at the disposal of the Forestry Commission under the terms of Section 3 of the Forestry Act 1967.”

Such an arrangement I suggest would also help to ensure the public ownership of England’s Public Forest Estate.

It was announced today that the Scottish Government is to spend £3m on building a pier to export timber from Mull’s forests and “boost the island’s timber business”. Whilst this may boost the timber harvesting business, it does nothing for the forestry economy and even less for the development of Mull’s economy. It is good news for the state forest service, for Mull’s mainly absentee investment forestry owners (part of a wider problem of absentee private ownership), and for the multinational companies which own the large sawmills in the south of Scotland and north of England. But it weakens the Mull economy by making it easier to extract and export the island’s natural resources.

In Norway, most sawmills “are located in rural areas, close to the raw material sources and with an important role in local economy and employment.” They produce around 2.3 million cubic metres of sawn timber per year from a forest resource of 96,325 square kilometres. Scotland produces 1.7 million cubic metres of sawn timber per year from a forest resource of 13,850 square kilometres.

Here is a medium-scale sawmill in Sjak kommune in Norway.

Sjak kommune has a population of 2280 people and has 9500ha of forest. Mull has a population of 2667 and around 10,000ha of forest,

Sjak kommune has two sawmills, and a timber house factory – illustrated below. All these industries are community-owned. Mull has no sawmills that I am aware of – the nearest one is in Morvern – Sound Wood.

Scotland’s idea of rural economic and industrial development is stuck in an unimaginative rut dominated by elite state and private industrial interests. Those of us who have been long arguing for a different development model have made little or no headway.

No Government Minister would stand up in Norway and proudly announce a £3 million investment to EXPORT an island’s raw materials. This money would be far better spent investing in timber processing and ancillary industries on Mull to boost jobs and investment in the Mull economy.

UPDATE 15 February 2013

The Forestry Commission has published a page with details of the project.