Scotland: Privatization of public land turns into a scandal

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Government was accused of “backdoor privatisation” last night as
details emerged of plans to lease off a quarter of Scottish woodlands,
leaving 2 per cent of the land area of Scotland in the hands of
overseas timber companies.

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While government aides strongly denied that any land would be sold, Labour MSPs seized on the revelation by Michael Russell, the outgoing Environment Minister, that Rothschild’s, the London merchant bank, had approached the SNP government in 2007 with proposals to develop the Forestry Commission’s estate.

Rothschild’s, which was closely involved with a number of
privatizations during Baroness Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, was
also linked with the last Conservative government’s attempt to dispose
of the Forestry Commission in 1994. That was defeated by a broad
church of political parties (including the SNP), trades unions,
environmentalists and the Ramblers Association. Mr Russell confirmed
that an initial approach for more than 100,000 hectares had been made
by Rothschild’s and that six meetings involving government ministers
and officials and bank executives had been held between October 2007
and July 2008. Scotland’s national forest estate is valued at £800

The government’s consultation paper suggests that it would be possible both to encourage renewable energy developments and provide funding for woodland creation “if it were possible to release capital from the estate”. This could be achieved “by offering long leases and cutting rights”. The government believes £200 million could be raised from leasing a quarter of forests, with the money used to speed up tree planting to tackle global warming. Money would also be invested in woodland creation, with the aim of reaching a national target of 25 per cent cover – an additional 650,000 hectares (1.6 million acres) of woodland. Opponents say that 75-year leases effectively amount to a sale, with the government ceding control over an area equivalent to the size of Fife. Critics fear that unless stringent guarantees are written into leasing agreement, private timber companies are likely to cut down trees simply to meet market demand, without consideration of wider issues.

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Deane RimermanFebruary 19th, 2009 at 5:56 pm

By Jenny Haworth

Environment Correspondent
PLANS to lease out a quarter of Scotland’s forest estates have met with opposition from almost three- quarters of people who responded to a Scottish Government consultation, The Scotsman can reveal.
Of 399 people who gave their views on allowing private companies to have 75-year leases for a quarter of Scotland’s publicly owned forests in return for £200 million, 71 per cent were against.

About 12 per cent supported the SNP government’s proposals, and the rest were undecided or neutral, a summary of the responses seen by The Scotsman has shown.

The document also highlighted that the Forestry Commission Scotland’s union had collected about 3,700 signatures on a petition against the idea. In addition, the Liberal Democrats say they have gathered a 12,000-name petition against the proposals.

Allan MacKenzie, department trade union secretary at the Forestry Commission, said it was time to shelve the proposals.

“We are not surprised at the overall percentage of people against it,” he said. “What we are surprised at is the cross section of the population who have taken the time and trouble to voice their opinions as to why leasing is a bad idea.”

Jonathan Hughes, head of policy at Scottish Wildlife Trust, said the overwhelming “no” vote sent a very clear signal. “The Government must not ignore both expert and popular opinion,” he said. “It must abandon the big-lease proposal now and remove the relevant clauses from the draft climate bill.”

Among reasons for opposing the plans, in the draft Scottish Climate Change Bill, were that it was “tantamount to privatisation” and that public access and use of woodlands could suffer if they were in the hands of private firms whose priority was to make a profit.

The proposals were formed as a way to make money to spend on fulfilling targets to plant 10,000 hectares of new forest each year, which are currently not being met.

However, some respondents claimed there was no need to lease out forests to raise money to expand woodland. Instead, they thought targets for new woodland could be met by improving access to Scottish Government grant funding or by raising cash by enabling the Forestry Commission Scotland to form joint ventures to build renewables schemes.

Among reasons given for supporting the proposals, those responding argued that the private sector would be more efficient and show greater innovation, and could reduce the need to use public money to subsidise businesses that rely on the forests, such as timber harvesting.

The proposals were put forward by the former environment minister Michael Russell, who was replaced last week by Roseanna Cunningham.

Sarah Boyack, Labour’s rural and environment spokesperson, said: “We believe the new minister Roseanna Cunningham must now drop the plans to lease large swathes of the forest and move on to a more positive agenda.”

Jim Hume, Lib Dem environment spokesman, described the proposals as “ludicrous” and said they would see “vast swathes of Scotland’s forests effectively sold off under long-term leases”.

A spokesperson for Forestry Commission Scotland said there had been a “healthy response” to the consultation. He added: “The minister will assess these and make a decision on the way forward in due course.”

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