Making Scotland Sustainable: Why the SNP don't have a clue

"Mismanagement, misunderstandings and uncertainties" - a personal (and possibly controversial) view of the current land management system.

by Alastair Smith

If it isn’t the damning atrocity of declining standards in educational attainment, if it isn’t the cutting down of thousands of college places up and down the country and if it isn’t the horrendous failings of Seirbheis Phoilis na h-Alba (the Scottish Police Service for anyone who wasn’t born in the Outer Hebrides), it is the abysmal laziness of the Scottish Government in looking after its primary concern — that is, the actual physical landmass of Scotland itself.

Truth be told, we have heard distant rumblings from the SNP on sketchy pledges to let communities buy land for unspecified purposes, all in the name of getting rid of the unfairness of wealthy landowners owning a lot of land. Perhaps a little redistribution is a good idea in principle, but whether owned privately or by a bunch of local people with good intentions, something profitable and sustainable still needs to be done with that land. This usually involves a degree of consensus between those with the cash to splash, and those with the creative wizardry and community spirit. 

It is enough to say that these distant rumblings should come as a good indication that Scotland is still well and truly hungry for a stronger stance and a stronger set of solutions to climate change, climate disruption and land management. The real story is that the SNP have not got a single idea as to what a more sustainable Scotland for all should look like. Repeated mentions of the words ‘inequality’ don’t address the gross failings of the unequal attention the governing party has given to managing our land for all of our inhabitants.

If we take ‘inequality’ as the buzzword of the SNP, behind the ever shady cloak of ‘tackling it,’ we can actually observe on a daily basis the relative sustainment of its growth. We just have to look at the Scottish Government’s policies on green energy to realise that scarring our landscape with windmills is such an abhorrent attempt at sustainable energy and sustainable economics that we should not allow ourselves to whistle on the wind when it comes to promoting more diverse forms of energy production. Thanks to green energy subsidies, farmers now gain massive bonuses for installing wind turbines at the expense of local home owners, whose property values plummet. In real terms, in the lovely countryside (outside George Square, Glasgow!) homeowners are losing out while the landowners boost their own pockets. If this isn’t blatant inequality, then I don’t know what is!

Nowhere is this more exemplified than in Aberdeenshire, the former territory of its former MSP Alex Salmond. Once a beautiful green region of peaceful rolling plains, Aberdeenshire is now becoming an increasingly urban-looking depository of wind towers that could just as easily be featured in the next Star Wars movie. It has been said many times by any SNP spokesperson that the impact on tourism will be minimal, but given that a report from March 2008 was quoted as saying that, “the number of tourists affected by wind farm exposure will be very large,” and that £4.7 million pounds of potential tourism revenue could be lost, this is a significant brushing aside in a governmental report.

 Whatever you think of the aesthetics and economics of the wind industry (which, let’s not forget, has its supporters too) when we think to ourselves of what £4.7 million could pay for in terms of improving our environmental and educational infrastructures, we should realise pretty soon that the lack of tourists could be considered a substantial problem. Given also, that in the same report, in what the SNP calls its DREAM model (no idea what this stands for but possibly refers to a dream world), it is stated that the 0.18% reduction in expenditure is assumed to be associated with ‘day trippers from Scotland’. In other words, the ‘tourists’ referred to are simply just ourselves! Well, if I was a tourist in my own country, I need only spend only minutes touring Aberdeenshire to realise that there are windmills kicking around. It is sufficient to say that we need global tourism, too, not just home-based travellers. 

The investment in offshore wind is to be welcomed with the investment in the ‘Offshore Wind Industry Group’ (OWIG). Suitable schemes have been identified. The creation of the ‘Wave Energy Scotland’ task force is also to be welcomed, but with millions of pounds being thrown at marine power and nothing to show for it and with tree numbers still in decline, we really have to question the government’s balanced approach to its energy policy, which really seems to be suitably unbalanced and biased towards wind. If there is any indication at all to the way in which the wind is truly blowing for the next elected parliament of Scotland, it is that much is to be done to redress the balance, and perhaps the most fundamental thing we could be doing to go back to grass roots policy is quite simply to be in the business of planting more trees.

Why trees? Of all the simple things of this earth, trees are a vital ingredient to the regeneration of our landscape, and the real jewel is that they aren’t just for our basic aesthetic needs. Woodlands, by their very existence, provide multiple benefits; they create places for recreation, help to promote health through cleaner air, and provide good habitats in which wildlife can thrive and a diverse environment can flourish. Perhaps most importantly of all, our forests absorb much of the carbon generated in other parts of the economy and so provide an increasingly important way of mitigating climate change. A larger forest industry offers a big opportunity to support climate change mitigation - indeed, recent research shows that as much as 10% of all carbon emissions in the UK could be absorbed through an expanded forest industry based on more wooded and forested areas. Besides being a valuable construction and paper crop, sustainably produced wood fuel has the potential to save approximately seven million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by using biomass technology, an area which is arguably mismanaged at present.

There is no question that our forests and timber industries are an important, if often underrepresented area of government policy. Here are some quick facts. Only 12% of UK land is currently used for forestry, whilst across Europe the average figure is 37%. In Scotland, the coverage is 17% but even if we double this figure, our forestry is still lower than the European standards. 

There are some positives. It has been estimated that the forest and timber industries are worth £1.1 billion to the Scottish economy, equating to 1.1% of the total. If it were possible to double the size of the industry, a further 10,000 jobs could be added but the report Roots for Future Growth states that the right level of support and enthusiasm needs to be shown by the Government and its agencies. The questions we have to ask right now at this critical juncture are, does the SNP administration currently show enough enthusiasm?

Based on their current record, it could be argued that the answer is no. The creation of large scale onshore wind developments has currently felled millions of trees without replacements being planted quickly enough. They have also failed to produce reports on a balanced assessment of the uses of our land mass and how we can balance the needs of stakeholders. A variety of material exists but there is no consensus or consistency. Grouse shooting is another prime example of an activity, which, though providing traditional economic benefits to local communities, perhaps needs a re-examination if we are to sustain growth in the most logical of ways. The SNP has traditionally been a party to challenge conservatism and inequality, yet it continues to champion a sport that, whilst popular in Scotland, does have negative impacts on populations of birds of prey and has been argued to produce a monoculture ecosystem.

Mark Avery, a wildlife writer, is one of the biggest opponents of driven grouse shooting. He cites the difficulty in policing the illegal killing of protected species of birds, such as the Hen Harrier in England. The economic benefits of shooting are often listed as a reason to retain grouse shooting as it is. On the day, shooting activity is further supported by a wide range of seasonal/day employment activity. More widely, grouse shooting supports a range of jobs in the local economy and beyond. 

More critically, however, the RSPB acknowledges that we hear less about the associated environmental and economic costs of grouse moor management practices (e.g. the environmental cost of burning on deep peat and associated economic cost of water treatment to remove colour) and even less about the potential economic benefits of alternative forms of land use, including other grouse shooting styles less reliant on producing big numbers of grouse. It is often stated that high-input driven-grouse shooting is the only economically viable shooting style. In good years, the income generated may be sufficient to pay for management costs. In bad years, where no shooting is possible, most moors must operate at a significant loss. Whilst other styles of shooting may shoot fewer grouse and realise less income, the management costs and the costs to the environment may be considerably less.

At the moment, however, the RSPB are unclear about the returns made from moors under different management and the overall return on investment made both annually and across the full range of moors and the amount of public funding committed to grouse moor interests. Their position is that grouse shooting is legal, popular amongst elements of the shooting community and of local economic importance. Across the UK, however, grouse shooting is often practised in almost uniquely high input-high-output styles with weak regulation. 

The lack of effective regulation has environmental consequences which range from unacceptable (e.g. illegal killing and disturbance of birds of prey) to highly questionable (on current evidence) management practices (e.g. intensive burning on deep peat soils, medicating grouse, construction of tracks, killing of mountain hares, removal of trees from moorland edge). 

In the absence of effective self-regulation, the RSPB believes that grouse moor management and shooting practice must be more effectively regulated to ensure that the public interest is served through securing favourable environmental outcomes. The introduction of a new law in Scotland on vicarious liability (where the landowner is responsible for the actions of those acting in his/her interest) sends a clear signal that the ongoing killing of birds of prey is wholly unacceptable. Yet difficulties do remain in policing the new laws. 

All in all, it would seem that there is evidence then to say that we should be moving towards a more progressive estate management system where conservation and sustainable land use is a priority, rather than making money from wealthy shooters at the expense of the full range of environmental interests. 

A final piece of interest comes from the Scottish Land and Estates Moorland group. As of their report in January 2013, there were approximately 1 million hectares of land (a third of the total moorland area of Scotland) dedicated to grouse shooting. This provided, in 2011/2012, 2640 Full-time Equivalent jobs, which generated around £30 million in wages per annum from grouse shooting and allied services. When we consider that despite the fall in number of hectares for the sport, that 1 million is still an extensive area of land and when we consider that doubling the forest industries could potentially create 10,000 new jobs, with a suitably higher return in wages per annum, then there is, in retrospect, a stronger argument to increase the amount of trees that we plant and reduce the number of grouse moors that we have. The dilemma is, that tree crops in themselves are a monoculture and so we would need to ensure that we plant trees for climate change mitigation and conservation as well as plant more trees for crops.

The overall conclusion then is one of mismanagement, misunderstandings and uncertainties. In the midst of all this is the recognition that we need to create simpler frameworks, where various stakeholders can agree to a common land use policy that does not favour one interest over another. What the Scottish Government needs to do is to investigate and report before it conducts its business, rather than the opposite way round. Instead of a culture where we build vast amounts of onshore wind turbines at the expense of tourism and forestry and then report on its negative impacts, we now need to view the land use in a holistic way before we conduct our operations. The Scottish Government has failed to see the whole picture and it has been pulling the wool over our eyes for the last parliament. The next government must make effective land management a priority, or the problems our children will face will be stark indeed, and the inequalities from which we wish to escape will be a dream imagined as a second nationalist or idealistic bloom rather than a set of realistic roots for growth. If there is one thing we must countenance, it is the fact that planting more trees is, in the spirit of unionism, a truly collaborative enterprise that can only serve to benefit us all. 

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