The new Convener of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee on overseeing Scotland’s environmental transition
The Scottish Election of 2011 not only changed the political map of the country but also ushered in a new generation of politicians: 48 of the current 129 MSPs were elected to the Parliament for the first time in May. With so many new faces, experienced MSPs such as the SNP’s Rob Gibson – first elected in 2003 – are of great value to the parliamentary process.
Gibson was recently appointed as Convener of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, and is no stranger to either the issues involved or the responsibilities of the role. Previous stints as Deputy Convener of the Economy, Enterprise and Tourism Committee and as a leading member of the Transport, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee as well as experience of steering legislation such as the Climate Change Act (2009) made Gibson an obvious candidate to lead one of the Parliament’s major committees.
His personal background is another factor.
Gibson’s partner, Eleanor Scott, is a former Green MSP. The relationship, Gibson explains, means “subjects on the environment and climate change are always hot topics in our house, because of course by and large, we would agree on the aims, but sometimes we disagree on the practical methods to get there”. Another influence is Gibson’s position as MSP for the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency, a huge area covering the entire northern expanse of mainland Scotland. Gibson describes the region as a “vast area with huge amounts to contribute in this debate”. Indeed, the far north of Scotland has come to be seen as the European epicentre of the drive to mitigate climate change and develop alternative sources of energy. With various projects harnessing the area’s forests, peat, wind and tides, Gibson says the methods pioneered in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross will represent a “big part of the discussions (at the UN’s COP 17 Climate Conference) in Durban.” During the previous parliamentary session a number of major pieces of legislation regarding the environment were passed. Gibson says that during the next few years the primary challenge for Scotland will be adapting ideas into practice and ironing out any complications that arise, possibly through further legislation.
“We legislated twice on crofting which took a lot of time and I don’t know if we’ve solved the problems there,” says Gibson. “Proper scrutiny and proper regulation has hopefully been built in and we’ll have secondary legislation regarding that stuff.” Another concern is farming. Gibson says delivering “a bill or two” to reform CAP and resolve landlord-tenant issues in rural areas is a challenge “very close to my heart”.
In other areas, Gibson says the devil is in the detail if effective scrutiny is to be carried out. He continues: “We’ve got the Marine Act, which now needs to be developed. It’s a case of one committee leading to another, and dealing with things that have been decided in principle and set up in practice, but now have to be applied across the country. And the Marine Act will be one of the things that my committee members need to mug up on early, because there are whole areas in here which deal with compliance … marine planning … a lot of areas that are going to reach us through secondary legislation.
“We have to ensure that Low Carbon Scotland, the report and proposals and policies, become more policies than just proposals. And the early setting of emission reduction targets from 2023 to 2027 are going to be before our committee, and we’re going to have to see that a report on proposals and policies that was laid in March 2011 gets proper scrutiny and ensure that every department in government is set to delivering the targets.” Gibson says the committee must broaden its remit and extend scrutiny to public agencies, many of which are undergoing significant reform. “We have to think about how our regulatory bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage and SEPA are working, because there’s never been a detailed look at these regulatory and advisory bodies in the committee. So in these five years we’re going to have to try and tackle how effective they’ve been and what kind of job they’re doing.” While such wide-ranging goals seem attainable in the early days of a new parliamentary session, Gibson cautions that “events, dear boy, will crop up,” and the committee can not expect five years of smooth sailing.
In the past, the committee has been known for encouraging its members to get out and about in Scotland to speak to people and research issues directly, something Gibson is keen to continue.
“There are four members from the south of Scotland in the committee for the first time, one from mid-Scotland and Fife, two from the Northeast and one from the Highlands, so by no means am I going to monopolise what people do; we’re going to get to whatever parts of Scotland we can,” he says.
“We’ve got to look at how small towns and rural areas are coping with the downturn in the economy. Are they the places to lead us out of the recession? Because renewable energy is one the major areas that will, and it’s mainly sited away from the major centres.” The flexibility and breadth of knowledge within the committee membership will be central to its success. Gibson identifies himself, Labour’s Elaine Murray and former Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson as established MSPs with experience of steering and scrutinising legislation, adding,“the rest are all tyros”.
He continues: “They’re going to have to get the balance between rural and climate change and environment into their thinking and I think we’ll see a committee that grows in expertise. For those of us that have been through the Climate Change Bill, and the Marine Bill in the past… we’ve got to make sure that all of our colleagues are contributing because the strength of the committees in Holyrood are that people gather information and reach conclusions which can be shared across the parties. So we’ll be looking for everyone’s input in these things, and that’s pretty much at the heart of my early work.” Despite the lack of experience, Gibson has been encouraged by early discussions: “In the early meetings I think we’ve got a lively bunch of members that are keen to make a difference, and I’m very happy to lead them. While Gibson is passionate about leading Scotland’s ambitious response to a wide range of environmental concerns, he is clear that the primary role of the committee is to act independently as a watchdog and guide and identify expertise and testimony that will benefit the debate.
“I’m a spokesman, but I’m the leader of the body overseeing the way these things are being delivered,” he says. The committee’s function, he adds, is “to try and improve the processes and deliver on the aspirations that the Parliament as a whole had. Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead will be very much a part of our dialogue, but there are many other bodies who have got their own ideas and have perhaps more detailed ideas, who we will wish to hear from.” During his tenure as convener, Gibson hopes the committee will seek evidence from and speak to a wider range of people than has traditionally been the case. “I think we need to hear a lot more from practitioners, people who actually get their hands dirty,” he adds, warning against relying on the “usual suspects” or “just MSPs interviewing a panel”.
“There are plenty of advocates around and they won’t be ignored, but I think we’ve got to look carefully at the people who are actually doing these things on the ground and hear from them in the Parliament.” It is an aspiration that fits with Gibson’s practical approach, but also one that suggests the role of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee has changed. Scotland’s grand environmental plans, talked up for years, are moving into a new phase where tangible delivery and progress take precedence over ideas alone. As the overseer of the Scottish Parliament’s effort, Gibson must help drive the transition.