The Minister for Environment and Climate Change insists budgetary concerns can be mitigated
Stewart Stevenson, the oldest minister in the Scottish Government, likes to joke that at 65 he is only 16 years away from the average life expectancy of a Scottish male. But for a man who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his membership of the SNP, his energy is in abundant supply, as is a palpable enthusiasm for his brief.
While Stevenson complains that he learned that international travel is “a dirge” long ago, he talks animatedly about his recent trip to the UN COP17 climate conference in Durban and recounts that in the 100 days after he was appointed Minister for Environment and Climate Change following May’s election, he attended no fewer than 400 meetings.
The aim of such a punishing schedule, which took in nature, agriculture and energy projects the length and breadth of Scotland, was to get a handle on what is an incredibly diverse aspect of the modern Scottish economy.
Stevenson is well known for his positive outlook, and is quick to brush off recent criticism of the SNP’s ambitious renewable energy policies, charges which the party regularly accuses of ‘talking down Scotland’.
“Renewables is a very straightforward business proposition,” he says, dismissing the notion that the potential of the industry, which, he adds, could account for 10 per cent of the Scottish economy and five per cent of its workforce within five years, is used as a political tool.
“In the Pentland Firth alone we have [the potential for] 60GW of power; that’s ten times what Scotland’s domestic requirement is,” he adds, explaining that England, a net electricity importer, would be a major export market for an independent Scotland.
“We’re talking about significant industries, and our focus on them is precisely because we can create entirely new employment opportunities and economic opportunities for Scotland. And [yes] it has political benefits and illustrates how we can be independent in provision of our own energy, but it fundamentally is straight, good business.” With more and more wind farms springing up across rural Scotland, a growing number of increasingly organised protest groups have accused the SNP of having a callous disregard for Scotland’s landscape and the local communities that live alongside the turbines.
Stevenson admits “the location of wind farms is important, and visual impact is not something you can ignore,” but refutes the charge that the Scottish Government rubber stamps planning approval for new farms indiscriminately, adding during a stint as minister responsible for planning he “certainly refused applications on visual grounds”.
Stevenson believes the disruption will not become as acute as many fear, explaining that in just a few years most major wind projects will be based offshore while Scotland’s biggest renewables potential lies in tidal and wave power.
In 2012 Stevenson says that among his priorities is the upcoming consultation ahead of a planned bill on aquaculture and fisheries.
He dismisses the common perception that Scotland’s fast growing salmon farming industry (estimated revenues £450m) and the wellestablished angling sector (well over £100m) are locked in a zero sum game where the expansion of fish farming depletes wild stocks while limiting farm applications stifles economic opportunity. “Yes, historically, there has been some tension in some areas of Scotland… [but] it is important that we don’t imagine that there needs to be conflict between the two interests, they can co-exist together,” he says. Salmon farming, Stevenson contends, is becoming increasingly sustainable; while wild salmon can require up to 10kg of food to increase their body weight by 1kg, farmed salmon can produce the same amount with just 1kg of food.
In October, comments Stevenson made during a BBC documentary, in which he revealed he would consider a ban on fish farms in areas important to wild stocks as well as mandatory publication of data on fish lice levels, were interpreted by the industry as a somewhat lukewarm endorsement. Stevenson says the comment “that angered people was to do with protected areas and not fish farming,” adding, “it’s inevitable when you do what is a 25-minute interview with television and something under one minute is actually used.” Another imminent challenge will be a reorganisation of Scotland’s biodiversity strategy, a policy wildlife charities have warned is underperforming. Stevenson says that “in European terms, I think Scotland is doing well in biodiversity,” but in late December the Guardian published comments from unnamed sources at Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) that claimed deep cuts imposed on the agency’s budget had seriously undermined attempts to protect species such as red squirrels, sea eagles and beavers. Stevenson says announcements on the continued funding of projects such as Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels will be made in due course, explaining that the Scottish Government “will of necessity have to do less but there will be important projects that we want to continue”.
The 10 per cent budget cut at SNH has been replicated at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). The SNP administration came to power in 2007 with the intention of merging the two agencies, but Stevenson says funding reductions should not be interpreted as continued ambivalence towards their role. The Scottish Government acknowledges SEPA and SNH “are doing rather different jobs”, he says, adding that he doesn’t think revisiting the merger proposal is “something we’d look at in the early course”.
Indeed, Stevenson argues both organisations have been strengthened in recent years, despite cuts to staff. “In many ways they’ve improved their performance even though there’s fewer people,” he says. “Like all bodies across the Scottish Government they have to be more efficient and more focused on the things that matter and I think both bodies have done exceptionally well on that.” A SEPA consultation late last year fleshed out a new model of regulation that focuses more on targeted interventions than the daily grind of inspections. Stevenson supports the new approach, adding that “in areas where we know there is good practice and inspections basically never find anything then of course there is no point in just having a tick-box mentality”.
Elsewhere, a £50m cut to the Scottish Rural Development Programme leaves the scheme more reliant on EU funding. In December SNP MEP Alyn Smith told Holyrood that the gravity of the ongoing eurozone crisis means Scottish policy makers should not consider a partial or even total cut of EU agricultural funding as unthinkable. Any such withdrawal of funds would leave Scottish agri-environment schemes dangerously exposed, but Stevenson plays down the possibility. “We need to protect as much of the money that we get from Europe to support CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] and fisheries, because without that money we would certainly be in a difficult position,” he says, countering: “I’m not anticipating that we’re going to meet a catastrophic outcome from CAP, because I think there is a sufficient understanding across Europe of the importance of continuing to support agriculture.” Budgets aside, Stevenson is also confident that Scotland can get a good deal out of the current negotiations on CAP reform. He expresses his satisfaction that comments supporting the withdrawal of all financial support for farmers made by Caroline Spelman, secretary of state at Defra, have been moderated. Such an outcome “would devastate our farming industry,” says Stevenson, which explains why the SNP “will be quite robust” in ensuring the UK Government reflects the needs of Scotland during the negotiations. However, Stevenson argues that such disagreements “precisely illustrate how much better off we would be if we were sitting at the negotiating table in Europe negotiating in our own right”.
One area where UK and Scottish interests are “very much aligned” is on climate change.
Stevenson says he enjoyed being part of the UK delegation in Durban, and says the conference, which produced a general agreement to negotiate a binding international treaty on emissions reduction by 2015, was the most productive “for a number of years”.
While he acknowledges the challenges that still remain as major emitters fail to fully engage with the process, Stevenson argues more is being done to combat climate change than many imagine. Despite dithering by federal governments in the USA, Canada and Australia, Stevenson says many individual states and provinces have begun to take positive steps to tackle carbon use. In that regard, Stevenson says that at events like Durban it is made “very clear that people do understand what we’ve been able to do in Scotland.
“The legal framework we’ve created for dealing with the issue of climate change, and the actions we are taking are not incompatible with being a modern, developed country.” Despite the challenges presented by budgetary pressures on all sides, it is typical of the man to maintain a positive outlook. Reflecting on his 50 years of political involvement, Stevenson explains that “for all my adult life I have been motivated to do my best for the people of Scotland.” For those hoping he may be slowing down, he offers a cautionary note: “There’s nothing that inspires me to greater efforts than when I meet someone of the contrary opinion.”