Q&A with Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment

Written by Staff Reporter on 2 September 2016 in Feature

Q&A with Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform

Holyrood: When you get that call amid a reshuffle to go and see the FM, does it feel nerve-wracking?

Roseanna Cunningham: A bit, because of course there's no application process. The very first time it happens it is usually out of the blue – certainly it was for me. 

I dare say the First Minister gives some regard to people’s interests. I certainly couldn’t have asked for a post that would have been a better fit for me than to be the first dedicated Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform.

Holyrood: How does it feel being asked to leave a brief that you have fully immersed yourself in and take on another?

RC: That’s part and parcel of political and ministerial life. Of course, there are aspects of previous roles that you’ll miss and you'll always have a continuing interest, but the Scottish Government ministerial team works closely together so it’s easy for us to handover to the person taking on our previous role. I like to focus on what’s ahead and I am very much looking forward to rededicating myself to enhancing and protecting our environment, which is something I’m very passionate about.


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Holyrood: Is there any portfolio that you would have liked the least?

RC: Serving in the Scottish Cabinet is an honour and a privilege in any post. Taking forward our ambitious work to tackle climate change and the next steps on our land reform journey doesn’t leave much time for thinking about other posts!

Holyrood: What lessons can you apply from your old portfolio to your new one?

RC: I hugely enjoyed my role as Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training driving forward policies of fair work, equal pay and gender balance – very different to my new role but characterised by the same need to work closely with a diverse stakeholder community, to be strategic in identifying clear long-term aims and to be decisive and determined in taking matters forward.

Holyrood: What are the biggest challenges facing your new brief?

RC: The biggest issue we need to tackle is climate change – 2015 was the warmest year on record for the planet. I am proud that Scotland is seen as a world leader when it comes to tackling climate change. We have an impressive track record – we met our emissions reduction target for 2014. We exceeded our world-leading target for a 42 per cent reduction by 2020, six years ahead of schedule. But there is much more to do, that’s why we plan to establish a new, more testing, target for 2020 – reducing actual emissions by at least 50 per cent.

This will be a big challenge right across government, but it’s also a challenge for everyone living in Scotland. After all, a healthy environment is essential for our economic and social success so it’s in everyone’s interests to help safeguard our natural assets.

Holyrood: Will leaving the EU put Scotland’s environment at risk?

RC: Well, the Scottish Government is working hard to explore every possible option to protect Scotland’s place within Europe. EU policy is at the heart of my portfolio and it influences much of what we do to protect the environment. The strategic direction agreed at European Environment Councils sets the framework for the vast majority of legislation and regulation. That’s why, in common with previous environment ministers, I've prioritised attendance at Environment Council and it’s why I hosted an event in July for stakeholders to discuss the implications of the EU referendum result.

In Scotland, we have built a reputation in Europe as leaders in climate change, the circular economy and waste reduction and I fully intend to make sure we protect that position and continue to play our role contributing to EU-wide policy to maintain, protect and promote the environment.

Holyrood: This is the second time you have held the environment portfolio, what have the biggest changes been in the time you have been away?

RC: The portfolio isn't exactly the same as it was in 2009-11. For example, I’m now wholly responsible for Scottish Water, and waste and climate change are also part of it. Land reform also looms much larger now than it did then, when the 2003 Act had been fully implemented but was still bedding in. 

Apart from new areas of policy, I can see areas where we are much further ahead – for example, on tackling waste, improvements on recycling, investment to manage the impact of flooding and legislation that’s helping to improve the protection for some of our wildlife and habitats.

But protecting and enhancing the environment is not a short-term project – we are trying to deliver change in attitudes and behaviour and that takes time.

Holyrood: What would you hope to have achieved by 2021?

RC: I hope we’ll have made further significant progress in reducing our emissions and tackling climate change. As part of that, I hope that as a country we have shifted substantially towards a low carbon economy – with more power from renewable sources and the value in goods being recognised and preserved with an end to the throwaway culture.

Elsewhere in the portfolio, we’ll have a system of land rights and responsibilities that helps make Scotland a fairer and wealthier place, with improved transparency and a register to help people find out who controls landowners and tenants, as well as seeing that the Land Fund has helped many more communities buy the land they live and work on.

We will also have given communities more opportunities to bring land back into productive use, through the introduction of the right to buy abandoned, neglected and detrimental land, and the right to buy land to further sustainable development.  Both of these rights will allow communities, under certain circumstances, to purchase such land without the owner’s consent.

Fundamentally, I hope and believe Scotland will be a country that values its environment, natural assets and species and continues to have an international reputation as a leading voice on environmental issues.

Holyrood: What is your favourite outdoor activity?

RC: Oh, walking, definitely, at home and abroad, when I can find the time, though that's not always easy. 

My actual holidays are usually walking holidays – this year I went to the Tatra Mountains in Poland and also to the 'Jurassic Coast', i.e., Dorset. Both completely different – but that's the beauty of walking!

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