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19 June 2013
Green Shoots

Green Shoots

If the fledgling Scottish Parliament was a chance for its new legislators to right some previous wrongs, then one of its  first acts showed that the environment was to have a central role.

Just a year in and MSPs passed the National Parks (Scotland) Act, thus designating protected areas in the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.

Despite being the birthplace of John Muir, the man who helped introduce the concept of National Parks, Scotland was 50 years behind England in setting up its first areas.

That first Parliament, controlled by a Labour/ Lib Dem coalition, introduced other important pieces of legislation, acts on land reform, salmon conservation and protecting water quality.

As a nation with large rural areas, many farming communities and miles of coastline, the protection of the natural environment and the promotion of the economic importance of it, whether that is in attracting tourists or marketing its food and drink – or using the natural resources to produce cleaner energy sources, were important drivers in giving a distinctly Scottish feel to the new legislation.

But while many agree that devolution helped give more focus to these issues – it does not mean that the problems were solved overnight.

Robin Harper, who was the lone Green MSP in the first parliamentary session and represented the party until 2011, said devolution had seen improvements.

But he added: “It has been painfully slow.

We’re still looking, environmentally, at the same problems now that we were 12 years ago and things are maybe just a little bit better.” He said: “We are as aware as everyone else, it’s going to be very rare in a ‘oner’ we’ll get the best solution to a problem. We can only work towards the idea that we can get better, then a bit better, then a bit better.” The issue of land reform has been an example in 2013 of a subject which continues to rear its head.

In 1999 the then Scottish Executive launched its Estate Charter, setting out its commitment to land rights on its own lands.  This was a precursor to the 2003 Land Reform Act, which gave a commitment TO public access to land for recreational and other purposes.

The SNP’s Richard Lochhead, who was an MSP in opposition at the time and has been Rural Affairs Secretary since 2007, described that original Act as a “proud moment for the Parliament, making its mark after, literally, centuries of neglect by the Westminster Government”.

But since then, with 432 individuals owning half the land in Scotland – and 16 people owning 10 per cent of the country – the Government has been accused, despite setting up a land reform review group, of kicking the issue into the long grass – with one of the group’s former members, Professor Jim Hunter saying: “Scotland continues to be stuck with the most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership in the entire developed world.” In addition, an amendment to legislation on crofting passed only two years ago is currently being considered after doubts arose over the legal status of owner-occupiers wishing to decroft their land.

Lochhead, however, insisted that the Parliament “has not been put off by the complexity of such issues” and said that while many challenges remained, there had been “big steps forward”.

Lib Dem Ross Finnie, who served as a cabinet minister in the  first two sessions of the Parliament, said one of its  first successes was establishing the notion of sustainable development into policy, something that was further underlined by an independent expert group putting the Scottish Executive’s actions “under the microscope”.

He said: “I thought that was a very serious and sustained effort to embed sustainable development into all the government departments right across the board – not just the environment.” One of the most important pieces of legislation was passed in 2009 – the Climate Change (Scotland) Act – under the SNP minority government, which committed future administrations to cutting carbon emissions by 42 per cent by 2020, 80 per cent by 2050 – as well as meeting yearly yardsticks along the way.

Finnie said this had been built on the “solid work” on climate change policy from the previous administrations, but said the SNP was “right to raise the standard”.

The flagship SNP policy has been under the spotlight yet again after new figures revealed the second yearly target had been narrowly missed.

Finnie adds: “I have a slight sense that all the brouhaha that went with converting climate change into an act, that somehow you’ve got an act and you’ve solved it, that’s been shown to be a little optimistic, to say the least and I was never clear why legislation that had no teeth anyway was a better way of going about it.”

However, Harper said that, even with initial missed targets, the Act was a positive move. “In my view, the targets are set as an inspiration. They have to be set so that some time in the future they are achievable.

“Of course, I had reservations, but there was this great feeling of not so much ‘job done’ but, ‘we’ve got this far’, even if it doesn’t work terribly well over the next few years, we’ve set a benchmark on climate change and no government is going to want to be seen to be continuing to fail, because we’ve created a rod to beat our backs with.” He added: “Governments are not going to be able to get away with making grandiose comments. It’s going to stop people getting too full of themselves and pulling the wool over the eyes, not just of Scotland, but of the rest of the world, actually.” Unlike other briefs, many of the central pillars impacting on environmental issues still straddle the divide between Scottish and UK issues.

Energy policy, for example, is still a reserved issue and although the Scottish Government has set ambitious targets for producing electricity and heat from renewable energy sources, the controls it has over encouraging the renewables industry is mainly through planning and also the offering of incentives for renewable energy.

This month, Energy Minister Fergus Ewing announced a new band under Scotland’s Renewables Obligations Certificates, aimed at pulling in more offshore-renewables developments.

Inevitably, as a country bordered north, east and west by water, the sea surrounding Scotland is a major issue.

In 2010 the Parliament passed the Marine (Scotland) Act which set out a framework to help protect the marine environment, while enabling the continuation of industries vital to the economy, oil and gas, offshore renewables and fishing.

Consultation on the next stage of this will start this summer, on establishing a national marine plan and Marine Protected Areas. Although environmental groups have been pressing the Government to toughen up restrictions – including better protection for species like dolphins and whales, Kara Brydson, RSPB Scotland’s Senior Marine Policy Officer, said the 2010 Act was a “significant game changer”.

She said: “It might have been a long time coming but this sets us apart and puts us up there with other maritime nations like New Zealand and Australia.

“Of course, it means we have to implement this properly. It’s important that we make sure this is the best it can be because it would be such a waste if after a decade of stakeholders sitting round a table we don’t actually implement it to the best of its capabilities.”

Fishing may be an older industry but it has still been a central plank of environmental policy, as a large employer, particularly in coastal communities, and a valuable export.

The issues affecting fishing crews predate devolution, with EU fishing quotas aimed at ensuring well-stocked oceans have lead to the issue of boats having to discard dead  sh back into the water as they are prevented from landing them.

While many issues affecting fishing are still a reserved matter, there has been cooperation between the two governments and Richard Lochhead has attended meetings alongside his UK counterparts when quotas and reforming EU fishing rules have been discussed in Brussels.

He said: “Devolution has delivered a bigger voice for Scotland on issues that are disproportionately important to our country.

“Where fisheries, for instance, is seen as a very marginal issue by the Westminster Government, it is seen as centre stage of the rural economy in Scotland.

“Everything is not simply about legislation, but about bringing our influence to bear in Europe and elsewhere on the international stage."

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