New kid on the block
To look at Paul Wheelhouse’s new ministerial office, it’s clear that he hasn’t been in the job long.The walls are bare, with no keepsakes or pictures hanging from them and the sign on the door still has the name of his predecessor – Stewart Stevenson.
Wheelhouse was one of four new appointments in the Scottish Government’s surprise reshuffle at the start of September, replacing Stevenson as Minister for Environment and Climate Change. But since then he has already had a stream of events to attend and addressed Parliament within days of the announcement.
He admits it will take time to get to grips with his entire brief – including everything from wildlife crime, flooding and of course, ensuring that Scotland sticks to its legally binding targets to reduce climate change.
Clearly, there will not be a prolonged honeymoon period for the new minister – there just isn’t time. One of the most high-profile parts of his brief is the climate-change agenda and earlier this year the Government announced that the first target towards reducing emissions by 42 per cent by 2020 had been missed.
Environmental groups, who welcomed Wheelhouse’s appointment, also said that they wanted the new minister to be taking on the rest of his cabinet and forcing them to make decisions they might not otherwise have made to cut greenhouse gases.
However, he said other members of the Government were also committed to the emissions goal.
“I don’t think there should be any misunderstanding that ministers in other portfolios aren’t aware of the responsibilities we have,” he said. “Certainly I am aware that colleagues recognise both the legal and policy commitments that we have given to address climate change. That’s been apparent from meetings I have had with colleagues so far.” In the last issue of Holyrood there were calls for the Government to ensure the missed emissions target was not repeated.
He said: “Certainly reading the article in Holyrood, I did pick up that was an issue that people were keen to see – me championing climate change across portfolios.
“There is a recognition that while we had a bad year in 2010, in terms of the impact of the weather and [what the] consumption of domestic gas for heating had on the outturn figures, equally, we’ll have sometimes good years where the figures could rebound in the other direction.
“The key thing is to keep an eye on the trend where we have good years, not to be overly panicked if we have bad years as long as the direction is good and that we feel we’re on target in the longer term. We need to keep our eyes on that trend and not risk either complacency or over confidence in any respect.” Wheelhouse said he wants to “think laterally” and collaborate with ministers as often as possible and that he was confident he would be “an effective champion” for the environment.
“I have a good relationship with my colleagues in government,” he adds. “We’ll have good, healthy, robust discussions and I’ll do my best to ensure they have the information that they need so that they understand what the environmental implications are.” The former economic consultant was born in Belfast at the same hospital as Lib Dem, Michael Moore, who he would later challenge for the Westminster seat of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. He moved to Edinburgh when he was three, settling in the Borders in 2000 after spells at the University of Aberdeen and a part-time MBA back in the capital.
In political terms, it has been a speedy rise to the position he now finds himself in. He fought his first election in 2010, unsuccessfully, against Michael Moore, but he did increase the SNP’s vote.
“It was a very frustrating election, the debate largely focused on the so-called prime ministerial debates and I think that changed the election quite fundamentally.
“It was a very frustrating experience as a candidate because you’ve got people coming out of the polling station telling you they voted for the other guy to put another candidate out.” He maintains that the election was a great experience and “not in vain”, because the next year he was part of the SNP’s landslide.
Although he still did not get elected as a constituency MSP, he was voted in to Parliament on the South of Scotland list.
Some of the reasons he cites for going into politics are that as a member of the SNP, he wants independence for Scotland and he felt that there was nobody standing up for his part of the world.
“I wanted to do something for my local area, I felt there was a part of the country that had huge potential and I didn’t think, necessarily, that the representation we had was doing it justice, I’m delighted I was elected by 114,000 people, as it turned out, on the list and gave me an opportunity to, with my colleagues, push forward opportunities for the South of Scotland – which as a region has perhaps suffered relative to the rest of Scotland. There’s a decline in traditional sectors and I think it needs very strong voices to speak for it.” Once at the Parliament, he was a member of the Finance Committee, and also spent time as parliamentary liaison officer to Richard Lochhead and Stewart Stevenson – getting some experience of the environment brief – as well as PLO to Bruce Crawford.
But his appointment to minister only half way through the Parliament’s life came as a genuine surprise.
“I never thought for one minute I would be considered as a minister, certainly not in this Parliament, let alone in the first 18 months,” he said. “There’s a lot of talented people in the party and I’m well aware that we’ve probably got many more talented individuals than we have ministerial positions.” He adds: “Lots of things were running through my mind as to why I was being invited to Bute House at 8.30am. I was trying to think whether there was anything on Twitter or Facebook I should be embarrassed about or whether indeed it was something [to do with when] I was working in [the] capacity as PLO for Bruce Crawford at the time, and I wondered whether it was some meeting to do with the referendum or negotiations on that.” In addition to climate change, his brief covers issues like land reform, crofting – Wheelhouse has already announced the convenership of the Crofting Commission, an organisation which he says has the chance to “make a positive contribution to what is a very fragile part of the economy and rural communities”, and flooding – which has been particularly at the forefront of people’s minds after the severe weather in September, and he has already held meetings to discuss improving winter resilience.
“I’m keen to get to grips with that area of the portfolio as soon as I possibly can,” he said. “We’re trying to get ahead of the game.
After having such a wet summer, we may have problems down the line in the autumn and the winter, perhaps worse than previous years.” His predecessor, Stewart Stevenson, had been in charge of environment almost without interruption since 2007 and Wheelhouse has paid tribute to him.
He says: “I’ve got huge respect for Stewart, I think he has been a tremendous minister and a formidable parliamentarian and I think he has obviously got a lot to be proud of in terms of what he has achieved within his portfolio. I hope I can carry forward the kind of energy he showed in the role and do justice to continuing that tradition.
“In many ways, there’s a bit of sadness that I was taking up a position and Stewart was leaving government, but I think he has a huge role to play outside government, He’s a parliamentary liaison officer now and I think he’ll enjoy that.
There are less ministerial constraints and he can really unleash himself on the Parliament.” In general, his opinion is that Holyrood is a “green” parliament and hopes that he is also in a “green government”.
He adds: “I think, just on a personal level, there’s a very constructive attitude amongst the spokespeople for all the parties on environmental and rural affairs issues. Indeed, just in the chamber, taking part in debates on things like climate justice – which is an extremely important contribution that Scotland is hopefully making to a global problem – we saw a tremendous quality of debate, great speeches from across the chamber, a broad agreement about what we should be trying to do as a society to assist the international community and people that are more vulnerable across the world to deal with problems that we largely have created in the West.
“I think that was tremendously heartening, so I’m very optimistic that we can continue that positive mindset that we are a can-do parliament and we can achieve great things if we work together.”