Greening the Scottish Government: What the SNP-Green deal could mean for the natural environment in Scotland

In this post, I look at the commitments made in the deal, and assess how radical an impact they could have on the natural environment in Scotland

The ‘co-operation agreement’ between the SNP Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party includes, as one of its sections, policies on the natural environment.

The headline commitment is to a “Natural Environment Bill”. There is an “aim to introduce” this into the Parliament in year three of the current Scottish Parliament session (i.e. 2023/2024).

It is promised that the Bill will:

  • put in place key legislative changes to restore and protect nature, including targets for nature restoration that cover land and sea, and an effective, statutory, target-setting monitoring, enforcing and reporting framework
  • contain targets based on an overarching goal of preventing any further extinctions of wildlife and halting declines by 2030, and making significant progress in restoring Scotland’s natural environment by 2045
  • contain targets that are achievable and challenging. These targets will be developed in consideration of available evidence and through consultation, and are expected to include outcome targets that accommodate species abundance, distribution & extinction risk, and habitat quality and extent..
  • cover key actions to deliver the targets, including the agreement to protect 30% of Scotland’s land and seas by 2030, and highly protect 10%.

As is inevitable in any such wide-ranging proposal for legislation, the full significance of the bill will only be known when the targets and changes are published. Clearly, however, the Bill has the potential for a significant impact on the natural environment, if its eventual scope is as wide as is promised.

There is also a free-standing commitment to expand the newly established “Nature Restoration Fund” over the duration of this parliamentary session and encompass multi-year funding. That is promised to make an important contribution to meeting those targets and restoring Scotland’s terrestrial and marine environment. How extensive that impact will be of course depends both on those targets, and how much extra cash will be given to the fund. Providing multi-year funding will certainly help to widen its impact, given that restoration projects are likely to require funding over a number of years.

The policy programme also commits to a review of environmental justice, including the case for an environmental court, taking place during the “current parliamentary session”.  

Beyond these overarching policies, there are also commitments to specific measures in a number of areas, as follows.

National Parks

At least one new National Park is to be designated by the end of the parliamentary session, with provisos that “National Parks should be designated only in response to local community demand and … would be smaller in scale than existing parks

Agriculture

In agriculture, there is a commitment to ensuring that “the sector makes the emission reductions required to contribute to Scotland’s world-leading emissions targets, to support and deliver nature restoration and a just transition to net zero, and to produce high quality food”.

To achieve this, the paper promises that:

We will work with the sector and stakeholders to bring forward a consultation on the options for future agriculture and wider land use support through a Bill to replace the current Common Agricultural Policy framework for agriculture and land use support. The Bill will be introduced in 2023 to deliver:

  • a new support framework that will include delivering climate mitigation and adaptation, nature restoration and high quality food production
  • integration of enhanced conditionality against public benefits, with targeted outcomes for biodiversity gain and low emissions production
  • increased equality of opportunity, improving business resilience, efficiency and profitability.”

Specific commitments on agriculture are few, which is not surprising given that the task of transforming policies to the new post-Brexit is a complex and substantial exercise. It can be noted, though that there are promises to:

  • stay aligned (where practicable) with new EU measures and policy developments ensuring Scotland prioritises the transition to net zero, the restoration of nature and the sustainable production of high quality food
  • support the necessary change in land use in Scotland in line with the recommendations of the Just Transition Commission
  • support the growth of the organic farming sector through the establishment of a new Organic Food and Farming Action Plan with a target for at least the doubling of the area of land under organic management by the end of the .parliamentary session.

Regional Land Use Partnerships

Five pilot Regional Land Use Partnerships (RLUPs) were established this year. There is a commitment that if those pilots “can demonstrate that they meet expectations relating to the above, and show that they have taken a democratic, local approach” then

  • plans will be developed for a second phase from 2023 with the aim of further roll out across the country before the new rural support scheme is established
  • RLUPs will take into consideration the delivery of statutory climate and nature targets on a regional basis, and
  • Consideration will be given how RLUPs can influence public funding streams.

Forestry and woodlands

By contrast with some other areas of policy, many of the commitments here are more concrete.

The policy programme commits to increasing woodland creation “in line with existing recently increased targets, and to explore opportunities to go further and faster, particularly on nature restoration”, with specific commitments to:

  • increase annual woodland creation targets to 18,000 hectares per year by 2024/25; increase the annual native woodland creation target from 3000 to 4000 hectares, setting evidence-based targets for both native woodlands and natural regeneration.
  • increase Forestry Land Scotland’s capacity to grow the public forest through the acquisition of land, particularly in National and Regional Parks, by increasing capital funding.
  • protect Scotland’s ancient woods through establishing a National Register of Ancient Woodlands, and by encouraging owners and managers to maintain them and improve their condition, providing support through the Forestry Grant Scheme.

More general commitments are given to:

  • consult on ways to increase easily accessible, sustainably managed woodlands, including native woodlands, in urban or “peri-urban areas”…
  • explore the opportunities to pilot landscape-scale projects involving natural regeneration of woodlands…
  • support public sector bodies, as part of their statutory duty under the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Act 2018, to identify and implement opportunities to increase tree cover on land they own and manage, with an emphasis on native woodland and natural regeneration. (This may mean further legislative changes are required to strengthen that duty).
  • ensure that the replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy ring-fences funds for tree planting, orchard creation, and woodland regeneration, as well as support for the development of rural businesses linked with forestry
  • implement the recommendations of the Deer Management Working Group.

Land reform

Consultation is to be undertaken on further land reform measures, in particular “to tackle the scale and concentration of land ownership in rural and urban Scotland. This will include a public interest test to apply to transfers of particularly large scale land holdings which will include a right of pre-emption in favour of community.”

A Land Reform Bill will be introduced by the end of 2023, and there is a specific commitment to double the Scottish Land Fund from £10 million to £20 million per annum by the end of the parliamentary session.

Aquaculture

The paper accepts that “that the status quo of aquaculture regulation is not an option”, and it includes commitments to:

  • reform the regulatory and planning framework, starting with an independent review which will make recommendations for further work by the end of 2021
  • develop a vision and strategy for sustainable aquaculture that places an enhanced emphasis on environmental protection and community benefits
  • begin an immediate programme of work to better protect wildlife and the environment.

Marine protection

This is another area of policy with more specific commitments, including promises to:

  • deliver fisheries management measures for existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) where these are not already in place, as well as key coastal biodiversity locations outside of these sites, by March 2024 at the latest
  • add to the existing MPA network by designating Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) covering at least 10% of Scotland’s seas
  • take specific measures to protect the inshore seabed in areas outwith MPA and HPMAs, including a possible cap to fishing activity in inshore waters
  • ensure the recovery of “priority marine features” as part of wider ecosystem recovery and biodiversity enhancement.

All these measures are to be implemented taking into account “socio-economic factors affecting the resilience and viability of marine industries and the coastal communities which depend on them”, with plenty of public engagement and consultation.

Species protection

The programme promises “ urgent action is needed to tackle wildlife crime and to address the environmental impacts of intensive grouse moor management”, together with a review of licensing or further regulation including over muirburn, wildlife control, the use of medicated grit, and wildlife crime.

It also promises to support the continued expansion of the beaver population, including into more locations in Scotland.

Good Food Nation Bill

The programme restates the Scottish Government’s commitment to a “ Good Food Nation Bill”, which will include:

  • placing duties on the Scottish Government and some public bodies “to produce statements of policy in relation to food and make provision as to the effect of those statements
  • require those statements to set out the main outcomes to be achieved in relation to food-related issues, the policies needed to do this and the indicators or other measures required to assess progress

In addition, the promised Human Rights Bill will introduce a right to adequate food, as part of the overall right to an adequate standard of living.

Consideration will also be given to the should be given to the need for a statutory body, such as a Food Commission.

What difference will these policies make?

So those are the commitments. What difference will they make to Scotland’s natural environment?

The first and obvious point to make is that many of the commitments are ones to “bring forward” proposals, to hold “reviews” and “consultations”, and to then pass laws, set targets, and the like. Their impact will obviously only be clear once those promises are turned into legislation, decisions are taken by government, and funds are allocated.

However, the package of proposals certainly sets out a framework which could be used to have dramatic, and beneficial, effect on Scotland’s natural environment. The extent to which that happens will of course depend on the decisions taken by the Scottish Ministers once all the promised reviews and consultation have taken place. The possible implications of a radical use of the commitments made on agricultural and marine businesses, and landowners, in particular are substantial, and there is likely to be a lot of lobbying and pressure by vested interests and campaign groups to get their desired outcomes.

The commitments in the area of the natural environment are extensive, and will need a lot civil service – and parliamentary time – to put into effect. It can be seen that many of the commitments are to implement policies by the end of the current parliamentary session, in April 2026. That’s not unreasonable, given the complexity of many of the policies, but there could be a risk of a “policy blockage” at the end of the parliamentary session, in which it is not just possible to get the necessary measures through in time.

To be fair, there are a number of policy commitments which the programme aims to bring forward earlier, which is welcome. But the scale of the programme in this area will need careful management and leadership, including by Ministers, if some of them do not fall by the wayside.

The risk of this happening can be shown by the fact that the programme only promises a further review of environmental justice within the current parliamentary session (i.e. by 2026). The Scottish Government has actually been consulting on environmental justice in one form or another since 2006.

Similarly, the idea of a new Scottish Environment Act has been around for many years: Scottish Environment Link was calling for that back in July 2019. Ministers from the two governing parties – as well as opposition parties, and individual MSPs – need to ensure that the “aim to introduce” the proposed “Natural Environment Bill” at some time in 2023/2024 becomes a definite commitment to do so at the beginning of that period. And they should make sure it passes well before the end of the parliamentary session in 2026.

This post was first published on the Kaitiaki Consulting blog on 28 August 2021:

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