I am interested, Amanda, in the route that you took to become Forestry Commissioner for Scotland. Can you tell me about that?
My work philosophy has always been that if you enjoy what you do then lots of new opportunities will generally present themselves and they may not be those that you might have expected. I have worked in rural and community development for almost 20 years now and have been a self employed consultant for over 12 of these. During this time I have worked extensively with community land and woodland owning groups and I’ve also worked with the Forestry Commission on a range of partnership projects gaining an insight into the forestry sector. When the opportunity arose to become a Forestry Commissioner I felt that I had a lot to offer in terms of the delivery of the wide range of public benefits from our forests which includes health, social, cultural and the environment.
These days, we often hear from coaches that we should work at what we love doing. Are your leisure activities, reflected in the work that you do?
I guess so. I have a young family and we enjoy getting out and about whether on foot or more frequently on bikes. We have also recently taken up geocaching (check it out online) which adds a bit of a purpose to a walk and can often take you to places that you might not have considered. Last Autumn on a trip to visit friends in the USA we even did some geocaching in the forests of New Hampshire.
I know that the FC works in partnership with local communities. Can you give us an example of an existing project that has worked particularly well?
There are so many really exciting community woodland projects of all different scales out there. The first partnership project involving Forestry Commission Scotland that I had a small role in was the Sunart Oakwoods Initiative (www.sunartoakwoods.org.uk). This project which has at its core securing the rare Atlantic oakwoods habitat around Ardnamurchan and Morvern enabled a range of public agencies and the local community to work together to create community and visitor facilities and local jobs relating to woodland management. The partnership still exists and work is ongoing on initiatives around rhododendron removal, wood fuel and long distance paths. I would highly recommend a visit to the area, we visit regularly and my kids think that a walk around the woodland at Ariundle, near Strontian, is like something out of the Lord of the Rings or Narnia.
I wonder if you can tell us about the National Forest Land Scheme (NFLS) which amongst others, gives communities the opportunity to buy or lease FCS land where they can provide increased public benefits? What kind of communities have become involved?
FCS’ website has a number of examples from communities across Scotland (www.forestry.gov.uk/communitiesscotland). The important thing to note is that the benefits which will be delivered in different sites by communities will vary depending on the needs and aspirations of that community, as can be demonstrated by the two examples given. Lots more examples of the benefits that can be delivered by community owned woodlands can be seen on the website of the Community Woodlands Association(http://www.communitywoods.org/) some of whose members have secured land via the NFLS others have come into being through purchase or management agreements with private or other public sector landowners.
Abriachan Forest Trust (www.abriachan.org.uk) was one of the very early community organisations to purchase woodland from the Commission, prior to the NFLS. In 1998 they purchased 534 hectares of forest and open ground and since then have delivered a wide range of environmental, recreational and educational benefits. Their educational work is a core part of their activities and in addition to forest school activities for pre and primary school children they also carry out 1:1 work with young people who have been experiencing problems within the educational system. Their work extends to delivering health and wellbeing programmes and also working with vulnerable adults.
North West Mull Community Woodland Company (www.nwmullwoodland.co.uk) which purchased land from Forestry Commission Scotland in 2006 was one of the first under the NFLS. Since then they have been very active in developing a long term plan for the forest securing significant funding to carry out timber harvesting work, the creation of woodland crofts, the development an orchard in partnership with a local primary school, community training, improved access and development of a woodland burial site amongst other things.
A furher example would be the Kilfinan Community Forest Company (www.kilfinancommunityforest.co.uk ) is a good example of the dramatic change that can quickly arise when communities take over management of their local woodlands. Whilst, like others, they are progressing access and harvesting, acquiring the site has allowed them to establish a base for their wider activities and a focal point in the community. In less than eighteen months they have provided access to the forest from both the public road and the local school; erected a polytunnel and established an allotment group involving 28 families; erected various support buildings including office and workshop; recruited 3 full time staff including a development officer tasked with developing a forest plan; and have an ongoing programme of events and activities in the woodland.
I see from your website, that you give a ‘preferential opportunity’ to communities, to acquire FCS land/property before it goes on the open market. What does ‘preferential opportunity’ mean in practice, given that community groups are not always able to move quickly to take advantage of these opportunities?
This is very straightforward in that when Forestry Commission Scotland decides to sell land, that is not making a significant contribution to Government objectives, the local community (currently via the Community Council) is informed of the proposed sale and given an opportunity to express an interest in purchase which starts a time-bound process under the NFLS guidelines.
To what extent is the NFLS being used by communities, ie, is there a lot of interest in FCS land and if so, does the scheme make it easy to take advantage of opportunities?
Since the scheme was launch in 2005 there have been a regular flow of applications and around three sales a year. Currently 25 communities, housing bodies and NGOs have acquired land under the scheme with a further seven applications completing the lease or purchase process. This amounts to around 3,900 hectares and land for over 80 affordable houses. Demand has been stimulated recently by FCS’ seeking to sell land and offering communities first right of refusal (eight sales of surplus land have been made). However, with inclusion of community-led renewables under the scheme a greater number of proactive approaches are expected. At present there are two communities finalising leases for hydro renewable schemes with a further 19 undertaking initial hydro energy feasibility work.
A recent survey carried out by the Community Woodlands Association of 62 community groups currently working on partnership projects with FCS showed that a greater number were currently considering the NFLS than in 2009 when last surveyed.
On a personal level I would like to see greater numbers of communities coming forward to purchase woodlands from the Forestry Commission and others as there is clear evidence that some fantastic public benefits can be delivered. However there remains a number of challenges particularly around funding availability for purchase and technical issues of State Aids that need to be resolved if we are to see an increase in uptake.
Do you think that FCS policy and practice in relation to working with local communities, NGOs and housing groups are working well? How do you solicit feedback in this regard to improve your policy and practice?
Addressing the questions of FCS policy and practice, ease of using the scheme and soliciting feedback, Forestry Commission Scotland does carry out regular reviews of its programmes. In 2010 a consultation of communities, that had purchased land under the scheme, fed back that they thought it was a successful scheme. This has been re-iterated by Community Land Scotland in their recent evidence to the Land Reform Review Group. Furthermore, a health check study of FCS’ work with communities is being commissioned in summer 2013 which will enable the organisation to take stock of progress to date and ensure its approaches remain fit for purpose.
Amanda runs a small rural and community development consultancy that delivers a range of sustainable rural development related projects, largely in rural Scotland but also involving partners elsewhere in the UK and EU. Initiatives and projects involve working in partnership with public agencies, community and social enterprises and the private sector across community land and asset ownership and management, woodland and biodiversity management, added value for forestry and agriculture products (local products), tourism, arts, culture and heritage and renewable energy. You can read more about Amanda here: http://www.womenonboards.co.uk/resource-centre/case-studies/bryan-amanda.htm