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May 7, 2014

A vanity purchase?

Last week a Van Dyck painting was ‘saved for the nation’.  Fearing it might disappear into a private collection overseas, the Government had suspended the export licence to allow time for the £10m asking price to be raised.  In similar vein, we are told that the £7.4m of public money paid to the private owners of the 5,700 acres forest at Rothiemurchus was money well spent because it secured this jewel in our forestry crown ‘for the nation’. Jon Hollingdale ponders on what possible fate this forest was being saved from and how that money could have been better spent. 


Jon Hollingdale, CWA

Blog by Jon Hollingdale, Chief Executive of Community Woodlands Association.

Scottish Ministers are Scotland’s largest landowners, and their portfolio is about to grow further, following the announcement that Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) is to buy 5700 acres (2300 hectares) of Upper Rothiemurchus Forest from the Grant family for £7.4M(1).

FCS has an on-going repositioning programme: selling forests and assets, often in remoter areas of Scotland, and using the proceeds to buy more land to create new forests for public recreation, habitat creation and climate change mitigation objectives(2). The programme guidance is clear that existing woodlands will only be purchased when they come as part of the land parcel acquired for planting or where there would be significant public benefits arising from their acquisition. Whatever your views about the rights and wrongs of private land ownership in Scotland, there is a general consensus that Rothiemurchus has been well managed over the years – indeed it is being described as a “jewel in the crown” – which begs some serious questions about how significant the net public benefits of FES management will be.

The Minister has characterised the purchase as securing the landscape for the nation(3): but securing for whom, and saving from what? Forests aren’t artworks at risk of being exported and locked away in a Swiss bank vault. If the Grants were determined to sell then offers might well have emerged from one or more of the big environmental NGOs: NTS, RSPB, Woodland Trust, Scottish Wildlife Trust, etc., all of whom would surely have had an interest in such an opportunity. Even if had been sold within the private sector, any future owner would find that the environmental interests of the site are protected by a number of environmental designations, whilst Part 1 of the Land Reform Act guarantees our rights of responsible public access.

It’s very difficult to assess value for money even in purely cash terms. We know the prevailing tax and subsidy regime conspire to inflate land prices way above their productive value. Nonetheless £7.4 million works out at >£3200 per hectare, which seems a lot for an essentially unproductive (in timber terms) forest, so it would be interesting to understand how the price was arrived at. I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to see the District Valuer’s report.

What we can do is contrast the £7.4M found for this single purchase with the £9M over four years available through the Scottish Land Fund to communities across the whole of Scotland, and to consider how thoroughly those communities are expected to demonstrate the net public benefits of and support for their proposals.

Rothiemurchus is beautiful and valuable in many ways, but it’s hard to see how it will be any more so under FES management. That £7.4M could have been spent bringing neglected and abandoned land, forests and buildings into community ownership, and delivering real economic, environmental and social benefits: blowing it on what looks suspiciously like a vanity purchase doesn’t reflect well on the Scottish Government’s commitment to Land Reform.