24 November 2011

(S4O-00398) Common Grazings

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): 10. To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the role of common grazings with regard to the future of crofting. (S4O-00398)

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

We recognise that common grazings are an important part of crofting and bring economic, environmental and social benefits to the Highlands and Islands. We promote their use through better regulation and financial support. One of the Crofters Commission’s key objectives, in its corporate plan for 2011 to 2014, is to encourage better shared management of common land.

Financial support is provided through the single farm payment and the Scottish rural development programme. The reform of the common agricultural policy will provide the opportunity to look again at how support for common grazings is provided.

Jean Urquhart: With reference to the review of the common agricultural policy and the draft proposals for non-historic direct payments post-2013, unintended consequences of the change could be abandonment and further economic decline. Will the minister agree to work with stakeholders to find a mechanism to ensure that common grazings receive equitable payments per hectare of land managed?

Stewart Stevenson: We regard common grazings as an important part of the economy of the Highlands and Islands. There are 921 such grazings. We will see a different kind of oversight through the election of members to the Crofters Commission next year. The appropriate order is before Parliament and I believe that it will be considered in committee shortly.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): The minister is aware that the most recent crofting acts put burdens on grazings clerks to report on the crofting activities of other tenants. Will he review that in light of the disharmony that it causes in crofting communities?

Stewart Stevenson: It is clear that one of the huge benefits of changing the way in which we manage crofting is that we have good, accurate maps. We are strongly encouraging crofters with a shared interest in the grazings to collaborate on that, and the early feedback is that that approach is working well.

(S4O-00394) Pibble Mine (Site of Special Scientific Interest Designation)

Alex Fergusson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con): 6. To ask the Scottish Executive what its position is on Scottish Natural Heritage’s proposal to remove the site of special scientific interest designation from Pibble mine in Wigtownshire. (S4O-00394)

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 grants Scottish Natural Heritage the power to denotify all or any part of a site of special scientific interest where it considers that its natural features are no longer of special interest.

In the case of Pibble mine, the importance of the sole natural feature of interest was reconsidered as a result of the British Geological Survey’s geological conservation review, and it was judged that the site no longer met the qualifying criteria for notification as an SSSI.

Alex Fergusson: The minister is correct, but the British Geological Survey’s review was published in 1998, some 13 years ago—one might have thought that action would have been taken by now. The same review recommends the removal of the designation of several other SSSIs, yet only Pibble mine is currently to have it removed.

Is the minister aware that Pibble mine lies on the site of a proposed wind farm development, and that the other sites that the review mentions do not? Does the minister believe that that is just a coincidence?

Stewart Stevenson: SNH has notified and confirmed 10 SSSI denotifications in full and four in part, and has notified but is yet to confirm a further four denotifications in full and two in part.

With regard to the evaluation of Pibble mine, if the information had been available when it was designated, it would never have been designated in the first place as the number of points that it scores falls well below the designation level.

(S4O-00392) Agri-environment Schemes

Elaine Murray (Dumfriesshire) (Lab): 4. To ask the Scottish Executive how it assessed the future demand for agri-environment schemes when developing the current draft budget and spending review. (S4O-00392)

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

We took a range of factors into account, such as demand under the current and previous programmes and the views of key stakeholders. A key part of the process was to ensure that funding is available to deliver key benefits to Scotland’s environment, such as biodiversity.

Funding continues to be available and results from the two previous agri-environment rounds show a consistent level of approvals. We have already announced that a full agri-environment funding round will take place in 2012.

Elaine Murray: Does the Government have contingency plans if there is a surge in applications towards the end of the round? The minister may remember that that happened with the rural stewardship scheme as it came to an end. Can he reassure members that demand will not be managed down by changing criteria or cancelling schemes?

Stewart Stevenson: We very much value the contribution that the schemes have made to date. For example, we have invested £33 million in hedgerows since 2008 and we have seen a significant improvement in biodiversity from that expenditure. We wish to ensure that in managing the issues that the member referred to, such as a surge in applications, we continue to deliver important benefits for biodiversity.

(S4O-00390) Hunterston Coal-fired Power Station (Opposition)

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP): 2. To ask the Scottish Government whether it acknowledges the level of opposition to the proposed coal-fired power station at Hunterston. (S4O-00390)

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

I confirm that, to date, 20,583 letters of objection to the Hunterston development have been received. Those will be taken into consideration in determining the application.

Kenneth Gibson: Given the level of statutory and public opposition, what steps can be taken to persuade Ayrshire Power to withdraw its application and save everyone the cost of a public local inquiry?

Stewart Stevenson: As it is an active application that the Government may have to determine, I cannot speak specifically to the question that has been asked. However, in general, it is important that, in relation to any planning application, those who feel that their interests would be disadvantaged were it to be approved continue to pursue their objections and ensure that everyone is aware of them.

Mary Scanlon (Highlands and Islands) (Con): Will the minister confirm that onshore wind farms are productive for only around 25 per cent of the time and that, as the Institution of Civil Engineers stated earlier this week, coal-fired power stations will be essential to secure the energy supply in Scotland in the future?

Stewart Stevenson: It is interesting to note that even when the nuclear station on the west coast of Scotland was out of operation for a while it caused us no problems whatsoever. There has been much debate about the transmission of electricity across the Scotland-England border. It is worth making the point that in December last year, 97 per cent of electricity that crossed the border did so in a southerly direction. With the increase in renewable energy in Scotland, that percentage can only rise.

17 November 2011

(S4O-00385) Climate Change

Graeme Pearson (South Scotland) (Lab): 7. To ask the Scottish Executive what it is doing to tackle climate change. (S4O-00385)

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 sets the framework and targets for tackling climate change in Scotland. The report on proposals and policies sets out how the statutory annual targets for reductions in greenhouse gases will be met to 2022. The report builds on the work that we have already undertaken to reduce emissions from various sectors including energy supply, homes and communities, business and the public sector, transport, rural land use and waste. A further report for the period 2023 to 2027 will be published next year.

Graeme Pearson: The First Minister and others have long heralded the impact of the climate challenge fund in reducing carbon emissions by 700,000 tonnes, but in response to a freedom of information request the Scottish Government confirmed solely that community groups have reduced their CO2 emissions by 125,866 tonnes. Although those communities are to be congratulated on their reductions, has the balance of 570,000 tonnes been delivered and, if so, how was it done?

Stewart Stevenson: It would be astonishing if the balance had been delivered, because the 700,000 tonnes relates to the 461 projects that have been funded by the climate challenge fund, some of which have just started, while others continue to start. The proportion of projects that are complete accounts for 125,000 tonnes of saving. The member must not make the mistake of comparing entirely different questions and assuming that the answers will be the same.

(S4O-00384) Greenpark Energy (Licence to Extract Shale Gas)

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green): 6. To ask the Scottish Executive what criteria were used by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in granting a licence to Greenpark Energy to begin hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas. (S4O-00384)

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

SEPA’s specific obligations under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011 are to consider the risks to the water environment. Those are the only environmental factors considered by SEPA.

Alison Johnstone: The minister may be aware of a report from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research setting out concerns about ground and surface water contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the recent Caudrilla Resources report on the impact of the process in Blackpool, which stated that it is “highly probable” that fracking triggered the seismic tremors there.

Those concerns and others have led some states in the United States to place a moratorium on fracking operations. Quebec has suspended fracking, New South Wales has introduced a moratorium, and—

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): Question, please.

Alison Johnstone: France has banned fracking. Is the minister listening carefully to the evidence, and will his Government take action at the very least to support a moratorium on fracking in Scotland?

Stewart Stevenson: The member should be aware that consents cover the installation of equipment to monitor microseismic activity, so we are looking carefully at the implications of fracking in Scotland. Let me also say that the Greenpark Energy consent is for coal-bed methane rather than shale gas, as described in the question, although I accept that the same equally applies to that particular gas.

Elaine Murray (Dumfriesshire) (Lab): The place in question is in my constituency. What sort of consultation would the minister expect to take place with the community about the application of such techniques? All that happened in Canonbie was an application to drill boreholes to find out how much coal gas is there. With a technique as controversial as hydraulic fracturing, would the minister expect that there should be consultation with and information for the community? People will be quite frightened by some of the information that has come out in the past few days.

Stewart Stevenson: I accept that things have been said that could cause some difficulties in people’s minds. However, the scientific position is that the monitoring that is part of the controlled activity regulations—CAR—licence will ensure that we monitor the effects. The member’s constituents should be aware that we are tracking the issue with considerable care. The issue is dealt with through the planning system; as I said, SEPA’s responsibilities relate to the water environment.

3 November 2011

(S4O-00300) Flood Defences (Perth and Kinross Council)

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): 3. To ask the Scottish Executive what assessment it has made of flood defences in the Perth and Kinross Council area. (S4O-00300)

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

In 2007, all the existing flood defences in Scotland were assessed as part of the establishment of the Scottish Government’s flood defence asset database. There were only a few flood defences where minor problems were identified, one of which was at Bridge of Earn. Perth and Kinross Council was given the report and I understand that appropriate action to resolve the maintenance issues that were identified has been taken.

Liz Smith: If the forecasters are correct, it seems to be likely that we are in for another difficult winter, which continues to cause concern to communities that are most vulnerable to floods, some of which the minister has just acknowledged. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with local authorities to ensure that the maximum possible assistance is being given to those communities when it comes to preventing flood damage this coming winter?

Stewart Stevenson: Difficult winters are, of course, something with which I am familiar.

We have a regular programme of engagement with local authorities. Later this month, I shall meet the Association of British Insurers on issues relating to flooding. We have a series of programmes to ensure that we are working in tandem with local authorities in their discharging of their responsibilities.

Nigel Don (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP): How do the minister and his department interact with local authorities to ensure that flood schemes are prioritised and that money is made available the many years ahead that are necessary if local authorities are to be able to plan for their schemes?

Stewart Stevenson: Nigel Don will be aware that, in 2008-09, the finance for addressing flooding was wrapped up in the money that was provided to local authorities. We are in discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about the money that is available for flood schemes. I am sure that that will be of interest to the member.

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