Maximising influence at Holyrood

Nicola Sturgeon
How can environment campaigners make the most of ambitious policy announcements in Scotland?


The First Minister’s recent statement to the Scottish Parliament announcing her Programme for Government 2018–19 featured a number of high-level commitments relating to the environment. 

Nicola Sturgeon's statement emphasised the Scottish Government’s commitment to “move to a low-carbon society”, and the importance of ensuring that economic growth is “environmentally sustainable”.

The Programme for Government statement outlined details of some of the policies and legislation which will play key roles in achieving the Scottish Government’s ambitions concerning the environment. 

Building momentum 

These policies included, for example, the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill, and its 2050 targets which the First Minister described as being “the most ambitious anywhere in the world that is based solely on domestic actions”.

Sturgeon also highlighted the Scottish Government’s commitments to introduce a national deep sea marine reserve, and to continue investing in projects such as the “the central Scotland green network, and the water environment fund”.

Building on the momentum from the Blue Planet TV series, the Scottish Government also announced its intention to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, and to take action to reduce plastic pollution. 

It remains to be seen what policy and legislative changes in Scotland relating to the environment will be driven by Brexit. Environmental campaigners will want to engage with the Scottish Government, and with politicians of all parties, to influence those changes.

Significantly, the SNP government has no majority in the Scottish Parliament, or in any of its committees including the environment, climate change and land reform committee, which is the lead committee for the new climate change legislation. The Scottish Parliament also has a well founded reputation for openness and transparency. Against this background, the current parliamentary session potentially offers environmental campaigners major opportunities to help shape and influence policy development and legislation relating to the environment in the Scottish Parliament, and at Scottish Government level. 

Top tips

I have jointly written a book and trained people in third sector organisations in how to make the most of opportunities to influence policy and legislation in the Scottish Parliament, and at Scottish Government level. The Scottish Parliament should be accessible to everyone in Scotland.

Below are outlined seven top tips to help environmental campaigners to make the most of these opportunities to influence environmental policy and legislation over this parliamentary session.

  1. Develop public affairs strategies which understand politics and politicians. This includes adopting a cross-party approach, and engaging with politicians of all parties (even if you did not vote for them!). Adopting such an approach will increase your chances of influencing policy development and legislation, given the Scottish Government lacks a majority in the Scottish Parliament, and in its committees.
  2. Define what you want to achieve, and ensure you can communicate what you want to do, and why, to Scottish Government Ministers, and to MSPs, in a clear and concise fashion. A good exercise is to try and summarise what you want to do in 55 words. If you cannot manage this, because what you want to do is too complex or too vague, then you probably need to rethink your activity!
  3. Adopt clear ‘policy asks’ that you want the policy makers to accept and to act upon. Basing your ‘policy asks’ on robust evidence and proven best practice will help to maximise support for your ‘policy asks’ from MSPs and at Scottish Government level. 
  4. Don’t expect politicians to have all the answers. You know best about the issues which matter most to you. Be proactive - tell Scottish Government Ministers and MSPs what you want them to do. Invite them to meet you to find out why these issues are important. Don’t just wait, and hope they show an interest.
  5. Keep track of what’s going on. Most of the media will tell you about what’s going on in the Scottish Parliament after it has happened. If you want to change what’s going to happen, monitor the Business Bulletin (the timetable of what’s coming up) on the Scottish Parliament’s website. This will provide you with details of forthcoming debates, committee inquiries, parliamentary questions and other relevant business relating to the environment. Ask your local MSPs if they are going to be speaking in, for example, a particular debate relating to the environment, and tell them what you would like them to say. 
  6. Don’t be scared of legislation! With the current political balance in the Scottish Parliament there are major opportunities for environmental campaigners to secure significant changes to the law relating to the environment. Tell the politicians about why particular provisions in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill need to change.Work with the Government and/or with the opposition parties to draft amendments for Stage 2 and, if necessary, Stage 3 of the Bill, and work with members of the committee to secure their support for the amendments to secure these changes.
  7. Careful thought should be given to ways in which your organisation can work in partnership to deliver key parts of its wider public affairs strategy, including its response to key legislation such as the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill. Partnership working to progress specific amendments to this legislation will demonstrate to the committee members considering the Bill, and to the Scottish Government, that your organisation has wider support for the issues it is raising. This will, in certain circumstances, make them more likely to support your amendments to the legislation.


By following these tips you will improve your chances of shaping and improving policy development and legislation relating to the environment, and of ensuring that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government take effective action to safeguard the long term future of the environment.

This Author 

Robert McGeachy is an award winning public affairs professional, and the joint author of The Public Affairs Guide to Scotland: Influencing Policy and Legislation published by the Welsh Academic Press.

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