HC Deb 06 December 1954 vol 535 cc737-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kaberry.]

10.10 p.m.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I welcome this opportunity of introducing the subject of forestry in Scotland, some aspects of which are giving rise to serious concern in my country. This industry, as is agreed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, is important for the progress and development of Scotland, and especially for the Highlands and Islands. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will not only offer explanations, but will also tell us what action he has taken and will take to improve the matters about which I want to speak.

The importance of this industry was underlined recently by Mr. W. T. Hall, the technical officer of the Timber Development Association. In a speech in June, reported in the "Glasgow Herald," he said that even under the present programme we shall still be producing only one-third of our needs after 50 years. He went on to indicate that only 6 per cent. of the total area was wooded, but that informed opinion suggested that 20 per cent. of the total area was needed in order to produce a properly balanced economy. He further stated that the comparison of the wooded area in our country compared most unfavourably with that of Europe, and that so long as Britain was the largest importer of timber Scotland had a great part to play in contributing towards the resolving of our difficulties.

I should like to know what information the Joint Under-Secretary can give us with regard to the regional surveys which were undertaken jointly by the Forestry Commission and the Department of Agriculture for Scotland. I understand that the chosen areas are precisely those where the land is poor and consists almost entirely of hill grazing. Although I do not want to introduce the problem of the contrast between agriculture and forestry, I should like to know what has been the result of those surveys.

We know that the application and development of forestry would assist in retaining many people in the Highlands who would otherwise leave, and that, because there are so few men needed for shepherding and because of the poor communications and amenities, many people are inclined to leave. As I understand it these surveys were to indicate which was the most suitable land, and it is most important, from the point of view of providing shelter belts both for crops and for stock-rearing in the Highlands, that the suggestions resulting from this survey should be proceeded with as quickly as possible.

The areas I have particularly in mind are those in the parish of Assynt in Sutherland, of Gairloch, of Loch Broom and the island of Mull and Jura. There is also in the Report of the Commission the suggestion that the catchment of the whole of the area of the River Spey afforded a very good opportunity for afforestation. I wonder if the Joint Under-Secretary can report on these matters.

I go on to deal with another important aspect of the subject. Can the hon. Gentleman say whether there has been any progress in the talks between the Forestry Commission and private owners of woodlands in respect of amendments which they propose to make to dedication deeds? Has any agreed scheme yet resulted? Another question I want to ask is whether the Secretary of State is to give way to the demands of the uncooperative minority, who, to me at least, appear to be holding out for increased grants and subsidies. Are their own personal privileges taking priority over their social obligations to Scotland?

As I understand it, extra grants have already been conceded for scrub clearance and planting, and for planting in approved woodlands, but there are still some owners who, although not prepared to enter into the dedication scheme, are, nevertheless, prepared to work in co-operation with or under the direction of the Forestry Commission, provided that extra grants of half the rate of the grant appertaining to the dedication scheme will apply in their case. I hope the hon. Gentleman may be able to give us some information on the point.

Next, there is the suggestion that there appears to be a contradiction in the attitude adopted by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State in regard to the use of compulsory powers. It would appear that while appeals and pleadings for co-operation, even from such a reasonable person as the Secretary of State, have been made, they have had no effect. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman referred to this problem in his speech in the debate on industry and employment in Scotland in July, when he said, referring to plantings: This increased activity is all to the good, but we also want to encourage private owners to play their part and plant all that they can. If they cannot undertake the planting of suitable land, I trust that they will do their best to help by making such land available for the Commission to plant. It is by such voluntary co-operation that we can best achieve the Government's objective of promoting forestry as an instrument of economic and social regeneration."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th July, 1954; Vol. 530, c. 721.] With these sentiments all of us will agree, and we can also agree that it is the utterance of a reasonable man, but can the same be said for some of those to whom these words apply? The Minister of State evidently has doubts, because the "Glasgow Herald" had this to say in its leading article of 18th June last: The Earl of Home, Minister of State, has renewed the appeal for co-operation by landowners, farmers and crofters, and at the same time reminded them and the panel that compulsory powers of acquisition exist and the Government have an obligation to secure that the opportunity for social and economic reconstruction is fully used. There would appear to be a difference in point of view with regard to compulsory powers. Have the Government come to any conclusion on that matter?

One of the main points with which I want to deal is in regard to the acquisition of land for planting. The Commissioners are concerned at the decrease in the rate of acquisition, and on page seven of their Report for 1953 they say quite clearly: Unless this trend is reversed, the Commissioners' plans for a steady increase in the planting programme will not succeed. The problem can be solved only if more land be made available for planting. They make it clear that the net additions in the past two years are substantially less than the areas planted, but what they do not say is that the whole of these decreases have taken place in Scotland alone.

The figures for the last three years are as follows. In 1951, 33,500 acres were acquired; in 1952, only 27,000 acres were acquired—a decrease of 6,500 acres—and in 1953 the figure went down to 13,400 acres acquired, a fall of 13,600 acres. Yet in England and Wales the opposite trend has taken place, and acquisitions have gone up from 22,000 acres in 1951 to 26,000 in 1952, and to 40,000 acres in 1953.

It is not only in acquisitions that the figures have gone down, but also in the land planted. Whereas in 1951 the surplus of land acquired over the area planted amounted to 6,500 acres, an opposite trend took place in 1952, when 4,000 more acres were planted than were acquired. As happens when one eats into the reserves of one's own private banking account, a very dangerous situation arises. Can the Joint Under-Secretary say whether that trend has been reversed and whether the prospects are a bit better for next year? Again, in acquisitions and plantings, the opposite trend is taking place in England.

My last point is in regard to houses built by the Commission. In 1951, 206 houses were built; in 1952, 222 houses, but in 1953, only 172. It would appear from the Report that there was a decrease of 50 houses in 1953 as against 1952 and of 38 houses compared with 1951. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will be able to give us some reliable information and an indication of the attitude of the Government towards the problems which I have raised so that we may be assured that the future of this industry for Scotland will not be forsaken.

10.25 p.m.

Captain J. A. L. Duncan (South Angus)

I agree with the hon. Member for Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) that Scotland has a great part to play in the development of forestry, both private and public. I do not think that the figures are too bad.

The hon. Gentleman quoted a lot of figures, but might I just quote one or two more? The total area planted by the Forestry Commission in 1953 was 34,300 acres. In 1952 it was only 31,000 acres. The area afforested by the Commission in 1953 was 23,200, whereas in 1952 it was only 20,700 acres. That does not look as though progress has not been made by the Commission, nor does it seem to show any decrease in the Commission's efforts to plant or afforest.

The Forestry Commission's Report for last year shows that, where private property is concerned, 18,200 acres were estimated to have been planted last year, 10,000 acres of which were dedicated; but 24,800 acres were felled and licences compelling owners to replant given at the same time. It looks as though there will be a regular planting programme of about 25,000 acres of privately-owned land over the next few years.

The hon. Gentleman referred to dedication. That is of use to some people but is not necessary in order to plant. In fact, dedication does not suit every owner. It really is not of much use quoting a dedication figure, because it really does not affect the total area planted by private owners. He also referred to the amount of land purchased by the Forestry Commission. Purchase by the Commission is not necessary. It can feu or lease land.

It is not quite clear from the Report how much land the Commission has feued rather than purchased, but it seems to me that it is very much better that it should feu the land if it wants to, rather than purchase it outright. In my part of Scotland an extensive area has been feued to the Forestry Commission as against outright purchase. The future of forestry in Scotland lies in a combination of private and public afforestation. I am glad to note from the Commission's Report that that is going on.

In the minute I have left, I should like to say that as the Forestry Commission's planting programme proceeds one very big problem will arise. That is the marketing of timber, and particularly the timber of thinnings. A large area of Commission timber is ripe for thinning. Unless there is some co-operative arrangement between the Commission and the private owners for the sale of the timber it will be more difficult to encourage owners to plant.

Without that, the Commission's operations may well overlay the whole of the timber market, and the private owners may be forced to take only the price that they can get after the Forestry Commission has had the first cut at the market. That is a problem of the future. I hope that my hon. Friend will take note of it and see what can be done to deal with it.

10.29 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. McNair Snadden)

It is not very often that we have an opportunity to discuss forestry matters, and I am sure that we are all extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) for giving us the chance of having a brief word on this very important subject. I thought that he put his finger on three major matters which are troubling the Forestry Commission at the present time and stated the difficulties with great clarity.

I need hardly say that forestry, especially in Scotland, is one of our major industries. I recently had the privilege of touring the crofting areas in preparation for a piece of legislation which we know is coming. Nothing impressed me more than the tremendous potential part that can be played in these areas by afforestation. As this hour, I shall not go into a lot of the figures that I could have given, because I want to try to meet the points made by the hon. Member.

To get a picture of what has happened, it may be said that of the total area planted in the five years to 30th September, 1954, 37,500 acres have been planted by private owners, and 151,000 by the Forestry Commission. If we are to make the most of forestry in Scotland, it is quite obvious that the different partners, private owners on the one hand and the Forestry Commission on the other, have to play their full part. But tonight we are dealing rather with the Forestry Commission's affairs.

I want to say a word, first, on the acquisition of land, and as I go along try to deal with the points made so effectively by the hon. Member. He drew attention to the fact that the acquisition of land for afforestation purposes is slowing down and therefore not keeping pace with the area of land planted. I admit that that is unfortunately true and is causing the Forestry Commission some concern, but if they are to carry on their work in a friendly spirit with all the people concerned—the people who own the land, the farming interests and the farm workers—it is essential that they should not, as it were, go around the country expecting the Secretary of State to acquire compulsorily any land they may see.

The Secretary of State has compulsory powers which could be used if he thought fit, but in general our policy is, wherever possible, to maintain friendly relations with the people with whom we have to deal and to acquire land by agreement. The Forestry Commission would, of course welcome the opportunity to purchase more land than they are getting at present, and if hon. Members can persuade owners who are interested to sell suitable land, should they be unwilling or unable to plant it themselves, they will be doing a service to the nation. The Secretary of State has compulsory powers, but both the previous Government and this Government have refrained from using them.

Mr. Hannan rose

Mr. Snadden

If I am to deal with all the other points, it is not possible for me to give way, unless the hon. Gentleman has an important matter to raise.

Mr. Hannan


Mr. Snadden

The Forestry Commissioners have been as active as possible in acquiring land since the war. Perhaps I may show what happens. When they hear that land is coming on the market, the first thing they do is to inspect it and see whether it is plantable.

In consultation with the Department of Agriculture for Scotland, who are interested in any land which is acquired for forestry, the Secretary of State comes to a decision as to what is the best use to which the land can be put; whether it is to be used for forestry or whether it is to remain in agricultural use. During the past five years 1 million acres have been inspected, of which 400,000 were found to be plantable, though it has been agreed to leave much of this in agricultural use. If land suitable for forestry is there, the Forestry Commission take steps to acquire it. But we have to realise that some land is too good to be afforested and that has to be retained for agricultural use.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the question of surveys. In addition to what one might call the day-to-day purchase of land for afforestation, the Department of Agriculture for Scotland, with the Forestry Commission, have carried out long-term important surveys which were begun by the previous Administration of which the hon. Gentleman was a supporter. We have surveyed very large areas of land at Strathoykell, Jura, Ullapool, Balmacara, Spey Valley, Assynt and part of the Isle of Skye.

These surveys in total cover roughly 1½ million acres, of which some 200,000 could be reasonably devoted to afforestation. The negotiations for the purchase of these lands are at present proceeding. To date, 50,000 acres have been either acquired in the areas that I have mentioned or provisional arrangements have been made for acquisition, and a further 1 million acres are at present being surveyed in Sutherland, and also in Ross and Cromarty and in Mull. Considerable areas, amounting to 141,000 acres, have already been acquired in Scotland during the past five years, that is to the year ended 30th September, 1954, and 40,000 of those acres were acquired in 1954—not a bad figure. During the same five years, 151,000 acres have been planted.

I will deal now with the housing question. The hon. Member was rightly concerned, as I was when I looked at the Report, about the fall in the number of houses being built. It is necessary to remember that, although housing for forestry workers is extremely important, the Forestry Commission are not a housing authority. The Commission's policy is to build houses only where county council or private houses are not available. They take advantage of existing county council houses or privately-owned houses where possible, but if they are entering an area to afforest it on a large scale and find that they cannot get their services from existing houses, they build a forest village, such as AE in Dumfries, Glentrool in Kirkcudbright or Dalavich in Argyll.

Since the war, the Forestry Commission have built 1,095 houses. The figures for recent years have been: 1952, 236; 1953, 173; 1954, 106. The fall in the number mentioned by the hon. Member reflects the completion of large housing schemes started in the early post-war years and in part to the provisions of many more houses by county councils.

Mr. Hannan

Is it not the case that the Commissioners are acting under a Government directive? Are they working under pressure to cut expenditure? Has any directive been issued and, if so, will it be lifted?

Mr. Snadden

I have given the main reasons for the fall in the number of houses, but it is true that, because of restrictions on capital expenditure and the necessity for the Forestry Commission to remain within its vote, it had to cut expenditure on the plantation programme or somewhere else, and, naturally, they went on with the extension of plantations.

I want to say a word on private afforestation. In 1947, it was estimated that some 900,000 acres of privately-owned woodlands in Scotland were suitable for economic management and, therefore, for consideration for dedication. Of that amount 200,000 acres were scrub land, possibly half of which was found to be plantable. In addition, there were 125,000 acres of small woodland blocks not suitable for dedication. A further 50,000 acres is known to be efficiently managed, and since 1947 117,000 acres have been or are being acquired by the Forestry Commission. That leaves about 500,000 acres still suitable for dedication, and of this figure 176,000 is already dedicated and a further 52,000 is agreed by owners for dedication when the legal formalities are completed. About 228,000 acres are either dedicated or are in process of dedication.

The legal difficulties which previously existed, and which no doubt caused hesitation on the part of certain owners who otherwise would have dedicated, have worried my hon. and gallant Friend, and I am glad to be able to tell him that, as a result of discussions between the Commission and the United Kingdom Forestry Committee, those legal difficulties have been removed. The Secretary of State and I very much hope that the new form now available will encourage a large number of owners who previously hesitated to go for the dedication scheme.

I have only time to say that the hon. Member has done a service by raising these matters. I have done my best in the short time at my disposal to answer the points raised.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.