HC Deb 24 July 1963 vol 681 cc1467-72
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Christopher Soames)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about forestry policy.

In his statement on the Government's forestry policy in July, 1958, my predecessor said that the size of subsequent Forestry Commission programmes, and the structure of grants to private woodland owners, would be reviewed in five years time. This review has now been held, and the Government have reached the following conclusions on it.

Over the next decade, from 1964 to 1973, the Forestry Commission will aim at planting a further 450,000 acres. It will continue to concentrate on acquiring land in the upland areas, particularly in Scotland and Wales, where population is declining and where the expansion of forestry can bring considerable social and employment benefits.

The Commission will be able to acquire land in other areas where there are good economic reasons or where planting can maintain or improve the beauty of the landscape. The planting programme for each year, and its distribution between the three countries, will be determined from time to time by the forestry Ministers.

The Commission, in preparing its future programmes, will bear in mind the need, wherever possible, to provide public access and recreation, and will devote more attention to increasing the beauty of the landscape.

We propose to make no change in the structure of the present grants to private woodland owners. Under our existing arrangements, the level of grants is examined every three years to take account of changes in costs and receipts. The latest of these reviews is in progress at the moment.

The Government welcome the increasing acreage of timber planted by private owners. The tradition of skill and knowledge which has been built up and the research which has been carried out in private forests has been of great benefit to the nation. The continuation of the grants to the private woodlands confirms the Government's confidence in private forestry and provides support for its continued place in our national forest policy.

Our policy of steady expansion in both public and private forestry means that a growing volume of home-produced timber will be coming on to the market, to the benefit of our balance of payments. As the volume increases, so it will become more clearly necessary for the Commission, the private interests and the trade to pay greater attention to the whole problem of the marketing and use of home-grown timber. Moreover, the steady expansion in home production will give the timber trade confidence to develop its plans for handling home-produced timber as it comes forward.

Mr. Peart

We on this side welcome the desire to increase the home-grown timber industry, and especially the aim of the Forestry Commission to plant a further 450,000 acres, but is the Minister satisfied that the Commission has sufficient powers to acquire land, either here or in Scotland, to achieve that aim?

Will he also say what consultations he has had with the industry about marketing, which is a key issue? Is he satisfied that the present arrangements for the co-ordination of foreign supplies of timber with our home production are satisfactory? We are anxious to expand our home industry, but is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that present marketing arrangements are good, and that consultations have gone on with private industry? Further, as one who represents parts of the Lakeland that are affected by the Commission's operations, may I ask whether the Minister has consulted the amenity side in detail with the planning authorities and local authorities concerned?

Mr. Soames

We took the availability of land very much into account in deciding on the figure of 450,000 acres over the next ten years. We believe that this is an acreage that the Commission will be able to purchase and plant during those years.

As to consultation with marketing interests, the Federated Home Timber Merchants' Association, representing the timber trade, gave the Government its views, which were taken into account in reaching the conclusions that I have announced to the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we would be consulting the planning authorities about planting in the Lakeland. This, of course, is inherent in what I said about taking more account of amenity interests and the beauty of the landscape. The Commission will, in particular, consult the National Parks Commission with this end in view, and will be employing a landscape architect to assist in that respect

Sir John Macleod

While agreeing with my right hon. Friend in what he has announced, may I ask him to make sure that there is the closest co-operation between the farming community in the upland areas and the Forestry Commission? The winter-keep scheme is being criticised just now, and I hope that the farmers who are going out of business in those areas will not be doing so just to the advantage of planting trees in those places.

Mr. Soames

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the closest co-operation between farming and forest interests is absolutely essential, and that each can help the other. I believe that the relationships, in Scotland particularly, are considerably better than they were some years ago.

Mr. Ross

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that we on this side agree about the importance—to which due credit is not always given—of the forestry industry in helping our balance of pay- ments, but that we feel that very much more could be done? The Minister said that a further 450,000 acres are to be planted in the next ten years, but does that mean an increase in the current annual programme?

Is he aware that in Scotland, where forestry is a matter of tremendous importance in areas where employment is difficult to find, there has been concern about the decline in this work; and that it is thought that the Secretary of State for Scotland—and I hope that he will answer this question—has not been adequately using his powers to acquire land available that could be far better put to use for forestry than for sport?

Would he not agree that, now that we have a fairly assured market for much of our timber, it is all the more essential to maintain and improve our planting impetus?

Mr. Soames

These 450,000 acres are, of course, additional to what has already been planted. The yearly rate of planting over the past ten years was something over 50,000 acres and for the next ten years it will be 45,000 acres. In the last 10-year programme the rundown was to be considerably more in the first five years of the next decade than has now been decided. We have increased what was to be the planting programme for the next five years and this, combined with planting by private owners, will be 80,000 acres a year, which will be a satisfactory acreage to go down to trees each year.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be generally welcomed by both sections of the industry, and particularly the emphasis which he placed on marketing rather than planting, since many people feel that marketing is the big problem for the next ten years? Will my right hon. Friend keep in close touch with the Forestry Commission to get it to take a greater part in marketing growing timber and to do everything, including, if necessary, altering its organisation, to bring this about?

Mr. Soames

Yes, Sir. I absolutely take my hon. Friend's point that marketing will become of ever-growing importance as the yield from these acres comes forward. The House may like to know that over the last five or six years timber-using industries have been established in England, Scotland and Wales which will be producing timber and a saving to the balance of payments to the tune of about £14 million a year. These are new industries and this is only the beginning.

Mr. Vane

Since forestry does not consist only of planting trees, but also of disposing of the timber, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether, as a result of the detailed inquiries he has been making, he can give the House any information about trends of costs and prices and about the out-turn this year compared with a few years ago?

Mr. Soames

The trend of costs has been up, particularly in view of the rise in labour costs over the years. Trends of prices have been slightly downwards over the last few years, but the long-term prognosis is satisfactory. As for rising prices, this is because the usage of timber not only in this country but throughout the world is very much on the increase. In this country, where we produce only about 10 per cent. of what we consume, and 90 per cent. is imported, prices will be ruled very much by the price of imported timber and it is expected that prices will be on the upgrade over the years.

Mr. Hoy

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that the programme of planting has fallen further behind and that the Forestry Commission is absolutely dependent upon the Secretary of State for Scotland to acquire land for planting? Why does not the Secretary of State for Scotland come forward and say what has been happening in Scotland? Has the plan been falling further behind and is it not a fact that the Commission is unable to obtain land except with the approval of the Secretary of State and if it cannot obtain the land it cannot go on with its planting programme? It is not good enough for the Minister of Agriculture to reply to questions when the Secretary of State is sitting there and saying nothing.

Mr. Soames

The powers of the Forestry Commission to purchase land are no different in Scotland from what they are in England and Wales. It has powers of compulsory purchase, but it is the Government's view that sufficient land can be obtained without compulsory purchase for the planting programme which we have set forward, and we believe it is to be a reasonable programme.

Mr. Worsley

What consultation has my right hon. Friend had with the Timber Growers' Association and the Scottish Woodland Owners' Association? Have these consultations been fully carried out in accordance with the undertaking which was given?

Mr. Soames

I am happy about that. We consulted both organisations when we were starting our review and also at the end. When we reached our conclusions we discussed them with the organisations. I believe that they are satisfied that they have had proper consultation.

Mr. Harold Davies

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the excellent publication by the Peak Planning Board, Our Heritage of Trees? Can the right hon. Gentleman say how much of this proposed acreage is quick maturing commercial wood and how much is deciduous timber which will be there for years? Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware of the Danish 30-year study of shelter belts and that this type of tree might well be used in north Staffordshire and the Peak planting areas? Will he keep this point in mind?

Mr. Soames

I quite agree with the hon. Member about shelter belts. This is where agriculture and forestry merge closely together. Shelter belts, besides producing timber, can provide worthwhile assistance for agriculture. I am sure that we shall find, especially with the continuation of the forestry grants, that the number of these shelter belts will increase.