HC Deb 18 October 1972 vol 843 cc413-22

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)

The previous Adjournment debate on the subject of forestry took place on 5th June, 1972, and a great deal of that discussion centred on the forthcoming review of our forestry areas. At that time we were discussing the siting of a pulp mill in the north-east of England, and we were told by the Parliamentary Secretary that, amongst other things, the timber requirements were the major obstacle to that pulp mill project going ahead. We expressed puzzlement at what we then described as the casual and detached attitude of the Forestry Commission towards a job-hungry area.

The firm, as the Parliamentary Secretary will recollect, was promised some years ago that its timber requirements would be met in something like five years' time. Despite, as the Parliamentary Secretary said in the Adjournment debate in June, the fact that this particular proposal of the pulp mill had been in view for some nine or ten years in one form or another, little or nothing was done about the matter. When we read the policy report, when we analyse some of its findings, I find there was no timber available for this project.

We are entitled to ask, where had it gone? To whom, or to what firm, was it given or promised?

The quantities of timber which the pulp mill apparently needs, said the Parliamentary Secretary, could be met only at the expense of supplies to existing industries. As he rightly pointed out on that occasion, this would possibly not result in any net gain in employment. This, of course we accept. It has never been the policy of any person or body connected with the responsibility of job attraction in the North-East to operate to the detriment of other development areas of Britain, but the needs and demands of the Northern area, we submit, have claim to at least equal consideration with those of other areas of high unemployment.

Therefore, in dealing in this debate with the economic and industrial implications of the Government's forestry policy, I think we are entitled to ask, what was going on at the Forestry Commission in the period being discussed, that is, the period of the last 10 years? Who was making the decisions? Who was determining the use made of the Commission's resources? How did the allocation of timber fit in with the development policy of successive Governments in that period? And what was the number of jobs provided?

It is obviously going to need more than one debate to sort out the answers to these queries. It will need more than a number of assurances from the Parliamentary Secretary on this matter. I am glad that the Minister himself is present. The answer must come finally from the Minister himself if any credence is to be given to the present document on forestry policy. Not only should it come from the Minister, but it should come quickly.

As the Minister, along with the Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Wales, said in the foreword to the document published in June: It is over 50 years since a national forestry policy took shape in this country and nearly 30 years since it was publicly reviewed as a whole. We hope to establish conditions in which in the years ahead the forestry industry can continue to play an effective role in the life of the nation. In the previous debate the Parliamentary Secretary said there was no advantage in robbing Peter of his job in one development area to give it to Paul in the same or other development area. This sentiment we applaud. So that the Minister must tell us, arising from the review in question, is why was this done in the case of the particular project referred to, and why was the promise of timber supplies in five years' time not fulfilled?

The most disturbing aspect of the consultative document setting out the results of the Government's review of forestry policy was the manner in which the Minister chose to announce its publication.

In answer to what had every appearance of being a "planted" Question, or at least a Question dragged in to serve that purpose, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food devoted 1½ HANSARD columns to giving the details. There were no supplementary questions and no debate. The Minister rightly underlined the importance placed in the report by the Government when he said: These documents examine in some depth both the economic and social costs and benefits of forestry for the nation and for the rural communities most affected by it. Apart from their immediate relevance to forestry, the Government see these documents as an important contribution to further studies of the economy of rural areas and of some of the problems, notably depopulation, which they can present."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th June, 1972; Vol. 839, c. 365.] There was no mention, of course in that reasonably brief answer to a Written Question, of jobs in the adjoining industrial areas, which in many ways ought to be the kernel of this policy.

1 hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will convey my suggestion to his colleagues that the Minister for Industrial Development, who arrived at his post with a flourish of trumpets and a highly publicised past, should now start trying to justify himself to the development areas by getting the Cabinet to look at this aspect of the report.

In considering the economic aspects of forestry review, it has to be pointed out that the benefits of a progressive forestry policy would not only be felt in the rural areas or the development districts but that the country as a whole would benefit.

I do not need to tell the hon. Gentleman of the percentage of home-grown timber used in Britain. Nor do I need to point out the effect on our balance of payments. The import of timber puts a considerable strain on it, to the extent of something like £740 million a year. Indeed, it is among the four biggest items in the nation's import bill. Despite what "Forestry Policy" says, and despite our own efforts, we would still have to import about 80 per cent. of our timber requirements by the end of the century.

Despite the call for consultation in the forestry review, the Government propose at this stage to stabilise planting at 55,100 acres a year as against 50,000 in 1970–71—little or no difference at all to the timber growing areas of Britain. As The Scotsman, in an editorial on 29th June, said, It is a pity that forestry ambitions have been curtailed. A more vigorous policy of expansion of the growth timber-using industries of which we have some notable examples would make a big contribution to the economy. The Association of Forestry Co-operatives of Great Britain was far more trenchant in its criticism. It said that it would ask the Government to withdraw what it called the … confused and negative publication Forestry in Britain …" The Timber Trades Journal reported that the Association would suggest to the Government that … a new 'Forestry in Britain' is prepared based on the reports of the two international conferences held in Helsinki and Stockholm in May and June, the first of which dealt with international forestry and the second with the world's environment. There is too little time in the debate to go into detail, but a statement issued by the Association complains that the study … concludes that Britain can afford to remain at the bottom of Europe's forest resource table. It reaches this conclusion, the statement goes on, by ignoring the two major economic influences affecting the future patterns of supply and demand of all raw materials, including wood, … It goes on to deal in some detail with the entire problem facing the Government in dealing with the question of forestry in Britain.

I do not at this stage wish to deal with the implications for forestry policy of entry into the EEC, except to make some slight point on the observations in the document to which I have referred. There is no common forestry policy in the EEC, as the document rightly says, and it does on: Should it be decided to initiate a common forestry policy at some future date, we shall of course play a full part in its formulation and development. If we are to take this attitude in relation to future forestry policy, whether inside or outside the EEC, why not now and why not a policy of our own? Surely we are not intending to hang on to the coat tails of Europe, hoping that something will emerge that we can tag on to in future.

I want briefly to touch on references to the recreational potential of State forests and what the review calls the "interests of amenity". I feel that the Forestry Commission in the past has been too timid in this aspect of policy. While it has chalked up some successes in the recreational aspect of its work, the impression has been created, particularly in parts of Northumberland, Durham and the Kielder Forest, that the interests of local landowners have been at the top of priority lists rather than the extension of opportunities to greater numbers of people to enjoy the countryside.

There is no real conflict between the extension of timber-growing areas and recreational facilities. Indeed the two could and should march hand in hand, and we have not tapped the potential in terms of the expansion of recreational facilities in forestry areas of Britain.

Professor Richardson, University of Wales, stressed at the British Association in 1970 that recreational facilities should be provided in forests far beyond car parks and camp sites which are being provided at the present time. There is not time now to go into the fascinating lecture given by the professor, but he talked about the provision of hotels, restaurants, museums, zoos, game parks, marinas and a host of other things. Certainly in a country that is fast moving into the leisure age, when limitation on hours of work and extended leisure time are subjects which are being discussed, these are priority matters in any discussion of forestry policy.

If we look at examples in Denmark, Sweden and Norway—for example, Skansen in Stockholm, Maihaugen in Norway and the interesting developments in the forests of Jaegersborg on the outskirts of Copenhagen—we get some idea of what other countries are able to do, and countries whose resources in this respect are possibly considerably less than ours. At Jaegersborg the State Forest Service maintains a deer park, two hotels, six camp sites, restaurants, a golf course, a racecourse, an old people's home, and so on.

Bearing in mind earlier discussions we had on entertainment, it might be that some of the things that Denmark provides would not be what this country would want to provide. Nevertheless, it is a prospect that ought to be receiving consideration.

So, in asking for some action to be taken on the basis of the report which is presented, I do not consider that the report necessarily reflects the aspects which ought to be taken up and gone into. However, I welcome the Minister's offer of consultation with all sections of the community on this matter in order that we can make these documents—the first review in 10 years—a jumping off point to give us a vigorous forestry policy, to give us the recreational facilities that we have mentioned, and, above all, to give to the development districts of Britain the job opportunities which forestry presents to them.

11.27 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Mills)

I welcome this opportunity to discuss forestry and the Government's consultative document. The consultative document on forestry policy represents the first attempt by any Government to set down the pros and cons of the subject for public discussion.

The hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne) has made one or two criticisms. He said that nothing has been done for 10 years. However, I should politely remind him that for six of those 10 years when no review took place we had a Socialist Government. The Government are looking at this matter for the first time for a very long time, so credit should be given for that.

The hon. Gentleman criticised the method of presentation. I do not accept that criticism. At least we are doing something. Something is being presented which was not done in years gone by.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned amenity—rightly so—the Stockholm Conference, and so on. Here, again for the first time, the Government are looking at this matter with some views on amenity.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about recreation—rightly so. If he looks at Forestry Policy, paragraph 21, he will see that we talk about recreation. Indeed, this is a consultative document. This is a time for looking at the whole future of forestry. In these discussions people will mention the EEC, just as the hon. Gentleman did. Therefore, I think he should give credit to the Government for taking the matter seriously, for consulting people, and, after 25 years, for looking at it, while the Socialist Government virtually did nothing about it at all.

I welcome the opportunity and the initiative that the hon. Gentleman has taken in mounting this debate, particularly on some aspects of it. Admittedly, it might be a little premature—I do not wish to appear rude when I say it is premature—when one has in mind that all the views which the Ministers responsible for forestry have invited from the organisations interested in forestry have not yet been received, or have not yet been received in a fully considered and final form. The Ministers concerned have therefore not yet had a chance to look at the whole range of opinion on this subject, as they will clearly wish to do before coming to any final conclusions. I believe it is important that we should wait until we have all these views. They should be looked at carefully before we reach any final conclusions. We have already had useful discussions, and I am sure that these will continue.

Indeed, to a great extent the answers to the hon. Gentleman already lie in the views which the Government have at this stage expressed in the consultative document or in the supporting cost-benefit study which was carried out by a team of economists drawn from the Government Departments concerned. In the latter context, we are aware that a great deal of criticism has been directed against the cost-benefit study; but it must be remembered that we made it abundantly clear that the study did not provide the sole evidence on which we put forward our views for discussion. Indeed, the consultative document says that it should not, and has not, dictated the policy conclusions reached. That is important.

Parts of the study are controversial, but the Government will be ready to consider any reasoned criticisms of it which may be advanced. Of course there will be differences of opinion. That is inevitable, bearing in mind that any economic appraisal of the value of planting trees means making assumptions about conditions nearly half a century ahead. This is another problem of forestry, with its very long time scale, and it does not make useful forward economic thinking any easier.

The cost benefit study was intended to illustrate the problems for the Ministers concerned and, despite all the difficulties, it has done a useful job in this respect. At least people are talking. At least people are thinking about it. Certainly other cost benefits are being brought into the picture and a study is being made of them. This is true, and this is perhaps the main purpose of the exercise—to get people to look at this industry and see where it is going.

I come to the question of import saving. As part of the economic argument it is sometimes claimed that a major increase in afforestation would be justified in terms of import saving, but here again the time scale of forestry must come into the reckoning. It is a very long time scale, and it seems to me that it is difficult to justify afforestation purely from an import-saving angle.

There is another point, and that is supplies for industry. This is something about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, particularly the pulp factory in his constituency. From the point of view of supplies for industry, we again have to bear in mind the forestry facts as they really are. Trees planted today cannot realistically be regarded as a source of supply to wood-using industries for at least 25 years, and then only in the form of early thinnings. That is to say, it would be unrealistic to embark on a large programme of tree planting in the interests of new and immediate investment in manufacturing enterprises based on the use of home-grown timber.

None the less, the Government do not underestimate the assurance of continuing supplies in the longer term which existing industries can derive from the continuation of planting on an appreciable scale. In the knowledge that planting is to continue these established industries can look ahead with more confidence to expansion in the long term; and no doubt in the same long term there will be scope for new industries to take advantage of the increased supplies of home-grown timber that will be available.

I do not think that there is much point in going into the problems and difficulties of, and indeed, the views of the hon. Gentleman on the proposed pulp factory in his constituency. We have looked at this very carefully, and we believe that it would be wrong to mislead people, to raise hopes too much, because we still do not think that there are the necessary supplies of timber. In fact, the estimates are just not realistic, and I believe that that is a key point. The hon. Gentleman may laugh about my robbing Peter to pay Paul. It would be very sad to do that and to raise hopes about employment when, in the long run, we could not provide the raw materials. It would be unfair to raise such hopes, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the point and accept it.

Creating employment is simply a question of striking the right balance between all the factors which have to be taken into account in framing future programmes of afforestation. A factor which has counted most strongly with the Government has been the value of afforestation in creating and maintaining stable employment in the more remote rural areas which are subject to depopulation. Neither the economic return from afforestation nor deferred import saving could in itself be decisive. On the other hand, weight can well be attached to the long-term prospect of continuing and increasing supplies of home-grown timber to industry.

In proposing a planting programme of 50,000 acres a year for the Forestry Commission, including restocking, we think we have struck something like the right balance. Again, this is the first time that a Government have looked at the position in this way in dealing with the problem of depopulation.

I think all would surely agree that afforestation clearly cannot be subsidised regardless of other claims on our resources. It is right to look at it, but at the same time we certainly do not intend it to languish. In the Government's view, the proposals in the consultative document are designed to provide a reasonable amount of afforestation and to reflect the contribution that it can make to the rural economy and the rural landscape, which I believe is very important. We think that a contribution on this sort of scale is in the national interest at the present time. In any event, whatever decisions may be reached in the light of our consultative document, we have proposed that the commission's planting and replanting programme should be reviewed every three years. There will thus be an opportunity for us to consider from time to time whether the objectives are being fulfilled.

Once again, therefore, I welcome the initiative of the hon. Member for Blyth in having this debate so that we can discuss these things and one can make plain what the Government are trying to do. I hope that what I said will go a long way to show clearly that the document is a consultative document. We await the views of all interested parties and then the Government can make up their mind, which will be in the interests not only of forestry but of amenity values and depopulation problems. I believe that this is right.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Twelve o'clock.