HC Deb 05 March 1982 vol 19 cc575-82

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

2.31 am
Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss a matter of great importance, not only to my constituency but to all involved in the sale of Forestry Commission woodlands. I have no objection to the principle of the sale of the woodlands. Indeed, I support it wholeheartedly. My objection is to the detail of the method of sale and the control exercised on the woodlands thereafter. That is a grey area where we could hope for more forcefulness by the Forestry Commission.

The sales are made under the Forestry Commission Act 1981. Large areas have already been sold or are up for sale. I do not know whether to deal in hectares or acres, but perhaps it would be helpful if I refer to hectares first and acres later. So far, 6,304 hectares have been sold or are for sale. Further sales are contemplated. The recent decision to sell stocked commercial woodlands in Powerstock, Dorset involves an area of 541 hectares.

The sale particulars have been issued. They are aimed specifically at financial institutions and other large investors. The sale is to take place in lots at a central forest office in the centre of dispersed woodlands. The sale is as a whole or in 10 lots. The closure date for tenders is 29 April 1982.

I turn to the question of the principles applied and the criteria laid down by the Forestry Commission in deciding which woodlands to dispose of. That is an important factor which perhaps we have got slightly wrong. First, the financial implications and public accountability must be taken into account. Others are the maintenance and development of the wood processing industry, employment in local communities, especially socially fragile communities, public access and recreation, conservation, research and education, market, prejudice to Forestry Commission work, rationalisation in terms of other Forestry Commission holdings and Crichel Down duty to former owners.

I am concerned with lot No. 5 of the package—Hooke Park wood, which lies south-west of the A356 and three miles south-east of Beaminster, my home town. It is a special case where the principles that I have read out should apply not only to the Forestry Commission's decision to sell but to the method of the sale and the criteria to be taken into account when considering bids.

The area is one of outstanding natural beauty, but it is a working wood and not a site of special scientific interest or a nature reserve, although we have a good head of fallow deer and some roe deer. Quite nearby, within a mile of my home, Meerhay Manor is reputed to be the site of a hunting lodge of King John. Judging by the number of hunting lodges that the King had, I should think that he spent little time on his duties and most of his time hunting. Anyway, the lodge is reputed to have been there, and the wood is known to have been hunted by the King at some time. The wood is 124 hectares—about 331 acres.

I am a trustee of the Parnham Trust Ltd. Parnham House is the home of the John Makepeace school for the art and craft of wood. It is an outstanding Elizabethan house. It was first used for institutional purposes and then remained empty for two or three years. John Makepeace appeared on the scene six or seven years ago and turned it into not just a national centre for the art and craft of wood but a centre which is internationally known and which provides tremendous employment opportunities and training for young and old alike.

Mr. Makepeace takes 10 or 12 trainees a year and also has his own workshops with a full apprentice list drawn mostly from our local schools. The trustees wish to complement the work of the school and to establish alongside it a centre for forest industries with training workshops.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has a note of the well-documented proposals for such a centre, and most people who examine them will judge them to be feasible and worth while.

We plan to establish a centre for 24 trainees drawn mainly from the United Kingdom. There will be a two-year residential course, which will not be in competition with the courses already run so well by the Forestry Commission. The only logical woodland area for the establishment of such a centre is Hooke Park wood, which lies only one and a half or two miles away from Parnham House. The administration of the centre could be done from Parnham House. Workshop and residential facilities would be built adjacent to the woodland in readiness for opening in September 1983.

Support for the aims and objects of the centre has been given by the Dorset county council and the Forestry Commission, although, as it is selling the property, the commission's support has to be muted and related entirely to the feasibility and worth of the operation that would be carried out there on behalf of forestry in general. Support has also come from the Development Commission, Dorset CoSIRA, many local forest owners, the Countryside Commission and the Manpower Services Commission. I stress the latter, as the proposal would provide a great deal of employment in initial building and work thereafter riot only because of the trainees but in the staff to man the centre.

I heard this morning that the National Heritage Memorial Trust has a great interest in our aims and objects. The Minister is aware of the supportive letters that we have received. She will realise the benefit that will accrue to the area of Beaminster from the establishment of the centre. There is no dispute on the merits of the case.

I turn to the problems that face us as a charitable trust in achieving our aim and buying the woodland. We are unable to tender for the whole acreage up for sale. Hooke Park wood comprises only one-third of the total acreage. We need to bid only for Hooke Park wood.

As I have said, in a remarkable way we satisfy the Forestry Commission criteria—education, recreation and employment in an area that is becoming rapidly deprived of employment opportunities. We fit entirely the criteria for the Forestry Commission to decide which areas should be put up for sale. The criteria should be carried forward in deciding on the bids.

If we are to obtain possession of the woodland, we need a beneficial financial institution as a partner. The problem arises in its identification. The procedure is through sealed bids. I do not belive that anyone in the Forestry Commission or the Department knows whether it will be one, two, three or 15. Financial institutions would have to dispose of a large sum of money and decide on the visability of the block of woodland. It would be difficult for us, in advance, to identify the right institutional bidder. Within the Forestry Commission's terms of reference of public accountability and so on, it will not circulate or discuss with tenderers before or after the bids have been received.

The alternative would possibly be for someone to buy the woodland and to lease it back on a long lease; but that is an outside chance. If only we could get a price put on the acreage, irrespective of bidding, because it is in the national interest, the third alternative would be to say "That is the market price that we are prepared to accept. You buy it." But that is a long shot, as the Forestry Commission informs us.

I could read from a sheaf of letters that I have received about the project. A few months ago Mr. Speaker kindly allowed his house to be used for a reception to show the work of John Makepeace. The Upper Gallery has been used to exhibit his work. Every person I have seen here believes that we are dealing with a new and exciting use of a house of character. We are trying to complement it with a woodland lot and school alongside.

My plea is for a solution. It must come from the Government. We must find out who the tenderers are to be and find an institution that has sufficient concern for the public interest to work with us. I do not know how we should do that at present.

The Government and the Forestry Commission are in difficulty. They would not wish to create a precedent by allowing special conditions for the sale of any land. However, in my view, and in the view of many other people, this is a unique opportunity. Once it has passed it has gone for ever.

If institutions bid for this block of land, and if they do not get it, they up sticks, move on and bid for a further block of land later. There are no great problems about that from their point of view. However, if the Parnham Trust wants to establish the centre for forest industries but cannot acquire Hooke Park Wood, the whole scheme will go and a unique opportunity—not only to preserve an ancient and beautiful area of woodland but to build skills for the future and provide employment in the West Dorset area—will disappear for all time.

This is not just a special case; this is a special, special, special case. If it is dealt with sympathetically it need not create a precedent, because if another 50,000 hectares of woodland are sold—I do not know how many hectares there are—a situation like this would never arise where, at a stroke, such a wonderful opportunity could be destroyed.

The words "public accountability" are used rightly. However, there is public accountability that goes beyond mere measuring in terms of money. There is public accountability to what we have at the moment and what we could have if we took the right decision now. I know the problem. All I can do is to beg and implore the Minister to use her best endeavours to help us to find some way to achieve the ownership of the land for the future of West Dorset, in the interests of Britain and many other countries as well.

2.47 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer) as I know the House will be, for drawing attention to the work of the Parnham Trust. I was present when, last Wednesday, my hon. Friend brought a deputation, including Mr. Makepeace, director of the trust, to see my noble Friend the Minister of State, who is responsible to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for forestry in England. I was impressed, as my noble Friend was, with Mr. Makepeace's enthusiasm and dedication to the work of the trust, which owes so much to his inspiration, and his long and distinguished experience as a designer and craftsman in wood. With many other television viewers, I enjoyed the enchanting programme on his work.

We are increasingly being told these days that we are witnessing the early stages of a technological revolution dominated by the micro-chip, and it is refreshing to hear about the world of craftmanship devoted to creating articles of utility and beauty out of wood. It is sometimes said that craftmanship is dying, but I think the House will be grateful to know that it is alive and well in rural Dorset.

I have listened very carefully to what my hon. Friend has said about a new venture that I know is close to his heart, as I listened also to Mr. Makespeace last Wednesday. I think that Mr. Makepeace will agree that he received a sympathetic hearing, as I am sure he did when, earlier in the year, he met the chairman of the Forestry Commission.

As my hon. Friend has indicated, Mr. Makepeace wishes to extend the activities of the Parnham Trust by providing a two-year residential course for 24 students drawn from throughout the United Kingdom at a new school for woodland industries. The school would offer training in a wide range of activities including ecology, woodland management, manufacturing, design, business management and marketing". The training would be confined to those anxious at the end of their course to establish independent, low capital businesses. Each would draw materials—and again I quote from the prospectus—

"from the customer's, landlord's or his own forest resource through a carefully agreed management programme of harvesting or thinning, removal, seasoning and preserving, manufacture" as well as the promotion and sale of products Mr. Makepeace considers that existing coppice, conifer and mature broadleaved woodlands would all be suitable for such needs. Mr. Makepeace also intends to set up at Parnham four training workshops for apprentices in fine craftsmanship to enable people from the region to develop skills that will equip them to start their own businesses.

The trust has been looking in the South-West of England and in South Wales for a suitable site on which to base the school for woodland industries, and it so happens that the Forestry Commission has for sale the woodland at Hooke Park to which my hon. Friend refers. Mr. Makepeace considers that it is admirably suited to his requirements, and I understand that he has suggested the possibility of a negotiated sale, preferably at a sum less than the open market value. The difference between the market price and what the trust would pay could, in Mr. Makepeace's view, be regarded as a financial contribution to the venture.

It might be of assistance if I were to remind the House of the circumstances under which Hooke Park Wood has come on the market. In December 1980, forestry Ministers announced the outcome of their review of forestry policy and indicated that, in accordance with the Government's support for private enterprise and the need to reduce public expenditure, some of the Forestry Commission's land and plantations would be disposed of in order to reduce its call on the Exchequer for the management of its forestry enterprise. Since the existing powers of disposal were limited, wider disposal powers were taken in the Forestry Act 1981, which came into effect last July.

It was made clear during the passage of the Bill through Parliament that the selection of areas for sale would be the responsibility of the Forestry Commission, but, to aid the commission in the selection process, Ministers set out guidelines, which the commission is required to take into account. These were referred to on several occasions during the passage of the Bill, and copies were placed in the Library of the House. In accordance with that policy, the commission has been identifying areas for possible disposal having regard to the guidelines, to which I shall return in a moment.

The sale of woodlands on this scale is a new venture and in the early stages of the disposals programme the commission has been selecting a variety of properties, ranging from isolated woodlands—perhaps of interest only to a neighbour—to carefully designed packages put together to attract the attention of the institutional buyer. This is a means of testing the market, and will help to set the pattern for sales during subsequent stages in the disposals programme.

Hooke Park is a stocked woodland of about 134 hectares and is one of 10 losts making up a package of the kind I have described, which altogether amounts to rather less than 550 hectares. The package was advertised for sale by tenders on 22 February 1982 and the closing date is 29 April 1982. This method of sale will ensure that the best possible price is obtained, and that everyone and every institution that may be interested in purchase will have an opportunity to bid.

In drawing attention to the sale particulars, which I have here and which have also been deposited in the Library, the commission has pointed out that the woodlands are well placed for management as a whole, and provide a rare opportunity to acquire a substantial forestry investment in southern Britain. As the areas in question range from as little as 2 hectares to some 134 hectares, it will be seen that private investors are being offered a range of options. Indeed, potential purchasers—including of course, the Parnham Trust—have the opportunity to bid for the whole, or for one or more individual lots.

Hooke Park Wood is the largest and most attractive of the lots on offer, and its inclusion in the package is regarded by the commission as absolutely crucial if an institutional buyer is to be attracted to the sale. Its withdrawal for sale to the trust by private treaty would prejudice the potential income from the package as a whole, even if it were sold on the basis of the district valuer's assessment of value. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in whose name the commission's property in England is vested, and the chairman of the commission, have explained this to Mr. Makepeace, and it was explained again by my noble Friend at last Wednesday's meeting.

As I have said, it is open to the trust to bid for Hooke Park, and the commission has told Mr. Makepeace that should it be successful consideration would be given to allowing the trust time in which to pay the money. However, it must be said that, even if the trust's hid for Hooke Park were attractive in its own right, that bid must be measured against any offers received for the whole package, or for different permutations of seperate lots, in order to determine the best result for the taxpayer. It has been made clear to Mr. Makepeace that any course that gave less than the optimum financial result would have serious public accountability implications. It is hardly necessary to remind my hon. Friend that the disposal of such assets at a price that safeguards the taxpayers' interests is a matter of great concern both to the accounting officer in this case, who is the director-general of the Forestry Commission, and also to my right hon. Friend.

I referred just now to the guidelines that the commission is required to take into account in selecting areas for disposal. Mr. Makepeace is, or perhaps I should say was, mistaken in assuming that some of these guidelines supported the trust's case for special consideration, and my noble Friend put him right on this last Wednesday.

The fact is, of course, that the guidelines were intended as a means of helping the commission to identify areas that should be sold. Certainly those guidelines that Mr. Makepeace felt would help his case, such as the maintenance and development of the wood processing industry; the maintenance of employment and the viability of local communities; the use of the forests for public access and recreation; and the interests of conservation, research and education, are all intended to safeguard the existing situation. For example, consideration is given to whether the sale of a particular area would disrupt wood supplies to existing customers; whether it would lead to redundancy among Forestry Commission employees in remote areas where even a few jobs might determine the future of a small community; whether the public may be deprived of a range of recreational activities they had hitherto enjoyed; or whether, perhaps, a research project might have to be curtailed.

It is relevant in this connection that one of the lots at Powerstock is on offer on a sale and leaseback basis because of the existence of a research experiment into deer living within lowland woodlands, which is expected to continue for another 30 years.

The guidelines are, however, for consideration as a whole, and they require the commission to take into account the financial implications, including the need for disposal to be fully in accordance with the principles of public accountability. This must, for the reasons I have given, loom very large when decisions on disposals are taken.

Mr. Makepeace has also suggested that the Trust's interest in the wood should be given special consideration because it happens to be in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, and that the trust would be both willing and able to preserve it and to allow public access. I would not for a moment question the trust's ability to do so or its intentions. But although conservation features in the guidelines, it is the conservation value of the woodland itself and the detrimental effect that sale might have on its future that influences the decision to sell or not to sell. It is really the value of the woodland to the AONB, rather than the fact that it happens to be situated within the designated area, which is of the greater importance. As far as public access is concerned, there is nothing to suggest that any future purchaser would be unwilling to allow access, but again this was not a factor of sufficient importance to influence the commission's decision to sell the woodland on the open market.

My right hon. and noble Friends and I are unstinting in our admiration of Mr. Makepeace's work and welcome the spirit of self-reliance that it engenders. However, as my hon. Friend already knows, this cannot be allowed to overturn the decision to place Hooke Park Wood on the open market in company with the rest of the commission's freehold woodlands at Powerstock, or our conclusion that no special concession should be permitted, other than the possibility of allowing a reasonable time in which to pay should the trust be successful in its bid. I very much hope that it will be successful, but I understand that even if it is not, an alternative solution based on property in Usk is in prospect. Whatever happens I wish it well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o'clock am.