HC Deb 22 March 1988 vol 130 cc332-8

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

11.56 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

This is the first time that I have applied for an Adjournment debate, and I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me one immediately. I am particularly grateful to the Department of the Environment, from which I have received a speedier and greater level of co-operation in this matter than I have received from any Government Department on any issue since I was elected to this place. That co-operation has come from all concerned, from the Secretary of State downwards, and particularly from the Minister for Sport, who will reply to this debate, and those working in his private office, who have been working overtime on the urgent matter that I raise tonight.

The House will be aware of the devastation which occurred in south-east England as a result of the storm. But some hon. Members may not be aware of an event which took place 11 days ago and which potentially in the long run could do more damage to the woodlands of England even than the storm.

That event was a judgment in the Court of Appeal on two small woods, Quilters and Featherly, in my constituency, They are composed of sweet chestnuts which were planted certainly no later than 1600 and which lie next to a site of special scientific value. They are situated in a valley—in my view, the loveliest valley in east Kent —which has the rather evocative name of Pett Bottom.

On March 11—I will not go through the chronology since the owner began trying to grub up the trees in these woods five years ago — a ruling was given that Canterbury council should pay almost £50,000 in compensation to the owner of the woods so that they should be preserved from being ploughed up as farmland.

Before going into the detail of this matter, it is worth considering why we should preserve woodland other than for commercial forestry. There are four additional reasons. The first is the landscape value, and these two woods are situated in one of the last three major areas of outstanding natural beauty left in the three south-east counties of Surrey, Sussex and Kent. The second is the amenity value for people who want to walk their dogs, take their kids for a picnic, or whatever. These woods have a perimeter path round them which makes them accessible to the public. The third is the ecological value which, for example, applies in shelter belts in protecting top soil. Finally, there is the wildlife aspect. All these are reasons why it is important to preserve woodland in the countryside.

Let us consider what the judgment of 11 March means. It applies to all coppice woodland with a diameter at chest height of under 15 cm. It says that if any council anywhere chooses to slap a tree preservation order on a coppice to prevent its owner ploughing it up or using it for any other purpose not covered by the town and country planning Acts the council is bound to pay him the full difference between the value of the land for the purpose for which he wants to use it and its value as forestry. Perhaps I should explain that coppice has nothing to do with acreage or the species of tree involved; it is a form of forestry management. All coppice woods, if properly managed, are below the requisite size.

Coppice woodlands are important in the country as a whole. They form quite a large proportion of our woodlands. They are important in the south-east counties. They are especially important in Kent where they form 60 per cent. of all the county's woodlands. Of course, there is a supreme irony in that the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill which is now in Committee is trying hard to divert land away from farming towards woodland because of the CAP. Yet as a result of this judgment owners will be entitled to convert woodlands back for "farming the CAP" or be compensated handsomely for not doing so. In other words, the wood owner can "farm the CAP" at the taxpayers' expense with all the subsidies which are involved in farming today.

The result is that developers are closing in. A developer who wants to buy a wood and plough it up for five times its value as a woodland knows that if a council steps in his way he can claim compensation. Unless there is rapid change, most councils will be unable to put on tree preservation orders to protect woodlands.

Before suggesting a way forward, I should like to touch on the nature of tree preservation orders. They can involve single trees or woods. In the latter case, with which I am concerned, they involve a careful survey to determine exactly the extent of the trees on which the order is based and a fairly complicated legal process involving the sealing of documents, which takes time. The result is that the owner is prevented from destroying the trees. I say "destroying" because it is not only a case of felling them but of perhaps allowing animals to graze among them, which kills young trees.

Tree preservation orders are not entirely negative. When a TPO is made, an owner is automatically put in touch with a considerable body of forestry expertise to enable him to understand how to look after the trees and at what point they are due for felling. In a coppice site in a typical period of 15 to 20 years a small proportion will need to be felled and replanted. The owner will also be advised on tree surgery.

The only weakness of the TPO system is that it is cumbersome. When the Minister is considering the whole picture, he should think about extending the concept of the conservation area to cover woodlands. We have one small group of woods in my constituency protected in this way because they form part of an estate around a house, Broome park, which is designated a conservation area.

What is the way forward? I stress that I am not trying to teach the Department of the Environment how to do its job, but I should like to make a couple of constructive suggestions as to what might be the best way to solve this serious and urgent problem.

The first, and perhaps the simplest, option involves no change in the law. Article 5(b) of the tree preservation order says that there is no need for an authority to pay any compensation in the case of trees other than trees comprised in woodlands where the trees have an outstanding or special amenity value. The deletion of the words other than trees comprised in woodlands would go quite a long way to filling the loophole.

The second option would be to allow the Forestry Commission to extend its felling licence requirements to cover trees far below the present diameter of 15 cm.

I hope that you will forgive me Mr. Deputy Speaker; I realise that I am not supposed to call for a change in the law. However, I know that on Thursday my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir. J. Farr) hopes to table an amendment to the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill in Committee which would limit any possible compensation payments to the forestry value of the land, and thus effectively eliminate the problem from a financial angle.

In summary, the test case was fought over two small and beautiful woods in a very beautiful valley, only about five miles from my home and in one of the last three remaining substantial areas of outstanding natural beauty in the south-east of England. The woods have been there for a least 400 years. To keep those two small woods, the council will have to pay almost £50,000 in compensation. If that sum had not been arrived at in relation to the prices of several years ago, it would be much greater. Councils do not have that sort of money to throw around. Unless changes are made, every privately owned piece of coppice land in the country will be at risk — from a threat greater than the so-called hurricane.

I stress again my gratitude for the tremendous cooperation of the Minister and his staff on this matter, and I look forward to hearing his response.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)


Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

I trust that the hon. Members for Esher (Mr. Taylor) and for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) have the permission of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and the Minister to speak.

12.7 am

Mr. Taylor

I shall make a short intervention in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). This is a very serious matter and I was most disturbed that the Court of Appeal ruling gave landowners the ability to cash in on the difference between the value of land for the use to which they wish to put it and its value as forestry.

I represent Esher, in the county of Surrey, and I know the devastation that the ruling could cause if it were taken to its logical conclusion by owners of coppice woodland. We must consider the matter urgently. My hon. Friend has put the case clearly in his thoughtful speech, and I entirely endorse what he said.

12.8 am

Mr. Rowe

I do not remember an Adjournment debate that has been as well-attended as this one, although it is perhaps surprising that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who takes such an interest in the affairs of Kent, is not present.

This is a matter of the utmost gravity. Part of my constituency falls within the district of Maidstone borough council — I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) is also here — which made representations on this matter early in the hearings before the courts.

My constituency contains an area of outstanding natural beauty, and within that area we have a farmer who is unique in Britain in that he has been to prison for his cavalier treatment of woodlands, trees and hedges. He is but one example of the sort of farmer who believes passionately that the only purpose of agriculture is to produce the maximum number of crops possible and views all woodland, or nearly all woodland, as some sort of obstruction to that purpose.

I believe that there are many such farmers, although, fortunately, they are not a majority. It would be dreadful if farmers of that ilk were given an open passport to threaten to destroy woodlands, knowing that the only way in which they could be stopped would be by the payment of large sums of ratepayers' money. It would be impossible for the rates to carry that sort of charge, so there would be an agonising choice as to which coppice woodlands would be saved and which one would allow to be destroyed. It would totally undermine the whole purpose of the diversification of farming, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has already described so well.

It is a matter of the utmost urgency. I know that there are already several applications for the freedom to destroy valuable coppice woods. That is but the beginning of what will be a torrent of applications if urgent action is not taken.

I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has expressed considerable sympathy with our point. I have asked whether there is any possibility of the matter coming within the terms of the long title of the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill—I sit on the Committee of that Bill—but I believe that the matter is still to be resolved. If, as I suspect, it would be difficult to do that, it is a matter of the utmost urgency that legislative action is taken to prevent what would be the most damaging attack, certainly on the countryside of Kent, that it would be possible to imagine.

12.12 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan)

I should first place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for his kind comments addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my private office and the officials, who have done a great deal of work on this matter. I should like to couple with that the view that, having looked at this in great detail, I and my colleagues at the Department of the Environment regard this as a very serious issue. We echo the strength of opinion that has been put to the House this evening by my hon. Friend the Member Canterbury and by my other hon. Friends.

If I am not in a position to go as far as answering the specific points and the various issues that have been brought to the attention of the House, I hope my hon. Friends will understand that that in no way diminishes the seriousness with which we are addressing the issue as one of importance requiring a speedy decision. It is merely a reflection of the need to take into account consultations with other colleagues and other Departments. Nevertheless, I hope to be able to address some of the points that have been raised by my hon. Friends and to satisfy the House of the commitment that I have expressed in general terms.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury on his dedication to detail, his commitment to this constituency matter and his recognition of the far broader perspective of this issue in terms of its national implications. I believe that that point was echoed by my other hon. Friends during their interventions.

Following the storm of 16 October and the havoc that it wrought on the landscape of southern England, all of us are now even more conscious of the vital importance of our heritage trees and woodlands. Tree preservation orders have long been available to local authorities to assist in making provision for the preservation of trees and woodlands. They are widely used and have the effect of prohibiting felling and other work on the trees concerned, unless the local planning authority gives its consent. Such orders apply in a variety of situations, from individual trees in private gardens to whole woodlands. The case involving Canterbury city council, which was the subject of the recent High Court decision, is in the latter category.

As we have heard, in 1983, a local farmer, Mr. Bell, sought the consent of Canterbury city council to grub out some 39 acres of coppice woodland for conversion to agricultural use. The application was refused and an appeal to the Secretary of State was turned down in September 1984. In June 1986, the tribunal awarded substantial compensation to Mr. Bell, based on the increase in value of the land that would have occurred had it been converted, as he wished, to arable use. Subsequently, Canterbury city council lodged an appeal with the High Court and the case was heard last month, when judgment was reserved. It has now been given and the court has, as the House knows, rejected the appeal.

The Government recognise the concern that this outcome has caused among local authorities and environmental organisations. There is a feeling that, faced with the prospect of sizeable claims for compensation, it might be difficult for local authorities to contemplate making tree preservation orders in such cases, or to refuse applications for consent under the terms of existing orders that apply to woodlands.

Against that background there is a need, as hon. Members have accordingly emphasised, to ensure that there should be no reduction in the general effectiveness of such orders, made or applied in these circumstances, particularly when they involve ancient woodland of great conservation significance. We are therefore urgently consulting colleagues in interested Departments to explore appropriate means of achieving this. Our intention is to take prompt action to remedy the situation, and while I cannot anticipate tonight—for the reasons I have given —the precise way in which we shall do so, or the precise legal form that it will take, we hope to be able to inform the House of our proposals shortly.

I must emphasise that this action will be an interim initiative, following the court's decision. The wider picture is that the legislation—both primary and secondary —relating relating to tree preservation orders and procedures is generally complex and dates back in its origins some considerable time. We therefore believe that the time has come to look more basically at the scope and detail of the various statutory provisions.

We shall therefore be undertaking a wide-ranging review of the various provisions to identify whether any further legislative changes may be necessary to clarify and improve the statutory framework. In mounting such a review, we shall consult widely with various interested bodies, and in that process will consider any further representations which may be made about the basis and application of compensation to tree preservation order legislation.

My hon. Friend raised a number of points, and I want to answer one or two of them. He acknowledged the need, in his view, to amend article 5 of the tree preservation order to exclude reference to other than trees in woodlands". I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the thought he has clearly given to this matter. I cannot comment on his particular proposal, but I will ensure that it is given appropriate consideration in our determination of the various options that may be available.

My hon. Friend went on to comment on the possibility of extending the scope of Forestry Commission felling licence controls to cover all coppice trees. I understand that a felling licence is not required in the case of coppice or underwood below 15 cm in diameter, measured at chest height. To extend controls would clearly be an additional administrative burden, involving increased costs. It might also inhibit, to some extent, the particular requirements of coppicing. However, again we will give due consideration to my hon. Friend's suggestion.

It is appropriate to underline some of the broader points which have not been raised in the debate but which come within the ambit of this subject and to show the Government's awareness of the place that trees occupy in all our affections and in the rural economy. I assure the House of the great importance that the Government attach to conservation of the countryside. I know that hon. Members share our concern about the continued safeguarding of landscape and amenity, not least in those areas of south-east England which were so cruelly ravaged in the great storm last October. That storm was, of course, the greatest storm disaster to hit the south-east of England for more than 200 years. Sixteen counties were affected in whole or in part, south-east of a line from Poole to King's Lynn. Woodlands were flattened and familiar landscapes laid bare. The impact was borne by that part of England where native broadleaved woodlands are most abundant.

Exceptional winds caused significant damage to trees in the United Kingdom in 1953, 1968 and 1976. However, not since 1703 has a storm caused such severe damage in England. Faced with that disaster, the Government amply demonstrated their commitment to trees. Within days of the storm my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that special aid would be made available for the replacement of amenity trees which were lost. Of this, £2.75 million was provided as grants by building on the Countryside Commission's existing grant schemes, which were extended on a temporary basis to cover London and other urban areas. A further allocation of £250,000 for 1987–88 was announced earlier this year and the provision of an additional sum of almost £800,000 to supplement the commission's regular tree-planting programme for 1988–89.

To undertake these responsibilities, the Countryside Commission set up a special unit—Task Force Trees. Hon. Members will recall the publication by Task Force Trees earlier this month of a helpful action pack which was launched by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The pack is aimed at householders and small landowners, and is available free of charge from the commission. It contains a range of valuable advice about the repair of damaged trees, the availability, planting and aftercare of new ones and ways in which people can help the efforts of volunteer groups, such as the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, and others in the huge job of restoring tree losses. For the longer term, the Government are considering the need for a continuation of the commission's programme and assessing how that will fit in with the efforts of local authorities, landowners and voluntary bodies. We have promised a statement of our intentions in good time for the start of the next planting season.

The response to the storm was, however, only one recent example of the significance that the Government attach to trees. Another initiative—the farm woodland scheme—is currently the subject of legislation before the House and is aimed at encouraging farmers to plant small woodlands both as valuable alternative use of agricultural land and to enhance the landscape. The aim of the scheme is to promote the planting of some 36,000 hectares in the first three years, which represents some 30 million trees a year, and farmers will receive special payments to defray the income forgone while the timber is growing. In some cases these payments will be available for as long as 40 years. Environmental considerations have played a major part in helping shape the scheme. For example, the aim is to achieve a high proportion of broadleaved planting and it should play a major role in diversifying the landscape and aiding the creation of new habitats.

I have used those two examples to underline the Government's awareness of the place that trees occupy in all our affections. I hope that by doing so I have managed to reinforce the importance of the main principles that underpin the background scene that has been brought to our attention in detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury. I again assure the House that the comments on tree preservation orders will be considered in detail. We shall act with all the urgency that we can muster after due and proper consultation with our colleagues in other Departments. I give an undertaking that we shall take the fullest account of all the points made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Twelve o'clock.