HC Deb 29 June 1989 vol 155 cc1094-7
6. Mr. Ron Davies

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what estimates his Department makes of future demand for nursery-grown trees for commercial forestry in England and Wales.

Mr. MacGregor

The Forestry Commission estimates its own needs which it meets largely from its own nurseries, while the horticultural trade makes separate assessments of the likely demand from the private forestry sector. The Horticultural Trades Association meets the commission periodically to discuss likely planting trends.

Mr. Davies

Is the Minister aware of the research undertaken at the university of Suffolk which has shown unacceptably high levels of lead in food crops grown adjacent to motorways? Would it make more sense in terms of protecting public health, enhancing the environment and giving a much-needed boost to the forestry industry if corridors of land adjacent to motorways could be taken out of agricultural production and given over to forestry?

Mr. MacGregor

That is a much wider question than the main question before us. I am aware of some of the research, although I have not had the opportunity to study it. I would have to know the basis of the research and be sure of it before I acted on it. Moving from that to the solution that the hon. Gentleman has suggested is a very different matter and raises much wider considerations. I cannot give him the assurance that he seeks.

Mr. Lord

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the serious effects of the tax change in the 1988 Budget on the supply of nursery trees. He will know that millions of those trees have been burnt this year because they were not required. He will also know that young trees cannot be kept indefinitely and that when they are nearly three years old they must be disposed of if not required. I appreciate that this may be difficult to organise, but will my right hon. Friend do his best to ensure that supply and demand in this difficult area are kept in reasonable balance so that we can plant the trees which we need to plant and so that nursery businesses do not suffer such shocks in the future?

Mr. MacGregor

The Forestry Commission makes its own estimates of its demand and, on the whole, it supplies its own trees. My hon. Friend must recognise that it is much more difficult to do that in the private sector when the demand involves thousands of landowners and others who may want to decide which trees to plant. It is difficult for the Government to make that kind of estimate. I am aware of the immediate downturn in planting following last year's Budget. That always happens when there are major changes in the way in which regimes are financed. However, there has been a general welcome for the change from tax reliefs to grants. I hope that there will be a pick-up following the period of uncertainty—the time that people must take to assess the new regime. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know of the response in the first eight months to the farm woodlands scheme, which involves the planting of 10 million new trees in the next three years, many of which are broadleaf trees. I am sure that he will have noticed also that, in the first 10 months of the scheme, applications under the woodland grant scheme have been encouraging, with applications for nearly 36,000 hectares.

Mr. Mallon

Is the Minister aware of the deep concern among officials in the North of Ireland about the possible sale of some public forests into private hands? Does he agree that, because of the small acreage of forests in the North of Ireland, that would be to the detriment of a service that has made a tremendous input to the industry? Will he have discussions with his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that those fears are dispelled as soon as possible?

Mr. MacGregor

I have no responsibility for forestry matters in Northern Ireland, but I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, over the past eight years, disposals have been extremely successful in dealing with the rationalisation of the public estate. I strongly support the announcement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland on 16 June about the programme for the next 10 years. It gives a considerable and timely boost to the private forestry sector and enables the commission's estate to be further rationalised.

Mr. Greg Knight

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members warmly welcome the farm woodlands scheme? He has mentioned the number of trees being planted. Will any of them be oaks and, if so, how many?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's question. Farmers' responses to the scheme in the early months of its introduction have been extremely encouraging. It is noticeable how many applications have been received for farmland in lowland areas, most notably perhaps in East Anglia, which is leading the way. I am particularly pleased to note that about 2 million oak trees are involved in the overall figures.

7. Mr. Tony Lloyd

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on European forestry policy and its impact on English forestry.

Mr. MacGregor

There is no common forestry policy as such. However, the Council of Agriculture Ministers recently agreed a package of voluntary measures making up a forestry action programme. The main effect of this programme from the United Kingdom's point of view is that we shall be able to obtain some reimbursement of our expenditure on the afforestation of agricultural land.

Mr. Lloyd

The Minister admitted that forestry nurseymen have had a hard time since last year's changes in forestry policy. Will he make sure that some of the European money from the forestry package is devoted to easing forestry nurserymen's problems? The Minister responsible refused to meet the nurserymen. Will the Minister reverse the decision, with a view to meeting the nurserymen to discuss how the money could be used to assist their problems?

Mr. MacGregor

It is important to understand what the European forestry programme does. We were successful in achieving our objectives in the negotiations. One of them was to ensure that, in future, the schemes that we have been pioneering in this country will be eligible for some European funding. Depending on the response to our current schemes, about £6 million is likely to come from the European Community for the kind of schemes that we are introducing. It will depend on the uptake of the schemes, and nurserymen will obviously have to take that into account.

Mr. John Greenway

With regard to the uptake of the schemes, how many hectares are likely to be planted under existing applications for the farm woodlands grant? What interest has been shown by tenants and what arrangements can be made to ensure that they can profit from this excellent arrangement?

Mr. MacGregor

For the first eight months, the figure is about 6,200 hectares. I have obviously been keen for opportunities to be extended to tenants. The schemes are long term, so tenants need to secure their landlords' agreement. I am pleased to say that, so far, about 15 per cent. of applications have been granted to tenants. That is not far short of the total number of tenanted holdings. It appears that there is a reasonable response by landlords to tenants.

Mr. Geraint Howells

After listening to the Minister's reply, is it right for me to assume that his friends in Europe are unwilling to give money to the public sector—the Forestry Commission—in this country?

Mr. MacGregor

The main schemes in the forestry programme about which we were talking do not affect the Forestry Commission or public authorities.

Mr. Home Robertson

Now that the crisis in woodland nurseries has been referred to by hon. Members from both sides of the House, does the Minister accept that it is proof positive that forestry speculators do not give a damn about the long-term benefit and welfare of Britain's woodlands, and that all they ever wanted was access to a lucrative tax dodge? Will he further accept that the Forestry Commission has by far the best record of public accountability and giving the public access to British woodland? Therefore, will he repudiate the proposals recently made by the Secretary of State for Scotland to force the Forestry Commission to privatise a further 250,000 acres of our forests, so putting even more woodlands behind closed gates?

Mr. MacGregor

On the second question, the hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening. I have already warmly supported the comments made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in answer to a previous question, and I do so again. My right hon. and learned Friend also made it clear that public access is a matter that we are considering further in relation to the programme over the next 10 years.

On the first question, I repeat that when the system of taxes or grants is changed, there is always a period during which people will wish to reflect before they make a decision about future planning. There was an even sharper decline in planting when the capital transfer tax was introduced by the Labour Government in the 1970s. The hon. Gentleman and his party supported the main thrust of the changes made last year, so I am not at all clear exactly what he is complaining about.