HC Deb 19 June 1991 vol 193 cc436-44

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

11.43 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I believe that I speak with the good will of the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), in whose constituency lies the exquisitely beautiful Mar Lodge estate. His friends on both sides of the House know that he would have wished to be here if he had not had an extremely important appointment.

In the expert company of Dick Balharry, senior warden of the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland, Dr. Adam Watson, a man who has given his life to the Cairngorms and works at the Institute of Terrestial Ecology, Banchory, and Dave Morris of the Ramblers Association, my wife and I had the good fortune to spend a day last month in the ancient Caledonian forest. Does anyone in Government dispute that the Mar Lodge estate is the key tract of land in the very heart of the Cairngorms?

The problem is encapsulated in a simple, if inexact, analogy. Translated into human terms, it is as if the remaining trees were all 85 to 90-year-old men. The next decade represents the very last chance of natural re-seeding for the ancient Caledonian forest. More deer than the land has ever carried before are now supported by winter feeding from those whose priority it is to ensure enough deer for stalking purposes.

In the old days, those who took stalking estates took them for a season, or perhaps for a couple of months. They were not unduly worried if they had blank days. Now, when people will pay thousands of pounds for periods of less than a week, they expect to have stags available each day. These circumstances combine to create a situation in which the young trees have no chance to grow. The crucial point is that if the Mar Lodge estate is to be subject to commercial considerations, we might as well say goodbye to the ancient Caledonian forest.

That would be a tragedy for Scotland. It would be a tragedy for the United Kingdom, which means that the Department of the Environment ought to be deeply involved. I insert the question whether it is true that there is no mechanism for transferring Department of he Environment funds to the Scottish Office. In particular, I would like to ask whether it is true that a special allocation of funds was made from the Department of the Environment to enable the NCC to buy the Creag Meagaidh estate from Fountain Forestry in 1985. As the Minister knows, I raised the issue of the transfer of funds with the Prime Minister and had a most useful conversation with his parliamentary private secretary about it. It concerns the Treasury, Downing street, the Department of the Environment and the Scottish Office.

The end of the Caledonian forest would also be a tragedy for Europe, since I understand that neither Norway nor Sweden has examples of ancient European forests as good as the southern Cairngorms, outside of nature reserves. The Caledonian forest is the only example in the EC countries of the boreal forest.

On 5 March 1980, when he was launching the world conservation strategy in his previous incarnation as Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) said: My co-ordinating role over the whole field is one to which I attach major significance. Incidentally, I do not quote the speech in a snide way—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman meant what he said.

He continued: For, to my mind, it is the individual decision, when aggregated with hundreds or even thousands of others which, at the end of the day actually matters and only a fraction of those individual decisions are taken in government". The right hon. Gentleman continued: That is the basis of my approach to environmental conservation. As Secretary of State for the Environment, I believe profoundly in the basis of the strategy that is being launched today—the maintenance of the earth's resources. The right hon. Gentleman also said: In almost every decision the politician takes in the so-called 'environmental area' he has to balance a development need, with a clearly defined economic advantage, against a potential conservation loss, with perhaps no conceivable economic gain or even the imposition of a specific loss in terms of increased government expenditure. What matters is that the politician consciously weighs up the various possible effects of development in taking his decision, and seeks a decision that is sound conservation, using our environmental resources as well as possible … Public bodies have to pay regard to nature conservation. And we give special protection to particularly important sites of interest of nature conservation or special scientific interest. As today's event underlines, we may need to consider decisions too from an international as well as a national standpoint ….As soon as circumstances permit, we should like to ratify the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage … As examples of that commitment, in the last 10 months we have sanctioned additional expenditure to allow the NCC to acquire unique wetlands at Cors Fochno and to buy the Parsonage Down estate of special scientific interest with its outstanding flora … I can promise a philosophical approach totally in line with the objectives of a sensible conservation policy, and I can promise too a personal commitment that starts from a simple premise: in any individual decision, the starting point will be to conserve what matters: those who have a contrary objective must bear the onus of proof. I ask tonight: do the Government stand by what the right hon. Gentleman said in 1980, particularly his view of our international responsibilities? Page 12 of "The Way Ahead", published in July 1990, highlights the need for Scottish Natural Heritage to purchase, own, lease, or manage land either alone or in partnership. If Ministers are not prepared to apply such principles to Mar Lodge, where do they propose to apply them?

According to "The Way Ahead", The proposed powers for SNH will give it strength and flexibility beyond that available to the present agencies". Mar Lodge is a kind of litmus test of the new body. If the Government will not find moneys to purchase it for the nation, will they at least fund a consortium of voluntary bodies—such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the World Wildlife Fund and the Chris Brasher Trust—on a pound-for-pound basis? I was a Doubting Thomas in regard to the changes; indeed, I wholly opposed them. As an unbeliever in the break-up of the Nature Conservancy Council, however, I am entitled to say that Mar Lodge is a litmus test for those who insisted on destroying the NCC.

Finally, I ask the Minister some questions, of which I have given notice to his officials—as, indeed, I have in regard to every point that I have made in my speech, thinking it sensible to do so. First, what costs would be incurred by the nation if Mar Lodge were managed as a private estate for nature conservation? It would involve the forgoing of profits, and compensation from the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland. Such a management agreement, involving a huge estate, has not been achieved anywhere else, despite all the work that the Standing Committee on the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 put into the concept. I think that the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro)—who has done me the courtesy of being present at this late hour—will accept that.

Would the Government consider a compulsory purchase order for the estate on the basis of the Crown Commissioners' negotiations? If a national European and world living treasure is to be used as a bauble or toy for the mega-rich and hawked around the international market, should not the Government opt for a compulsory purchase order? After all, the Crown Commissioners have already set a value on the estate. In the event of there not being a compulsory purchase order, would Ministers consider buying Mar Lodge, or even using the compulsory purchase order to arrest possible purchase, and then to launch a public appeal for 50 per cent. of the purchase costs?

Those questions have been asked by a number of people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), who, for understandable reasons, was here until a moment ago but has left because he has to go to Scotland tonight. These questions also arouse the curiosity of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who has done me the courtesy of coming in at this late hour, and I thank him for that.

There is a great deal more to be said on an issue that deeply concerns many people, not only in Scotland, but in Britain, but it is more important that the Minister has time to expound Government thinking. I hope that the House will forgive me a personal reflection. On three occasions, Mr. Speaker has given me an Adjournment debate on rain forest problems. I have also been lucky to raise the subject of the Amazon on four occasions during the Consolidated Fund Bill debate and have asked innumerable questions.

How on earth can any of us seek to tell developing countries what they should do about the guardianship of their rain forests unless we set an example in relation to our own forests, and in particular to Mar Lodge? I shall never forget sitting in the office of Cesar Fernando Mesquita, then the Minister for the north, in Brasilia, and having to begin my plea for the Amazon with the observation that I came from a country where we had allowed most of our old forest to be destroyed and that I was in no position to lecture him or anyone else in Brazil. Only with that confession, and in a spirit of humility, which contrasted with that of his previous visitor—the American Senator Gore—did I get a kindly hearing. If we fail to do the right thing by Mar Lodge, we had better shut up about trying to protect the world's rain forests. Britain's international credibility is at stake. I wonder whether the Government agree with that.

11.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on his success in raising these important matters. I know the area quite well as I stayed there some years ago, and a constitutent who was a stalker showed me around, from one end to the other, which was a fascinating experience.

I agree that the Cairngorms, which contain most of the highest peaks in Scotland, are probably the finest single example of the natural heritage of Scotland and are of considerable importance in international terms.

Remnants of the Caledonian forest which lie in and around the foothills of the Cairngorms are one of the most important features of the Cairngorms. These native pine woods are among the least modified woodland areas in Britain and represent an unbroken link with the natural forest that developed following the recession of the last glaciation some 8,000 years ago. They are an irreplaceable habitat for many rare animal and plant species. The importance of the Caledonian forest to Scotland, Britain and indeed the world is not in question and well deserves discussion tonight on the Floor of the House.

Preserving the health of the Caledonian pine forest is a matter of considerable concern to the Government and is a priority of both the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland and the Forestry Commission. Those present who have seen Scotland's pine woods in their native setting will, I am sure, agree with me that a natural forest is one of the most spectacular features of our countryside. In its natural form, the Caledonian forest contains a wide variety of different species and animals.

Scots pine is, of course, the dominant plant species, but other trees, including birch, alder, willow, aspen, rowan, juniper and holly, also appear. The vegetation below the trees includes important plant features, including heathers, blaeberry and rare species such as twinflower, creeping ladies' tresses, and various wintergreens. The animal variety contained in the Caledonian forest includes pine marten, wild cat, red squirrel, capercaillie, crested tit and the Scottish crossbill, as well as a particularly rich collection of invertebrate fauna. Taken together, the Caledonian forest represents a habitat that is one of the most natural anywhere in this country.

Right hon. and hon. Members will no doubt share my regret that the extent of the forest has diminished considerably in recent centuries. Historical research has shown that it may once have covered more than 1.2 million hectares of the Highlands. A series of factors, including felling by man and grazing pressures from wildlife and domestic livestock, reduced its size considerable over the centuries, and by the middle of this century no more than small remnants remained.

The Scottish Office is fully aware of the importance of the Caledonian forest, and has for many years now taken steps to ensure its survival and, it is hoped, its future growth. Today, there are some 12,000 hectares a native pine wood of natural character in Scotland.

Under the woodland grant scheme introduced in June 1988, the Forestry Commission introduced special provisions for the management of native pine woods, aimed at maintaining and enhancing the pine wood ecosystem, protecting their aesthetic value and genetic integrity, and enlarging their area. The Forestry Commission has already received applications to create more than over 5,000 hectares of new native pinewood of natural character, which will represent a significant extension to the area of existing native pinewood in Scotland.

From next April, the pine woods will, in addition, be eligible for the special rate of management grant in return for managing the woods in a way that conserves their environmental value.

It is not, of course, possible to devise a future strategy for the Caledonian forest in isolation from other land uses in the immediate area. Factors such as the relationship with grazing and browsing animals, as well as the impact of recreational use of the land, need to be borne firmly in mind. Regeneration must rely on a number of factors to allow it to succeed. The Government are fully aware that grazing and browsing pressure has a major impact on the ability of the Caledonian forest to regenerate naturally.

Mr. Dalyell

Do the Government accept that there will be no chance of the forest naturally reseeding if the unnaturally high level of deer that exist there, for whatever reason, is allowed to continue?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The amount of culling has increased steadily, year by year, and my understanding is that that will continue. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a review is under way of the powers of the Red Deer Commission, with a view to possible legislation at some time in the future. The matter is not being allowed to rest.

I am aware of the arguments of those who say that the best way to allow natural regeneration is significantly to reduce deer numbers in the area, and I know that deer culling at the right level is an important priority of deer management groups and the Red Deer Commission. I should say that another effective way of bringing about regeneration has been to fence off from the outside deer range the area where regeneration is required. Deer fences play a significant role in promoting regeneration in many parts of the Caledonian forest. Much of that fencing is grant aided, either by the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland or by the Forestry Commission, acting on the advice of the Red Deer Commission.

Many of the important remnants of the Caledonian forest, including those at Mar Lodge and Ballochbuie in the south of the Cairngorms, as well as in Abernethy, Glenmore, and Rothiemurchus in the north, are in or near the area that is currently under consideration by the Cairngorms working party set up by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland earlier this year to consider current land and land use practices in the Cairngorms area and to recommend an integrated management plan consistent with the importance of the natural heritage of the area and the need to ensure social and economic benefits to local people.

The future of the forest is, I understand, already a major issue on the agenda of the working party and we shall be looking carefully at its recommendations on how to ensure the future of the forest. The working party will no doubt be considering the experience on the estates in the north of the Cairngorms where the forest is in good health due to a combination of the use of fencing and effective deer management, in part under the provisions of nature reserve agreements.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the Minister give way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

If I do, I may not be able to answer all the hon. Gentleman's questions. If I have missed anything, I shall return to it later.

The hon. Gentleman asked about our international commitments with regard to the Caledonian forest in the Cairngorms. These are safeguarded as national nature reserves or sites of special scientific interest in full recognition of those commitments. We have also proposed that the Cairngorms be nominated to be a World Heritage site of natural importance, on the recommendation of the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission for Scotland. We shall begin work to prepare our case on this matter once the working party has completed its work.

I should now like to refer to Mar Lodge estate itself. I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said about the future ownership of the estate. First and foremost, I should tell him that I share his assessment of the importance of the estate, which occupies a central position in the Cairngorms. It contains three major peaks as well as other important high ground, and—most important in terms of this debate—important remnants of the Caledonian forest in the Forest of Mar. It provides important habitats for rare birds and other species, as well as providing the main access points to the plateau from Deeside, including access to the Lairig Ghru. I have no doubt that Mar Lodge estate will form an essential component in the integrated management plan for the Cairngorms and that the active participation of the owners of Mar Lodge estate will be an important element in the success of that plan.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, a series of discussions took place between various bodies, including the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland, the Countryside Commission for Scotland, the Crown Estate Commissioners and a number of voluntary bodies to consider options for the purchase and management of the estate.

It was disappointing to us that the offer made by the Crown Estate to Mr. Kluge was not accepted. I understand that the Crown Estate offer was based on an independent valuation of the estate and was very substantial. Independent valuation is clearly the correct course of action to safeguard the potential use of public funds, and purchase at above this rate is unlikely to be cost-effective.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would be prepared to purchase Mar Lodge itself by compulsory purchase. As he will know, that is not the approach that the Government generally take to the management of the natural heritage throughout Scotland. Private ownership forms the basis of landholding in most of Scotland and has proved capable of sustaining environmentally sensitive management in many locations. The Scottish Office firmly believes that private ownership, with a management agreement negotiated with the conservation agencies, is in general the best approach to the management of Scotland's natural heritage. Private landowners have shown in many areas that economic land use, conservation and recreational management are able to co-exist. There is no reason why that should not happen at Mar Lodge in the future.

I do not accept that, if Mar Lodge is to remain in private hands, it will not be possible to give sufficient priority to nature conservation. As much of the estate is already part of the national nature reserve and protected by the arrangement governing sites of special scientific interest and other conservation designations, natural heritage interests will be well protected under the existing powers of the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland, the Countryside Commission for Scotland, and later Scottish Natural Heritage. The Cairngorms working party will make recommendations on an integrated management plan for the area, including Mar Lodge estate, which will be consistent with World Heritage status and we shall look to the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland and, later, Scottish Natural Heritage to negotiate appropriate management agreements with the new owner, whoever that turns out to be, which are consistent with this integrated management plan. I am confident that a satisfactory outcome to the negotiations is possible.

The hon. Gentleman asked what costs there would be to the nation in managing Mar Lodge as a private estate for nature conservation involving profits forgone and compensation by the NCCS. He will, I am sure, understand that it is not possible to give any clear indication of the costs involved, as there is no existing management agreement covering the management of Mar Lodge estate for the purpose of nature conservation alone. It is also impossible to predict with any certainty exactly what type of operations would be proposed by a private landowner that would involve compensation under the profits forgone principle. I can, however, assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government would look to the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland, and later Scottish Natural Heritage, to seek to negotiate an agreement or agreements with the new owner that brought about the necessary objectives while ensuring that the interests of the taxpayer were fully respected.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)


Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

If I may answer the hon. Member for Linlithgow's other two questions, then I shall give way.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow also asked whether the Government would be prepared to arrest the sale of Mar Lodge estate and to support a public appeal for funds to buy the estate. I am aware that the voluntary conservation bodies are continuing to consider the possibilty of making a bid for Mar Lodge estate themselves. We would be prepared to consider any proposal that those organisations might wish to make to us for Government support. Such a proposal would need to be channelled through the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland. But I should make it clear that that form of ownership, like public ownership, is not always the best means of securing our overall objectives in Scotland's countryside. I should also make it clear that we are not prepared to consider placing restrictions on private ownership such as would be implied by a temporary compulsory purchase order: that would place an unacceptable restriction on the operation of the market.

In response to the hon. Member for Linlithgow's point about Government finances, I should make it clear that the responsibility for nature conservation in Scotland now lies with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, following the coming into force of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. As he and I have made clear at many points during our debates on the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Bill, the Government are fully committed to implementing our responsibilities in this field effectively in Scotland. We have already provided NCCS with a substantial budget for this financial year and fully intend to provide SNH with the resources needed to make it a strong, viable and effective natural heritage body.

Creag Meagaidh was purchased by the NCC in 1985, after negotiations with a private owner on a management agreement failed. The circumstances of that case and the scale of the purchase at £450,000 were considerably different from those proposed for Mar Lodge.

As a final point I should make it clear that the health of the pine woods on Mar Lodge is already a priority for the agencies of Government and will continue to be so in the future. Although the estate has increased its deer cull in past years, I recognise that natural regeneration on the estate is generally in poor shape at the present time. There are, however, small deer enclosures maintained by NCCS where regeneration has been relatively successful. I would expect the working party to recommend that the Forest of Mar, as well as other remnants of the forest in the Cairngorms area, be suitably sustained and if possible extended in future years.

We have one more minute, so perhaps the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) could question me briefly.

Mr. Dewar

I wanted to clarify the position. The Minister allowed, or presumably encouraged, the Crown Estates Commissioners to bid after consultation with other public sector bodies. In the course of his remarks he gave the impression—in fact he specifically said, as I understood it—that his view was that private ownership and management agreements were the best way to do it, which seems somewhat incompatible with the Government's position only a short time before. He said that he will listen to any offer that is made. Does that include the possibility of positive Government financial co-operation?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I cannot give a guarantee of funds on the table tonight. We will consider seriously any proposal made to us. The Crown Estates Commissioners are independent of Government and we were in touch with them. We considered sympathetically their aims, which we thought were very worthy. It is unfortunate that those proposals have fallen through. Mr. Kluge has made his position on that absolutely clear.

Mr. Dalyell

It is not a question of natural regeneration being in poor shape, it is that natural regeneration is non-existent. I hope that the Minister will go there and walk over the same areas that he may have walked over before. The situation has become absolutely dire. Before any decisions are taken, are we waiting for the report of the Cairngorms working party? Until we have the assurance that nothing irrevocable—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.

Back to