HL Deb 14 November 1934 vol 94 cc399-423

LORD DERWENT rose to call attention to the inadequate production of home-grown timber in replacement of that felled for war-time use, to the rapid exhaustion of the virgin soft-wood forests of the world, and to the important bearing of afforestation upon water supply; and to move that it is desirable that the planting programme of the Forestry Commission be increased substantially, and that steps be taken to encourage planting and the practice of sound forestry upon municipal and private estates.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to speak for the first time in your Lordships' House, I trust I may be accorded the usual indulgence that such an occasion demands—an indulgence that I should prefer to see reserved for any deficiences in my presentation of the case outlined by the Motion that stands in my name, since I certainly need none for calling attention to a problem that so intimately concerns so many of the members of your Lordships' House. In any case, I need make no apology for appearing in the role of one of the legendary "backwoodsmen Peers" arriving unexpectedly to talk about backwoods and woods in general; for the matter is one of real urgency, as I hope to prove to your Lordships' satisfaction. I shall be as brief as possible, since I am well aware that there are other Motions besides my own on to-day's Paper.

The problem to which I wish to draw your Lordships' attention is, of course, far from being a new one. This is neither the time nor the place to insert a complete exposê of the history of British woodlands. It should suffice for this afternoon if I remind your Lordships that it was not until the middle of the sixteenth century that any serious legislation was introduced to cope with the scarcity of useful trees, not until the end of the same century that trees began to be planted other than from seed, and even so, by the beginning of the reign of Charles II, the scarcity of oak-timber for the Navy had become so alarming that the Commissioners of the Navy asked the newly-founded Royal Society to suggest a remedy. As early as 250 years ago Britain was already dependent on her American Colonies for her timber, apart from her oak, which passed then, and still passes, for having very special qualities. In spite of abundant legislation designed to deal with the matter in the reign of George III, a Royal Commission of 1792 is precise and eloquent in its expressions: We shall only observe (with regard to the whole of the forests, parks, and chases belonging to the Crown) that instead of yielding any clear revenue to the public, the value of all they have produced has been expended on them, and a great sum besides … and yet they now contain much less timber than in former times.

A special Act passed in 1808 arranged for fresh enclosures of State woodlands; but, although between then and 1830 an impetus was given to private planting, in particular in Scotland, in 1810 we find Lord Melville addressing Mr. Perceval, the Prime Minister, on the decay and destruction of the national forests, pointing to advanced prices of soft woods, the increase in the demand for oak, and the inability of the woodlands to meet this demand, and exhorting the Government to provide for the future instead of relying solely on private commercial enterprise.

And taking a long step to the close of the last century, we come to a Select Committee of the House of Commons reporting in 1887 in these terms: The woodlands belonging to the State are comparatively small, though even as regards them, the difference between skilled and unskilled management would itself more than repay the cost of a forest school. The woodlands in private hands, however, are far more considerable. … The Committee are satisfied that, so far as Great Britain and Ireland are concerned, the management of our woodlands might be materially improved. Nearly every other civilised State possesses one or more forest schools. In this country, on the contrary, no organised system of forestry instruction is in existence excepting in connection with the Indian service.

Finally, so as not to drag out to undue length the tale of woe I have been spinning your Lordships, I will conclude with a statement from an authoritative work, the 1905 edition of Nisbet's "The Forester," which quotes statistics for the year 1902 showing that the United Kingdom was then the most poorly wooded country in Europe. It points out the extreme disadvantage of this country in respect to timber due to the fact that they were neither formed, nor are they maintained for the growing of timber for profit,

and it sums up as follows: In consequence of its poverty in wood-lands, its dense population, and its vast commercial industries, Great Britain requires immense quantities of timber each year. … Simultaneously with this expansion in our requirements, the sources of supply are diminishing as the natural forests in thinly populated countries are being cleared for permanent cultivation. … Britain's requirements cannot be entirely met at home; even if the three million acres of woodlands were trebled and were in a fully stocked condition, they would only just supply existing needs, without leaving any margin for expansion of industries.

The year 1914 brought the War; and if I have been able to impress your Lordships with the seriousness of the situation in the old decade that preceded it, I certainly do not need to expatiate on the immense aggravation of that seriousness produced by the War itself, with its in-satiable demand for timber of all kinds from all sources, which resulted in the felling of 450,000 acres of British woodlands.

I have dwelt rather long on the history of timber in Britain, at the risk of wearying your Lordships, because I was anxious to demonstrate that the War did not create but merely occasioned a crisis in a state of affairs already chronic in the annals of our country. Nevertheless, the increased difficulties attendant on this question brought some good in their train; they brought the Acland Report of 1918 and the Acland Report brought the Forestry Commission. The Committee responsible for issuing that Report was a Sub-Committee of the Reconstruction Committee, and was presided over by Mr. Francis Acland, as he was then; and in case some of your Lordships have had time to forget them, I would remind them that its terms of reference were: To consider a report upon the best means of conserving and developing the woodland and forestry resources of the United Kingdom, having regard to the experience gained during the War.

Its findings were, very briefly, as follows: The three million acres under woodland in the United Kingdom before the War gave an annual yield of 45 million cubic feet, which was about one-third of what it should have been under correct silvi-cultural management. During the five years preceding the War the home production amounted to less than 8 per cent. of the total consumption. The imports of timbers of all kinds during the years 1915 and 1916 were respectively three-quarters and two-thirds of the normal pre-War imports, but their cost was £37,000,000 in excess of their pre-War value. Two million acres of land then used for rough grazing could be devoted to timber production without decreasing the home production of meat by more than 0.7 per cent., and would ultimately afford employment to at least ten times the number of men then engaged on that area. Dependence on imported timber had proved a serious handicap in the conduct of the War; the United Kingdom could not run the risk of future wars without safeguarding its supplies of timber as every other Power that counted had already done. In order to do this, the Committee recommended that a Forest Authority equipped with funds and powers to survey, purchase, lease, and plant land should be set up, and that the care of forestry should be centralised in such a body.

It would make it its business to afforest 1,770,000 acres in eighty years (the average rotation); two-thirds of this area (that is, 1,180,000 acres) should be planted in the first forty years, though in view of the initial difficulties the quota for the first ten years should be limited to 150,000 acres, to be planted by the State, and 110,000 planted or replanted by private persons and public bodies, these latter assisted by grants, or by co-operation between them and the State. The area to be planted by the State in subsequent years might be reduced in the same degree as private individuals came forward to undertake the work—and I should like to lay particular stress on this proof that the State was not supposed by the Committee to bear the whole onus of the task, but that other organisations must carry out their share. As for finance, they estimated the cost for the first, ten years at nearly £3,500,000, and they considered that it might be necessary to invest £15,000,000 altogether in the enterprise during the first forty years. After that the scheme should be self-supporting. In any case, the whole sum involved was less than half the direct loss incurred during the years 1915 and 1916 through dependence on imported timber. The outcome of this admirable Report was, as your Lordships are aware, the formation in 1919 of the Forestry Commission; and it is now my duty to remind your Lordships of what has actually been accomplished since that first attempt was made to put some order into a very disordered department of national production.

I will take the first decade first, from 1920 to 1929 inclusive. The total sum paid into the Forestry Fund from the Exchequer during the ten financial years in question was £3,500,000. The total net expenditure exceeded this only by the small sum of £150,000. But if the money was wisely expended, it was far from enabling the Commission to carry out all that was originally intended. I quote from its Tenth Annual Report: The total area of plantable land acquired to September 30, 1929, was 310,230 acres compared with 402,000 recommended by the Acland Committee. The shortage was, therefore, 91,770 acres, or 22.8 per cent. of the total.

It shows also that, where actual planting was concerned, as against 150,000 acres recommended by the Acland Committee, only 138,279 were planted by the State, and only 72,840 planted by private individuals and public bodies, as against 110,000 recommended by the Committee. The Tenth Report states: Broadly, the reason for the shortage on the acquisition programme has been uncertainty as to finance, and with regard to planting it furnishes the following significant details—the Report is speaking of conifer planting: The Acland programme was an expanding one beginning with nil in the first year and growing at the rate of 3,300 acres per annum to 30,000 acres in the tenth year. An excellent start was made, and by 1922 the rate of planting was well in advance of the prescribed rate. For reasons of finance the planting rate was then stabilised at nearly 10,000 acres per annum for three years. From 1924 to 1927 more money was available, and the expanding programme was resumed. From 1927 to 1929 the rate of planting fell away slightly, again owing to difficulties of finance which had curtailed land acquisition.

The Report sums up: Although in the upshot the full statutory amount was credited to the Forestry Fund during the ten-year period, there have been times during which considerable uncertainty has existed as to the annual provision of funds.

So much for the first decade; and your Lordships will, I think, agree with me that, though much was done, more ought to have been done. What of the intervening years between then and now?

For the second decade Parliament decided in September, 1929, to vote £9,000,000 to enable the Commission to carry out its programme; but in March, 1932, owing to the necessity for economies to be made all along the line, the Committee on National Expenditure presided over by Sir George May was obliged to change the situation by recommending that the Commission should be allocated only £450,000 for the next five years, after which the position must be reconsidered, and thus its finances were cut down to about half what it had hoped to use, with the result that for the year 1931–1932 a proposed programme of planting 28,000 acres had to be replaced by one of 22,000 acres, and since then, instead of an annual 30,000 acres or over, the Commission have only been able to plant an average of 21,000 acres. I should add that private planting after fifteen years is still some 5,000 acres under the original amount hoped for for the first decade alone. These are the facts. Owing to financial circumstances over which (to parody a familiar phrase) no one has any control, the pressingly necessary work of restoring this country to what I may describe as sylvicultural health and strength has never been able to be adequately carried out, and has had to be indefinitely slowed down.

But, my Lords, there is more. I have shown that the situation is, by reason of all this, extremely serious. I have not attempted to persuade your Lordships that we can ever hope to grow all the timber we need for our own use, nor have I entered at all into the question of imports as a whole, since that would be beyond my competence. I have not reminded your Lordships of the decreasing percentage in the use of home-grown timber as compared with that imported. I have not mentioned the growing difficulty experienced in finding adequate amounts of English oak and ash, although they are far superior to all others for certain uses; and with regard to the regrettable state of private planting, I will confine myself to a quotation from the Imperial Economic Committee's Report of 1928: It is estimated by the Forestry Commission that private planting will not at best do more than keep pace with current fellings, and we are advised that under existing conditions it is probable that fellings exceed plantings.

I have not time to go into all the necessary details. What I wish to impress upon your Lordships is that, if only for three reasons, it is absolutely essential that something must be done to remedy the deplorable situation of this country with regard to woodlands.

The first is the gradual depletion of soft-wood forests all over the world. I will turn again to the Acland Report: The United Kingdom is dependent for more than 60 per cent. of its timber on the virgin forests of foreign countries which are being steadily depleted.

This was written in 1918: The proportion derived from sources within the Empire fell from 22 per cent. in 1899 to 10 per cent. in 1913. Every year we become more dependent on Russia, which in 1913 supplied us with nearly half our total imports. We have no means of reckoning how long the virgin forests will last, but unless they are brought under systematic management, their exhaustion can only be a question of time. … The only large reserves within the British Empire are those of Canada, which are rapidly being depleted by fire. … The Canadian reserves are the only source on which the United Kingdom can fall back if supplies from Russia fail. … Unless the Canadian forests can be adequately protected and made available in case of necessity for the United Kingdom, it is certain that the area of timber within the British Isles must be increased far beyond that recommended in the proposals made in the following pages. As your Lordships know, neither of these desiderata has been achieved.

It is, of course, soft woods that are the crucial point; both our imports and our use of hard woods are negligible in comparison. On consulting the official figures, I find that we still draw by far the greater part of our imported soft woods from Russia and Finland; Canada comes somewhere about fourth on the list of countries that export them to us. In other words we are making practically no use of one of the largest sources of supply which continues to pour immense quantities of timber into the U.S.A., so that it may not be there when we one day require it; and we remain dependent on the slow-growing Finnish forests, which are only 82,000 square miles in area, and on those of Russia, a country with which I need not remind your Lordships our commercial relations are extremely irregular, whose forests contain large areas that are without commercial value, and which will inevitably need more and more of its own timber for use at home as its industrial development proceeds. Your Lordships will readily grasp that if I plead for more extensive planting in the United Kingdom, it is first and above all, in order to guard against one day being unable to find any of the necessary timber at all, and since we cannot become an exporting country, at least to ensure that the shortage is not due to our own lack of foresight.

My second reason is based on a desire to avoid what I may call the secondary effects of general deforestation, of which we shall certainly stand in danger if felling continues at the present rate and re-afforestation is not extended. I refer to the climatic results of excessive deforestation. Now, I do not wish to give your Lordships the impression that it is a matter of change in rainfall, as it is in some countries. Our rainfall and the general dampness of our climate are mainly due to the warmth of the saturated air-currents accompanying the Gulf Stream; and even if every tree were cut down in these islands to-morrow, it is unlikely that it would alter the rainfall at all. The kind of thing that would result, and that may result if we allow things to go on as they are at present, may be described to your Lordships by the following extract from a recent address to the Botanical Section of the British Association by a Professor of Forestry, Professor Borthwick: Although it has not been definitely decided whether forests increase the rainfall or not, it can be claimed with every justification that the forest is of great importance as a conservator of water and as an equaliser in the drainage of the land. Where no forests exist in the upland or collecting regions of watersheds the rain falls unhindered, beating the surface hard or eroding it down to the bare rock. There is nothing to check the downward rush of water, which collects into mountain torrents, which gush unbridled into the main rivers and streams, causing them to become swollen and flooded. These in turn race through the fertile valleys to their outlets, tearing down and overflowing their banks. The damage done by severe and sudden floods to roads, bridges, agricultural crops and stock, including human, habitations, is well-nigh incalculable. Nor does the matter end there: millions of tons of valuable soil are washed away in these turbulent floods, and deposited as barriers in the river beds or in the sea at the river bar. Harbours and docks at the outlet of our main rivers become silted up with mud and debris: this in turn—apart from the loss of soil—involves costly dredging operations to keep the navigation channels clear. Where forest exists in the upland districts or collecting ground of the water, rivers are more uniform in their flow, year in and year out, and carry much less silt and debris. The crowns of the trees break the force of the falling rain; the humus layer on the forest floor has an enormous water-absorbing capacity, and when saturated it allows the water to percolate slowly into the deeper loosened layers of mineral soil from which in turn it gradually finds its way into springs and watercourses. Further, the influence of the forest is such that the melting of snow is more gradual and water is slowly absorbed and held, thus again avoiding floods. The forest regulates the off-flow of water after heavy rains or melting snow. This water is fed into springs and watercourses more gradually throughout the year, thus preventing floods at one season and equally serious drought at another. … I do not claim that afforestation or forest conservation in the high ground and valley slopes will entirely prevent floods and drought, but what the forester is doing, or leaves undone, in the remote hinterland will go a long way to check or ameliorate the evil effects of both.

My third reason concerns a question which is of the deepest interest to us all, the question of employing more of those millions of unfortunate idle hands that the present discontents have set up before us as an ever-present reminder that all is not so bright as an apparent prosperity may lead us to think. It is not necessary to try to justify the employment of men in forestry on grounds of health and contentment; and as for the practical side, it has been demonstrated that it can employ more men for a given expenditure of money than almost any other industry. A leader in The Times of September 22 of this year puts the matter in a nutshell. It is speaking of the part of the Duke of Northumberland's estates recently acquired by the Forestry Commission at Kielder in the Cheviots. "They" (the estates) … offered a fine opportunity for the Commission to extend the facilities for giving work to the unemployed in which it has been co-operating with the Ministry of Labour. … What the Forestry Commission gives to the Ministry of Labour is the means of restoring to health and vigour … relay after relay of enfeebled and objectless men from the depressed areas … and of training them to some degree of efficiency in the hope of future occupation. What the Ministry of Labour gives to the Forestry Commission is the present completion of works—road-making, drainage, and the like—which are not immediately necessary, but which will prove in the end a great saving of time and money. Not only in the camps and courses for the unemployed, but also in the regular operations of the Commission, there remains much more to be done, if funds will allow and encouragement is offered.

If it is also taken into account that in the North of England in particular, the former home of so many thriving industries in the last century, much labour has been displaced which may never be able to return to its original site—in the cotton and woollen and coal trades for example—how is it possible not to feel that here is a partial solution of this terrible problem, able to secure health and an occupation for thousands and at the same time to increase our basic store of timber; in other words, an opportunity to spend money in a way that is sensible now and lucrative later?

I have done my best, my Lords, to make clear the straits in which we find ourselves as a nation at the present time with regard to timber, and I have given what I consider the most cogent reasons for attending to the situation. I have one word more to say which concerns the last clause of the Motion that stands in my name. The question of private planting is difficult one to embark on. Landowners on mixed estates have little enough money to spare for planting in these days; municipal bodies and public bodies have many more immediate necessities in their mind's eye, housing, drainage, slum clearance and so on. It has not hitherto been considered an acceptable policy for the State to acquire land compulsorily, although the Forestry Commission have stated that part of their difficulties are due to the fact that they cannot acquire all the land they would like under the present system. What the future holds, in this connection, I leave to others to prophesy. But I would make the tentative suggestion that, since it should be evident to all by this time how grave the emergency is, whatever energies have so far been expended in circularising and encouraging owners of woodlands should now be redoubled, through whatever channels are considered most suitable; and that no pains should be spared to bring home vividly to owners and purchasers of woodlands what their responsibility is. Possibly the various independent societies that deal with forestry—and there are quite a number of them now—might make this their business. Possibly municipal bodies might, in time, be obliged to devote to afforestation at any rate a part of such lands outside towns as they acquire. The subject is a very thorny one, and I shall wait with interest to hear if His Majesty's Government or any other speakers have any suggestions to offer, since I do not feel prepared to embark as bravely as perhaps I ought to on a highly contentious subject, since it is one which introduces the whole ethics of private property.

My Lords, in conclusion, I have in the course of these remarks omitted two arguments; because I consider they need no demonstration. One is that of a potential war-time emergency where timber is concerned. It should be obvious that if the last war occasioned the difficulties that did, another conflict, especially after the progress in aeronautics of the last twenty years, would make the arrival of supplies from outside exceedingly problematical. The other concerns the beauty of the English countryside. From Chaucer to the Georgian poets and all through our literature runs the strain of panegyric in praise of it. The Forestry Commission are obliged, for economic reasons, to concentrate on soft-wood planting; hedgerow timber and hard-wood plantations are disappearing as fast as the rest, and it is that which makes up our English scene. If, in a 100 years time, someone reads the words of Keats: As when upon a trance'd summer night Those green-robed senators of mighty woods Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars Dream and so dream all night without a stir …

I could continue the quotation, but I do not want to weary your Lordships—would you have those words seem very much a fantasy of the remote past, and the reader be looking out on a landscape occupied entirely by something resembling the road between London and Oxford? I think not, and in that event, and that hope, I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That it is desirable that the planting programme of the Forestry Commission be increased substantially, and that steps be taken to encourage planting and the practice of sound forestry upon municipal and private estates.—(Lord Derwent.)


My Lords, I should like, if I may be allowed to do so, first to offer my sincere congratulations to the noble Lord who has just sat down on his very eloquent and most informative speech, to which I, for one, have listened with the greatest interest. If I intervene in this debate it is to speak on this subject of the growing of timber from the point of view of Scotland generally, and particularly of the Highlands of Scotland, in which is to be found so large a proportion of the plantations of timber at present being grown. What is the position in the timber-growing industry to-day? The main difficulty, I think, is not just the lack of capital to put into the planting of trees, but rather the complete inability of the prospective timber-grower to see any reasonable possibility of any return on the capital which he expends in laying down his plantation, and this is, of course, caused by two main reasons. The first is the very low price which at present prevails for home-grown timber, and the second, the very high cost of producing and delivering the timber at the market.

In considering the question of the cost of producing timber, the type of timber which is more effective than any other is the smaller type of timber which is used as pit wood for the mines, and it is to this variety that I propose, to-day, to devote the greater part of my attention. I do so for two reasons, first, because, as I have said, the return on the capital employed in planting, to-day, is so mythical, and secondly, because it is so absolutely essential to forestry generally that the thinnings of the plantations should be able to be sold, in order that the plantations may be thinned and the final yield of timber should be of a satisfactory character. If I may give your Lordships a few figures of the costs in this industry, particularly of selling the pit wood, I would remind your Lordships of these figures. I find that the average railway cost from the Highlands to the mines for pit-wood timber is about 18s. per ton. If you assume, as is generally assumed, that with well seasoned pit wood a ton will consist of about 50 cubic feet, that gives you a cost of railway carriage of about 4¼d. per cubic foot, and the cost of felling, cross-cutting, and haulage has been worked out very carefully on a certain large estate as 5d. per cubic foot, though that is assumed by many timber merchants, I believe, to be decidedly on the low side. The total cost therefore of felling, hauling to the rail and putting on the rail of a cubic foot of pit-wood timber is 94¼d.

The average price of pit wood at the mines in Scotland during the current year has alternated from 8d. to 10d. per cubic foot. It will therefore be obvious that here is an industry where, after many years of hard work, the thinnings, which must somehow be disposed of, can only be disposed of possibly without loss but certainly without profit, and if from the ordinary private individual's point of view a timber merchant must be used to fall and shape the timber, as in most cases he must be used, and if any profit is to be allowed to the merchant, the owner finds himself without any prospect whatever of profit, and possibly with a loss on every foot of pit-wood timber that he sells.

Turning to the cost of the original capital which is sunk in the industry, the cost of planting per acre is put at various figures. The Forestry Commission, planting on a large scale, quote a figure of £9 15s. per acre. To the private individual, or to the municipal body, planting on a much smaller scale, the costs are far higher and are put as high as £15 and more for each acre planted. What are the results of this situation? The timber grower, under present conditions, faces the prospect of getting no return on thinnings from his plantations after his capital has been sunk for a period of about twenty-five to thirty years, and may be certain he will get no yield whatever on his money until the larger timber can be sold, after period of waiting, say, of fifty or sixty years.

This is not the worst of the situation, for as things are, to-day, the position is that landowners are literally unable to sell the thinnings which they must take out from their woods if the woods are to mature and produce good timber. Also there are in Scotland to-day large acre-ages of plantations which are ripe, and more than ripe, for having trees thinned out, which to-day cannot be done because the grower of the timber is faced with the prospect that if he does it he will do it only at considerable cost to himself. In the census of 1932 it was shown that there were available 2,250,000 tons of pit wood, which was reckoned to be sufficient for all the mines in Scotland for a period of from eight to ten years; but when the unfortunate timber grower endeavours to put his timber on the market he meets with prices so low, and costs so high, that it is quite impossible for him to face the loss involved. As I have shown your Lordships, of the cost of delivering timber at the market almost 50 per cent. is composed of the cost of railway carriage. Efforts are being made by the growers in many parts of Scotland to come to some arrangement on this matter with the railway companies, in order that some more satisfactory rate may be agreed upon, for an average rate from the Highlands of 18s. per ton does not compare very favourably with the flat rate of 10s. per ton which was in existence throughout the War.

In this connection I would ask the Government whether they cannot give some help, or apply their best efforts towards trying to raise the price of home-grown timber, or, as an alternative, securing some reduction in the cost of railway carriage of timber. Forestry, as Lord Derwent has said, is an industry which is not only extremely healthy but one which can produce work for a very large number of men in rural areas, so taking away numbers of the surplus population from the larger cities. It is an industry which lately was described in one of his speeches by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales as one which did more than any other to improve the physique of the people employed. His Royal Highness, I think, used the words that "fine forests make fine men." I trust therefore that something can be done in this situation which will make it possible for the many individuals and public bodies in this country who would be well prepared, as I know, to plant timber if they could see any reasonable chance of a return, to do so. I would also remind your Lordships that if the present situation continues there will in the course of a very few years be a large acreage of Government-granted land where the plantations will have to be thinned and where, if present costs and present prices continue, this can only be done at considerable cost to the taxpayers of the country.


My Lords, I should like to join in congratulating the noble Lord on his speech in introducing this topic. I think he is too enthusiastic about the value of afforestation by the State. At the prices which prevail now forestry in most cases in this country is carried on more as a pleasant occupation than as a remunerative business. My noble friend behind me referred to the question of railway carriage. It seems to me that in these days, when roads are being built to carry the big lorries which transport timber, that is really a minor question, and if the railway companies can possibly convey timber without loss they do so. The noble Earl mentioned the question of pit props. I still believe in free trade, but I do not understand why, this country having departed from the principles of free trade, pit props should be allowed free entry, as I understand is the case. Manufactured timber pays duty, but not pit props. Why not? Before the war it did not pay, except in a few cases in very favoured localities, to grow timber for sale. I saw a letter in The Times the other day, I think by a Mr. Baker, estimating that if 3,000,000 acres of land were planted there would in thirty-five years time be a profit of £60,000,000. That is fantastic, and ought not to be considered seriously.

I have spoken to many carpenters, and I have never yet found a carpenter who did not prefer working with foreign timber in preference to home-grown timber. Why even in the case of the Speaker's Chair, which was sent out to Australia from here—where did the oak come from out of which it was made? It came from Austria. As for the exhaustion of the world supplies of timber, I am perfectly incredulous about it. I believe there are vast areas of timber still unexploited, and there are countries where they grow timber like corn crops, which will be available in the future. I trust that the Government will not be betrayed into lavish expenditure on afforestation. Besides, if there is to be this great increment in value, how hard it is on the private individual that he should plant timber when the State is going to compete with him. How could a private individual compete in the market at prices at which the Government could sell? No doubt new uses may be found for timber in the future, but at the present time timber is being supplanted in one industry after another. There is the question of doing away with wooden railway sleepers and substituting iron and steel sleepers, and scaffolding poles to-day are always made of steel. I do not mean that in the future wood may not come into use again, but in the meanwhile, from all the experience of the past, and certainly of the present time, it would not be wise for the State to go in for a very large increase of planting. It is valuable to have these experimental plantations by the State, but I think that ought to suffice.


My Lords, I feel that we owe a very considerable debt to the noble Lord who has raised this most interesting and important question. The ordinary public do not understand this question, nor do they realise the importance of the work of the Forestry Commission. I am interested as one who actually grows timber and plants a very considerable number of trees every year. But from what I have seen of the work of the Forestry Commission I think they do too much in the way of planting soft wood trees, which give a quicker return than hard wood trees. For private enterprise hard wood trees are almost out of the question, because if a man 21 years old were to plant he would not see any result of his labour before he died; whereas he can see some result if he goes in for soft wood. The Forestry Commission is presumably a body that will not die. Moreover, they do not pay Death Duties nor Income Tax, like the ordinary private landowner who grows timber, and I suggest for the consideration of the Government that they should encourage the Forestry Commission to go in for much more hard wood than they are doing at the present time. It is a well known fact that English oak is getting very scarce indeed, and yet when the Commission have bought land bearing oak or any other hard wood, they cut it—which is quite natural if it is ripe—but they do not replant with hard wood but with soft wood. It seems to be absolutely unjustifiable from the Commission's point of view, because hard wood is an extraordinarily important part of the product of forestry.

Soft wood, as I say, gives a quicker return, but if the Commission are going in for soft wood, what chance is there of the private grower being encouraged? The one side of the industry which might possibly pay is taken from him by keen competition from a Government Department. Those who grow timber privately are really grateful for the planting grant they get, but it does not nearly cover the cost, which has already been estimated this afternoon at £15 per acre at least. In my own case it only pays the cost of fencing—I am not sure whether it does that even—to protect the young wood from game and vermin. We want greater encouragement than that. Those who do make the growing of soft wood pay are able to do so because they can repair their own property with the timber they have produced. In that case alone can a private grower get some return for his industry and capital. Owing to legislation for which the Government are not responsible it is getting harder and harder for any individual to own sufficient land to make it worth while growing enough wood to supply the whole of his needs for building or repairs. Even when he does do that his successor is mulcted in heavy Death Duties.

I feel that timber-growing is one of the most important things to do in this time when we are so threatened with entire rural depopulation. Forestry does require a good many men to help in the way of labour. You can employ a lot of men very usefully on timber growing, in looking after forests, cutting and preparing for the mill, and distributing, but unless one gets encouragement it is extremely difficult. I suggest that it is one of the fields for recruiting unemployed men to the great advantage of the State and the great advantage of the individual men concerned. I should like again to thank the noble Lord opposite for having raised this subject, and I hope the Government will look into this question very carefully in order to encourage those who are trying to do their best for timber growing in this country.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord who has raised this question must feel that he was quite right in saying he offered no apology for bringing it before your Lordships' House. Might I be allowed to associate myself with the words which have already been spoken in congratulating him on his maiden speech? I think we shall all be agreed that not only his manner of presenting his case, but the remarkable thoroughness with which he has prepared it, make us all look forward to the time when we shall hear him again taking part in our debates. In replying to this Motion I must confess to a slight feeling of embarrassment, because I am not a Forestry Commissioner nor does the Forestry Commission in any way come under the ægis or authority of the Ministry of Agriculture. My only qualification for replying on their behalf is that they are another very important Department of State responsible for administering important policies in the countryside, and therefore in our Department we are most anxious to do everything in our power to co-operate and to do anything we can to assist them.

The main question which has been raised on the Paper and by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, is with regard to the activities of the Forestry Commission and the possibility of increasing these activities. He has already given your Lordships a sketch of what they have actually done. They have acquired something over half a million acres of plantable land, of which they have already planted just over a quarter of a million acres. Their programme this year is just over 20,000 acres. In addition they have by a system of grants assisted local authorities and private owners in planting something upwards of 100,000 acres. These grants, as your Lordships are aware, mount up to £2 per acre for soft woods and £4 per acre for hard woods. In addition they have established about 1,200 small holdings for forest workers.

The noble Lord is perfectly right in saying that in their accomplishments they are a long way behind what was hoped for and demanded in the Acland Report. In the first ten years they were not very much behind—about 20,000 acres, about one year's planting; but since then they have fallen back. Actually they had prepared an ambitious scheme, as from 1929, starting with something over 25,000 acres a year and going up in 1938 to 44,000 acres per annum; but unfortunately in 1931, as your Lordships will remember, the Report of the May Committee intervened and made it essential that all economies that could be made should be made, and one of the items of public expenditure most severely cut was the activities of the Forestry Commission. Accordingly, they have proceeded since then with a very much reduced programme. The noble Lord has already mentioned this point, and, if I might be permitted to join with him, speaking for a moment as spokesman for the Forestry Commission rather than as a member of His Majesty's Government, I think we must be prepared to agree with him that the activities of the Forestry Commission have been very much upset by the ups and downs of the national economic position.

Forestry is essentially—more so, I think, than almost any other industry (shall we so call it?) in this country—a long-terra proposition, not merely in regard to the time you have to wait for your return, but long-term in the sense of all the preparations that have to be made for planting. The original machinery of the Forestry Commission was undoubtedly designed specifically with this point in view in order to separate the activities of this Commission as far as possible from not only the day-to-day but year-to-year influences of national policy. I do not think any one would wish to criticise the Governments which have taken this action, but unfortunately the times have been against us. The noble Lord raises the question of whether the Commission could not once more receive further support and be allowed to increase their planting. The first answer one would make to that is this: "For heaven's sake do not let us, for temporary political expediency, embark on a course of encouraging the expansion of planting on behalf of the Commission unless we are prepared to continue it." Nothing would be more destructive of the good and efficient work of the Forestry Commission.

But undoubtedly there is a very strong case at this time, when quite a number of cuts, some of a less constructive nature than this, have been restored, for some reconsideration of the position. The Commissioners' view, I think, is this. Their five-year term of office expires this month, and as soon as they are reappointed, or new Commissioners are appointed, they intend to prepare for the consideration of the Treasury proposals for planting and other work which they would like to undertake in the next few years. Speaking as I am to-day for the Forestry Commission, the noble Lord would not expect me to give any indication of what the Treasury is likely to say, but again, speaking not as a member of His Majesty's Government, I would like to be allowed to wish the Forestry Commission the very best of good luck in any scheme they may feel able to bring forward.

Other questions have been raised in this discussion. The noble Earl, Lord Leven, the noble Lord, Lord Lamington, and the noble Marquess, Lord Aberdeen, all from different points of view, raised the question of the general economic situation of the industry. They pointed out that home-grown timber is being increasingly used, and undoubtedly the costs of handling timber to-day do give a very poor return for the effort that has to be made. That raises very difficult issues—issues which the noble Lord, Lord Lamington, hinted at in his speech. All of us who are connected with the countryside know the importance of forestry to the life of the countryside, and must desire that the planting and growing and handling of timber should be made a profitable concern. But where does the timber go? If we consider the matter from the point of view of the industries that have to use the timber we realise that we have to face a very difficult issue indeed. For instance, timber goes to the mines. Pit props were mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Leven. How many of us feel to-clay that the coal-mining industry is in a state to bear further additions to its costs? I think we must feel that we have to look at any proposition that would increase coal-mining charges in any way with the greatest care. Where else does the timber go? It goes for building. To-day sweeping throughout the country—everyone of us must welcome it—is a demand for the building of cheap houses to let at low rents to the working classes. Again, I think noble Lords who are enthusiastic for assistance to be given to home-grown timber would feel that very careful examination would be required before the Government took any steps that were going to increase the cost of erecting those houses. I want to-day, speaking not on behalf of His Majesty's Government but as an individual, to say that these issues cannot be lightly regarded.

There are other questions than the quesion of price. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton, may be able to tell us something about the thought and work that landowners have been putting into the consideration of the question of the lowering of their costs—the lowering of the costs of handling timber and the lowering of the costs of marketing timber. I think we are all agreed that if this industry is to be assisted it would be very much better to assist it by the lowering of costs rather than by raising prices. The noble Earl, Lord Leven, asked why could not the Government bring some pressure upon the railway companies to induce them to lower their transport costs. The Government have frequently in the past, in dealing with agricultural commodities, done what they could to intervene with the railways on this question, but, as noble Lords realise, there is now in existence definite machinery—the Railway Rates Tribunal—for the consideration of railway rates, and that is the proper body to deal with the matter. But might I say this? It does occur to me that negotiations carried on by an organised industry itself, by a body composed of men who really know the facts of the situation and can put their own case, are far more likely to have success with the Railway Rates Tribunal than negotiations by the Government which, after all, would be intervening from right outside the industry. Again I venture to hope that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton, will be able to tell us something of what has been considered by himself and his friends with regard to this question of the organisation of timber producers.

I hope I have dealt with all the questions that have been raised. If not, I trust your Lordships will address further questions to me. The noble Lord (Lord Derwent) has raised this question in a manner that must have impressed us, not only with his capacity for putting a case, but also with the importance of the subject as a whole. I should like to give him my assurance that I will bring all his points which concern the Forestry Commission to the notice of that body, and those which concern His Majesty's Government more generally to the attention of the Government.


My Lords, I should like to say a very few words upon this matter. In the first instance I wish to support in the fullest possible way the desires which the noble Lord opposite has expressed concerning the increase of afforestation in this country. He has given many very adequate reasons for it—reasons of production, reasons of employment, reasons of amenity, and also climatic reasons. An increase of afforestation is undoubtedly concerned with them all. The noble Earl, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, has given us, I am glad to say, a very sympathetic reply, both personally as well as in the details which he has announced on behalf of the Forestry Commission. The record of work done really is, in my view, a very fine one. I am not speaking for the Forestry Commission, although my close association with them for the first ten years of the work enables me to speak with some knowledge of the work done. Not only have they done a very great work in planting, but they have done a great deal in bringing in a forest policy, they have done a great deal through research and through experiment, and really they have brought in a new system of enormous importance to the private individual and to forestry generally.

There has been the very greatest difficulty in forestry during the fifteen years in which the Commission have been operating. Suggestions have been made that they might have done more, and I was very glad indeed that the noble Earl was able to put his finger upon what has been the greatest obstacle in the path of the Forestry Commission—that is, the constant changes of programme brought about by various financial crises which have overtaken us in the last few years. He spoke about the crisis in 1929, but of course the same thing has happened before in the very earliest days of the Commission. Your Lordships will recollect the crisis that came upon the country in 1919 when the Geddes axe descended. I have no doubt that that axe fell with more or less impartiality upon most Departments, but it fell with exceptional severity upon the Forestry Commission because the axe was supposed to execute that Commission. Fortunately, through the wider knowledge of the Government of the day, they escaped immediate execution, but they were cut down to a very much lower programme and that greatly upset their work. That has happened on three separate occasions since. It is easy to understand the loss that occurs. The whole work of acquisition is upset, the whole programme of planting and creating forest holding is upset and, more particularly, the actual nursery work is disturbed. When suddenly the programme is reduced, a great number of plants that have been raised at considerable cost are lost.

One or two criticisms of the work were made by the noble Marquess, Lord Aberdeen, who asked a question which is often heard: Why is not more oak planted? He recognises that it is difficult for the private individual to do that, but he considers that a Government department should be able to stand the loss which such planting obviously must entail. That is not quite the whole story. I think the Forestry Commission would like to plant oak, and I believe in almost every case where they have felled oak they have replanted the ground with oak, except in those cases where it was found to be quite unsuitable for such planting. The trouble is that oak, unfortunately, requires a deep and fertile soil, far more fertile and far more expensive than that which is required to grow conifer timber. It is not only a question of expense. I agree with the Forestry Commission in their view that it is not right, when we are planting for the Commission, that we should buy land which is more suitable perhaps for growing food. If it is land which produces food, it is better to apply it to that purpose than to the production of timber. That is the main reason why oak is not planted.

The difficulties of the private timber owner have been pointed out by the noble Lord opposite and have been dealt with by other noble Lords. Considerable assistance has been given in the way of grants—I wish they were larger—and in the way of advice and instruction. All that is of great value, but in my view assistance might also be given by the Forestry Commission in the direction of the disposal of timber. That is the big problem which faces private owners. They can get on fairly well with production with the grants and other assistance they are given, but when it comes to disposal, as the noble Earl, Lord Leven, has pointed out, they are faced with low prices, poor demand and high railway rates so that the position has become an exceedingly difficult one. The suggestion was made that the Government might consider putting a duty upon imported props or other timber. The noble Earl below me said that would be entirely wrong because it world increase the cost of building. Why should it? Already the price that is paid for the foreign timber is higher than that paid for home-grown timber. There is a difference of nearly £1 per standard in the case of timber for ordinary construction work if you buy Canadian timber instead of British timber. A tariff might be right or wrong, but I do not think it would affect the price of timber either in mines or in construction work.

There is only one way of getting over the difficulty of high railway rates—personally I believe it could be done—and that is by sending timber and props in large and regular consignments. If we can send train loads instead of four truck loads there is a possibility of getting railway rates reduced, because obviously it is to the interest of the railway companies to carry this traffic if they possibly can. It is in the direction of the disposal of the produce that I think assistance might be given. Some time ago, before the Death Duties were so severely felt, when there were large woodland estates, there was generally a good system of forestry and a good organisation for disposal of timber. Now these estates are split up and are in the hands of comparatively small owners who have no scope for forestry. What the individual cannot do alone would be possible, it seems to me, for a combination of owners. They should be able to make provision for bulk supplies and for the regularity which not only the railway companies but the timber merchants require.

I do not want to labour the subject, but I should like to say that both in Scotland and in England organisations for that purpose have been started. The English organisation was only begun this year. I think that if we ourselves endeavour to organise our business, so that we can put our material on the market in the way which trade and industry desires, there is some reason why we should expect assistance from the Forestry Commission. We ask them to do for the forests what the Ministry of Agriculture have done with such great effect for the farms. It is not a case of asking for large grants. We want recognition and assistance, we want them to take charge of home-grown timber and popularise the demand for it. With the assistance that they could give us, I believe that our own organisations would go on and it would be a real incentive to forestry in this country.

On Question, Motion agreed to.