HL Deb 24 July 1958 vol 211 cc180-5

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, may I, with the permission of the House, make a statement on forestry similar to that which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

In accordance with the statement which was made in your Lordships' House in October, 1957, the Government have carried out a review of forestry policy. In the light of current conditions—strategic, economic, agricultural and social—they have reached the following conclusions. The planting programmes of the Forestry Commission should be fixed for periods of ten years at a time. For the five-year period 1959 to 1963 the programme will be about 300,000 acres which allows for some increase over the present annual rate of planting. For the period 1964 to 1968 the planting programme will be reduced to about 235,000 acres, when the Forestry Commission's existing plantations will begin to come into full production.

The size of the subsequent programmes should be reviewed in five years' time in the light of the national needs. In deciding where planting shall take place special attention will be paid to the upland areas, particularly in Scotland and Wales, where expansion of forestry would provide needed diversification of employment and important social benefits.

So far as private forestry is concerned, the Government propose to continue their support to private woodland owners, particularly through the dedication scheme. The present maintenance grant of 5s, 6d. per acre will be replaced by a management grant of 18s, Od. per acre on the first 100 acres, 12s. 0d. per acre on the next 100 acres and 7s. 0d. per acre on the remainder. This will substantially increase the value of the grants, particularly on the smaller woodlands. Secondly, the planting grant will be continued; but for approved woodlands it will be raised from one-half to the full rate per acre. These increased grants are contingent on the formation of an effective Woodland Owners' Association as recommended by the Watson Committee. Thirdly, the grants for thinning and poplar planting will be terminated.

The new structure of grants will be reviewed in five years' time. In reviewing in future years the level of grants, consideration will be given not only to trends in costs but also to trends in receipts for private woodlands as a whole. As production from private woods taken as a whole—and thus the income of private owners as a body—rises, the level of assistance needed by way of planting and management grants will fall. Eventually—in, say, twenty or thirty years' time—it should become nominal.

The system of felling licences will be continued. In present circumstances it does not seem necessary to continue to fix a quota for the total annual felling, but the licensing system will be continued though with some relaxations. A statutory instrument will be made so that fellings in dedicated woodlands will no longer require a licence. In addition, licences will in general be freely granted for other fellings, subject to the existing arrangements for consultation with planning authorities. In order, however, to provide against the undesirable exploitation of woodland areas the licences will normally have a condition attached requiring restocking. And licences for thinning or selective felling will not be granted where they would in effect permit exploitation without restocking.

The Government recognise the importance to the forestry industry of an efficient home-grown timber trade. They believe that the measures now announced will be welcomed by the trade as well as by woodland owners, and will help both to plan ahead with confidence.


My Lords, we are much obliged to the noble Lord for his statement. He must not expect, if he is riot subjected to detailed questions on it at this stage, that that is an indication either of approval or of disapproval of what he has said. But I should like to ask him whether he can give any estimate as to what this is going to cost, if anything, over and above what we are spending at the present time on forestry?


My Lords, may I supplement the noble Lord's question by asking whether it would not be better in such cases that Parliament should have some opportunity of considering such a widespread increase in the present scheme? I congratulate the Government on what appears to be a great improvement in forestry arrangements, but it is a very wide scheme. I agree that the Forestry Commission exist to do this sort of thing, but it affects a large number of owners, and I should have thought that Parliament would have welcomed an opportunity to consider this scheme before it is put into effect.


My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, the amended grant and increase in planting grant to approved woodland owners will cost about£180,000 a year; the thinning grant, now being abolished, about£50,000 in 1957.


My Lords, may I ask two questions arising out of the full statement which the noble Lord has given to your Lordships' House? The first is: is it envisaged in this new programme to reach the figure of 5 million acres contemplated as being under forestry by the end of this century? That has been the target of Her Majesty's Government. The second question is with reference to paying special attention to upland areas in Scotland and Wales. Is it proposed to proceed by compulsory purchase in this direction or to continue by negotiated acquisition of land?


My Lords, in reply to the first question of the noble Lord, I think that to try to set targets so far ahead as 2000 A.D. is not realistic.


My Lords, it is only about forty years ahead.


It is much more sensible, I should have thought, to review the whole position, as now proposed, at ten-yearly intervals. The proposals so far as woodland owners are concerned are to encourage satisfactory forestry development. In reply to the noble Lord's second question, I should hope that compulsion would not be necessary.


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, referred to the considerable increase in the scope of assistance to forestry. For the purpose of accuracy, may I say that I think I am right in assuming from the noble Lord's reply that in fact it represents a reduction in the overall planting programme as anticipated. I would ask two further questions of the noble Lord. The first is: could we have assurances from the Government that the basis for holding the new type of review to which he has referred will be fully discussed and agreed with woodland owners; and, secondly, that when the time comes for holding the periodical review woodland owners will be afforded the opportunity of full discussion and participation in any discussions that there are? Also, I wonder whether the noble Lord could tell us whether this is the Government's final word in deciding to abolish the thinning and scrub clearance grants—I think it is only the thinning grant. Is that so?


The scrub clearance grant remains.


I am glad to hear that. I thank the noble Lord.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the Government are aware that it takes anything from 70 to 150 years before a tree is mature, and that the trees being planted now will not be half mature in the year 2000. Is he aware that it is a little difficult to carry out a long-term national forestry policy if Governments change their mind every five years, as was general between the wars? And could my noble friend say whether the Government are still of the opinion that homegrown timber is necessary to Great Britain on strategic and on economic grounds, as every Government always thinks during and for a few years after every national emergency; or whether the Government now feels that home grown timber is of little strategic or economic importance, as every Government is apt to think about ten years after the end of an emergency and to go on thinking until the next emergency comes along, by which time even the trees planted before the last emergency but three are not yet ready to be cut?


In answer to the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, the Forestry Commission will consult with the woodland owners. I realise the difficulties to which the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, refers, but I said that the review was to be at ten-yearly intervals, and I would inform him that, in relation to strategic needs, it would be rather a bold person who would care to prophesy as to the course of any future war. In regard to economic grounds, the Government realise the importance of homegrown timber to the balance of payments. The value of imports of timber and timber products amounted to over£300 million last year.


The value of home-grown timber will be immeasurably greater when the Forestry Commission's woods come into full production.


Would the noble Lord be good enough to tell us what action, if any, is going to be taken by the Government in regard to the recommendations made in the Report of the Hedgerow, Farm and Timber Committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, which was submitted some two years ago, remembering particularly how very much hedgerow and farm timber is now being felled to the general detriment of the countryside, and also what a very large proportion of the country's total volume of timber is represented in the hedgerows?


My Lords, we do not propose to go further than I have indicated in the statement that I have just made.


May I ask a question touching on the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee? The noble Lord has told us that the grants are to be for five-year periods. Are the Forestry Commission satisfied that this five-year period is a sufficient length of time before dropping the grants for the second period?


My Lords, the Forestry Commission have been consulted, and agree with the statement that I have made.


Might I ask the Minister a question which he may feel is rather a delicate one to answer? It arises out of the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Dundee, who drew attention to the fact that, of all industries, forestry is, so to speak, the most long-term one. In the past there have been a great many variations in policy. Has this policy been discussed in any way, formally or informally, with the Labour Opposition? Is there reason to believe that it can be adopted as a national policy?


I am not aware that any discussions of that nature have taken place.


We might be very much in favour of such an arrangement. We should have to examine everything very carefully front the landlords' point of view.