HL Deb 28 June 1963 vol 251 cc442-8

11.8 a.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill is about one very simple thing: the need for the Secretary of State for Scotland to be able, if he wants to do so, to sell back to private ownership, for use for forestry purposes, land which was bought for the Forestry Commission. It may seem strange to your Lordships that this cannot at present be done but it cannot. The reason for this depends upon the interpretation of three Acts of Parliament, and I will tell your Lordships briefly about them.

The first is Section 4(7)(c) of the Forestry Act, 1945, which this Bill seeks to amend. That section allows the Secretary of State—or, in England and Wales, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—to sell land: vested in or acquired by him as aforesaid which in his opinion is not needed or ought not to be used for the purpose of afforestation or any purpose connected with forestry,…". In other words, he can sell land bought for forestry, but only provided that it is to be used for purposes other than forestry. In England and Wales, the difficulty has been overcome by the use of Section 90(1) of the Agriculture Act, 1947, which says: The Minister may manage, farm, sell, let or otherwise deal with or dispose of land acquired by him …". There has been no difficulty south of the Border if the Minister of Agriculture has wanted to sell the land for forestry purposes. But the Scottish equivalent of that Act, the Agriculture (Scotland) Act, 1948, says in Section 61(1): The Secretary of State may manage, farm, sell, let or otherwise deal with or dispose of land acquired by him under this Act … Therefore, he cannot sell for purposes of forestry land which was acquired by him under the Forestry Act. In Scotland this situation has caused a certain amount of trouble. I may say at once that there is no intention whatever that Forestry Commission land should be sold on a large scale to private owners, but there are cases—and they were referred to in another place—of specific instances where it would have been very valuable had the Secretary of State had the power which this Bill proposes to give him. I think that perhaps your Lordships might like to know one or two of them, to justify the Bill which is before the House.

One of them was a case where the Secretary of State had bought, out of forestry funds, about 5,000 acres of land, and eight compartments of this, of about 180 acres, carried growing trees which had previously been sold to a timber merchant. The trees were kept out of the sale, and the Commission received rent for the land on which they stood. At the time of the application to deal with this land, the trees had been felled in four of the compartments, and the remaining four carried trees 30 to 40 years old which might not be licensable for clear felling for some time in the future. During this time, however, proper management required that windblown trees should be replaced and that other work should be carried out to keep the wood in proper order. The Commission could not undertake this work because the existing trees belonged to the timber merchant. The timber merchant was prepared to sell the trees to another merchant who would have done the necessary work, but he would not do it himself. It was not possible to deal with the matter at all, because, of course, the other merchant would not deal with the trees unless he was allowed to buy the land, too. So the whole thing fell by the wayside, and nothing was done to keep this wood in proper condition.

Then there was another case in 1955 and 1956 in which the Secretary of State had purchased out of the forestry fund some 90 acres of woodland which was split up with areas in between them. Subsequently, an estate company acquired the intervening land, and it could well have formed an extremely useful and compact block of about 350 acres if it had been able to include in its management 90 acres of Forestry Commission land. But, of course, the Secretary of State could not sell it to them, so that particular piece of proper management of woodland could not take place.

There was another case in 1961 where there were five acres of Forestry Commission land which were completely cut off from the rest of their woodland by a railway line. In fact, the Commission had no access to them at all. On the other hand, the owner of the land on the right side of the railway line was prepared to include it in his forestry work. It would have been beneficial if this small area of 5 acres had been able to be sold to him for this purpose, but it could not.

The Bill itself deals with this question, as your Lordships will see, by an amendment to Section 4(7)(c) of the Forestry Act. It does not give the Secretary of State unlimited powers to sell Forestry Commission land to anybody he may think fit; he can do it only if it is desirable in the interest of rational land management, and I think that the cases I have mentioned make clear what is meant by that readily understandable phrase. He must also be satisfied that it would facilitate the discharge by the Forestry Commission owners of any of their functions; though that really is the same point. Between the two provisions is a certain safeguard by which the wholesale disposal of Forestry Commission land would not be possible. I do not think there is anything more I need say in description of this Bill. I hope that it is entirely self-explanatory and will commend itself to your Lordships, and that you will be able to give it a Second Reading today. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Colville of Culross.)


My Lords, I do not know whether any other noble Lords are going to speak. I should rather like to hear more about the case.

11.15 a.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount has moved the Second Reading of this Bill with his usual skill and clarity and there is very little that I can add to what he has already said, except warmly to commend it. It is a very simple measure, but it is of considerable importance to the economy of Scotland. It brings Scotland into line with what has been the practice in England ever since the Forestry Act, 1945, where the Commission has been able to resell for afforestation purposes land that is surplus to its requirements. There is no question here of compulsion at all; it is purely an enabling Bill; but it may be useful in getting considerable areas of land restocked with trees which have, till now, been lying idle.

There is one point that I do not think the noble Viscount touched on which may be another good reason for this Bill. Planting is still, of course, an expensive operation; but possibly the overall cost to the woodland owner is today not so great as it was just after the war. It may well be that, owing to the increased planting grants available, and other things, the private woodland owners will now find themselves able to re-purchase land and plant it, which after the war they were afraid to do because they thought they could not face the great expense then involved. I think that is all I have to say. It is a good Bill and useful for Scotland, and I hope it will pass into law. If it does so, then I hope the Commission will look favourably on any requests that landowners may make to purchase or re-purchase such land as has been mentioned.

11.18 a.m.


My Lords this is a most admirable Bill; and there are only one or two comments I should like to make, In several cases I have heard of, the Forestry Commission would have been only too glad to get rid of land they acquired which was technically plantable but which, from their point of view, was extremely inconvenient. I had a case myself where neighbouring property was sold and broken up. The farmland was acquired by a new owner, leaving a tongue of land of some 20 acres of not very good ground, but which could not be said to be unplantable, between the new agricultural owner and myself. I should have been glad to take the land off the Forestry Commission at a greater price than they had paid; and they would have been delighted to let me have it, but they could not do so as the law stood. So they found themselves with 20 acres of poor land in a narrow strip between a river and farmland, which they had to fence with over one mile of fencing at great expense—something they would not have had to do if they had been able to get rid of the land.

One point does not appear to me to be quite clear. Is the land which the Forestry Commission are now going to be allowed to sell to be only land that can be planted and not land that already has trees on it? It often happens that when the Commission acquire a large property for the purposes of planting they are enabled to get rid of the agricultural land; but on that land, or adjacent to it, there is often land already carrying timber—sometimes good, more often indifferent. I suggest that, if it is not already possible under this Bill, it should be made possible during the Committee stage that small portions of woodlands like that could also be sold; because they are often merely a great nuisance to the Forestry Commission, being in many cases remote from other land they are administering.


My Lords, I should like to support this Bill. I am very much out of touch with forestry now; but there is one point that occurs to me that has not been mentioned. That is, I believe that the exercise of the powers under this Bill will allow for experiments on a small scale which may be very useful to forestry in the future. In common with everybody who loves the country, I have always been a great opponent of clear felling, which violently alters the climate and fauna of any area to which it is applied, and have always had great pride in the Swedish system of forestry, which avoids this. I believe that if private land-owners, who are mostly warm lovers of the country, made clear portions, which could be disposed of by the Forestry Commission this might enable them to try on a small scale experiments which might prove very useful to the country as a whole.


My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend for his lucid and, according to my brief, entirely accurate explanation, and I thank noble Lords for their support of this Bill. I would tell the noble Earl that the Forestry Commission can, under this Bill, sell land with growing timber on it. The Government welcome this Bill and I would ask your Lordships to support it.


My Lords, I do not want to hold up any reasonable forestry developments in Scotland, but, highly as I value many of the subjects which are deal with by Private Members' Bills, I should have thought that this was hardly a matter for Private Members' legislation. We are dealing in the operation of one part of this Bill with the disposal of Forestry Commission land, and I should have thought that this would have been done on the initiative of the Government.

11.23 a.m.


My Lords, to deal first with the point which the noble Earl opposite has made, this is a problem which affects private landowners in Scotland as much as it does the Forestry Commission, and it is something which they have had very much in mind and have been pressing for for a long time. The Timber Association, the Scottish Landowners' Federation and other bodies of this nature have had a great deal of interest in this subject and have wanted legislation to make it clear. I do not think that it could really be said to be unsuitable as Private Members' legislation. It is a fairly small thing and it seems to me to introduce exactly the right sort of freedom into Scotland, which after all has not proved to be detrimental on the other side of the Border. I do not think that your Lordships will consider it unsuitable for me to move the Second Reading of this Bill rather than my noble friend on the Front Bench.

I am grateful to the three Scottish experts who have supported me, and also to my noble friend Lord Craigton, because I am glad to hear that from the wealth of their experience they do see great value in this Bill. I thought so, but it is very nice to have confirmation of it. I also think that the point of my noble friend Lord Saltoun is probably covered because "purposes connected with forestry" would surely include proper experiments in that field. I thank your Lordships for the welcome given to this Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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