HL Deb 24 February 1965 vol 263 cc821-33

2.55 p.m.

THE EARL OF DUNDEE rose to call attention to the future progress of public and private forestry in the United Kingdom; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, forestry is an art which is practised by the State as well as by private foresters in most free coun- tries, including countries like the United States and the West German Republic which have never enjoyed the blessings of a Socialist Administration, but where there is a considerable proportion of State-owned forests. In Sweden, on the other hand, where they have had a Socialist Government for more than a generation, I believe that there is only 20 per cent. of State forests compared with 80 per cent. of private.

The reason for this duality of enterprise is that most men prefer to grow crops which can be sown and harvested in one year, instead of having to wait 60 or 120 or even 180 years, according to the type of tree which one is planting. The only men who do this are those who are capable of entertaining a strong affection for people who have not yet been born and who, perhaps, never will be. But the State, on the other hand, can afford more easily to look forward beyond the lifetime of a man, and to act on the assumption that somebody, anyhow, will probably be here in a hundred years' time.

In Great Britain the State took no part in forestry, except to a very small extent with the Crown Lands, until the Forestry Commission was set up 45 years ago. Therefore, we have not yet got any State forests which are mature. Indeed, most of our forests planted since the war have not yet even reached the thinning stage. Fortunately, there were a number of private owners, both in Scotland and in England, who in the 18th and 19th centuries established 2 million or 3 million acres of woods, most of which, though not all, were reasonably well managed. These woods enabled us to meet the exceptionally heavy supply requirements of two world wars, during which nearly all our mature woods and most of our immature woods, too, had to be felled to meet the emergency. That is the reason why in the 20th century British forestry must be mainly concerned with planting. While questions of management and marketing are of the highest importance, our primary objective must be to replant the great areas of woods which were devastated by the necessities of war-time economy, and to increase our total area of woodland by planting a great deal of new land which is at present used for purposes less advantageous to our national economy.

There are three reasons why we ought to do this. First, we learned from the two wars that it is unsafe for an island like Britain to have such small reserves of so essential a commodity as timber. Next, we are still, I think, importing as much as 95 per cent. of our timber consumption, and since world consumption is going up it would be a very great advantage to our balance of payments if we could produce a great deal more at home, as most commercial countries do. I think we are still the worst-wooded country in Europe except Portugal, but I hope that will no longer be so by the end of this century.

The third reason is that there are certain parts of this country, notably the Scottish Highlands, which are being depopulated. This depopulation is bound to go on, and indeed to get worse, so long as the almost mono-cultural system of hill sheep farming continues to be the principal rural occupation. My Lords, forestry employs about ten times as many men directly as an average quality sheep farm. It employs a great many more indirectly on ancillary industries, and in terms of monetary value the national wealth which it produces annually is four or five times as great.

There is a parish in Argyll called Dala-vich on the shores of Loch Awe where the Forestry Commission began planting in its earliest days on a considerable scale. Fifty years ago this parish had a population of only 55 persons and of those only 11—just one-fifth—were children of school age. Now, in 1965, the population of the parish is 373 persons of whom 126 are children of school age. So it will be seen that the population has multiplied by seven and it is not longer an ageing population—one-third instead of one-fifth are children of school age. Would it not be a good thing, my Lords, if all the Scottish Highlands were like that? The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, is, I know, particularly concerned about this question of depopulation. I do not know whether he has ever looked at the figures—probably he has—of those parishes in the Highlands or the uplands where a considerable amount of planting has been done. I think I am right in saying that in every parish where the Forestry Commission employs 25 per cent. or more of the working population, that is about 10 per cent. of the whole people, there has been an increase of population between the Censuses of 1951 and 1961. contrasted with a decline everywhere else.

My Lords, I have made more speeches than I care to remember about this in the last 35 years, both in the House of Commons and here, and I have always been critical of the slowness of our progress; but, of course, as time goes on we all learn to distinguish between what we want and what we are likely to get. There is usually quite a big difference, in many matters besides this. How big a forestry programme do we really want in this country? I think it is rather ironic that in the twentieth century, the century of economic progress increasingly guided by Government planning, the most ambitious and most comprehensive of all proposals for planting in Great Britain should be that put forward in 1909 by the Royal Commission on Afforestation, which reported in that year, at a time when laissez faire still dominated our economic thought. It recommended that no less than 9 million acres should be afforested: half a million in Ireland, 2½ million in England, and no less than 6 million in Scotland.

My Lords, if it had been possible to accept and to apply that recommendation, let us say, over the period of 60 years, it would not have been in time to give us any help in the First World War, and only to a very small extent, from early thinnings, in the Second World War. But by now, in the 1960s, we should already be getting a large benefit to our balance of payments and to the revenue, and the depopulation of the Scottish Highlands would by now have been halted and put into reverse.

But, of course, the first programme which was actually adopted, in 1919, was much smaller than that; and it was not attained. The forestry policy of the inter-war Governments vacillated up and down like a switchback the whole time. The Forestry Commission was ruled by Sir Roy Robinson, a very good and capable civil servant, but not the type of civil servant who impels his superiors to rush forward joyfully in hot pursuit of bold, imaginative, hazardous adventures. On one occasion he actually refused an offer from the Treasury of a substantially increased annual grant-in-aid because he thought a smaller programme would be steadier and safer. Then of course, as anybody might have foreseen, two or three years later the Treasury imposed a savage cut upon this more modest grant-in-aid which the poor man had agreed to accept!

Nevertheless, my Lords, between the wars, from 1919 to 1940, leaving out the Crown Lands woods, which were taken over, the Forestry Commission planted very nearly 400,000 acres, at a net cost of £10 million. Some of your Lordships may have read the Report of the House of Commons Estimates Committee on Forestry which was published last summer, and if it interests you to abstract from the financial calculations in this Report that particular block of our state forests, the 400,000 acres planted between 1919 and 1940, you will find (applying to them the values which are assigned here: the acreage values appropriate to their age groups) that their value is now, in 1965, just about £100 million. And in twenty years' time, when they have moved up into the higher age groups, their value will be about £200 million. I know that there has been inflation since this planting began. But can we be sure that there will not be more in the next forty years?

Of course, to get a true calculation one has to add on compound interest on the £10 million planting costs, but on the credit side of the account one can put the growing revenue from thinnings which is now coming in. I think this has been one of the best national investments we have ever made. Whatever the Bank of England may say, I think it would have been a lot better if it had been a lot bigger. The same applies to the private planting which was done between the wars. The amount of private planting done with the approval of the Commission, and receiving the State planting grant, amounted to 126,000 acres; and from a national point of view, in my submission, that has been an equally good investment.

Our present programme, on which we are now engaged, is based on the 1943 White Paper which was adopted then by the Government and agreed to by all Parties. It was in the middle of the war, and in time of war both politicians and civil servants are apt to be more acutely aware of the advantages of forestry than they sometimes are in times of peace. This White Paper propounded what was called "the desirable programme" which we all agreed to follow: 5 million acres of productive woodland by the end of this century, of which 2 million were to be old woods which would be replanted and rehabilitated, and 3 million of new planting. The programme was divided into five decades. In the first decade we were to plant 1, 100,000 acres, and in the second decade 1,500,000. The figure later tapered off; but for the first two decades it was estimated that private planting would constitute about one-fifth of the whole—and, after that, more.

Now private planting, in fact, as your Lordships will see from the early part of this House of Commons Report of the Estimates Committee, has in fact exceeded the target which was set. I am not going to say much about private planting, although I hope that many of your Lordships who are going to speak will say a good deal about it, but what I should like to say is this: that I think the whole-hearted co-operation and confidence between the Forestry Commission and private foresters is to the advantage of both, and also to the advantage of the country. As will be seen from this Estimates Report, some of the witnesses who gave evidence on behalf of private planters had certain complaints to make about difficulty of access of Ministers, and so on, and I have no doubt that their representations will be given full weight. But these, my Lords, are not serious criticisms. I have been planting now for forty years on a modest scale, and I am sure that those of your Lordships who have done a great deal more planting than I have will agree that private forestry and public forestry by the Forestry Commission ought to be interdependent; that both have a great deal they can do to help each other in their work, and that their national aims and objectives ought to be the same.

I had thought of mentioning the taxation of private woodlands, because so much talk is in the air about tax reforms, but I have given my views about this to your Lordships before in previous debates, and it is a very tedious subject. All I will say is: leave things alone. Do not try to meddle with the present state of affairs. For reasons of time, I do not want to go into the details of that, and I hope it may not be necessary.

But now, my Lords, for the Forestry Commission. They, as your Lordships know, have fallen heavily behind the programme contemplated in 1943, which should have been approaching 2,600,000 acres by now. But the reason they have done so is not that they have been badly treated by the Government, as they were before the wars: the reason simply is that they have not been able to acquire enough land to justify a larger annual rate of planting. Therefore, if we think, as I do, that the rate of planting ought, in the national interest, to be increased, we must then consider what can be done to enable the Commission to acquire more land more quickly.

I think that perhaps the answer may be slightly different for England than for Scotland. So far as the English problem is concerned, I gave notice to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, that I would remind your Lordships of the speech made almost exactly ten years ago to-day—on February 23, 1955—by the late Lord Jowitt, who moved a Motion on forestry similar to this. He spent most of the time talking about the English common lands, of which I think there are over 1½ million acres. He brought forward powerful arguments representing that a great deal of these common lands were almost entirely wasted and were eminently suitable for afforestation. Lord Jowitt was promised a Royal Commission, which was set up in December, 1955, and which reported in July, 1958 (Command Paper 462). In the evidence given by the witnesses for the Forestry Commission before this Royal Commission it was suggested that about 400, 00 acres of common land would be suitable for planting. I inquired last week how much had been planted on common lands since the publication of this Report six years ago, and the answer was precisely 370 acres.

I know so little about the English common lands that I am not going to offer any advice on the subject. I do not know what difference is likely to be made by the Bill which occupied so much of your Lordships' time in Committee yesterday afternoon. I just do not know how it will affect the question of forestry; but we all want to be careful, I am sure, of ancient rights of commoners, and also of amenity. The particular case where some planting has been done is at a place called Allerthorpe in Yorkshire, and I am informed that the entire body of commoners were anxious that this land should be planted. They wanted the Commission to have it, and so did the Lord of the manor. Everybody was longing for it to be planted. But they found that the legal obstacles to conveyance to the Forestry Commission were so insuperable that they had to request the Forestry Commission to exercise its powers of compulsory purchase, which it had never done before—and I believe that even that took seven years before it was finished.

As for amenity, on that, again, I am not an authority. Lord Jowitt represented to us, I remember, that a very large proportion of the English commons were covered mostly with bracken and thorn bushes, which does not sound either particularly beautiful or particularly useful; but I have not seen enough of them to judge that. We must be careful of all the views of the national rural preservation societies, and so on, although I often rather wonder whether they are not based not so much on true aesthetic appreciation of loveliness as on the natural disinclination to have any change. If it is proposed to plant a hillside, you hear Lord protests from everybody, "Ah! The beautiful hill: so grand and majestic in its barren, unproductive solitude. How can you possibly desecrate it by planting these hideous trees all over it?" But then, 50 or 60 years later, when the trees are planted and the woods have grown up and the time comes to cut it down, you get the Lord howl: "Ah, these beautiful woods! Surely you cannot cut them down."

My Lords, all I shall do is to ask the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, if he can tell us whether his new Ministry of Land and Natural Resources has any novel ideas about this question of the English commons, and I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I devote my few remaining remarks to Scotland. I have at home an old map of Britain printed in the reign of Queen Anne by a gentleman called Herman Moll, who describes himself as geographer to the Queen. On his map there is in Scotland the most profuse and detailed information on every parish, both geographically and economically; but further South there is nothing but the bare outline, nothing except the legend printed in large capitals: "Part of South Britain called England". And when I look at the list of speakers in our debate to-day I wonder whether this might not be true. If the noble Earl, Lord Bradford, will forgive my saying so, I wish he had more allies in this battle.

In Scotland we are doing a bit better than in England. The last Report of the Forestry Commission shows that the Commission have planted trees at the rate of rather over 30,000 acres a year (33,000 last year), while private planters have accounted for another 14,000. That is much better than the figures between the wars, but it is not enough to fulfil the desirable programme and to bring about a major breakthrough in the Highland problem by the end of this century. Therefore I would submit to the Government that we should seek to increase it and try to attain our objective by the end of this century instead of a generation later. I think the first thing we have to do—and this is something which I hope we are always trying to do—is to interest public opinion in forestry more than we are doing now and more than we have done in the past. The Scottish Landowners' Federation has always done its best, both before and since the war, to persuade its members to offer land which is good plant-able land, and which they do not intend to plant themselves, to the Forestry Commission. We have done that not only privately but also publicly, in the quarterly magazine of the Federation; and I think we have had some success.

But, my Lords, there is a great deal of prejudice against the Forestry Commission among some landowners, among some farmers and among other sections of the public, for all sorts of reasons. In so far as the prejudice is based on economic grounds, it is entirely wrong and in reasoned argument it cannot be sustained; but in so far as it arises from the desire to protect the security of farm tenants who have been there for a long time it is entirely understandable and good. Some 150 years ago, when sheep farms were a novelty, they were the unpopular innovation which was taking the people out of the glens and substituting sheep. But now, 150 years later, they have become the established thing, and in the course of those 100 years or so sheep grazing has done a great deal to destroy or lower the fertility of our hillsides. But they are there—some have been there for generations—and we must try to work with them and try to help all those farmers who want to stay and go on with this type of farming to improve their farms; and this we do by means of hill-farming schemes. And we want to help those who desire to stay on in this way to plant more of their holdings. I suggest to your Lordships that we should encourage all schemes to that end.

I do not want antagonism between agriculture and forestry; we all want integration. But I think it is with the object of helping integration, and of satisfying doubts and concern on the side of the farm community, that we have established the rule, both in England and Scotland, of departmental consultations concerning purchases which the Forestry Commission is about to undertake. But I have submitted to your Lordships before that I believe this is a useless, delaying practice, which does no good to agriculture and delays the process of afforestation. I think we ought to integrate them by free, voluntary action and not by restriction. What happens is simply that when the Forestry Commission offers to buy a farm, much of which is suitable for planting, there has to be a fairly long confabulation between the Forestry Commission and the Department. Though I think the Department is very much better than it used to be about "giving the green light", this confabulation does cause delay; and during that delay the vendor of the farm sometimes gets fed up and accepts an alternative offer from somebody else. What I would say is this. Give the Forestry Commission the same freedom as a private individual has to buy a farm immediately it comes on the market, and to decide whether to plant it or not. If you must have this departmental confabulation, then have it after the farm has been bought and not before.

May I give your Lordships one small example of how this interdepartmental debate works? It concerns a small sheep farm of some 550 acres, in West Perthshire, which was farmed by an owner-occupier who could not make a living out of it because it is poor land. He wanted to get a job with the hydroelectric scheme at a good wage, and to keep his house with a few acres of low ground and 100 acres of high and unplantable ground. He offered to sell the remaining 400 acres of good plantable ground to the Commission. Then the Department of Agriculture said, "No, you cannot break up a viable unit." So the holder had no alternative but to sell his farm, since he could not afford to go on with it. It was bought by a private purchaser who did not agree that it was a viable agricultural unit and who proceeded to plant the 400 acres. So the objective of afforestation was achieved. But in this case it might have been better if the Forestry Commission had done it, because the land adjoined 6,000 acres of forest which the Commission had already planted; and it might have been happier if the farmer owner could have kept his house which the purchaser has to use for a forester whom the Commission could have housed elsewhere. I would submit again that it is much better to allow complete freedom of action in these matters and not impose restrictions which delay forestry without really helping agriculture.

I must conclude with a brief word on the recent Report on Land Use in the Highlands and Islands by the Advisory Panel, of which one member is a distinguished relation of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison. The Report deals with forestry in paragraphs 52 to 84. Of course, for forestry purposes we can rule out Orkney and Shetland, where trees will not grow much because of the climate and soil, and we are really dealing with the five mainland counties, Argyll, Inverness, Ross and Cromarty, Caithness and Sutherland. It is estimated that there are about 1¾ million acres of ground which could be planted, though it is unlikely that we shall ever plant the whole of that. About 400,000 acres are planted already and the rate of planting is about 12,000 acres a year by the Commission and about 4,000 a year by private planters. The Panel recommend that the Forestry Commission planting should be stepped up to 20,000 acres a year. I think that that is a good recommendation, which could be carried out. I think that it ought to be practicable.

I am sorry that in paragraph 60 the Panel approve what I always regard as the cumbersome and futile departmental palaver about a farm before it is bought, and I think that this would very likely prevent the realisation of the 20,000-acres target. But I think that it is a target which we ought to try to achieve. If it began now and was continued for 35 years, that would mean 700,000 acres by the end of the century, and if we add the 400,000 acres already planted plus private planting, it would not be too much, but it would be getting on for our ultimate target. The Panel make some useful suggestions in paragraphs 72 and 82 about helping farmers who want to keep their holdings as ordinary sheep farms, to plant parts of them which are suitable for afforestation, and also make suggestions designed to make it easier for crofting schemes to be integrated with forestry schemes. These are not new suggestions. They have often been made before and they were discussed a good deal at the time of the Zuckerman Report some years ago, on which we had a debate in your Lordships' House. But these are all suggestions which I hope the Government will consider favourably.

If I have a general criticism to make—I have a good many detailed criticisms, but I will not make them—it is that, all the way through, the Panel are inclined to assume that a sufficient number of skilled supervisory officials will be available to make sure that all the conditions they want to see are carried out; but that does not happen in real life and I think it is much better that we should act through free agents. Let the Commission be free to buy and the sheep farmers free to buy or lease their farms, and let us help them in every way by forestry grants and agricultural grants. Let them each do their best to integrate freely but do not try to integrate them by prohibitions or restrictions or bureaucratic restraints. I will not say anything about compulsion, because compulsion already exists, although in practice it may not be used. I think that if compulsion were used it would then be a case for all this consideration beforehand by the departments. If we are going forcibly to take away sheep farms and do something else with them, then there is a case for careful consideration, and possibly appeals, before compulsion is applied, but if it is a question of free sale and free action, then I think that there should be no restrictions at all, nothing but help in the appropriate manner from the Government.

I suppose that the Panel may soon be superseded by the new Highland Development Board. I see that the Bill was introduced in another place yesterday. As I have said before, we welcome this Board and, among other things, I hope that it will be successful in bringing about an increase in the forestry programme in the Highlands. I am sure they will realise the need for more publicity, better public relations, more films and television programmes, more public documentary features of every kind, showing the advantages of forestry, showing what is happening and the benefits that are going to result, so that we may get the support of the entire people and get away from this wretched idea that there is some antagonism between forestry and agricultural interests.

The Board may well have to have many virtues, particularly the virtue of patience. We have always to be patient in dealing with Highlanders. I remember, when in 1938 I held the office which the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, now holds I met a big deputation from the local authorities in the Highlands. We were trying to see what could be done to promote new industries in the Highlands suitable to the Highland character. We spent two hours discussing what was meant by the phrase "suitable to the Highland character", and we finally decided that what it really meant was a factory which did not have a factory whistle. We have to be patient, anyway, about forestry, because trees take such an unconscionable time to grow and anybody who is against them always has the best of the argument to begin with, because it is difficult to show anything reproductive happening and it takes a bit of effort to project one's imagination ahead for fifteen or twenty years and understand the statements of those who are in favour of doing more. But let us remember that if even the modest programme we are engaged in now had been in force at the beginning of this century, how grateful we should be now to our great-grandparents. I hope that this new Highland Development Board will have enough imagination, that they will be progressive and forward-looking enough, to have for their motto "That our grandchildren may be grateful to us."

I beg to move for Papers.