HL Deb 24 February 1965 vol 263 cc838-47

3.50 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I am sure that I am speaking for the whole House when I say how grateful we are to the noble Earl opposite for the speech he has just made. It was, of course, as he would be the first person to admit, a thoroughly partisan speech in the interests of forestry. But it is the interests of forestry that we have to consider to-day. May I assure the noble Earl, since he made a speech on rather the same lines in the 1955 debate, that his force has in no way abated, his vigour of language is as great as ever, and I hope that he will, like the trees of which he was speaking, live for at least another hundred years.

With that somewhat extravagant beginning, I feel that it is the duty of a junior Minister, embarking on a forestry debate, to look at the list of speakers and to recognise at once two things about it. First of all, as the noble Earl has indicated, many of the noble Lords who wish to speak have Scots experience and will therefore, perhaps, be particularly concerned with Scottish problems. My noble friend Lord Hughes is going to wind up the debate, and he will be better equipped to deal with many of those Scottish problems than I am. The second thing I ought to recognise, in a proper spirit of humility, is that most of the speakers to-day—1 notice that Lord Jowitt said a similar thing in 1955—will know a great deal more about forestry than I do, and therefore what I put forward is put forward with the diffidence appropriate to someone speaking to those well versed in this particular subject.

I should like, therefore, to follow the lines of the noble Earl's speech to which we have just listened, and to take one or two points from it before I come to the more general considerations that seem to me appropriate in this case. I should, however, begin by accepting wholeheartedly what were almost his first words: that the reason why State intervention in the form of the Forestry Commission has been so valuable and, indeed, so necessary in this matter is that the State can look forward over longer periods; and that we are dealing with trees which in the last resort have the long lives he rightly attributed to them. It is, therefore, not a matter to take too much year by year. We have to look over a rather longer period, and we have to remember, too, that whatever the demerits of a "Stop-Go" policy in other matters, the demerits of a "Stop-Go" policy in forestry are obvious to all of us.

It is not the least use having a fantastic increase for a year or two, followed by a pulling back because too much money seems to have been spent, or for any other reason. Such a course is quite obviously wasteful. It is wasteful, not only in expenditure, but even more so in the proper use of manpower in these matters. After all, one of the most important sides of forestry, as the noble Earl indicated, is that it can give employment in the places where employment may not be easy; and it is a cruel form of kindness to give people employment for two or three years and then to have it stopped because the programme has been cut. It is not always avoidable, but we should aim at avoiding it so far as we can.

The present position as between private and public forestry is roughly (I do not think I need go into the exact figures) that the area planted under private ownership is about one-third of the area planted under the Forestry Commission. I have looked at the figures in the 1963 Report, which are more detailed, and what I give of course is only an approximation, but it gives us some sort of idea. The noble Earl, like many other forestry enthusiasts, rightly stressed the importance of forestry in reducing our import bill—an importance which we appreciate often with hardship in time of war and then, perhaps, may neglect to appreciate in times of peace. That is, of course, perfectly true, and it is true, too, that there are other countries in Europe and elsewhere with a higher proportion of wooded area than we have in this country—afforested area, perhaps I should say. But the last matter I think comes from the nature of the civilisation we have in this country.

We are primarily an industrial country. We are crowded in these Islands. Indeed, we know this to be so in connection with housing problems and many other matters, including the traffic problems which we often have before us. Therefore, one would not expect forestry to play a part of the same importance in that respect as it has in other countries. On the other hand, I entirely agree when the noble Earl said that it is in parts of the country where the population tends to drift away—taking his own case, the Highlands of Scotland—that forestry assumes a serious importance.

I pass on from that to repeat once more what I said just now, and to repeat it in relation to the Highlands of Scotland and similar areas. It is particularly important there that forestry policy should proceed equably—that is to say, that there should not be interruptions and sudden increases or decreases. The present position is that we are proceeding on a five-year programme for the years 1964 to 1968 inclusive, and the target during those five years is 222,000 acres of forestry planting. That figure means planting on new ground, and it does not include some 20,000 acres in which, during that period, the Forestry Commission will be replacing felled timber. The programme has gradually, during recent years under the previous Government, fallen a little from year to year. It has not been a rapid fall. I can give your Lordships the figures if anyone wants them, but it has been a steady fall in acreage, and there is no doubt, I think, about the reasons for it.

The reasons are twofold. One is the difficulty of getting enough land. Everyone is concerned with this, and it is a matter which lies within the hands, not only of the Government, but also of private landowners to see to. The position is that everyone agrees that a considerable reserve is necessary. It averages at present about seven years' planting, and five years is said to be the irreducible minimum. I have heard ten years suggested as a desirable reserve. However that may be, we have a reserve probably just sufficient, but no more. Then, again, if one looks at the relative countries one sees that the reserve is proportionately greater in England than it is in Scotland or in Wales. Therefore, there is a case for seeing what one can do about Scottish forestry. I am going to leave it to my noble friend to deal with that in any detail, but that is just one way of putting it.

Before we leave that subject, may I pick up one sentence that fell from the noble Earl? He referred to a recent report by the Highlands and Islands Advisory Panel in terms for which personally I thank him, and he excluded the Orkneys and Shetlands. One wonders about the Outer Islands. It is the case at present that a great many efforts to plant trees in the Outer Islands have been unsuccessful, and I have seen trees growing up to the height of an adjacent wall and planed off by the wind at the top. There may be an answer to these things, and the Forestry Commission are not without hope that they may be able to use parts of Scotland—parts of the whole country, no doubt—which previously were regarded as quite impossible for forestry. If they can do that, it will be a considerable contribution. It may depend on the use of particular trees. I have been told about one called Pinus contorta. I could not, I think, tell Pinus contorta if I met it, certainly not on a dark night. But I would say quite generally that there obviously is room for research into this kind of question and that it is increasingly and actively being carried on by the Forestry Commission. It is one of their activities which certainly ought not to be forgotten. After all, use of a particular tree, or any other result of research, benefits not only the Forestry Commission, as the planters, but also others who wish to plant trees and who seek their advice in these matters; therefore it is a good thing that that research should be encouraged.

Before I leave that matter I turn again to one other point—I am coming on to other things the noble Earl said. I feel very conscious that there is a great deal that I am not yet in a position to say to your Lordships, not because I know it and am holding it back but because the results are not fully clear at present. May I take one or two instances'? At the moment a sub-committee of the Natural Resources (Technical) Committee is supplementing (he work of the Zuckerman Committee, which reported in 1957. That sub-committee is expected to report quite soon. The Report of the Highlands and Islands Panel, which bears a good deal on this locally, is quite recent in its publication.

There is a third body engaged in considering the scale of afforestation, and that is the Home-Grown Timber Advisory Committee; we have not heard their views yet. Therefore, from the point of view of full information, it might have been easier to give more at a later date, but I am trying to give what I can and what I hope will be useful to your Lord-ships. I ask your Lordships to remember, too, that we are a new Ministry. I think we are proceeding with diligence in this as in other matters, but we cannot devote the whole of our time to forestry. I am not sure it would be very wise to do so. Therefore, we shall profit, I hope, by what your Lordships are going to say one after another in this debate.

Turning back to the noble Earl's speech, I come next to the question of what is desirable by way of a programme, and I am afraid I can hardly accept what I understand was called the "desirable programme". It sounds delightfully Elizabethan, if I may say so—the sort of thing that might have been published perhaps in Spenser's time and is getting a little old. It was made in very different conditions at the end of the war. I think the thing to do nowadays is to look at what we are trying to do and to look at it broadly, and then see how we ought to be governed in considering what is desirable. I would not, for instance, accept the noble Earl's suggestion that the Forestry Commission ought to be able to purchase suitable land by agreement but without any consultation with agricultural interests. The corridors of St. Andrew's House are fairly wide, and I should have thought it was simpler to walk down the corridors and consult than for two officials to arrive with competing cheque books containing cheques signed in each case by the Secretary of State for Scotland. We do. not want a sort of scramble between Government Departments as to who pays most for what. This, surely, is something to be determined on broader lines than that.

I turn to consider—I am not going to take long about it—what the broader lines seem to me to be. I think to approach the question of a forestry programme and the place of forestry generally in the country purely as an economic problem is apt to be very misleading. If one is asked, "Does forestry pay?" I find that the question needs a lot of consideration before one can give any answer to it. What we are dealing with is something that is going to bring its fruit many years after planting, and one does not know what is going to happen to the rate of interest on money in the meanwhile, and all those other factors that a programming Treasury or Government have to take into account. One must, without doubt, have regard to some sense in these matters, and to treat it as an economic problem in that narrow sense seems to me to be inviting a certain amount of trouble.

I would regard it much more as a social question, and a social question with particular regard to the type of area that the noble Earl had in mind. I believe that we are all agreed on this: there is really no dispute that the importance of this question lies in bringing people back to the land in some cases, or helping them to stay there in others; and it is not merely the particular afforested area, the particular forestry venture in itself, that seems to me to be important. The existence in a village or small place of a body of men who have reasonably secure employment on fair terms is a sort of nucleus around which you can build other attempts to improve and ameliorate the life of that rural community. It is as a centre for rural life that I think forestry has its peculiar importance.

And where it is necessary for forestry workers to form little colonies of their own, as indeed is the case in many places, I am glad to know that the Forestry Commission is well alive to the importance not merely of building a dozen or twenty houses or whatever it is, and leaving it at that, but of seeing to it that not only the necessary things, such as schooling and the like, but also other advantages they would get in a more general settlement, are available for these comparatively isolated communities. This again is, of course, a counsel of perfection. But they are trying to do it, and I feel sure that they have the sympathy of all of us to succeed in the matter.

So far as this is an economic question, one has to remember that if these inhabitants of Highland communities are driven, say, to seek for work and housing in Glasgow, or if inhabitants of some other part of the country do so in some other large town, they are going to meet with a good many of the difficulties that affect this land at present. After all, the Highlands is a development area, and the other part of the country, where I understand a considerable area is available for forestry in the sense that it can be afforested, is the North-East coast. There, too, are the same difficulties both about employment and housing. It is not for me in this debate to compare one area with the other, but they certainly have that particular feature in common.

There is another side of this which is of importance to us in the community. When the Forestry Commission started it was started as a planting body. It was to acquire land and plant trees on it. Of course, as the trees ripened and were felled, it became a marketing body, too. The more this happened the more important marketing became in relation to the business of planting and managing forests. At present, marketing is a highly important feature of the Forestry Commission's work, and it is a feature which affects not only the Forestry Commission itself, but many others who may plant on a tolerably large scale.

Without going into more detail about this—I have here a list of various activities of that kind which are going on—I think the main marketing outlets at present are pulp in pulp mills (Fort William is the obvious instance), and a number of chipboard and other board mills that are being developed all over the country, usually by some private concern, with the benefit, in many cases, of a Forestry Commission guarantee to supply. That kind of development is highly important, because whatever may be the uses and final need for timber, it is quite clear that the immediate marketing of the particular timber that is grown may not be as easy as all that, unless it is taken one stage further and turned into pulp or board as the case may be.

We had quite recently in the Timber Trades Journal a word of appreciation on this. It was on November 7 last year. I must not be expected to accept every word, even of the Timber Trades Journal, as gospel, but it is useful to indicate how they are thinking. They say: Some years ago there were anguished cries that markets regarded by the home-grown trade almost as family heirlooms were on the way out. Yet to-day it seems that outlets potentially wider and more remunerative are appearing, and there is a challenge to the home industry to study them closely so that it can supply the right product. The new boards and pulp mills in Britain have undoubtedly meant a great deal to the timber growers of this country; and in the same way the motor ways have called for substantial quantities of timber for fencing. The coal mines, too, though moving towards complete mechanisation, still order home-grown timber for a number of purposes, although the overall demand is. of course, diminishing. Broadly, I think that is an accurate statement of what is going on, and it seems to me that it is vital for the forestry of the country that this continuous exploration by both the homegrown timber body and the Forestry Commission itself should continue. Of course this is just another matter upon which research is highly necessary and advisable. I believe that at first there was a good deal of trouble about the the suitability of the forest products which came forward from the Commission. That, I think, is being lived down. One hopes that it is going to be borne continually in mind, and that we shall not have trouble from failure to take sufficient care with the treatment and handling of timber after it has been felled and is on its way to be marketed.

I am afraid that a great deal of this must seem to your Lordships rather vague and general. I felt it myself when I had to consider what to say in this debate, and, while I collected a number of facts about it, I came to the conclusion that they were not really what we wanted to consider to-day. What we had to bear in mind, primarily and above all, was the programme in social terms and as part of the economic and social development of the country at large. You cannot just look round and consider a forestry programme by itself. You have to consider such matters as the one I have just mentioned, the alternative claims of agriculture. You have also to consider the whole question of the use that is to be made of the country and the countryside, including, I think, the amenity use. Forestry is not separate from amenities. I believe it is true to say that there are no national parks in Scotland. Perhaps there ought to be—I do not know. But there are arrangements for access to the forests. That, I think, is an important side of making forestry and forestry land perform a public function without seriously interfering with its primary purpose of producing timber.

Secondly, as I said just now, you have to consider forestry in relation to what is happening in neighbouring towns. You have to consider the possibility of bringing into the scope of forestry land which hitherto has been regarded as unusable for the purpose. What you are really doing is to try to fit this into the development of the country as a whole, and not to consider it as an isolated problem; not to consider it either as a problem of competition between private forestry and public forestry, or between forestry and agriculture, but as part of the improvement of our own country and its resources. It is in that spirit that I hope your Lordships will feel able to debate it to-day.

May I end by repeating what I said at a quite early stage? This is a matter of broad national concern, and in previous debates your Lordships have always shown a deep interest in the welfare of the country at large. It is therefore with confidence that I say that that spirit will surely inspire what your Lordships will have to say. It can be given practical application in another form. The shortage in forestry at present is not primarily a shortage of money, or a shortage of men; it is really a shortage of land on which to plant forests. That land can be made available by landowners in the country. One is very glad indeed to hear that the Scottish Landowners' Federation are all for supporting the forestry programme, and I hope their individual members will show, as many of them have shown, the same interest in the matter. There is no other way that I can see in which one can deal with the matter.

There are compulsory powers, and I think your Lordships might be interested to remember that the then Minister of State for Scotland, the present Leader of the Opposition in another place, said during that debate on February 23: The noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, I will not say pleaded for, but broached the question whether the Forestry Commission should not ask for compulsory powers to be used. It is worth remembering that under the procedure a compulsory purchase order is quite likely to run the gauntlet of a public inquiry. That must be the explanation of the delay in the instance the noble Earl quoted. That is not an easy procedure to get through when the interests of food production can be pleaded on the other side. But I should like to make it clear that, if the economic and the social circumstances justify it, the Ministers are ready to use compulsory powers in any individual case."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 191, col. 407, February 23, 1955.] I would not accuse the Leader of the Opposition of being a Socialist, and your Lordships will agree that if he said that on that occasion, you would not expect me to say any less on this. Nor, on the other hand, do I think there is really a case for saying any more than that. This is a field in which we seek co-operation between private and public concerns and interests. We seek it in the name of the nation as a whole and of ordered economic and social progress; and in all those causes I feel sure that both sides of the House will be ready to stand, as they should stand, together.