HL Deb 11 March 1970 vol 308 cc803-5

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what was the total expenditure of the Forestry Commission, excluding interest, on afforestation during the 50 years 1919 to 1969, what is the total acreage planted, and what was the cost of timber imported from abroad during the last year for which figures are available.]


My Lords, at March 31, 1969 the total expenditure, excluding interest, charged to the Com-mission's forestry enterprise was £198 million. At the same date the Commission had nearly 1¾ million acres under plantations. In 1969 imports of timber were valued at about £217 million.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for that information. May I ask him, seeing that the total expenditure of the Com-mission on planting in 50 years is a good deal less than our national timber import bill for one year, whether the Government do not think that we should try to expand still further the Commission's programme of planting, while at the same time encouraging an equal expansion in private afforestation?


My Lords, I have great sympathy with the noble Earl in his wish to see more timber planted in this country. The only difficulty is that which we experience in other fields, the difficulty of establishing priorities as between various good claimants for national expenditure. But I am glad to see that the noble Earl is pressing the claims of this particular investment. I should say, however, that from now on the plantings in Scotland will be in-creased from about 40,000 acres to 50,000 acres, and if suitable land were available in Wales I think that an in-crease would be possible there.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister two supplementary questions? What is the aver-age acreage of Sitka spruce planted annually by the Forestry Commission? Would not the Minister agree that in too many cases the least attractive and, except for pulping, most useless of our conifers is planted on good grazing land? Would not the noble Lord also agree that the taxpayer's money is being wasted as the Fort William pulpmill cannot absorb the amount available, and in many cases it is impossible, or uneconomic, to get this timber to the pulpmill?


My Lords, I confess that I shall have to look at what the noble Earl said in his first two questions and write to him. As to whether there is an outlet for the timber which is produced, my information is that the Forestry Commission can sell all they can grow.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether the figure of £217 million for the imports which he has given us includes pulp and newsprint, which is only timber in another form?


No, my Lords, I compared like with like, and I gave the figure for timber. The noble Lord is on a valid point. If one includes pulp and other products, the import bill runs at about £648 million.


My Lords, arising out of the original Answer, showing the costs of planting in the Forestry Commission, do Her Majesty's Government realise that the efficient private owner can plant at a very much lower cost than the Commission, owing to the latter's very high overheads? Would the noble Lord therefore ask the Government whether they will consider further assistance to private owners, either by provision of further grants or by loans at a low rate of interest?


My Lords, I am not sure that I agree with the assumption on which the noble Lord bases his appeal for the private owners. The fact is that a good deal of the increased overheads rests upon the fact that the plantings are in an area where the expenditure is justified on social as well as on economic grounds. Moreover, I did say, in answer to a question a week or two ago, that a good deal is already being done to streamline the administration of the Forestry Commission.