HL Deb 17 December 1975 vol 366 cc1536-54

7.42 p.m.

Lord INGLEWOOD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what help they are in a position to offer the timber trade towards encouraging the use of the large quantity of elm timber now available as a result of elm disease. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question on the Order Paper. This is to ask Her Majesty's Government what help they are in a position to offer the timber trade towards encouraging the use of the large quantity of elm timber now available as a result of elm disease. There have been many references in Parliament to the Dutch elm disease killing so many of our elms, but always I think on grounds of amenity. There is another side which is equally important, and that is this: how can we prevent the waste of so much potentially useful timber?—and a lot of it is now being wasted.

I have no personal interest in this debate. In the county where I live the elm is rare, but in some counties there are clumps of diseased and dying trees to be seen in all directions. I do not underestimate the loss of amenity, but I fear that we have about as much chance of holding back the disease as King Canute had of holding back the tide. On the other hand, we could do a lot to stop the waste of timber which is happening all the time. Of course elm timber varies in quality and can deteriorate quickly if left standing, or, after felling, left lying on the ground. Some of this timber is worth very little; some nothing at all because of the nails which have been hammered into it when standing in hedgerows. But a great deal could be used in general construction where imported softwood is normally used today, and a small amount is very valuable and could be used for furniture and panelling—and when I say "paneling", I do not have only coffin boards in mind.

As for the size of this problem, the Forestry Commission estimate that 1.9 million trees have been infected in this year 1975 and, as a very rough guess, I would say that the volume of timber is something between 27 and 30 million cubic feet—nearly as large a volume as the Scottish wind blow several years ago, which attracted so much interest and activity. These trees, together with others infected in earlier years, are said to amount to over 5 million dead and dying trees now in the British countryside.

Of course this is quite a different problem from the Scottish wind blow. The size of the elm tree could vary from having 5 cubic feet of timber to 205 cubic feet, or more. The trees are scattered over a number of counties in small parcels. The work and the task is not just one of extraction and delivery to known markets. It demands very skilful selection, skilful conversion, and skilful marketing, and, as I said before, some speed to avoid deterioration.

One must not ask the Government the impossible. I know that, unlike the motor industry, there are not many votes in the market for elm, but all the same the Government could greatly assist at a very small cost. The need goes beyond the simple first steps in circumstances like this of calling meetings of all concerned, and the issue of pamphlets and leaflets and exhortations—although all these have a real value.

The Government themselves (and the noble Lord will doubtless confirm this) are great users of timber, and they could easily revive the use of elm in some of the markets which lately have been lost—mostly to imported softwood, and therefore costing us foreign exchange. Are we really so rich today that we can afford to lay out money to import timber when we have suitable material for much of the general purpose market available and actually lying on the ground in our own country? The standing value of trees infected this year might be £9 million or £10 million—that is, not all the trees infected but just the trees infected this year. It is naturally a very much larger sum after conversion on the saw bench and, in some cases, after some time spent seasoning. This is not a very large sum when compared with other calls on the Government's resources, but it is none the less no small sum.

I must say, too, that elm is not as easy as oak to work, but that did not prevent it from being used for a great number of purposes in days gone by, and in large quantities. Today those who write specifications are all too ready to copy out the paragraphs from the reference books. I say this having myself served my time as a surveyor. In order to check that there was not very much change today from my student days, I went across Parliament Square this morning and looked up in the Library of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors to see what I could find in the textbooks. This is the sort of paragraph one still finds in a book for students to read; it refers to carpenters' work: The fir to be of good sound Baltic or American, and the deals and battens to be of the best Christiana or American. No reference, of course, to home-grown timber at all. It goes on to "Car-cassing timber" and mentions five species, none home-grown; "unsorted quality excluding 5ths." For this latter, of course, elm could be used in substitution for a great deal. Many would claim that elm is pre-eminent among timbers for river defence works, for docks, and for harbour work, but yet in today's specifications one will frequently find Opepe, Jarrah, Green-heart, and Douglas Fir mentioned for jobs when elm would be just as good, if not better. It is very suitable for rails on motorway fencing but not for posts; also for parts of crash barriers, bearers, and for use in pipe-line construction. I will not go on any longer, but I mention those items as they are all uses where the Government are in a position to influence the timber specified.

In these markets Government Departments and public bodies could surely return to elm as the preferred timber, and this is something which could happen very quickly. The better quality elm timber is suitable for many general purposes, as I have already said, in the construction trades; and the top quality, of which of course the quantity is not very great, is suitable for furniture and decorative panelling. It is not always known that elm is a peculiarly British timber. There is a little in North-West Europe, but elm is largely a British tree, and it is hardly known as a decorative wood on the Continent. I suggest, therefore, that it might be used by the Government as panelling in our overseas embassies and other buildings under their control and, since it can be used for veneering as well as solid panelling, I suggest that it could be used in Government pavilions for overseas exhibitions and trade fairs.

Some of this is happening at home and in small quantities is today going into a number of prestige buildings, if I may so describe them. I have made inquiries through the timber trade and I am told that elm has recently been used for panelling in the Old Bailey, in the Guildhall extension in the City of London, upstairs in the new Berkeley Hotel, in the Bank of England in Manchester, and intended to be used in the Glasgow University Museum. I have not heard that in any of those cases it has proved other than extremely suitable. I made inquiries, too, from the trade where they had failed to get elm accepted because I thought I should also report the other side of the picture. I have only one example, and that is the stables in the new Hyde Park Barracks where, I am told, instead of using British elm, good foreign currency has been laid out to buy imported softwood.

I exhort the Government to set an example along the lines I have suggested and I am sure that others will follow. While most of the books I consulted in the Royal Institution's library gave less than their due to home-grown hardwoods, one that I found, called "Specification 1975," referred in volume 1, on page 326, to English elm and said: Its strength and handsome appearance make it suitable for wider use. I hope the Government will remember that quotation even if they remember nothing else of what I have said tonight. The re-establishment of elm as a timber of many uses and sometimes of great beauty will not just help us in our present troubles and avoid waste, but could be something of permanent value to this country.

7.52 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Inglewood for asking this Question because it follows closely on the heels of a very similar Question for Written Answer asked by my noble friend Lord Hylton on 9th December in which he made a very similar inquiry and asked: What steps are being taken by the timber trade and timber-using industries to increase the consumption of home-grown elm, now available in large quantities as a result of elm disease….—(Official Report, 9/12/75; col. 391.) What could be more closely associated with the Question with which we are dealing tonight? Although they are so parallel, my noble friend Lord Hylton received a rather unsatisfactory Answer, because the suggestion was made that Government Departments were being urged—I stress only "urged"— to increase their consumption of elm. It was also suggested in the Written Answer that the National Coal Board had made it known that it was prepared to increase its use of elm. I regret to say that it is our understanding that the NCB has ceased the purchase of elm: if I am incorrect the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, will I am sure advise me. However, it is our information that a very important nationalised industry is no longer purchasing elm because it has sufficient stocks. I appreciate that this information may be of comparatively recent date.

Before proceeding, I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, on his recent appointment. This Question is particularly appropriate for him because as he has just left the Department of the Environment for his new office in the Department of Trade and Industry, this subject is admirably suited to his expertise. I wish to refer to a much older paper than that referred to by my noble friend Lord Inglewood. It was prepared by a very eminent authority, one John Evelyn, and was presented to the Royal Society on 25th October, 1662. In his now famous book John Evelyn's Silva or a Discourse on Forest Trees he wrote: Elm is a timber of most singular use, especially where it may lie continually dry or wet in extremes, therefore proper for waterworks, mills … pumps, aqueducts, pales and ships' planks below the water line. Three hundred years has seen some change in its industrial use, but was not my noble friend Lord Inglewood suggesting a somewhat similar group of uses for this admirable hardwood? We have in this country today what globally may be taken to be an asset worth perhaps £80 million. My noble friend Lord Inglewood grouped it in a slightly different way, taking the timber on the ground, about to be felled and already felled awaiting use. But, globally, we can look at it in terms of an asset being worth about £80 million. It is difficult to gauge its value, because the market is currently difficult to assess. Nevertheless, if we take the number of trees we are on somewhat more certain ground.

My noble friend Lord Inglewood has already quoted the Forestry Commission's figures and it would be wearisome to repeat them. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that the elm diseased timber at present in this country is timber of first class value; it has been lightly affected only to the extent of the bark and, very marginally, on the cambium layer of the bark, and the whole of the hardwood and the outer part is of first-class timber use. This must be particularly stressed because it is widely thought in this country that diseased elm is useful only for firewood or for substandard use and cannot be adapted for general purpose use as a hardwood. This is quite incorrect and we must revalue this national asset which is lying about.

Only 30 or so years ago, during the war, when owners were asked to fell substantial quantities of hardwood in order to provide the War Office with a a substantial provision of a vital national resource, they gladly felled their timber in the national interest. Today, through force of circumstances, owners are obliged to see a valuable stock, built up in some cases over more than a century, set aside by a disease which has, by accident, been imported into this island. We must look at this national emergency in a totally different light and with a new sense of urgency.

Only a few minutes ago the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, referred to another matter which is requiring the Government's urgent attention. This is equally urgent, and I draw attention to a number of cognate matters connected with the elm. The first thing to recognise is the need for the Government to create a market. We on these Benches feel, and I am sure that noble Lords opposite will acknowledge, that the Government alone are in a position to create a market. It should be possible to take the present very substantial opportunity for the Government purchasing departments to bring forward elm as a suitable timber. My noble friend has mentioned its use in certain directions and perhaps I may be allowed to suggest certain others. No less than £250 million worth of timber was imported in the first nine months of this year and it has been used for a variety of purposes. To take an example, pallets are a very important factor in warehousing and Portuguese pine is currently imported to make them. Surely it should be possible to use elm for this purpose. Again, my noble friend mentioned the use of elm for motorway fencing and, from a wide variety of uses, I should like to stress its use for blocks and other purposes connected with the construction industry.

I feel it very important to go further than the assurances given in another place, where Her Majesty's Government said on 30th October: All statutory bodies and nationalised industires will be given every encouragement to purchase elm."—(Official Report, 30/10/75; col. 1745.) We believe that it should extend to making an order proposing that local authorities and purchasing departments should definitely use elm.

A further problem arises in regard to the capacity of sawmills. Here again, there is a very great need for Government intervention because over 2 million elms which are now dying will not be able to be felled by the present manpower capacity. I feel that it is clear that, if the Government investigated the situation and sought means whereby additional manpower and skills could be made available, it might be possible over the next ten years to concentrate efforts on the disease as it progresses—as inevitably it will—through the country. It is a matter of great regret that it has not been possible to arrest, by felling and other means, the advance of the disease, and I believe that it must now be acknowledged that it will be impossible to do so.

I should like to close my remarks with one special plea; that is, that Her Majesty's Government should take very seriously indeed the publication which the Forestry Commission is to produce early in January. We hope that they will look on it as a matter of immediate priority and that they will, together with the timber trade and interested bodies, set up a technical committee to see what can be done as a matter of immediate national importance.

8.4 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for having raised the subject this evening. Before proceeding, I should declare an interest in the matter because my husband is engaged in the home grown timber business and because we, as a family, are also engaged in forestry. I completely accept the figures quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, from the 1975 survey. This stated that 1–9 million trees were infected during 1975. At the risk of being boring, I wish to quote more figures because I feel that I have a slightly different attitude to the problem from that of the two noble Lords who have spoken. I find their suggestions admirable but I do not believe that they go far enough. I fear that the problem is very much greater.

If we look at the figures in the survey and add the 1.9 million trees infected during 1975, we find that the figure has risen from 3.7 million trees in 1974 to 5.6 million in 1975. This means that, of the original 23 million trees in the survey area, 6.5 million have so far been killed by disease. That is taking into account the 1 million trees which have already been felled. A further very worrying feature of the problem is that in September of this year there was diagnosed for the first time an isolated case of the disease as far North as Glasgow. It was always assumed that the line from Chester to the Wash was more or less the limit of the danger area of the disease.

All of us here, I believe, welcome the approval of the Forestry Ministers for all the measures of control of the disease, including the introduction of stricter movement control of timber between infected and slightly infected areas. However, such measures do nothing to solve the problem of the use of the timber. We have been told this evening of a number of measures which the Government can introduce for the further use of the timber at our disposal, but we must put the problem of elm disease in perspective. If we look at the projected figures for the survey area, we can see that by 1980 half the trees in that area will be infected or dead. That amounts to 11.5 million out of the 23 million trees. Put that against the average consumption of elm trees in this country at the moment, which is 0.3 million a year. That means that between 1970 and 1980 the disease will have killed 11½ million trees and that, at a consumption level of 0.3 million trees per year over ten years, we should have a surplus on the present consumption of timber of 8½ million trees by 1980. Whatever measures are taken to increase the consumption—and I should welcome Government encouragement to local authorities and all Government agencies to use elm—we shall never reach the level required to clear the dead trees from our countryside.

I know that individual timber yards are putting timber—sawn elm—into storage for future use, but there is a limit to their capacity. Two factors limit the amount that can be stored. First, there are the financial implications of tying up large sums of capital in stock. Your Lordships may think that it is not such a large sum of money at the present price of elm per cubic foot, but large sums of money are needed because of the problem of felling and clearing elms. Elms are hedgerow timber, which means that they are spread about and are not in a nice package which the timber yard can easily collect. They are spread between different owners and on different farms. Often they are on the far side of a field away from any road. This means that any felling is not only expensive but also must take account of the seasonal working of the agricultural unit. One cannot envisage putting the enormous machinery needed for pulling out large elms across a field newly planted with wheat. Inevitably, the felling and collecting of the elms is made very expensive, and financially there is a limit to the amount of stocks that the average timber yard can store.

Much more important is the problem of storing some of the 8½million surplus trees which there will be by 1980. Elm happens to be a timber which does not store very well, and after a period of two years it begins to deteriorate. Therefore, it seems to me that apart from all the measures which the Government can take towards encouraging the use of timber (as against importing timber), so as to help our financial position at the moment, as well as action to eradicate the disease, they must also concentrate on measures to preserve for the future the majority of the very valuable resource which elm represents in our society. I am informed by the timber trade that the only way elm timber can be preserved for long periods—and it can be very long periods—is by putting it in water. In this country we have a large number of disused gravel pits which may prove suitable places for the long-term storage of elm timber logs. To make an impact on this enormous number of trees with which we are concerned, this would not be an exercise that would be undertaken by ordinary timber yards, even if they worked in co-operation, but I believe that it could be undertaken by the Government. If the Government would agree to look into the possibilities of this action there may be enormous benefit to the nation.

I suggest that the Government might look first at how to extract the timber from the hedgerows. I read in the Timber Journal of 29th November, that there are possibilities of lifting hedgerow timber out by helicopters. It could be expensive, but there must be some means of dealing with this. Alternatively, timber merchants might be paid on a commission basis to remove timber which they cannot store themselves. The Government should look at the possibility of storing timber. This would not be a matter consisting wholly of expenditure on the Government's part, because after a period of years, with the depletion of our timber stock, the Government could gradually release this timber into the market, and in the process possibly at least pay for the expense of having had it stored for the nation.

Such action would also be helpful from the environmental point of view. It would remove the eyesore of dead elms; it would help to defeat the disease and, I believe, assist the foreign exchange problem in relation to the amount of money we are to spend on imported timber for a large number of years, even after 1980. I should be very grateful if the Government would look at a suggestion such as I have made.

8.14 p.m.


My Lords, I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for raising this matter this evening because it gives me the opportunity of asking a couple of questions. We have heard from noble Lords and from the noble Baroness of some of the uses to which this timber can be put; but I should like to stress the uses to which it can be put within the agricultural industry, not only in the construction of agricultural buildings, but also in the manufacturing of equipment. Timber can be, and indeed still is, used quite extensively for various agricultural equipment, especially within the livestock sector. It is also used, I presume, for barns, stockyards and the like. Surely some of this elm timber must be excellent material for roof construction, but more especially in cladding the sides of stockyards. I wonder whether manufacturers are being encouraged to use this available timber as opposed to imported timber.

As the noble Baroness said, in many parts of the country elm trees form the greater part of our hedgerow timber. Travelling around the country last summer I was saddened by the sight of so many of these once majestic trees, standing stark and bare, leafless and absolutely lifeless. I wonder whether farmers and landowners are being encouraged and advised regarding the planting of other species of hardwood timber, or indeed, of disease resistant types of elm, if such exist. These areas are being denuded of the beauty of the elms, and I hope that landowners might be helped and advised, if only for the sake of future generations. I hope, too, that in a hundred years' time people will be able to say that while in the 1970s many elm trees were lost at least we tried to repair the damage.

My scientist son has been attempting to explain to me the difficulties involved in conducting research into the ways and means of controlling the disease, as well as the way in which the disease is transmitted. He has also tried to explain to me the problems of inoculation and preventive measures existing in mature timber. I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, could let me know—not necessarily this evening—the extent of the research which has been carried out into this disease, and by whom that research is being done in this country.

8.17 p.m.


My Lords, this has been an extremely interesting and valuable short debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, I have no particular interest to declare. I come from a part of the country—Norfolk—which, very luckily, does not have very many elms, and so in that part of the world we do not see the ravages of the disease. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wise, I was horrified to see the damage which the disease was doing in the South of England. I saw this when travelling to the Watch field Pop Festival this summer. The sight of dead elms, standing in hedgerows and in small woods throughout that part of the country, can do nothing but horrify anyone who sees it.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, for his kind remarks to me. I hope that I have got his quotation right: that the Government alone are in a position to create a market. If anyone were kind enough to take it out of context, it would be an interesting quotation, because, as I understand it, those who sit where the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, sits, feel that the very reverse is true, and that only market forces are in a position to create a market—


My Lords, may I say that at the present moment it would be obvious to the noble Lord that the elm market is over saturated. What we are seeking to make clear—and the noble Baroness has drawn attention to the fact —is that it is a question of storage of a large number of trees.


My Lords, I think that I was probably pulling the noble Lord's leg, and I hope that he will take my remarks in that spirit.

It might help if I start by giving your Lordships the most up-to-date information that we have on the progress of Dutch elm disease, particularly as different figures have been mentioned by various speakers. The Forestry Commission annually surveys the progress of the disease, and the 1975 survey of the severely affected area of Southern England—that is, roughly the area South of a line drawn between Chester to the Wash—showed that out of an original estimated population of 23 million trees the total dead and dying amounts to 6.5 million. It is estimated that roughly one million of the 6.5 million have been felled. There have been outbreaks further North, as the noble Baroness mentioned, including an isolated one in Glasgow, but they are sporadic and on a relatively small scale. While there is no known cure for the disease, reasonable success has been obtained by the injection of fungicides to protect trees, but this is expensive and has to be repeated annually as long as the trees are at risk. It is also much less effective in trees over about 40 feet in height. For these reasons, injection is unsuitable for widespread use, although it is of some value in protecting high value amenity trees that are still relatively young. I hope that answers the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wise, on that point.

Two main measures are being taken to control the spread of the disease. First, the Forestry Commission has introduced controls on the movement of elm from the heavily affected areas to the lightly affected areas, and also within the lightly affected areas. These are being strengthened by the Dutch Elm Disease (Restriction on the Movement of Elms) Order 1975, which was laid in Parliament on the 2nd December and comes into effect on the 1st January 1976. The Commission is also visiting all the sawmills and timber yards in the lightly affected areas this winter, to ensure that any infectious timber is made safe before the danger period begins in the Spring.

The second and main means of controlling the disease is to fell diseased elms on the cordon sanitaire principle and at least destroy the bark. No licences of any sort are now needed for felling diseased elms. A major felling strategy based on this principle was introduced, as noble Lords know, in the heavily affected area of the South in 1971–72. Local authorities had a vital role in the campaign, and all the relevant authorities in the area took powers of inspection and control. Unfortunately, it failed as the new strain of the disease was already too well entrenched and was spreading too rapidly. The powers were withdrawn in January 1973, and the disease must now take its course. I should, however, like to take this opportunity to congratulate the local authorities in East Sussex, which I visited when I was still at the Department of the Environment, whose early appreciation of the problem and far-sighted action in dealing with it, in conjunction with the area's good natural harriers, have meant that the disease has had much less effect there. Here, as with parts of Berkshire and Dorset, where there are also some natural barriers, the control measures have been reintroduced.

Similar powers to those reintroduced in East Sussex, Berkshire and Dorset have now been taken by nearly all authorities in the lightly affected areas. In these areas, because the disease is sporadic and the elms are less prevalent and generally rather more resistant, there is a reasonable prospect of containing the disease. I hope—and this is something which has not been said so far this evening, I think, so I should like to stress it—that the local authorities in the areas where the disease is currently only lightly affecting the trees will take heart particularly from the very successful action taken by counties like East Sussex, and will not feel that because there are parts of the country where the disease must now be allowed to run its course there is nothing more that they can do, because I think there certainly is. The Forestry Commission is co-operating fully with local authorities and, whenever possible, has offered to make men available to help with felling and clearance on a repayment basis.

In the heavily affected area in the South the disease is a biological disaster. It is now evident that by the time the new strain had been identified it was so well established that it was already impossible to contain it by any realistic means in that area. It seems likely that if the trend continues it will result in the death of about half the elms in the area South of the line from Chester to the Wash by 1980.

My Lords, to turn to the market for elm, this falls roughly into two categories. First, there is a market for trees of large size and good quality, and these are used, for example, in the furniture trade, for weatherboarding, boat building, civil engineering and, of course, coffin making. I am glad nobody suggested that this Government's taxation policies were designed specifically to drive people to an early death and, therefore, increase the market for elm wood—a joke I was expecting. Although the disease may cause some slight staining, I would agree (I cannot remember which speaker it was who mentioned it; it may be it was the noble Lord, Lord Sandys) that it is important to stress to anybody likely to use elm timber that the disease does not impair the timber properties of the wood.

Secondly, there is a market for some of the smaller or poorer trees, which are used for pulp wood, mining timber, pallets, dunnage and so on. Even so, the current market probably does not exceed, as the noble Baroness said, about 300,000 trees, which is roughly the present rate of felling. Against this we are faced with some 5½ million standing dead elms at the present time, although it is likely that some 60 per cent. are unmarketable due to size, poor shape, damage and access problems. On these assumptions, and quite apart from purely environmental considerations, we are now concerned with some 2.2 million marketable trees, or roughly 7 or 8 years' supply. If the spread of the disease continues unabated, this figure could double by 1980.

The quantity of timber used is necessarily governed by the capacity of the market, which, as I say, is normally about 300,000 trees a year. Naturally enough, local authorities in the heavily affected areas are concentrating on dealing with potentially dangerous trees, only some of which are marketable. The Forestry Commission's main role is to encourage clearance by seeking new or enlarged outlets for marketable timber, which will directly help the timber trade. This includes consultations with the timber trade, Government Departments and nationalised industries, aimed at increasing the consumption of elm through encouraging its substitution for other timber.

On the 15th December the Forestry Commission met the Home Grown Timber Association of Scotland, the Home Grown Timber Association of England and Wales and representatives of Scottish regional authorities to discuss future action. Other measures taken include, first, the production of a publication on the uses of elm by the Forest Products Laboratory at Princes Risborough in conjunction with the Forestry Commission. This will be given as wide a circulation as possible, and will certainly be treated, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, suggested, with great urgency.

Secondly, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, mentioned the question of assistance with felling, there is the provision of Forestry Commission labour locally on a repayment basis to help with felling where this can be done without serious disturbance of the Commission's own programmes. Thirdly, there is the making available of advice on possible storage sites on Forestry Commission land, and the question of storage is something to which I will return in a moment. Although one part of the solution to this formidable problem may be in expanding the market for elm timber, it seems inevitable that very substantial numbers of potentially marketable trees will have to be stored in one form or another for several years before they can be used.

The offer of storage facilities by the Forestry Commission will help in cases where yards are full and felling has to take place in a relatively short period. This particularly applies to trees on agricultural land, where timber operations, as the noble Baroness said, can be severely restricted by the need to minimise crop damage. The cheapest way to store the trees is to let them stand unless, of course, they constitute a danger. Urgent investigations are going on to see how long trees can be stored in this way. It is already known that some diseased trees have satisfactorily stood for five years, although the vast majority are likely to deteriorate much sooner.

I should like to take some technical advice on the question of storage in water, which the noble Baroness raised, and, if I may, I will write to her about that. But I think I would agree with her that by far the most helpful line to pursue at this stage is the question of storage, and that is certainly something to which I will give some attention, bearing in mind what has been said by everybody who has taken part in this debate. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lords who have spoken tonight about that question when I have looked into this matter and have, particularly, taken advice. I am not an expert on storage under water, I am afraid.

I should like to turn for a moment to the vexed question of financial assistance. This, I suppose, could come either in the form of a direct Government subsidy by way of grant or loan, or in the form of a levy, say on imported timber. I have to say that in present financial circumstances there is no prospect of Government money being released for this purpose. Any form of levy would be fraught with difficulties, and in any case undesirable at a time when the timber trade is in recession. It is also questionable whether an injection of funds to encourage felling would necessarily result in more elms being harvested although it might well help to accelerate the felling of those which are likely to be felled in any case. However, the Government are awaiting a Report from the Tree Council on whether there are any steps we could usefully take within the financial constraints to encourage clearance and replacement. I understand that that Report is likely to be available in the very near future.

On a more positive note, the response to attempts to encourage the use of elm have been generally sympathetic. In 1971–72 the Forestry Commission wrote to all known River Drainage Boards, pulp mills, nationalised industries, and other potential users of elm urging them to accept elm timber wherever technically possible. Although the effect is difficult to quantify, because there were no records of previous elm consumption, it is known that more elm was used as a result of that action. For example, a pulp mill at Sudbrook which was using mixed hardwoods switched to using about 80 per cent, elm. The National Coal Board also let it be known that they would accept much larger quantities of elm for mining timber within their current specifications and requirements.

I confess that I was surprised to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, said about a change of heart, as I understood it by the National Coal Board. My information is as I have stated; but I will look at it and write to him if there has been a change in the Coal Board policy.

In October 1975 the Forestry Commission wrote again to the same organisations. So far, not all have responded. Those who have are once again sympathetic although it appears that some are already taking as much elm as they feel that they can use. I will certainly see if, aspart of that exercise, the remarks which the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, made about the scope of the Government to specify elm in preference to other timber—


Other imported timber, my Lords.


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord has added that qualification now. I did not understand that from what he said earlier.


On a point of clarification, my Lords, I was making the point right through my short speech that often it was imported softwood which was now being used for purposes for which elm was traditional.


My Lords, in that case I shall be slightly less hopeful than I was before. I am advised that the scope for replacing imported softwood with elm is very small; but I shall certainly see that the Forestry Commission, in their consultations with organisations, bear this point very much in mind; because it is obviously important from every point of view, the country's financial considerations as well as the need to use elm. If the noble Lord has any specific cases in mind where imported softwoods are being used and where elm would be suitable and he writes to me with details, that might be the most convenient way to get information. I will make sure that it is passed on to the Forestry Commission and that they make use of it.

My Lords, within the constraints of the current financial situation the Government will continue to encourage the clearance of dead trees in the severely affected areas by renewed efforts to increase outlets for elm timber. I hope I have outlined the ways in which this is being energetically pursued with the timber trade, other Government Departments and nationalised industries. But in the last analysis it seems unlikely that felling will proceed much beyond the capacity of the market to absorb it, and any increase in the use of elm is a matter for decision by individual consumers and industries.

I hope that all that has been said tonight, and particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, will encourage all those people who are responsible for ordering timber and specifying its use in any project to bear elm timber particularly in mind.


My Lords, may I, with the leave of the House, thank the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for replying to this Unstarred Question. On this, the first occasion when he speaks for his new Department, it would be unkind for anyone to be critical; but I hope that he will follow up the suggestion that the Government Departments could themselves set an example. Finally, on a point of accuracy, I believe that the import of timber, paper, pulp and other products is nearer £2,000 million a year than the figure that my noble friend mentioned. My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate.