§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Lord Todd rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how they will ensure that closure of the Princes Risborough Laboratory will not reduce their commitment to a research programme and capability in timber at the Building Research Establishment.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, my Unstarred Question concerns the Princes Risborough Laboratory which I shall refer to henceforth, for the sake of brevity, by the initial letters PRL. PRL began life in 1925 as the Forest Products Research Laboratory under the aegis of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. After the demise of that department in the 1960s, the PRL was bandied about among various departments until finally, in 1972, it came to rest in the Department of the Environment being made a part (or a kind of outstation) of the Building Research Establishment. Originally PRL was concerned entirely with timber, but since 1972 it has diversified its work to take on various aspects of building and environmental research, and indeed I think that today only about 60 per cent. of its work is concerned at all with timber.
§ My reasons for putting this Unstarred Question this evening are twofold. They concern, first of all, two reports of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology, the first in 1980, the second in the summer of 1982, and, on the other hand, the Rayner Review of the Building Research Establishment. The Select Committee called for more timber research; this in effect meant strengthening PRL. The Rayner Review suggested that PRL should be closed in order to save money.
§ Her Majesty's Government have now announced the closure of PRL and the transfer of facilities for timber research from Princes Risborough to the Building Research Establishment at Garston. I do not know whether the Government regarded this as a potentially embarrassing announcement to be given minimum publicity, but they certainly made it in the time-honoured way for such announcements. It was in fact made in a Written Answer in another place on the last day before the Christmas Recess.
Be that as it may, the statement also contained the important phrase:
this move does not imply any reduction in commitment to a research programme and capability in timber at BRE".
My question to the Minister is how he is going to honour his undertaking. I shall not weary your
Lordships by rehearsing all the Select Committee's recommendations. One, however, I must stress. It concerns the need for more research into wood properties and into wood as a material. Timber research has been diminishing fairly steadily in recent years, both in resources and in manpower, and this diminution is something which we have to stop.
§ The Government's declared policy of increasing domestic timber production is certainly something that we would all welcome because at present we import something like 92 per cent. of our requirements of wood and wood products at a cost of something like £3 billion per annum. But what if the home-grown timber is not of a nature to satisfy market requirements? There is only one way to ensure that a policy will work, and that involves more research.
§ The Committee in its report drew attention to the weakness of the links between those concerned with the growing of tree crops and the end users of forest products. These links ought to be close, but I am afraid that they are not. Silvicultural practices and the choice of species determine the nature and the quality of the wood which is their end product. Those practices and choice of species ought to be conditioned by the requirements of the end users of the products. Yet at the moment most timber research, including that carried out not only by PRL but by the Timber Research and Development Association (the so-called TRADA), the private sector research organisation, is concerned with imported timber. It is primarily concerned with the uses to which existing imported timber can he put and not the selection of silvicultural practices to give suitable timber quality. Although the Forestry Commission continues to commission research at PRL this is on a small scale—much smaller than the committee thought was desirable.
§ Research into forest products is at low ebb. The incorporation of PRL into the Building Research Establishment undoubtedly contributed to this state of affairs, since it necessarily moved PRL's orientation away from forest products and wood quality towards timber as a material for the construction industry. Both with PRL and TRADA the main emphasis now lies in helping to make optimum use of existing materials with a large part of their effort devoted to wood protection; there is much less emphasis on matters such as predictive work or newer species.
To correct these shortcomings, which the committee believed they observed, the Select Committee suggested that the Government might consider integrating forest products research at PRL with forestry research under the Forestry Commission. The Government decided that the advantages of this proposal were outweighed by the disadvantages. I respect that opinion and I do not wish to argue against the Government's decision. In their belated Statement of February 1982 in response to the Select Committee's Report of 1980, the Government noted that work at PRL had become diversified to include materials other than wood and admitted that at that time only a small amount of research is being devoted to research on wood as a material as compared with that on the use of wood in construction. They also went on to say:
The Select Committee made some interesting proposals about research into wood properties and the end use of timber. We accept that more effort should be applied to work on wood properties and regard will be had to this in planning future research programmes".
This was taken by some of us—perhaps optimistically—to mean that the work of PRL on timber quality would be increased.
I now turn to the review of the Building Research Establishment carried out under the guidance of Sir Derek Rayner (as he then was) whom we have recently welcomed to this House. That review concluded that PRL should be closed and its facilities for timber research transferred to the main BRE at Garston. The review said that,
savings of some £343,000 p.a. should arise from transferring work from the Princes Risborough Station and disposing of that site".
§ On the face of it then, the work of PRL is merely being transferred to another station in the next county and the Government have presumably done their sums—they are certainly in a much better position than I am to judge whether the transfer will save them money. Why then, your Lordships may ask, should I be concerned about the closure of PRL? I fear that I must admit to disquiet on three counts.
When the Select Committee visited PRL in 1980 they concluded from what they saw there that the strength of the laboratory depended a great deal on the continuity of its research effort and the accumulated knowledge handed down from its days as the Forest Products Research Laboratory. That continuity has already suffered a great deal from serious cutbacks. I understand that there has been something like a 25 per cent. drop in the manpower of the station, and I seriously question the laboratory's ability to survive in anything near intact condition if it is put through the interruption of total removal to the next county. The head of PRL said to us in evidence last summer:
a move from Princes Risborough to Garston would inevitably result in a substantial interruption in the work programme and probably some loss of key expertise due to the staff not wishing to move".
The Building Research Establishment, in its analysis of the Rayner Review, also drew attention to loss of expertise through premature retirement of some senior staff.
§ We must also consider and seek to allay the anxieties of PRL's staff. Their union representatives are opposed to the move and they expect cuts in the BRE's manpower and funding to continue at the rate of 6 per cent. to 7 per cent. a year. They believe, too, that some of the specialist timber facilities at PRL will not be reproduced at Garston and that the interdisciplinary character of its work will be disrupted and to a degree destroyed by the move.
§ Finally, I have an uneasy feeling that reduction in resources for timber research that we have seen in recent years will continue. Wood as a material was the raison d'etre of PRL and its work on that topic was a major factor in its acquiring, as it did in its days as a forest product research laboratory, a worldwide reputation. When it goes to Garston wood will be just one material among many others. This clearly suggests downgrading, unless some very specific assurances are given. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, past experience certainly suggests that when the next squeeze on Department of the Environment funds comes, wood research is going to be high on the list of things to be squeezed out.
§ These, then, are my anxieties. The Government pronouncement ought to be reassuring because it said 811 that the closure of PRL does not imply any reduction in their commitment to a research programme and capability in timber. Of course, it does not say how big that research programme or how great the capability are likely to be. As a result, I want now to put to them a specific question: how will they ensure that this commitment they have stated will entail no reduction in the quality and quantity of PRL research? How will they honour their statement to the Select Committee that more effort should be applied to work on wood properties?
§ To that main question I should like to add five subsidiary questions, of which I have given the Minister notice. First, how many of the professional staff at PRL engaged on timber research will be lost as a result of the transfer through redundancy, early retirement or reluctance to make the move? Secondly, does the Forestry Commission support the move to Garston? Thirdly, was the Forestry Research Co-ordination Committee consulted before the decision to close PRL was taken? Fourthly, what is the Government's estimate of the net savings attributable to the closure of PRL after deducting the costs of transfer to Garston? Finally, what are the Government plans for the future of the PRL site?
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, I am sure that everyone interested in forestry and timber will be very grateful indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Todd, for putting down this Question. The way he has put the Question and gone over all the arguments leaves very little more to be said by anybody else. Naturally, I found most interesting his account of the history of PRL and the situation that has developed over the years, and then the Government's decision to close it. I would just say that when one thinks of the importance of timber research and the fact that we import something like £3 billion-worth of timber and wood products per year, not to mention our own home timber,the saving (if I heard the noble Lord correctly) of £340,000 is a mere bagatelle compared with the enormous amount of money we spend on timber. When we consider the research that is needed to get this timber used properly, surely that saving is just a fleabite.
We know that our home timber industry is small compared with the enormous amount of timber that we import, but it is getting more and more important as the years go on. At the present time it is about 8 or 9 per cent. of our total use of timber, but before the end of the century it will have doubled to about 16 or 17 per cent. Quite frankly, if the Government would give a proper go-ahead to both the Forestry Commission and the private sector it could double again by the year 2025, and production could be doubled by 2050. That is another question, but it is essential to the home timber industry that they should be given the opportunity to develop research, which would prove the value of timber beyond all reason.
I am not an authority on research, but I saw quite a lot of timber research going on when I was at the commission and, for instance, there was the question of stress-grading. I believe quite a lot of research is still required on this. For instance, quite a lot of sitka 812 spruce can be used in construction work, where its value is almost twice as much as pitwood, and so on, where it goes at the present moment. So we can see what could happen to the value of our home production in every way.
I remember seeing one sawmill where they had put in a stress-grader almost before their time, one might say. They found they were not getting the value of the use of this machine at all, although they had bundled it up and given a certificate as to the figures from the stress-grader. They found they could get better value for the timber if they bundled it up and put a red stamp on the end, as if it were foreign wood, and they got a better price in that way, which was ridiculous. I also understand that quite a lot of work is being done (although I am quite a babe in arms in these matters) as regards the laser-scanning of wood in sawing logs. All this is giving a fillip to home production, and it would be terrible if it were neglected.
Also, there is a lot of fertilising of wood today. Some experiments were made to discover the value of fertilisers, and there were quite fantastic results in the size of the tree. But we do not yet know whether the wood is as good or as strong as it would be if it were left without fertiliser.
All the research into these matters must be kept going. I was worried when the noble Lord, Lord Todd, talked about his concern over the considerable diminution of research. I understand there are only about four people on the job at the present moment, and we all know that a move like this can upset the staff considerably. We hope that the Government will give us some guarantee that they will see that this does not happen.
I shall be interested in the Minister's answers as to what the Forestry Commission are going to do about the matter. I have so many friends there, and they are as worried as anyone else about this move. They do not think it will be to their advantage at all. There is a committee headed by the Commissioner for Forest Products, Dallas Mithen, which is looking into the whole question, and I hope it will do some good.
My Lords, I do not want to say any more, except that I am looking forward to hearing what the Government have to say on this very important subject, and I hope it is something that will help us meet our debts.
§ 7.18 p.m.
§ Lord Dulverton
My Lords, in speaking after the noble Lords, Lord Todd and Lord John-Mackie, I wish to proclaim my feeling of responsibility in following such instructed people. Under the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, I was a member of the sub-committee of Lord Todd's Committee on Science and Technology dealing with forestry, and I had many dealings with the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, when he was chairman of the Forestry Commission.
My other interest in this subject is that in various ways I am involved in the world of forestry and I am going to echo so much of what the two previous speakers have said that I almost feel I ought to sit down rather than continue speaking. However, I am not going to sit down because I want to suggest to my noble friend on the Front Bench that he has heard the views of a scientist on the Cross-Benches; he has heard the 813 view of an ex-chairman of the Forestry Commission on the opposite Benches; and now I would claim to be speaking partly for the private sector of forestry and, as my noble friend will know, the Government have proclaimed their intention that the private sector should expand. I, too, feel the need to voice concern about the future that has been planned for the PRL.
As we have heard again this evening, the Select Committee called for an increase in the volume and quality of research, both into the growing of timber and into its use and conservation when grown. There were particular references in the report of the Select Committee to the importance of the Princes Risborough Laboratory and the move is, as we have heard, causing concern to the scientists, to noble Lords opposite, to the Forestry Commission and to the private sector, mainly on three counts. The noble Lord, Lord Todd, has referred to some of them.
One is the abandonment of the specialised plant and equipment which is in existence at the PRL, and the feeling of doubt as to whether these will be fully replaced, except at greater expense than the Government may be willing to provide in the proposed new home. The second point of concern, as the noble Lord, Lord Todd, said, is the staffing question. I understand that it is contemplated that the complement of staff now existing will be cut down by some 25 per cent. in numbers, but also that some of its most highly qualified members will not wish, for one reason or another—maybe domestic reasons, or because of lack of confidence over the laboratory's move and future—to accompany it. That will be a very great loss. The third cause of fear is that, in pursuit of measures for economy in expenditure, the work of the laboratory, far from being expanded as the Select Committee suggested should be the case, will suffer from further financial cuts and be seriously reduced in its scope and potential.
I wonder whether the little gathering that remains here in the House is aware of what goes on at the PRL, which over the past 50 years has built up an international reputation in all aspects of timber research and technology. It is one of the world's foremost research laboratories in that sphere. It is organised in two main divisions: first, the timber technology division and, secondly, the components and structure division. The noble Lord, Lord Todd, has told us a lot of what it does and I shall not repeat that. But it is very widespread in scope and all of it leads to savings, economies and more efficiency in the use of timber, as well as in the manner of its growing in order to provide the best possible article.
The noble Lord, Lord Todd, referred to the improvements in saw-milling techniques, with computer optimisation procedures and laser measurement techniques, which significantly increase the yield of the logs. The design and performance of load-bearing timber structures has improved enormously over the last few years, as well as standards of insulation—a most important attribute of timber in housebuilding.
In slightly lighter vein, as a sidelight upon the PRL's work and keeping a little nearer home, your Lordships may or may not know of the expertise which the PRL is exercising on very difficult problems connected with the restoration of the ceiling of this Chamber, particularly 814 in relation to the restoration of the fine Victorian gilded carvings which were nearly perished. I hazard the thought that, without the PRL's expertise, it might not be possible to restore them at all.
Incidentally, the cause of all the damage to the ceiling is attributed by the PRL to the,high temperatures attained by the roof timbers at various times during the building's history".It does not specify the source of such a damaging degree of hot air, nor is it suggested that any localised influence was responsible for the falling of that massive log of timber a year or two ago on to the seat opposite, which—fortunately, vacant at the time—was so often occupied by a Member who is held in such universal affection by the House.
If, as may be, the move from Princes Risborough to Garston is firm and irreversible, can the Government give the House a definite assurance that the fears that we have all expressed are groundless? Timber and timber products are being consumed annually in this country to the tune of £3,000 million-worth, over 90 per cent. of which comes as imports. But the contribution of home-grown timber will rise dramatically over the next quarter of a century, provided that the forest industry is given confidence.
It would seem a bit pennywise—I will not say the rest of that little quotation—to make modest savings on research into the better and more efficient use, the preservation and, where called for, the restoration and growing to better specifications of this truly massive quantity of timber. The expenditure will be trifling in relation to the saving to the nation.
Responsible Ministers will know of the deep concern of the recently established Forestry Research Co-ordination Committee and of the Homegrown Timber Advisory Committee, among all others involved with, and concerned in, the world of timber and forestry. The PRL is an asset of which we should be proud, and of which we most certainly have need. We need, in this country alone, its work to expand. I hope that we may be unequivocally assured that this is what will happen. The confidence of the whole forest industry, which has not been very well supported by Government over the past 10 years, but which Government wish to encourage to grow, could be substantially affected by the answer that my noble friend will be giving to us.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ Lord Sherfield
My Lords, I rise to support the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Todd, in asking this Question and to endorse what he said. As the noble Lord, Lord Todd, observed, the sub-committee of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I was chairman, produced two reports on the scientific aspects of forestry. In each of them, they made strong recommendations about the need to strengthen the research effort in forest products, with particular reference to home-grown timber. In both, we criticised the reducing efforts being devoted to this research and expressed concern at the run-down at the PRL. In our second report, we expressed our greater concern at the proposal, which was already then on the cards, to close the Princes Risborough Laboratory altogether and to transfer the work to the Building Research Establishment.
815 The committee felt that this was bound to lead to disruption of research programmes, loss of valuable staff and disturbance of facilities which it might not be possible to reconstitute effectively in a merged establishment. The committee were fortified in their recommendations by a visit to the PRL, and, if it is asked why the sub-committee did not visit Garston, the answer is that the work there was far removed from the committee's terms of reference.
We are told that the closure of the PRL will save £343,000, though this figure has been challenged, and I must say that its precision to the nearest £1,000 alone makes it suspect. I am all for economy in Government expenditure and, of course, it is obvious that a number of small economies can reach a respectable sum. The sum of £300,000 sounds a lot of money, as indeed it used to be. But, alas!, after years of high inflation, it comes near to the region of candle-ends. As an old Treasury official, I am a keen conserver of candle-ends, but when one is operating in the candle-end region it is desirable to pause and count the value, in non-money terms, of what is being axed or dispensed with. It does not seem to me that the Government can have done this exercise in the present case.
As was clearly brought out in the recent debate in your Lordships' House on the Ordnance Survey, the Government are disposed to gloss over or to disregard the authoritative views of scientific and similar bodies in pursuit of what are relatively minor economies or secondary economic purposes. This is yet another illustration of the fact that, some recent speeches notwithstanding, forestry has few friends in Whitehall—especially not in the Treasury and apparently not even in the Department of the Environment. Its importance for the national economy in the future is consistently overlooked and underrated.
As the noble Lord, Lord Todd, said, the Government have given an assurance that this decision will not mean any reduction in the commitment to a research programme and capability in timber research. The noble Lord, Lord Todd, has asked the major questions as to how this commitment can be or will be honoured, but I should like to put a few supplementary questions to the Minister. If these are too detailed for reply this evening, then perhaps he will write to me for the information of the Select Committee which, I think I can assure him, will not lose interest in this question.
The Princes Risborough Laboratory has built up a computerised data bank of information on wood research, including that being carried out in the universities and in industry. Will this be continued at Garston and will it be developed as a central reference point for wood research, to which all practitioners and researchers can have access? As the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, has mentioned, a number of senior key scientists are not far from retirement. Recruitment is therefore needed now so that some of the knowledge and experience of the key men can be retained and not lost when they retire. Will this be allowed? Secondly—and this will be an important marker—will the rank of the new head of timber research on the forthcoming retirement of the present director of the Princes Risborough Laboratory be maintained?
816 Next, the Princes Risborough Laboratory has a unique timber collection, part of which I have seen. It contains both small specimens and large boards. What is to become of it? It is extremely valuable and forms the basis of one of the most important keys to the identification of timbers in the world. The Princes Risborough Laboratory also houses the national collection of Basidiomycete Fungi, a term which I understand conceals the identity of the common mushroom. It is a unique and important collection. Where is it to go? Finally, the Princes Risborough Laboratory possesses a splendid library on all aspects of the growth, properties and utilisation of wood. Is this to be retained as a unit, integrated with the library at Garston, or dispersed?
In conclusion, I express the hope that the Minister will be in a position to answer this debate with some constructive replies and some firm reassurance on both the primary and pertinent questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Todd, and other noble Lords, and the secondary questions which I have put to him.
My Lords, at this late hour may I make a general plea for the case which has been made this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Todd, and other speakers. At the same time may I make one special point. We must not risk losing one side of our work. Comparable establishments abroad have worked very closely with us and we hope that they will look towards us in the future as they have done in the past. However, I doubt whether some of the suggested changes will necessarily leave us in the same position of strength. These establishments are concerned with timber research, which is a major and possibly an increasing need for the whole of Europe, which is short of raw material. Europe cannot produce all the timber that it needs, nor can every country cover the whole of this field of research. We want all these different institutions to work closely together for the common good. When the Princes Risborough Laboratory closes and is given another form we must be sure that we do not lose one side of that very important work.
§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Todd, for raising this question today. As he remarked—or almost remarked—it gives me the opportunity to expand on the Written Answer given in another place on 22nd December of last year. Even if I was not before, tonight's brief debate has made me fully aware of the concern expressed by your Lordships' Select Committee over the adequacy of the research effort available to the forestry industry, something which my noble friend Lord Dulverton referred to as the natural fears which have arisen over the move of the Princes Risborough Laboratory from Princes Risborough to Garston. It might be appropriate if I commented at this point on what was said by my noble friend Lord Inglewood. Nobody who has spoken tonight would deny the tremendous expertise and international following of the laboratory itself. But this is not a geographical fact. It stands uniquely on its own as a research establishment, due to its own efforts and those of its staff over the years, wherever it happened to be situated.
817 Before taking up the more detailed points made by noble Lords, may I outline the background against which the decision to transfer timber research facilities to Garston was taken. The noble Lord, Lord Todd, outlined the early history of the Forest Products Research Laboratory, dating—I believe he said—from 1927. The more modern history starts in 1972 when the Princes Risborough Laboratory became one component of the building research establishment by the amalgamation of the Building Research Station at Garston, together with its Scottish laboratory at East Kilbride, the Forest Products Research Laboratory at Princes Risborough and the Fire Research Station at Borehamwood.
Although most of the work at Princes Risborough is carried out for the Department of the Environment as the customer, some of the work is on behalf of the Forestry Commission, a fact to which reference has been made this evening. Much of the timber research programme flows from a concern with current changes in the source and nature of timber supply, with the use of the new composite materials continually appearing on the market and with the most appropriate and advantageous use of the increasing supplies of home produced timber. To answer again my noble friend Lord Dulverton, yes, most certainly we want to see this continuing and, if I may make a rather nasty pun, to which I can return later, mushrooming. The use of timber in construction is changing, and timber frame housing is being used on a steadily increasing scale. Again, I shall probably return to that point. Therefore, we can foresee a continual strategic need for a balanced programme of research on timber.
As the noble Lord, Lord Todd, and other noble Lords have already pointed out, the adequacy of United Kingdom timber research, and in particular the timber programme at Princes Risborough, was one of the major topics considered by your Lordships' Select Committee in its report in 1980 on scientific aspects of forestry. The Committee considered that the total research effort available in support of the forestry industry lacked the coherent approach that is a feature of research in other areas. It recommended that a new forest product research laboratory under the Forestry Commission should be established, integrating forest research with the forest products work carried out at Princes Risborough.
My noble friend Lord Mansfield replied in a Written Answer on 22nd December last that the Government accepted that the Forestry Commission should co-ordinate the broad strategy of forestry research through the establishment of a Forestry Research Co-ordination Committee, which would act as a forum to identify research requirements and opportunities. This committee has now been formed, and the head of Princes Risborough Laboratory is a full member. I note with interest that the committee has selected the subject "Wood science and processing" as the first for detailed review.
I cannot underline the following sentence more clearly. The Government fully accept the importance of sustaining a timber research programme. Ministers are concerned, however, to achieve maximum efficiency in the public service and to rationalise facilities and capability wherever possible. Reviews of support services under the general guidance of the then 818 Sir Derek Rayner were initiated at a number of governmental laboratories. The study at the Building Research Establishment was no exception, and this indicated that the main headquarter site at Garston was under-utilised, as was the site at Princes Risborough.
It was recommended that use of the Princes Risborough site should cease and that the laboratory's activities and capability should be transferred to Garston. Several advantages could be seen to flow from this suggestion. One of the principal benefits of the transfer will be the reductions in running costs achieved by concentrating the laboratories on a single site. Overall management of the establishment will be simplified by the reduction in lines of communication (the two sites are, after all, some 30 miles apart) and the timber research programnme will benefit from immediate access to the resources of the main station. A valuable site will also be released for alternative use.
So the decision was justified on managerial grounds supported by appropriate cost studies. What this debate has really been about is the effect of this. All the research at present conducted at Princes Risborough is to be transferred to Garston. I will tell the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, that this includes the data bank, the timber collection and the library, about which he asked. I must confess to being slightly embarrassed to reveal a gap in my horticultural knowledge. I have never grown fungi, either edible or inedible. However, after the very generous warning the noble Lord gave me in advance, I have taken particular advice and the answer is that not only it is possible to move the very valuable mushroom collection but it will be done.
Generally speaking, the move will be in two main phases, with around 30 staff being involved in the first and the remaining staff following, on completion of the building programme. The duration of the move will be kept to a sensible minimum, consistent with the need to give completion dates with a reasonable degree of certainty. This will help to preserve the sense of identity of the timber research activity and reduce the management problems which would result from a more extended series of moves. Staff involved will be offered normal public interest terms of transfer.
Maintenance of a capability in timber at the Building Research Establishment requires the provision of specialised technical facilities not at present available at the Garston site. Prominent among these are a biodeterioration laboratory, a sawmill and controlled temperature and humidity facilities which, in the nature of the material, timber research demands. Other accommodation required can be based in existing buildings with some degree of refurbishment.
At this point I must correct an impression given earlier this evening by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. There are certainly not only four research staff on timber. The number engaged in timber research at the Princes Risborough Laboratory is 32 scientists, of which four are paid for by the Forestry Commission. The rest are funded by the Department of the Environment. Three experienced professional staff are due to retire, in the normal course of events within the next three years. It would certainly be premature to estimate at this point how many, if any, of the rest of the professional staff will be reluctant to move. But I 819 should stress that this decision is on them, and them alone.
It is estimated that the amalgamation of the research facilities will allow the saving of some 20 posts in the clerical, junior technical and industrial grades. There will, however, be some natural wastage at both Princes Risborough and Garston over the next five years, and no redundancies are likely to arise as a result of the move. All non-professional staff will be offered posts, and the non-mobile staff will have jobs sought for them locally.
Whilst the sense of identity is clearly important, there is no intention to isolate Princes Risborough staff from those of Garston. Such opportunities as exist for integration between programmes of research will be taken. There is also the spin-off of the works canteen where, in my experience, one can, just by talking over a cup of coffee or lunch, obtain an enormous amount of outside thought, which very often crystallises or completely changes the tack of a project on which one is working.
The future use of the site at Princes Risborough is still under consideration by the Property Services Agency. The site will not be available for at least three years, and it is difficult to foresee future needs at this point.
The noble Lord, Lord Todd, referred to work on the effects of silvircultural practice on the properties and yields of timber. I can tell the noble Lord that this is currently in progress at the PRL, paid for by the Forestry Commission. The work on property requirements for end use is part of the programme commissioned by the Department of the Environment, but is producing a spin-off for British timber, and links between the two are now being strengthened in a new programme for the Forestry Commission. The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, took up this point as well, and talked mostly about home-grown timber. The bulk of the research—some 70 per cent.—is into timber for house building. Timber-framed house building has increased from 16 per cent. in 1979 to 29.5 per cent. in 1982, expressed as a percentage of the total new build. The timber involved may be either home-grown or imported, and both types are being researched at the laboratory.
Several noble Lords mentioned laser-scanning, which I must confess was a completely new subject to me. This is part of a new technique now being developed at the Princes Risborough laboratory to increase the yield of sawn timber obtainable from logs from British forests. It involves using computers to guide the sawing pattern, and promises to increase the yield obtained by several per cent. This programme is almost complete, and one hopes that it will be taken up by the British industry.
My noble friend Lord Dulverton spoke about the stress-grading of timber. The technique of mechanical stress-grading for structural timbers was developed at the Princes Risborough laboratory. This was applied to home-grown spruce, and it was found that the yield of structural quality material obtained was considerably increased—almost double in some cases. Current research paid for by the Forestry Commission concerned ways in which the forest could be managed 820 so as to obtain bigger yields of higher quality material as measured by the stress-grading technique. This work will be transferred with the rest of the research.
The subject of the staff and finances in future also came up. When timber research is undertaken at Garston instead of at the Princes Risborough laboratory the subject will continue to be a major element of the research programme of the Building Research Establishment. Timber is an essential material for building, for the reasons I have already explained. The future size of the Building Research Establishment cannot be stated with certainty, but it will be important to maintain an adequate and viable team to undertake research on timber.
The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, although he was very kind in giving me advance warning of one or two of his questions, has floored me with some of the others. If I may, I will take up his offer to write to him. But, on recruitment, I can say that the Building Research Establishment is undertaking limited recruiting at present and several officers will be assigned to the Princes Risborough Laboratory. It is anticipated that future losses will be replaced as they arise within the Building Research Establishment's overall manpower targets. I have no announcement that I can make on the grading of the senior post. That is currently being considered by my department and I understand that it is intended to replace the present head of the Princes Risborough Laboratory with a candidate of the same grade.
The noble Lord, Lord Todd, asked me in the course of his speech what I found the most interesting question of the evening, which was: how really is the timber research programme formulated? The research programme formulation at Princes Risborough Laboratory follows the customer-contractor principle adopted by the Government for their commissioned research and development work, as a result of the report of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, of 1971. This requires the Department of the Environment, for example, as customers, to define their research requirements and that the Building Research Establishment or, as the case may be, the Princes Risborough Laboratory's contractors, shall respond by preparing projects to meet those requirements. The primary customers for the work are the construction industry directorate in the Department of the Environment, with its concern for building regulations in its sponsorship of the industry, and also the Property Services Agency. The Forestry Commission is, as we now know, also a customer.
The noble Lord also asked about whether this research was of direct benefit to the United Kingdom forestry industry, as did other noble Lords. I hope I have been able to explain that the work is of direct benefit to the United Kingdom forestry industry, particularly in the testing and stress grading of timber, which is of especial relevance in the wider use of British grown timbers.
As far as the reduction in size of the Building Research Establishment goes, the Government are rightly concerned with the size of the public sector and, indeed, the public service generally. Steps have been taken already to increase efficiency and encourage more private sector funding of research. However, Ministers do naturally accept the great value and high 821 quality of the Building Research Establishment's work and recognise the need to sustain a commercially independent national capability for construction and research.
The great value of the Princes Risborough Laboratory's work and the high esteem in which it is held by the industry are well recognised. I repeat the assurance already given by my right honourable friend the Secreatry of State for the Environment that the move of the Princes Risborough Laboratory to the main Building Research Establishment site at Garston does not imply any reduction in our commitment to a research programme and capability in timber at BRE.