HL Deb 12 December 1985 vol 469 cc406-9

7.7 p.m.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I beg to move that the Forestry (Modification of Felling Restrictions) Regulations 1985, a copy of which was laid before your Lordships' House on 22nd October 1985, be approved.

The felling of growing trees in Great Britain is controlled by the Forestry Commissioners under their powers contained in Part II of the Forestry Act 1967. A licence has to be issued by the commissioners before felling can take place. There are, however, a number of exceptions to this requirement. These are contained in Section 9(2), (3) and (4) of the Act and in regulations made by the commissioners under Section 9(5) of the Act. For example, one does not need a licence to fell dead or dangerous trees, or trees growing in orchards, gardens, churchyards or public open spaces.

One of the most significant of the exceptions, however, is contained in Section 9(3)(b) of the Act. This lays down that a person may fell trees on land in his occuption or occupied by a tenant of his without a licence, provided that the aggregate cubic content of such trees—excluding any that are otherwise exempted from the requirement for a felling licence—does not exceed 30 cubic metres in any quarter, and that the aggregate cubic content of such trees which are sold in any quarter does not exceed 5.5 cubic metres.

The reasoning behind this exception was that woodland owners should have the freedom to cut some trees out of their woods in order to provide timber for their own needs, without having to go through the hoops of applying for a licence in every case. For many years this provision did not give rise to any significant problems. More recently, however, there has been growing concern over the fact that some landowners, albeit a minority, have made use of the provision, not to cut a few trees from a wood for fencing or for some other purpose on their farm or estate but to clear woods—to destroy them, if you like—in stages. This has been done with the object of making the land available for some other use, usually agriculture.

It has to be remembered that 30 cubic metres can represent about 30 fairly large broadleaved trees, or perhaps up to 100 smaller trees. Thus, over a period of, say, a year quite a large area of woodland can he removed, and this licence-free quota has been used by some people to get round the normal felling controls which ensure that the impact of fellings on the environment is fully considered before a licence is issued. What was intended as a sensible provision for normal woodland management has now come to be regarded, therefore, as a loophole in the regulations which places woodland at risk.

This problem was highlighted during the Forestry Commission's consultations over broadleaves policy, and the statement made in another place on 24th July by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland setting out the Government's policy on broadleaved woodland foreshadowed the present regulations in the following passage: To afford more immediate protection against the depletion of existing woodlands, my right hon. Friends and I have endorsed the Foresty Commission's proposal to reduce the volume of timber—both broadleaved and conifer—which may be felled without a licence from 30 cubic metres to 5 cubic metres per quarter, with a reduction in the volume of such timber that may be sold from 5.5 cubic metres to 2 cubic metres". The making of these regulations by the Foresty Commissioners is, therefore, a follow-up to that statement on broadleaves policy although, of course, the new provision will apply to coniferous trees as well as to broadleaves.

Where there is a loophole the immediate reaction is to seek to close it entirely. In this case, however, we considered that, in practical terms and in fairness to the great majority of woodland owners, it would be unreasonable to require them to apply for a licence to fell just a few trees from their woods for their own use—hence the proposed retention of a small licence-free quota of 5 cubic metres a quarter. I do not think it can be claimed that this concession will place woodland at any real risk.

As your Lordships would expect, these regulations have been greatly welcomed by environmental interests. The proposal before us today has been carefully thought through after widespread consultation with environmental and land-using interests, as well as those in forestry and the timber trade. It should afford substantially increased protection for woodland, especially small woods, while continuing to give woodland owners the freedom to carry out very small fellings to meet their own unforeseen requirements. My Lords, I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 22nd October be approved. [32nd Report from the Joint Committee of last Session.]—(Lord Gray of Contin.)

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for explaining the reason for the regulations. The regulations involve a big change, reducing the area from 30 cubic metres to 5 cubic metres. Of course, it is the old, old story: these provisions have been made necessary because a minority of people have taken advantage of the situation. It is extremely exasperating for those people who do the job properly. After all, as the noble Lord has said, woodland management covering a fairly large area of wood involves quite a few trees. However, the clearing of areas is a different matter. The taking down of trees here and there and replanting could require the figure which has been in existence in the past. I just wonder for how long that figure has stood the test of time and why it is necessary to make a change now. Has it been shown that large areas are being cleared? I think that the new regulations will stultify many people who manage their woods in this way.

Did I hear the noble Lord aright when I understood him to say that conifers came into the picture as well? Do the provisions include Christmas trees? I should like to think that they do not include Christmas trees because a great many people are growing quite large Christmas trees for what I shall term "the county council trade", and these regulations may be very hard on them.

The noble Lord said that there had been consultations with environmental interests and that the commission's ideas on broadleaf planting had also been taken into account. The two probably go together. I suppose that a woodland owner could apply for a licence if he felt that the quantity was too small for him to carry out his business properly. If he did that and received a licence to cut to the old figure, would he still be allowed to sell the old figure as well? That point will need to be cleared up.

Personally, I am not against the idea. We must control people who take advantage of a concession like this. However, the situation will need to be watched very carefully in the interests of people who go in for woodland management.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, for the comments which he has made, and I shall try briefly to deal with some of the points which he raised. He raised the question of Christmas trees, which is very appropriate at this time of year. These regulations would not apply to the normal commercial use of Christmas trees. Felling for Christmas tree purposes would not normally be included. The noble Lord asked me when the 30 cubic metres regulation came into being. It has been in existence since 1951.

The noble Lord quite rightly raised a number of points which may easily be raised by woodland owners who have been applying their felling within the law and trying to do their best to keep within the law. First, let me say that, so far as those misgivings are concerned, it will by no means be inevitable that an owner will have to apply frequently for licences for comparatively small fellings. If he can identify in advance what his requirements are likely to be, he can apply for a single licence to cover his fellings for a specified period—usually up to two years. Moreover, if he brings his woodland into a Forestry Commission grant scheme and manages it in accordance with an agreed plan of operation, then his fellings can be covered under that plan for up to five years without the need for any licensing. It is really a question of persuading an owner to plan ahead. If he plans ahead and works in a co-operative way with the commission, then the effect of these regulations should be minimal as far as he is concerned.

For their part, the Forestry Commission accept that there may be some extra work as far as they are concerned, but they do not envisage any substantial increase in administration if owners plan sensibly ahead in the way in which I have described. Generally speaking, these regulations will be accepted in the spirit in which they are intended. It is certainly not intended to create any difficulties for those woodland owners who have been acting within the law. However, unfortunately a minority (as the noble Lord rightly said) have not been acting in that way and therefore it was felt necessary to reduce the number of cubic metres. I hope that, with that explanation, the noble Lord will accept the regulations.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I made the point that, having got a licence to fell the old quantity, would an owner get a licence to sell the old quantity as well?

Lord Gray of Contin

No, my Lords; I am afraid that he would not do so. The new quantities allowed for felling will also apply to selling.

Lord John-Mackie

I am sorry, my Lords, but if an owner wants a licence to fell up to the old quantity—that is his requirement—will he be allowed to sell the same proportion as he is allowed to sell now?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, that point is covered by, the explanation I gave to the noble Lord earlier. If he plans ahead and is able to describe to the commission in advance what his requirements will be, then, of course, he can have a licence for up to two years, or up to five years if it is within a Forestry Commission grant scheme.

On Question, Motion agreed to.