HL Deb 28 June 1985 vol 465 cc915-20

11.58 a.m.

The Earl of Bessborough

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill is designed to remove an anomaly—the anomaly in Section 62 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 and in Section 60 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972. Under those Acts, if a protected tree is removed from or destroyed in woodland in contravention of a tree preservation order, the local planning authority cannot enforce replanting. However, if a protected tree which stands individually is destroyed the local authority can enforce replanting. That is an obvious anomaly which needs correcting. The Bill before us will serve that purpose. It will ensure that any protected woodland tree which is destroyed in contravention of a tree preservation order will have to be replaced if the local authority considers such action desirable.

In moving the Second Reading of this Bill, which, as your Lordships will see, is concerned with the protection of trees and woodlands, I should perhaps declare an interest as President of the Men of Trees, which is an international society for the planting and protection of trees, founded by the famous Richard St. BarbeBaker, who sadly is no longer with us. It may not be inappropriate to say that only yesterday I had the honour of planting trees with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who is patron of that society. We planted trees in Charnwood Forest in memory of St. Barbe, as he was affectionately known. I should also declare an interest as Chairman of the trust which owns quite extensive woodlands on the borders of Hampshire and Sussex.

I should make clear to your Lordships the exact nature of the Bill's central provision. In the context of the original legislation in 1971 and 1972, it will provide for the replanting of any protected tree which is destroyed or removed, "in contravention of the order". However, it will not provide for the replanting of trees which are removed because they are, "dying or dead or have become dangerous". Obviously, it would be unfair to punish a landowner because his trees had been damaged by strong winds, for example. Besides, it is obvious that acts of nature such as wind-damage or death through old age or disease could not be classed as contravention. The word "contravention" must imply human interference.

We do not need to be told that our countryside deserves protection. In Britain we are now seeing the price of our failure to plant new trees over the past 60 years. This certainly does not apply to those conscientious landowners, including many noble Lords in your Lordships' House, such as my father—and even, if I may modestly say so, myself—who have replanted systematically over that period. However, the fact remains that since World War Two, between 30 and 50 per cent. of our ancient woodland has disappeared, which is more than in the past 400 years. Obviously much of this has been for important residential and agricultural development. That of course was very much the case during the Second World War. Nonetheless, it is a sad record.

It is not surprising therefore that this modest correcting Bill, sponsored by my honourable friend Mr. Roger Freeman in another place, should have won so much support. It passed through another place without difficulty, and enjoyed all-party as well as Government support. Indeed, it was described as a "great step forward" and my honourable friend is to be congratulated on his initiative and enterprise in bringing it forward and piloting it through another place so successfully.

Among official groups, I can tell your Lordships that the Bill has the full support of the Council for the Protection of Rural. England, which has given much advice and help. It is supported by the National Farmers' Union; the Tree Council, of which the Men of the Trees is a founder member; the associations of county and district councils; the Country Landowners' Association; the Royal Insititution of Chartered Surveyors, and, most importantly, the timber growers organisation of Great Britain.

This Bill comes at an appropriate time. Already county councils have sought to remove the existing loophole for themselves. Such a provision was made in the County of Kent Act in 1981, Section 79 of which formed the basis of the Bill before us today. More recently, the Berkshire Bill, with which your Lordships have recently been dealing, has included a section to extend the replanting provision to cover protected trees in woodlands. Should this Town and Country (Amendment) Bill become an Act, it would replace those individual provisions with one national provision.

Therefore, rather than waiting for each county to seek to change the law individually, which would increase the likelihood of confusing local differences in our law, I believe it is fitting that legislation should be introduced at a national level. That is a sound argument in favour of the Bill before us. The need for this Bill is as unquestionable as the support for it is comprehensive. It is therefore the duty of Parliament to respond to such a demand.

This Bill is not controversial. It should be remembered that it was presented in another place as a ten-minute-rule Bill, and as such it can only address itself to the most immediate problems of tree preservation. It is to be hoped that in the future the need for proper tree and woodland management can be more positively assured. A tree is a living thing, and though a preservation order can save a tree or a wood in the short term, it cannot ensure that a wood will continue to flourish indefinitely. I believe that we should look in the future to replacing preservation orders with some more dynamic form of management protection. For the present though, I hope your Lordships will accept the Bill and welcome it as a useful step in the right direction. My Lords, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, that the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Earl of Bessborough.)

12.6 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, on behalf of the Labour Benches in your Lordships' House, may I say that we certainly do exactly what my colleagues did in another place. First of all, we congratulate Mr. Freeman for his initiative, and certainly I pay full tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, not only for having done what he has done, but for having done it so simply and lucidly.

From the sympathetic noises all round the House, I think he will have detected that this Bill will have as easy a passage here as it had in another place. The noble Earl has assisted in plugging up a loophole. It is quite surprising that legislation in comparatively recent years, which appeared to be watertight, in the light of events is being seen to need amendment. Here we have something which certainly we can all support and for which there is clearly a need.

The noble Earl has reminded us of the crucial importance of woodlands and trees not only to our landscape but also to our economy. We rely upon wood throughout our lives from the cradle to the grave—or certainly to the coffin. The noble Earl has been quite right not only in demonstrating his interests and declaring them in a very pleasant, forthright and honourable way, but also in drawing our attention to the other interested bodies which, it is crucial to understand, welcome the Bill and what it seeks to do.

Those bodies include the Council for the Protection of Rural England; the National Farmers' Union; the Tree Council; the Association of County and District Councils (and here I declare a slight interest as a vice-president); the Country Landowners' Association; the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Timber Growers Association. On a matter of this kind, I do not think there could be better credentials assembled to ensure that we are not discussing merely a form of words but are discussing people who care and, equally importantly, people who have the will and the means to do something about the situation.

I was very interested to hear the noble Earl draw our attention to a disgraceful statistic. That is that in the past 40 years we have destroyed as many or more of our ancient woodlands as were lost in the previous 400 years. Perhaps we can only wring our hands, but perhaps we can do a little more than that. I first came across this dreadful situation when I served in another place during the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. Of course, that Bill came through this House and noble Lords present will have been as shocked as I was at the vandalism. We are collectively responsible for the vandalism. I do not blame anyone. Economic imperatives have forced the farmers and landowners to consider having their trees chopped down. Where it is possible to replace trees that are neither damaged nor dying, we are reminded that we have a responsibility to try to make sure that they are replaced.

One reservation that I have—the Minister or his colleagues may be able to help me here—is that the Bill does not appear to insist on the trees being replaced in kind. Replacement seems merely a matter of numbers. In my view, to replace an oak or a beech with a hawthorn or a conifer would degrade the landscape to an unacceptable degree. Yet it could happen, because saplings of the lesser trees are cheaper. If there is any way of maintaining the quality as well as the quantity—it may be difficult, it may not be easy, and we are certainly not in the business of being pernickety—I hope that the Minister will be able to say something on those lines.

I was also interested in what the noble Earl said was the genesis of this Bill—a provision in a Private Bill, which became Section 79 of the Kent Act—and also the reference to the Berkshire Bill. I was reminded of my interest, wearing another hat, on behalf of the Co-operative movement, when the Essex Bill was going through the House. I found that something created as a precedent in one Private Bill was automatically assumed to be acceptable in others. Yet, as the noble Earl has pointed out, where it can be clearly seen that what we are discussing is not a localised matter but something of national importance, what we need, as we have in this Bill, is a straightforward Act of Parliament which removes the need to bring forward new private Bill legislation in order to take account of the situation. All told, I believe that we have been very well served today. The nation will be grateful in future for the initiative of Mr. Roger Freeman in another place and, more importantly, to our colleague in this House, the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough. We give the Bill a very warm welcome.

12.12 p.m.

Lord Somers

My Lords, I apologise for not having put my name on the list of speakers, if, indeed, one can call a document with the noble Earl's name standing by itself in solitary grandeur a list. I should however, like to thank the noble Earl for having introduced the Bill. He gave me a great deal of help when a short time ago I introduced a Private Member's Bill on the protection of trees. I should like to congratulate him and to thank him for this very necessary Bill.

12.13 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Bessborough has explained, this Bill will empower local planning authorities to enforce replanting of woodland trees which are removed or destroyed in contravention of a tree preservation order, and he has stressed that it will apply only in that particular circumstance. This is clearly a Bill that is uncontroversial. As my noble friend has said, it has attracted support from a wide range of interests; from one of the leading amenity bodies, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, from the farming and landowning interests, represented by the NFU and the CLA, from the local authority associations, from commercial forestry interests represented by the timber growers, and as we have heard, from the Men of the Trees and from the Tree Council which, if I may for once put in a plug for the department, was formed just over a decade ago—

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, a wooden plug?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords any sort of plug. It was formed just over a decade ago to promote the planting and protection of amenity trees and my department gives financial support to it. Here endeth the plug.

My honourable friend the Member for Kettering who introduced the Bill in the other place pointed out that the amendments to the Bill introduced during the Committee stage there were the result of parliamentary counsel's drafting on the advice of my department. The amendment which extended the provisions from England and Wales to cover Scotland as well resulted from the initiative of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am pleased to confirm that the Government are genuinely benevolent towards the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Bessborough has referred to the limited purpose of the Bill and has expressed the hope that in the future the need for proper trees and woodland management can be more positively assured. In this connection I would draw the attention of the House to the advice given in my department's Trees and Forestry circular 36/78, that it is better for authorities to seek agreements with landowners for the proper management of their woodlands and for them to use tree preservation orders on woodlands as a last resort.

It is perfectly true to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, reminded us, that woodlands have been causing concern in conservation circles for a number of years. This Bill, as my noble friend Lord Bessborough has pointed out, will help in this respect. But as regards demands for a full scale review of the tree preservation orders system, I would not wish to raise hopes of such a review and further primary legislation in the immediate future, though such a review remains on the agenda for the longer term.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked me a specific question. It was whether the Bill refers to replacement in kind of particular species of trees. My noble friend has already said that it does not refer to dead and dying trees. But it occurs to me that in the possible circumstances of someone having to cut down an elm tree that is alive, it would not be appropriate to replace an elm with an elm because, as the noble Lord well knows, for obvious reasons, no one is replanting elms at the present moment. However, so far as other species of trees are concerned, I can tell the noble Lord that in accordance with Section 62 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, the replacement requirement is to plant another tree of an appropriate size and species. So that probably covers the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham.

Finally, like the noble Lord, Lord Graham, I should like to express the hope that the rapid progress which this Bill had in another place may continue in your Lordships' House.

12.17 p.m.

The Earl of Bessborough

My Lords, I thank my noble friend and also the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and the noble Lord on the Cross-Benches for what they have said. I, too, hope that the Bill will become an Act as soon as possible. The question of replacement of trees in kind was not discussed in another place. I am glad, however, that my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale has drawn our attention to Section 62 of the 1971 Act because I know that those who are replanting trees bear in mind the desirability of planting in kind, especially hard woods. But, as my noble friend has said, obviously we do not want to plant elms unless they are of a new species which are proven not to be subject to the disease. I believe that there are now being propagated certain elm species which might be exempt from the disease.

I am most grateful for what has been said. I do not think that I need mention any other matter, except to say that in another place the Title of the Bill was much discussed. I believe that it is right to keep the Title as it is now. That would be in accordance with precedent in relation to this kind of Bill. I beg to move.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.