§ 8.24 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is now their policy on the future of the Forestry Commission.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. At one stage in the discussion on future forestry disposals on 8th November 1984 the Secretary of State for Scotland made an important statement. At col. 7 he said:
The Government have decided that the commission's disposals programme should be extended to 31st March 1989 and that its main purpose should be the rationalisation of the estate.
He went on to say:
The commission can now plan ahead on this basis without the uncertainty and attendant difficulties that frequent reviews can cause in achieving a coherent approach to the management of the enterprise.
I am sure the Minister will realise that, following that assurance in November 1984, there was some concern expressed in many areas as regards forestry about a leak in the Economist in February of that year which indicated that the Cabinet was seriously considering the disposal and privatisation of the entire forest estate, and they hoped that if they disposed of the forest estate, they could realise from the Treasury £1.5 billion. I am quite sure that any substantial disposal of that kind would be realised at a heavily discounted rate because of the large amount of land that would be placed on the margin.
§ I asked a Question of the Minister in this House on 12th March and he gave me some assurance regarding the acceptance of the policy of 8th November 1984, but he went on to say that of course that disposals policy is from time to time reviewed. This is not quite consistent and not quite as reassuring as we would expect, in view of the statement of the Secretary of State for Scotland that his assurances would banish the uncertainty and attendant difficulties.
§ Therefore, tonight's debate is largely to give the Minister the opportunity of reassuring us about the Government's future policy, particularly in the area of disposals. So far there is authority to dispose of land to the value of £100 million. The first disposals target was £84 million. This has now been raised to £100 million by 1989, and I gather that at the present rate of disposals £78 million has been realised. No one would object to a rationalisation of the forest estate. It is sensible that the estate should be looked at and that we should realise that in some areas there are no possible future development prospects; or, from an economic point of view, it may be sensible to sell off land to a neighbouring larger estate. That makes good sense. Therefore, we are not arguing against the £ 100 million target if it is to be realised by 1989.
§ However, we are deeply concerned about the possibility of further disposals. If this programme takes us to 1989, that would be a very appropriate time because it will take us pretty close to an election, when I hope that the privatisation mania, which seems to be an obsession with the Government, will have subsided and there will be a much more rational approach to these matters. I should like some assurance from the Minister that the privatisation programme, the disposals programme, which has been mentioned, will be determined by good land use management and not by the requirements of the Treasury in meeting its PSBR targets. That is important, and that is the important assurance that we should like.
Although I am speaking from the Alliance and there are other speakers who will participate in this debate, I do not regard this as a party matter. I refer the Minister to the statements released by the Timber Growers Organisation (TGO), the responsible private sector woodlands organisation, when the leak in the Economist was discussed in the press. The TGO said:
A strong Forestry Authority is a pre-requisite. Any action which could result in the diminution, or even dismemberment of the Forest Authority, should be most strenuously resisted".
It goes on to discuss the role of the forest enterprise, and says on the basis of its record:
It has fulfilled [its] task exceedingly well".
What I am talking about tonight in arguing against a further disposal programme is not a party matter; it is a concern of the private sector as well as of those who are engaged in the state sector.
§ Forestry is interesting. It is the prime example of a mixed economy operating successfully and in partnership. The total productive woodland in this country in Forestry Commission estates is 892,000 hectares, and for private woodlands, 1,145,000 hectares. There is almost a balance between the private sector and the public sector. They do not operate in opposition or in conflict with one another. One of the great functions of the Forestry Commission is to encourage the private sector. It does that by making research facilities available. It is the authority for grant aid for forestry, for the dedication schemes and for reviewing private practice. It is a partnership and an understanding.
§ I am delighted to say that the partnership has been successful. One of the most important economic justifications for forestry is the degree of import saving. We are all concerned about the balance of payments and the decline of manufacturing industry, but we are still importing 90 per cent. of our timber requirements. The United Kingdom production last year was 3.8 million cubic metres; the import bill was for 39.7 million cubic metres. Despite the extension of forestry since 1919 and the active afforestation programme, private and public sector, we are still meeting only 10 per cent. of our requirements from domestic supplies.
§ Forestry is important as an employment creator. I am sure that the Minister, with his experience in the north of Scotland, will appreciate that, with the decision of the many oil companies operating in the North Sea to reduce their investment by over 40 per cent., employment opportunities in the north of Scotland are substantially diminished. The figure does not look large. The Forestry Commission employs over 6,000 people, the private sector almost 11,000 and the forestry and wood processing industries 25,000. It does not look like a big figure, but it is desperately important to rural communities.
§ As was discussed today on the Question on rural post offices, it is important to have some possibility of a survival, in a balanced and sensible economy, of opportunities for employment in the countryside. Not everyone wants to live in large cities. One of the most exciting things is to see people enjoying and working in rural communities; the small communities in the countryside.
§ It is important to realise too that forestry does not stop at the forest gate. It is only because there is a Forestry Commission that we have been able to encourage downstream investment. Before anyone builds up a pulp mill or a wafer-board factory—such as was visited recently by the Minister—he has to have guarantees of continued supplies. You can only get these guarantees where there is one large authority to organise them. Investment in pulp mills, wafer-board 1236 plants and plaster-board plant is only possible because guaranteed supplies were made available.
§ I thank all who are speaking in this debate—I understand that you do not do that at the end of an Unstarred Question—and particularly the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, my successor as chairman of the commission, and the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, whose distinguished father was a previous chairman. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, because this is their second time round today in a debate. Both of them starred in the earlier debate.
§ Let me say a word or two about the other aspects of forestry. Concern has been expressed about the Forestry Commission neglecting conservation. The Forestry Commission has taken that on board, and I shall not read the documents that it has supplied to me in this connection. It is actively in discussion with the Nature Conservancy and with other responsible bodies to ensure that they discharge their responsibilities sensibly.
Noble Lords may have seen the recent declaration of policy in connection with broadleaved woodlands. The Forestry Commission, in its commitment to this new policy says:
Broadleaved woodlands are an integral feature of the British Landscape heritage, and any apparent threat to their future produces an understandable outcry. But their importance goes well beyond their visual appearance".
There is no doubt that the Forestry Commission is responding to the criticisms that have been offered in connection with the conflict with the environmentalist.
In another document on conservation the Commission declares its objectives:
One of these objectives is: 'To protect and enhance the environment'. Part of that objective concerns landscape design, and the Commission has set out what it is doing in a separate publication".
We learnt the lessons of the rather ugly and unattractive plantings of the immediate post-war period after the first war, from 1920 onwards. We are devising our forests and landscaping them in such a way that they are attractive to the eye and enhance the environment. I remember a Member of this House saying that the contours of a forest should resemble the shadows of passing clouds on the hills. If you look at some of the new forests, some of the forests that are now maturing, you will see that these considerations have been well learnt.
§ There is one other aspect, and it is an aspect which may be affected by any substantial privatisation. The Forestry Commission accepts its social responsibilities in the field of recreation. I know that my noble friend Lord Hunt will be saying a word or two about this in the course of this debate. There are 32 camp sites, 576 picnic places, 611 woodland and nature trails, 191 forest cabins and 20 arboretums. All of these are designed to get people into the countryside, to let them escape from the pressures of urban life and to see the beauties of the countryside and enjoy them.
§ That is an obligation the Forestry Commission has tactfully pursued and accepted, and I suspect that that might not be entirely so if the entire estate were sold off, although I must pay tribute to some private woodland owners who have accepted, as part of their dedication scheme, public access to these estates. But 1237 there is no doubt that the impact of public access in the countryside is generated substantially by the leadership of the Forestry Commission.
§ One final word about its obligations to the private sector. The Forestry Commission provides the research for the entire private sector. It administers the grants and it examines the plans of private planting to ensure that they are consistent with good forestry practice. It provides most of the training in the forestry industry. It would be a sad day if the contribution that it makes in these respects were to be diminished in any way by substantial government intervention.
§ I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, before on the subject of encouraging private investment in forestry. When I left the Forestry Commission I became chairman of the Economic Forestry Group, which is designed to encourage private investment. But it concerns me a little that the balance between the private sector and the public sector should be maintained. I noticed, for example, that the planting programme of the Forestry Commission in 1978 was 14,000 hectares and for the private sector was 6,000 hectares. In 1985 the Forestry Commission planted only 5,000 hectares and the private sector had gone up to 16,000 hectares. I am not complaining about that. I think it is a good thing, but it is only possible because there is a generous tax regime available to make it attractive to plant trees. That, too, is a good thing because there are opportunities for investing in many things other than the Stock Market. If we have a tax regime that encourges private planting for the small immediate rewards that are available, taking a long-term view, that could be a good thing.
§ I initiated this debate at this late hour simply to seek the assurances that I mentioned in opening. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us these assurances, clarifying the situation and making it possible for this industry, which depends on taking a long-term view, to plan sensibly and on a long term.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ Lord Kimball
My Lords, the service of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, to the forestry industry is well known. His concern has been well expressed tonight, even though I suspect in another capacity his heart may be elsewhere, at Wembley, on this occasion.
I have no doubt that I shall find myself in a substantial minority tonight. I rise to speak in this debate because I should like to see a sensible and viable curb on the increase in the forestry acreage in the United Kingdom. Above all, I should like to see no further large-scale planting in our upland areas and in particular in the Highlands of Scotland. I believe our moorland and upland areas are far more valuable than a large amount of the marginal livestock-rearing land elsewhere in the country. They are far more valuable from a conservation point of view, from an amenity point of view and from an employment point of view.
I should also like to see the Treasury take a hard and firm look at the tax concessions which it grants to private forestry. I should like to see these concessions limited to no more new planting. I do not want to destroy the marvellous forest units that many people have built up, but I should like the Treasury to say quite firmly that it will not extend the tax concessions 1238 to another new acre taken into forestry; it will continue to guarantee people what they are already used to, but it will not encourage planting of fountain forestry and economic forestry or encourage other people to take over vast areas of land to plant with more and more trees. After all, we had the argument not long ago on the Wildlife and Countryside Act. But why should we continue to use taxpayers' money to give people grants to plough up moorland and reseed areas of vital interest to people? I fail to see why we should continue to use taxpayers' money to destroy the amenities that so many people want to keep.
Then there is the damage in many areas of forest that large-scale afforestation can do to our rivers. That is covered in the Forestry Commission's report at paragraph 124. It admits there the large amount of water that trees drink up. Many of our rivers are being destroyed by the vast planting going on in our watersheds. A watershed today can take only so many acres of forest and we should be aware of the damage that is being done to our fishing and other valuable amenities in this country by increased planting in the uplands.
The reason that I am so much in favour of the sale by the Forestry Commission of its 2.9 million acres to financial institutions, which in their turn would offer shares in the woodlands to their clients, is simply that at a stroke the supply of private woodland would be increased by 78 per cent. It would be years before commercial investors wanted to plant another fir tree anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will look carefully at these proposals and not draw back.
As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, the Forestry Commission has a grant-aiding role to continue to play. It also has an important role in research and development, so the commission would still have a part to play. There is no certainty and no concern why the commission staff should be affected if the woodlands passed into private hands. They still have to be looked after, and so it is merely a question of changing the employers. The sale would raise, as the Economist estimated, some £1.5 billion, as against the present loss on the Forestry Commission to the taxpayer of £54 million a year, which we have to find after approximately £150 million a year has been raised by forest sales.
I feel also that if we had better commercial management of woodlands we should avoid some of the glaring mistakes that I see in the northern conservancy on my boundaries up in Sutherland. The Pinus contorta in Syre Forest in Sutherland were decimated by the pine beauty moth 10 years ago. Whole areas of the Syre Forest were killed off and were not replanted, yet the Forestry Commission—which is typical of a government department—moved 10 miles away to the Shin Forest and planted acres and acres of the same beastly lodgepole pines, which are now being defoliated and destroyed by the pine beauty moth. Great local concern is being expressed because the pines will have to be sprayed with some new chemical about which there is a great deal of concern.
However, private woodland owners in the same area have avoided the mistake simply because they do not plant on such a vast scale and they do not plant Pinus contorta on such a vast scale. Most of the private 1239 woodland owners in the area have done their planting in accordance with the existing vegetation with Sitka spruce and the Molinea flushes; larch where there was bracken. It has been much more sympathetically done and has avoided the problems that we have seen in both the Syre and Shin Forests.
As for the argument that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, produced about employment, no fewer than two forestry commissioners have tried to persuade me to disgorge land in Sutherland to them. Had I done so, a desert would have been created. The clearance by the Forestry Commission in central Sutherland makes what was done by the dukes and earls of Sutherland a hundred years ago look like nothing. The clearance has created a complete desert in the centre of Sutherland. The Forestry Commission has moved its forest workers out to the coast and done nothing whatsoever to maintain communities. The local community of Altnaharra has been maintained because we have held our frontiers against the invasion of the Forestry Commission. I am sorry, but I do not think the record of the commission is all that good, certainly in the areas with which I am familiar.
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I want to look at the subject, as your Lordships will probably expect, from the point of view of environmental conservation, and to look particularly at the effect of afforestation on wildlife and the need to plan and manage forestry in an environmentally sympathetic way.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, has done us a great service by bringing this debate forward tonight. We seldom have a chance to express our views completely on the work of the Forestry Commission, and this is a valuable opportunity, though I am sorry about the reason for his bringing it forward. He drew attention to the doubling of the amount of land under forestry since 1919 from 1 million to 2.2 million hectares. That was the figure I have and I think we are roughly in agreement. But I should point out that 70 per cent. of that is conifer and there is a sad decline in broadleaved woodland which I feel the Forestry Commission is not doing enough to replace.
The noble Lord mentioned—and I shall not bore your Lordships with repetition—the functions of the Forestry Commission. But I should like to add one small function of the commission which is often overlooked. That is the function of advising at local level. It is still possible, I understand, at local level to get advice on a single tree from the Forestry Commission if one is in need of it. I know that many of my friends have found this very valuable in the past and it is something that I think we should be very sorry to see disappear. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has given us most of the figures for the increase in private sector forestry and has drawn our attention to the fact that it has been encouraged by a favourable grant and tax system.
The Government aid which has helped to encourage this shift is running at between £30 million and £40 million a year in grant aid and tax relief. That is a figure which has to be put on the other side of the sum when we are considering the cost of the Forestry 1240 Commission because that is a figure which perhaps we could question.
This drift to heavily subsidised private forestry has conservation implications which need to be considered also. Much of the new private forestry—and I emphasise "new" because I have no quarrel at all with private forestry that is properly managed by long-term forestry owners who have an interest in its future—is carried out as a purely financial exercise which is not related even to the value of the crop. Grants are available from the Forestry Commission and they are awarded:for and in connection with the use and management of land for forestry purposes".The grant is available at an early stage and it is not repayable if the objective fails. All that is necessary is that they should discover that the ground is capable of growing trees. The quality is not questioned. Therefore, land which is basically ill-suited for forestry nevertheless can attract a grant and tax relief, which makes it a good proposition in cash terms from the owner's point of view but which yields little or nothing to the supply of timber for commercial use; and the environmental consequences can be grave.
Land which, in its unforested state, provided valuable wildlife habitat—and I shall come on to Sutherland shortly—is destroyed at public expense for no reward to the national economy. The system of grant allocation is open to question. Applications which are passed to the regional advisory committees whose duty it is to reconcile differences are sometimes decided by individuals with a direct interest in the result of the application. I can give examples of this although I shall not abuse privilege by so doing. But in some cases there have even been retrospective grants which have been of value to members of the regional committee.
Regional committees meet in private, do not publish reports and are not publicly accountable for what they do. It is essential that these committees should be restructured to ensure fair representation of all interested bodies and that there should be an input from the Nature Conservancy Council. I was very glad to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that consultations are now taking place. But they are not taking place as of right and it still seems to me that it is important that there should be a statutory requirement for the Forestry Commission to consult the Nature Conservancy Council, and that the Nature Conservancy Council should, as of right, be included on the regional committees.
A constructive change, too, would be the awarding of grants for silvicultural management rather than solely for plantation establishment—which is what seems to be happening at the moment. I suggest too that reports from these area committees should go to the Minister rather than to the Forestry Commission so that there is a degree of public accountability in the whole exercise.
If we look for a moment at the new Agriculture Bill which is about to come before your Lordships, there is an important element in it which is the declaration of environmentally sensitive areas. Forestry will affect these areas and I understand, for example, that of a list of 19 sites which are shortlisted to be designated as 1241 ESAs on the Cambrian Mountains, about a dozen already have forestry applications outstanding which have been made in the past 18 months. May I ask the Minister whether there will be full consultation on forestry applications in these and in other environmentally sensitive area applications when they come?
The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, drew attention to the misuse of the uplands for forestry. Perhaps I could enlarge a little on the case of Sutherland and Caithness. Scotland has between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent. of the world's blanket bogs. These support a rich variety of flora and fauna, including a number of rare birds. We have an international, not merely national, duty to conserve them and yet they are being rapidly reduced by draining and by afforestation. Fountain Forestry and the Forestry Commission between them own about one-third of this area and one-sixth of that has already been planted with conifers.
The Secretary of State for Scotland was asked last year to consult about this particular problem and to impose a moratorium on further work until consultations were complete. This request was refused. The Forestry Commission will only consult normally with the Nature Conservancy Council on sites of special scientific interest and although this is very valuable, it is really only a very small part of the whole.
The Scottish Office has suggested—and it seems to me a very sensible suggestion—that, in this time of agricultural surpluses, it would make sense to realise Grade 4 agricultural land for forestry and possibly even Grade 3. But that, I think, would come at a later stage. This would need to be a part of a financial package to help tide farmers over in the meantime until there was some return; and, of course, the Forestry Commission budget could not support this. It would need to be agricultural money. But in order to protect what is left of the uplands, I think this is an essential exercise. There is no point in growing yet more on Grade 4 land to add to our already overwhelming agricultural surpluses. It would be a positive step towards solving the conflict between conservation of special wildlife areas and the needs of forestry.
We have tried on many occasions to put a duty on the Forestry Commission to consider the needs of conservation but with very little success. The words of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, are very encouraging; and I know—and we are grateful for it—that within the Commission there are officers who have had a long-term interest in conservation and who have a feeling of responsibility about what they are doing. But there is no statutory requirement upon them to continue to take that attitude, and your Lordships will appreciate that that could change with a change of officer. I should like to express appreciation to those officers who have been very imaginative and very sympathetic in the past—and long may they continue!
Now we have this new threat to endure which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has outlined. The sale of forestry land authorised in the 1981 Act has made possible a creeping privatisation which is gathering pace. He has pointed out to us how quickly that pace has grown in the past year or so. This danger was foreseen in this House by noble Lords who, I am glad to see, are in the Chamber tonight; and despite the 1242 soothing words of the then Minister the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, at the Second Reading of the Bill, the reality looks like being even worse than those noble Lords feared at the time.
I look forward to the reply this evening from the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, who may perhaps have some encouragement for us; although I am afraid I must doubt it. I have the greatest respect for those forestry owners who truly own and manage their forests, as I said earlier; but the unseen, twice-removed cash investors have no long-term interest in their holdings, and an increase in this kind of ownership cannot benefit the countryside in the end. The noble Lord's Question was well worth asking but I can only look to the answer with some foreboding.
§ 9 p.m.
My Lords, I should like to join my noble friend Lord Taylor in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, on their stoicism and stamina in enduring and taking an active part in two successive and long debates. It makes me feel duly ashamed because I was expected to take part in the earlier debate but I knew that I did not have the fortitude to do so and therefore I ratted on that one to join your Lordships in the debate on which we are now engaged.
I should like to thank my noble friend for putting down his Unstarred Question because it enables me to raise two matters with the noble Lord the Minister who is to reply. I hope that he will be able to reassure the House on these two points which arise from the Government's forestry policy and which are extremely important to national parks and to the wider arena of the upland areas.
The first point derives from the supplementary question that I asked on 12th March following my noble friend's Starred Question on that occasion on the matter that we are discussing tonight. My question reflected the concern of conservation and amenity bodies about future prospects for public access and amenities in our forests once Forestry Commission land had passed into private ownership in accordance with Government instructions.
My question was necessarily brief and it is no reflection on the perspicacity of the noble Lord the Minister that he mistook what I was trying to get at. He thought that I was talking about public rights of way and of course he was able to assure the House that those are safeguards after transfer of land ownership and do not lapse on that account. In fact, my question was intended to find out how those privileges of public access and amenities—the kind of amenities referred to by my noble friend and so generously and imaginatively granted and developed in many of its forests by the Forestry Commission—had fared since 1981. During that time 100,000 hectares of Forestry Commission land have been sold under the terms of Section 1 of the Forestry Act 1981. I also wanted to know what was likely to happen to public access and amenities during the current year when a further 10,000 hectares, as I understand it, are to be disposed of in the same way.
Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the need to safeguard public interests had already been voiced 1243 five years previously. It was expressed most cogently and movingly by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, on 11th May 1981 when in Committee she moved an amendment to Clause 1 of the Forestry Bill. I shall quote her amendment which explains itself. It does not need to be put in context. The amendment read:(a) It shall be a condition of sale in any disposal"—that is, of Forestry Commission land—that existing access and amenity provisions shall be maintained".—[Official Report, 11/5/81; col. 332.]That amendment was cogently moved and received considerable support in Committee. In fact 78 of your Lordships voted for the amendment and 100 against. During the debate on that amendment I pointed out that we were legislating not for a matter of months ahead but for a number of years before any amending legislation could be expected.
We are now five years on since the Forestry Act became law and the need to safeguard the amenities and access has grown considerably. I think it was for that reason that on 12th June 1985 in Committee on the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill, which is now law, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, moved an amendment. It was designed to strengthen Clause 4 of that Bill which lays upon the Forestry Commission duties in regard to conservation. He, too, wanted to safeguard public access and amenities in that Bill which is now law.
The amendment was withdrawn by the noble Earl because of the urgent need to get the Bill onto the statute book and to prevent it falling because it was a Private Member's Bill. The record, which I have just read, shows that the noble Earl was less than satisfied with the assurances given by the noble Lord the Minister, Lord Skelmersdale. There was great urgency to get the Bill onto the statute book and the noble Earl withdrew his amendment.
Your Lordships will be aware that the Agriculture Bill, to which the noble Baroness has just referred, which is shortly to come to your Lordships' House, contains no reference to forestry. The matter was raised in Committee in another place on 28th January 1986 when Mr. Home Robertson pointed out:When land leaves the hands of the Forestry Commission the Government lose control over any activities on it".Against that background, I have some questions for the Minister. I shall phrase them in two ways. Is it still true to say, as was stated by the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, during the debate on the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, to the Forestry Bill in 1981 that,If the Forestry Commission decides that public access is important, then it will not sell the area at all, but it will have a sale and lease-back, and in that way all amenities can be preserved"?The noble Earl said:That is an important safeguard".—[Official Report, 11/5/81; col. 339.]We will all agree with that.
I shall put my question in another way. Has that been the case during the past five years? In other words, has the Forestry Commission in fact withheld land from sale to safeguard public access and amenities? As a corollary will it continue to hold it under the Government's present policy of selling more 1244 land in the current year and in the future? That is my first point.
I shall move rapidly to my second point and deal with it briefly. Other noble Lords have touched on it. It concerns afforestation or new tree planting operations, whether carried out by the Forestry Commission or private owners in national parks and the less-favoured upland areas. The need to bring forestry under planning control analagous to agriculture has been argued during debates on both Wildlife and Countryside Acts and on other occasions inside and outside your Lordships' House, and that need, I contend, is much more urgent today than it was five years ago.
Conservation bodies were encouraged last year when the Department of the Environment agreed to consider sympathetically a recommendation made by the Select Committee on Agriculture and the Environment in another place that landscape conservation orders should be introduced for use as a long-stop measure to prevent action prejudicial to landscapes in national parks. Your Lordships will be aware that the Nature Conservancy Council already has such a power for habitats, for SSSIs, under Sections 28 and 29 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and it is strongly held by myself and by those I represent that the Countryside Commission should have a comparable power as a last resort in regard to the wider environment.
Landscape conservation orders are highly desirable now with the prospect that many farmers, as was said by the noble Baroness, may be turning to alternative forms of farming or other uses of their land as a result of the new EC quota restrictions. Such alternatives may well include commercial planting and cropping of trees in upland areas and, in particular, in the national parks. I so agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, because in certain landscapes—and I am thinking of the uplands—afforestation can be scenically undesirable and indeed disastrous to the landscape.
So I shall appreciate from the Minister any information on what progress has been made not in his department but in the Department of the Environment in consideration of that recommendation in regard to landscape conservation orders by the Select Committee in the other place.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, I also am immensely grateful for this very opportune Question which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has brought before us and very grateful, too, that the question has been asked quite bluntly about the possibility of privatisation of the whole of the Forestry Commission's woodlands. I have always felt that the Forestry Commission was divided up into three different parts, the first being those outlying woods, which I assume come into the figure that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, mentioned, that are being sold off at the moment. I always believed that that was probably the right thing to do and that they should fall back into private hands.
I have always felt, too, that at the other end of the scale the Forestry Commission, since its inception in, I believe, 1919, has owned various areas of quite exceptional beauty which it should retain and look 1245 after in such a way that they are enhanced, kept beautiful, used by the public and kept out of the hurly-burly of commerce, selling wood, providing employment, saving imports and all the various matters that have been mentioned by different people.
Then I believe that in the middle there is an enormous amount of woodland that has been built up, much of it since the last war though some of it, I suppose, between the two wars, that is of immense importance to the country and, as has already been said to the private owner. It has been said already that the private owner rides in on the back of the Forestry Commission. The Forestry Commission brings in the sawmills, and I am not talking about the little ones that you see at the side of the road here and there. We must have proper pulp and sawmills if the private forester is to maintain his forest in a sensible way and make a reasonable living from one generation to another. One must come back to that.
So I hope that this main block—and it is by far the largest area—will be kept in the hands of the Forestry Commission for as long as possible. In this day and age, I would not even make the commercial aspect the main reason for doing that, although it is a very important one. The most important reason is that we are a small island, we have a very large population and we must all be aware that there are people in our cities who do not have anywhere in particular to go, because the country is for the most part privately owned. In the future the Forestry Commission should look closely—and I say this quite carefully—at a much cleverer way of combining commerce and access. I know that it has tried very hard indeed. I know that a great deal has been accomplished. We have heard about nature trails and so on. But it is my impression—I live on the edge of the New Forest, a much used area—that there is much more imagination yet to be deployed and a much more intensive use, without, one hopes, making it appear intensive to the people who indulge in that use and enjoy it.
With regard to the future of the Forestry Commission, I should like to mention one tale about my father. When he had been chairman of the Forestry Commission for a little while I asked him whether he enjoyed the job. He said that he enjoyed it immensely. He liked the people with whom he was working and he enjoyed working with trees. He said that trees grew so slowly that he would be dead long before all his mistakes were discovered. I should like to say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that if there is any idea of privatising the large middle area of the Forestry Commission that I have described, I am afraid that the mistake will be discovered long before we are dead, and it will be a very grave mistake.
Another duty of the Foresty Commission has not been touched on as yet. I refer to its relationship with the private owner. I am not necessarily talking about the large corporate private owner whom the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, does not appreciate very much. In many ways I agree with her. I refer to the ordinary private owner. Back in 1947 the dedication scheme started. I was always led to believe that there were three elements to the scheme. One was that the owner should, so to speak, lock himself into a management plan, a five-yearly review with perhaps rather too much bureaucracy attaching to it. In return for locking 1246 himself into that situation he received grants, which have been mentioned, and there was as well the tax advantage.
My first question is one that I have asked before in your Lordships' Chamber. Perhaps I may point out that the grants from then to now have gone up by 440 per cent. I am talking of my own position. One of the major inputs—notably wages—has gone up by nearly 2,000 per cent. I should like to ask my noble friend whether Her Majesty's Government are thinking of reviewing the position. I asked my noble friend Lord Belstead this question some time ago. He said that it was being thought about. But the difference is so dramatic that I feel that it is wrong and that the bargain that was entered into in 1947 has not been kept, at least in spirit. It is worth noting too that the price of timber has been unsatisfactory over the years compared with ordinary forestry costs. The private owner has had a very difficult time indeed.
I should like to mention one small point. Whatever happens in the way of Government cuts in expenditure, I most sincerely hope that the Forestry Commission will keep its hands on a certain amount of research. You have to research into timber affairs as much as you do into farming ones. It is just the kind of research that would come up for the chop, so to speak, quicker than anything else, because people are not too aware of its importance.
There is not a great deal more to be said except to express the hope once more that nothing too dramatic will happen. But I should like to put in a little pita, not about the particular species which offends the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, so much up in Sutherland but about softwoods in general. Again and again—though perhaps not so much this evening—one hears the coniferous plantations being criticised. I have a suggestion to make. First, perhaps the reason why those plantations are criticised is because they are still relatively young. But when those trees grow to their full maturity, they can be the most beautiful things. I would cite Kyloe Forest, in Northumberland, Boldre Wood in the New Forest and Catheral Grove on Vancouver Island. All those are very beautiful indeed. It would be a good idea if the Forestry Commission looked at their woods now and laid by reasonably substantial areas, which ties in with what I said earlier about their sites of exceptional beauty, and managed them in such a way that the trees would be allowed to grow to their full stature and would not be cut down at what commercially would be the right moment.
I hope that my noble friend will be able to reassure the House that he is not thinking of destroying the Forestry Commission.
§ 9.21 p.m.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for bringing this subject forward as a Question. It would seem from the effects that the policies of this Government have had that they envisage the role of the Forestry Commission as a shrinking one. The reduction in staff and sale of Forestry Commission land would at least indicate that that is so.
May I suggest to the noble Lord the Minister that that should not be so, and at the same time expand upon a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. 1247 In recent months we have heard a great deal about overproduction of food within the EC and the effects that recent policies have had upon farmers' incomes and the value of agricultural land. It is reasonable to expect that a fairly large acreage of marginal land will fall into disuse if a viable alternative is not offered to farmers. It would seem sensible to suggest that an alternative should be offered before the land reverts to brambles, bracken and scrub.
The farming community, despite some of the noble Lord's doubts, has become increasingly aware of the importance of environmental management, as opposed to exploitation, and the indications are that many are now considering forestry as an alternative to arable or dairy fanning. The present system of grants seems to be reasonably satisfactory for existing woodland owners, but I do not believe that it provides sufficient incentive to farmers to plant and, perhaps more importantly to maintain new forestry until it begins to show a return. As noble Lords will know, that can be anything from 20 to 40 years.
Farmers who have been used to sowing and gathering a crop and to receiving an income from it within one season will naturally be reluctant to accept the fact that their income will be minimal, if anything at all, in their own lifetimes. The present grant system, involving three payments—the first 70 per cent. at initial planting and then two payments of 15 per cent. at five-year intervals—may not provide sufficient incentive.
Experts believe that if 14 per cent. of agricultural land in the United Kingdom came out of production a balance between the demand for and supply of food would be achieved. Currently, agricultural support amounts to some £60 per acre. It has been suggested by forestry experts that if the Government would accept that liability on a limited acreage—say, that 14 per cent.—for a period of 25 years, with half the total sum to be paid at the initial planting and the rest in annual payments subject to satisfactory management by the owner and the forfeiture of any future right to agricultural grants, that would not only encourage farmers to change the use of some of their marginal land but would also go some way towards reducing the forecast severe timber shortage in the next century.
I know from experience that one cannot just plant a few hundred trees and expect them to grow. On our 10 acres of woodland, my husband and I spend most of our weekends, summer and winter, clearing brambles and other weeds from around young trees, pruning, and protecting them from damage by rabbits and squirrels. We do it for pleasure and do not apply for grants, but a farmer to whom the woodland is part of his business would probably need to employ someone to manage it.
The Forestry Commission, with its tremendous store of knowledge, could be made responsible for administering such a scheme and for ensuring that it was not abused. I realise that it would be no simple matter to plan and execute, but there is no shortage of expertise within the Forestry Commission and the private timber management concerns. The United Kingdom has some of the best timber growing conditions in the world, and yet our imports of timber cost in excess of £4,500 million a year. Only 10 per 1248 cent, of our land is devoted to forestry, and I am sure that the noble Lord the Minister will agree that, given the current deficit in timber production and the gloomy forecast for the future, any encouragement to farmers to change the use of some of their land under suitable circumstances would benefit both them and the nation.
May I therefore ask the noble Lord to speak to his right honourable friend the Secretary of State and ask him to consider seriously the promotion of such a scheme through the Forestry Commission? I am sure it would be welcomed by farmers, foresters and the general public, particularly if it is dealt with promptly, sensibly and sensitively.
§ 9.26 p.m.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for having asked this Question, because many people would like to know what is the Government's intention regarding the Forestry Commission. I should declare an interest as I am a director of a firm which deals in private forestry; namely, the Economic Forestry Group.
I was interested in what my noble friend Lord Kimball said. He certainly seems to have a "thing" about woods. At a time when agriculture is going through considerable difficulties there might have been some opportunities for forestry to have helped out in the areas where agriculture is finding peculiar difficulties in the more marginal land. But if that happens, clearly it would be against my noble friend's interest.
My noble friend did not think too much about the Forestry Commission, as I understood him, but I have always been an admirer of the Forestry Commission. I have admired the way it has looked after its woods and the enthusiasm of its staff. I have admired the competent way in which it has administered the state's function with regard to private woodlands. It has a reputation for uprightness, competence and specialist knowledge which has been of immense value. I am sorry it is answerable to three political masters—the Ministry of Agriculture, the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office—because that is hardly the most likely way to get precise and concise direction. However, that is one of the facts it has to live with.
The Forestry Commission has one drawback; that is, it is state funded. Therefore, it is always vulnerable to government cuts and whims. When money is tight the Forestry Commission is always likely to have its budget cut, and that is hardly the way to make the best use of its resources. There are those who take the view, "Why should taxpayers' money be put into the forests of the country?" The answer, of course, is that historically it has been so. That was necessary when the Forestry Commission first started. It is questionable whether that should continue now that privatisation is all the rage.
There was a row some five years ago when it was decided to sell off some of the Forestry Commission's assets. Noble Lords will remember that all too well. It had never been done before. Personally, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, I did not see any great harm in that. It was an absurdity to permit the Forestry Commission to buy but not to sell. It seemed perfectly reasonable that it should rationalise its 1249 business. It seemed perfectly reasonable for the Forestry Commission to return to the Treasury some of the money that over the years had been put into it. What is and would be wrong is to consider that here is a larder which can be continuously raided, year after year, as a means of providing money annually for the Treasury.
I remember when I had some small responsibility in these affairs that I wrote a note to that effect to some of my more hawkish ministerial colleagues, and I took great care over that letter, drafting it myself on a long journey all the way up to the North of England. Some weeks later one of my colleagues said to me, "Which civil servant wrote that letter for you?" I am bound to say that I was slightly numbed.
I see nothing wrong with selling Forestry Commission assets and reorganising the size and shape of the Forestry Commission, if that is necessary. I see nothing wrong in inviting public participation by putting capital into the Forestry Commission and privatising it in that way, as was done with British Telecom. What is quite wrong is that the Forestry Commission should be forced by the Government continually to sell off its assets and for the Forestry Commission then to be expected to manage an ever-decreasing rump. That really would be selling off the family silver.
Forestry is a long-term business. It is capital-intensive and it needs long-term investment. There is one source of substantial funds which can be and is required to be put into long-term investment. I hesitate to say it to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, but in fact it is the institutions. Even though institutions have substantial funds, they have never put more than about 2 per cent. into forestry. I think that British forestry would benefit from the infusion of institutional capital. But that can only be done in one of two ways. One way would be for the Forestry Commission to sell off some of its productive woodlands, which of themselves are a reasonable size and would be a good investment. Institutions do not want to have small parcels of indifferent woods, or even small parcels of good woods. Of course I accept that this is anathema to the Forestry Commission and I quite understand why, but it might attract substantial funds of private capital and, ipso facto, it would release public capital.
The second way is to privatise fully the Forestry Commission by making it into a company and then selling the shares. In effect this would keep the business of running the state's forest in one entity as it is now, but private capital would be put into what might be described as the company, thereby releasing public capital. I shall be interested to know whether my noble friend can say that the Government have either of these courses in mind, whether they consider the status quo should remain or whether they have any other ideas.
I should like to ask my noble friend a question on a totally different subject. Much has been done to make some of the large forests, especially those in Scotland, fit more sympathetically into the environment by contouring. I wonder whether my noble friend can say whether the Government and the Forestry Commission are content with this measure and intend to continue it, or whether they will modify that particular system.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for instituting this debate, which is certainly worth having. I must also declare an interest, as I am a forester and I let land to the Forestry Commission.
It is most interesting to note that in Norway, where they have farms of about 200 acres on the west coast, a farmer there will grow a certain amount of corn—probably quite a small amount—and he will have a certain number of animals, and then he will perhaps have 100 acres of trees. The trees will form an integral part of his farm, so that for some part of the year he will be tending trees and for some pan of the year he will be looking after his farmland. To my mind this is an extraordinarily desirable situation.
Before I leave Norway, I should like to say that, in spite of all those trees which are in the valleys and upon the hills, over the ages—not recently, for different reasons—the rivers have been extremely good, clean and full of salmon. It makes me wonder whether the presence of trees really does destroy the rivers, as my noble friend has suggested.
The same sort of thing happens in America. The standard size of farm is 160 acres and the farmers earn their living from the trees which they cut down and replant. I presume they cut down about 20 acres a year or so and this is a going concern for them.
I confirm what my noble friend Lord Radnor said about the beauty of trees. People spend a fortune to go to America to see the very same trees that, if planted here, would prompt remarks such as, "What terrible trees you are planting. You are planting softwoods." The same people would immediately buy an expensive ticket to travel to the West coast of America to see similar trees.
At the moment, England has one of the smallest proportions of land in Europe down to trees. Only Holland, I believe, has a smaller proportion It is forecast by the experts, who are almost always wrong, that in 30 years' time there will be a great shortage of forestry and that the price of timber will go up. That is calculated on estimates of the destruction of forests that is taking place and the world reserves of forestry. So we are probably heading for a great shortage. This will make the import bill even greater than it is now. It is therefore necessary to think about increasing forestry for that reason if for no other.
I would suggest an increase in forestry on the Norwegian model whereby trees are, so far as possible, owned, and certainly looked after, by the shepherd at a time of year when he is not busy with the sheep. Unfortunately for the farmer investment is taking too long. I would support the suggestion of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, if it can be shown to work. The problem is to persuade the upland farmer to plant. He will not do so unless he sees the prospect of a return fairly soon.
There is an alternative, however. Many more people, I believe, would be prepared to plant privately in small areas in conjunction with the marginal farmer. I have in mind a scheme whereby the City investor would come to an arrangement with a hill farmer. He would ask the hill farmer to plant the trees, thin them and clean them and do all the work 1251 necessary on them, for which he would pay the farmer an annual income, perhaps doubling the income of the farm. This would mean an assured annual income for the farmer. At the same time, the City investor would take the benefit of all the grants and tax relief and would have the final crop to look forward to or, rather, for his son to look forward to.
One is thinking in terms perhaps of a half, or a quarter, of a farm in trees, with most of it remaining in sheep grazing. There would be areas of forestry that could then be used for other purposes. The City investor might wish to put a caravan or, if he could obtain permission, a house in the tree area. Or the farmer might run a caravan site, hidden from view in the trees. The trees might form part of a sporting complex where the City man could have a shoot. What is important is that the farmer would be joined with the City investor for mutual advantage. This could be best encouraged by grants and best arranged by land agents in conjunction with CoSIRA and the Forestry Commission grants.
My noble friend Lord Kimball said that he did not like forestry. However, one has to take account of the fact that people will travel to the Black Forest to see fir trees. And there are masses of large forests in England that people visit a great deal. It is really a question of what one is used to. One likes what one is used to rather than what is new.
The Forestry Commission must continue to exist. No one wants to see it destroyed. It has an important role in the provision of grants and in research. To fulfil that role, it must own its own base. One must remember that the object of the Forestry Commission was solely to produce trees; it was not to produce income. As it is there purely to produce trees, the ideal—if not totally practical solution—would be for the commission to plant the land and then sell it immediately. It is not like selling the family silver. It does not matter who owns these trees—they will still go on growing. It is also nonsense to suggest that, if the Forestry Commission becomes private, employment will reduce, because the new owners of the forestry will continue to need labour.
Access, I believe, can be taken care of. If there is an area to be sold which has public access, there is no reason why the sale should not stipulate that access should remain. To say that all Forestry Commission land should remain with the Forestry Commission is a judgment more of sentimentality than of logic.
§ 9.37 p.m.
The Earl of Dundee
I should like to join with others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, on introducing this Unstarred Question. As the noble Lord is a past chairman of the Forestry Commission, we are very fortunate to have his advice on the subject, as indeed we are to be addressed by another past chairman, the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie.
With regard to the Government's policy on the future of the Commission, no doubt a distinction should be made between whatever these plans may be on the one hand and the Government's general attitude to forestry on the other. Owing to the nature of the industry it would be understandable if anybody, 1252 Governments included, should ever feel less clear about the one than about the other. There may, for example, be great confidence in the skill and efficiency of the Forestry Commission to grow and manage trees combined with little faith in the long-term value of home-grown timber. Conversely, there may be a clear vision of the eventual value to the country of homegrown timber combined with undecided views about how public and private forestry can best achieve that.
What signs are there, if any, that perserverance with forestry can ever significantly benefit the economy and the balance of payments? The results so far have not been too impressive. Only 9 per cent. of our land surface is afforested compared with much higher proportions in other western European countries. Current annual costs of imported timber and timber products are still in the region of £4 billion, to which the noble Countess, Lady Mar, referred. Nevertheless, given that the Forestry Commission, and a serious, national resolve to afforest, date only from the end of the First World War, no one would really expect a proper impact on the economy in as little as 60 or 70 years—that is, my Lords, no one who is aware of the different maturity rates of the British tree and the British turnip. However, unless one is Rip Van Winkle himself, significant changes can reasonably be expected over 100 years even in British forestry. In this respect, present indications are encouraging, and professional forecasts estimate that annual home-grown wood production will double from 4.5 million cubic metres today to reach 9 million cubic metres and achieve 15 per cent. self-sufficiency by the turn of the century.
If we accept that future timber yields are worth waiting for, what policy should the Government adopt with the various factors that need to be taken into account when the industry is expanded further? To begin with, there is a balance between private and public sector endeavours. Clearly the effect of Forestry Commission land sales is to alter that balance. Two separate lines of thought appear to be behind the justification of the disposals. If the commission's resources are overstretched, judicious sales are said to ease the pressure. Secondly, it is argued that, even if the commission's resources were not overstretched, the private sector is better able anyway to take on the management and marketing of established plantations.
An extension of this line of thought might be that all the functions of the commission should be taken over, including planting. No doubt the private sector might achieve consistent national planting targets when conditions were favourable for a year or two. But there only needs to be a fluctuation in land values, prices and tax incentives for the private sector, quite naturally, to be discouraged. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, while sensible sales by the Forestry Commission can bring some obvious benefits, in regard to planting the correct balance should be that the commission should at least match annual private sector levels in favourable years for that sector, and that in unfavourable years the commission should be prepared to compensate for lower private sector levels? Recently, and since its asset disposals first occurred, commission planting levels have dropped below those for the private sector.
1253 Turning to the social effects of future forestry policy, there is the bearing on the general numbers employed in the industry, on certain communities in difficult areas, and on alternative employments such as sheep farming. Again, in relation to commission asset disposals, it has been alleged that these will cause fewer people to be employed than original numbers, and that remote communities will suffer the most. Equally, fears continue to be expressed whenever forestry replaces or integrates with sheep farming. The counter claim is that employment and local opportunities stand to gain in the long run. Certainly many communities have already gained from afforestation over the last two or three decades in areas where forestry has often substantially replaced sheep farming. Provided that the commission asset disposals are discriminate, there is surely no reason why employment should not benefit fairly soon afterwards rather than the reverse. But there are particular communities in Scotland, and no doubt elsewhere, which would undoubtedly suffer from indiscriminate sales. Can my noble friend the Minister give the assurance that such indiscriminate sales will not occur?
Then there is the need to protect the countryside and prevent untimely land use without unnecesssarily inhibiting afforestation. Already in this respect there have been a number of useful incentives, such as that contained in the recent broadleaf policy and such as 1254 the initiative to which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, referred, to make forestry contours look like passing clouds. It would be interesting to have a progress report on that initiative.
On the whole, adequate controls are provided by the consultative procedure between the Forestry Commission and other bodies. EC agriculture surpluses are said to be one of the main reasons why the Government are reconsidering their guidelines to those bodies responsible for giving planting permission. Inevitably this will change, if only slightly, the role of the Forestry Commission within the consultative procedure. Can my noble friend the Minister say what new arrangements corresponding to the revised guidelines adopted there will be to minimise disagreement between the different bodies concerned?
The commission deserves a great deal of credit for what it has already achieved. Equally, it is clear that the important job it will have to do in the future is in no way diminished just because improved national timber yields are within sight. With the commission's assistance, a vigorous planting programme can continue well into the next century. A lead can be given with training, research and experimentation. And, as a result of its joint efforts with the private sector, increasing benefits are likely to come to the countryside and to the economy.
§ 9.48 p.m.
My Lords, in rising to speak in the gap in the list of speakers, I make no apology for my name not having been put down because it was put down but did not appear on the list. I apologise most deeply and sincerely for my absence from the early speeches in this very important debate—a debate for which we are all very grateful to my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe. I was engaged in another meeting in this Palace—a meeting to which I shall presently have to return. I shall therefore be very brief.
However, I wished to speak for two reasons. Your Lordships have heard two SDP voices raised from these Benches today in this very important debate. I should like it to be absolutely clear that there will be no discordant note by a Liberal vote being added to those two from the Alliance Benches.
I have always had something of a love-hate relationship with the Forestry Commission. Like all noble Lords, I love trees, but I have not always been in total agreement with the Forestry Commission about where to plant them. When I had some statutory responsibility for the preservation of the natural beauty of our countryside, occasionally I had to erect obstruction in the way of the Forestry Commission with regard to planting programmes in areas of outstanding natural beauty, in some of our national parks, and so on. Therefore, there has been a conflict.
In addition, I did not always approve of the way in which the Forestry Commission planted its trees. It seemed to me that its system of single species, even-age planting, later followed by clear felling, was a rather strange way of proceeding. Had the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, been replying to this debate—as at one time seemed possible—I would have reminded him of a conversation I once had with his father-in-law, Richard Coke, who was a forester of international renown. He once told us both that the system of forestry of single species, even-age planting, with clear felling, was only practised by two groups of people anywhere in the world—the Prussians and the Forestry Commission. Times have changed and, in view of the arguments that I have had in the past with the Forestry Commission, one of the reasons I wished to speak was to say that I personally should like to pay my tribute to the work of my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe, and to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and their successor, Sir David Montgomery, for the work that they have done in recent years to change many of the attitudes which were formerly held in the Forestry Commission and which, frankly, sometimes made the Forestry Commission rather unpopular with some countryside lovers who were not madly keen on rows of regimented sitka spruce marching up and down their hillsides.
We have recently had some sort of a dispute on afforestation in Dunnendale in Cumberland, where I live. It is interesting to note that the compromise which has been arrived at there between the Countryside Commission and the Forestry Commission is clearly admirable. We now have a planting scheme which could not arouse any objections from anyone. In my time of interest in this subject I have seen the Forestry Commission change, 1256 with the planting of hardwoods and many species in a totally different and highly imaginative way. I have seen the Forestry Commission change in other ways. I can remember the days when Forestry Commission land was a "no-go" area for tourists. However, nowadays from talking to some members of the Forestry Commission one would think that they had actually invented picnic sites; not that they were something in which they reluctantly acquiesced as being totally inevitable in the end. Having done so, I think that they have carried out a truly remarkable job.
The other day we had an interesting debate in your Lordships' House about tourism. I do not think that any mention was made of the Forestry Commission in relation to tourism. It is right to say that some of the visitor attractions on Forestry Commission land in particular in Scotland, and one or two in England and Wales—interpretation centres for visitors—are an important part of our tourist attractions and have an immense importance to open-air recreational activity for our ordinary citizens. I merely wish to make those remarks, having occasionally found myself in opposition to the Forestry Commission.
I would join straightaway with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who made a most interesting speech. I am not saying that I shall never ever want anything changed. It is true that I was a little alarmed about the measure to which the noble Earl referred—the Forestry Act of some years ago. I was worried about what would happen to places like the Forest of Dean. I was a little worried lest some of our largely recreational forests, like the New Forest, were to be wholly taken over by some of the tycoons of the leisure industry. I also wanted guarantees that access to areas of land to which there had been public access for recreational activities would be preserved.
However, I would certainly agree with the noble Earl that if the Forestry Commission is allowed to buy then it must be allowed to sell. I also think that we must explore the other possibilities to which the noble Earl referred, and I do not object to any of those. They include the possibility of raising public money for the Forestry Commission by other means. An earlier speaker referred to the Forestry Commission being dependent on public funds. At present it is rather dependent on a lack of public funds, and it may perhaps have to look at other ways to get those funds.
However, the main point I want to make is as follows. The Forestry Commission has undergone this very welcome metamorphosis. Its attitude has changed in many ways. It now has plantings which are highly imaginative and immensely beneficial to our environment and our national heritage; immensely beneficial to the tourist industry, and to open-air recreation in general; immensely beneficial to the natural beauty of our countryside. It is not the time to start messing about with the Forestry Commission. I am not saying that we should not make any changes, but this is the wrong time for us now to talk about disbanding the Forestry Commission, or for some of the other draconian statements that I have heard.
I did not think many years ago that I would be standing up in your Lordships' House speaking 1257 passionately on the side of the Forestry Commission. However, the work they are doing, in terms of the things in which I have great interest now, seem to be of immense importance, quite apart from the commercial importance, the economic importance, of our timber industry. Much of the credit for all that must go to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and Sir David Montgomery and others who have led the Forestry Commission into new pastures in a different way. In those circumstances it would be tragic if we now caused unnecessary difficulties in the commission.
§ 9.56 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I apologise for not having put my name down, but I shall not detain the House for long. I should like the Minister to give us a little more information. We have had excellent suggestions put by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and agreed with by the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, that what we should be doing is trying to put forestry into the hands of the smaller people on the land; the people who live there and work on it. This is the sort of thing that has been talked about not only in his country but other countries as well. Certainly we are going to have land to spare.
What I should like to ask the Minister is, what sort of sums have they done? Have they counted the cost of the enormous tax concessions? How much money do the Government pass up in these tax concessions? I look with a certain amount of dismay and distaste at the way the big forestry groups—with apologies to noble Lords who have declared their interest in them—go about things.
My rich friends who have taken up their offers of saving taxation find that they may be saving taxation but they are paying out very large sums indeed to the firms doing this work for them. The Forestry Commission could do a great deal of this sort of thing much better than the private firms, even though the money could come from the institutions. It would be interesting to know just how much the Government are passing up through the tax concessions.
The other thing is that they have obviously done a forecast on the world resources of timber. We have had given in various papers and by noble Lords in this House tonight various forecasts of the shortage that is going to occur at the turn of the century. Perhaps the Minister will be able to give us the Government's forecast. If it is in fine with the ones we have had, it seems to be a poor time to sell off the maturing forests.
§ 9.59 p.m.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, at this time of night I had intended merely to dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s of what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, but so much has been said in this debate that requires an answer that I must go a little further. We are obliged to the noble Lord for putting down this Unstarred Question and giving us the opportunity to deal with some of these points. It is a pity that it had to be so late, but that is the way of things in your Lordships' House.
1258 The noble Lord made the point that the Forestry Commission and the private sector were a mixed economy, and I could not agree with him more. The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, spoke about his father enjoying the Forestry Commission; so did I. I enjoyed the type of mixed economy in which I took part. I visited private forests just about as much as I visited the Forestry Commission forests, and the co-operation between the two was very good indeed. I have talked to many private foresters since this wretched rumour started about the complete privatisation of the commission and I have not found anybody until tonight who was in favour of it.
Another matter that the noble Lord emphasised I should like to emphasise as well. One cannot run any of the mills and processing plants that make timber board and pulp without a guaranteed supply. Many large areas of forest are in private hands at the moment, but they are all immature and the only body that can give a guarantee is the Forestry Commission, which it has to the various mills that have started up recently. That is an important point. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, takes note of it if he intends to give us bad news tonight, which, by the look of him, I do not think he will.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, also made a conservation point. I should like to emphasise, as other noble Lords have, that the Forestry Commission was given a remit in 1919 to make good the depredations of the war. In 1945 the Forestry Commission was given the same remit to rectify the depredations of that war by planting trees. It was not until 20 years ago, or fewer than 20 years ago, that it was given a remit on conservation and recreation. I bet my bottom dollar that many people who criticised the Forestry Commission never brought that up until recently. The environmentalists and the conservationists were quite quiet until recently for some reason. Since it was given that remit, the Forestry Commission, as most noble Lords today have emphasised, has done a tremendous job in the environmental and conservation senses. I wanted to emphasise that as strongly as I could.
The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, has a broad back. He will need it for a moment or two, because I propose to take him to task very severely indeed. He does not want any more large-scale forests. He makes the point because he will not take off the dark glasses of his salmon and grouse interests, although he said that he keeps some sheep. I point out, as somebody else did, though I forget who, that forests do not make any difference to fishing. There have been occasions when trees were planted too near rivers in the early days, but since the complaints the commission and private forestry have kept their trees well back from river banks. As someone pointed out, that does not harm the fishing.
The noble Lord mentioned the £54 million loss. I am sure that he does not mean that. As I am sure he realises, the £54 million that he mentioned has gone into trees, recreation and amenities and is a capital asset to the country. To say that that is a loss is a comment not worthy of him.
He picked out the lodgepole pine. That was not a big area compared with the whole area of forestry damaged by the pine beauty moth. One might say, 1259 "For God's sake stop keeping pigs!" because of the outbreak of swine fever a few years ago. We might stop keeping cattle because of the big outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 1967 and 1968. Again, it is not worthy of him to make silly points such as that. The lodgepole pine in many areas is the only tree that can be grown. It is a perfectly good tree for pulp wood. If we are to have forestry in this country and use areas such as those, the lodgepole has to be planted. The noble Lord cannot get away with that.
The noble Lord went on about the labour question; that he employs more labour with his sheep, fishing and grouse. Two of those do not produce much. During my period at the Forestry Commission I made a lot of calculations and have done so since. For every person employed on a sheep farm, if that farm had a proportion of it, though not all, under forestry, the employment would be three times more; at least three men to one. That is borne out by anybody who has experience in forestry.
The other thing is, as the noble Lord knows, that I went up there and tried to persuade him to let or sell some land to the Forestry Commission back in around 1978. He was not very enthusiastic. He told me I was wrong. I took him away from some fishing on the banks of his stream. He had not been lucky. He was pleased to have a chat with me. If he had done that and done it intelligently, if he had taken advice of people who have done it and increased the production of sheep, got the advantage of the forest for shelter and got the advantage of the forest road to get to areas where he could seed and fertilise and things like that, he would have had a much more economic farm than he has today. I am sure that he is going to suffer for not taking my advice then. I would appeal to him to be very careful of what he says in the future; or I shall be harder on him still.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, spoke on the environment and on the question of the conifer versus the broadleaf. I must point out to her (and, to a certain extent, to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt) that there are whole areas which I have been speaking about which will not grow conifers. Admittedly, you can plant them and you can get a scrub forest of no use to anybody, except perhaps some wildlife. If we are going to plant in the areas of low-grade land in the Highlands and elsewhere, the bulk of it must be conifers. You can sprinkle in some other trees and make it environmentally good: but it has to be conifers.
There are about 20 million acres of what we call rough land, hill land, in Britain and 30-odd million acres of arable land. Now, 3½ million acres of that land is in conifers. Most of the broadleaf trees are in the lowlands. The idea is, and has been, that if we are going to do any good with forestry at all, we must double our conifer plantation and double in the lowlands the areas of broadleaf trees. That goes up to 7 million acres, and leaves 13 million acres. Surely that is enough to give all the environmentalists all the flora and fauna they want. It is quite ridiculous in my opinion to go on "giming" (to use a Scotch word) about planting trees when there is all that land to be left for wildlife and everything else.
I remember that when I was on the commission there was a row about too much planting in north-west 1260 Wales because it was going to kill out the kites. I went to see the ranger there and I asked him about it. He said, "All I know is that I was here when there was very little forestry and I am here now and there are far more kites now than when I was first here with all the trees". It was just a scare about the kites and there was no truth in it. I do not think I can go much further there except to say that the mis-use of the uplands is an expression that I myself would not use.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was quite worried about access if there is privatisation, and I would agree with him. It would be a pity if access was prevented following wholesale acquisition of land by the private sector. The noble Lord was also worried about the effect of forestry on the landscape and he thought that a lot was being done to improve it.
The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, was right to emphasise that just after the war the thing to do was to sell off the patches of land that were planted rather higgledy-piggledy. It was bad for management and everything else; and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, mentioned that also.
The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, also mentioned the question of the tremendous value of the forestry to the country. He also mentioned the New Forest, and I shall come to that in a moment. I have mentioned the point about his father enjoying the work of the Forestry Commission, as I did. I enjoyed meeting the people. Foresters have something about them; they are so fond of trees and the outdoors and so on. They are first-class people to get on with. I am not talking about the gentlemen, noble though they are, in offices in Edinburgh. I am talking about the people on the ground, the conservators and the people who plant and look after the trees.
The noble Countess, Lady Mar, brought up an interesting point about trying to give farmers who plant trees a long-term return. She mentioned 50 to 60 years. That would have to involve conifers. I think that she was talking about land in Aberdeenshire that she and I know. It is low-class land and there would be a bit of a row if it had to be planted with conifers. It is a good scheme. I think it can be done only with public money. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, could raise any money for it. If broadleaved trees were to be planted, it would have to be done with public money because no private company would touch it, in my opinion.
The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, emphasised the point about integrating forestry and farming, and I could not agree with him more on that. I have made the point to his noble friend Lord Kimball and he should have a word with him in private also, just to keep him in his place. The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, also mentioned people who go to the Californian coast in North America to look at huge conifers. He said how much they enjoy them. They then return to this country and complain about them. If they do not want to spend all that money, I suggest that they go up to the Great Glen in Invernesshire and see the beautiful spruce trees that are now 60 or 70 years old. I think that they will then fall in love with conifers after all.
The noble Lord emphasised what could be done with the amenities outside forestry. The farmers could have caravans which could be hidden by the trees, 1261 unless they learned to paint them green. For some reason they must be yellow and white. I could never understand that.
The noble Lord said that the labour requirement would be the same whoever owned the forest. That is right if we talk about numbers. Private companies tend to have gang labour, whereas Forestry Commission labour generally lives in the area. There would be a change in the type of labour which, in my opinion, would not be too good for the area.
I do not think that I need to say much about what the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, said. He merely fired questions right, left and centre at the noble Lord the Minister and I shall leave him to answer. He said that the economic point was a difficult one, and I could not agree with him more. Broadleaved trees last for up to 150 years and conifers for up to 60, and it is difficult to make an economic assessment of the matter. We must just look at the situation as it is over the years and go ahead and plant trees. The noble Earl also mentioned the labour point.
The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said that he had fallen out with the commission several times over clear felling. He said that there were only two countries that clear felled. He cannot have moved about the world very much. I have been in Canada and a whole host of other places where a great deal of clear felling goes on.
My Lords, I was merely quoting Richard Coke, who is known to the noble Lord. I was merely quoting what he said about the system of even age single species planting followed by clear felling. If Richard Coke is wrong, the noble Lord should tell him.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, I stand corrected. The noble Lord said that he could see the advantages of the Forestry Commission and of imaginative planting, and he thought that the Government should not mess about with the commission. I could not agree with him more.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, gave a great many figures. They do not quite tie up with mine. But they are near to them. The total area of land belonging to the commission, including a number of farms and quite a lot of land that is not yet planted, amounts to—I can think only in acres, not hectares—just over 3 million acres. The value of the land and the trees must be enormous. I do not know what the Government think that is worth, but if they were to put it on the market, I think that it would depress the price of land and forestry all over the country. The figure of £1,500 million was mentioned. I think that that is a conservative figure; I think it will be much more than that. It is something that would need to be looked at before any rash proposals to privatise it were made.
The total number of people in the industry is quite large, nearly up to 30,000. I should like to emphasise that we have had the publicising of a change in the GLC and we have seen the host of things that have to be handed over to other councils or new quangos to run them. I should like to remind the Government that they would have a problem if they privatised the Forestry Commission. Who would look after the New Forest, and would they do it half as well as the Forestry Commission? There are 20 million visits made to our 1262 forests every year, so some people like forests and conifers. All these camping and caravan sites, which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, mentioned, would have to be looked after. We have nine arboreta and someone has to look after them. May I point out to the Government that not everybody has the same aversion to public bodies as they have?
I should like to emphasise the part that forestry people—and the noble Lord, Lord Gray, knows this better than I do—play in public life. I should like to mention two in particular, Finlay McRae in Glen Affric and Bill Grant in Grisdale. These two men have done a tremendous lot for the public life in the area where they have been all their lives, and something would be lost if the commission was privatised.
Finally, I should like to stress that research can never be a success unless it is tied to the practical side. I know that there will be research in the private sector, but the fact that it is tied to the Forestry Commission means that the research is meaningful in every way. I may say that the same applies to the plant breeding institute in Cambridge. I hope that we shall get a very satisfactory answer from the noble Lord, Lord Gray, tonight. He must have noticed that, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, he will not have a friend if his answer is to the detriment of the Forestry Commission.
§ 10.17 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, for doing his best in his inimitable style to wind-up the debate for me and for leaving to me only the questions to which he himself did not know the answers. Nevertheless, I shall try to take over and deal in due course with some of the points that have not already been dealt with by the noble Lord.
But first I should like to join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for giving us the opportunity to talk about this very important and interesting subject of the Forestry Commission. We have come to expect from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, a speech delivered with authority and feeling on the subject of the Forestry Commission. This is a reflection of the fact that not so many years ago he was its distinguished chairman, so naturally I listened with the greatest interest to what he had to say.
I claim no credit for anticipating to some extent that his Question on the future of the Forestry Commission was inspired by press reports, or should I say press speculation—and, indeed, that speculation has obviously been picked up by a number of your Lordships. Indeed, Ministers have been invited to say that the press have got it wrong and that nothing is further from the minds of the Government than privatisation. I gathered from some of the speeches tonight that much the same invitation has been offered to me. Of course, I cannot give such an assurance, not because the commission is about to be privatised but because, as the Government have already made clear, the policy under which the commission's assets are sold is kept under regular review.
As noble Lords will recall, the last such review resulted in the Statement in another place by my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. George Younger, in November 1984 to 1263 the effect that sales by the commission would be aimed at a rationalisation of its estate with a view to increasing its efficiency and commercial effectiveness. He made the point that the choice of properties to be sold—this point was raised particularly by my noble friend Lord Dundee—would remain with the Forestry Commissioners. I can give the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, the assurance that he sought, that there has been no change in this policy.
That Statement was broadly welcomed. I noticed particularly that the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, made reference to the policy, which he accepted, as I think most people do, that the Forestry Commission buys and the Forestry Commission must be able to sell. As I said, that Statement was broadly welcomed, and it showed that when we carry out a review it is in an effort to find the most practical way forward. No policy can, or indeed should, remain sacrosanct indefinitely. But what I can say to reassure your Lordships in the circumstances of this debate is that any change of policy towards the sale of Forestry Commission assets—if it came to be felt that some change were called for—would be reached only after the most careful consideration of all the implications of such a change.
I would ask noble Lords not to take my words as an oblique admission that changes are on the way. I have said no such thing. What I am saying is that forestry policy in general has evolved over many years and will continue to evolve. The new duty placed on the Forestry Commissioners through the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985—to seek to achieve a reasonable balance between the needs of forestry and those of the environment—is an example of this. Certainly, no Government could be expected to agree that a policy should be decided at one point in time and then set in amber. I am sure that this is not something that the Forestry Commission itself would want.
The future of the Forestry Commission is of course very much bound up with the future of the forestry industry as a whole, and that I see as a bright one. This Government are fully committed to an expansion of the forest estate, in ways that are consistent with the needs of other land users. I make that point particularly for the benefit of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, who is genuinely concerned, as many conservationists are.
The estate is growing now at a rate of more than 25,000 hectares a year. This figure is somewhat below the rate of expansion that we envisaged when we set out our present forestry policy in 1980, but it is still no mean achievement. The commission's forestry grant scheme has been a success, and now we have the added and welcome boost of the broadleaved woodland grant scheme introduced by the commission last October. The response to this scheme has been heartening—perhaps even better than we expected—and not only will this mean more tree planting but it will lead to a greater variety of planting, with a better balance between conifers and broadleaves.
At the same time, many of our forests, in both public and private ownership, are now reaching the production stage, and the amount of timber coming out of them is expected to increase by some 80 per 1264 cent. by the turn of the century—which, after all, is not far away. This means that we are in a position to go on attracting new downstream industries, with an assurance that our forests will be able to meet their needs. In recent times we have seen the establishment of a major pulp and paper mill at Shotton in North Wales and of a structural composition board plant near Inverness. There has been expansion by Thames Board Mills at Workington to increase cartonboard production, and we are also witnessing expansion in particleboard manufacture and in sawmilling. We have every hope that there is more to come.
So our expanding forest estate is leading to the setting up of new industries, with all that means in terms of jobs. I echo the remarks of a number of your Lordships this evening in paying tribute, as I believe it is right to do, to the crucial role played by the Forestry Commission. It has made those developments possible by means of its reliable forecasts of production and by guaranteeing supplies of timber through long-term contracts, and by meeting those guarantees in a highly professional way.
I pay that tribute not just because I happen to be the Minister who has responsibility for the Forestry Commission; I pay it because I myself have seen the quality of those on the ground who are employed by the commission and the dedication of its officials, right down to the forest workers who are employed throughout Scotland and indeed throughout the United Kingdom.
I now turn to another issue that could have a significant effect on forestry. This is the clearly identified need to deal with the mounting surpluses of some agricultural products by making changes to the CAP. The significance of that for forestry is of course the recognition that in the right circumstances forestry can provide an alternative crop that is not, and never will be, in surplus in this country or in the Community as a whole.
So far as reform of the CAP is concerned, the way ahead is far from clear at present, but it could well be that at the end of the day forestry will be called upon to play a greater role in the economy of our countryside and in the maintenance of our rural communities. That will provide both challenges and opportunities for our foresters and not least for the Forestry Commission—both in its role as the forestry authority and as the forestry enterprise.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, as to the question of surpluses and replacing with woods those acres that might go out of production, does my noble friend really believe that that is a practical proposition? We are talking of farmers, and surely there is a very severe cash flow situation for them—unless, once more, the Government or Brussels are prepared to subsidise the whole situation very strongly indeed; and as my speech brought out, those subsidies seem to be getting eroded.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, I propose to deal with those points in due course. I will try to answer some of the questions that were raised and I assure my noble friend that I will return to the matter that he has mentioned.
I am well aware that the idea of an expanding and vigorous industry alarms some people. Indeed, we have perhaps had a whiff of that today from my noble 1265 friend Lord Kimball and from the noble Baroness. However, I believe that is because of the fear that forestry might damage our countryside. I must put my cards on the table because I do not subscribe to that view, which takes little account of the praiseworthy efforts of foresters in recent years to come to terms with environmental needs, to achieve the right balance, and to make our forests attractive places for both man and wildlife alike.
Foresters are among the first to recognise that there is much more to forestry than simply planting trees and watching them grow. Earlier I mentioned the new broadleaved woodland grant scheme introduced by the commission, and I take the opportunity to remind your Lordships' House that the commission has also taken the initiative of updating its conservation policy and making it clear that it wishes to work more closely with conservation bodies, to the extent of setting up local liaison groups.
The private sector, too, must not be forgotten, because it has announced its best intentions through the publication by Timber Growers United Kingdom of its booklet The Forestry and Woodland Code, which recognises that there are many interests to be borne in mind in establishing and managing forests. I must resist the temptation to speak at length on that particular subject, but I feel that much of the criticism that is directed against foresters by environmental interests lacks that essential balance and a proper appreciation of the many advances that are taking place. Indeed, the very rumour that the commission might be privatised has brought forth a chorus of protest from a wide range of people, including amenity and environmental bodies who, when they thought that the chips were down, were quick to acknowledge the high quality of the commission's stewardship of its estates. This served to confirm my own view that there is a deep underlying support for forestry in this country, provided it is carried out with the needs of others very much in mind.
In many ways forestry is coming of age and it is doing so under the forestry policy that the Government set out in December 1980 and which is working well. That policy has not changed. In saying this I am not giving your Lordships' House a coded message. I am simply stating the facts and I hope they will be accepted. If there should be any intention in the future to amend that 1980 policy your Lordships would certainly be informed in plenty of time.
My noble friend Lord Kimball was pretty harsh, I thought, on the Forestry Commission but I pay tribute to him as a landowner in the Highlands who provides employment on his estate and makes sure that it is not casual or part-time employment. He employs people on a permanent basis. Anybody who achieves that and the success on the sporting side of an estate which my noble friend has achieved must have the thanks of the community. Nine or 11 jobs in Altnaharra represent a sizeable workforce and my noble friend has done a splendid job in maintaining it.
I shall not defend the commission further because I think that was extremely well done by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, with his knowledge as a former chairman of the commission. He dealt with the points adequately when he spoke.
My noble friend Lord Kimball and the noble Baroness were concerned about some of the planting 1266 which had taken place in Caithness and Sutherland. I am aware that there are misgivings, particularly in that part which is known as the flow country. But it is very large and not all of it can be of high conservation value. Properly considered and planned forestry schemes should not be incompatible with the needs of nature conservation. I can tell the noble Baroness that the commission now consults the Nature Conservancy Council on all afforestation proposals in sensitive areas in the flow country. We must try to get the right balance and the commission in its attitude is very much aware of this nowadays.
The noble Baroness also suggested that attempts to place a conservation duty on the Forestry Commission have failed. This does not fit the facts. The Forestry Act 1967 was amended last year by the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985 to place a duty on the Forestry Commission to seek to achieve a balance in carrying out its functions.
The noble Baroness also asked about forestry in environmentally sensitive areas, known as ESAs. There is no cause for concern here. The Forestry Commission has made it clear that it will not grant-aid any forestry scheme which is incompatible with the aims and objectives of an ESA.
The noble Baroness asked a number of questions, which I shall try to answer. She said there was criticism of the decisions of the regional advisory committees. I am afraid that she is misinformed because the regional advisory committees do not actually take decisions; they simply try to conciliate in disputed areas. At the present moment the composition of the regional advisory committees is being carefully revised and I have no doubt that the conclusions will meet with the approval of the noble Baroness.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also asked me a number of questions. I am sorry if I misunderstood his point on a previous occasion, and I hope I shall be able to give him the proper answer tonight. He asked me whether in the last five years the Forestry Commission had withheld sales to safeguard access. The answer is yes, the Forestry Commission has withheld properties from the market which otherwise would be eligible for sale under the rationalisation approach because of the heavy investment in recreational and public access facilities.
The noble Lord also asked me about the situation of properties for sale in consideration of public access. I have partially answered that question, but there is a further point. The selection of properties for sale within the overall policy laid down by the Government is a matter for the Forestry Commission. The commissioners have absolute control of this. The disposal programme is carried out entirely by the commissioners. They decide what properties they shall dispose of and the Government do not take an active part in that selection.
The noble Lord further asked me about the position of landscape conservation orders in national parks. This is still under consideration within government. I am afraid that since it is a matter for environmental Ministers it is not within my remit; but I have noted the question and perhaps I can arrange for a letter to be sent to the noble Lord to deal with that more fully.
The noble Countess, Lady Mar, I often feel deploys her arguments so effectively in such a short 1267 time that many of our colleagues who took part in the debate which preceded this one could well take a leaf out of her book. She asked me about replacing surplus farm crops with trees. To some extent this relates to the point to which my noble friend Lord Radnor also spoke. The Government are looking carefully at the question of tree planting as an alternative crop to agricultural products which are in surplus and at the broader role that the Forestry Commission might play in relation to changes in the common agricultural policy.
The EC Commission has floated a number of interesting ideas, though only in the broadest terms so far; it has not yet spelt out much in the way of detail. At this moment it is difficult to gauge the possible impact on forestry in this country, but the question of the contribution that forestry might make is being kept firmly in mind and suggestions such as those which have been made by the noble Countess are helpful in these matters and will certainly be considered.
The views of consultees on the report, Woodland as a farm crop, are now also being analysed. The consultation exercise has provided a great deal of material on which to work, and we are grateful to all those who responded to it.
My noble friend Lord Radnor asked me about grants under the dedication scheme and suggested that they have not risen in line with costs. I point out to my noble friend that the grants are not index-linked. They are designed to encourage the establishment of woodlands. The main criterion must be whether they are meeting the needs satisfactorily. However, the Forestry Commissioners will be reviewing the grant levels with effect from 1st October this year, and we shall take into account the points which my noble friend has made. I think that to bring them up to the levels at which he hinted may be a little difficult, but we shall consider the points which he has made.
My noble friend Lord Ferrers, along with a number of others, mentioned contour planting. This is a question of good landscaping. Forestry has not been short in many cases of good landscape planning. Some instances may not be as satisfactory as others. But the commission has the benefit of advice from landscape architects and, indeed, in one case from an eminent landscape consultant. As forests mature, are gradually felled and are re-stocked, the opportunity is being taken to make them more diverse, to plant away from streams and to get rid of straight lines and rather ugly square boxes that are not in the best interests of amenity.
My noble friend Lord Gisborough made an interesting proposal concerning the encouragement of joint ventures between farmers and forestry investors. The Government will take such proposals into account in their consideration of measures to encourage farm forestry. My noble friend Lord Dundee asked how consultation between countryside bodies could be improved. The commission has issued a consultation paper on the composition and procedure of regional advisory committees. The aim is to help these committees to do their job of reconciliation as effectively as possible.
1268 The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, who has a habit of firing financial questions at me when I least expect them, asked me how much tax relief was given away through the commercial forestry policy. The best information that I can obtain for him is the 1980 Inland Revenue figure which at that time was £10 million a year.
The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, whose leg I pulled a little at the beginning of my remarks made, as he always does, an extremely valuable contribution. It is an enormous advantage in these debates to have the experience and knowledge of former chairmen of the Forestry Commission, and we are grateful to the noble Lord for what he said. He said that he could not read his own writing. I have to be absolutely honest and say that I made another comment about his speech but I cannot read my writing! We are on a par.
In conclusion, I thank once again the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for his interesting and constructive approach and for giving us the opportunity to paticipate in what has been a most enjoyable debate.