HL Deb 18 July 1989 vol 510 cc692-5

2.52 p.m.

Lord Moran asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of the Earl of Arran's statement on 8th May 1989 (Official Report col. 451) that coniferous afforestation can damage landscape and can contribute to soil erosion and acidification of rivers and lakes, and of the announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment on 16th March 1988 (Official Report, Commons, col. 596) that approval would not normally be given for new plantings predominantly of conifers in the uplands of England, they will extend similar protection to the uplands of Wales.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, I apologise for the length of the Answer. I cannot agree that a ban on conifer planting in the uplands of Wales would be helpful. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales said in another place on 23rd March 1988: The existing consultation arrangements, the effectiveness of which will be enhanced by the woodland grant scheme, will continue to balance the environmental and forestry planting objectives in the upland areas of Wales". I can confirm that planting is only approved under the Forestry Commission's grant schemes after full consideration has been given to its likely impact on the environment, including those aspects referred to specifically by the noble Lord.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that between 1980 and 1987 60 miles of rivers in Wales had to be downgraded from class 1 to class 3 because of the effects of acidification; many lakes have also been affected; and that the economic loss to fisheries in Wales as a result of acidification has been estimated by the Welsh Water Authority as between £1 million and £3 million with a potential loss of between £18 million and £24 million? In May the noble Earl, Lord Arran, told the House that conifer afforestation can contribute to acidification of rivers and lakes and increases its effects, notably the concentration in streams of toxic aluminium which kills the fish and may also be a hazard to human health. Therefore does the Minister agree that afforestation by conifers in the Welsh uplands ought now to be curtailed and that, in the light of the communique issued after the Paris summit, the Welsh Office should pay more attention to environmental factors than it has done hitherto?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not embark upon a discourse on the Paris summit. However, it is important that such afforestation schemes are each judged on their merits. They do not all necessarily generate the bad effects to which the noble Lord has referred. It is important that that should be done in close consultation with all concerned and, in particular, in accordance with the various guidelines issued by the Forestry Commission.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, nevertheless, is the Minister aware that in Wales there is disquiet about the future direction of forestry policy in the Principality? For example, is he aware that the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales calls for a forestry policy along the lines of that now in force in England? Can he give the Government's response to that request? Secondly, will the Government consider giving financial assistance to the Coed/Cymru scheme to preserve native woodlands which is at present nominally but not financially backed by the Forestry Commission?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I shall look into the latter point to which the noble Lord referred. As regards the wider question about forestry policy in Wales as compared with that in other parts of the United Kingdom, circumstances are very different in the Principality. Far greater areas of land are available there for the purpose and in many cases a different policy is therefore appropriate. It is important that the views of the Forestry Commission should be taken on the matter. It is the expert and it has published a number of documents in order to help those concerned.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will it listen to Welshmen such as the noble Lord?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, yes. All the schemes to which I have referred and which were referred to in the original Question tabled by the noble Lord require planting consent in general terms. That is granted only after wide-ranging consultation.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, in the light of the Answer which my noble friend gave as regards Wales, can he say what is the Government's policy towards encouraging the establishment of broadleaved hardwood plantations? If it is the intention that they wish to see the establishment of more native tree plantations in the United Kingdom, will he discuss the matter with his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that proper incentives are provided for those forms of plantation which unlike coniferous plantations take several generations to mature?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw a distinction between the two types. In some parts of the country broadleaf planting is more appropriate than conifer planting. However, that does not apply in every area. For example, in some of the upland areas broadleaved trees do not grow satisfactorily. As regards the position of my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my noble friend will know that there is now a move towards grant-aiding such schemes rather than providing them with the tax relief that they have received in the past and which some would say has been subject to some abuse.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that acidification mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, does not come from the trees? It is collected by the trees from the outlets of some fossil fuels; for example, factories and coalmines. Is he also aware that a hectare of conifers collects five tonnes of CO2 per year which would otherwise go up into the ozone layer and destroy it?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as the noble Lord rightly indicates this is a complex technical matter. Certainly it is not the case that everyone agrees that the planting of trees contributes towards the acidification of rivers and other water areas. The matter is now being actively considered by the relevant experts, including the Welsh Water Authority and the Forestry Commission which are now conducting research into the matter.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that when the matter was raised in connection with an amendment to the Water Bill the noble Earl, Lord Arran, said that to limit coniferous planting in these areas was going too far? Will he also confirm that our total import bill for timber and timber products is £6 billion per annum? Will he also confirm that this country is the least afforested country in Europe, apart from Ireland, with 10 per cent. of the land taken up by forestry as against 28 per cent. in France and 30 per cent. in Germany? In those circumstances are the dangers mentioned in the Question grossly exaggerated?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I believe that afforestation policy, particularly in the Principality to which the Question applies, is best taken forward by means of the policy announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Essentially it is one of considering each case on its merits.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, quite apart from the question of acidification and the dispute between the conifers and I he oaks, is not the greenhouse effect beneficially influenced by the plantation of trees which consume carbon dioxide and not monoxide, which is created by the greenhouse effect?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my noble and learned friend's intervention simply indicates and confirms that there are two sides to every question. The scientific effect to which my noble and learned friend refers is correct, but so are some of the effects to which other noble Lords have also referred.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, does the Minister accept that a great many landowners and environmentalists, including myself, do not find that conifers constitute a blot on the landscape, especially if they are imaginatively planted so as to avoid monoculture? Will he also agree that conifers are probably the only species which in the end are economically profitable, apart from unusual hard woods such as cricket bat willows?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think the answer to that is that it is undoubtedly right to plant conifers in some cases but not in every case. Broadleaved species, as my noble friend Lord Eden mentioned, are sometimes more appropriate and should be supported in those cases.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in my experience if you plant conifers, especially spruce, up to the side of a loch, the fish will go to the other side where conifers are not planted. The reason for that is the increase in acidity. As regards improving the landscape, certain aspects can be improved by conifer planting. However, it entirely depends on how they are planted and how rigid lines are overcome by allowing space within the fences for other more natural trees, such as birch, to soften the outline.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend speaks from great knowledge and experience of these matters. I am tempted to think that his initial observation suggests that fish prefer the broadleaved species.