HL Deb 07 June 1989 vol 508 cc845-8

Lord Taylor of Gryfe asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the target for new forest planting is 33,000 hectares per annum, and if so how far planting for 1988–89 falls short of that target.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sanderson of Bowden)

My Lords, I can confirm that our new planting objective is still 33,000 hectares per annum. The total area of new planting in the year to 31st March 1989 was about 29,000 hectares, made up of some 25,000 hectares of planting by the private sector, for which grants were paid during the year, and some 4,000 hectares undertaken directly by the Forestry Commission.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that the target is 33,000 hectares per annum. Is he aware that the Timber Growers Organisation, the official organisation of treeplanting and timber growing, has estimated that this year's planting programme will be 11,000 hectares? Is he also aware that some of us saw the sad sight of vast areas of nursery trees being burned and destroyed, and in the past few weeks it is estimated that between 50 and 60 million small trees have been destroyed since there is no market from the nurseries? Does this indicate any assurance to the industry that the targets will be met?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I have never made any secret of the fact that there will almost certainly be a drop in planting while the industry adapts to the substantial though necessary changes which we introduced last year. However, I have also heard some fairly pessimistic figures, but I shall not crystal-gaze as to what those figures might turn out to be. We are mid-season at the moment and the commission's conservators are collecting information on what the figures are likely to be. I do not share the extreme gloom of some pessimists.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me what proportion of the plantings are hardwood as opposed to softwood?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, a growing number of hardwoods have been planted over the past few years. I would rather get the exact figures for the last year and write to my noble friend.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, do the figures which the Minister has given include anything to do with the new Community forests? Can he tell us when he expects the first applications to be made in relation to the new Community forests and whether they will start in the next planting season?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

No, my Lords, the figures I have given refer to last year and do not contain any of the new Community forests. We would expect to see planting starting next year.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that not only has the new regime damaged, or is about to damage, the planting programme, but, worse still, when it starts to bite it will seriously damage the management of existing timber? That will tend to create forestry which is massive, unmanaged and unattractive, as opposed to the production of high forest, which is good for conservation and for the country.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I am very well aware of the discussions that we had when the Budget changes took place. The transitional arrangements which we brought into force as a result of the last Budget were for a fairly long period. It has to be remembered that many woodland owners will have benefited substantially from the reduction in the top rate of tax to 40 per cent. and can now look forward to tax-free sales of timber. However, we are keeping the matter under review, particularly in regard to maintenance of forests.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, in view of the fact that we have an adverse balance of payments on timber and paper products of £6.5 billion, and also bearing in mind the beneficial effect of trees in combating the greenhouse effect, does the Minister think that this is a satisfactory situation?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, the fact that we are now seeing a sizeable increase in felling year by year is very satisfactory. I can give figures for 1987 of 5 million cubic metres having been felled as a very clear indication of the increase. That is good news, as is also the downstream activity. We need to be sure that we have a sustained programme of planting, but we also ought to remember that the size of the forest estate as it stands in the United Kingdom has risen dramatically over the past few years.

Lord Rees

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that last year's ill-considered measures have damaged long-term confidence in forestry? Does he also recognise that the statistics with which he will no doubt be furnished in due course are based largely on application for grant, but that not all applications are translated into planting? Will he therefore, against that background, use his considerable influence with his colleagues in government and with the Forestry Commission to ensure that the planting applications are handled and processed properly and quickly and that they do not involve the applicant in undue time, trouble and expense?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, as a result of what my noble friend has said and from his experience I am well aware that we are constantly wrestling with applications and the problems related to them. I shall do everything I can to speed up those applications because they have a real bearing on the tree-planting programme.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, because large tracts of forestry land are privately owned—in some cases by individuals rather than by organisations—in the national interest there should be a check on whether the destruction of forests should be permitted and whether the planting of new trees should be encouraged? Does he agree therefore that in the national interest there should be investigation and control over all forms of forestry land?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, it has always been accepted on all sides of the House that the forestry industry is most important to the United Kingdom. The Government, in the form of the commission, own 916,000 hectares, which is a sizeable amount. However, we must always bear in mind the balance within the United Kingdom and consider how many trees should be grown.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, surely the Government, the Ministry of Agriculture and whoever is responsible must appreciate the long-term situation in forestry. The cut was made over one year and approximately 14,000 trees were burnt. That is a result of not looking at the matter on a long-term basis. I do not know whether the Minister saw the television programme shown on Monday night about the ozone layer. The Prince of Wales made an appeal for more forestry in this country. After all, we have planted just under 10 per cent. and are the fourth lowest in the European Community. I believe that the target area of 33,000 acres is ridiculous and that it should be almost doubled. It would help if——

Noble Lords


Lord John Mackie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the moratorium covering many areas in England is an absolute disgrace, that it should be removed straightaway and that people should be allowed to plant on those areas.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, the noble Lord is most pessimistic. By the end of April the Forestry Commission had received applications for almost 36,000 hectares of new planting. Of that, over 20,000 hectares was for new areas not included in any previous grant schemes. That is an encouraging start. I know that it does not always lead to new planting but it is an encouraging start. It compares most favourably with what was done in 1987 and 1988. As regards the uplands in England, I know very well to what the noble Lord directs his question. Perhaps it should be directed at another department but I understand the position in England. However, I also believe that the vast majority of tree-planting in the uplands will take place in Wales and in Scotland.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, does the noble Lord know of any future plans for altering the nature of Epping Forest? I must confess that I have a vested interest because it runs along the bottom of my garden.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, as far as I am aware, there are no plans to alter the forest running along the bottom of the noble Lord's garden.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, will the Minister accept that there was no question of crystal-gazing when I quoted the figure showing that over the past few weeks between 50 million and 60 million young trees have been destroyed in this country because there is no market for the nurseries? Is that not a scandal? Is it not clear evidence of the lack of acceptance that the 33,000 hectare target will be met? Is the Minister further aware that over the past decade the paper and pulp industry has invested in this country £1 billion on the assumption that trees will be available to supply the industries? Alternatively, are we again to be dependent on an adverse balance of payments and imports from Sweden or the Soviet Union?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I am well aware of what the noble Lord is saying. I recall that before the last Budget various representations were made by members of opposition parties that changes should be made to the taxation regime. The Government introduced those and we believe that it is a much better system. However, of course such a change brings about problems for nurserymen. I am well aware of that but believe that they can adjust to Budget changes in the same way as any other industry. I understand how difficult those changes are for the industry.

I am confident that the downstream activities will grow. At the moment the production of wood and the downstream activities are in the right kilter. We are able to supply the new industries which I am pleased to see have been developed.