HL Deb 03 November 1992 vol 539 cc1337-40

3 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they propose to achieve their target of 33,000 hectares of new planting of trees annually, and what levels have been achieved in each of the last three years.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, the Government provide a range of incentives under the Forestry Commission's woodland grant scheme aimed at encouraging new planting by the private sector. Earlier this year we also introduced a farm woodland premium scheme as a successor to the farm woodland scheme. The Forestry Commission itself continues to have a programme of new planting. The general economic situation has nevertheless had a dampening effect on forestry investment. Planting activity can be expected to pick up, however, as the economy improves. Total new planting in each of the three financial years since 1989, to the nearest 100 hectares, has been 19,500 hectares,19,000 hectares and 17,100 hectares.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the last time this Question was asked in this House was March 1991? His colleague who is sharing the Front Bench with him said at the time, I believe that the position will recover"— There had been a regrettable downturn in planting— I have every confidence that the industry itself will increase the number of plantings in the course of the next few years".—[Official Report,27/3/91; col.1066.] I had the Forestry Commission report on my desk this morning. Private planting has decreased by 1,000 hectares; Forestry Commission planting has de-creased from 10,000 hectares 10 years ago to 3,000 hectares. A farm woodland grant accounts for another 3,000 hectares, making a total of 17,000 hectares. Is that not far short of the Government's target? Will the Minister cease running down the Forestry Commission and encourage its planting in order to recover some of the lost ground?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am aware of what my noble friend said when the Question was last asked. It is indeed disappointing that new planting has not significantly increased. The policy remains one of encouraging forestry expansion as and when possible. It is important to consider the matter properly within its context. The total area of woodland planted or grant aided by the Forestry Commission in the year to 31st March 1992—including restocking of felled woodland—was well over 30,000 hectares. That is close to the average of the previous 20 years.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is a great need, for environmental and other reasons, for a larger proportion of trees planted to be deciduous rather than conifer? Can he say what the Government are doing to encourage the Forestry Commission and private owners to plant a higher proportion of deciduous trees?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, in my original Answer I made mention of the farm woodland scheme which has now been replaced by the farm woodland premium scheme. My noble friend will be interested to know that under that scheme farmers have submitted applications to plant more than 15,000 hectares of trees. Over 11,500 hectares have been planted so far, with broadleaved species accounting for 75 per cent. of the area my noble friend's point is a good one. I trust that under that scheme and others there will be a concentration of effort on broadleaved species.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, can the Minister say what percentage of our annual timber requirements we import and the value of those imports?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

No, my Lords, I cannot give a precise figure for that. However, as is appreciated, it is a very considerable sum. That is one of the reasons why we would like to see an expansion of forestry activity so that in future that very significant contribution to our balance of payments might be reduced.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the Government were to release the money that the Forestry Commission has collected in selling land since this Government came to power, it would have any amount of money to develop and, as the noble Lord said, to plant what we used to plant 20 years ago.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, as I indicated, the Government's view is that it is appropriate for the private sector to take up that responsibility. That does not mean that the Forestry Commission is entirely without involvement in new planting. There are obviously good reasons for that; namely, to rationalise its existing estates and to maintain employment in some parts of the country where the employment position is fragile. The noble Lord may also be aware that in Scotland it has some involvement in acquiring small areas to encourage in a pump-priming way what are described as community forests.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, surely the best incentive in order to encourage more planting would be to get some tax incentive going, particularly where the private sector is concerned. Does the Minister not agree?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, matters of tax relief are clearly for my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, I believe that as a general observation it has not done, and it would not do, the industry any good if it were simply to be seen as a tax haven. What is considered to be important is that the grants introduced under the woodland grant scheme were of such a level that they were more or less equivalent to the amount that was being invested because of the tax relief programme. There are also increases in the grants supplements paid for planting on better land. There has been the introduction of the £950 per hectare community woodland supplement, and there are also the grants for continuing management of woodland introduced earlier this year.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, can the Minister say how the support given to private landowners for set-aside compares with that given for woodland planting? Does he agree that it would be a good idea for the two to be comparable so that more people were encouraged to plant woodlands?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, certainly it would be desirable if more people were encouraged to plant. I appreciate that there is uncertainty caused to some farmers because of the change in the common agricultural policy. I am not sure how the set-aside proposals would tie in with new planting. I say to noble Lords that the Government take the view that woodland planting should be allowed under the rules for non-rotational set-aside when it is introduced next year.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, can the Minister say what the Government's current position is as regards the future of the Forestry Commission? Is there a possibility that the Government have changed their mind over privatisation? If so, how will the current shortfall in planting be made good if the Forestry Commission is privatised either in whole or in part? For instance, would the specification put forward by anyone likely to buy into the Forestry Commission need to include a planting programme in the prospectus?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, perhaps I may say very clearly, slowly and carefully that the Government have no plans at present to privatise the Forestry Commission.

Lord Elton

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether there is any prospect that a proportion of the broadleaved trees in this programme will be varieties of elm which will be resistant to Dutch Elm disease and which would enormously help the landscape as well as the industry?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, no. I do not have that degree of expertise as regards the types of species which might be introduced. I shall discover the answer and write to my noble friend.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the planting of hardwoods has an inevitable negative cashflow return and that it would be utterly wrong to suggest to people that they should plant hardwoods as an investment as opposed to an amenity which is highly commendable? Therefore, where people are asked to grow hardwoods, does the Minister agree that they should be grown only in very small proportions among softwoods?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I believe that the essential premise on which the question is based is correct. It is for that reason that in dealing with an earlier question on broadleaved species, I focused on what is known as the farm woodland premium scheme. That would appear to the Government to be a very appropriate way by which the broadleaved species throughout the United Kingdom might be increased in number.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, perhaps I may help the Minister, in reply to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, by saying that the import bill for timber and timber products in this country is no less than £6.5 billion? Does that not make it an important industry in terms of the balance of payments?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, it certainly does. That is why it remains the Government's policy to expand forestry wherever possible.