HL Deb 04 June 1996 vol 572 cc1156-8

2.55 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe asked Her Majesty's Government:

Since the inception of the Forestry Commission disposal programme: (a) how many hectares of land have been sold to private investors; (b) how many transactions have taken place; and (c) how many public access agreements have been agreed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay)

My Lords, since the inception of the disposals programme in 1981 the Forestry Commission has sold 208,000 hectares of land, including 128,000 hectares of forest land in some 2,700 transactions. Nearly 100 access agreements have been concluded since we introduced the arrangements to protect public access in October 1991.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I welcome the Minister back. He arrived from Brussels only half an hour ago. I am sure I speak in the name of the whole House when I wish him well in the exacting duties he has to carry out in Brussels. Is the Minister aware that the total number of day visitors to the Forestry Commission estate is 50 million and that this represents a considerable contribution to the quality of life of people who enjoy the countryside? Will he give an assurance that there will be limits on the disposal of Forestry Commission land where there are not restrictions on access? Without such limits we shall be denying families the opportunity to enjoy walking and rambling in the countryside.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful for the kind remarks offered by the noble Lord. I am glad that he is pleased to see me back from the Continent. The noble Lord makes a very good point. There are indeed 50 million visitor trips to Forestry Commission lands. The Forestry Commission puts a considerable amount of effort and resources into improving the recreational facilities it has within its management.

However, the noble Lord's second point is based on two false assumptions. First, we do not seek to sell Forestry Commission land where public access is a priority or a significant feature. Our disposals programme is concentrated on those forestry sites where there is either no, or low, public access. Secondly, we try to concentrate our disposals programme on those areas of the Forestry Commission estate where, because of legal constraints, there may not be any public access whatever. I would add that when any Forestry Commission land is being disposed of we contact the local authorities and seek to enter public access agreements with them prior to the sale.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I declare an interest which I handed over to my family some years ago. Is my noble friend aware that in south-west Scotland, although the Forestry Commission has provided public access quite successfully, it does not always look after its plantations as well as it should? Will he do all that he can to expedite the opportunity of the owners of the land to buy back their plantations from the Forestry Commission where they have been leased or where they are held on a long feu?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, as my noble friend makes clear, there are examples of good management and bad management in forestry both in the public sector and in the private sector. We are anxious to see the Forestry Commission's estate, which still exceeds 1 million hectares, rationalised. That involves sales of Forestry Commission land to the private sector where very often stronger incentives exist to manage well.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the contribution of the Forestry Commission to employment in the rural areas is significant and important? Can he tell the House how many people are currently employed by the Forestry Commission?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. The employment that forestry generally stimulates, especially in rural areas, is of great significance. Some 35,000 jobs are currently dependent on forestry. About 3,500 to 4,000 jobs are within the Forestry Commission itself. When one takes the current employment statistics, plus the fact that woodland production is up by 50 per cent. since 1980 and is set to double in the next 20 years, one can see a very secure source of employment for many years to come.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that there are periods during the cycle of a crop of trees when it is totally appropriate that the public should be given access but that there are other periods when it is inappropriate, particularly during felling and the early stages of the growth of the trees? During the growth period, which is much more than 20 years, there is an opportunity for the public to establish rights of way across the land. Does he agree that it is high time that the Government instituted revisions to the law relating to access to land, particularly forestry land?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, we, the Forestry Commission, all the other public sector agencies and the private sector take a very close interest in managing public access. It is of great benefit to many millions of people, although it carries some costs especially in terms of management. There are also costs in terms of the environment itself—to either habitat or species. Generally, the Government believe in encouraging and increasing public access. Now, for the very first time, we are actually increasing woodland access. What is more, we are increasing it in Great Britain in the areas where it is most needed.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, the House will be glad to know that the Government are anxious to increase public access. The Minister will be aware of the fact that in Scotland over the years hikers and walkers have had great benefit from access to forestry land and the hills generally. They are also the most fervent protectors of the land. If they see anyone desecrating land in any way they are the first people to stamp it out. Can the Minister say whether there is easy access to the places where forestry land has been sold off? Can he say how many points of access have been preserved? The people with whom I am associated are very keen on walking and hiking. They know their ordnance maps very well. If there is an easy way for them to transfer information, through their clubs, as regards places where they cannot go, that would be a great help. Can the Minister say whether there is access to the land which is for sale?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, we are currently in discussions with the ordnance survey organisation to identify as usefully as possible those areas of Forestry Commission land where access is available and encouraged. The access agreements for the areas being disposed of are arranged through the local authority. That is a ready source of information. I remind the noble Lord and the House that the private sector is a huge source of access. Over 4,000 private woodland owners have taken benefit of the grants we supply to help them manage better their public access facilities.