HL Deb 28 February 1997 vol 578 cc1413-7

11.18 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay) rose to move, That the draft scheme laid before the House on 12th February be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving this draft scheme I shall speak to the second scheme standing in my name on the Order Paper. These draft statutory instruments are presented in accordance with Section 2 of the Farm Land and Rural Development Act 1988. They were laid before the House on 12th February and approved by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on 25th February. They apply in Great Britain only. Similar but separate arrangements operate in Northern Ireland.

I shall describe the background to the schemes. The farm woodland scheme was introduced in 1988 to counter growing agricultural surpluses and to encourage farmers to develop woodlands on land used for agriculture. The scheme offered payments to farmers over periods of up to 40 years to compensate for the agricultural income foregone when they planted trees on their land. The pilot scheme was reviewed after five years and its successor, the farm woodland premium scheme, was launched in 1992. The main changes introduced into the FWPS were increased payments over a shorter period and a reduction in the minimum eligible area. At the time we undertook to review the scheme and report to Parliament within five years.

The scheme is co-funded under EC Regulation 2080/92 on forestry measures in agriculture and we receive reimbursement of 50 per cent. of eligible expenditure from the CAP budget.

Both schemes have been successful with, to date, over 48,000 hectares approved for planting in the UK.

We conducted an economic and environmental evaluation of the scheme and sought views from the main farming, forestry and environmental interests. In light of the evaluations and views received, we conducted a detailed policy review of the scheme. A report was laid before Parliament on 24th July last year summarising proposed changes and shortly afterwards a detailed consultation paper was issued. That consultation paper was sent to farming, forestry and environmental interests and placed in the Library of the House.

Following that exercise, our final intentions were announced on 12th December last year and a list of the changes was placed in the Library of the House. The statutory instruments currently before your Lordships would enact those aspects of the proposed changes where legislative amendments are necessary.

Our review concluded that considerable public good derived from woodlands, most notably in the form of landscape and wildlife benefits. These benefits justify continued public support for the scheme.

The objectives of the scheme are being revised to stress the environmental reasons for the public subsidy. The new objectives are: To enhance the environment through the planting of farm woodlands, in particular to improve the landscape, provide new habitats and increase biodiversity. In doing this, land managers should be encouraged to realise the productive potential of woodland as a sustainable land use".

A number of detailed changes are being introduced by these statutory instruments. I would like to describe the most important of them.

First, we are seeking to increase payment rates, except on unimproved land where we consider the existing rates adequate. We are also making some changes to the payment structure. This is because the evaluations showed that the agricultural income foregone from planting trees was substantially higher on arable land than on grassland. Therefore, we are introducing a separate, higher rate that will apply to plantings on arable land, defined as land eligible for the arable area payments scheme. The new rates and payment structure will apply to both new and existing participants. Outside the less favoured areas, the new rate will be £300 per hectare for plantings on arable land and £260 per hectare for plantings on improved permanent grassland. It is my view that, bearing in mind the benefits many farmers and their successors will derive from woodland on their land, this will be an attractive proposition for many.

Secondly, we are removing the requirement for participants, once accepted into the scheme, to continue to run an agricultural business. I see this as an important development that will make the scheme considerably more attractive to farmers who are contemplating retirement from active agriculture. The change will also apply to existing participants.

Farmers will still have to be running an agricultural business to be accepted into the scheme, but we are widening eligibility for the scheme by broadening the definition of an agricultural business to include arrangements, such as grazing licences, where landowners retain some control over the management of the land.

We are also introducing more flexibility into the eligibility requirements by removing the current rule limiting applications to 50 per cent. of the agricultural area of a holding. However, this is a cash-limited scheme and we wish to see a wide range of plantings of varying nature and with different objectives. It would therefore not be desirable if the bulk of the funds went to a small number of businesses, to the exclusion of others. With this in mind, we are introducing a maximum area limit of 200 hectares on the area any one business can receive FWPS payments on. The limit will only apply to plantings ensuing from applications received on or after 1st April 1997.

On the administrative front, we want to make the scheme easier for farmers to apply for. The revised scheme will therefore be more closely integrated with the woodland grant scheme run by the Forestry Commission, with joint application and acceptance procedures. There will effectively be a one-stop shop for the farmer interested in establishing a woodland.

In summary, the intention of these changes is to make the FWPS more attractive and thereby help increase the amount of woodland on agricultural land around our towns and throughout our countryside, not only to our benefit but to the benefit of future generations. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft scheme laid before the House on 12th February be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Lindsay.)

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I am speaking to this statutory instrument in the absence of my noble friend Lord Carter. I am most grateful to the Minister for his rather long explanation of this complicated scheme. I thank also the Country Landowners' Association for the brief that it has forwarded to me.

I understand that the problem with the old scheme was that farmers were not willing to enter it because of the practical problems encountered when trying to do so. However, from what the Minister said, it looks as though individual farmers or landowners will still need more explanations if they are to be attracted into the scheme.

My general impression from the briefings I have been given is that provided that no hidden snags arise, as happened with the earlier scheme, this scheme is in general acceptable and will help to achieve increased plantings of trees on what was previously farm land or reclaimed land. Therefore, on behalf of this side of the House, I give the scheme a general welcome and only hope that this time we have got it absolutely right.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation. We too give a general welcome to the statutory instrument, but we have one or two queries.

For some years there has been concern about the planting of trees on hard-won improved land. The struggles to improve that land and to bring it into agricultural use have sometimes gone on for more than 100 years. Such land is to be found in Moray and Nairn, Kintyre, and Mull where farm units are already being lost to woodland. It is feared that the payment of the premium is encouraging landowners to plant trees and that that will exacerbate the problem. I know that the Minister has corresponded with my honourable friends in another place Sir Russell Johnston and Mrs. Ray Michie about the anxiety expressed by Mr. Alistair Maclennan, president of the Moray and Nairn area executive of the NFU of Scotland.

We generally welcome the SI but remain concerned that the more remote places which are already vulnerable will be at even greater risk from rural depopulation if more is not done to protect them. That is in addition to what I think is the probable need for more food and more food security for this country in future.

It is significant that the Cairngorm Partnership, which represents the various interests trying to reach a consensus about the management of the fragile environment of the Cairngorms, has mentioned a presumption against the loss of better land to other land uses, including most woodland planting, in its draft management strategy. It reinforces the concerns of the local NFU that scarce improved land would be lost to woodland planting undertaken by landowners and thus result in further depopulation if it is not specifically safeguarded. Our concern is that the SI does not in itself give adequate protection for areas such as that. Can the Minister give an assurance that further thought will be given to strengthening the guidelines relating to paragraph 6? Otherwise we support the Motion.

11.30 a.m.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful for the general welcome that this new scheme has received from the noble Lords, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove and Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I should like to correct one general impression that the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, may have given. He suggested that the existing farm woodland premium scheme was somehow disabled, limping along and suffering from various chronic problems. That is not so. It has been a very successful scheme. But, like all schemes, over a five-year period it is vital to review progress as circumstances evolve to deliver improvements wherever possible. The improvements we have identified include the removal of some restrictions that were not delivering benefits, the improvement of rates to deliver greater benefits, and the improvement of targeting.

The response to the scheme to date by farmers across the United Kingdom, especially in Scotland, has been very positive. We are planting across the United Kingdom about 70 million new trees per annum. Over the past 17 or 18 years we have planted over a third of a million hectares across the United Kingdom. We are re-afforesting this country at a considerable rate with an eye to planting the right trees in the right places rather than simply blanket the landscape with trees.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, that efforts are made to inform farmers of the possibilities under the farm woodland premium scheme. We will be promoting the scheme through an introductory guide that is in preparation at the moment. Nevertheless, advice remains available to farmers through ADAS, the Scottish agricultural colleges, the agriculture departments and the Forestry Authority. While awaiting the publication of the introductory guide we will be reprinting the existing short practical guide with amendments to take into account proposed changes.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, referred to the concerns that had been expressed by his honourable colleagues in another place about the loss of good quality agricultural land in marginal areas. We fully understand that concern. I have sought to reassure his honourable friends in correspondence. We understand the concerns and have sought to ensure that they are groundless. The operation of the farm woodland premium scheme area limits will avoid the unlimited conversion of land that is valuable for other land uses while still providing reasonable further opportunities for farmers to plant woodlands under the scheme.

It is essential that farmers themselves decide within the limits whether to apply for entry to the scheme, how much land should be entered and which parts of farms should be converted into woodlands. Nevertheless, the Forestry Authority's procedures for consultation, for example with the agriculture, environment and fisheries department of the Scottish Office, on such scheme applications provide an opportunity for consideration of the effects of the proposals on the agricultural structure of the locality. In addition, in the course of wider consultations on forestry proposals, consideration is given to the balance between forestry and other land uses, including agricultural and environmental interests. These matters are also often reflected in indicative forestry strategies that have been prepared by local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, is also aware that there is a 40-hectare limit on FWPS applications on unimproved land.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, asked about strengthening paragraph 6 which deals with the restriction on resumption of land for entry into the farm woodland premium scheme. The scheme rules already prevent this from occurring. I hope that the noble Lord can be satisfied on that point. Landlords cannot resume land from tenants in order that that land can go into the farm woodland premium scheme.

On the basis of those reassurances, I hope that the House accepts the scheme.

On Question, Motion agreed to.