HL Deb 17 June 1997 vol 580 cc1104-5

3.5 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their plans to stop any further disposals of Forestry Commission assets.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel)

My Lords, our election manifesto stated that we favoured a moratorium on the large-scale sale of Forestry Commission land, and we are currently considering how to implement that commitment. Sales of commission land have been on hold since the election was called.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Is he aware that the previous Government were committed to selling off 100,000 hectares of Forestry Commission land and a further 26,000 hectares before 1999? Is my noble friend further aware that, as the Forestry Commission's estate is available for recreation and amenity, the statement of a moratorium will be much welcomed by the 50 million day visitors who take advantage of the recreational facilities that are afforded by the Forestry Commission?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am indeed aware of the previous Government's policy on disposals and merely point out that there has been a change of policy.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, can the Minister say whether any financial encouragement will be given to small timber growers?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I confirm that every encouragement will be given to small timber growers. Systems are available to support both large and small timber growers. I recognise the contribution that small timber growers make to both the environment and the industry.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister tell us when he will authorise or start the Forestry Commission's planting once more in place of the moratorium on planting?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, there is a moratorium on sales. We want to see an increase in plantings generally. It is true that in recent years plantings have fallen short of the previous Government's target, but we would like to see a general increase in plantings not only by the Forestry Commission, but by the industry as a whole.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, in view of the undoubted fact that the majority of private forestry is better managed than the majority of Forestry Commission forestry—

Noble Lords


Lord Gisborough

It is, my Lords, and it is more environmentally friendly. There is no doubt about that. Given also the higher market value and the fact that land can be sold with covenants in order to protect access, would it not be much better for much of that forestry to be sold off so that the Government could use the funds that they receive for other projects?

Lord Sewel

No, my Lords. I dispute that private forestry management is undoubtedly superior to the management of the Forestry Commission.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that quite a short time ago—within the past two years—the previous Government went out to consultation on the matter of privatising the forestry industry and received negative responses from everyone, including the private forestry industry, which wanted the Forestry Commission to stay as it was and to continue to fund research?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, as always, my noble friend makes a well-informed and valuable point.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, the Minister has told the House that the Government will implement a moratorium on large-scale sales as set out in their manifesto. In answer to almost all the Questions that have been put so far, the Minister has said that he will maintain spending on small-scale plantings and the other matters that have been raised. Presumably, the Minister is aware that the sales of Forestry Commission assets, which currently amount to about 1 per cent. of its 1 million hectare-plus estate per annum, fund part of the commission's programme: grants to private owners, increased access to visitors and the purchase of freeholds where that is beneficial for access. If the Government intend to impose a moratorium on large-scale sales of Forestry Commission assets, they must either cut their programme or find the money from elsewhere.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, the last contribution sounded more like a statement than a Question. However, I shall deal with it in the spirit of a Question. Disposals have been used to fund other activities. They have also been used in the Government's general public expenditure survey settlement. We are reviewing those arrangements.

Earl Russell

My Lords, further to the Minister's original Answer, can he explain why the Government need to consider how to implement a moratorium? I thought that it would be rather simple.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, that is very true! The moratorium is in place. The question arises how one then moves to a situation in which large-scale disposals are avoided but at the same time the Forestry Commission is given flexibility to dispose of and acquire assets in the overall efficient management of its property.