HL Deb 18 February 1998 vol 586 cc230-61

3.7 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

rose to call attention to the case for a policy to expand forestry in the United Kingdom, based on partnership between the public and private sectors; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I declare an interest as the chairman of the All-Party Forestry Group. It may be helpful to those who are listening to this debate for me to establish one or two facts in relation to forestry. In this country only 10 per cent. of the country is covered by trees. In Germany it is 30 per cent. and in France it is 26 per cent. At the beginning of the century only 5 per cent. of the countryside was under trees; but now we have managed to increase that to 10 per cent. However, that is substantially below the woodland cover of our European friends and neighbours.

Forestry is a considerable industry. The current value of output in a year is £800 million and growing. Sixty per cent. of all woodlands are in private ownership. The Forestry Commission is responsible for only 40 per cent. of woodland ownership. Having established those facts about forestry, I should perhaps refer to an earlier debate on this subject, which took place in January 1995. As I said at that time, the Minister concerned had previously assured us that, It continues to he our policy to encourage the expansion of woodland cover in Great Britain".—[Official Report, 14/4/93; col. 1143.] The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was present for that debate. He had said in a debate on forestry in 1991: I have every confidence that the industry itself will increase the number of plantings".—[Official Report, 27/3/91; col. 1066.] Those are the promises that were made in previous years. Since then investment in forestry has declined and new planting has substantially declined. The Forestry Commission, of which I was chairman some years ago, used to plant around 20,000 hectares a year. Last year, that was down to 400 hectares. In the private sector 10 years ago 19,700 hectares were planted. Today the figure is 16,000. This represents an industry in decline because of lack of concern and lack of acceptance of its importance to our economy.

It is important, now three years after that debate, that we should take stock of where the industry is going. I propose to say a few words about, first, its economic importance to the country; secondly, the environmental impact of forestry; and, thirdly, the importance of forestry in giving us a reasonable quality of life in our country.

As far as concerns the economics of forestry, we import over £6 billion of wood products a year. I attended a lecture upstairs just a few weeks ago when the head of the DTI Export Department told us about how much the Government are spending on export promotion and how they hold seminars and exhibitions overseas. I pay a compliment to the DTI for its endeavours in export promotion. However, very little is said about import substitution, which is equally important to our balance of trade. We should be looking at this tremendous bill of over £6 billion per annum for the import of wood products.

In the past 10 years the pulp and paper industries have expanded considerably. In that time over £1 billion has been invested in new plant and equipment. That investment is undertaken on the assumption that there will be supplies of timber from domestic sources in order to keep the pulp and paper industries going. However, the record of the past few years has shown that there is no possibility of the industries being sustained by domestic supplies.

The industries were based on the assumption that the quality and supply of British timber would enable them to be competitive in the world markets of paper production. There is nothing wrong with the quality of British timber. However, there is something wrong with the record of the planting programme. The industries depend on spruce, largely sitka spruce, as the material for paper and pulp production, but nowadays more than 50 per cent. of new planting is in broad-leaves, which have a rotation of 90 to 100 years. They contribute something to the environment but contribute little or nothing to maintaining the kind of industrial investment that has taken place. I therefore suggest that we have to look at forestry as an important industry and as an important contributor to national wealth.

I want to say a few words about quality of life. The Government spend a lot of time talking about sport and making people more healthy. I do not believe it is particularly healthy for 60,000 people to go to Old Trafford on a Saturday. I prefer to walk in the woods. I prefer the quiet. I prefer to escape from the trashiness of television. We should give people the opportunity to get out into the woodlands to walk. They would thereby become more healthy, physically and mentally.

Fifty million day visitors walked in the Forestry Commission estate last year. I am referring to the Forestry Commission estate, although the private sector has been similarly active. Chalets in the Forestry Commission woodlands were occupied for 1.2 million bed nights last year. The Forestry Commission is responsible for the management of 17 forest parks. All of these make an important contribution to good and healthy living. These factors have to be taken into account when the Government talk about making us a healthier nation but spend a lot more on the glamorous aspects of sport and recreation. The Forestry Commission works closely with NGOs, English Nature and Scottish Heritage in maintaining the standards of our environment. The Forestry Commission is responsible for 70,000 hectares of SSSIs, which are important to our national heritage. Forestry, therefore, is not only economically important but is a national asset in terms of our quality of life.

When I was chairman of the Forestry Commission, the private sector and the state sector worked in partnership together. We shared research and training facilities. We were not competitors. We did our best to create a healthy forestry estate. I regret to say that under the previous government there was an upsetting of those partnership arrangements. The Forestry Commission has been run down, no money has become available for planting or acquisition, and substantial investment and grants have been made, rightly, to the private sector to encourage it to grow trees. I hope that as a result of this debate the Government will be encouraged to make a new start in this relationship and revive the old partnership concept. Instead of selling off the Forestry Commission estate and denying it the funds necessary for planting and acquisitions, I hope there will be the re-establishment of the relationship which existed formerly.

I was delighted to see the other day that forestry has featured on the Prime Minister's agenda. However, I believe that he overdid it a little when he made a statement on forestry. It was headed by his Press Office, Prime Minister Tony Blair has launched the most significant forestry document in the past decade". That is encouraging, but I believe that it is going a little too far. Nevertheless, the fact that the Prime Minister is now taking an interest in forestry is a very good thing.

I hope that the Minister will pay attention to the party manifesto in connection with forestry. It says, We favour a moratorium on the sale of Forestry Commission land. The countryside is a great national asset and calls for careful stewardship". I hope that that is a message that the Minister takes on board.

Perhaps I may make one further aside as regards the devolution debate which we shall have in due course. The fact that the Government will now devolve forestry and will make it a Scottish concern in Scotland, a Welsh concern in Wales and an English one in England will contribute nothing to improving the management and expansion of the forestry estate. I hope that the Minister will also take that on board in anticipation of the Scottish devolution debate.

I am delighted that a number of noble Lords are participating in this debate and I hope that their encouragement and voices will be heard. I beg to move for Papers.

3.21 p.m.

Lord Nickson

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for introducing this debate and somewhat flattered that, in responding to him, I find myself first wicket down—which, in the West Indies (which we are not)—is not normally a healthy position to be in. I put my name down to speak to the debate this morning not because I wish to disagree with him about the importance of forestry, but because I wish to emphasise, as he has done, the recent document published by the Government entitled, The UK Forestry Standards, and the need for a balance between the environment and production.

To my great benefit, I live in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, which I hope will shortly become part of one of the first Scottish national parks to be created in Scotland. The Government have made that announcement. I already enjoy the huge benefits, to which the noble Lord has referred, of being able to walk out of my front door and straight to the top of Ben Lomond, some 15 miles away. I totally appreciate all that.

The noble Lord did not comment on the proportion of land in Scotland under trees, which I now believe is about 13 per cent. I agree with the noble Lord about the decline in forestry planting in recent years. There is a very simple reason for that. There has been very little increase in net planting by the public sector, the Forestry Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby—who was present a short while ago, but who is not now in his place—had the simple answer as to why the private sector stopped planting; namely, the removal of the tax incentives. The noble Lord also removed much of the incentive to invest in the forestry industry which many people, including myself, thought was highly undesirable. It was a tax break to encourage forestry production. However, I believe that that had a very undesirable effect on the type of forestry planted throughout the United Kingdom. I for one was extremely glad that that tax break disappeared. I was equally well aware that many people whom I know in the private sector used their forestry account because of that to carry out a great many activities that were not strictly forestry because of the advantages that the tax gave them, So I plead with the Government to be fiscally neutral and to try to achieve their objectives economically by way of planting and grant.

I was involved in the promotion of Scottish economic development and I do not argue at all about export substitution; nor do I argue about the need to try to encourage forestry planting on a productive scale.

In any government review I urge them to seek to bring forestry down the hill. The reason that it has not come down is because of land prices. Why are land prices higher? Because of the subsidies on farming, and particularly sheep. I see the Minister nodding and smiling at me, as he so often does. We need to encourage forestry to come down the hill. There better trees will grow. The land will produce more and environmentally it will be infinitely preferable to the terrible problems that have been created by a mass sitka mono-culture in the uplands.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, will understand that I do not seek to disagree with him on the purpose of this this debate. I do not seek in any way to criticise his highly distinguished period of office as chairman of the Forestry Commission. I do not seek to criticise the forestry authority. I believe that great strides have been made in understanding the effect on the environment of forestry as so much was planted before the war and shortly afterwards.

I would like noble Lords to understand the appalling damage that that ignorance has created in the environment and the countryside. The damage to watercourses and to biodiversity is irreparable. We also suffer from the huge problem of acidity due, as we all know, to global warming. I am no scientist, but I believe it to be an established fact that two things have happened. Vast forestry and upland drainage, and the use of the Cuthbertson plough have meant that, whereas the uplands acted as a sponge for our watercourses, held water and fed it off gradually to the great benefit of the environment, we now have the rapid pulling of a plug and water flows straight out, giving rise to flash floods with huge effect. Forestry in the mass acts as a sieve in collecting and depositing the acid rain—something we can do little about. That is lethal to fish stocks and many other forms of wildlife.

I also believe that great strides have been made in understanding the effects of forestry on wildlife. But there is no doubt that intensive planting in the uplands has had great effect on the biodiversity of species that live on heather moorlands. It has vastly encouraged that rapacious predator, the fox, which has removed so many of our upland birds and has a sanctuary in upland forestry.

So in a sense I am saying, "Let us increase our planting, but let us be extremely careful". That is why I so much welcome the document published by the Government and launched by the Prime Minister on 19th January called The UK Forestry Standards. I regret to say that I had not read it or looked at it—there is a copy in the Library—until shortly before this debate. I have read it quickly. I commend it to anybody who, unlike me, has been ill-informed and not looked at it.

I would like to quote the Prime Minister's words in his introduction, to which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor has referred: The Government recognises the need to monitor UK forests and to take steps to correct anything found to he going wrong". That is what I am pleading for. That is inconsistent with the Earth Summits in Rio and in Helsinki in 1992 and 1993.

In our future forestry policy we need a balance and equilibrium, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has so wisely said, between the public and the private sector. We need a partnership on which all the best bases are founded. We need to see that re-established and enhanced. We also need equilibrium between atmosphere, climate and forestry production. I welcome this debate and the attention given to forestry. I very much welcome the UK Standards document and the guidelines being issued by forestry managers. I believe that there is now a far greater understanding of what needs to be done in terms of the rest of the environment and forestry planting.

I plead that in any new steps that the Government take there is no financial incentive to take short cuts and to bypass, for reasons of financial gain, so many of the wise limitations that have been set. It is a great temptation. It is easy to write documents and to say that guidelines should be monitored; it is far less easy to ensure that they are being enforced and it is far harder to tell the long-term effects of some of the actions that we may take in the short term.

I shall sit down in a moment, not having used all of my allocated time, but I must make one more point. The Forestry Commission and the forestry industry have not been subsidised to anything like the extent of agriculture. It may be true that the upland subsidies to agriculture, which have been based on food production, have done more environmental damage than forestry because of the over-grazing. That may well be so, but as the guidelines are enforced it is essential that we become far more aware of the environmental effects.

We also need greater awareness of the downstream economic effects of forestry production. Local authorities and highway authorities tell of the high costs of forestry extraction day after day. It is carried out mostly by contractors, not full-time employees. Such work has to be undertaken on bridges, culverts, narrow and country roads. Those who live on or by such roads will testify that the work and the cost of it is considerably greater than people imagine. By all means let us try to increase that 10 per cent. Figure—it is 13 per cent. in Scotland—but in doing so, let us be extremely aware of the environmental consequences.

3.31 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, the question of the allocation of land use in an overpopulated country like the United Kingdom lies at the root of a number of the problems we find ourselves discussing in this House. Last week we were discussing competing claims by rural interests and housing; today the debate is on the need to expand forestry, but it cannot be about forestry only since more land devoted to forestry is less land devoted to agriculture or housing or wilderness, or one of a number of other objectives. So, this is merely one part of an important ongoing debate and we must be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for bringing before your Lordships' House not merely the whole subject, but also his unparalleled expertise in this area.

I did not put my name down for this debate until very late because I have no particular knowledge of forestry as a specialised subject and I had, and have, every confidence in my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie who was, and is, down to speak and to whose speech I eagerly look forward.

However, I was stimulated to add my name to the list of speakers when I received a briefing paper from the Council for the Protection of Rural England, a body with which I am in broad sympathy although I by no means always agree with its policies. I am all the more pleased that I am to speak largely to its briefing paper because I note that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, is not speaking in this debate. The CPRE's brief was most helpful in underlining the basic problem of land allocation, on which subject I am, if not an expert, at least an enthusiastic pupil.

Well managed woodland can be a great benefit to the country and, indeed, the world in a number of ways. My noble friend Lord Redesdale was telling me recently of the big recovery of diversity of wildlife in some woodland which he had started managing both sensitively and aggressively—that is my description, not his.

In addition to diversity, woodlands also add, in the words of the CPRE,

beauty and character to the landscape. They improve air quality and help temper local climates". It is because those objectives are both acknowledged goods and not easily quantifiable in pounds and pence that I welcome the CPRE's insistence that the Government's target needs to be driven not by economic criteria alone, as the discussion paper (Woodland Creation: needs and opportunities in the English Countryside) suggests, but should be based primarily on environmental and recreational criteria which it will be easier to justify, implement and monitor.

This is not to say, as we might be caricatured as saying, that we want to decide what we would like to see and then throw money at it. Value for money must be taken into account at every stage of the planning. But it is to say that the objective and the result is not to be solely measured in GNP. It is to be measured in human satisfaction and welfare and also in the holistic good of God's creation (or nature or Gaia or whatever other name one likes to give to that overarching responsibility).

If we are to pursue those ends, we must proceed delicately and with circumspection. It is no use announcing plonking targets and then planting huge areas insensitively. Let us proceed little by little where the area calls for it, and do not let us designate large areas for single-species cultivation. Let us encourage diversity. Nor should we enslave ourselves to political shibboleths. There should not be a reliance on private enterprise for its own sake or public ownership for its own sake. Both have their part to play and we must organise our policies to encourage both.

We all know that one of the major problems in land allocation in the UK is the CAP. It is not only a massive problem; it is a complex one, but we should welcome the European Commission's expressed desire, to develop a more integrated rural policy for Europe in which agricultural, social and economic objectives are drawn together". At the same time, in responding to a situation in which Europe tends to produce too much agricultural produce at too high a price for current markets, we must not lose track of the near virtual certainties; first, that more food will have to be produced to feed the world; secondly that, as this becomes more obvious, food prices will go up, and, thirdly, that the world must, and therefore will, move towards spreading its undoubted wealth better, so that fewer people will starve in the midst of plenty.

What I have just said may sound as if I am almost opposed to the spread of forestry—not at all; I am very much in favour of it. It is merely that I believe that we must proceed sensitively and step by step, a conclusion with which I hope that few of your Lordships will disagree.

3.37 p.m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe correctly pointed out that the expansion of woodland in this country does not necessarily mean the expansion of forestry. We have seen a considerable effort to expand woodland in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. That is appropriate because we are one of the least heavily wooded countries in the European Union.

Previous speakers have pointed out the benefits of woodland in terms of access and recreation, and for wildlife. Woodlands also make a modest contribution to the process of carbon sequestration to mitigate emissions of carbon dioxide and their impact on climate. They are important too in terms of landscape although I must confess to being mystified by the then Department of Transport and its belief that one could somehow mitigate the effects of building motorways by the salutary effort of planting a few trees alongside.

We have some excellent examples in this country of commitment to the expansion of woodland by private landowners and the public and voluntary sectors. I refer to the new national forest that is now growing in the Midlands and to my local community forest at Marston Vale which is revitalising and greening an area previously ravaged by brick clay extraction and landfill. Private landowners, often helped by the farm woodland scheme, have helped to create small woodlands across the country. Non-governmental organisations, such as the Woodland Trust and, dare I say it, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—here I declare an interest—have done their bit in terms of creating woodland.

However, I do not believe that that is what my noble friend Lord Taylor was talking about; he was referring to the expansion of forestry, which is different. The expansion of forestry will provide all of those benefits but also the economic benefit of timber production and, perhaps even more important, employment in rural communities. I well recognise the noble Lord's concerns about the future mismatch between the availability of commercial timber for processing and the processing facilities that we are developing in this country. Therefore, a significant expansion of forestry is called for as opposed to simply an expansion of woodland. But we need to find the solution to a number of issues, some of which have already been identified.

First, we must define how much forestry is wanted so that the targets are realistic. We must clearly define the types and location of the forestry required and how it will be delivered. In the past the targeting of forestry increase has been a problem. We must resolve the issues of land ownership that have already been pointed out. I refer to the current debate about the Forest Enterprise estate and whether it will continue at its present size or reduce dramatically. We must also consider the availability of new planting sites on agricultural land. The whole process of bringing forestry down the hill has so far been singularly unsuccessful on a commercial scale because of land prices. We must tackle the difficult issue of investment in public and voluntary sector planting.

I wish to put up a few markers on the environmental front. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, make a strong case for environmental protection as part of forestry expansion. Forestry expansion must be part of a vision for multi-purpose forestry delivering not only economic but environmental and social objectives, particularly taking forward some of the biodiversity objectives of the UK biodiversity action plan. I give an excellent example of how that occurred in a highly commercial forest. In Thetford, East Anglia, there is one of the most productive forests in the United Kingdom; yet there has also been a huge increase in numbers of woodlark and the return of the nightjar in proportions that are the envy of many areas of the country. It is also a delightful area in which to walk.

The expansion of forestry must take place in the context of a UK strategy that can be interpreted at regional and local level. It must deliver national biodiversity targets related to the overall strategy for forestry expansion. An excellent example of expansion under the biodiversity action plan that has already begun is the planting by Forest Enterprise of native Caledonian pinewood in Scotland.

One word of warning. We know from past experience that forest expansion can result in inappropriate trees in inappropriate places with inappropriate forest design. At the moment many NGOs and statutory bodies are spending extremely large sums of European Union money taking trees off heathland in the south of England which were inappropriately planted 20 or 25 years ago. Heathland is a fast diminishing habitat in this country. The only way to get it back is to return it to what it should be rather than afforest in inappropriate places. The most prominent example is what happened in the flow country. Many noble Lords may have seen the recent publicity about it. Not only are the inappropriately planted trees in the flow country not growing very well—it is a rather wet place—but they must be removed to put that internationally important habitat back into the condition in which it should have been. It does not seem to me to be a sensible way forward or an efficient use of resources to subsidise planting and then subsidise tree removal before it ever becomes a harvestable crop.

The incentive and regulation system that we now have in this country has developed dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years and is pretty good compared with previous practice. I praise the work of the Forestry Commission, the Forest Authority and Forest Enterprise in implementing some of these conditions and ensuring that we no longer have the inappropriate planting that occurred on a huge scale in the past. But the odd one still slips through. Inappropriate planting submissions still arise. I commend the Minister for his excellent decision recently to require substantial amendment to a planting proposal in Scotland which would have jeopardised the home hunting range of one of the last few pairs of golden eagles in that part of Scotland.

I conclude by asking the Minister to build on his excellent start and assure your Lordships' House that in the promotion of forestry expansion in the United Kingdom the Government will ensure that the economy, including the rural economy, and the environment all benefit from the right trees in the right places.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, timber supply will increase with demand up to the year 2025. After that if no new planting is undertaken supply will fall while demand will rise. Yet a continuous level of supply of softwood is essential to satisfy the domestic wood processing industry. At present the peak of production will be reached in 2022 at 16 million cubic metres and thereafter drop to some 12 million in 2042. It is already too late to affect that trough, but the planting of conifers should be increased by some 275,000 hectares over the next 25 years to achieve a return to 16 million cubic metres. Meanwhile, the town environmentalist has more influence over forestry than the forester with the expert knowledge and thousands of hectares are being wasted in the name of environment. One example of this is the insistence on large proportions of hardwood in every new planting. How nice that sounds for the countryside. But private owners have been planting hardwood for generations and have created the hardwoods that the townies have discovered and wish to protect by bureaucracy. But the opposite is being achieved.

A mature hardwood tree covers some 100 square yards: that is to say, a diameter of some 30 feet. Planted in rows 30 feet apart and only in such numbers that can be economically pruned and looked after one ends up with a wood with nearly 100 per cent. high quality and valuable hardwood. Planted in between the hardwood rows to pull them up will be softwood thinned out during the first 40 years to help satisfy the demands of the mills. The present incentives insist on a very much higher percentage of hardwood to be planted per hectare. There is no softwood to pull them up. Most of the hardwood will be thinned out at little value, and there are too many for the final crop to be identified and to be economically pruned. The result is likely to be stands of firewood quality timber with no contribution to softwood demand.

The demand to plant high densities of hardwood is totally counterproductive and a waste of private and public money. These stands are planted without thought of future management and cropping. According to a paper prepared by Dr. Claire Ozanne, it is a myth that conifers are poor for the environment. For example, she claims that Corsican pine would double the density of anthropods (whatever they might be) compared with oak wood. Another drag to efficiency is the total and unwarranted distrust in the motivation of the private forester. One example of this is the inheritor of an arboretum that had been laid down by his grandfather. It had been allowed to deteriorate, and the new owner lavished care and expense on it to bring it back to its former glory. Having done so, it was immediately put under a conservation order so that he could no longer do anything with it without the permission of the planning officer. Small thanks for his efforts. Perhaps the local council thought that the owner, having done all the improvements, would suddenly try to fell the whole lot.

My own experience is somewhat similar. I should first have declared an interest. I am a forester. Having won a national hardwood prize, the compartment was immediately conserved. I can no longer go out and prune it without committing an offence punishable by, from memory, a £2,000 fine. As a result I no longer plant hardwood for fear that the local authority will conserve it and remove my ability to manage it properly.

Surely it would be better to identify blocks of unmanaged or ill-managed woodland and bring pressure to improve them than to harry and discourage success. Interference by bureaucracy and by the townie and the unrealistic antipathy to softwood is inviting long term stagnation of the industry and doing far more harm than good. There does not appear to be any realisation by critics that forests have to be managed over a very large number of years to become high value timber. It is not just a matter of planting and waiting for a huge profit.

There is far too much unnecessary red tape. Foresters used to have to deal only with the Forestry Commission when they wanted to take some action and this was bad enough. Now the Forestry Authority has to consult with every "which way" organisation and local authority before it can consent itself; and the better the forestry the more control is exercised. There is little incentive to grow quality.

The standard of amenity of privately owned woodlands is far higher than that of the public woods for the good reason among many others that the Forest Enterprise has largely to confine its input to production, while the private owner is prepared to spend resources on amenity and landscape. I know of one person that bought back some commission forestry and it was in such a ragged state that he just felled it, and replanted to bring it back to the standard of the rest of his estate.

All the arboretums and parks have been created by the private sector not the public, and they are mostly open to the public such as Westonbirt, Thorpe Perrow, and many parks. Capability Brown would have had a lean time without the private owners. Why should their descendants not be trusted and allowed to maintain and make their own creations for posterity to enjoy without the direction and interference of the bureaucrats? Far more of the Caledonian forest was destroyed by public forestry and turned into black hills of Sitka than by private interests.

There is then the whole question of sale to the public, and the cry that the woodland will be closed to the public. That is nonsense. If a commission wood is open to the public, its sale deed can stipulate that the wood remain open. If the site is an SSSI, then the new owner is subject to the same rules as a public body. The only difference is that the private owner is not free to ignore the restrictions, as is the public body in, for example, the trampling of an SSSI by a motorway.

Forestry gives a very low return but private owners have been prepared to accept this for the amenity value it provides and for the roll-over capital inheritance effect that allows value to be passed on to future generations. There is every reason to encourage private capital to take over from public in the industry wherever possible, either by private planting, or by sale of Forest Enterprise land. Existing access can be assured by covenant, and the private interest will care for the trees better than the public sector. Alternatively Forest Enterprise could be turned into a company and as many shares as possible sold to the public.

The Forestry Commission was not formed to be a trading or profitable enterprise. It was formed to establish a strategic reserve in timber. Low yield public capital tied up in trees could be far better used on national services, leaving the private sector to maintain that reserve.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, I join those noble Lords who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe on introducing this debate on the expansion of forestry based on co-operation between the public and private sectors. The relationship between the public and private sectors, which has existed since 1919 when the commission was first established, could be neutrally described as ambivalent. Private landowners have always been represented on the Forestry Commission. That was made clear from the start, but the Acland Report which set up the Forestry Commission was not greeted with universal approval. It is now suggested that Forest Enterprise should be turned into a private company.

Over the years the Forestry Commission has come in for a great deal of criticism. Many of the things it has done have been controversial. There have been arguments about the merits of sitka spruce versus other varieties and so forth. However, no objective observer of the scene could come to any conclusion other than that the FC has served the country well during the almost 80 years of its existence.

It is not often said, but the FC should be congratulated on its experiments in relation to where it grows timber. It has experimented with growing timber at higher altitudes than normally might be expected, in difficult terrain, and sometimes in boggy country in Caithness. Some experiments have been unsuccessful but some have been successful. The commission should be congratulated on the way it has carried out those experiments.

Experimenting in the growing of trees, in circumstances not otherwise thought to be viable, is a better approach than using up good agricultural land for planting trees. This debate may have to be taken further. I am sure that many noble Lords have seen the briefing from the Woodland Trust. It argues, for example, that changes in land ownership, along with the expansion of the state sector and investment in public and voluntary sector planning, will undoubtedly be required to deliver any meaningful expansion. The trust states: Imaginative ways of encouraging land out of agricultural production and into woodland must be identified since under the Common Agricultural Policy farmers have not found forestry a financially attractive land use". I do not want to go too far into the controversy about the CAP. It is clear that there is a great deal of thinking going on about the purpose of forestry. Over the years the FC has undergone a great deal of change. I would not say that it is the only industry which has been reviewed more than once. There have been umpteen reports into the FC. There has been a number of investigations by Select Committees. All along there has been a drift away from the importance of the FC as a public service body supplying timber towards the private sector.

The new company, Forest Enterprise, is a Next Steps agency. It has just completed its first year. We use such terms now without thinking about what they mean. The Next Steps agency was designed to take publicly owned companies, not just the FC, which have been wholly in the public sector into an agency. The next step was meant to be privatisation, as advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough. I hope that that idea has run up against the buffers, and that that route will not be followed.

The importance of forestry is well illustrated by the figures. According to the latest figures, timber imports last year cost £8.1 billion. Neither the FC nor private landowners will be able to make significant inroads into that £8.1 billion in the foreseeable future. I do not know how much of the land would have to he covered to produce that import substitution. I suspect that there would not be much land left for anything else.

It is interesting to look at what is happening: 75 per cent. of the forestry estate is comprised of coniferous plantations which were laid down between 1945 and the 1980s. It is a comparatively recent planting. Forest Enterprise's latest accounts show a profit on timber sales of £8.11 million. Significantly, in 1994, some 14,950 hectares were sold for £18.6 million; in 1995, 10,808 hectares were sold for £12.7 million; in 1996, almost 10,000 hectares were sold for £15.2 million; and last year, 10,842 hectares were sold for £19.8 million.

As my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe made plain, the Labour Party manifesto made it clear that there would be no more large-scale disposals of forests. I join with him in asking my noble friend the Minister to make it clear that there will be no more sales of forest land.

I believe that the situation ought to be reversed. The Forest Commission should be given the power and authority to start buying land again. Restocking is down and there is a great deal of concern about replanting. Indeed, the Forestry Commission states that its programme makes a small contribution to the national planning objective. We cannot take that lightly. Until now, the Forestry Commission has been a supplier of raw timber.

My late father-in-law, John McEwen of Blairgowrie, a distinguished forester, had the odd tussle with my noble friend from time to time. He was a vigorous exponent of public ownership and, although at times a severe critic of the Forestry Commission, he certainly believed that its role should be expanded. If we are to have a private sector-public sector partnership I do not see why it should not be expanded into added-on value.

I do not know the price of finished timber compared with the price when it leaves the forest, but it must be considerable. I believe that the Forestry Commission should share in that. It is looking at ways of expanding its role and it is considering leisure facilities. It is worth while taking a brief look at Forest Holidays. The companies, which have subsidiaries, are getting more like private enterprise every day. The business of Forest Enterprise is expanding. It is about to refurbish its cabin sites, which will be carried out under the private finance initiative. That business does not generate a huge amount of money. The company spent £1.1 million on the cabins and cottages and received an income of £1.3 million. It spent £2.3 million on camping and caravan sites and received an income of £2.9 million. That represents a gross profit of just under £900,000 and a return on capital of 9.6 per cent. That is higher than the return on timber production, but I do not suggest that the scheme should be proceeded with only on that basis.

More can be done by the Forestry Commission to look at new ways in which it can serve the public. The Forestry Commission does not exist simply because someone decreed that there should be a Forestry Commission; nor is public enterprise necessarily better than private enterprise. The whole ethos of public enterprise should be to serve people in the communities. The Forestry Commission is now doing a great deal of that with its forestry programme. It is an example of how people can work together.

Some of my noble friends jib at the private finance initiative. Many of my friends, especially those in the other place and outside Parliament, believe that it is diluting the pure milk and water of socialism. However, it is curious that most public companies, and, I suspect, the Forestry Commission, raise money by borrowing from private sources. Therefore, it would be far better if the two worked together in order to produce a better result.

I ask my noble friend the Minister to say that, looking to the future and to expanding forestry, there will be a real attempt to reverse the decline of the Forestry Commission's planting programme. It is essential to our future well being. I hope that the Government, in the spirit of opening the horizons of government, will look at ways in which the Forestry Commission can play a more vigorous and expansionist, even aggressive, role in a joint enterprise in the finished products of timber as well as the timber which we take off the land.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, the noble Lord spoke in support of the Forestry Commission. As one who had the privilege to represent the constituency in which its headquarters is situated, I believe that it carries out its duties with great professionalism and dedication.

Perhaps I may mention a family interest in agriculture and forestry. There is a general community interest in the best use of forestry to enhance the environment. In Scotland, tourism is the largest single employer and many tourists greatly appreciate the opportunity to have access to appropriate forest walks. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, mentioned some 50 million visits. It is to his credit, and to his success as chairman, that the infrastructure has been developed by the Forestry Commission for those walks to be greatly enjoyed. I also pay tribute to Scottish Natural Heritage and Magnus Magnusson who has helped to obtain access and management agreements of many environmentally sensitive sites in an acceptable way.

One initiative with concern for the environment at its heart, not only to develop woodlands in Scotland, but also to do it in an environmentally acceptable way, has been the Central Scotland Countryside Trust which has received a great deal of support from the Government. I should be grateful if the Minister could say what progress has been made, as many of the sites scarred by the Industrial Revolution were intended to be renovated.

The word "partnership" represents the key to what is required. I wish to raise three issues with the Minister. First, on the subject of a devolved Scottish Parliament, how is the funding to be arranged as regards the Forestry Commission? Will the Scottish executive be able to determine how much is spent in Scotland? How will the running costs of the headquarters of the Forestry Commission in Edinburgh be apportioned? Furthermore, will there be scope for different planning policies north and south of the Border?

It would help if the Minister could give a picture of what is envisaged and how the administration of the commission will be carried out in Scotland, England and Wales. Can he, for example, give a commitment that an environmentally friendly forestry policy will be followed in all parts of Britain, bearing in mind that loss of habitats can put surviving species at risk? I am thinking in particular of the red squirrel, the European otter and the capercaillie, to mention but a few.

Secondly, it is within my knowledge that Scotland has in the past been considered for inward investment in connection with wood processing and paper. But a number of issues have been raised relating to the following questions. Did the Forestry Commission have sufficient mechanisation? I was, for example, shown a machine in Finland which cut up a pine tree into measured poles, taking off all its branches, after cutting it down, and all within a few seconds. Such high-powered mechanical assistance, with an operator, could do the work of perhaps 16 men all working flat out with mechanical saws. More importantly, I was asked whether the forestry concerns in Scotland could guarantee a sufficiency and continuity of supply in the years to come. Those concerns were passed on to the Forestry Commission and it will help if the Minister could reassure the House that mechanisation and modernisation have taken place. Can he also confirm that there will be a steady supply of timber in the years to come?

Thirdly, can the Government give a strong message of support to the concept of a 67 per cent. increase in timber production by 2025, backed up by a pledge to review the funding arrangements under the woodland grant scheme? It may be that the scheme will need recasting so as to deliver an adequate cover for new planting and support for good, workable stewardship. Forestry is a long-term crop and should be so regarded. We have a relatively low coverage of forestry in Britain compared to other European countries. One of the obvious reasons for strongly supporting forestry is that a healthy, thriving domestic industry will reduce this country's dependence on timber imports, thus assisting the balance of payments.

Our wood processing industry is one of the most advanced in the world. Many of our saw mills, panel and paper manufacturing plants can well be described as state of the art. I believe that the reason for that is that many of the processing companies have recognised that British forestry can, over a prolonged period of time, deliver the finest products of sufficiently high quality to justify the enormous investment that has taken place.

It was the present Prime Minister who wrote, in relation to new standards for managing forests, in a preface: What is at stake is a high proportion of the Earth's species, the equilibrium of the atmosphere and climate, and the lives of millions of people who depend on forests for food and shelter". It is with those standards in mind that the excellent working relationship between the Forestry Commission and the private sector is in the country's national interest. That relationship is built on trust and co-operation, accompanied by a desire to expand and develop Britain's forests. It is a genuine partnership and I hope that the Minister will be able to strengthen that partnership with his words today.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I join previous speakers in offering commendation and gratitude to my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe on securing this debate. I join with them in paying tribute to the long and dedicated service he has given to the cause of forestry, a dedication which was amply fulfilled today.

It is appropriate that there is an English Member from this side of the House to speak in the debate and much of what I say will be with specific reference to England. However, I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, that I was delighted that, like my noble friend Lady Young, he touched upon the ecological importance of forestry. That is why I became interested in forestry myself. The first time I became really concerned about it as a politician was soon after I entered the House of Commons when the Treasury produced a cost-benefit analysis, which I described in an earlier speech in your Lordships' House as an example of utter imprudence. The analysis, issued in July 1972, demonstrated that it was not worth planting a single tree in Britain for commercial reasons. Three weeks later, the Russians trebled their timber prices and other timber producers followed suit. The analysis was knocked very hard on the head but unfortunately the Treasury did not react. I understand that your Lordships' House debated the matter some weeks later and that a large number of noble Lords criticised the then government, fortunately not of my political persuasion, for their inertia against that reality.

However, my main interest in forestry remains an ecological one. I spent a fair amount of time in the 1960s studying badgers and sharing the joys of being quietly within a wood rather than watching soap operas on the television, as my noble friend Lord Taylor said in his fine speech. Unfortunately, the last government privatised the forests where I watched those badgers and the right of public access was removed. I could go into those woods only as a trespasser, and noble Lords would expect me to be obedient to the law.

I have an anxiety about access. I am not in any way suggesting that people should be prevented from enjoying woodlands and the countryside. However, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 rather excessively and slavishly ignores all considerations except human demand. One of the Private Member's Bills which I took through the Commons, and which your Lordships passed largely without amendment in 1978, provided for the conservation of wild creatures and plants. Under the terms of the 1981 Act, as recently interpreted, we see an absolute requirement to provide public access without any regard to the conservationist interest.

I quoted an example a few weeks ago at a meeting with Ministers, which some noble Lords attended, and it is worth repeating. One of the plants protected under the 1975 Act was the lady's slipper orchid. At that point, as far as we could tell, there remained one single plant in these islands and it was protected. As the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, otherwise a perfectly splendid piece of legislation, is being interpreted, if a group of people, including perhaps some of the more extreme members of the Ramblers' Association who believe they have the right to walk anywhere and everywhere, claim—such claims not always proving to be as accurate as they might be—that once upon a time people had walked through a field or a wood then that right should always exist even if it means trampling on the last lady's slipper orchid. The last findings and decisions that I have seen in relation to footpath inquiries give cause for some anxiety about preserving important environmental and ecological features. I hope that the situation can be re-examined.

Another area of interest was in relation to my work on the Council of Europe. I cannot remember whether the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, was a member of the Council of Europe at the time. I know, however, that he gave much dedicated service to the agricultural committee. I acted as rapporteur and presented a report on forestry in the late 1970s which recognised the international as well as the national need in that regard. Unfortunately, the world has not seen forestry develop as the Council of Europe recommended, and that may be because it lacks power. We have not planted enough trees. One of the main reasons for that is the pursuit of privatisation and dogma. I do not like dogma in the British countryside. It can take things to extremes, damage relationships and so on.

Moreover, money may well have been used for the purchase of existing woodland which could have been devoted to the planting of new woodland. That diversion of resources has been extremely damaging and this country will regret it. Nevertheless, the Forestry Commission survived. Some of us were worried about whether it would be allowed to do so given the dogmatic approach adopted in the 1980s. In my view, it can make a very powerful contribution and needs to do so.

One area about which I feel some anxiety, although the Minister went a long way towards assuaging my fears in answer to a question the other day, is in relation to the community forest. About 15 years ago—my noble friend Lord Taylor will perhaps recall it more clearly than I do—there was a presentation in the Grand Committee Room to Members of both Houses concerning the proposed establishment of the Heart of England community forest, a splendid project. I recall saying at the meeting that we should not merely have that forest but a ladder of community forests from that initial forest through to Kielder, the great forest of Northumberland.

There were huge ravaged areas of north Nottinghamshire, north Derbyshire and south Yorkshire comprising far more land than was needed to be reclaimed for housing or economic development

I had accompanied my parliamentary neighbour, Stanley Crowther, on a canal visit from Leeds to Ferrybridge. It was an astonishing experience. Along the side of the canal were hundreds and hundreds of acres of opencast mining sites, areas which had been affected by industrial devastation in the early 1980s, and closed collieries. There was a great deal of land. I suggested that the area could very easily accommodate a community forest. As has already been explained, a community forest does not mean absolute 100 per cent. comprehensive tree cover; indeed, we must also have open spaces.

The same could be true in Durham. There we could most usefully see a community forest develop. I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister a question. If he does not think that a community forest could loom very largely in the planning activities of the regional development agencies, does he agree that the relationship between the regions and localities is most important?

I turn to my final point; namely, the arrangements after devolution. As my noble friend Lord Taylor said, many of us should, and do, walk in the countryside. At weekends my wife and I walk to the highest point of what was my constituency. It is surmounted by a pyramidical folly built by the Marquess of Rockingham to commemorate the quelling of the most unnatural rebellion of 1745. The Marquess was a Prime Minister who hated coming to London; indeed, he preferred racing horses at York and Doncaster, but was otherwise a perfectly splendid man. He planted many trees in my area which still remain. That pyramidical structure also marked the establishment of a just and balanced peace in Europe. It is interesting to note that Mr. William Hague was brought up just under the shadow of that particular folly.

I am concerned about the future of England under the forestry administrative arrangements following devolution. I trust that we will not find ourselves in the position which applied in the House of Commons for a time when those of us who wished to ask questions on English forestry had to ask the Secretary of State for Scotland and incur the wrath of my honourable friends from Scotland who did not like Englishmen trespassing too much on Scottish preserves. The fact remains that there must be increasing interest in forestry in England and there must be increased planting in England. I hope that Members of this and another place will not have to go to Edinburgh when seeking answers to such questions.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, the original batting list of today's speakers indicated that my noble friend Lord Nickson was to be first wicket down, but I was not mentioned in it. However, I understand that there is now a revised list and, once again, I shall be Tail-end Charlie. Nevertheless, I am very pleased to be able to speak and I shall be quick.

I should like first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for giving us the opportunity this afternoon to discuss forestry. I should also like to thank him for his very carefully worded Motion in which he mentions the partnership between public and private forestry operations. At the outset, I must, like all good Scots and Angus boys, declare an interest. At the last count this morning, I was advised that Kinnordy estates are involved in 320 hectares—or, as we say, "thereby"—of commercial forestry operations. That is disregarding what are known in Scotland as policies regarding rhododendrons, other arboretums and ornamental shrubs.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and other speakers like Lord Hardy, who has just spoken, have the entire forestry programme right in that it involves an enormous and very valuable partnership. It does not matter who does the planting or who carries out the forestry operations, so long as they are accomplished.

Trees and forestry have always been part of my life. I have seen pictures of the events surrounding my birth well before the war when a bonfire was lit. That was not necessarily a "Bonfire of Vanities", nor of furniture from the house, but of spare firewood from clear felling on top of one of the hills which I think is visible from the new home of my new neighbour the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, let alone from his old abode.

During the war, I well recall enormous felling taking place. There was one event which marked my schooldays. There is a reference to it in Westminster Hall of all places. Just about the time of the death of the late Queen Mary, 31st January 1953, there was a wind storm which devastated—and that is putting it lightly—the forestry operations in east and north-east Scotland. That was also accompanied by floods which devastated Canvey Island, as well as causing enormous damage in Holland. The events of that day left an enormous scar on the woodlands and forestry in our area, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, will well remember. I remember the plantations during my school days. I refer not just to our plantations but also to commercial woodlands, which were severely damaged by the events of that day.

The silviculture (which I believe to be a rather grand name for the operations outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor) also cover land use. That was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Silviculture operations, such as I see around my home at present, with felling and clear felling, leave an enormous mess. That leads me on to the thought that if silviculture is carried out on bare or open land, what does one do with it afterwards? Perhaps our forebears, the Founding Fathers in the United States, let alone the people who are carrying out operations in the Amazon rain forest, may be able to give us some advice as to what one does after one has planted and felled.

In other words, does one go back to forestry or does one go in for other land usage? My neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and my noble friend Lord Hemphill will certainly know that my homeland—the glens of Angus and the area around Kirriemuir in Scotland—is the start of what I call "the forest country". I say that because there is an enormous amount of land in that area which is not really adequate for CAP purposes or for agriculture. That is of particular relevance and importance, as my noble friend Lord Nickson pointed out, regarding employment.

As noble Lords are aware, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said that silviculture and forestry require an extremely long financial time-scale. Even the most experienced and aged noble Lords might get perhaps two, and if they are very lucky three, "crops" of softwood in one generation. In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, pointed out that for hardwood one would be very lucky if one got a 100-year rotation, which I believe to be beyond the scale of most of us in this House.

I should like to express my gratitude to the Minister for the grants that are available. Any grant is most helpful to private woodland owners in their planting operations. But in typical upland land that I have described in and around the braes of Angus, if one starts planting it is something like an advertisement in the informal nature news, as it almost puts out a little notice saying, "Opening immediately at Kinnordy". Every red deer, roe dear, vole and rabbit will rush in for what I can only describe as a feeding frenzy. Therefore, major fencing and other operations, should not be carried out otherwise time, effort and finance will be pretty well wasted.

Therefore, proper silviculture—proper planting—in the uplands, requires a fair amount of fencing, and that means extra costs. That is why the fairly generous grants, for which we are most grateful, are in no small way dissipated by the costs of fencing. The Minister, being one of the many speakers appearing on today's list whom I could call a woodlander in that he lives in a fairly rural area, although he may not immediately say so, and although he was a white rose of Yorkshire originally—but is wearing a dark blue jersey today when he speaks for Scotland and for forestry—will know that red deer are pretty athletic. Fairly tough fences have to be erected to stop them getting in, let alone the roe deers and rabbits who can get underneath the fence. Therefore, there are considerable costs involved when carrying out proper and professional silvicultural operations.

I should stress to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, who pointed out the various uses of forest land once trees are planted, that much discussion has taken place in this House about access. My noble neighbour the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, will certainly know about the woodlands around Kirriemuir. I will invite the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, to visit the area in summer. He will find all sorts of things going on in the woodlands which perhaps the young people will tell him about.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, may be a little startled to hear that one of the more popular events that take place in the woodlands in Strath Ardle around Perth and around our area of Scotland is motor rallying. Kindroggan Forest in Strath Ardle is not too far from the area that the noble Baroness knows. Some 25 years ago one of the forest wardens there said to me while we were watching the cars go by, "Yon will be nay *** use if he takes longer than 24 seconds between these two areas". Such was the enthusiasm of the forest warden for all kinds of uses of the forest. That was a somewhat unorthodox use of forest land in summer. I was astonished that it was taking place but it did not damage the roads too much. I do not think that the Forestry Commission was entirely charitable; I suspect that it obtained a fair rent and a fair sum in compensation for that activity.

In my own area in Glen Isla in the Forestry Commission plantation there is the most marvellous cross-country ski area. When the snow conditions permit, there is dog racing with huskies. I understand this also takes place in the Cairngorms. All kinds of activities take place on forest land which are far removed from those in the imagination of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and I thank the Minister, in anticipation, for taking on board the desperate need for the partnership that we are discussing. That partnership is of immense significance and it is a great success. I hope that this partnership will ensure that planting continues where it is needed. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has given us the relevant figures. I believe he said that the planting covered 25 to 30 per cent. of the available territory. I seem to remember that the figure for the Federal Republic of Germany was 25 per cent., and for France it was 26 per cent. I am delighted to hear that the figure for Scotland is 13 per cent. I hope that that will increase, and I hope that the Minister will give us encouragement that figure will rise.

4.31 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, this has been an interesting debate and I wish to add a few words. However, before I do so, I refer to the famous woods of the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, Caddam Woods, about which a good fiddle tune has been written. Those woods are the walking place for every dog in Kirriemuir. For some reason those trees seem to grow and grow. The fertiliser must be excellent!

Good landlords in Scotland have opened their woods to the public. On the whole the public have used those woods properly. I cannot understand why the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, introduced this debate on forestry. It must be a new interest on his part!

Noble Lords


Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, it is essential to have this debate because we have gone badly wrong in this area in recent years. The Forestry Commission has been downgraded and the situation with regard to planting has been disastrous. I take issue a little with the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, who made an admirable speech, and obviously knew his subject, when he said that he disapproved of the tax concessions which gave rise to some bad publicity as some well-known comedians and others put their money into forestry. However, properly administered, that money would have been extremely useful. Of course, at that time taxes were so high that the planting involved no cost to the people concerned. However, the scheme resulted in many trees being planted. When the Tory Government abolished the concession, the amount of planting being undertaken plunged, with bad results.

I accept that we must be careful about where we plant trees. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, spoke of the flow country. The Forestry Commission should not have permitted that planting to occur. Perhaps that took place because the Forestry Commission was not properly funded and could not properly oversee planting throughout the country. We in Scotland know about the pulp mill at Fort William and the pulp mills in Ayrshire. It is scandalous that after having invested money in the mills the companies concerned suddenly find that due to changes in policy there is no longer an adequate supply of timber to enable them to operate the mills. Co-operation between the Forestry Commission and private owners must be genuine and must be stimulated by the Government. The Government must provide money to enable that to happen. I trust and hope that they will show a great deal more understanding than has been the case with agriculture, which has suffered badly. Without proper backing of the Forestry Commission we shall not achieve the results we require.

I was interested to note that my noble friend Lord Beaumont and I are in complete agreement on this matter. We frequently disagree but on this occasion we are in complete agreement. It is extremely important that we realise the importance the public attach to seeing good looking trees about the place; deciduous trees, hardwoods and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, is obviously an extremely practical forester. He put his finger on the matter when he said that without softwoods forestry is not economic. Many of the estates in Scotland could not possibly survive without an income from the sale of softwoods for the pulp industry or whatever. At the moment maturing softwood is worth £1,000 an acre. If that money is realised every now and then, it keeps an estate going and keeps communities going in the countryside.

We need to plant sitka and other trees of that kind. We can at the same time plant the excellent Scots pine and the Douglas fir. We should also plant the European larch. In Deeside there is some admirably mixed planting which gives joy to everyone. There is also the "black forest" planting. Larch opens up the soil, the vegetation and the habitat. Hardwoods grow up in between the plantings of sitka or some fast-growing species. Therefore it is necessary to plant softwoods to encourage the growth of the oaks which will delight our great-grandchildren.

The simple fact is that the Forestry Commission must be reconstituted and given enough money to do its job. It must be able to buy land for planting, as the noble Lord, Lord Hughes of Woodside, said, and play its part alongside private enterprise. If that is done, we should at least be able to supply the pulp mills with timber and have a great deal of valuable timber for ordinary domestic use. The figures are horrifying. We have heard of the more than £6 billion that we spend on importing timber into this country. We have less than half the timber of France and of Germany and certainly a good deal less than that of Sweden. Therefore we must take this matter extremely seriously.

I do not wish to speak for much longer. I end with a story about my father and my uncle, both of whom had been chairmen of the North of Scotland College of Agriculture. At my father's golden wedding anniversary, a former official of the college was proposing a toast and told this story. He said, "Many years ago I was going through some woods with my chairman, Mr. John Mackie, and I said, 'Lovely woods, Mr. Mackie'. His reply was, 'Aye, grand woods to walk in wi' a lassie'. Some years later my chairman was Mr. Maitland Mackie. We were going through the same woods, and I said, 'Grand woods, Mr. Mackie'. His reply was, 'Aye, these woods will be worth £1,000 an acre".

That illustrates the two points of view. We have to marry them. The Forestry Commission is the body which has to do that. The Government have to see that the Forestry Commission has the money.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for this debate on forestry. It is some time since I took part in a debate on forestry. One of the joys of Opposition—I think probably it is the only joy—is that one can move out of the departmental brief that one has been given and revisit subjects of interest. Certainly forestry is an interest of mine for a number of reasons.

In another place, for five and a half years I was the Minister who answered for the Forestry Commission to the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, for example. I well remember his questions about English forests which I found fascinating and enjoyed the interchange. However, I also remember that some of my Scottish colleagues were less than pleased at the introduction of English forestry into Scottish Questions. But being the lead Minister and having to look at forestry throughout the United Kingdom was a fascinating task. While I was the lead Minister for some of that time, for the remainder I was the spokesman in the Commons for my noble friends Lord Gray and Lord Mansfield. They were the lead Ministers on forestry.

That allows me to ask the Minister two or three questions. He may not wish to answer them today; he may wish to leave them until the devolution Bill. My noble friend Lord Selkirk mentioned these points, as did the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. Some of us are puzzled as to what will happen as regards forestry after devolution. I am pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, in her place. I noted that in a debate on forestry. instigated again by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, on 29th October, she said: The commission will however continue to be the government department with responsibility for forestry throughout Britain. The commission will report separately to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly but will still be a national responsibility. I hope that that provides some comfort and confidence to my noble friend".—[Official Report, 29/10/97; col. 1125.] I do not know what it did to her noble friend but it puzzled me, and still puzzles me. The commission will still be a national responsibility, and yet it will report to those different parliaments and assemblies. Will there still be a lead Minister? If the Scottish Minister is responsible for forestry in Scotland, for example, how will he deal with the Treasury regarding grants, and so on? We know how important grants are in this business.

What will his position be vis-í-vis the English Minister who will live in, if I may so describe it, the same treeless forest of Whitehall as the Treasury Ministers. If the English Minister sees his priority as encouraging broadleaves and wishes to skew the grant to broadleaves, yet the Scottish Minister, for reasons I shall come to shortly, wants to skew the grant towards conifers, who will win? I would prefer to be in the forest with the English Minister when working out who will win. I think that the situation will be difficult. It will be difficult for the forest enterprise and forest authority to deal with three masters. We are advised that no man can serve two masters. I suspect that Sir Peter Hutchison and his successors will find it difficult to serve three masters.

What will happen to the headquarters of the Forestry Commission'? The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, was too modest to mention that he took the Forestry Commission headquarters out of London to Edinburgh. Will the commission be broken up? Will Edinburgh become the Scottish headquarters of Scottish forestry, and somewhere in England, the English headquarters?

How will the commission receive its budget? Will it receive three different tranches: from the Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament, and from Westminster on behalf of the English part of the operation? Those are difficult questions. I appreciate that the Minister may not wish to address them today. However, I give him notice that I shall want them addressed on another day.

My other claim for interest is that my old constituency is arguably the most heavily forested part of the United Kingdom, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, and his friends, and the private sector. There were many forests, and access was important. However, in Scottish terms I cannot get too worked up about access. If one went for long walks in the forestry woods, private or public, one did not meet many people. On the short, easy walks one met a few people. So the people who demand access do not want to walk but to cause trouble. There is plenty of access and there are plenty of roads in forests on which to walk.

Perhaps I may say a few words on an important aspect. I am surprised that no one mentioned it. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, came nearest to doing so. I refer to the ancient woodlands of Scotland and England—beechwoods in the south of England, oakwoods in Argyllshire and the Caledonian pine forest. Those are all important. The commission is doing good work in re-establishing the pine woods.

However, forestry is not about access. It is not about being a playground for people. Its primary objective is the production of wood. We need that wood, as we have heard. We import something like 90 per cent. of the forest products we use. We have a balance of payments deficit in forestry of £6 billion to £7 billion. Yet in this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, pointed out, we have good growing conditions. Trees in Britain take two-thirds of the time that the trees of many of our supplying countries take to grow to maturity. Indeed, there are many places in Scandinavia, which is heavily forested, where the trees take twice as long to grow. That gives them some advantages, but also some disadvantages, especially in pulping for example.

It is conifers which are in demand. It is conifers that people use. If we can substitute for some of the imports, we may well be helping to halt the felling in some parts of the world which environmentalists are so against. It is odd that many of the same environmentalists are against our planting any trees in this country. When we plant them, they are against us felling them 30 years later. I have listened to campaigns against planting, and a few years later the same people bob up campaigning against felling. It seems most odd.

However, the important emphasis is on employment in the countryside. I refer to Shotton and Irvine, Highland forest products outside Inverness, and caberboard. In today's Glasgow Herald there is a report of a £50 million chipboard mill at Auchinleck in Ayrshire. All those areas need employment. Auchinleck certainly needs it. Much good employment has been provided. I have sat round the ministerial table at the Scottish Office when we managed to achieve the new pulp mill at Irvine, and we were very pleased about that. But in the country areas also, the planting, tending, felling and transporting of trees creates a lot of employment. In many areas it creates more employment than sheep farming. One can see that in Argyll where much of the forest is now mature and is being felled—and again it is conifers.

My noble friend Lord Gisborough pointed out that there would be a doubling of production over the next few years. and that by 2022 it would peak. He asked: what will happen afterwards? I, too, pose that question. What will happen afterwards is a worry. The noble Lord the Minister gave the House some figures on 21st January about planting. They seemed encouraging. But I suspect that the great bulk of them were replanting rather than new planting. Perhaps he will give us some details of that breakdown.

My noble friend Lord Nickson and the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, pointed out that with changes in the CAP we should look at planting, as they say, further down the hill. There must be quite a few areas in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire—there certainly are in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire—where trees would do no harm, if I may so put it. In fact, at the risk of alienating people who come from those parts, I think they would enhance the landscape slightly. They would do a lot to improve those parts of the world.

Of course planting has to be better done. There was some bad planting in the past, when we had less knowledge than we have now. As my noble friend Lord Nickson pointed out, hardwoods could be used along watercourses, and to ease off the edges of trees. Those ideas are important. However, we should not become too obsessed about hardwoods. They do not provide the type of employment to which I refer, and we should not lose sight of the importance of such employment.

The previous government started the national forest in the Midlands, and that is important. Again, it illustrates the point: 60 per cent. deciduous; 40 per cent. softwoods. I am not sure that we shall keep Shotton going on that kind of ratio. My worry is that, if too much of the grant money goes into that sort of ratio, we are not going to see conifers being planted..

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, referred to rich people putting money into trees. I have no great objection to that. It will mean less asset-stripping, since the trees have to stay there. It is a lot better than putting their money into offshore trusts. The money is invested in Britain, and in jobs in Britain.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, reminded us about the flow country. Dare I say to the noble Baroness that the real folly of the flow country was that it is not in fact a good place to plant trees. The ground is too soft and they will find it hard to grow to maturity. With CAP reform, we need to look to trees being planted further down the hill, in places where we have not previously envisaged tree planting. It is important to keep in mind the economic importance of conifers. I hope that the Government will examine the targets again to see how they can be met.

It gives me no comfort to say that the government of which I was a Member failed miserably to meet the planting targets. I encourage this Government to look again at these issues to see whether they can produce planting targets, for both deciduous trees and conifers, which will not merely be met but will look to the employment potential way into the future and to the industries that we have set up to deal with conifers. The Minister will have my support in doing that.

4.52 p.m.

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

My Lords, perhaps I should begin not so much by declaring an interest but admitting to a lack of competence. The trees that I planted several years ago are all deceased. So it is with no great sense of achievement that I address the House this afternoon.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for providing this opportunity to discuss forestry. The noble Lord has a distinguished history of involvement in forestry and the forestry industry and is a distinguished past chairman of the Forestry Commission, where he made a notable contribution.

The debate has been not merely interesting, but positive. Many noble Lords came up with imaginative suggestions as to the way forward for forestry in this country. I look forward to giving more thought to the many suggestions made.

I am also particularly heartened by the fact that, possibly with one exception, all noble Lords endorsed the work of the Forestry Commission. I wish to recognise the commission's considerable work and achievement over the years—not always in the easiest of circumstances.

There is one particularly important point that I wish to raise now so that it is not lost. Its importance relates to the whole business of inward investment and downstream development. During the course of the debate the point was made, initially by my noble friend Lord Taylor, that existing industries would not be sustained by the timber from existing forests. That is not correct; it is a mistaken view. Because of the rapidly rising graph in terms of timber harvesting over the next couple of decades, the timber produced from our forests will be more than sufficient to sustain our existing timber industries. In addition, we have the opportunity to plant and make sure that there is replacement for the time beyond that, when the graph begins its downturn. It is important to be clear about that. There is no problem in regard to security of supply for existing industries. That worry should be removed immediately.

Many speakers raised the issue of devolution. My noble friend Lord Taylor suggested that the devolution of forestry to Wales and Scotland, and, I may say, England, would not improve forestry management. I am not sure whether my noble friend is changing his position on that matter. I remember a question raised a few weeks ago when he urged me not to make a decision on a forestry matter until a Scottish parliament is able to make its position clear. I believe that forestry will benefit from being devolved. There will be the opportunity to make sure that forestry policy in the various parts of the United Kingdom—in Scotland, England and Wales—can respond more sensitively to policy priorities in the three countries in terms of rural development and general questions of rural land use.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, focused particularly on the grant systems. Because forestry is devolved, it would be perfectly possible for the grant system in Scotland to be different from that in Wales, and from that in England. Clearly, the grant systems exist to facilitate particular policies. If policy priorities are different, it is quite proper for the grant systems to be different as well. So, in the noble Lord's example, it would be possible in England to have a grant system that encouraged softwoods and a system in Scotland that encouraged hardwoods, or vice versa. There is no difficulty in that regard.

My noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe emphasised his wish to see more forestry in Britain, and in particular to see more trees planted as a result of partnership between the public and private sectors. I concur with him and with other noble Lords that that is indeed the way forward. We certainly want to increase the area of woodland in Britain. As many noble Lords observed, our coverage in European terms is low. It runs at about 10 per cent. It is higher in Scotland—but then one would expect all good things to be more plentiful in Scotland. It is therefore one of the lowest percentages in the world.

We are increasing that percentage (and this is my brief, my Lords) at about 0.1 per cent. each year. So progress is being made—but at 0.1 per cent. a year I do not think it would convince even the Fabians in their belief in the inevitability of gradualness. The 10 per cent. figure compares with an average figure of 36 per cent. for the European Union. Indeed, only Ireland has a smaller percentage than Britain. Denmark and the Netherlands are roughly the same. So the opportunity for an increase in forestry planting and woodland cover is there. I do not think that we ought necessarily to follow the mercantilist fallacy, which may best be illustrated by the "pineapple problem"; namely, it would be possible for us to achieve self-sufficiency in pineapples but that would not be a good use of our resources. In forestry, that is not a particular danger. We can increase forestry cover without any maldistribution of resources.

We are determined to increase the area of woodland in Britain. It is one of the key aspects of our forestry policy. That is best summarised in the mission statement of the Forestry Commission: To protect and expand Britain's forests and woodlands and to increase their value to society and the environment". Well-designed forests not only provide timber but also good wildlife habitats, as my noble friend Baroness Young of Old Scone observed, and excellent opportunities for recreation, whether with young ladies or not, while also enhancing the landscape.

How are we to increase forestry? As the noble Lords, Lord Nickson and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, indicated, a major consideration is CAP reform. Land is a finite resource; we cannot increase the amount. We can bring about changes in land use. A major factor affecting land use is the common agricultural policy. The inevitable consequence of an expansion of forestry cover would be a decrease in land used by agriculture. That is particularly the case as forestry and trees come down the hill. In some areas that message is not welcome. Frequent attempts are made to persuade me, as an agriculture Minister, that increased support for agriculture is necessary in order to maintain the present coverage of land for agricultural use.

The Government have made clear that we are working towards reform of the common agricultural policy, which we expect will eventually lead to a significant increase in forestry in Britain. Land has to be taken out of agricultural production, and forestry is perhaps the most important and viable alternative use. But it will take time; it will not happen overnight.

In the meantime, we are offering generous grants and participating in a range of initiatives to encourage the creation of new woodlands. In total, 17,000 hectares of new woodland were created in Britain last year. Of that, nearly 5,000 hectares were new woods in England and nearly 12,000 hectares new woods in Scotland. Sadly, less than 500 hectares were planted in Wales, which is why we have launched a special challenge fund to encourage people in Wales to plant trees on land which is currently growing bracken. In response to a point made by my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath, I can say that we are also making a special effort to convert derelict land—for example, old mining areas—into new woods which will be an asset to the community instead of an eyesore. I very much take the point that forestry has a major part to play in the role of the regional development agencies.

As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, the public sector has to work in partnership with the private sector to create new forests. There are many examples of such partnerships creating new woods throughout Britain. These range from the high profile initiatives of the National Forest in the East Midlands, the community forests throughout England and the Central Scotland Forest to much more local initiatives for individual woods, sometimes in commemoration of a particular individual. In every case, the public sector and the private sector are working together, providing not only funds for the new woods but also enthusiasm and expertise.

In response to my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside, perhaps I may say that the Forestry Commission works closely with the private sector to manage its whole estate as effectively as possible. For example, it is planning to use private sector expertise and finance to improve the management and standard of its forest cabins, bringing in private capital on a partnership basis. As another example, the commission is encouraging private industry to invest in new harvesting machinery by offering long-term harvesting contracts. I believe that that is a positive way forward, bringing the strengths of the public and private sectors together for a common benefit.

The National Lottery Millennium Fund is participating in other initiatives, notably the Millennium Forest for Scotland and the Woodland Trust's Woods on Your Doorstep scheme. Both of these involve public and private funds in addition to the funds from the lottery. There is thus a significant gearing of resource going into forestry, and that is to be welcomed.

In addition, the Forestry Commission, through Forest Enterprise, is buying and planting land, targeting its limited funds on those areas where it can make the greatest contribution, such as the National Forest. In many cases the Forestry Commission, by demonstrating what can be achieved, provides an example which encourages other bodies and individuals to create their own forests.

Several noble Lords asked about the sale of Forestry Commission land. We imposed a moratorium on the sale of forest land managed by the Forestry Commission in May last year. That moratorium is still in place. The only areas of forest land that the commission has sold since then were areas which it had agreed to sell before the general election. In some cases sales take time to finalise. Those have been the only sales that have taken place.

Nevertheless, as well as being able to buy land, the commission needs to be able to sell land if it is to manage its estate effectively and efficiently. Indeed, in some situations the commission could increase the value of its estate to the public by selling one area and buying another. That type of disposal and acquisition is in the long-term interests of both the public and the Forestry Commission.

When the commission sells land in future, for whatever reason, we shall ensure that public access is preserved wherever possible. I attach a high degree of priority to that. The Forestry Commission encourages quiet and peaceful recreation in all its forests, except where that is prevented by legal constraints or safety considerations. As was mentioned by noble Lords, about 50 million day visits are made to commission woods each year. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, might not meet them, but they are there somewhere. In addition, I know that many noble Lords take advantage of the commission's policy of opening its forests to walkers of all ages and abilities.

We wish to preserve these opportunities for informal recreation. If any such woods are sold in future, we shall therefore expect them to remain open to the public. The commission will normally enter into an access agreement with the local authority before the land is sold, thus preserving public access to these woods in perpetuity. Obviously there will be cases where that is not possible because of the nature of the legal basis upon which the Forestry Commission holds the land, but I very much hope that such cases will be the exception.

We have seen the Forestry Commission come through a difficult period. I see forestry as an increasingly important industry in the countryside and our rural areas, but not just in rural areas, as it contributes to downstream employment in our towns.

I realise that I have not been able to deal in detail with all the points that have been made, particularly with the detailed questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas. I assure the noble Lord that I shall write to him on those points. We have had a good debate. It was right and proper to highlight the contribution of forestry, not only to the economy of the countryside but also to that of the country.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he answer the question I asked about the split between new planting and replanting on the 30,000 hectares which he claimed were planted last year? Of those 30,000 hectares, what proportion was replanting of timber on areas that had been felled and what proportion new planting? If he cannot answer me now, I should be happy for him to write to me.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am happy to write to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, on that point. However, perhaps I can again assure the House that there is increasing recognition, particularly in the context of CAP reform, that forestry will play an increasing role in the rural economy. It must be developed in a way that is environmentally sensitive and takes our citizens with us.

I believe that in the past we have been a little insensitive in the way that forestry planting has taken place. I take the point about the need for softwood. But most people regard such planting as monocultural blots on the countryside which are neither aesthetically pleasing nor environmentally sensitive. We must get the balance right. A swing, at least, towards some hardwood planting is long overdue.

Discussion can take place where there are proper differences of view. But, on the central point of the increasing importance of forestry, I believe we are all agreed.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, first, I thank all those who participated in the debate. On a previous occasion when this subject was before us there were some 24 speakers, many of whom had come down from the Highlands to make their contribution. They were allocated four minutes each. As a result, I believe some of them decided that the journey was not worthwhile. Nevertheless, we have heard a number of interesting comments from people who know the subject. That was most encouraging.

I was interested particularly in the commitment of the Minister and the fact that he is in favour of the expansion of forestry. But I was somewhat surprised by his reference to selling off land. He said that if the Forestry Commission sells off land, it will have more money to buy land. That is not true. The money from the land it sells off goes to the Treasury and does not go back into forestry at all. The increased selling of land therefore diminishes forestry; it does not encourage forestry. I would regard it as a betrayal in Scotland if there was any departure from the moratorium of selling off Forestry Commission land.

The Minister made another interesting point. He said that there is no difficulty about continued security of supply to the pulp and paper industry. I am sorry to disagree with my noble friend on the Front Bench, but that is nonsense. The supply to those industries is maintained because planting took place 20 years ago. The sitka spruce are now being harvested. If the Forestry Commission planting programme was reduced 20 years ago from 20,000 hectares to 0.400 hectares this year, what will happen in 20 years' time? Where are the trees being planted now to maintain the security of supply which the Minister says is assured? It does not exist. Even the private sector planting dropped from 20,000 or 30,000 hectares in past years to 19,000 hectares total forestry planting. If we reduce our planting programme to that extent, we cannot possibly give guarantees that there will be continuity of supply 20 years hence. The trees are not being planted now and the only way to secure continuity of supply in long-term contracts which will encourage those companies is to maintain a planting programme.

I am sure that we will return to the question of devolution when we debate the Scotland Bill. I do not believe that devolving forestry from central headquarters is worthwhile. When I was chairman of forestry my headquarters were at 25 Savile Row, W.I. I put it to my board that we should move nearer the trees. My board was divided into three Scotsmen, three Englishmen and one Welshman. I put it to the Welshman that we should get out of Mayfair and move nearer the woods. He said, "Yes, Cardiff is the place." I was able to say to him that if he proposed Cardiff and it failed, perhaps he would support Scotland. Of course, the Celtic alliance was established and the Forestry Commission headquarters for the United Kingdom are based in Edinburgh.

I do not believe that it will create another acre of trees to devolve the Forestry Commission to three or four separate commissions. It may increase the revenue of British Airways flying people here and there, but it will not increase forestry, which is our major concern. I hope we will return to that topic when we reach the Scottish debate.

Again. I thank the Minister for his commitment this afternoon. His statement that he is committed to the expansion of forestry is recorded in Hansard. I look forward to the fulfilment of that promise. It has been a good debate. Again, I thank the Minister and noble Lords who took part. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.