HL Deb 21 January 1998 vol 584 cc1512-4

3.1 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for the retention and development of Forestry Commission woodlands.

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

My Lords, the Forestry Commission is continuing to develop and improve its woodlands to provide multiple public benefits. For example, the commission has prepared forest design plans for its forests to ensure that they are managed sustainably with due regard to conservation, biodiversity, recreation and amenity. As regards the retention of commission woodlands, noble Lords will know that we imposed a moratorium on the sale of forest land managed by the Forestry Commission in May last year. The moratorium is still in place.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I welcome the assurance that the moratorium, which was promised in the party manifesto, is still in place. However, will the Minister confirm that it is the intention of the Government to continue to observe the moratorium on future sales of Forestry Commission land? Does he recall that forestry is a devolved subject and that it would be quite inappropriate to make any change in forestry policy until the new parliament in Edinburgh makes its judgment?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I welcome the support that my noble friend gives this time round to forestry being a devolved matter. I look forward to his support in the weeks and months to come. On the particular business of the moratorium, it is in place and it has been in place since May. But clearly all the activities and policies relating to the Forestry Commission are caught up in the comprehensive spending review.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, will Her Majesty's Government make representation to the European Commission on the subject of the agri-environment regulation on wild fauna, which suggests that programmes designed to develop shooting areas should not be eligible for support? Does he accept that in my experience in the south of Scotland the sensible management of wildlife and the development of woodlands, private or public, go hand in hand, make sense economically, and are good for rural employment?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I certainly note and recognise the experience of the noble Lord in this area. However, on the specific points he makes, I shall have to reflect further before making any commitment.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what progress is being made with the Midland forest and whether that ambitious project is in the hands of the Forestry Commission?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, the national forest, as I believe it is called, to which the noble Earl referred, is being created in the English Midlands. It encompasses about 200 square miles. The national forest tender scheme invites people to tender for the establishment of woodlands in the forest and they are supported by the Forestry Commission.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, will the Government continue to support the several undevolved community forests in England? Will he ensure that the Forestry Commission is able to maintain an adequate, and indeed substantial, presence in each of those community forests?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, the Government are strongly supportive of the concept of community forests and look forward to developing and furthering their policies in this area.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us regret that he will be the last United Kingdom forestry Minister and that the responsibilities will be split up? Rather than wait for the establishment of a Scottish parliament, what will the Minister do to increase the amount of conifer plantation in this country, which is absolutely necessary if employment is to be maintained in the countryside and if the "downstream" industries that have been so successfully established are to be maintained?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, it is a case of change of day, change of tune. Last night the noble Lord was telling me to wait before I did anything; now he is telling me that I must hurry up. I should point out that more than 30,000 hectares of trees were planted last year. Therefore there is an active planting and replanting programme in place. Both new planting and restocking were about 8 per cent. higher that year than in the previous year. Therefore the industry is healthy. The single most important event to encourage higher levels of forestry planting would be reform of the common agricultural policy. I am sure that that is something my noble friend Lord Donoughue will wish to mention later today.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

My Lords, in view of the Minister's welcome endorsement of the continuation of the moratorium, can we seek an assurance that the budgets of Forest Enterprise will be reviewed to consider how the £20 million hole in this year's budget and the £40 million hole in next year's budget will be filled without intensifying the use of Forest Enterprise land in a way which would damage the environment or without raiding the conservation budget of Forest Enterprise, which ought to be ring fenced?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am very aware of those two holes. It is worth pointing out that the £40 million hole is, I believe, twice the value of the highest level of forestry disposals ever achieved by the previous administration. Therefore this is very much a challenge. As I said, all the activities and all the budget areas of the Forestry Commission are subject to review as part of the comprehensive spending review.