HL Deb 15 January 2003 vol 643 cc199-201

2.42 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my direct financial interest in the matter.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to enlarge the market for English and Welsh timber.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the market for wood products in Britain is worth over £5 billion with over 85 per cent of this supplied from imports. To compete, domestically grown timber must be competitively priced or meet the specialist needs of niche markets. Heat and energy schemes are beginning to provide new market opportunities and the Forestry Commission is assisting with research to develop new wood products. It is also developing new support measures for small-scale harvesting, processing and marketing.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. Do the Government appreciate that low timber prices have already forced the closure of many home-grown timber mills and are damaging the big producers, for example, Forest Enterprise and the Crown Estates? Do the Government see timber fuel as a source of renewable energy? Will they stimulate investment in it, particularly through combined heat and power?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the issue of timber prices is whether in an import-dominated market, domestically grown timber can be competitive. I recognise that there have been problems on this front but it is also true that a number of timber producers and saw mills have done relatively well in maintaining their market share. As regards timber for fuels, the Government, as part of their approach to renewable fuels and carbon saving, see benefits both in using forest products and in short-rotation coppice. There are a number of schemes to develop woodlands for those purposes as part of the overall approach to carbon saving.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the damage being done specifically to oak trees by squirrels? Could not some financial assistance be available to those who have suffered from the effects of that damage?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, all owners of woodlands have to face the issue of squirrels. Various control mechanisms are in place in both private and Forestry Commission woodlands. The commission is undertaking substantial research into the best form of control of grey squirrels. So there is already, through the commission, a considerable amount of activity on this front. It is, however, for the owners of woodlands to conduct their own systems of control and protection of their forests. I do not believe that there is scope for support additional to that already being given through the efforts of the commission.

Lord Clark of Windermere

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Forestry Commission and I appreciate that timber production and income are critical. Does the Minister agree that forests and woodlands can provide many other benefits to society in the form of recreation, conservation, biodiversity and economic regeneration but only if forestry in Britain is sustainable? Can he advise the House of the Government's strategy towards sustainability in woodlands and forestry?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, both the role of forestry and the need for access to forestry for other purposes are recognised by the Government. The efforts that the Forestry Commission has made are well documented and appreciated. As to sustainability, clearly the Government's policy is to encourage the maximum uptake of sustainable timber, both in terms of our own procurement and encouraging certification. In this respect, the Forestry Commission leads not only Europe but the world in terms of certification. Indeed, the World Wildlife award to the commission last month was given for its system of independent certification of sustainable forestry management in the United Kingdom. On both fronts the commission is making a contribution. I congratulate my noble friend.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, I welcome what the Government are doing in respect of the limited use of short-term coppicing as a source of energy. Would they not be equally wise to recognise that this can never be more than a very small contributor? Has the Minister seen the figures which show that to replace the energy output of the Dungeness B nuclear power station, the entire county of Kent would have to be given over to short-term coppicing? Most people would not regard that as realistic.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is well known that the Government's target for supply from all forms of renewable energy is 10 per cent. The contribution to that of short-rotation coppicing will be relatively small. Nevertheless, it is important for energy policy purposes, for carbon saving and for agricultural and forestry purposes that we support the growing of such materials and the use of forestry by-products in the energy programme. That will provide both income to the woodlands areas and significant carbon saving. But certainly it will not resolve the energy problem.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the industries which require timber are sited so far from forests? What are the Government doing to encourage industry to move into forest locations, which are often under-populated rural areas requiring employment? Would this not save heavy lorries having to travel vast distances at high speed? Would it not also save the rebuilding and strengthening of bridges to take these lorries?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is something in that. However, the timber products industry tends to be located in areas where its markets exist. It is not therefore surprising that, for example, the furniture trade tends to be based in urban areas rather than close to forestry. Some degree of encouragement of the first-line processing of timber closer to forests could be undertaken as part of our general approach to rural policy, but that would not change the overall distribution of timber-using industries.

Lord Elton

My Lords, if we are to have the sustainable industry for which the noble Lord, Lord Clark, rightly asks, is it not essential to recognise that those who will control the market in 15 years' time are now at school? Will the Minister offer his support to the work of the forestry education initiative, which is breeding up a generation of schoolchildren who understand the widely varying uses that wood is able to provide in place of plastics, which are ecologically unfriendly?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords, I can commend the work of the forestry education initiative, in which both the trade federation and the Woodland Trust are engaged. It has a fully worked-out curriculum for various age groups. It is important that young people in school recognise the different uses of timber and the way in which it has to be managed.