HC Deb 16 June 1989 vol 154 cc542-3W
Sir Hector Monro

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what plans the Government has with regard to the disposal of Forestry Commission land.

Mr. Rifkind

In answer to a question from the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) on 8 November 1984(Official Report, columns 6–7), my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) announced that the Forestry Commission's disposals programme would be extended to 31 March 1989, and that its main purpose would be to rationalise the forestry estate thereby improving the commission's efficiency and the commercial effectiveness of the forestry enterprise.

We welcome the important contribution that the rationalisation of the forestry estate has made to the increased efficiency of the forestry enterprise over the past few years. The commission has been able to dispose of a large number of plantations in a way which has assisted the streamlining of its management structure and enabled it to achieve significant improvements in its operational efficiency. The annual net call on Exchequer funds for the enterprise has been greatly reduced. At the same time the commission has been able to make an important contribution to the major new developments which have taken place in the wood-processing industry in recent years. The market for timber is now buoyant, to the great benefit of both public and private sector timber-growers.

My right hon. Friends and I have considered the future extent and purpose of the commission's disposal programme. We have had regard to the needs of the wood-processing industry for a steady and secure source of supply; to the effect of the programme on the use of the commission's forests for public access and recreation; and to environmental considerations. We also accept that the commission must be able to plan ahead without the uncertainty caused by frequent reviews, and that it will continue to make a small but effective contribution towards the fulfilment of our targets for new planting.

We consider that the rationalisation policy has been successful and that there is scope for it to continue to be pursued with vigour. In accordance with the general policy of this Government, we also wish to see some further transfer of forests out of the public sector. This will have the important effect of strengthening and enhancing the role of the private sector, whose proportion of the nation's woodland estate has already risen to over 60 per cent. We also see it as a valuable opportunity to widen interest and participation in British forestry.

We have therefore asked the Forestry Commissioners to proceed with the further disposal of some 100,000 hectares of forestry land and properties in the period up to the end of the century, of which they should seek to dispose of some 50,000 hectares in the first half of the period. The commissioners will continue to be responsible for selecting properties for sale, and in doing so they will have regard to the selection guidelines which forestry Ministers set them in 1981. In particular I have referred to the use of the commission's forests for public access and recreation, which my right hon. Friends and I warmly support and encourage. Forests have a major part to play in the enjoyment and understanding of the countryside and the commission will continue to have an important role in this.

We are concerned, however, that the general public should also continue to enjoy access to those forests to be disposed of by the commission in a way which is compatible with management for forestry and other purposes. We are therefore giving careful consideration to ways of achieving the objective.

It is estimated that, subject to market factors, the programme which we have now asked the commissioners to carry out should realise up to £150 million over the period. By settling this issue for a decade, we intend to put the commissioners in a position to implement the programme so as to consolidate their forestry estate in a rational and orderly manner.