Previous Section Home Page

Column 116

the Government came to office, has been chipped away at through piecemeal privatisation and, in effect, a veto on its ability to acquire additional land for planting.

The ideologically based switch of tree planting towards the private sector has been an unmitigated disaster both for the economy and for the environment. The Government's undignified retreat from these breathtaking tax breaks for investors in private forestry has created new problems while failing to challenge the basic flaw in the philosophy, which ridiculously suggests that the only criterion for tree planting--the ultimate investment in the future--should be the potential for maximising profit.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that under the Labour Government a 98 per cent. top tax rate led to a far greater tax shelter for higher rate taxpayers than the progressive reductions in tax under the present Government, supported by the change to a grant system which has taken away the tax shelter altogether?

Mr. Wilson : We must consider the circumstances of the time. We have supported the removal of forestry from the tax shelter. Only during the 1980s was that tax shelter fully appreciated and exploited by those who chose to exploit it.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) : I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. He said earlier that we should not have the sort of planting that has taken place recently, but given the need for timber to make the industry viable, what species should we now be planting?

Mr Wilson : We support a much broader range of planting within the United Kingdom and would especially encourage more hardwood planting. There has been far too much concentration on single species planting.

With regard to the sale of mature timber and the role of the Forestry Commission, I have described how the Forestry Commission has been chipped away through piecemeal privatisation. Members of all parties know that the Forestry Commission has been forced to sell mature timber against the advice of people who have spent their lives in the forestry industry. In many cases the only beneficiaries of such sales were the local landed interests who made short-term bonanzas. The sale of Loch Hourn forest in Invernessshire to Eileanreach estate, owned by the Wills tobacco family, is one example of such a public scandal. It is within my knowledge that influence was exerted at the highest levels and in the teeth of bitter opposition from Forestry Commission officials, who knew all too well that the public purse was being ripped off yet again.

All over Britain, under pressure from the Government, the Forestry Commission has been forced into sales that it did not wish to make. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), Pressminnin woods near Stenton, which I believe is not far from where the Minister lives, was sold by the Forestry Commission under pressure to contribute to the revenue that the Government insisted must be raised. Local people have had to mount an appeal to raise the money to try to buy back and protect public access to that local beauty spot. Those have been the policies pursued by the Government on forestry--in every instance, the motive has been profit and privatisation against the public interest.

Column 117

I refer briefly to planning in order to state our full support for the concept of planning permission and consent for forestry development being in the hands of local authorities. The decision to cover a beautiful area of countryside with a forest is one of the biggest planning changes that could be imposed on any area of our country. It is absurd that there is no democratic process to determine whether that should be allowed.

In a press release dated 20 February, the Secretary of State for Scotland replied to such criticisms and to reports commissioned by the Countryside Commission for Scotland and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, both of which urged the transfer of planning controls to local authorities. I found the Secretary of State's conclusion that there is no justification to place tree planting within the planning system utterly unsatisfactory. The Secretary of State then stated :

"we can see considerable advantages to foresters and others interested in tree planting in a forestry strategy that indicates those areas in which further forestry would be welcome".

That is a far cry from exercising any meaningful controls over those engaged in speculative tree planting without any concern for the environmental impact.

The reality is that in many parts of Britain, including many places in Scotland that I know, it is a standing disgrace that places which are totally unsuitable for the planting of trees are now covered in young trees purely because of commercial interests with gross disregard for the environmental interests and the legacy to future generations.

As regards compensation for transferring land to forestry, the Minister suggested that proposal A is opposed by the Government because it extends the principle of compensation beyond what exists under the farm woodland scheme to other circumstances proposed by the European Commission, which apparently believes that compensation should be paid not just to agricultural land users but to others who give agricultural land over to forestry. I find it difficult to see what is wrong with accepting FEOGA reimbursement for the farm woodland scheme as it now exists, but I understand that the Government oppose proposal A because it would broaden the existing scheme to other landowners who wish to take advantage of it. I hope that the Minister will explain why the Government find that offensive.

Another aspect, which is particularly close to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr.

Column 118

Macdonald), is the potential for expansion of farm woodland to tenanted land. That is certainly a major problem in Scotland where it is estimated that up to 40 per cent. of land, much of which, by definition, is the most suitable land for forestry plantation, is effectively removed from the possibility of participation in forestry because of a peculiar anomaly. Any trees planted by a tenant, whether crofter or farmer, remain the property of the landowner.

In those circumstances, it would be a peculiar form of philanthropy for tenants, whether farmers of crofters, individualy or collectively, to plant trees knowing that any capital asset might pass not to them or to their heirs but to the owner of that land. I suggest that it is well within the Government's ability to remove that anomaly and to give the full value of the planted trees not to the landowner but to the tenant.

This is not an insignificant matter because 40 per cent. of land in Scotland is tenanted, much of it in crofting counties and much of it eminently suitable for planting trees. At present, that land is effectively outwith the range of those who tenant it because they are not prepared to invest in forestry only to see the assets of their investment pass to the landowners. I should like the Minister to address that problem today. If forestry is to expand in places where it would benefit rural communities in large areas of Scotland, and no doubt other parts of the United Kingdom, something must be done to overcome that anomaly.

The Opposition want an expanded, productive, environmentally sensitive forestry industry in our countryside. That is achievable. We do not want the mixture of speculation and denigration of the public sector that has passed for forestry policy in the past decade. In European terms, I agree that we have to tread carefully. Clearly, there are moves to bring forestry within the CAP or its equivalent. The catalyst for that may be the production of cork in Portugal and other countries. Unlike the Minister-- who, according to his remarks is guarding against moves towards a common forestry policy--the Opposition do not fundamentally object to the prospect of an FAP, or forestry action programme, so long as it is compatible with our interests, by which I mean the interests of our environment and our rural communities, not those of free market dogma and large-scale forestry investors.

Column 119

10.28 pm

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) : We rarely have a debate on forestry, so I am delighted that we are having one this evening. Forestry has, for many years, been a special interest of mine and I am delighted that trees are now receiving the attention that they deserve. My particular expertise is arboricultural rather than silvicultural, but as the two disciplines have become increasingly interconnected I shall make one or two points on both.

In forestry, as in agriculture, nothing is more important than continuity. It is impossible to change direction rapidly without causing a great deal of damage. Last year's budget changed the regime from one of tax allowances to one of grants, and I have no objection to that in principle. However, that change created a great shock within the forestry industry, which has taken much time to settle down, and caused much damage to many aspects of the industry. I hope very much that my hon. Friend the Minister will remember that for forestry, as for farming, continuity is all-important.

The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) spoke about the environmental impact of forestry planting. There is no doubt that we need a balanced attitude to what we plant and where we plant it. However, the hon. Gentleman had nothing to say about precisely where he wanted forests planted, or about what species he wanted planted. In some quarters I have detected something bordering on paranoia about some of our species. Sitka spruce is always singled out as the ogre of the piece--as a tree that we do not want anywhere--but it has played and continues to play an important part in our forestry. There is great sensitivity about subjects such as the blanket bogs up in the north, in Caithness. I have made one visit there to see the environment for myself, and I understand the need for sensitivity about planting there, but there is obviously a sensible middle way. Lessons have been learnt, both by the Forestry Commission, whose record over the years I thoroughly commend, and by the private sector. No one wants the countryside of Scotland or anywhere else to be indiscriminately covered with great swathes of conifers. Neither do we want planting right down to our water courses--that has created problems in the past--or planting that damages the natural habitat of deer. These lessons have been learnt, and it is now possible to implement a sensible policy which incorporates all that we have learnt and includes the use of many of the softwoods that people condemn so indiscriminately.

It is all very well saying that broadleaved trees break up the forest and woodland and are attractive. However, it must be remembered that, given that timber must be produced and supplied to the mills, the hardwoods take much longer than more than twice as long as softwoods to grow, so providing the necessary timber is more difficult with them. By all means let us incorporate them in our forestry to make the environment more attractive, but to produce the raw material for the large processing factories in this country they are not the solution. The softwoods will ultimately play their part. Forestry planting and management are extremely complicated businesses. Some species are planted together because they affect each other symbiotically in such a way as to increase their rate of growth. If such techniques are

Column 120

not used with, for instance, Sitka spruce, the time taken to get the trees to maturity will be greatly increased. There is no easy option other than to use the softwoods that we now use.

If we are to have a forestry industry, as we all agree we are, let us not beat about the bush. Let us accept that we can make some modifications to our practices, but if we want the right kind of trees grown at the right speed to keep our mills working, the conifer has the major part to play.

I welcome the changes in farming in lowland Britain which have resulted in more woodland planting. East Anglia has suffered greatly in recent years and it is good news that it will have more landscaping trees and perhaps a return to the old traditional timber-related crafts. East Anglia and the lowlands suffered from the effects of the hurricane. Housing, industrial and road developments have also caused the removal of trees. There have been agricultural improvements, too. Farmers in Suffolk are helping to improve the landscape now by planting trees and hedges--but agricultural improvements have taken their toll over the years.

Dutch elm disease has played an enormous part in removing trees from the landscape of East Anglia. The elm was often the biggest tree behind which the sun rose or set, and its loss has been a terrible tragedy for eastern England. People see the landscape changing enormously and sometimes farmers accidentally get the blame for the loss of our elms.

I should say something about the difference between planting and maintenance costs in relation to lowland trees. Often when we talk about planting trees we think solely of the cost of putting the tree into the ground, the stake and perhaps a guard. The most important part of establishing a tree is the treatment that it receives after planting. A tree that is maintained properly for up to four years after planting will look like a big tree in a very short time. If it receives minimum maintenance, or none at all, it will be a waste of time and enormous losses will result. I hope that, when budgeting, my hon. Friends will remember that the main cost is not in planting, but in ensuring that the tree survives thereafter.

It is sometimes said that a tree cannot be established in one's lifetime, but that is far from true. Trees come in all shapes and sizes, from whips to standards and even heavy standards, which are planted at 10 or 12 ft. If properly planted and looked after, those trees will grow by as much as 3 ft a year, and can add to the landscape within a very short time.

It is an ill wind that blows no one any good, and although I would not dream of welcoming the difficulties that farmers are experiencing, I very much welcome the fact that the East Anglian landscape will have many more trees.

One of the most important objectives in the report is

"to participate in the most disadvantaged areas of the world by helping developed countries to use their forestry reserves rationally."

The chainsaw and other modern techniques have been a mixed blessing. We all know of the intensive logging in the tropical rain forests and in Third world countries. It has devastating effects, not just on native populations but, more importantly, on the world's climate and atmosphere.

Trees have been described, rightly, as the world's green lungs. Man takes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide. By happy coindence, trees take in carbon dioxide

Column 121

and give out oxygen, which we so badly need. The balance is crucial, and we are aware of the greenhouse effect and other problems caused because the balance is shifting. We must reduce felling drastically and introduce sensible management methods as quickly as possible. It will not be easy, because many underdeveloped countries have come to rely on the income from logging to help them to make ends meet. To reduce the amount of logging without damaging their economies, it is essential that all the nations get together to solve the problem. A way must be found quickly.

In this Chamber, we meet to talk and, I hope, to solve the problems of our fellow men and women. How futile it will be if, by not taking the action that I have described, we imperil mankind itself. 10.38 pm

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : This document on European legislation relating to forestry is an important development of the Community's policy, especially in relation to rural areas. The aim--to develop and optimally use forestry in rural areas--is laudable. Forestry must play a greater role in the reform of the common agricultural policy, and it will have a role in the development of rural areas. The important thing is how the policy is carried out. Implicit in the document is the expansion of forestry in the Community, which is only 50 per cent. self- sufficient in timber. In many European countries, about 30 per cent. of their area is afforested, and the document shows that 40 per cent. of agricultural land and 20 per cent. of all land in Europe is afforested. I remember well, as an agriculture student, working for a brief time on a farm in Denmark. Forestry played a much greater part in the management of that land area than was common in this country. In fact, about 25 per cent. of it was afforested at that time. The thing that was striking and interesting to me, as someone from Wales, was that most of the afforestation consisted of hard wood. In fact, most of it was beech, and there was a little oak. It seemed to me to be a very well balanced system of land use. In France also there are many broad-leaved woodlands.

Unfortunatley Britain does not compare well in this respect. More recent forestry developments in this country tend to have produced vast areas of conifers. Many people now regret much of the very intensive post-war planting, because it has had a very deleterious effect on the environment. The United Kingdom is only about 11 per cent. self-sufficient in timber, and that is insufficient. We seem to have gone wrong in our forestry strategy somewhere along the way. We must surely take a longer-term view, rather than the short-term view that has been taken previously.

One of the weaknesses in the argument of the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) is that, from the point of view of having a productive forestry industry, one clearly has to supply softwood to the timber yards and timber mills to keep them running. But we should not be hooked entirely on softwoods ; we must take a longer-term view and have more mixed forestry as well. This is entirely consistent with what the document says about making environmental improvements. Clearly, that is a factor that is under consideration in the European Community. That is to be welcomed, and I think that that is where the policies of this country have tended to break down.

Column 122

I am very pleased that Bronydd Mawr experimental husbandry farm in my constituency has been developing agro- forestry, with far less intensive planting of trees and, indeed, with a great variety of trees and mixed grazing of sheep with a rather more lax forestry regime. That idea has been imported from New Zealand. Forestry is very closely linked to land use.

Mr. Lord : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that conditions in New Zealand are very different from conditions in this country? The great problem is that our climate is not conducive to the production of trees as quickly as that in New Zealand. We have to get a species that will grow well in this country. Although it may sound well to talk about producing other species, if they do not deliver the goods it is pie in the sky.

Mr. Livsey : The hon. Gentleman is right : the climate in New Zealand is much more favourable. However, that does not obviate the need for research and development to get trees that are more suitable to our climate. I am glad to say that that work is being done already, and I think that it will develop in due course.

Clearly, in dealing with land use, forestry and farming must be integrated. I do not think we have given that matter sufficient consideration. There is a symbiosis between forestry and farming, and that can be less damaging to the environment. We know that, with blanket afforestation, acid problems have been created, and there is evidence of the release of aluminium ions as well. We know what that means in terms of the contamination of water courses and the possible effect with Alzheimer's disease and matters of that kind. Forestry amplifies the acid rain effect. I can quote research done by the Welsh water authority in the upper Tywi valley, where one valley was not afforested and nearly all fish that caged in the water survived--60 of them--during an autumn flood whereas in a valley that was afforested, in a stream there only six out of 60 survived in a cage. That was a serious implication for forestry when water is contaminated.

Aspects of proposal A are worrying, with investment ceiling holdings increasing from £26,000 to £52,000, when translated from ecus. That is good, but when the extension is to

"any other individual or other bodies which afforest agricultural land",

it has implications. For example, in rural Wales certain properties could be bought out for afforestation, which could have an impact on the social structure of the area.

It is clear from proposal B that the development and optional utilisation of woodlands in rural areas is desirable. That will have implications for the local economy and for work in the area. The environmental and conservation matters referred to in the document are welcome. I hope that the Government will take those ideas on board. We want to see more processing and marketing of timber because of the work that that creates.

Can the Minister assure us that the Forestry Commission will not be privatised in future and that research and development will continue on the diseases of trees? How much work are we doing on atmospheric pollution? It is a problem in Germany, where some work is being undertaken. How much work are we doing on it?

The funding for the programme of 100 million ecus, or £66 million seems modest. It begs the question : is it enough? I would say that it was not enough for a major forestry development programme. What are the planning

Column 123

implications of the proposals? I see only references to the impact effect on 100-hectare blocks of forestry. The position in Wales and Scotland is different, as there are not the restrictions on large forestry developments found in England.

What efforts will be made to grow more hardwoods to reduce imports from the Third world? As hon. Members have already said, those imports cause the rundown of rain forests, which has an impact on the global climate. Surely we can make our contribution by growing more hardwood in the United Kingdom and Europe.

We benefit from the plantings of our predecessors and enjoy the fruits of trees planted 200 or 300 years ago. There was great sadness when some were blown down about 18 months ago. We must take a long-term view on forestry. It is no good taking a quick buck in the short term. The key is enlightened land use between forestry and agriculture, and developing forestry intelligently.

10.48 pm

Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East) : I have listened to interesting speeches, but that description does not apply to the speech of the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson). I feel some sympathy for the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), who will have to try to resurrect any vestiges of Labour party forestry policy, as his hon. Friend's speech was a misplaced tirade with little indication of positive policies. I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the afforestation of wide tracts of scenic areas of Scotland, where I enjoy spending time. If he knew anything about forestry, he would know from the age of the trees that the planting has not been done in the past five years. It goes back over the past two decades. A tree in the first decade of life is hardly visible from any distance.

The tax breaks to which the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North referred existed, of course, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, they had been in existence for some considerable time. I believe that the Government were right in acting as they did last year, because the natural resources of our countryside were being exploited. More and more people were saying that they did not want our countryside permanently afforested. I must say that I was concerned when I read the EEC proposals. My first reaction was that here was a little more empire building by the European Commission. While I find many of the Commission's proposals attractive, sensible and containing some worthwhile objectives, I question fundamentally whether we need a Community policy on forestry. I was interested to note from the speech of the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North that the Opposition were in favour of an FAP--a forest action programme although, sadly, we often hear that they are opposed to its sister, the CAP. I find that anomalous.

The positive ideas which are clearly laid out in this proposal could be threatened by the over-regulation that will inevitably follow an EEC or Commission policy. Do we really want the Commission to set out afforestation proposals for the whole Community? I believe that it should be much more the responsibility of the individual nations to decide on the extent of afforestation within their

Column 124

own countrysides and the effect that it will have on the visual and physical environments in which their people will live.

It is significant that not long ago the forecast and assessment in science and technology report suggested that the Community softwood requirements could be met from 2 million hectares of surplus good-quality farmland. It specifically mentioned Atlantic farmland as opposed to Mediterranean, which is an important point, because it gives greater emphasis to the move--which the Government have already begun--towards putting more woodland and more forestry on to conventional farmland rather than on the uplands. It is sensible that we continue that step forward. The uplands are traditionally the areas of great scenic beauty and, as many hon. Members have said, they are affected much more by afforestation than those areas of traditional, arable and lowland farming.

It must also be said that, if we are trying to produce trees as a commercial crop, like any other crop they will grow better on better soils than they will in the uplands. Water is clearly an additional factor and certain areas are too dry for trees to be of great commercial value. It is important that we understand that with the changing nature of agriculture and the changing needs for employment in the countryside afforestation has an important part to play. I was concerned to read in proposal A

"that Member States be required to adopt provisions governing afforestation, principally to prevent patchy afforestation of the countryside".

I believe that many people would say that patchy afforestation was much more attractive than massive single scale afforestation which renders much of the countryside less visually attractive and certainly much less physically attractive to work and live in. The traditional British patchwork countryside has historically been a major attraction of England and something that we should seek to retain as much as possible and, indeed, to re-create.

The document does not say much about existing woodland and about the effective management of the millions of hectares of existing woodland and forest, much of it extremely old. Much of that woodland has been derelict for many years and was seriously damaged by the gales of 18 months ago. Such woodland still requires a great deal of effort. A forestry policy be it a United Kingdom policy or an EEC policy, must pay great attention to the need to return to effective management the many millions of hectares of existing forest and farm woodland, which have an important role to play.

As part of the effort to re-establish the effective management of such woodlands, one must also consider the flora and fauna that they can or should support. We must ensure that any forestry policy pays a great deal of attention to achieving targets to ensure that wildlife can continue to live and expand its habitat in such areas. The EEC proposals do not provide enough assurances about that. Now is not the time for an in-depth discussion about the European attitude to many examples of wildlife, but we all know that some of our colleagues over the water have an inclination to shoot anything that moves. It would be sad if that attitude was not dealt with by ensuring that we have the appropriate policy to provide effective habitats and habitat management in Britain and throughout the Community.

I have grave reservations about the wisdom of going too far down the road of an EEC policy on forestry. I

Column 125

wonder how many years it will be before we or our successors have a debate about reforming the FAP, similar to today's debate about reforming the CAP, because it has got out of hand. We must consider carefully retaining greater national control of a forestry policy. Certainly, we need to have a forestry policy, and we need to take steps to plant in our arable and lowlands which will do a great deal to help farmers to diversify. Whatever I have said, however, I suspect that an EEC policy on forestry will be formulated. If so, we must use it to enhance rather than to replace existing developments. The Government have already initiated major forestry changes. The selling off of some of the Forestry Commission's plantations was a sensible way forward as it provided for a greater variety of ownership, which in turn has provided greater competition and benefits. The farm woodland scheme has been a trail-blazer for many countries. If the EEC proposal is accepted, I hope that it will be used as a means of enhancing that programme, which has already got off to a good start. That scheme already makes provision for a variety of plant species--a matter touched upon by a number of hon. Members--and shows that the Government have established a policy to provide for hardwoods and softwoods, differing regimes for different types of trees, which is sensible.

I am grateful for the opportunity to stress that we must not allow what looks like a sensible set of proposals to stimulate woodland and forestry to become burdened by the dead hand of regulations, which I fear will follow if we leave it too much to the Commission. 10.59 pm

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : I am grateful for a chance to speak in the debate. I broadly support the proposal for a forestry action programme and the draft EEC regulations. We need an overall European strategy for forestry, although I have some worries about how it will work in practice.

Some of our policies are nothing to be proud of. I was surprised to hear the Minister say that people from Europe are coming here to look at the result of our policies, because in some ways our forestry policy has allowed some of the worst acts of vandalism by a Government who seem to have a philistine attitude to forestry and the environment. That stems from the way in which tax concessions are given. I accept that the concessions have been around for a long time, but in recent years they have caused trees to be planted in areas that are not suitable for such planting. It would have been cheaper and less damaging to give people packets of money to stop them doing that. In some cases, that has been done as part of the

environmentally sensitive areas scheme.

The flow country is one of the last natural wildernesses in Europe and of special scientific interest not only nationally but internationally. Ploughing and planting in it is a real act of vandalism. That has been criticised by such bodies as the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, which have said that the return on investment in the flow country can be as low as 1.25 per cent. They have said that they have some doubts about the national economic benefits of the Government's aid, which is estimated at £10 million in tax concessions and £16 million in grants and services from the Forestry Commission.

Column 126

Bodies ranging from the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have come out strongly against planting in the flow country. Because of the water table and the fact that the flow country is floating peat bog, even small plantations cause enormous and irredeemable damage to the whole area. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that the flow country has never been afforested. A forestry policy should concentrate on areas that were deforested following the first world war : that would be a more sensible approach.

I was privileged to go to New Zealand with the Select Committee on Agriculture to look at forestry policies there. The New Zealand climate is somewhat better than ours, but New Zealanders are planting trees on far better land than that on which we plant ours. Our policy is to direct planting towards marginal land. If we concentrated more on higher quality land, we would get a better return on the investment.

As recently as 20 January, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food gave permission for the planting of 1,400 acres in the flow country. Conifers are subject to wind damage and, as I said earlier, the flow country land is of extremely poor quality and unsuitable for trees. I suspect that planting is being carried on more to get tax concessions than for any other reason. Those tax concessions are still being given. Some of the plantings made before 1987 have no national value. Worst of all, I understand that a report calling for the planting of 100,000 acres in the flow country is being considered. If that were done, it would practically devastate this important ecological area.

The European Community proposals lay too much stress on commercial forestry. More attention should be paid to habitat protection. Hon. Members have spoken about that. I hope that the Government will ensure that the Community will assess potential damage from forestry policies by commissioning environmental impact studies. If we are to have a Standing Committee it is important that it is not dominated by commercial forest and that the Government ensure that the Committee has environmen-tal representation. If we move towards tree planting on good quality land, the Government should consider boosting the United Kingdom farm woodland scheme. I concede that that scheme is a progressive step that will tackle surpluses, enhance the countryside and give farmers a constructive return on capital. We should be pressing for greater resources for conservation. As I said in my intervention to the Minister, the proposals are light on the conservation aspects of forestry, and we need to strengthen that. I hope that the Minister will raise this at the Council of environmental Ministers.

The Government should look to their record before saying that they have anything of which to be proud. The policy of planting in the flow country needs to be halted immediately. The Government should listen with more respect to their advisers in the Nature Conservancy Council, who have made it clear that the damage being done to the flow country is irreversible. I hope that, having recognised that they need to pay more attention to their conservation policies, the Government will press for adequate conservation policies in the EEC.

Column 127

11.5 pm

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : My hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) is a distinguished ornithologist who sits, as an elected member, on the council of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I am sure that all will have recognised the authority with which he speaks on these matters, and I for one am more than pleased to associate myself with what he said.

When the Under-Secretary opened the debate, I asked him whether it was the Government's view that the common agricultural policy should be extended to forestry, with the result that the Community expected to be self-sufficient in forestry products. I did not have an answer from him, and it may be that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food wants to think about its response to this question, but it lies at the heart of the debate. If there is to be a drive towards self-sufficiency, then many of the fears expressed by Opposition Members about the dangers of aggressive over-afforestation may come true. If the Parliamentary Secretary can give us the assurance that his colleague from the Scottish Office was unable to give, we might be a little happier.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) said that there was some confusion and lack of direction in Government policy, and I agree. There has been a slow and barely perceptible shift in the thrust of Government policy, and they have sent conflicting messages to the public. I shall give three examples. First, largely in response to Opposition and public pressure, tax concessions on planting, maintenance and harvesting operations were removed in the last Budget. The Opposition welcomeed that, but the Government's transitional arrangements allowed the abuse of our environment--by media stars such as Terry Wogan and Cliff Richard, and by Tory politicians such as Lady Porter--to continue unabated for a further five years, with the planting of 250,000 hectares of land that had been approved before the Budget changes.

Secondly, again in response to pressure from the Oppposition and conservation groups, the Secretary of State for the Environment has ensured that there will be no further coniferous afforestation on the English uplands. Despite many representations, neither the Secretary of State for Scotland nor the Secretary of State for Wales has extended similar protection to the equally vulnerable and arguably more sensitive uplands that are their responsibility. No one can dispute that the moors above Llanbrynmair in Wales and the flow country of Caithness and Sutherland, which has already been referred to, are of great importance. The protection that would be theirs in England has been denied them in Wales and Scotland. That sends a contradictory message to the British public.

Thirdly, all the Government statements, and many of their initiatives, have been supportive of the development of a broadleaf planting programme. The new woodland grant scheme, which replaces the old grant and tax concession scheme, while providing a higher maximum grant for broadleaf, provides a disproportionately greater increase for coniferous afforestation. The arguments are for broadleaf planting, but the money is for coniferous planting.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : What message would the hon. Gentleman give to those who are employed at the new mill at Irvine, where there are 480 jobs? The mill requires

Column 128

200,000 tonnes of timber annually, and mainly coniferous. I believe that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) mentioned during the consideration of the Water Bill in Committee that there is a pulp mill in his constituency where 150 are employed. The mills need vast quantities of coniferous timber. What is the message that the hon. Gentleman is sending to the employees in these mills and in others?

Mr. Davies : The Opposition would send out the message that we must have a viable timber industry, and that the industry must take into account the real needs of the economy and the environment, as well as its own needs. I find it difficult to answer such questions when we have been arguing the case for employment and employment protection during a period when the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) and his colleagues have supported a Government who have been deliberately and blatantly stripping away employment prospects for those whom I represent, as well as for the constituents of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I do not want to go down that track, however, as time does not allow me to do so.

We generally welcome the Commission's proposals and we shall not be dividing the House. I am sure that the Minister and the Government Chief Whip will be glad to know that. We have reservations, however, about detail. We would argue for greater emphasis to be placed on broadleaf planting on existing farmland in Atlantic Europe. Areas to be planted should be subject to the most stringent environmental assessment. We would thus support the controls that are operated by the Government in their administration of the farm woodland scheme to discourage planting on unimproved pasture or old improved pasture which has reacquired features of ecological value. We believe that there should be an environmental impact assessment for all new afforestation, including that of the Forestry Commission, which is currently excluded, for schemes of not only 100 hectares or more, as proposed by the Commission, but for all schemes of new planting. The drive for self-sufficiency in various elements of the common agricultural policy should not become paramount in forestry policy within the Community. We should all understand the capacity of coniferous monoculture to inflict lasting damage on landscape and fragile ecosystems. Increasingly, forestry policy must be about objectives in addition to timber production. We are disappointed, therefore, that the forestry action programme does not contain proposals for the protection and nurturing of existing semi-natural woodland. That is an omission that it shares with the Government's farm woodland scheme.

Proposal A to amend regulation 797/85 should therefore be amended further. Proposal B envisages "operational forestry programmes" that are drawn up in conjunction with regional and local authorities in the context of an integrated development plan, including conservation and environmental protection. We welcome this provision, as it introduces an element of accountability and planning, and extends concern for environmental protection.

For too long, the United Kingdom's forestry policy has been determined by narrow investment decisions based on land values and opportunities for tax breaks. This has led to much of the approbrium that has attached to forestry as a destroyer of the environment. Much of the softwood

Column 129

timber production has been expensive, of poor quality and not likely to meet Britain's long-term timber requirements. We are aware of the conclusion that was drawn by the Public Accounts Committee when it examined Britain's forestry policy.

We hope that we shall see the development of a more down-the-hill, hardwood -based, environmentally friendly multi-purpose industry that is more suited to Britain's needs. We hope also that the obsessive secrecy that surrounds the work of the regional advisory committees and the programmes of enforced sell-offs by the Forestry Commission can be swept away. Perhaps Brussels's bureaucrats can secure our right to public information where the House of Commons has failed. Proposal E refers specifically to the protection of the Community's forests against atmospheric pollution. We believe that the Forestry Commission and the Government have been complacent in their assessment of the impact of atmospheric pollution on the health of British trees. In a recent survey on the health of trees in southern England, which was warmly praised for the objectivity of its techniques by the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside in the House of Lords, the Earl of Caithness, Greenpeace disclosed that 74 per cent. of yews, 52 per cent. of oaks and 39 per cent. of beeches in the study area had been damaged by pollution. However, an absurd claim, which has since been discredited by independent sources, was made in a Forestry Commission press release, that trees actually benefit from

"high levels of certain pollutants."

That is taking the complacency to which I referred earlier a little too far even for me.

Mr. Boswell : Does the hon. Gentleman recall that that reference appeared in the Forestry Commission's annual report and was qualified by a measure of surprise that that apparently perverse result came through? The hon. Gentleman should not draw the easy inference that in some way the Forestry Commission was loading the facts to suit its case.

Mr. Davies : I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because I know that he follows these debates closely and he has been present for most of the evening without being called. However, that does not prevent me from drawing his attention to the report from the Select Committee on the Environment in 1987-88, which examined the point to which he referred. In its summary, recommendation 3 states :

"We note that the Forestry Commission stands alone in its refusal to accept a nexus between air pollution and tree damage. The health of Britain's trees gives us cause for concern and while research must continue apace, the maximum efforts must be made now to eliminate the emissions from fossil fuel combustion into the atmosphere." I hope that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) will read that report in full and he will then accept what I am saying. Greater attention and more research must be directed at the complex interreaction between atmospheric pollution, coniferous afforestation and acidification of ground water. The destruction of aquatic life in many of Scotland's now dead lochs, and certainly the acidification of Llyn Brianne in mid-Wales and its associated catchment and river systems has been clearly identified with dry deposition encouraged by extensive coniferous forests. The Welsh water authority's declaration of forestry no-go areas is therefore understandable and welcome. Where one

Column 130

public body is in open conflict with another carrying a similar major responsibility, a major responsibility must ultimately rest with the politicians who are responsible.

Another area about which I want to express our concern for the record involves access. It is our contention that, where large sums of public money are invested--largely, we should not forget, for private profit-- there should be an assumption in favour of open public access. That should certainly apply to Forestry Commission land and plantations, and it should also extend to grant-aided private forests. While I can see that there are cases in which public access would be inappropriate, I hope that the Minister will consider access in any of the schemes which might result from the documents that we are discussing tonight.

So far, I have discussed principally our domestic forestry policy. We all now realise that we share Planet Earth, let alone that part of western Europe that we personally inhabit. I want to put on record our belief that there is a great diversity of forestry and woodland in the European Community, and our assertion that different programmes and support must be developed for different forestry and woodland systems. Southern non-timber producing forests and traditional timber producing forests are often under intense pressure for intensification or improvement. There is little Community support for maintenance of existing viable and sustainable traditional forestry systems and that is a defect that we look to the forthcoming discussions to correct.

Tonight, we take a cautious approach. I suggest to the Minister that, if he presses for the safeguards we suggest--particularly those proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe--and if he proposes environmental representation on the forestry Standing Committee, and recognises the broader implications of forestry policy by ensuring that the FAP is considered by the Council of Environment Ministers before final decisions are taken, then any administrative or policy changes following from the programme are likely to receive a warmer welcome than we give the document that is before the House. 11.19 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : That forestry is now being seen as having a positive role to play in Community affairs is something that I welcome, although, as with all Community proposals, we must be satisfied that they are sensible and cost-effective--as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) stressed so effectively.

Conditions in much of the Community--particularly so in the United Kingdom- -are well-suited to the growing of a wide variety of trees. Nevertheless, the Community as a whole has to import half its timber requirements. In the United Kingdom, that figure is some 90 per cent., at a cost of £6.5 billion in 1988. The signs are that the internal consumption of timber throughout the Community is likely to increase between now and the end of the century with some experts putting the growth as high as 30 per cent. Even with the increasing output that may be expected from existing forests, it will not be enough to cope with the demand. It is all the more understandable that the Community is taking an increasing interest in the development of forestry in member states.

Next Section

  Home Page