Previous Section Home Page

Column 501

many pertinent questions to ask about the present situation. There is still suspicion that forest management will be based solely on narrow commercial principles and that that may yet lead to the planting of more blanket swathes of conifers. There is also concern about the private ownership that has become an increasing feature of forestry over the past 11 or 12 years, as the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire said. Land disposal has taken place and more than 25,000 acres have now been sold in Scotland.

From experience, we know that private ownership frequently leads to a denial of access. The Forestry Commission has previously been criticised, but during my visits to, and discussions with, conservation groups, recreational groups and local authorities, they have pointed to the fact that, especially in the past decade, the Forestry Commission has proved much more astute. It has learnt to serve the needs of industry without alienating the public interest. It has adopted a proper and responsible attitude to community, recreational and environmental interests. Tree planting is nowadays undertaken in sympathy with the lie of the land and broadleaved trees, such as oak, ash, rowan and birch, which are traditional species in the Scottish forests, are introduced to soften the geometrical patterns of the land. A lot of good work has taken place, but we must remember that 250,000 acres of forestry land could be sold off by the end of the century.

The Secretary of State for Scotland could be described as Britain's head forester because he is in charge of the forest portfolio throughout the United Kingdom. The Scottish Office has an extremely important role to play. There is still a robust role for it in fighting against the disposal of land. There must be resistance to the Treasury's wish for a quick profit from the sale of valuable estates over the coming years.

Although this is, I imagine, the first time that the Government have backed down over privatisation in 15 years, we still have to strike a note of caution because, although the statement by the Secretary of State on Tuesday was welcome, a number of issues are still of great concern to us. Let us consider his comment that "Our conclusion is that, at this stage of their development, the Forestry Commission woodlands should remain in the public sector." Why in the name of goodness was the phrase

"at this stage of their development"

put into the statement ? One can only surmise.

Sir Hector Monro : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered that point yesterday.

Mr. McFall : The Secretary of State did not answer satisfactorily. That is the whole point.

Sir Hector Monro : That is a matter of opinion.

Mr. McFall : I agree that it is a matter of opinion, but I point out to the Minister that no Opposition Member believed that the point was answered. It is clear from the newspapers today that few members of the press believe that the point was answered. When the Secretary of State said :

"at this stage of their development"-- [ Official Report , 19 July 1994 ; Vol. 247, c. 177.]

did he mean that, two or three years down the line, the Forestry Commission will be reviewed again ?

Earlier, I quoted the Minister saying that the Government had no intention of privatising the Forestry Commission, yet they set up an interdepartmental review

Column 502

because of the pressure from other Departments. There was pressure from the Department of the Environment and from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, among others. The Minister cannot sit there, even at 4 o'clock in the morning, and deny that. I congratulate him on resisting the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment and the Treasury. What concerns the Opposition and other people is that that resistance will have to be maintained.

In the statement, the Secretary of State also mentioned that a trading body would be established as a next steps agency and would deal at arm's length with other parts of the Commission. We know the situation with regard to other bodies which have been established as next steps agencies to "deal at arm's length". What that means in parliamentary terms is that when a Member of Parliament writes a letter, instead of a direct answer from a Minister, there is a response from a chief executive. All we have to go on is that simple answer from the chief executive ; we cannot probe or clarify the aims and objectives of the agency and the criteria on which it is operating. That gives us no element of succour in terms of the Secretary of State's statement.

The Secretary of State also referred to the Forestry Commission meeting legal costs incurred by local authorities in making access agreements. That is a totally inadequate response to the issue of access agreements. It is still the case that if land is sold and put into public hands, access agreements are not established. If I understand the Select Committee's report on forestry correctly, it mentions one access agreement in England and Wales but no agreement in Scotland, so effectively no access agreements have yet been established. It is a bit simple and superficial for the Secretary of State to say that giving the Forestry Commission some resources to meet legal costs will overcome the issue of access agreements because the problem is much greater than that. We need much more information on that issue.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire mentioned the disposal of land. It is a fact that land has been disposed of since 1981. Over the past decade, there has been a campaign to stop the sale of forest land. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that more than 8,000 acres of land in Upper Nithsdale near Sanquhar in Dumfries--the Minister's area--have been disposed of. Further disposal was stopped only after successful intervention by the Ramblers Association working in co-operation with local community interests. The land would have been sold but for the fact that the local community got together and campaigned against it.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Kilpatrick Hills, which I know extremely well because most of the 4,000 acres which are about to be disposed of are in my constituency. Much of the land encompasses the Loch Lomond area. Although the Government established a working party to examine the issue of the conservation of Loch Lomond and planning for its future, and although the report of Sir Peter Hutchison's working party stated that its understanding from the Scottish Office was that there would be no disposal of land in that area until the Secretary of State had come back with a statement as to the future of Loch Lomond, the Government have allowed the Forestry Commission to go ahead with the sale of 4,000 acres of that precious land. In another area, delay in doing something about Loch Lomond is doing little for the environment or for public

Column 503

safety. The Government have an obligation to come out with a definitive statement on the issue. The sale of the Kilpatrick land involved 4,000 acres of precious Forestry Commission woodland. Again, a local campaign was taken up when it was discovered that Cluttons of Edinburgh was selling that land. I shall quote from a memorandum from Dawn McNiven of the Forestry Commission in Edinburgh to Bill Wright of the Ramblers Association in Scotland. It says :

"You asked for a written note on the above"

Kilpatrick Hills

"Owing to the failure of four of the five lots to achieve a satisfactory offer, we have decided to temporarily withdraw all five lots of woodlands from the market.

The sale aroused considerable public comment, and this may have had an effect on potential purchasers. We intend to bring the woods back to the market once conditions have changed."

I assure the Minister that if that happens, public opposition will be maintained so that we keep that land in public ownership. In the past couple of years, the Minister has engaged in double-speak on access agreements. On 29 January 1994, the Minister was interviewed on Radio Scotland about Forestry Commission woods--at a far more civilised time between 7 am and 8 am--and he stated : "I think the point you are really making is that those that have been sold to individuals or to private companies with a binding agreement on access, I think in truth the law cannot be continued to a second purchaser."

The interviewer went on to ask :

"So the first purchaser at the moment can make a very quick profit by selling it on to a chum somewhere down the line ?"

The Minister replied :

" That would be possible, yes."

Sir Hector Monro : But very improbable.

Mr. McFall : The Minister said :

"That would be possible, yes."

For the past 15 years, I have kept a close eye on the Government and such a reply is as good as them accepting that that could happen. The Minister has therefore acknowledged that if a second purchaser takes over woods, access agreements cannot be guaranteed.

Sir Hector Monro : The hon. Gentleman is being rather unfair. He should quote from the rest of that interview, in which I explained carefully that the whole purpose of management agreements with local authorities is that they last in perpetuity. It is important to reach such agreements to ensure that the legal problem of access is not encountered on the second sale.

Mr. McFall : I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification, but if the individual who purchased the land wished to sell after six months, no one could stop that person. The Minister has now told us that no public access agreement can be guaranteed. At the moment, the Forestry Commission operates a right-to-roam policy and the public make 50 million visits a year to its land. If the piecemeal disposal programme continues, the issue of public access will become an issue of ever-greater importance to the public, because they will understand that, progressively, they may be denied access to the hills.

The Minister has offered us no comfort, particularly when we consider that no access agreements have been

Column 504

signed between a local authority and a private landlord. On Tuesday, the Secretary of State failed to respond to that issue, which is still to the fore in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire has already referred to multi -purpose forestry. In August, when the opposition to the Forestry Commission sell-off was at its height, I was invited to visit the Caledonian Paper Mill Company's plant at Irvine. That company has made a £250 million investment in Scotland and employs 430 people at the plant. It was concerned about long-term stability in the forestry and wood processing industry. That company and other industrialists told me that the Forestry Commission should stay in public hands because no long-term guarantee of supply could be offered if woods were in private hands. Whether one is talking to recreational, environmental or industrial groups, the message is the same : it is important to the keep the Forestry Commission in public hands.

Last year, the Labour party undertook a forestry privatisation survey and contacted every local authority in the United Kingdom. There was a 100 per cent. response from Scottish local authorities. They were unanimous in their belief that privatisation was not the way forward. The Dumfries and Galloway regional council, which has responsibilities in the Minister's constituency, responded as follows :

"Privatisation would be damaging to the nation's economic interests as well as placing at risk current public rights to access and recreation."

Even in the area that the Minister represents, his words on access do not ring true. The council continued :

"There might also be damage to local processors, mainly saw mills, if they are to rely on future supplies from multinational companies with purely commercial objectives. The present continuity of supply would certainly be threatened."

Every local authority in Scotland said that it wished the Forestry Commission to remain in public hands.

The need for a long-term policy for forestry is extremely important. After all, an oak tree that was planted in 1919, when the Forestry Commission was founded, will even now barely have reached middle age. We are one of the least afforested nations in Europe. There is only 10 per cent. woodland cover in Britain, with 7 per cent. in England. Our European partners have an average of 25 per cent. The need to continue to pursue the current long- term strategy is extremely important.

The Royal Scottish Forestry Society, in its submission to the review group and in criticism of possible privatisation, said "that sudden change for political or other reasons forced onto an unwilling organisation would cause instability to both private and State forest enterprises."

The society set out its concerns about the long-term disruptive effect on the forestry staff--their recruitment and training--and said that a

"piecemeal sell off' would be the worst of all worlds, with loss of jobs with a complete disruption of the woodland market, resulting in only the best forests being sold at rock-bottom' prices." We ask the Minister to take into account this wise counsel about piecemeal sales. Despite the Secretary of State's statement on Tuesday, the issue has not been addressed. It will result in a severe problem in future.

The Conservative party's 1992 manifesto gave a clear promise to guarantee public access to a forest when the land was sold off. As with all its manifesto commitments, nothing could have been further from the truth. We were told by Ministers at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries

Column 505

and Food that further restrictions to Forestry Commission land would be fiercely resisted. In the light of the Under-Secretary's remarks, the only way to resist further restrictions to public access is to bring an immediate end to the Government's policy of back-door forestry privatisation.

I join the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire in pressing the Government on the issue. The Secretary of State's statement on Tuesday was far from reassuring. Pertinent issues remain to be considered. The Government are backing down on the privatisation proposal but they have done little to reassure the public that their long-term intentions are good.

5.14 am

Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) for initiating this important debate. Like him, I would welcome reform of the procedures of the House so that we did not have to debate such matters at 5 o'clock in the morning. I must be well and truly sucked into the system to be standing here now.

The Forestry Commission's future is a subject close to my heart and the hearts of many of my constituents. Some 12 per cent. of my constituency of Christchurch, in east Dorset, is Forestry Commission-owned land and the New Forest is on our doorstep. When I was elected last year, I conducted a survey among my constituents and found that a large majority of them regularly walk in our local woodlands. That is not surprising given the wealth of opportunity that we have to do that locally, with Ringwood forest, the Moors Valley country park, Hurn commons and part of the Avon valley in the area. All those places are owned by the Forestry Commission, so it is understandable that I feel so strongly about this issue.

Like many other hon. Members, I listened with interest to the Secretary of State for Scotland's statement on Tuesday. The news that the Forestry Commission would not be privatised was hardly Westminster's best kept secret ; it had been announced on the television news and in The Times in May, and in The Scotsman in April. Nevertheless, I was relieved to hear the Secretary of State confirm it in the House, and the 4,500 people in my constituency who signed a petition against privatising the Forestry Commission feel likewise.

The decision not to privatise the Forestry Commission is wise. The future of our woodlands does not lie in the private sector. The delicate balance between the commercial use of forestry, the public right of access and environmental protection and conservation can best be kept by a body that is publicly owned and accountable to Parliament and the public through Ministers. In contrast, a Forestry Commission plc would be accountable primarily to its shareholders, whose interest in the land would be overwhelmingly commercial. Without all-encompassing regulation and strict control, which would be impractical and make the commission unattractive to investors, the profit motive would run rampant over the public interest and the delicate balance that now prevails would be lost, possibly irretrievably.

I know from first-hand experience how that delicate balance between the different areas is kept. I visited the Moors Valley area in my constituency and was shown round by two members of the Forestry Commission staff. One who was interested in conservation showed me the

Column 506

work that the commission was doing in bringing back Dorset heath land, which is an important natural habitat. It was also impressive to go round with the employee responsible for the commercial side and see the tremendous pains to which the commission has gone to protect the environment at the same time as selling off our woodlands. Despite the Secretary of State's announcement, the future of the Forestry Commission and the land that it currently owns is still a matter of great concern to me. The implication of his remarks on Tuesday was that privatisation was by no means ruled out as an option for the future. Indeed, when questioned, the Secretary of State said that there was "no intrinsic reason" for Forestry Commission woodlands to stay in public ownership.

The decision to turn Forest Enterprise into a next steps agency could be regarded as a staging post towards privatisation in the future. Even if it is not, the Secretary of State admitted that the new agency would be "at arm's length" from the rest of the commission. As has already been said, it will become even harder to hold the Forestry Commission's management wing accountable to Parliament.

The Secretary of State also said that there will be demanding but deliverable performance targets. That sounds as though the Government will demand profit and the agency will deliver land to the private sector to get it. Will those performance targets include targets for levels of public access ? Will those performance targets include targets for the preservation of animal habitats, and rare species and plants ? That is especially important in my constituency, where there are Dorset heath land areas. Will those performance targets include targets for the planting of deciduous trees rather than the block planting of conifers, which are often preferred by the private sector because they are more profitable, but add to acid pollution and often destroy wildlife habitats ? I strongly hope that the Minister's answer to all those questions will be yes, and that the Government performance targets are not simply profit targets.

I know that the forestry industry is an important one for much of Britain, and I fully realise that the commission plays an important economic role in many areas. Nevertheless, there is a balance to be kept between that role, and access and conservation, which up to now has been kept fairly successfully. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me and other hon. Members and our constituents that performance for the Forest Enterprise agency will mean very much more than simply how much money can be made out of our woodlands, and that any "targets" that it is set will take those points into account. The Forestry Commission has an admirable record on conservation. My hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire mentioned his visit to a neighbouring constituency of mine, and he told you about bat boxes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that the Forestry Commission has also been involved with bird boxes. However, my hon. Friend did not tell you about the bumble boxes to be found in Wareham forest, in an effort to save the British bumblebee.

The commission also has a good record on public access, and I make no apologies for making similar points about that. That is the issue about which people are most worried. We know that, when woodlands are sold off, access is almost always lost. In spite of the Government's much-trumpeted initiatives in 1991 to try to protect access,

Column 507

I have been informed that only 19 agreements have been obtained from a total of 544 sales in the two years after that. Public access has been lost to 83,700 acres, and that can be added to the 345,000 acres to which public access had been lost in the previous nine years.

I welcome the fact that the Government have now recognised that that state of affairs cannot continue. I look forward to studying the promised measures when they are at last published. I hope that there will be great encouragement of public access when the commission disposes of its land.

When I read the document that we hope will arrive soon, I shall be especially interested in the proposals on how we shall pay the costs of public access. I say that as someone who came to this place from local government. I know too well the way in which local government may be promised help to pay for things, but cash does not always arrive. Permission may have been given to borrow, rather than money being forthcoming. I welcome, however, the fact that the Government recognise that it is important for local authorities to be involved in that, and I would back them whole-heartedly on that.

The most unfortunate fact is that, while the forestry review group has been sitting, while the Government have been considering its findings, while they have been producing a consultation document that we have yet to see, and while they consult on it and finally implement any changes, new woodlands are being put on the market. In the next 12 months, a further 25 acres are scheduled for disposal. I ask the Government, why is that being allowed to happen ? They are allowing it to happen in the full knowledge that people will lose the right of access to that land. I believe that the Government should halt the sales until new measures are in place, so that we do not lose any more access. I should very much like much more openness to surround sales of Forestry Commission land. It is difficult for ordinary members of the public to find out what land is on the market.

The piecemeal sell-off of much of the Forestry Commission's land is happening at a time when there is an expanding demand for timber world wide that we should be helping to meet. The Government's grant proposals show that they have recognised that, but, as I think we have all said this morning, the need to maintain access is becoming more and more important because the amount of leisure time that the average person now enjoys has greatly increased. We are all aware of the importance of woodland to the global environment, especially in our hydrological cycles and in combating global warming. Our forests are one of our greatest natural assets, and the Forestry Commission is the guardian of many of our most precious woodlands.

Many people will have been encouraged by the Secretary of State's statement, but we now have to see if the detail in the consultation document matches up to some of the expectations that have been raised by that statement. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I will be looking hard at the consultation document. I know that my constituents will be looking at it very closely. I hope that the Minister will take a hard look at the submissions that come in during the consultation process.

Column 508

I shall end with a few words for the Minister from one of my constituents. She speaks on behalf of the Verwood and district rambling club. Verwood is quite a small town in my constituency, but nevertheless the rambling club has 140 members. The letter was sent partly in response to a letter sent to me from the Minister which I sent to my constituent. She was not too happy with the initial letter, and said in her letter :

"I trust my suspicions are unfounded and that when the statement is issued we will find that common sense prevails.

This land belongs to the people. Let's keep it that way." 5.26 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro) : I am glad to respond to the debate, and am only sorry that Opposition Members have left me so little time to do so.

The House will be aware that the Secretary of State for Scotland made a detailed statement on Tuesday in which he outlined the Government's approach to forestry in the light of their consideration of the forestry review group's report. I think that it received a general welcome from hon. Members on both sides of the House with the exception, surprisingly, of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). He attacked what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said, but seemed to be totally out of step with almost everybody else in the House. However, I believe that his conscience may have made him realise that there was a great deal of good in what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. I appreciate the situation as well as many and probably better than most because my constituency is one of the most afforested areas in the United Kingdom. I have a high regard for the Forestry Commission and its staff, as well as for the private forestry groups that are equally important in providing timber for the long-term future. It is important to realise, particularly when we consider the planting grant increases that we announced on Tuesday, that we are concerned to ensure that there is an adequate supply for the major processing plants that have developed in the United Kingdom, especially in Scotland, in recent years. As the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) said, those plants are anxious to have long-term contracts. I hope that they will be able to achieve that under the plans that we have announced. In Ayrshire, Inverness-shire and Stirlingshire there are processing plants of immense importance, not only because of their products, but because they provide employment, often in areas with relatively sparse opportunities.

This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the commission, and it is appropriate to begin by considering its achievements. Opposition Members have tried to spread alarm and despondency tonight. Many of the issues they raised were hypothetical and far from what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said or what is intended.

Planting by the Forestry Commission and its support for private sector planting have resulted in the level of forest cover in Britain being doubled to reach 2.2 million hectares, more than 10 per cent. of the total land area. Wood production from the commission's forests is now more than 4 million tonnes a year, up 60 per cent. since 1980, with a further 50 per cent. increase expected by the year 2005. That wood production now supports many jobs in the wood processing sector. Over the last few years processing has enjoyed new investment of more than £1

Column 509

billion. Examples of that are Caledonian Paper, Iggesund in north-west England and Shotton Paper company in Wales.

In addition, we should not forget the sawmilling developments. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) has some in the Borders and I have some in my constituency. They are often located in small communities and thus provide an important boost to rural employment.

Under the Government's approach of multiple-purpose forestry, the commission's work is not simply restricted to wood production and encouraging investment in timber processing. Its responsibilities also include its important work in recreation and conservation. It is estimated that about 50 million people visit the commission's forests each year. It has developed an impressive range of facilities for visitors, including 671 picnic places, 751 forest walks and nature trails--those of us from Scotland well know the Southern Upland way and the Queen Elizabeth way--and a large number of cycle trails, visitor centres and forest gardens. The commission also operates a successful holiday business renting out forest cabins and providing camping and caravan sites.

I would not want to miss out the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) from my remarks. I can confirm that the Forestry Commission is extremely interested in conservation of all sorts. I know Canford Heath, Verwood and the other areas she mentioned. Many of them are sites of special scientific interest--especially Canford Heath--and are therefore protected. The commission takes a great interest in habitat, conservation and the encouragement of all sorts of wildlife. Those who last night heard my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins)--the Minister for the Environment and Countryside--talking about our future plans for conservation will know that he highlighted all those points and stressed how important it is to look after our countryside.

Not surprisingly, an estate of more than 1 million hectares is a key national resource for nature conservation. The commission's nature conservation initiatives include 400 sites of special scientific interest, which cover 80,000 hectares. There are also the habitat projects, 250 wildlife rangers and forest design plans to co-ordinate production conservation and recreational uses. Last but not least, the commission is custodian of some of the great British forests such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, which are linked to great events in our history and whose continued maintenance and development provide a tangible link to our past. I must put on record a response to some of the points raised. It is wrong to say that the Government have done a U-turn. It is difficult to get into the heads of some Opposition Members that a consultation period means just that. We set out all the options and, having listened to all the arguments, we reach a conclusion. I find it incomprehensible that Opposition Members jump to conclusions before they have consulted. They were exactly the same on the issue of water. They said that Scotland's water would be privatised. We are not privatising Scotland's water ; it is remaining in the public sector. Nor are we disconnecting supplies to domestic premises.

Mr. Kirkwood : Publish the report.

Column 510

Sir Hector Monro : The hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position. He knows full well, because he must have heard the reason a thousand and one times, why the Quayle-Monro report is not being published. It is exactly the same with the report of the forestry review group. Hon. Members should understand that papers containing commercial judgments are not and never have been published. The hon. Member for Dumbarton loves dishing out confidential documents, as he did tonight, but I cannot comment on them. The hon. Gentleman should have a greater sense of responsibility than to proceed by leaks. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire made a constructive speech. The details of the agency will be spelt out in the consultative document that will be published shortly. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no accelerated programme of disposals. He should know that we started out with the intention to sell l00,000 hectares and we are almost halfway towards achieving that and expect to do so by the year 2000. There is no intention to increase that figure.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said time and again that now that we have considered the access issue and received the report of the access sub-committee, which I accept was disappointing, we shall be careful about what parcels of forest are put on the market. Sensitive areas and areas that are used frequently by the public will not be in the disposal programme unless we can obtain an access agreement from the local authority. That is why we have put £1 million into the proposals that we announced yesterday--to assist with the legal charges and other aspects and to buy out the leasehold of Forestry Commission woodlands that are subject to leasehold and so not free for access as the rest of its woodlands are.

Mr. Kirkwood : That is a helpful answer. From where does the £1 million that the Minister has just mentioned come ? Is it a Treasury grant, or will it come from the Forestry Commission's own resources ?

Sir Hector Monro : The hon. Gentleman can work it out however he wishes. It will come from the trees that are sold and less will go to the Treasury. It will go to the operations to help with access and the grants, which is an important issue. Less money will go to the Treasury and more will be put back into the Forestry Commission, either through planting grants to the private sector or towards making access more available.

Mr. McFall : Will the Minister give way ?

Sir Hector Monro : I have only four or five minutes, so I must hurry on.

I welcome what the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire said--after all, it is his debate--about the South of Scotland Conservancy Council and Mr. Gordon Cowie, whom I know well and who is doing an excellent job. That is why I am so pleased that the Forestry Commission is staying as it is with the addition of the next steps agency in order to increase the commercial aspect of the enterprise. The authority will carry on looking, as ever, to be more efficient and to include the scientific aspects that have been mentioned. Interestingly enough, I went recently with Gordon Cowie to south-west Scotland to see the devastation of plantations by fire. That is a serious issue that we must consider. Half a million pounds worth of timber is burnt in a day, some by vandals and some by careless walkers in the

Column 511

woods. We must be careful about that in the spring when there is little green cover and the timber is particularly dry, as it was in May this year.

I have said how proud we are of SSSIs, which are important to the Forestry Commission. There is great co-operation between Scottish Natural Heritage, English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission. All work well in harmony. It is interesting how they are developing their work together.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton mentioned Loch Lomond and safety. We put into the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill the very issue that we are trying to achieve of speeding up the by-laws for water sport.

Mr. McFall : As to Loch Lomond, I mentioned the possible sale of 4, 000 acres of Kilpatrick Hills. Sir Peter Hutchison's report, which I welcomed, referred to the disposal of land in the Loch Lomond area. Perhaps there could be a moratorium until the Secretary of State makes up his mind. Will the Minister consider that issue and write to me ?

Sir Hector Monro : Yes. I indicated that careful consideration will be given to putting on the market areas of sensitive planting--and nothing could be more sensitive than the area around Loch Lomond. That is also true of the Kilpatrick Hills, where there is also a significant problem of access to extract the timber if it were sold. That is also on the back burner.

We must maintain a modest disposal programme to generate income to continue the Forestry Commission's overall business. We must not forget that it was established to provide sufficient timber for all sorts of purposes in this country, not for purely environmental reasons. I am glad that has developed because it is important that trees are matured and that we now have fine woodlands throughout the United Kingdom.

The House will have to await publication of the consultative document in a few weeks' time for much of the detail. There will be adequate time--at least until the end of October--for consultation and for people to give their views, if they differ from the document. We will listen adequately and carefully, as we did throughout the progress of the forestry review group. I must have written 1,000 letters to Members of Parliament on access. Of course I was aware how strongly they felt. In the same way that we listened in respect of water in Scotland, we listened carefully in relation to forestry and made the right decision. I was pleased because I think that it is the right way forward. I look forward to the results of the consultation document, so that the commission will know that it has a stable, long-term future--as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said when answering questions on his statement last Tuesday--and will not feel concerned about any of the scares

The allotted time having expired, the debate was concluded in accordance with MADAM SPEAKER'S statement--[Official Report, 14 July 1994 ; Vol. 246, c. 1197.]

Column 512

Air Pollution (London)

5.42 am

Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham) : I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, although I dare say that he could think of more joyful starts to his new job than addressing a cold and empty Chamber at 6 o'clock in the morning.

Twice in the past three weeks the Department of the Environment issued poor quality air alerts as photochemical smogs descended on many parts of Britain. The most recent case was Tuesday 12 July. Before that, peaks occurred over the weekend of 2 and 3 July. In London--the worst-hit area-- ozone levels reached 95 parts per billion. According to the Department's health panel, they should average no more than 50 parts per billion.

That weekend, according to Today , hospitals reported a 20-fold or 30-fold increase in admissions of patients with breathing difficulties. Some hospitals in London and the south-east were so overloaded that they were running out of medicines to treat asthma sufferers.

It is ironical that those two poor air quality alerts coincided precisely with the inquiry into transport-related air pollution in London by the Transport Select Committee, of which I am a member. They were not without precedent. The most notorious air pollution incident in recent times was the photochemical smog in London on Friday 13 December 1993. Professor Ross Anderson of St. George's hospital conducted an investigation into the incident for the Department of Health. He said :

"The death rate in London during that week was 10 per cent. higher than expected--equivalent to about 160 extra deaths."

There is now good medical evidence to suggest that increases in air pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and

particulates--known as PM10s--are associated with the worsening of the symptoms and the number of attacks experienced by individuals with asthma and other respiratory disorders. And asthma is on the increase. Indeed, it is the only treatable chronic condition in the western world that is increasing in frequency and severity. The Government's figures published in April of this year show that levels of asthma have more than doubled in every region of England since 1979. Some 3 million British citizens now suffer from asthma. Some 2, 000 people die from asthmatic attacks every year--with 80 per cent. of those deaths thought to be preventable. In total, there are some 100, 000 hospital admissions for asthma each year. It is now the greatest single cause of hospital admissions, after heart disease and strokes.

The national asthma campaign has drawn our attention to the anomalous position whereby this major and treatable source of ill health in our society was not included in the Government's "Health of the Nation" strategy, published in 1992. Paradoxically, however, the Welsh Office has set targets for the reduction of asthma in the Principality. I very much hope that, as a matter of urgency, the Government will draw on the Welsh model and include in their "Health of the Nation" strategy targets for the reduction of asthma deaths and hospitalisations as well as for the management of asthma in schools and the community.

Such a development would certainly be more than welcome in the London area, for in the South West Thames regional health authority area, which covers part of London, the incidence of asthma rose by 164 per cent.

Next Section

  Home Page