Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Gentlemen, welcome to the Committee. We will be augmented as we go on, we have a clash with the debate in Westminster Hall at the moment. We hope you have not had to set off too many days in advance to be sure to get here, nor that it will take you too long to get back, but we are very conscious that you have come a long way. Presumably you have flown over most of the difficulties?
  (Mr Bills) Yes. We are pleased to be here, Chairman.

  2. Thank you very much. As you know, in June we looked at MAFF's departmental report following devolution and you featured in it for the first time, so we thought we ought to have a look at you and see how you were getting on. In particular, now that you have three masters, we thought we had better find out what is happening in this wonderful new devolved world. My first question is, how have you handled the change in response to devolution? Are the procedures and lines of accountability now in place? In answering, would you identify yourself for the record.
  (Mr Bills) I am David Bills. I am the Director General and I have been in the post for the Commission for five years, which was the two years preceding devolution. Before then I came from Australia, I had experience of a federation there.

  3. I had not immediately identified you as a native Scot, if I may say so? Would you like to go ahead and answer the question?
  (Mr Bills) The initial thoughts about devolution were that forestry being very much land based and very much rooted within the three countries that we had operated in traditionally, would be a devolved subject. Of course, the closer analysis showed that there were certain functions which would inevitably remain a part of the United Kingdom or GB, and in discussions with ministers, at that stage the devolution ministers and DSWR process, they decided that we should operate as a cross-border public body. There are others, but I suspect that we are probably the biggest and the only one with significant assets in each of the three countries. We looked at this from the point of view, they made that decision from the point of view of efficiencies. Since 1919 clearly a core body of expertise has been built up. I think that many of the people we dealt with had a GB perspective, whether it be environmental NGOs or industry NGOs. So there is support for us to remain as the one body in that quarter too. Certainly in the areas of efficiencies, both in terms of the normal administrative functions, whether it be personnel or finance, and also the technical areas on forest policy or, for example, national inventory work, there was a core body of experience there that would have been difficult to triplicate. As a result, those powers that ought to be devolved were identified and then we set about restructuring the Forestry Commission to look more devolved in its own operation. In order to do that we elevated the responsibility of the hitherto chief conservators who really act as deputy director generals in each of the three countries. We gave them more policy horse-power and more resources to deal with the National Assembly and with the Scottish Parliament, and of course, that came to Mr Hill-Tout, with Westminster for England. I tend to keep out of those discussions and that work, and I, myself, focus more on the GB or United Kingdom areas.

  4. What is your "GB" and what is "devolved"? Help us through this geometry. Is there an English Forestry Policy, a Scottish Forestry Policy and a Welsh Forestry Policy, or is there a National Federation Policy with new answers? How does it work?
  (Mr Bills) We have a United Kingdom forest standard which determines the overall standards which the Westminster Government believe forestry should follow and be consistent with. In each of the three countries that we operate there has been a strategy-setting process which has basically been a long consultation with stakeholders to try to define the kind of forest policies which would make sense in the context of England, Scotland or Wales. Nevertheless, at the GB level there are such things as the plant health and quarantine, where we do all the port inspections, for example, the discussions on forestry in Brussels where it is related to the RDP and CAP, and also the work we do with FAO and with the United Nations CSD. That is always a part of what we call United Kingdom policy, and indeed in that situation we consult with the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland who deliver forestry on the ground there.

  5. Give me an example of a policy area where you might be doing something different in Scotland than in England?
  (Mr Bills) Taking the Forest Strategy in Scotland, which was published yesterday, and the one in England that was published about 18 months ago, there are clear differences in emphasis. The policy in Scotland would deal far more with production forestry, soft woods and for industry there, which is a far greater part of the Scottish economy. Within England there would be more emphasis on regenerations, peri-urban or semi-urban forestry, on some of the work, for example, in the New Forest where a large part of our forest will become a part of the new National Park. If I had to make a very crude distinction, the emphasis in England is much more on the recreation and social amenity.

  6. Industrial and amenity in very, very rough shorthand?
  (Mr Bills) That is not to say that these are not important in Scotland, but it is a question of balance. In Wales, for example, we are pursuing very much making our forests in the valleys more friendly and more open to the people in the valleys, which are socially deprived areas.

  7. You are now satisfied that those lines of accountability in the different bodies are in place?
  (Mr Bills) Yes.

  8. You are structurally sound, as it were?
  (Mr Bills) Yes, the strategies are, indeed, approved by the appropriate legislature.

  9. Your own memo said that your finances were affected by devolution. What has been that effect and does it mean, for example, that revenues from harvesting of forests in Scotland is ring-fenced to be used in Scotland?
  (Mr Bills) That is correct.

  10. And the same is true in England and Wales?
  (Mr Bills) That is correct, and the assets, of course, in the long term are for the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly, so if there are any land sales, they accrue within that country. We have to balance our books both in our own forest management, but also in our grant giving, the grant giving and our budgets of each of the three countries, and we cannot move unders or overs across the territory.

  11. Presumably, given what you have answered previously, that there is a more industrial vocation, as it were, in Scotland, then a large part of your revenue arises in Scotland, does it not? Are you more market orientated in Scotland and more grant dependent in England?
  (Mr Bills) At this point in time the Scottish estate is relatively immature, so the value of sales is not as big as you might think, but, of course, the potential value is significant and in the next few years you will see much more harvesting taking place.

  12. Let us project ourselves ahead then 10 or 20 years. Would the Forestry Commission then begin to look very differently on each side of the border, because in Scotland you would be a commercial operation, harvesting trees for industrial use, and there is relatively little of that in England; in England you would presumably continue to focus on the amenity side which, by definition, does not give rise to a large amount of revenue? Do you see a divergence of new activity and, hence, eventually in your structures on each side of the border?
  (Mr Bills) I do not to the extent that you are expressing it. There is the difference between Scotland and England, but it is only a question of balance. After all, one of our biggest forests—it is our biggest forest—is Kielder which is in Northern England and, of course, there are regional differences within England as well. So timber production will continue to be important in England, it is just that if you look at the overall character of the strategy it will for example show up more emphasis on the social regeneration area in England than it might in Scotland.

  13. In business generally, people talk a great deal about prioritisation and ranking one's objectives. You have, as I recall it, six objectives, which I think are to protect forest and woodlands; to expand the forest area; enhancing the economic value of the forest resource; conserving and improving the bio-diversity, landscape and culture heritage of our forests and woodlands; to develop opportunities for woodland recreation; and to increase public understanding and community participation forestry. What exactly that means I have not the faintest idea, and if I did, I am not sure I would be in favour of it, but still. Which matters most to you in that rather virtuous list? It is so virtuous, it must be imposed by the Treasury, I think.
  (Mr Bills) I am not sure that I have heard the Treasury expressed in those terms before, but multi-benefit forestry, and sustainable management forestry are of the kind described in places like Rio in 1992, and more recently Helsinki. It really is a way of looking at large tracts of forested land and looking at what can be done. The great thing about forests is that they can yield all of those goods and services, but it is a question of balance. The trick of management is to do so in such a way that we do not eliminate any particular one, but also that we reflect the needs of a particular community, because, obviously, some forests are miles away from anything, others are very close to highly urbanised conurbations. So each forest that we look at will have its own management plan and that will reflect its location, the population densities and the industry dependent upon it. If you merge all of those plans together within England, or within Scotland or Wales you will see that there is a certain bias that reflects the regional need for employment and other values important for the country.

  14. How would you answer the question, is there an overriding objective?
  (Mr Bills) The overriding objective is the health of the forest. It is expansion of the forest and then the maintenance and the health of the forest, because if you push any one of those things too far, you can damage the health of the forest.

  15. Irrespective of the fact that you want a healthy forest, you want a healthy forest to do something. Which of the doing objectives has priority?
  (Mr Bills) Sustainable management is our objective.

  16. That is a process, that is not an objective.
  (Dr McIntosh) In any one forest there will be different objectives. If I look at Kielder, for example, I would say that has primarily a wood production objective, that is the principal management objective in that forest. If I look at the New Forest, I would say it is recreation.

  17. If you define it like that, then there is no reason why a conflict should arise between environmental and economic objectives?
  (Mr Bills) That is right.

  18. You say that your third objective is to enhance the economic value of our forest resources. I am anxious to know to whom the preposition referred, the "our"?
  (Mr Bills) It is the nation's.

  19. The nation's?
  (Mr Bills) Yes.

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