Examination of witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER
and DR BOB
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
(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
(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
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
(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
(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
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
forestsit is our biggest forestis 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
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
(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.