Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 5 DECEMBER 2001
1. Good morning. Mr Astling is the Chairman
and Miss Bell is the Chief Executive of the National Forest Company.
I notice in your briefing you gave us you keep referring to a
modern forest. What do modern forests do which other sorts of
forests do not do?
(Miss Bell) In essence they revert to
the very old forests. We have grown rather used to wall-to-wall
trees probably grown strictly for their timber, whereas what the
National Forest is doing will be a variety of land uses including
forestry but it will be working forest, it is not just there for
a pretty face, it is actually going to be a working forest, albeit
intermingled with other land use, perhaps in the way the old New
2. When I looked at your aims and objectives
when you were first created, and I saw this great long list of
all the things you had to do, it rather put me in mind of a Ministry
of Defence specification for new aircrafthigh level bombing,
reconnaissance, support of ground troops, vertical take off and
landing and it makes the tea as well! I did rather get the impression
you had this enormousone is tempted to sayUncle
Tom Cobbley and all. Do you feel those objectives were perhaps
just a bit too disparate and diverse? Do they always work together?
Were they one of the reasons why you then had to come up with
what was coyly described as "more realistic targets"
by which we mean "lesser targets"?
(Miss Bell) I think it is genuinely a multi-purpose
forest and some of those things are the result of the primary
object which is to create a forest. That is our prime concern,
to plant trees and create this forest. Out of that come a stream
of public benefits providing it is done in a certain way. We also
work with a very wide range of partners, and that was the way
the company was set up. It does not have many powers to do what
it wants to do, so it has to work with partners and therefore
a lot of those other public benefits can come through those partnership
workings, but we do keep all those objectives in mind in all of
3. Do you think it is because of the range of
objectives that you are a non-departmental public body as opposed
to a business?
(Miss Bell) Yes, I think it is.
When the Countryside Commission, as it then was, first suggested
the forest, at that point when we were doing the development stage
we were actually part of the Countryside Agency. At the end of
that stage, when we started to think about implementation, it
was very clear that we might just as easily have been a part of
the Forestry Commission, a part of the Rural Development Agency,
a part of the Countryside Agency. We actually had a remit which
fell within all those things. So it was better to make it into
a separate organisation encompassing that wide remit but with
a single purpose of creating this forest.
4. By way of background, in 1994 on 24 September
there was an article I think in the New Scientist, in which
you said, "Mining will continue to be a major activity within
the forest", and you went on to say, "The case for development
is certainly strengthened if the developer can show a benefit
to the National Forest." Can you fill us in on some of the
milestone changes which have occurred since you made this statement
which was said to have depressed everybody?
(Miss Bell) I think it was a statement of fact. There
were an awful lot of mineral applications which were already in
the pipeline. We have three major mineral works in the forest,
we have coal and clay running through the coalfield, many of which
at the time were still working. The last deep mine closed in 1990
but there was a great deal of open casting still going on and
still is, not as much as there was of course but it still is.
Also in the Trent Valley, you have sand and gravel extraction,
that continues, we have a lot of existing permissions still going
on; and over in Charnwood we have hard rock quarrying, and that
again is a long-term business and that is still carrying on. We
see opportunities out of that because as the land gets restored,
as the quarrying or mining finishes, there are greater opportunities
for the forest. But it is a fact of life, there are a lot of minerals
there and they are still being worked.
5. I have looked at the Annual Report but have
not read every word, and for me it would have been helpful to
have a map. You probably have published them before but if you
have one here it would be helpful. I have looked at the material
but I am not quite sure whether we are talking about 200 square
miles which it is intended should all be planted up as woodland/forest,
or 200 square miles which is the area of interest within which
you are going to have some additional woodland but also all the
existing uses side by side. What is it exactly? What is the territory?
(Miss Bell) It is 200 square miles encompassed by
the National Forest boundary, within which about a third will
be planted with trees. We started with 6 per cent and it is to
be increased to about a third.
6. The first strategy which was published in
1994 and the target period starting the following April 1995 envisaged
that over the then ensuing ten years about 36 square miles would
be planted, ie about 3.6 square miles a year. That was fairly
speedily reduced to a figure of about 2 square miles a year, which
is about 1 per cent of the 200 square miles. I wonder whether
you care to comment on that reduction. Are you on target for that
revised figure? Could it indeed be increased at all?
(Mr Astling) The original figures were somewhat optimistic
and I do not think bore in mind a sensitive balance between what
we could do realistically without distorting the land market.
Actually we have probably got now, after seven years, to a target
of around 500 hectares, which we think is a comfortable amount
for the company to achieve, properly resourced now by our parent
Department. Also when we advertise the tender scheme every year
it is a challenge fund and we have applicants in of which we can
still turn down a certain number which we feel are not good value
for public money. So we have got to an equilibrium now between
how quickly we should go and how effective we should be in terms
of creating the forest. That has meant, as you rightly say, perhaps
slower progress than was originally identified, but I think the
practice of the matter is that we have an appropriate pace of
change. It is still very substantial landscape change, 2 square
miles a year is a lot of land being converted from one activity
to another every single year.
7. Mark can speak for himself but I think the
local and regional marketing of the National Forest is very effective.
Are you happy with the national marketing? I cite, Chairman, one
or two articles recently in the national press, one specifically
in the Mail on Sunday about ten days ago, which was talking
about and describing the reforestation of Britain and England
in particular, and the levels of forestry now compared with those
over the centuries, with a large map of all sorts of major schemes,
quite a large page of text, but the map did not show the forest
and the text did not refer to the National Forest. Is this a symptom
that the marketing could be and should be improved?
(Miss Bell) Yes, that was extremely disappointing.
We have in fact had some very major features in the national press
over the years. That was not. I believe the briefing came from
the Forestry Commission for that particular piece. We would welcome
it very much if other bodies, particularly those we consider our
partner bodies in the National Forest, were to help us with that
8. Did the paper get in touch with you?
(Miss Bell) No.
9. Do you think your partners may wish they
were doing the job or rather resent your being set up? Tell us
what you think about this.
(Miss Bell) I think the relationship particularly
with the Forestry Commission has grown over the years, there is
no doubt about that. I do not know how they felt about it at the
beginning but it was a Countryside Commission initiative at the
beginning. Our relationship with the Forestry Commission has grown
enormously and they are helping now to purchase land and develop
land in their own right which I think will give them a greater
sense of ownership of the project.
10. So by getting closer you mean you would
say at the beginning the partnership arrangement was a difficult
one to make work in practice, or people could not see why you
were doing it and not them?
(Miss Bell) I think there was not the same sense of
involvement by the Forestry Commission at the very beginning as
there is now.
(Mr Astling) We were set up as a single purpose body
and I think there is a sense that other people looked at that
200 square miles which got missed off the map as "ours"
and not "theirs". I think over the years we have gradually
come much closer together with the Forestry Commission, we have
signed a concordat with them earlier this year, where we have
a whole series of areas of joint working with them, but there
are other national bodies which still regard the 200 square miles
as something which someone has got a budget to do things in and
11. To make progress you have obviously to persuade
and cajole all sorts of people because it is a multi-use area,
but let us just look at the Forestry Commission a bit more. Come
on! Let's be honest, the Forestry Commission is known, certainly
in the past, for being a very harsh and narrowly-based organisation,
not just in the way they have planted and the physical appearance
of it but its attitude to biodiversity and public access, and
it must be rather a difficult organisation to work with. Are there
genuine signs, not because you have to say so hereor think
you have to say it hereof making the Forestry Commission
relax with regard to their operations where they affect you?
(Miss Bell) I do not think it is an organisation that
is perhaps as well rehearsed in partnership working as some others.
On the other hand, I think now you have the England Forestry Strategy,
that has helped them enormously to widen their own thinking. There
are certain aspects, particularly in terms of land reclamation,
where our interests definitely come together. There is a growing
interest in the Forestry Commission on the utilisation of forestry
to reclaim mineral land and so forth. Increasingly I think they
have adopted the sort of approach we have been using in the National
Forest through the England Forestry Strategy, so I think there
is a change of culture.
12. Is there some evidence of change of practice
in terms of biodiversity in some of their activities and plans
in the way they manage their woodland?
(Miss Bell) There certainly is with the woodlands
they have planted in the National Forest. We have worked very
closely with them in drawing up the designs for their land, and
there are all sorts of things we are trying, including exemplar
woodland for commercial cropping such as coppicing and so forth.
We have just recently planted with them perhaps the largest walnut
plantation in the country. That is interesting, it is going to
have some interesting research based on it and so forth. There
will also be the biodiversity element which we of course insist
on in our woodlands because we have a Biodiversity Action Plan
we have drawn up in which there are some quite steep targets to
meet, so we will be looking to all our partners to help on that,
including the Forestry Commission.
Chairman: One of the great beneficiaries of
climate change is the walnut. Everybody is planting walnuts.
13. Can I ask about the credibility of your
estimates? If you take the cumulative position between 1995-1996
and to date, you are 639 hectares behindhand. There was one heroic
year, 1997-98, where you lost 366 hectares. Now you have your
figure to 500, does that incorporate an element of catch-up in
it? Convince me that you have got it right, because the track
record of forecasting so far has not been terribly good in terms
of your performance against your targets.
(Miss Bell) I think the track record of planting is
probably better than the track record of forecasting. There are
limitations. We do not, as I say, have any power to make this
happen, we have to persuade other people to help, and that includes
the private landowner and farmer. The private farmers are now
coming in in much greater numbers than they did at the beginning
through the Tender Scheme. That has made a fundamental difference.
I think the other fundamental difference is that we are now able
as a company to purchase land in our own right. We have always
had that power but because of our policy surrounding that it was
always rather difficult for us to do, which meant we had to persuade
other partners to buy land, and we were running out of partners.
Now we are able to do it for ourselves, not with a view to owning
it in the very long term but to get the land, get it developed
and move on. There are different mechanisms at our disposal now.
14. If I was a landowner in an area covered
by the National Forest, how would I know you were looking to use
my land? What mechanisms do you use?
(Miss Bell) We use a number of different mechanisms.
First of all, obviously, we talk a lot with their advisers. We
also have a document called Land File, which goes out to
all farmers in the area, and we got those lists from the then
MAFF. They regularly get Land File, reminding them there
are a number of options at their disposal, one is land sale, one
is the Tender Scheme, and we describe the Tender Scheme, and we
have also formed a Tender Scheme Club for all those winnersand
there are now 80 or 90 of themand they themselves act as
ambassadors, because the people who tend to come into the Tender
Scheme very often have either seen somebody doing it, over the
hedge if you like, or have talked to fellow farmers. That is really
what is turning them on to the scheme. We also hold seminars of
all sorts and days out. We do a lot with the farming community
and, of course, through NFU and the CLA.
15. The difficulty in meeting the original targets,
the revision downwards and the expected achievement each year,
does indicate the life of the companysince its purpose
is a single objectivewill be extended beyond that originally
forecast, and that the public expenditure implications of the
company's programme are likely to be greater than originally set
out. Is that reasonable?
(Mr Astling) I think the theory of that is reasonable.
I understand there was no deadline originally
16. There was a 30 year expected life, or at
least it was expected it would take 30 years to reach the goal
of a third afforestation originally.
(Mr Astling) But there were also hints, when the first
estimates were made, of other incentives for forestry creation
which then did not come to pass. So effectively the parameters
on which the original guesstimates were made changed quite radically.
17. So the original proposal assumed you would
not be the single club in the bag to achieve afforestation in
that area, and that there would be other measures?
(Mr Astling) There would be others, and I think at
least one of the others did not appear.
18. Which was that?
(Mr Astling) There was talk of some tax incentive
scheme at the time, and that did not get very far. Therefore we
were forced back on to the Tender Scheme and it is that which
has been the principal mains of creating the forest. Actually,
if you look at the figures, the difference between us achieving
our target and not achieving our target in the last three years
has been land acquisition. We have taken a different view on land
acquisition recently and our sponsor Department has, and we have
a retained agent in the area now who gives us advice right across
the board about land values and the land markets so we are able
to buy prudently without risking distortion of the land market.
19. David asked this question but I was not
quite clear there was an absolutely definite answer to it. It
was the new target which you produced in your 1997 plan which
suggested you would reach 53 per cent of the original target by
the end of the first ten years. Is that based on your expectation?
Is that reasonable now, based on your experience recently?
(Miss Bell) I think that actually depends on us maintaining
this 500 hectares a year.
1 See Further Supplementary Memorandum, p. Ev21. Back