Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 5 DECEMBER 2001
20. Which logically is going to get harder,
is it not?
(Miss Bell) We do not quite know when that is going
to happen. At the moment we have actually upped our targets for
this year, we have voluntarily upped our target this year by 75
hectares because we had a very good Tender Scheme.
21. Achieving the Tender Scheme target will
be dependent on continued agricultural depression essentially,
when farmers say, "Actually this is probably the best deal
I can get for this particular relatively marginal piece of land."
I recognise in the first period of the forest a lot of unusable
pieces of land from old clay workings were developed, and we have
certainly seem some genuinely marginal farmland of some quality
put into the Tender Scheme recently, but presumably if and when
we get an upturn in the agricultural economy farmers are less
likely to put that sort of land into play, and it will become
more expensive to achieve the targets you set. That is logical,
is it not?
(Miss Bell) It will certainly become more expensive,
but I think motives for entering the scheme are rather more varied
than just economics alone. Economics certainly play a part, of
course they do, we are talking to businessmen here, but they also
take into account the succession on a farm, whether their offspring
want to take it on, whether they want to stay on the land, whether
they want to diversify their business anyway. So there are sorts
of things which they take into account apart from just straight
economics. Certainly the economics play a part in the bid price
they put into us.
22. I wonder if you have put this emphasis on
partnership and consultation because you are not really powerful
enough and are dependent on other partners?
(Mr Astling) This is actually a great strength, the
fact we are voluntary. Effectively we are just a company limited
by guarantee. We do not have any hold over anybody. Everything
we do is by negotiation and by agreement.
23. That gives a power to the partners to dictate
what they will accept and what they will not. I do not see why
a weakness is a strength.
(Mr Astling) The truth of the matter is, by and large,
when we started some of the key partners, for example the local
authorities, were very keen we should be set up in their area.
They have been kept on board very strongly with the forest, and
we had a meeting with them only the other day and they were almost
saying to us, "Because of your track record, you have the
ability to be almost a neutral facilitator between us." That
would never have happened if we had been parachuted in with statutory
powers as it were. It is because there was a long process of working
with them and reaching consensus and then saying, "These
are people we can do business with", and I think strength
has been gained because everybody knows they can walk away from
the table if they want to.
(Miss Bell) Another thing we perhaps could have had
in terms of powers was compulsory purchase powers. That would
have absolutely gone against the grain. It would have antagonised
people very strongly.
24. If you exercise consultation though. It
is a reserve power and you would not exercise it in a pre-emptory
fashion. You would consult and then, if you cannot get anywhere,
(Miss Bell) But at the moment we are getting somewhere
and I think it would be a very unfortunate power to have. It would
be perceived as being very threatening. One of the first jobs
we had to do when we went into the area was to reassure people
that those were just not the sort of powers we were going to have
25. Does having non-departmental public body
status affect your ability to form partnerships?
(Miss Bell) I really do not think it does either on
the public or the private side. It is a very great strength that
we have company status because we are perceived as being a business
by other businesses. We are an organisation with a face and a
recognisable entity which people can do business with. The fact
we are sponsored by a government department is a strength, I do
not think it is perceived as being in any way threatening.
26. Let me ask you about the partnership with
the Forestry Commission. That is a Big Brother partnership, is
it not? I get the impression you are there tugging at his trouser
knee, pleading. You mentioned a concordat with the Forestry Commission
for joint working, is my picture of the relationship an accurate
one and what has happened to the concordat?
(Miss Bell) We have tried very, very hard over many
years to get the Forestry Commission more deeply involved in the
National Forest, mainly through land purchase and development.
I think they do have a bigger role to play than they have up to
27. Have you worked successfully?
(Miss Bell) The major curb on their activities now
is money. They simply do not have the money to spend to buy the
land and develop it. That is the major restriction. I do not think
it is an attitudinal one now.
28. Have you agreed the terms of the concordat?
(Miss Bell) Yes. I actually have a copy which I am
happy to leave here. It is a broad concordat covering three years
and there is an annual one within that which includes land purchase.
(Mr Astling) It also covers some other issues we perhaps
have not been very strong on like the training issue. Our assets
are now in the ground and what we need to ensure is that our Tender
Scheme owners, our farmers, have the right skills to nurture the
crop and manage that well. That is where a new opportunity has
come with the Forestry Commission saying, "Help us with widening
the training opportunities in the area so we have very high quality
timber in the long run."
29. Are they changing under your persuasion
(Mr Astling) I have only been involved in this for
a couple of years and it seems to me over that 2½ years they
have changed culturally very substantially, and they see things
that we do and other people do as being the sort of things which
perhaps they ought to have been doing in the pastcommunity
involvement, corporate involvement, actually getting corporate
sponsors to help you. The walnut wood is sponsored by Jaguar Cars
because they use walnut in their product. Those are the sort of
things which have been rather alien to the Forestry Commission,
but I think they now see there is a lot of mileage here.
30. As does Jaguar!
(Mr Astling) Absolutely, why not. Everybody wins.
31. I am delighted to hear that. I have always
regarded the Forestry Commission as a new brutalism. They are
changing by example or by persuasion?
(Mr Astling) Probably a bit of both. I do think there
is still some way to go with them. They have a huge organisation
and everybody needs to be buying into the cultural change and
I am not sure that is happening right across the board, but the
people we are dealing with are getting better and better at understanding
how we operate. If you were to have the Forestry Commission here
I think they would say about us that perhaps we were a bit of
an irritant originally but we are now seen as a partner which
punches probably slightly above its weight for what it does.
32. Is the concordat going to speed up the planting?
(Mr Astling) No, I do not think it is. It would have
done. One of the partner concordats is to seek other grants and
funding regimes, and we have recently put in for a capital modernisation
fund with the Forestry Commission, and that we understand has
not been successful. That would have sped up the planting. We
have talked to them about land acquisition and that is helpful
because if they are part of the land acquisition partnership then
we have an end product and they will take it off our hands eventually.
33. I can see the partnership is going to be
a full-time job because you have some hefty contact names with
organisations. Let me ask about local authorities, what partnerships
have you formed with local authorities in the area? Are you happy
(Miss Bell) Yes. They vary. There are some local authorities
who have a very great interest in the forest, notably the coalfield
ones, because so much has been able to be achieved in the coalfield
as a result of the forest. It has formed the focus for a number
of Single Regeneration Budget bids, for example. RECHAR money,
of course, was attracted in from Europe, so we were able to go
into partnership to put bidding in for that external funding to
make a real difference in those local authorities. We are also
seen to be a major attractor for new quality businesses, and that
is again particularly true in the coalfield. Independent research
some ten years ago in the Ashby Wolds area, for example, said
that first of all any industry which was attracted to the areaand
this was immediately after the mines closedwould be of
the lowest quality, it would be warehousing, distribution and
scrap yards and so forth, whereas in fact because the quality
of the environment has improved so much and so much investment
has been put it, we are now attracting quite a different quality
of new business. Also new housing is coming into that area, which
again was just not on the cards. It is also forming the centre
of a major tourism hub for the forest, for this major new Conkers
development, which was again absolutely unthinkable ten years
ago. So those particular local authorities have gained an awful
lot from having the forest there and are very active partners
in the forest. Some of the more peripheral ones we have good relations
with but perhaps they are not quite so active.
34. There are some which are laggard?
(Miss Bell) I would not say they are laggard, but
we do not work on as many projects with them. We do work with
them but perhaps it is not as active as some others.
(Mr Astling) There are some authorities where only
a small part of their area is within the 200 square miles. For
example, Lichfield. The first thing which Lichfield would say
is, "Can you alter your boundaries? We want more of us to
be in the National Forest." North West Leicestershire, South
Derbyshire, they are major areas, and East Staffordshire, those
three authorities have major parts of their local authority area
within the forest, and obviously you would expect us to do much
more business with them than with Hinckley, Bosworth, Charnwood
and Lichfield, for example.
35. The statutory land use planning process
is very important to the local authorities, so we have County
Structure Plans, District Local Plans and we have development
control. What changes in designation have you persuaded local
authorities to make to their structure and local plans in the
last ten years? Following that, have you managed to persuade the
local authorities in the area to obtain real planning gain for
goals underpinning the National Forest through legal agreements
(Miss Bell) If we go back to the beginning, one of
the first things we did in the development phaseand this
was before the company was formed and was written into the National
Forest Strategywas to form a planning technical working
group with senior members of the planning departments of all the
local authorities. From that we managed to get written into all
the development plans policies for the forest. It is important
those policies do not just say, "The forest is a good thing,
we welcome it" but it actually made things happen in the
forest. Out of that came a series of planting guidelines as to
what would be expected for new development to provide for the
forest as it came in. Of course that then has to be implemented,
so we have the uniform policies, but the actual implementation
tends to be a bit mixed. Some authorities are very much better
than others at implementing it. Again it tends to be those two
core ones which tend to do the most. We still have a great deal
to do to persuade some of the others to do more.
36. Is the National Forest Company consulted
on a voluntary basis by the local planning authorities?
(Miss Bell) It certainly is on most of the major developments,
but not all. We have had some very major ones, for example in
East Staffordshire recently, where we were not and there is not
a tree in sight along the A38. Quite a lot of the local authorities
are obviously extremely keen to attract new businesses into their
area and anything which they see which might be a deterrent, like
having to provide extra planning gain, for example, they may be
a little wary of. That is something we have to persuade them otherwise
about, but there are sums coming forward and there is planting.
37. You have just said that one of the successes
you have had in persuading local authorities to be on board is
that they understand that there are business, tourist and economic
advantages from being designated or part-designated the National
Forest. So when it comes to actual investment and building taking
place, why is it then seen as a cost they would rather avoid,
or rather not impose on developers? Surely there is some conflict
(Miss Bell) There may well be different people dealing
with it in different organisations who perceive it differently.
38. Have you got evidence of good practice where
you have managed to get a quantum of land use, forest planting
or whatever, which would not otherwise have been achieved in the
(Miss Bell) Yes, we do.
(Mr Astling) We did produce about 18 months ago with
the local authorities a guide for developers, and this is broadly
examples in the forest, although one or two outside, showing how
they can get forest benefits in the planning process. We have
most people signed up to that. As Susan was saying, the truth
of the matter is that most of the authorities, most of the time,
are pretty good. On occasions, there is an example of something
which slips through and we are not very happy with it and we make
our position publicly quite clear on that.
39. Are you able to, or can you afford to, top
up a private developer's proposal, through legal agreement or
otherwise, so that they put in not just the landscaping which
is usually not very good but something which might contribute
to a linear planting development with links through to other woodlands?
If it is at the margins, are you able to say, "Come on, we
will chuck in £10,000" or something like that? Can you
ease the machinery with funds?
(Miss Bell) No. In fact, if anything, that is not
what we would wish to do because we have other ways of spending
funds and we would expect the developers themselves to make that
contribution. In fact, as part of the planning obligation or condition
they cannot use the Tender Scheme either; once there is a planning
application they cannot draw down money from the Tender Scheme
to fulfil it, that is up to the developers. It is, after all,