Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



Mr Jack

  40. In the spirit of partnership, you produced your annual corporate plan which your briefing to us says is "presented to the relevant minister each summer". How often do you sit down with ministers to review progress, objectives and the plan?
  (Mr Astling) We sit down once a year with ministers. We might see them informally during the course of the year but we actually have a formal meeting once a year with our minister or ministers and go through the performance of last year and our objectives for the coming year.

Mr Todd

  41. You have politely suggested the record on planning is patchy, which certainly in my experience it is. There are two difficulties. One is that you are not a formal planning consultee and there is a voluntary process. Would it assist if the local authorities in the area were advised you should be a formal consultee?
  (Miss Bell) I think within reason. If we were a formal consultee on every application which came in, we would be absolutely swamped, so there would have to be a de minimis, I think. I think we would wish to be, yes, I think it would be helpful.

  42. You referred to one of the big lacunae, which is the awful stuff on the railways around the A38, which some of my constituents have to look over the river at, and that gives an example of a bleak outlook which can be created by not having proper consultation. The second element is that you have touched on the process of minerals planning and rightly referred to the fact that there were a lot of outstanding mineral exploitation permissions in the area when you were founded. However I think it is fair to say that you have actively participated in some new projects which have certainly caused some concern about the apparent conflict of purpose in generating open cast and landfill activity which may in due course in ten or 20 years' time produce some trees. Those are new applications as opposed to old ones which had to be worked out somehow. How have you squared that difficulty?
  (Miss Bell) I think you are referring to our membership of the Ashby Wolds Regeneration Forum, which is a forum of mineral land owners, local people, local authorities, ourselves, people with an interest in the area, who tried to come together to formulate an overall strategy for this area. I think 25 per cent of the mining dereliction in the whole of Leicestershire was concentrated in this one parish. These people came together, including us, to draw up a strategy whereby there would be some gains and some losses. There would inevitably be some new open cast which would not be objected to in order to fund other things which the community wanted. We are a member of that as we are with many of these local partnerships. I think overall the strategy has been very successful, inevitably there has been controversy about certain aspects of it, including one particular site which was new open cast and subsequent landfill which is always controversial.

  43. Which many have argued does not entirely fit the planned purpose of the forest, since it produces a large new hole in the ground and there is 20 years of rubbish going into it before you see a tree on the site. So the planning judgment you are having to make is one which involves significant trade-offs and is not driven by the single purpose of tree generation, is that fair?
  (Miss Bell) Yes, and we are always very careful to tread the line. We do not actually propose or oppose particular applications coming forward, and we did not in that case. We were a member of a forum which came to that conclusion that that was the way they wanted to go forward. As a company, we only object if there are particular aspects of it to do with the National Forest. If, for example, any building development was going to cut a swathe through ancient and semi-natural woodland, we would obviously have something to say on that subject, but on the whole we tend not to object or propose.

Mrs Shephard

  44. I hope I have not missed this question because I was slightly late this morning, for which I apologise, but can you tell us how many local authorities there are in the area? Have you already said this?
  (Miss Bell) No. There are three counties and six districts. We also bestride, now, two regions.

  45. I think that this is interesting for the Committee in terms of the load that it puts on yourselves. I was struck by what you said about not wanting to look at all the planning permissions because this would be a burden that you could not cope with. I would like to ask you if, in your experience, this requirement for partnerships, which is obviously necessary, is getting pretty difficult to satisfy as you go on? Your primary task, I assume, is to build the Forest. The interaction with the local authorities and all the other bodies must be fairly time-consuming. How many other bodies are there as well? You said three counties, six districts and two regions.
  (Miss Bell) Plus the statutory bodies.
  (Mr Astling) Two government offices.

  46. Quite a lot of parishes.
  (Mr Astling) Parishes. You could not count them. It is just impossible. It is as complex as any area which has parts of three counties.

  47. Exactly so.
  (Miss Bell) We actually hold a forum about every 18 months for all the people that we work with, and there will be about 250-270 people there.

  48. You cannot have a discussion with 250 people. I think most people here, from their experience, would agree that is hugely difficult. You have obviously made every effort and it is very important to move forward as quickly as you can with all these fellow-players. I think, really, the burden of my question is: is it over-heavy compared with the primary task by which you will be judged, which is the number of trees that are planted?
  (Miss Bell) Yes.

  49. Do say, because it is quite useful ammunition for you and us, if it is a bit heavy with the staff involved.
  (Mr Astling) We have enumerated the number of statutory local authority side and there are nine. One of the issues we have is that a lot of those bodies outside the statutory side want to look at specific issues. For example, a lot of the voluntary bodies, such as the Ramblers', only want to look at walking in the Forest; the cyclists only want to look at cycling, but they are very important to us. What we have done to engage with them is not to call them into the Royal Albert Hall and have a big meeting with them but split ourselves into subject groups. We have each of our board directors chairing a group of people having specialist interest. For example, we have a tourism group and all the tourist bodies come to that, and we have a sport, access and recreation group and all the bodies concerned come to that. There are some that are common—the local authorities do come to most. We have a nature conservation group where all the wildlife people come. So we actually divide ourselves up and we have a mini-committee structure to ensure that we continually have a dialogue with the people who we think are important that we carry with us, and we have some mechanism to listen to them. It is dividing them up into these subject areas that makes it all manageable. A lot of those bodies, no matter how rational one might be, you could not do away with. There are voluntary bodies and they are not the sorts of things that statutory tidying-up can deal with. They are part of the life-blood of the Forest.

  50. So the answer, really, is that it is quite heavy but you see no way round it.
  (Mr Astling) We have tried to put together, with the other local authorities, right across the Forest area, a sub-regional structure. So we have a kind of bidding mechanism, largely as a result of one of the RDAs saying "Would it not be nice if all areas within our wider region got together into sub-regions". I think there is some prospect that for certain purposes that might come together right across the Forest, with the three counties and the six districts and, perhaps one or two other bodies. That could tidy-up some of the issues. For example, when we want to discuss transport you need all those people involved. We have not got a group to discuss transport at the moment on a standing basis, but there may be specific topics which that sort of sub-regional structure can take on board.

Mr Drew

  51. If we look at tendering, which I found fascinating, can you try and explain to us your experience of how it works and some of the problems?
  (Miss Bell) In essence, we have a lump sum each year which is the bulk of our grant-in-aid. At the moment that stands at about £2 million. That gets put on the table each year, into which all kinds of prospective tenderers can bid. They can be existing landowners or they can even use the tender scheme to purchase land in order to develop it for Forest purposes. It is, in essence, a woodland creation scheme but it can also encompass all sorts of other things. At least 50 per cent of the scheme has to be new planting, because obviously that is what we are about—the creation of the Forest. The rest, however, can be all sorts of things; it can be lakes and ponds, for example, that can either be used as fishing lakes or for nature conservation, or whatever. It can be other nature conservation habitats. It can also include some existing woodland. We are very keen to get existing woodland back into management. So that other 50 per cent of the site can encompass whatever the particular landowner—or hopeful landowner—wishes to put into the scheme. It is enormously varied, enormously flexible. There are certain rules, guidelines, obviously, that we give as to what we want to see coming out of these schemes. At the moment, it is open to public landholders, the public sector, private sector, voluntary sector and charitable bodies. So, for example, the Woodland Trust has been quite an active participant in the tender scheme. So a wide range of landowners. They put in a bid to us initially, they describe the project and then later, they put in a bid price for that project. First of all, it goes to the Forestry Commission so that the woodland element conforms to the Woodland Grant Scheme. They all have to be dependent on that and go through that scrutiny. Then, once they have been through that, it comes to our board to decide which of them offer the best schemes and the best value for money—not necessarily the cheapest schemes but those that offer the best value for money. What, in essence, the landowner is getting is what they ask for; what they say they need to fulfil the scheme that they describe. They then enter a 25-year contract with us to fulfil that scheme.

  52. Can you give us a feel for some numbers rather than money? What sort of numbers would you be dealing with every year? I know we have got some figures but if we could just get a ballpark figure. Also, how many of those tend to be farmers? Presumably we are talking, mainly, about new planting and, of course, some farmers may have existing schemes.
  (Miss Bell) Usually, about 24/25 entries a year and about three-quarters of those will actually win their schemes. Farmers started to come in in a big way in year 3 and 4 of the scheme. Before that it was mainly local authorities, The Woodland Trust and so forth and other public sector bodies. Round about year 3 and 4 it is the landowners, essentially, coming in. In terms of land, I think that is one of the things that took us by surprise, because up until then—certainly in that part of the world and through WGS—people might have planted the odd field corner, so three hectares or so was the average for the WGS. Then they were putting forward schemes of anything up to 60 hectares. So we are really talking genuine land and farm diversification because of the scale of the operation that they were coming in at.

  53. I met a couple of farmers but I think it would be useful if we could get a feel for what you think farmers get back—apart from some money which keeps them going doing other things? I found the ones I talked to became more committed to it. So can you give us an idea of the type of farmer who is becoming involved again?
  (Miss Bell) I found this absolutely fascinating. A number of them said that, first of all, it was a succession issue; that they wanted to stay on the land, that their children did not want to come in and take over the farm, and they saw forestry as an opportunity. At first I think there was a lot of antipathy to forestry, they just did not understand it, it was not a crop that they understood or knew how to market or anything else. That has gradually been overcome as more of them have come into the scheme and start to exchange information. I think it does a lot of things for them. First of all, they were fearful of public access. It is understood now that although public access is not a compulsory part of the scheme, frankly unless you offer it you are not going to get very far in the scheme. You can do in on the basis that it need not necessarily be the whole scheme, although increasingly that is what they are offering. They are actually now beginning to welcome people on to their land. I think that has been a revelation to them. They actually feel that it is tying them back into their own community. A number of them have said that farming is a very isolated business, and now they are actually talking again to their local community. Likewise, they are beginning to feel very differently about the land itself. Where once they might have gone walking round their fields looking at all the diseases on the crops they are now actually beginning to enjoy the land and to enjoy sharing it with other people. So there is a financial element, there is a social element but they are also seeing it as part of farm diversification and they are thinking of new ways of diversifying their farm, and a lot of that into recreational use. In some cases it could be nature conservation, or educational enterprises, but they are trying all sorts of things. I think one of the really good things about the scheme is that a lot of it is left to their imagination. There are certain parameters but it is their ideas and so they have a very strong sense of ownership of the schemes that they do produce, instead of us being very proscriptive and saying "You have got to have X, Y and Z in your scheme."
  (Mr Astling) If I can just add a point there, we have got 109 schemes to-date, including round 7, and we have got 109 people's or organisation's vision of their bit of the National Forest. Our remit is quite broad in terms of the criteria we lay down, but they will come in with what they want, so that there is a huge amount of ownership—it is their scheme, they will look after it—and it has this interesting kaleidoscopic effect on the landscape that there is not just one block of planting there but a whole series that individuals have decided to plant. It is this variety that gives the Forest some unique characters.

  54. I raised with Elliott Morley last week what I see as an obvious parallel, which is to take in lands which are flooding on a tendering basis. What other ideas, given that you have got to find alternative uses for at least some farm land, or opportunities are there for tendering? Are there any?
  (Miss Bell) I think there are, if you want to restore some former habitat, for example. I am thinking of down land, in particular. There may well be scope there in areas where that is appropriate. Providing you have got a vision for the area that you are talking about, such as we have a very strong vision, then I think the tender scheme can be applied to virtually anything you want to see. There is no reason why that should not be applied to a type of diversification you want to see, or a type of rural development which you want to see. Providing you have got a clear picture of what it is you want, and then you can devise a scheme around that.

  55. One final question. You talk about £2 million a year. Say that was doubled. Is money the problem in terms of growing the idea, or would you be a bit reluctant inasmuch that you want willing participants, and you might get people who come in for the wrong reasons, thinking "I will have this for a few years and then I will drop out"? I would welcome your views on that potential conflict.
  (Miss Bell) As the chairman said, you do need to be able to reject some schemes. You do not want to feel you have got to accept everything regardless of its value for money or the quality of the scheme. At the moment I do not think that last year, for example, we actually turned away any schemes that we desperately wanted through lack of cash. However, I think we would like to keep an open mind on that because if many more come forward—and I think they will, I think the scheme is growing—it would be really good to be able to fulfil as many as we possibly can but still offer good value for money and good quality schemes.

Mr Todd

  56. If you compare the process of applying for the tender scheme to the process a farmer goes through to apply for a number of the now DEFRA schemes for diversification and financial assistance for particular goals, do you think that your scheme is easier to deal with, sharper for the farmer to follow and quicker in its outcome?
  (Miss Bell) They tell us so. I think we have tried very hard to keep the scheme as unbureaucratic as possible. It is a complex scheme, but when you think of its complexity it is actually quite surprisingly simple.

  57. Have you compared the forms you use and the processes you use to the ones that MAFF used to use and now DEFRA does, because those certainly are routinely condemned as being immensely complex and long-winded?
  (Miss Bell) I think most of the farmers, the first time they apply to the scheme, will certainly bring in a professional adviser, and we would certainly advise them to do so for the first time. After that, when they gain in confidence, they find they are quite able to do it themselves. We have not had undue criticism of the complexity of the form or lack of advice or anything else. When you consider how novel the scheme is—

  58. I would just say to other Members here, I have not heard a criticism of the process. I have certainly heard criticisms of the processes that are involved in applying for other forms of assistance and diversification.
  (Miss Bell) We are, also, very accessible to the farmers. They can pick up the phone to us. They know who they are going to be talking to and that the nature of the advice they are going to get is good—and if we should not be giving that advice. We certainly do not advise on the bid price, for example, of course not, but to do with the rest of the scheme—how biodiversity applies and that sort of thing—they have got several places that they know that they can come to and they are going to get help.
  (Mr Astling) I think one of the keys is that they know exactly the date on which we are going to make a decision. I suspect, with some of the other grant regimes, you put an application in and you are not quite sure when you are going to get a decision. They know when our board meeting is and that within 48 hours of that board meeting they will have a letter saying "Yes, you are successful" or "No, you are not successful, and these are the reasons why you are not successful". That end-date is very important.

  59. The other element to this is the current debate about the form of British agriculture. I think it is a reasonably consistent view that any mechanisms that we should choose to use should be as market-led as possible, in other words, someone should see a clear return to achieve a goal. Have you taken the trouble to make sure that the message of what you have done with this particular scheme is communicated to Don Curry and others who are considering agricultural policy in the next few months?
  (Miss Bell) Yes, I am afraid we have bored people rigid with it. We certainly wrote to Sir Donald and Lord Haskins, and we are very keen that what we are doing gets better promulgated. I think it has come as rather a surprise to us, actually, how little it has been used as an exemplar by the department itself, for example, in ministerial speeches. We feel that this is something that the UK is very much in the lead on, and we would like to take this message to Europe because the way that the Forest is being created is unique, and we are learning an awful lot of lessons along the way that, perhaps, are not being widely heard about and used.

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