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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



Patrick Hall

  60. Can I ask for some clarification on the process for bids under the tender scheme? Susan, I think you said that a proposed scheme bid is pre-scrutinised by the Forestry Commission to make sure it conforms with the Woodland Grant—whatever it is, which you will explain in a minute. Does that give the Forestry Commission power to reject something before it even comes to you, or does it come to you with their tag of "Yes" or "No" regarding that particular point? Is that Woodland Grant Scheme—whatever it is called—narrowly and commercially based, whereas you, of course, are looking at a much broader set of aims?
  (Miss Bell) It is actually just the woodland element of the tender scheme as a whole that they look at. Each one has to actually be approved for the Woodland Grant Scheme. That Woodland Grant Scheme is not a narrow, commercial scheme any more. It has a commercial element but they all have to conform to environmental guidelines and design guidelines, and so forth. That is a universal scheme, and that applies across the country. So they are still the forestry authority, in the same way that the planning authorities are the planning authority. So the woodland element has to conform to that. If there is any reason why it would be turned down, for example, if it destroyed archaeology or did one of the other things that would cause it to be rejected, then it would be rejected before it even came to us.

  61. In order to get a grant under the Woodland Grant Scheme, does someone have to be able to demonstrate that the trees which have been planted will be a commercial crop as well as, maybe, having some other benefits?
  (Miss Bell) That is not one of the elements of the Woodland Grant Scheme any more.

Mr Jack

  62. Can I just probe a bit further about what the people are actually bidding for, because the Woodland Grant Scheme, as I recall it, deals with money to help manage woodland once somebody has established it, because clearly you do not get an economic return, if it is an economic crop you have planted, for a considerable period of time. In terms of what people are tendering for, just give me an idea of some of the things that you have paid for.
  (Miss Bell) That can be very wide-ranging. It can include, for example, ponds and lakes. They can either be used for purely amenity purposes or nature conservation or, indeed, for fishing lakes and so forth. Obviously, they fulfil a dual purpose. In some cases we have paid for bringing particular types of grassland into proper conservation management. So there will be a nature conservation element. There might be other specific nature conservation projects. For example, in our Biodiversity Action Plan we have specific species that we want to bring into the Forest area—the otter for example—so that could include otter holts and so forth. That has already proved successful.

  63. Would I be right in saying that actually people are bidding for the non-forestry elements of a particular project if they want to bring into the National Forest a piece of land which may have features in addition to forestry itself? That is what your tender process provides money for.
  (Miss Bell) Absolutely.

  64. In your own Chairman's overview, on page 5 of your report, you comment, and I quote: "Against a background of uncertainty about farm woodland premium scheme . . ." Could you flesh that out, because it has played such a central role in underpinning what you are doing, and yet you are raising a question mark about its future?
  (Mr Astling) At the time there was a question mark over its future for a number of months, as to whether it was going to continue. That uncertainty resolved itself just in time for us to make decisions and to notify everybody, but the scheme was under review before it was reconfirmed as going forward. It was just that sort of temporary hiccup, really.
  (Miss Bell) It would have made quite a difference to the bid price, if they could count it in.

  65. Any significant change that might come in the future could have a very measurable effect on what you do.
  (Mr Astling) Yes.

  66. One of the points you make about your aims and objectives is to do with carbon dioxide and the securing in woodland of CO2. Let me ask this question: are you considering, or have you been approached with reference to, energy crops? Does that come within your remit?
  (Miss Bell) It has not really taken off. It is within our remit. That could be one of the forestry types to go forward. In fact, there has been remarkably little in the National Forest, partly because there is not a commercial end-market. If there was a power station locally fuelled by it, then I think they would grow it, but at the moment it simply is not substantial enough. It is something that we are keeping under review all the time, and we talk to other people who are heavily involved in it, but at the moment it does not stack up and so we are not actually encouraging people into it.

Mr Lepper

  67. Before we leave the tender scheme, it struck me there is a historical point which I do not quite understand. Which came first, the idea of the tender scheme or the National Forest Company? Did the scheme evolve once the company was in being or was it something that was part of your remit when you were set up?
  (Miss Bell) The National Forest has been developed in two very distinct stages. The first stage was when the development team was part of the Countryside Commission. That team was asked to (a) draw up a strategy for the Forest and (b) to draw up a business plan, if you like, or an implementation plan on how could that strategy be realised. One of the proposals in that plan was that there would need to be a specific mechanism and the mechanism proposed was a tender scheme. The tender scheme was then developed and the company took it on, and in fact started the first round of the tender scheme on day one of the company. So it was there ready to pick up. The company has developed it in practice.

Mr Martlew

  68. I was very impressed with the tender scheme and the fact that it is a National Forest. You say the tender scheme is unique and, by the very title, "The National Forest" it actually says "This is going to be the only one; we are not going to do it anywhere else". To be honest, living in the north-west corner of England, the National Forest is not going to get a lot of coverage in my area; most of my constituents think it is a sign on the A1. It does seem a very good scheme, but do you believe it should be duplicated anywhere else in the United Kingdom?
  (Miss Bell) Yes. You mean the National Forest or the tender scheme?

  69. It is a regional forest, but why should there only be one?
  (Miss Bell) I think there will be lots. They will not all be called the National Forest. I think there are a lot of lessons being learned. That is what makes the National Forest national at the moment; the fact that it is an exemplar, it is a test-bed for new ideas and a number of those ideas can be duplicated all over the country. Whether you want to construct the thing in its entirety and put it in different parts of the country—why not? It is there to be duplicated or replicated, if anybody wants to do that.

David Taylor

  70. New Labour, new targets, new league tables, new sticks-to-beat-people-with. I bet you are fed up, are you not, with the sole performance indicator that people attribute to the Forest of planting—which of course is crucially important? In your written submission on page 2, you make it clear that, of course, you have economic objectives, social ones and, particularly, multiple environmental objectives which relate to diversity and so on. Are these a bit airy-fairy? How do you measure them? Are they measurable? What progress have you made against these targets? Such ones as, I do not know, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is all very worthy, but are you able to say that you are making progress against these non-tree planting objectives?
  (Miss Bell) I think on nature conservation we most certainly are, because we have a Biodiversity Action Plan which has some very specific targets in, which are not just for us to do but for the voluntary bodies with whom we work to do as well. Those are monitored very strictly, and we are now in our third year of monitoring. So I think on the nature conservation side, yes. On the carbon sequestration, I think there are a number of very wild claims being made, frankly, and I know that all we can do is make a tiny contribution. However, it is a significant contribution in terms of global sequestration.

  71. It is in the nature of multiple targets, Chairman, that sometimes the environmental ones will, perhaps, run against the social or economic ones. What takes precedence in those circumstances?
  (Mr Astling) Just to follow on the measurements point, we have actually tried to put together a socio-economic analysis. So we are measuring what impacts we have on the socio-economic field. That is some pioneering work that we have produced recently, and we have had all the 60 partners together in a conference, Mrs Shephard will be glad to hear. We are trying to get more understanding on how these things can be measured, not just in the National Forest but elsewhere with other forestry initiatives. There are about 28 forestry initiatives up and down the country of one sort or another. The other element of measuring is on the tourism side. That has not really featured very much this morning, but we have a whole series of surveys every other year; we have just finished our visitor survey of tourism and are measuring the value and volume of tourism business, which is now supporting about 3,600 jobs in the area. So there are a whole series of measurements that are not just about tree planting, that we think are now fairly comprehensive. The question was about measurability. We are actually getting some of the universities much more engaged into this being an area where they ought to be helping us. We have had a consultancy with Derby University recently to produce a socio-economic report and we will go back on that when we have the 2001 Census data to update it. I think the whole gamut of measurements is extremely important to us; we cannot say we are an exemplar unless we are trying to measure right across the board what we are doing, not just tree planting.

  72. Would not a useful additional environmental objective be the sustainability of motor transport for visitors into the National Forest area? Do you have a view on what is now called the return of passenger services and the National Forest rail line, which runs right through the heart of the National Forest area?
  (Miss Bell) Transport is the weakest link, in terms of sustainability of the National Forest—there is no doubt about that. In every other respect we score very highly on the sustainability indicators; on transport we frankly do not because the only way of visiting most of the Forest is by motorcar. There is a fantastic opportunity of bringing back into passenger use the Mineral Line that runs east-west across the Forest, going right the way through that central, regenerated area, the main tourism area, which is proving extremely difficult to get upgraded. We are very much in the forefront of fighting that case to get it upgraded.

Mr Borrow

  73. Have I got it right? Of the 200 square miles of the Forest, a third is settlement, a third will end up being farming and a third will end up being forest. Is it decided now which third will end up as being the Forest? In making a judgment as to which third will end up being forest, do you make some judgment on the visual impact, in making those decisions, as to whether or not that bit of farmland can convert to forest? Or is it pre-ordained on a map that these particular hectares can be converted to forest?
  (Miss Bell) The National Forest Strategy, the original strategy, drawn up by the development team indicated the sort of weight of new forest in each of the areas of the forest. It was divided into six landscape zones, and the actual weight of forestry that could be handled within each of those zones was specified in that strategy. That does not mean a site-by-site demarcation of where the forestry ought to go. We did two things: one was that landscape zone and, also, we did an indicative forestry strategy for the area, which I do not think was common south of the border at that point. That was a DOE initiative. So we know where the preferred areas are, or where the areas are in which you need to go with great caution for one reason or another. It could be they are areas of great scientific interest or landscape importance or flood plain, for example. Those are the sensitive areas where you have got to take extra care over what and where you plant. Then, on top of that, there will be this layer of landscape zone, which would indicate the sort of weight and type of forestry that would be most suitable for that area.

  74. When this process is completed, presumably, you have got, as part of your vision, the change to the landscape that will result in an increase in the third of the area becoming forest. Is that vision one that is shared by the local community? To what extent is it supported by the local community, or is there opposition within the community?
  (Miss Bell) The original National Forest strategy went out to a very wide public consultation, not just to hundreds of organisations but actually to a genuine public consultation. In fact, we had 1500 responses to that. The support for it was enormous. I think it is questionable how much people could visualise just what the scale of change was going to be on the landscape. I think it is beginning to become apparent now, and in a way the relatively slow progress is quite helpful in that because if it was a build development going up overnight it would be quite a shock to the system. You are talking about a radical change in the landscape. That is now becoming more apparent. We are in the process now of reviewing that original strategy, and we hope to produce that review on its 10th anniversary in 2004. Part of that process will help people with that visualisation. This is the sort of thing you may expect. We are all beginning to realise much, much more now what it is going to mean in the landscape because of the way it is happening in reality. We would certainly help people through that process and ask them whether that is what they want to see more of. There may come a stage, say, at about 25 per cent forest cover, where people say "Enough", and I think cognisance ought to be taken of that at that time.

  75. The process is going on at the moment and, therefore, by its very nature the land that is going to be covered by forest has not been completely determined, so you have an on-going relationship with landowners and farmers within the area outside the main settlements. Do you see an on-going role for the National Forest when you reach 25 or 33 per cent and things stabilise? Is there a role for the National Forest other than simply always seeing the National Forest within the rest of the non-forested area?
  (Miss Bell) You mean for the company?

  76. For the company.
  (Mr Astling) I think that is quite an interesting question. There will be, it seems to me, some residuary business to be done post the end of the creation of the Forest. It is a matter of debate, I would have thought, whether the company continues or whether those residuary burdens and benefits devolve to someone else, maybe the local authorities together, maybe some other body, the RDAs, or whatever. It seems to me that there will be something there that ought to be nurtured and continued. There will still be the need, I would have thought, to market the area in tourism terms. As a facilitator, that is one of the things we do, and I would have thought there was a number of those residuary functions which it is probably quite important to continue.

  77. If we contrast the situation with the Forestry Commission, and the relationship there with local communities, and the relationship with the National Forest Company as a company that can only operate by partnership, at the end of the day there will need to be some mechanism to ensure that the voice of the local community continues to have a role within the on-going development of the Forest, even when it reaches a mature stage. Do you think that is something that the company ought, at least, to consider?
  (Miss Bell) Very much so. The community has been such an active partner in all its various guises, and I think they would need the reassurance that the faith is going to be kept.

Mr Lepper

  78. David Taylor asked about measuring the progress on some of those environmental objectives that were part of the National Forest Strategy published in 1994, and there has been reference throughout the morning to the Biodiversity Action Plan of the National Forest Company. I could not find a great deal about that in your annual report. I just wonder if you could say a bit more about the Biodiversity Action Plan.
  (Miss Bell) I will happily leave some literature about it, too, but that is something that has its own specific targets which not only the National Forest Company representatives but the representatives from the other nature conservation bodies are signed up to. As I say, that is monitored regularly on the target achievement there. In the Corporate Plan each year we have six fundamental objectives that we set, one of them being nature conservation. Underneath that you will have a whole lot of measurable targets which we have to fulfil. Those are in detail in the Corporate Plan because you have to have measurable targets in order to be able to see how you are getting on. The overall objective may be to improve nature conservation in the area but under that will be a number of measurable targets, and they are published each year in the Corporate Plan.

  79. To what extent is progress being made on achieving those targets?
  (Miss Bell) At the moment it is extremely good. As I say, we are judged not only through the Corporate Plan but, also, by the partners involved in that, be it English Nature or the voluntary organisations.

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