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Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, it is essential to have this debate because we have gone badly wrong in this area in recent years. The Forestry Commission has been downgraded and the situation with regard to planting has been disastrous. I take issue a little with the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, who made an admirable speech, and obviously knew his subject, when he said that he disapproved of the tax concessions which gave rise to some bad publicity as some well-known comedians and others put their money into forestry. However, properly administered, that money would have been extremely useful. Of course, at that time taxes were so high that the planting involved no cost to the people concerned. However, the scheme resulted in many trees being planted. When the Tory Government abolished the concession, the amount of planting being undertaken plunged, with bad results.

I accept that we must be careful about where we plant trees. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, spoke of the flow country. The Forestry Commission should not have permitted that planting to occur. Perhaps that took place because the Forestry Commission was not properly funded and could not properly oversee planting throughout the country. We in Scotland know about the pulp mill at Fort William and the pulp mills in Ayrshire. It is scandalous that after having invested money in the mills the companies concerned suddenly find that due to changes in policy there is no longer an adequate supply of timber to enable them to operate the mills. Co-operation between the Forestry Commission and private owners must be genuine and must be stimulated by the Government. The Government must provide money to enable that to happen. I trust and hope that they will show a great deal more understanding than has been the case with agriculture, which has suffered badly. Without proper backing of the Forestry Commission we shall not achieve the results we require.

I was interested to note that my noble friend Lord Beaumont and I are in complete agreement on this matter. We frequently disagree but on this occasion we are in complete agreement. It is extremely important that we realise the importance the public attach to seeing good looking trees about the place; deciduous trees, hardwoods and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, is obviously an extremely practical forester. He put his finger on the matter when he said that without softwoods forestry is not economic. Many of the estates in Scotland could not possibly survive without an income from the sale of softwoods for the pulp industry or whatever. At the moment maturing softwood is worth £1,000 an acre. If that money is realised every now and then, it keeps an estate going and keeps communities going in the countryside.

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We need to plant sitka and other trees of that kind. We can at the same time plant the excellent Scots pine and the Douglas fir. We should also plant the European larch. In Deeside there is some admirably mixed planting which gives joy to everyone. There is also the "black forest" planting. Larch opens up the soil, the vegetation and the habitat. Hardwoods grow up in between the plantings of sitka or some fast-growing species. Therefore it is necessary to plant softwoods to encourage the growth of the oaks which will delight our great-grandchildren.

The simple fact is that the Forestry Commission must be reconstituted and given enough money to do its job. It must be able to buy land for planting, as the noble Lord, Lord Hughes of Woodside, said, and play its part alongside private enterprise. If that is done, we should at least be able to supply the pulp mills with timber and have a great deal of valuable timber for ordinary domestic use. The figures are horrifying. We have heard of the more than £6 billion that we spend on importing timber into this country. We have less than half the timber of France and of Germany and certainly a good deal less than that of Sweden. Therefore we must take this matter extremely seriously.

I do not wish to speak for much longer. I end with a story about my father and my uncle, both of whom had been chairmen of the North of Scotland College of Agriculture. At my father's golden wedding anniversary, a former official of the college was proposing a toast and told this story. He said, "Many years ago I was going through some woods with my chairman, Mr. John Mackie, and I said, 'Lovely woods, Mr. Mackie'. His reply was, 'Aye, grand woods to walk in wi' a lassie'. Some years later my chairman was Mr. Maitland Mackie. We were going through the same woods, and I said, 'Grand woods, Mr. Mackie'. His reply was, 'Aye, these woods will be worth £1,000 an acre'".

That illustrates the two points of view. We have to marry them. The Forestry Commission is the body which has to do that. The Government have to see that the Forestry Commission has the money.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for this debate on forestry. It is some time since I took part in a debate on forestry. One of the joys of Opposition--I think probably it is the only joy--is that one can move out of the departmental brief that one has been given and revisit subjects of interest. Certainly forestry is an interest of mine for a number of reasons.

In another place, for five and a half years I was the Minister who answered for the Forestry Commission to the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, for example. I well remember his questions about English forests which I found fascinating and enjoyed the interchange. However, I also remember that some of my Scottish colleagues were less than pleased at the introduction of English forestry into Scottish Questions. But being the lead Minister and having to look at forestry throughout the United Kingdom was a fascinating task. While I was

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the lead Minister for some of that time, for the remainder I was the spokesman in the Commons for my noble friends Lord Gray and Lord Mansfield. They were the lead Ministers on forestry.

That allows me to ask the Minister two or three questions. He may not wish to answer them today; he may wish to leave them until the devolution Bill. My noble friend Lord Selkirk mentioned these points, as did the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. Some of us are puzzled as to what will happen as regards forestry after devolution. I am pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, in her place. I noted that in a debate on forestry, instigated again by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, on 29th October, she said:

    "The commission will however continue to be the government department with responsibility for forestry throughout Britain. The commission will report separately to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly but will still be a national responsibility. I hope that that provides some comfort and confidence to my noble friend".--[Official Report, 29/10/97; col. 1125.]

I do not know what it did to her noble friend but it puzzled me, and still puzzles me. The commission will still be a national responsibility, and yet it will report to those different parliaments and assemblies. Will there still be a lead Minister? If the Scottish Minister is responsible for forestry in Scotland, for example, how will he deal with the Treasury regarding grants, and so on? We know how important grants are in this business.

What will his position be vis-a-vis the English Minister who will live in, if I may so describe it, the same treeless forest of Whitehall as the Treasury Ministers. If the English Minister sees his priority as encouraging broadleaves and wishes to skew the grant to broadleaves, yet the Scottish Minister, for reasons I shall come to shortly, wants to skew the grant towards conifers, who will win? I would prefer to be in the forest with the English Minister when working out who will win. I think that the situation will be difficult. It will be difficult for the forest enterprise and forest authority to deal with three masters. We are advised that no man can serve two masters. I suspect that Sir Peter Hutchison and his successors will find it difficult to serve three masters.

What will happen to the headquarters of the Forestry Commission? The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, was too modest to mention that he took the Forestry Commission headquarters out of London to Edinburgh. Will the commission be broken up? Will Edinburgh become the Scottish headquarters of Scottish forestry, and somewhere in England, the English headquarters?

How will the commission receive its budget? Will it receive three different tranches: from the Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament, and from Westminster on behalf of the English part of the operation? Those are difficult questions. I appreciate that the Minister may not wish to address them today. However, I give him notice that I shall want them addressed on another day.

My other claim for interest is that my old constituency is arguably the most heavily forested part of the United Kingdom, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, and his friends, and the private sector. There were many forests, and access was important. However, in Scottish terms I cannot get too

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worked up about access. If one went for long walks in the forestry woods, private or public, one did not meet many people. On the short, easy walks one met a few people. So the people who demand access do not want to walk but to cause trouble. There is plenty of access and there are plenty of roads in forests on which to walk.

Perhaps I may say a few words on an important aspect. I am surprised that no one mentioned it. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, came nearest to doing so. I refer to the ancient woodlands of Scotland and England--beechwoods in the south of England, oakwoods in Argyllshire and the Caledonian pine forest. Those are all important. The commission is doing good work in re-establishing the pine woods.

However, forestry is not about access. It is not about being a playground for people. Its primary objective is the production of wood. We need that wood, as we have heard. We import something like 90 per cent. of the forest products we use. We have a balance of payments deficit in forestry of £6 billion to £7 billion. Yet in this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, pointed out, we have good growing conditions. Trees in Britain take two-thirds of the time that the trees of many of our supplying countries take to grow to maturity. Indeed, there are many places in Scandinavia, which is heavily forested, where the trees take twice as long to grow. That gives them some advantages, but also some disadvantages, especially in pulping for example.

It is conifers which are in demand. It is conifers that people use. If we can substitute for some of the imports, we may well be helping to halt the felling in some parts of the world which environmentalists are so against. It is odd that many of the same environmentalists are against our planting any trees in this country. When we plant them, they are against us felling them 30 years later. I have listened to campaigns against planting, and a few years later the same people bob up campaigning against felling. It seems most odd.

However, the important emphasis is on employment in the countryside. I refer to Shotton and Irvine, Highland forest products outside Inverness, and caberboard. In today's Glasgow Herald there is a report of a £50 million chipboard mill at Auchinleck in Ayrshire. All those areas need employment. Auchinleck certainly needs it. Much good employment has been provided. I have sat round the ministerial table at the Scottish Office when we managed to achieve the new pulp mill at Irvine, and we were very pleased about that. But in the country areas also, the planting, tending, felling and transporting of trees creates a lot of employment. In many areas it creates more employment than sheep farming. One can see that in Argyll where much of the forest is now mature and is being felled--and again it is conifers.

My noble friend Lord Gisborough pointed out that there would be a doubling of production over the next few years, and that by 2022 it would peak. He asked: what will happen afterwards? I, too, pose that question. What will happen afterwards is a worry. The noble Lord the Minister gave the House some figures on 21st January about planting. They seemed encouraging.

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But I suspect that the great bulk of them were replanting rather than new planting. Perhaps he will give us some details of that breakdown.

My noble friend Lord Nickson and the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, pointed out that with changes in the CAP we should look at planting, as they say, further down the hill. There must be quite a few areas in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire--there certainly are in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire--where trees would do no harm, if I may so put it. In fact, at the risk of alienating people who come from those parts, I think they would enhance the landscape slightly. They would do a lot to improve those parts of the world.

Of course planting has to be better done. There was some bad planting in the past, when we had less knowledge than we have now. As my noble friend Lord Nickson pointed out, hardwoods could be used along watercourses, and to ease off the edges of trees. Those ideas are important. However, we should not become too obsessed about hardwoods. They do not provide the type of employment to which I refer, and we should not lose sight of the importance of such employment.

The previous government started the national forest in the Midlands, and that is important. Again, it illustrates the point: 60 per cent. deciduous; 40 per cent. softwoods. I am not sure that we shall keep Shotton going on that kind of ratio. My worry is that, if too much of the grant money goes into that sort of ratio, we are not going to see conifers being planted.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, referred to rich people putting money into trees. I have no great objection to that. It will mean less asset-stripping, since the trees have to stay there. It is a lot better than putting their money into offshore trusts. The money is invested in Britain, and in jobs in Britain.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, reminded us about the flow country. Dare I say to the noble Baroness that the real folly of the flow country was that it is not in fact a good place to plant trees. The ground is too soft and they will find it hard to grow to maturity. With CAP reform, we need to look to trees being planted further down the hill, in places where we have not previously envisaged tree planting. It is important to keep in mind the economic importance of conifers. I hope that the Government will examine the targets again to see how they can be met.

It gives me no comfort to say that the government of which I was a Member failed miserably to meet the planting targets. I encourage this Government to look again at these issues to see whether they can produce planting targets, for both deciduous trees and conifers, which will not merely be met but will look to the employment potential way into the future and to the industries that we have set up to deal with conifers. The Minister will have my support in doing that.

4.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel): My Lords, perhaps I should begin not so much by declaring an interest but admitting to a lack of competence. The trees that

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I planted several years ago are all deceased. So it is with no great sense of achievement that I address the House this afternoon.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for providing this opportunity to discuss forestry. The noble Lord has a distinguished history of involvement in forestry and the forestry industry and is a distinguished past chairman of the Forestry Commission, where he made a notable contribution.

The debate has been not merely interesting, but positive. Many noble Lords came up with imaginative suggestions as to the way forward for forestry in this country. I look forward to giving more thought to the many suggestions made.

I am also particularly heartened by the fact that, possibly with one exception, all noble Lords endorsed the work of the Forestry Commission. I wish to recognise the commission's considerable work and achievement over the years--not always in the easiest of circumstances.

There is one particularly important point that I wish to raise now so that it is not lost. Its importance relates to the whole business of inward investment and downstream development. During the course of the debate the point was made, initially by my noble friend Lord Taylor, that existing industries would not be sustained by the timber from existing forests. That is not correct; it is a mistaken view. Because of the rapidly rising graph in terms of timber harvesting over the next couple of decades, the timber produced from our forests will be more than sufficient to sustain our existing timber industries. In addition, we have the opportunity to plant and make sure that there is replacement for the time beyond that, when the graph begins its downturn. It is important to be clear about that. There is no problem in regard to security of supply for existing industries. That worry should be removed immediately.

Many speakers raised the issue of devolution. My noble friend Lord Taylor suggested that the devolution of forestry to Wales and Scotland, and, I may say, England, would not improve forestry management. I am not sure whether my noble friend is changing his position on that matter. I remember a question raised a few weeks ago when he urged me not to make a decision on a forestry matter until a Scottish parliament is able to make its position clear. I believe that forestry will benefit from being devolved. There will be the opportunity to make sure that forestry policy in the various parts of the United Kingdom--in Scotland, England and Wales--can respond more sensitively to policy priorities in the three countries in terms of rural development and general questions of rural land use.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, focused particularly on the grant systems. Because forestry is devolved, it would be perfectly possible for the grant system in Scotland to be different from that in Wales, and from that in England. Clearly, the grant systems exist to facilitate particular policies. If policy priorities are different, it is quite proper for the grant systems to be different as well. So, in the noble Lord's example, it would be possible in England to have a grant

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system that encouraged softwoods and a system in Scotland that encouraged hardwoods, or vice versa. There is no difficulty in that regard.

My noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe emphasised his wish to see more forestry in Britain, and in particular to see more trees planted as a result of partnership between the public and private sectors. I concur with him and with other noble Lords that that is indeed the way forward. We certainly want to increase the area of woodland in Britain. As many noble Lords observed, our coverage in European terms is low. It runs at about 10 per cent. It is higher in Scotland--but then one would expect all good things to be more plentiful in Scotland. It is therefore one of the lowest percentages in the world.

We are increasing that percentage (and this is my brief, my Lords) at about 0.1 per cent. each year. So progress is being made--but at 0.1 per cent. a year I do not think it would convince even the Fabians in their belief in the inevitability of gradualness. The 10 per cent. figure compares with an average figure of 36 per cent. for the European Union. Indeed, only Ireland has a smaller percentage than Britain. Denmark and the Netherlands are roughly the same. So the opportunity for an increase in forestry planting and woodland cover is there. I do not think that we ought necessarily to follow the mercantilist fallacy, which may best be illustrated by the "pineapple problem"; namely, it would be possible for us to achieve self-sufficiency in pineapples but that would not be a good use of our resources. In forestry, that is not a particular danger. We can increase forestry cover without any maldistribution of resources.

We are determined to increase the area of woodland in Britain. It is one of the key aspects of our forestry policy. That is best summarised in the mission statement of the Forestry Commission:

    "To protect and expand Britain's forests and woodlands and to increase their value to society and the environment".

Well-designed forests not only provide timber but also good wildlife habitats, as my noble friend Baroness Young of Old Scone observed, and excellent opportunities for recreation, whether with young ladies or not, while also enhancing the landscape.

How are we to increase forestry? As the noble Lords, Lord Nickson and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, indicated, a major consideration is CAP reform. Land is a finite resource; we cannot increase the amount. We can bring about changes in land use. A major factor affecting land use is the common agricultural policy. The inevitable consequence of an expansion of forestry cover would be a decrease in land used by agriculture. That is particularly the case as forestry and trees come down the hill. In some areas that message is not welcome. Frequent attempts are made to persuade me, as an agriculture Minister, that increased support for agriculture is necessary in order to maintain the present coverage of land for agricultural use.

The Government have made clear that we are working towards reform of the common agricultural policy, which we expect will eventually lead to a significant increase in forestry in Britain. Land has to be taken out

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of agricultural production, and forestry is perhaps the most important and viable alternative use. But it will take time; it will not happen overnight.

In the meantime, we are offering generous grants and participating in a range of initiatives to encourage the creation of new woodlands. In total, 17,000 hectares of new woodland were created in Britain last year. Of that, nearly 5,000 hectares were new woods in England and nearly 12,000 hectares new woods in Scotland. Sadly, less than 500 hectares were planted in Wales, which is why we have launched a special challenge fund to encourage people in Wales to plant trees on land which is currently growing bracken. In response to a point made by my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath, I can say that we are also making a special effort to convert derelict land--for example, old mining areas--into new woods which will be an asset to the community instead of an eyesore. I very much take the point that forestry has a major part to play in the role of the regional development agencies.

As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, the public sector has to work in partnership with the private sector to create new forests. There are many examples of such partnerships creating new woods throughout Britain. These range from the high profile initiatives of the National Forest in the East Midlands, the community forests throughout England and the Central Scotland Forest to much more local initiatives for individual woods, sometimes in commemoration of a particular individual. In every case, the public sector and the private sector are working together, providing not only funds for the new woods but also enthusiasm and expertise.

In response to my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside, perhaps I may say that the Forestry Commission works closely with the private sector to manage its whole estate as effectively as possible. For example, it is planning to use private sector expertise and finance to improve the management and standard of its forest cabins, bringing in private capital on a partnership basis. As another example, the commission is encouraging private industry to invest in new harvesting machinery by offering long-term harvesting contracts. I believe that that is a positive way forward, bringing the strengths of the public and private sectors together for a common benefit.

The National Lottery Millennium Fund is participating in other initiatives, notably the Millennium Forest for Scotland and the Woodland Trust's Woods on Your Doorstep scheme. Both of these involve public and private funds in addition to the funds from the lottery. There is thus a significant gearing of resource going into forestry, and that is to be welcomed.

In addition, the Forestry Commission, through Forest Enterprise, is buying and planting land, targeting its limited funds on those areas where it can make the greatest contribution, such as the National Forest. In many cases the Forestry Commission, by demonstrating what can be achieved, provides an example which encourages other bodies and individuals to create their own forests.

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Several noble Lords asked about the sale of Forestry Commission land. We imposed a moratorium on the sale of forest land managed by the Forestry Commission in May last year. That moratorium is still in place. The only areas of forest land that the commission has sold since then were areas which it had agreed to sell before the general election. In some cases sales take time to finalise. Those have been the only sales that have taken place.

Nevertheless, as well as being able to buy land, the commission needs to be able to sell land if it is to manage its estate effectively and efficiently. Indeed, in some situations the commission could increase the value of its estate to the public by selling one area and buying another. That type of disposal and acquisition is in the long-term interests of both the public and the Forestry Commission.

When the commission sells land in future, for whatever reason, we shall ensure that public access is preserved wherever possible. I attach a high degree of priority to that. The Forestry Commission encourages quiet and peaceful recreation in all its forests, except where that is prevented by legal constraints or safety considerations. As was mentioned by noble Lords, about 50 million day visits are made to commission woods each year. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, might not meet them, but they are there somewhere. In addition, I know that many noble Lords take advantage of the commission's policy of opening its forests to walkers of all ages and abilities.

We wish to preserve these opportunities for informal recreation. If any such woods are sold in future, we shall therefore expect them to remain open to the public. The commission will normally enter into an access agreement with the local authority before the land is sold, thus preserving public access to these woods in perpetuity. Obviously there will be cases where that is not possible because of the nature of the legal basis upon which the Forestry Commission holds the land, but I very much hope that such cases will be the exception.

We have seen the Forestry Commission come through a difficult period. I see forestry as an increasingly important industry in the countryside and our rural areas, but not just in rural areas, as it contributes to downstream employment in our towns.

I realise that I have not been able to deal in detail with all the points that have been made, particularly with the detailed questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas. I assure the noble Lord that I shall write to him on those points. We have had a good debate. It was right and proper to highlight the contribution of forestry, not only to the economy of the countryside but also to that of the country.

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