§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about Forestry.
In March last year, I informed the House that, along with fellow Forestry Ministers, I had asked officials to review the effectiveness of current incentives for forestry investment and options for the ownership and management of Forestry Commission woodlands; and to make proposals for changes that would improve the effectiveness of the delivery of the Government's forestry policy objectives, having regard to our other economic and environment policies. My right hon. Friends and I are grateful to the members of the forestry review group for their work and to the thousands of individuals and organisations who made informed and cogent submissions to the group. I also put on record our gratitude to the commission's staff, who have been subject to a period of inevitable uncertainty during the review but who have continued to make a valuable contribution.
It is clear that the present general approach of multi-purpose forestry is widely supported. That approach, which was reaffirmed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the follow-up to the Earth summit in Rio, places emphasis not just on wood production but on encouraging the use of our forests for amenity and environmental benefits. The review looked closely at the way in which this policy is implemented and identified a number of modifications to the commission's woodland management which could further enhance the delivery of multiple objectives. The proposals that I am announcing today will assist in that by making clearer connections in the commission's management system between the objectives, the resources used and the output.
Our review has considered many options for the ownership and management of the Forestry Commission's woodlands. Our analysis has taken into account the many unique features of the forestry industry such as the varied commercial, recreational and environmental interests and the long lead time required before commercial timber can be harvested. Our conclusion is that, at this stage of their development, the Forestry Commission woodlands should remain in the public sector.
Nevertheless, there is considerable scope for improvement. The work of Forest Enterprise, the forest management arm of the commission, should be put on a more businesslike footing and a stronger connection should be established between the resources used and outputs achieved in all its commercial, recreational and environmental activities. We therefore propose that it should be replaced by a new trading body, established as a next steps agency. That trading body will still be part of the Forestry Commission, but it will deal at arm's length with the other parts of the commission. A chief executive will be appointed by open competition.
The remit of the new body will be clearly specified in its framework document and it will work within clear priorities agreed by the Forestry Commissioners and forestry Ministers. Demanding but deliverable performance measures will be set. There will be improved accounting and costing arrangements, helping to ensure that the costs and benefits of commission programmes are better measured. Ministers will be able to judge more 178 closely and more clearly the value of specific proposals. In this way we can ensure that the taxpayer obtains better value for money in terms of timber, amenity and environmental benefits.
The review also looked at incentives for forestry. Through grants, the Forestry Commission supports new planting by the private forestry sector, but, under the existing arrangements, new private sector planting of productive conifer forests has declined. We shall take action to increase it. We shall introduce a flat-rate grant for conifer new planting of £700 per hectare and increase the better land supplement for conifers from £400 per hectare to £600.
Those increased grant levels will give a major boost to conifer planting, which is so important for the new wood processing investors, including those who have been and will be attracted to Britain and who provide many new jobs and wider economic benefits, particularly in rural areas. This conifer planting will, of course, be subject to the environmental safeguards which now operate to protect valuable habitats.
For broadleaf new planting, there will be a grant of £1,350 per hectare for woodlands under 10 hectares and £1,050 per hectare for woodlands of 10 hectares or more. To improve, the potential timber quality of those broadleaf-planted areas, we shall require a higher stocking density in order to qualify for the full rate of grant, though there will be exceptions for small woodlands and the planting of native species.
In existing woodlands, we have decided that the level of restocking grant should be reduced to £325 per hectare for conifers and £525 per hectare for broadleaf trees, but the restocking grant will be payable on completion of planting rather than phased over three instalments. Assistance will be introduced for short rotation coppice on set-aside land, although assistance on non-set-aside land will be reduced.
Further details of the new grant arrangements will be available in the Vote Office and will be placed in the Library. I have asked the Forestry Commission to close its existing schemes to new applications at 3.30 pm this afternoon and to reopen the woodland grant scheme in September in time for the new planting season.
The new arrangements are being discussed with the European Commission and are subject to its approval, but I have no doubt that this sensible package of incentive measures will be a boost to the planting of more trees. It will bring in some £4 million of new resources—an increase of more than 10 per cent. in the incentives available to the private sector.
It will come as no surprise to the House that the review confirmed that millions of people enjoy access to our forests and that there is a widespread desire for the enjoyment of our forests to be protected, encouraged and enhanced. In response to that, the Government will take a number of measures to strengthen the arrangements which are available to protect existing public access when the commission sells forests as part of its disposal programme.
Procedures for the selection of forests for sale will be more rigorous; consultation periods will be lengthened and we shall encourage local authorities to consider carefully the need to make access agreements when offered. We shall also make it possible for the Forestry Commission to meet legal costs incurred by local authorities in making access agreements.
The Government will take measures to increase opportunities for public access to forests in those areas 179 where demand is greatest. We shall provide almost £1 million per annum to allow the Forestry Commission to offer to buy out leasehold interests in those of its leased woodlands, particularly those close to centres of population, where the present lease restricts public access. The special management grant already supports schemes to improve public access to private forests.
We shall also be introducing a new woodland improvement grant to enhance the quality of our forests, both environmentally and for the benefit of the visiting public. A similar sum will also be allocated annually towards the development of the national forest, the central Scotland woodlands and the various community forests to which we made a commitment in our manifesto.
We shall publish shortly a document outlining our proposals in more detail which will offer interested parties the opportunity to comment upon them.
Taken together, the Government's proposals are a comprehensive and imaginative package. They will assist the Forestry Commission and its staff by providing clearer objectives and new challenges and by creating a stable framework for its operations; they will assist the private forestry sector by providing better targeted grants., they will assist wood processors by encouraging increased wood production from our forests; and, finally, they will provide the public with improved opportunities to enjoy the great forests that are such an important national amenity. Together they will increase the benefit to the country of forestry, and I commend them to the House.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
Today's statement, delayed and postponed as it has been, represents a humiliating climbdown by the Government as they retreat from their clear and clearly declared ambition to privatise the forests of Britain. In that respect, it is most welcome.
The Government deliberately set out to sell off the country's oldest publicly owned industry in the quick-fix, bargain-basement way that they have made their speciality. However, in this case they came up against a brick wall of public hostility and they have now made not so much a U-turn as an ideological Catherine wheel in policy.
The statement does not represent a conversion, still less a blinding realisation of the folly of privatising an industry taken into public ownership 75 years ago by a Conservative Government. It is simply an act of political cravenness as ideology finally hits reality.
Privatisation would have devastated the land market in Britain as the country's largest landowner divested millions of acres. It would have meant selling a priceless asset of land and trees, nurtured over generations, for a fraction of its real value. It would have undermined and destabilised the long-term supply of timber to a vital national wood processing industry and it would have placed in jeopardy a long-term investment that has increased production sixfold since 1950 and is just about to produce a profit for the taxpayer.
Privatisation would have placed in doubt the protection of the rural environment and threatened very fragile rural economies. Undoubtedly, it would have closed off public access to millions of acres of the nation's land.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order to reply to a statement that has not been given?
§ Madam Speaker
The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) does not appear to be questioning the 180 statement; he seems to be making his own as though something hypothetical might have taken place. I am not sure what he is questioning. Does he have the Secretary of State's statement?
§ Mr. Robertson
I welcome your curiosity, Madam Speaker, but I remind you and the House that, as the Secretary of State said in his statement, last year he asked officials to review the effectiveness of current incentives for forestry investment and options for the ownership and management of Forestry Commission woodlands. The Government have spent £866,000 of your and my money, Madam Speaker—
§ Madam Speaker
Order. In that case, the hon. Gentleman might question the Secretary of State about it.
§ Mr. Robertson
Thank you, Madam Speaker. It is interesting to note the defensiveness of Conservative Back Benchers over the key option that Ministers were clearly considering from day one and, perhaps, the reason why they have found it so difficult to defend it today.
It is small wonder that, having established all these arguments—which, Madam Speaker, we pointed out right from the beginning—even this fixated Government, as they have twisted and weaved and prevaricated towards today's statement, could not find a way of peddling full privatisation. Surely the Government are aware of how sad we should all be at the damage that has been done in the industry because of the long-drawn-out uncertainty about Government plans, which has seriously and needlessly affected investment and confidence.
May I ask the Secretary of State—[Hon. Members: "Hooray."] Clearly the juvenile tendency on the Government Benches comes out even more clearly towards the end of the Session. Why is it that, as the right hon. Gentleman makes his statement today, there is still no consultative document? After more than a year of deliberation, a statement to the House and the expenditure of £866,000 of taxpayers' money, there is still no consultative document. When will it be published, and how long will the consultation period be?
Is the Secretary of State aware that he will have a hard job convincing us that today's forestry halfway house is not just a devious staging post to eventual privatisation —a next steps agency whose next step will be to establish Forestry plc? Have Ministers still not learned the lessons of meddling and tampering with an industry that was rightly and logically placed in full public ownership in the national interest? Is not this obsessive drive towards commercialism undermining the long-term nature of the planning that is so critical to the forestry and timber industries? Will Ministers continue to demand further land sales, given that any new sales will eat into the core planting land of the Forestry Commission?
What does the Secretary of State intend to do about access agreements for sold-off land, which have been such a dismal failure in all previous land sales? What does his statement mean in terms of making access agreements bite, and last beyond the first sale? Do the Government really care about the 50 million visitors who use, enjoy and value forestry land each year, or will they be merely casualties, locked out of their own countryside in the drive to make short-term profits?
Other European countries such as Germany, Norway and Sweden regard common access to the countryside as a 181 right. The only rights that the Government champion are those of the landed gentry. Cannot the Government get it into their head that forestry is not a short-term profit industry but an industry which, by its very nature, requires long-term investment and careful management of resources?
What the country needs is a multi-purpose forestry strategy—based, of course, on sound financial objectives, but also on long-term environmental protection, conservation, jobs and public access to woodlands. Above all, after 75 years of the Forestry Commission's fine work in utilising and protecting a unique national resource, Britain needs a national forestry policy that is based not on the interests of quick-buck tree choppers and land salesmen but on a genuine British national interest.
§ Mr. Lang
I thank the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) for the warm welcome that he has given to the Government's proposals. The kindest thing that can be said about his response is that he must have written it before he heard my statement. The difference between us is that our conclusion about the future ownership of the forestry is based on reason and common sense, whereas his attitude is clearly driven by pure, undiluted dogma.
The hon. Gentleman asked why there was no consultative document. I am publishing more details of the grant today, which will be available in the Library; the consultation document itself should be available in two or three weeks, and will allow a consultation period of about three months.
As for commercialism undermining the future of the industry, the hon. Gentleman has got it categorically wrong. He seems to forget that the Forestry Commission was not taken into public ownership—as he put it—75 years ago, but was established by a Government to create a new commercial strength for this country in the growth of trees. If we lose sight of the important commercial aspects of forestry, the whole industry will be doomed. What we propose will lead to more planting, better cash flow and management and more benefits from the forestry industry.
The hon. Gentleman asked about access agreements. There will be a classification of woods before disposal; there will be a strong presumption against the sale of those with a higher level of access. Public rights of way, where they do not currently exist, will be included in access agreement arrangements, and local authorities will be encouraged to respond positively to the idea of entering into such agreements.
Their legal costs will be paid by the Forestry Commission; target times will be included for the completion of agreements; the consultation period will be extended from two to three months; and the Forestry Commission has prepared model access agreements which it will offer to local authorities. I am confident that, in those and a number of other ways, access agreements will be entered into more successfully. As for an access agreement lasting beyond the first sale, when a local authority is involved in such an agreement at the initial sale, that agreement will continue for subsequent sales.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman called for a multi-purpose forestry strategy. That is precisely what we set out in the document. The Government's multi-purpose forestry policy remains unchanged; we are simply ensuring that it 182 will be delivered more effectively and efficiently for the benefit of taxpayers while recognising the commercial, environmental and recreational interests of all those who seek to use and enjoy our forests.
§ Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the announcement of incentives to encourage tree planting will be very popular and, we hope, will increase the number of trees planted?
Although his announcement that the estate of the Forestry Commission will stay in public hands will undoubtedly be welcomed by the huge majority of people, does he accept that it is a disappointment to a small minority of us because we believe that it would have been possible to dispose of the forestry estate from public hands while maintaining existing environmental advantages and public access?
Finally, how much money does my right hon. Friend reckon could have been raised had he taken the alternative decision to privatise the Forestry Commission's estate?
§ Mr. Lang
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his welcome for incentives for planting and for his acknowledgement that the announcement that Forestry Commission woodlands are to stay in public ownership will be widely welcomed. However, I acknowledge that he and a number of colleagues would have preferred them to be sold. I agree that there is no intrinsic reason for it and it does on the surface seem rather odd that any Government should be involved in the extensive ownership and planting of trees, but the fact is that we have to deal with the existing situation. Having reviewed the position, the Government concluded that the present structure and characteristics of the forest estate do not lend themselves easily to the privatisation process, and that access, environmental and recreational considerations argue in favour of the conclusion that I have reached.
My right hon. Friend asked what valuation might have been placed on the woodlands had they been sold. It is a hypothetical question, but it might have been in the region of £700 million or £800 million, and that is for assets valued in the Forestry Commission's accounts at around double that figure.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
Does the Secretary of State accept that we at least welcome the Damascene conversion or U-turn by the Government? We hope only that it will be permanent and that there will be no permanent indecision about the long-term prospects for the Forestry Commission. On that score, will he tell us whether the £4 million of what we understand to be new money will include the sum allocated for the woodlands improvement grant, which we regard as extremely important in helping to ensure that woodlands are open to a wider cross-section of the public for their recreation and enjoyment?
The public will judge the proposals on their results. Madam Speaker, if you go down to the woods today, you will find a huge number of our fellow citizens enjoying the woodlands under the control of the Forestry Commission. If, in terms of the environment, the natural habitat, jobs, employment, economics and public access, there can be a permanent solution to the Forestry Commission's indecision and difficulties of the past few months, it will be to the benefit of all our fellow citizens.
§ Mr. Lang
The hon. Gentleman talks about a Damascene conversion, but the truth is that there has been no such thing. The Government have worked their way towards this conclusion, reviewing the options without prior commitment and without the dogmatic prejudice found so easily in the Labour party. There has been no U-turn; nor are we entering a period of permanent indecision.
On the contrary, now that we have resolved the issues and now that a statement has been made that covers the whole range of interests in the forestry industry, we can now look forward to a period of stability and restored confidence in the planting and processing sectors, which are so vital to future employment in rural areas where we can look forward to the continuing development of employment opportunities. Indeed, only today, I was pleased to see in the Financial Times the announcement of a £40 million hardboard factory to be built in south Wales with the creation of 200 jobs. That is the kind of benefit to which we can now look forward as a result of the stability that I have highlighted.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the £4 million of additional resources coming into the system. Some of the increased grant will be derived from reductions in other grants, which I also mentioned in my statement.
However, the £4 million coming in will be directed towards the buying out of leases in those woodland areas which the Forestry Commission leases, mainly in England. Some £2.6 million will go towards increased planting in the conifer section, which is spread around the United Kingdom, although the majority is in Scotland. The remaining £500,000 of the £4 million will go to the short rotational coppice-planting scheme in set-aside land.
§ Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the tax changes which we introduced in 1988 and the environmental concerns, some justified, some not so justified, have in recent years robbed the forestry industry of its momentum. May I congratulate him on showing the difference between conifers and hard wood in forestry? Although we need hardwoods for timber production to some extent and for environmental purposes, conifers will drive along forestry in this country. While I welcome the measures that he has introduced, will he keep the matter continually under review to ensure that we get this vital industry on the road again?
§ Mr. Lang
I thank my hon. Friend, whose interest and knowledge of these matters is extensive. I can confirm that, of course, these matters are continually kept under review. I hope that the switch of emphasis which we have announced today and the extra resources will lead to substantial increases in planting.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that there has been a flatness in planting in recent years. Indeed, the target of 33,000 hectares has become increasingly meaningless unless the restocking component is taken into account. It is clearly a matter that we shall have to consider further. Our objective is to raise planting levels across the board, but especially in the conifer section.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
What are the supposed advantages of the trading body being, to quote the statement, "at arm's length" from the commission?
§ Mr. Lang
The objective of setting up the trading body on a next steps agency basis is to create a commercial 184 atmosphere and the kind of commercial disciplines which will lead to greater identification of objectives, inputs and outputs achieved. That is a matter of recognising the cost and benefit of the commercial, recreational and environmental components. Those are the matters to which some of the specific grants that I have announced today —there are four new grants in the package that I have announced today—are directed.
§ Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that within the boundaries of my constituency lies the royal forest of Dean? I am quite confident that the majority of citizens in the forest of Dean will warmly welcome, as I do, today's statement in which the Government recognise the true value of the forestry estate, not only for producing wood, but for recreation and preserving the environment.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the local people in the forest of Dean very much cherish their freedom to roam at will throughout the forest? That uniqueness was recognised in 1981, when the forest was set aside from other forest woodland from which it was able to sell off standing timber. Nevertheless, the residents around Dymock woods and Chestnut woods will also welcome the announcement today. My right hon. Friend—
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Many hon. Members wish to put questions and I have other business to safeguard. This is not the time for making statements.
§ Madam Speaker
Just a moment. If the hon. Gentleman has one direct question to put to the Secretary of State, I shall allow him to do so.
§ Mr. Marland
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been some frustration over enterprises undertaken by Forest Enterprise to raise money in the forest of Dean because it was not possible for Forest Enterprise to reinvest money which was raised locally? Will he say whether, in future, money raised locally will be spent locally?
§ Mr. Lang
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome for my statement. I acknowledge the close interest and authority that he brings to his repeated references to the matter in his discussions with me. I am happy to reassure him about the future of the forest of Dean and also of the woodlands that he mentioned. Indeed, I think that the forest of Dean was included not only in the Forestry Act 1981, but in the Forestry Act 1967 and the Forestry (Transfer of Woods) Act 1923.
On the question of rewarding the activities of those involved in managing the woods and forests that my hon. Friend mentioned, one of the benefits of the increased transparency and clarification of the objectives, inputs and outputs which will be derived from the establishment of a next steps agency is that it will be possible to create incentives, to reward good performance and to focus resources in a way that gets the best benefit for the type of objectives that my hon. Friend identified.
§ Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)
First, will the Secretary of State give special attention to the need to restore the balance between management grants and planting grants so that existing woodlands can be enhanced and the gap between farming and forestry can be bridged? Secondly, will he give a guarantee that the disposals programme will not continue after the end of the century?
§ Mr. Lang
The disposals programme will continue; it is part of a rationalisation process. It is inevitable that the Forestry Commission, which has more than 1 million hectares under its ownership and control, should wish both to dispose of and to acquire small parcels of land with a view to rationalising and more efficiently managing its estate. The disposals programme will continue.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the relationship between planting grants and management grants. I hope that he welcomes the grants that I have announced today, including the woodland improvement grant, which is one of the new grants, and the livestock exclusion premium grant, and the new pilot schemes to stimulate planting in priority target areas. That and the interrelationship between farming and forestry have been carefully considered and are reflected in the decisions I have announced today.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
The Select Committee on the Environment, when preparing its report on forestry, expressed concern about the opportunity for set-aside money to be put into forestry. I am sure that my right hon. Friend's announcement today will be widely welcomed by farmers and by the general public who see sterile land being used for growing trees. That will be very welcome. Can my right hon. Friend say a word about what he expects to happen to the widely respected Forestry Commission education unit, which does so much to spread knowledge among our schoolchildren?
§ Mr. Lang
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome. On the education unit, I am asking the director-general to look at all aspects of the work carried out by the Forestry Authority with a view to improving the performance and efficiency of the organisation. That is not a component of my statement today which is focused primarily on Forest Enterprise, on grants and on improving access. I have no doubt that the same disciplined approach will be brought to bear on the Forestry Authority.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
As the Secretary of State represents, as I do, a constituency that is dependent on forestry as the key industry, he will appreciate that much of my concern is about employment, both direct and indirect. In that context, will he clarify what he means by the phrase "at this stage" when he refers in his statement to Forestry Commission woodland staying in the public sector? The phrase seems to suggest that there will be future reviews and that this is a two-step rather than a one-step move towards privatisation.
Will the Forestry Commission headquarters remain in Edinburgh, given that 64 per cent. of Forestry Commission land is in Scotland? Who will appoint the chief executive of the next steps agency? Will the Secretary of State accept that rights of way are not the same as access to forestry? If there are to be serious negotiations about access, our local authorities must have adequate funding to ensure that access is available to the public.
§ Mr. Lang
I assure the hon. Lady that this is not a two-stage review; it is a one-stage review. The review has been extensive and comprehensive, and I hope that it will create an atmosphere of stability and confidence during which all aspects of the forestry industry will be able to plan for the long term.
I have no plans to contemplate the removal of the Forestry Commission headquarters from Edinburgh where they are effectively based. The chief executive of the next 186 steps agency will be recruited by open competition, and ultimately the decision will be for Ministers, after careful scrutiny and assessment of all the applicants.
I share the hon. Lady's emphasis on the importance of maintaining employment in rural areas. I believe that my statement will lead to a considerable rise of confidence in the future of employment.
§ Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)
Will there still be an important place in the new arrangements for wildlife conservation and for education, which have been great successes of Forest Enterprise in places such as Wendover woods in my constituency, which are on the edge of large centres of population?
§ Mr. Lang
I am happy to assure my hon. Friend on that; the importance of environmental matters is central to multi-purpose forestry. We have acknowledged that carefully in the conclusions which we have reached and which we have announced today.
There are some 400 sites of special scientific interest in Forestry Commission land covering some 60,000 hectares, and I anticipate that the various heritage and countryside bodies in all of the countries in the United Kingdom will be fully involved in work with the Forestry Commission and with the private sector to ensure that their interests are protected.
§ Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)
If the Government insist on a disposal programme, will the Secretary of State accept that the most effective way to ensure public access is for the local communities—where they express an interest to take over a woodland—to be given first preference or option on any sale? What will the right hon. Gentleman do to enhance the role of community woodlands? What will he do about the potential for conflict of interest for employees of the Forestry Commission, or of any other public agency, when it comes to the disposal of woodlands? I am thinking about a case in my constituency about which I have written to the Secretary of State.
§ Mr. Lang
I am aware of the case in the hon. Gentleman's constituency to which he referred, and I am happy to assure him that I have asked my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for forestry matters to furnish me with a full report on what is going on in that case.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about access and the importance of community woodlands. We have established a new pilot targeting scheme to focus resources and help on community woodlands in central Scotland and on the national forest in England. The community woodland supplement scheme will remain in force with a grant of £950 per hectare. It is a successful and popular scheme, and there have been some 500 applications, for it.
§ Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside)
My right hon. Friend will be aware that his statement today will be well received in my constituency, where there is a high level of afforestation. The reference to the 10 per cent. increase in the incentive for planning and my right hon. Friend's comments on access will be particularly welcomed. Will he confirm that future access by the local community to community woodlands such as Pannanich in Ballater and Dunnottar woods in Stonehaven will be secured?
§ Mr. Lang
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that general assurance, and I am grateful to him for his 187 welcome for the announcement, which will benefit forest areas in his constituency and elsewhere. We have an incentives package to encourage access, and we have a number of proposals to strengthen the local authority involvement in access agreements. The community woodland supplement, the special management grants and the new woodland improvement grant will all help to improve access so that the public may enjoy our forests.
§ Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)
May I be the first from this side of the House to offer the general welcome which I believe the statement richly deserves? It was absolutely necessary that the statement came at this time to give those people who wish to plant advance notice of what is available.
May I also welcome the better incentives for commercial conifer plantings, as opposed to sums which up to now had gone to what were largely amenity plantings of broadleaf woodlands? What is the right hon. Gentleman's target area for forests in the United Kingdom? Will he also give an assurance that he will take into account the environmental factors which affect the headwaters of many rivers regarding acidification, and also places such as the Flo country?
Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that—
§ Mr. Lang
It is a pity, Madam Speaker, as I was enjoying the hon. Gentleman's welcome. I am grateful for that, and in particular for his welcome for the conifer incentive. I have forgotten the other question about which he asked me.
Acidification is an environmental consideration to which attention must be given, and not just by the Forestry Commission. Attention will continue to be given to it.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
My constituents and others who value the amenities of Exmoor, the Quantocks and the Blackdowns will greatly welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about stability and access to forests and woodlands. They will also welcome the thrust of his statement about improving timber production and products in the United Kingdom.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that those of us who like and respect the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) feel that his response to the statement was well below par?
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)
I congratulate the Secretary of State on explaining to the House that there is often a conflict between privatisation and the public interest. May I invite him to explain it to some of his colleagues in other areas of the Government? May I say how welcome the statement will be to my constituents in the Cannock Chase area, which serves a large neighbouring conurbation? Beyond the need to deliver some organisational change to colleagues who wanted privatisation, why was it necessary to disturb Forest Enterprise, which is known to be working well, and turn it into a next steps agency, which will make it more commercial and less accountable?
§ Mr. Lang
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the success of Forest Enterprise—an initiative 188 that has moved things substantially in the right direction. I pay tribute to the chairman of the Forestry Commission for initiating that development. We propose to build on that success and to create the greater transparency of cost and benefit that we would get from a next steps agency, which was being diffused under the umbrella of multi-purpose forestry. We are not abandoning that policy attitude, but within the concept of multi-purpose forestry it is important to identify and measure the relative costs and benefits of its different components.
§ Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)
May I add my welcome for the encouragement that my right hon. Friend is giving, in hard cash terms, to conifer planting? Does he agree that the Scottish climate is ideally suited to rapid growth? Does he acknowledge that the statement is good for the timber industry as it will secure indigenous supplies? Does he also acknowledge that, in the long term, the deal is good for the economy as it will reduce import costs?
§ Mr. Lang
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am grateful for his welcome. Indeed, it has come to my notice that conifer trees grow about three times faster in some parts of western Scotland than they do in Scandinavia and that they are of better quality for the purposes of our wood processors.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
I welcome the central point of the Secretary of State's statement about keeping the forest in public ownership, and I pay tribute to the part played by the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), in achieving that.
Since the Secretary of State and I share representation of the Galloway forest, which is one of the largest in Scotland, can he assure me that the jobs and conditions of service of those people who work so hard on behalf of Forest Enterprise and the commission, at Straiton in my constituency and throughout the forest, will be safeguarded when the next steps agency is set up?
§ Mr. Lang
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome, and I join him in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who is responsible for forestry matters for his extremely wise and sensible advice as we developed the proposal.
On the future of employment in the forestry industry, with more and more trees reaching maturity, as we are approaching harvesting time, and with the increased planting activities that I envisage as a result of the better focused and increased grants, employment is likely to rise rather than fall.
§ Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be warmly welcomed by those of us in north Worcestershire who have a close attachment to the magnificent woodlands after which my constituency is named? He mentioned increased grants for broadleaf planting in his statement, but said that the grants would be subject to certain densities. Is there a case for, and will he consider, eliminating that condition for broadleaf grants in areas of outstanding natural beauty where high densities may not be appropriate?
§ Mr. Lang
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome. While we are seeking higher densities of about 2,250 trees per hectare for broadleaf grants, a density of 1,100 trees per hectare may be acceptable for new native 189 woodlands in appropriate sites, or for small-scale planting of broadleaf trees where there is little potential for timber production—normally, as discrete woodlands of less than three hectares, or as components of predominantly coniferous planting schemes. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
Can the Secretary of State give us a guarantee that, as a result of his announcement, the public will not lose access rights to any more forests in the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Lang
I have no doubt that the new access agreements that we have introduced today, and the rich diversity of measures that we are taking to encourage increased access to Forestry Commission and private sector woodland, will lead to considerably improved opportunities for access. I cannot, of course, give the hon. Gentleman any absolute and categorical guarantees, because the ultimate decisions are largely for the purchasers and for local authorities. Emphasising the role of local authorities and making their task so much easier will lead to many more productive access agreements being reached.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
My right hon. Friend instanced the millions of people who enjoy our woodlands. I wonder whether he has yet had time to consider how hundreds of thousands of those same people might become investors in forestry if the Treasury could be persuaded to put the rules affecting such investment on an equal footing with investment in other productive industries.
§ Mr. Lang
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome and I note his suggestion, which is essentially a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, much more planting is taking place at the hands of the private sector than at the hands of the Forestry Commission, and hon. Members will recognise the good sense of that.
§ Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)
May I ask a question that I have asked Ministers before about research establishments, particularly the one in my constituency in the Bush estate? The Secretary of State omitted to mention research establishments in his statement, which I support, with qualification. What is the future for research establishments? Must they wait on the public efficiency drive on all establishments which has been proposed by the Government?
§ Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)
Will the Secretary of State do anything to safeguard consumers' interests in relation to two particular aspects of his statement? First, how will we know whether the freedom to roam is safeguarded and promoted? Secondly, with regard to forestry grants, the Secretary of State will know that the previous system was a disaster in terms of speculation. In the present system, planting has been flat. Is there not a case for giving power to an existing or new 190 body to speak on behalf of the people to guarantee their freedom to roam and that the investment system is working in the public interest?
§ Mr. Lang
If by consumers the hon. Gentleman means visitors to our forests, we keep a record of the number of visitors to commission forests. At present, there are some 50 million visits a year. It would be relatively straightforward to continue to keep tabs on the progress of numbers. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest the creation of a new body. I have not noticed any shortage of bodies willing to proclaim themselves the spokesman for environmental interests, ramblers, walkers, mountaineers and all those people who take an interest in our forests. They lack no opportunity to make their views heard.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
How incompatible are the access agreements involving private woodland owners with the deeply unpopular trespass provisions in criminal justice legislation? Where an access agreement is signed, will hikers, anglers and others be protected against the liberal employment of those deeply unpopular trespass provisions?
§ Mr. Lang
The provisions to which the hon. Gentleman refers are in the Criminal Justice Bill, and they are not essentially a matter for me. They are aimed not at those people who seek simply to enjoy the land, but at those who invade other people's land with objectives that are damaging to the interests of owners and other users of that land. That is a different matter.
§ Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)
May I join the Secretary of State in congratulating the Forestry Commission and its staff on their excellent work, particularly in the past 10 to 15 years? Will he tell us, because he has not made it clear, who will give local authorities, if they are to be responsible for access and maintenance of access to forests that are sold into private ownership, the resources to carry out that task?
I am sorry to hear that the disposal programme is continuing. It seems like continuing privatisation by the back door. If it does continue, what will happen to forests such as those around Lochgoilhead in my constituency, which were gifted to the Forestry Commission by the old Glasgow corporation for the enjoyment of the people of Glasgow? I hardly think that the Government have any right to sell off those forests.
§ Mr. Lang
I assure the hon. Lady that, even if the present disposal programme continued at its present rate, it would take another 100 years before disposal of the commission's forest woodlands would be complete. A new classification system has been introduced to ensure that forests and woods that are most in demand for access are the least likely to be sold, so I envisage that the problem will largely dissipate as an issue.
Local authorities will be responsible not for carrying out maintenance but for considering whether to ask for an access agreement to be written into a sale. The commission will make it as easy as possible for them to do so by drawing up draft agreements, by allowing longer for consultation, by paying legal fees and by involving heritage bodies, such as Scottish Natural Heritage, in the consideration of such matters.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
May I press the Secretary of State on that very simple point? The Welsh Select Committee prepared a report last year, from which the Minister will see that numerous local authorities throughout Wales said that they wanted to enter into access agreements but could not afford to do so. Unless this core point is addressed, we are wasting time talking about public access. Who will appoint the chief executive?
Finally, I add my voice to that of others who have welcomed the broad thrust of the statement that forestry should remain in the public sector, but I am concerned about the words in it "at this stage".