Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)

WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2000

MR DAVID BILLS, MR PAUL HILL-TOUT and DR BOB MCINTOSH

  60. Is this being treated as a priority or is this one of those things which could run and run?
  (Mr Bills) The Forestry Commission is treating it as a priority.

  61. Yes, but you are only one side of the discussion. Is it being treated as a priority on the other side?
  (Mr Bills) Yes, it is. It has been inevitably involved in the settlement of finances for this year in this difficulty we have because we are in the transitional stage on devolution, but another thing that we need to watch out for is that we can get a settlement or a model which can be agreed by each of the three countries. It will be easier if it can be agreed by each of the three legislatures.

Mr Hurst

  62. I am following up the question of Dr Turner when he was approaching you on the question of benchmarking and the comparison with commercial forests. That ran into the farming question that Mr Todd was putting to you. You stated in your answer to Dr Turner that the commercial forests do not have some of the same objectives as you do and I think we probably know what they are but perhaps you would very briefly say what you consider the main difference between the commercial forest and your forest is? Secondly, in light of that, can there be any realistic benchmarking? Thirdly, if you wish to separate your environmental or heritage obligations on the one hand from your commercial operations on the other hand, can that be done in practical terms within one forestry?
  (Mr Bills) The principal difference is clearly the scale of our operations, coupled with the fact that in effect this is public land or the nearest thing to public land there is within Great Britain. We can offer recreation and conservation more than the private sector. Within the FE estate, there are thousands of hectares of SSSI. There are opportunities for restoring heathlands, all of these things that you might persuade a private owner to do but you cannot necessarily make them do. In line with the government's policies on conservation on their European and international agreements, we are able to deliver. Many of these things we cannot charge for and even if we could it would not be as practical as it might be for an estate owner or a much more focused boundary enterprise. We believe we have a major responsibility to promote and encourage access to our forests for a whole range of reasons. It should be good quality; it should be safe; it also should be appropriately challenging. Probably it is difficult to argue that we should charge for that sort of work.

  63. To take a facetious example, if you have some sort of exotic form of mushroom growing on the ground of your forest that you wish to preserve and you have an obligation to and you feel you ought to, that might interfere with the harvesting of the timber in some way; whereas the commercial operator may well take the view that he is not that interested in mushrooms.
  (Mr Bills) We would be looking at the conservation status of that particular organism and we would lose money in order to conserve it.

  64. If this is so, is there any real merit ultimately in trying to benchmark, to use that absurd phrase, to try to compare your commercial return with that of a commercial forest?
  (Mr Bills) That is the discussion we have been having. There are what I call community service obligations which are placed upon us as managers of public land which the private sector does not have. The only thing we can legitimately benchmark is where we have a plain Jane forest and we are doing a commercial harvesting operation but, as an organisation, I do not think it is practical to benchmark us with the private sector.
  (Dr McIntosh) We could benchmark individual components of what we do and we do that now. The difficulty is benchmarking the whole entity because there is nothing to compare it with.

  65. Are you saying there are some parts of the forestry land where biodiversity and all of the other high objectives are not going to be taken into account and you are just going to get on with it and grow the timber, cut it down and make as much money as you can?
  (Mr Bills) We are not saying they are not going to be taken into account. It is just that within some of those forests there are not the ancient, semi-natural woodland relics that are there; there is not the archaeology relic that is there; there is not the charismatic landscape which people might like to visit there. There would still be a case for sustainable forest management, but in that kind of forest the prospect of harvesting would not damage some of those other, more unique values we have been talking about.

Mr Opik

  66. Are all your forests managed to the United Kingdom Forestry Standard?
  (Mr Bills) Yes.

  67. Is that the case for all commercial forests?
  (Mr Bills) It should be.
  (Mr Hill-Tout) Through the regulatory and grant giving functions that we have, before any felling licence is awarded or before any grant is given for any operations, our officers have to satisfy themselves that the operations that are being proposed and the plans that are set out are in accordance with the United Kingdom Forest Standard.

  68. What assurances does the United Kingdom Woodland Assurance Scheme offer?
  (Mr Bills) UKWAS is rooted in the overall United Kingdom Standard. The United Kingdom Standard of course is the overall objective of forestry within the United Kingdom. There was an interest by retailers and consumers to have third party, independently certified product in stores, independently certified as coming from sustainable sources. UKWAS was an exercise involving all of industry plus environmental NGOs to derive a standard which could be applied at a forest management unit level to certify that those forests were indeed being managed according to best practice. Coupled with that is the trackability element so that, the way that we sell timber, the way the timber goes through the sawmills and into the B&Qs of this world for example, you can be sure that that very stick of timber has come from a certified forest. UKWAS was a standard against which we could certify. People could tick boxes and say yes, this can carry the FSC label, in this case.

  69. There is clear consumer labelling for that?
  (Mr Bills) Yes.

  70. Are you confident that the wood that is labelled is genuinely achieving that standard?
  (Mr Bills) Yes. We will be looked at from time to time. I do not want to make too much of this, but we are concerned of course with timber prices low and with the current level of funding—we are net funded—that some of the things we need to do in order to maintain that standard may be very difficult to do. We may have some hard choices in front of us.

  71. Another hard choice might be the environmental goals given the low timber price. Have you managed to maintain your environmental objectives? The implication from your previous answers is that you have.
  (Dr McIntosh) We are doing our best to maintain them. What is suffering at the moment is that we are not able to divert any funds to new activities. We are not developing any new recreational facilities. We are not getting involved in any new initiatives in biodiversity. We are managing to maintain what we have, but we are not funded to deliver any additional outputs in that area at the moment.

  72. When would you intend to restart? Is it simply price dependent?
  (Dr McIntosh) It is simply a funding issue, yes. There are lots of good projects on the stocks but nothing to fund them at the moment.

  73. You are not planning to close any of the existing ones?
  (Dr McIntosh) We are having to look hard at some of our existing facilities on recreation and some of our existing programmes on the biodiversity front. Because of the tight funding nature, it is not impossible that we will have to cut back on some of these.

  74. I have sometimes thought it would be interesting to take one area such as mid-Wales for no particularly good reason, other than the fact that I represent it, and see how high it is in terms of environmental issues and biodiversity and so forth. Accepting that there is a financial issue at present, would you in principle be interested or would you be supportive, for example, of a Welsh initiative to do that kind of an experiment?
  (Dr McIntosh) Yes, that would be quite useful. In a sense we are getting that through the Welsh forestry strategy now. I think there is an agenda coming out that suggests we should be managing the forests in Wales to produce more of the non-market outputs but that comes down to a funding issue.

  75. So yes in principle, subject to finding the funding?
  (Dr McIntosh) Surely.

  76. The Forestry Commission's sixth PSA target is to "submit proposals to Ministers by 31 March 2001 for a more transparent system to improve accountability for public policy decisions on environmental outputs". What does that mean?
  (Mr Bills) It is in hand. We are working up a framework which will make our current processes more transparent. They will be reported on quite openly and also improve our current process. It has yet to go to ministers. I am confident that we will have no difficulty either meeting the deadline or giving a quality outcome.

  77. What was the motivation for doing that?
  (Mr Bills) Again, I think it was a feeling—and I have some sympathy with the Treasury—that this multi-benefit forestry is a very difficult thing to get a grasp on. How do we make the balances? We cannot just use economic measures. Therefore, should just these three gentlemen here decide or should we have a more transparent process?
  (Dr McIntosh) The difficulty of valuing the non-market outputs is a big issue for the Treasury. We can say how much we are spending on producing recreational facilities but what is the value of the output? If 100 million people come and enjoy themselves in our forests, what value do you put on that?
  (Mr Bills) What is one pair of golden eagles worth?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) If we reflect back on the diversification of our objectives over the years, which perhaps goes back to the 1960s and particularly the 1967 and 1968 Countryside Acts, as we have diversified in the range of objectives over the last 30 years government has quite rightly asked us to account for these benefits at various stages. Reflecting back over the last 30 years, this has taken place on a number of occasions. We have made improvements and refinements and improvements in clarification. For example, when Forest Enterprise was set up as an agency, there was a further major improvement in the transparency on how our recreation conservation heritage programmes were funded and the benefits associated with them. We are just moving on to another stage in the sophistication.

  78. If you finish this by the time you have achieved your goal, you will have found some way to quantify the kinds of things, the golden eagles and the recreation element? At least that is what you will try and do?
  (Mr Bills) I think in the strict sense of the word we will not be able to quantify it but we will show a process by which we arrive at a balance. It will be an open process. The forest strategy process is the beginning of that which you see operating in Wales.

Mr Todd

  79. The English Forestry Strategy was published two years ago or so. To what extent was that a book shelf document? To what extent is it clearly aligned in financial and objective terms with what you are doing?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) It is most certainly not a book shelf document. It is very much alive and well. I could follow through a number of areas there. Four key programmes were identified and captured the government's priorities with respect to rural development, economic regeneration, access to recreation and conservation of the environment. We are now working through those programmes and have been building those into the spending review 2000 round with explicit proposals for programmes of work to achieve that plan and performance measures and targets related to that, wherever we can, identifying those areas of resources which will be on balance favouring rural development and those which would be contributing to conservation of the environment.


 
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