Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. This note which I am making you do is becoming more voluminous as we go along. Could you break down your programmes and align them to the goals of the strategy as far as you can? Again, that does not emerge in the documents you have submitted to us. There is going to be a progress report at some stage, we are told. How do you think the progress has gone on?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) It is nearly two years since the strategy was published. There has been a great deal of progress in the context of following up the spirit of the strategy in terms of joined up thinking, coming together with the various departments and agencies to develop agreed programmes. Also, we are making good progress with the England Forestry Forum that the minister set up to seek further advice from a whole cross-section of issues within the Forestry Strategy that needed more attention. That advice will be coming through in a series of working group reports this Christmas. The full fruits for implementation of the England Forestry Strategy have to be seen in the context of the spending review round because that is the first opportunity that the government has had to reflect on the level of funds that ought to be put behind the England Forestry Strategy. We have just been through that process. The outcome of that has been published in the service delivery agreement of the Forestry Commission and we will amplify that further in the corporate plan when it is published next spring.

  81. You have been fairly clearly engaged in the delivery of the strategy and also its ongoing management? You referred to the Forum.
  (Mr Hill-Tout) Absolutely.

Mr Opik

  82. Is the £139 million Woodland Grant Scheme intended to increase the area of woodland in England?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) The money that is quoted there that is in the England Rural Development Plan represents the totality of resources being made available through the England Rural Development Plan, through the Woodland Grant Scheme. That represents in total about a four per cent increase in the level of funding for the Woodland Grant scheme for 1999/2000, the last financial year. I do not expect to see any increase in the area of planting taking place, but we are progressing through the strategy with a very rigorous process of targeting so that within our fairly modestly increasing pot of money we hope to be making more progress on key strategy priorities such as increasing access close to major urban areas, making more progress on native woodlands and safeguarding ancient, semi-natural woodlands and making progress on regenerating brownfield land areas.

  83. The Woodland Trust described it as a modest settlement. I think that is what Dr McIntosh said. It does sound as if this is only enough to maintain the current provision with a few modest improvements. Is that a fair assessment?
  (Mr Bills) Again, it is all tied to the timber price. If you look at the additional resources that the Treasury has pumped in over the last couple of years, they can feel virtuous. Unfortunately, it has only allowed us to keep our head above water with existing programmes so it is very important that we retarget those to reflect the strategy. In the next few years, there is this slight increase through modulation and a few other things which allow us another four per cent increase. Yes, it is disappointing. The timber price issue is slowing down our progress in implementing the English Forest Strategy and it could do so in the other countries.

  84. In terms of its complexity, what is your assessment of the amount of discretionary elements in the Woodland Grant Scheme? Have you had any feedback on that?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) We launched the discretionary approach to the Woodland Grant Scheme in January of this year after a lengthy consultation process in which we reflected the strategy with a scoring system which could be applied to any scheme, any application, anywhere in the country. We have now had the benefit of two rounds of that. The results have been very encouraging. We have remained roughly level pegging in terms of the total area of planting applied for, about 5,000 hectares in England, but we have seen a 25 to 30 per cent reduction in the number of applications to achieve that and an increase from three hectares to five hectares as the average scheme size. We have also seen a much improved orientation of the applications to the priorities set out in the England Forestry Strategy. We have more work to do but it has been an encouraging start. We have found a positive response from land owners.

  85. Have you had any feedback about the level of bureaucracy involved in making applications?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) In the original consultation we did, but I personally have not received a single letter in the ten months that have gone by since the launch from any dissatisfied agent or applicant expressing this problem. However, I do recognise that that is only one part of our grant scheme package. We are going through a transition at the moment where we have quite a range of grant schemes evolved for various different purposes. It is potentially confusing and complicating and we are trying to align them over a phased period of a couple of years so they all point in the direction of the England Forestry Strategy and there is a very clear framework within the strategy for land owners to engage.

  86. Is that what the review is about as well?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) We have a review on three fronts at the moment. First of all, we have a review at Great Britain level, looking at the whole administrative processes around the Woodland Grant Scheme, seeking to remove wherever we can what has now been coined as green tape that could get in the way of land owners engaging profitably in the schemes. We also will have a review of the discretionary arrangements during the winter period before we announce any refinements for next year. We are planning to extend this approach to the way we support the management of existing woodlands, which is our next phase. We announced the intention to do that back at the timber growers' conference in September. That will be taken through over the next 12 months and we hope to introduce a discretionary approach in about 12 months' time for existing woodlands.
  (Mr Bills) The delivery of the administrative review is one of our core functions. Over time, as you know, when we first introduced electronic information systems, we redid the paper based systems. We are having a fundamental relook at that to see if it can be engineered better. We have brought in outside consultants to do that. This review that Paul is doing about the nature of the grants in England will also be reflected by a similar exercise that will follow in Wales once the strategy has been put to bed. That strategy will define what it is that people in Wales want and will tailor that grant system therefore to fit it.

  87. Are you making a comparison in that review of what you are doing compared to the alternative of having a set of very discretely separated, specific projects rather than the larger strategy?
  (Mr Bills) They have come in with a blank sheet of paper and they are looking at all kinds of ways of doing it. There could be country based offices; there could be just one office. All of those things are being considered. This review is due to report mid-next year.

  88. Lastly, why do applications have to be approved by MAFF as well?
  (Mr Bills) This is when the Farm Woodland Premium Scheme is involved. We are in a sense piggy-backing our grant on top of that. The FWPS is about offsets and they apply that kind of scheme in a non-forested situation too; whereas our money is about the United Kingdom forest standard and the establishment and management of that forest. There is an argument to say it should all be brought under the one but clearly MAFF has the expertise in these income replacement type schemes.

  89. It is because the fund comes from two places?
  (Mr Bills) Yes.
  (Mr Hill-Tout) It is a good example of joined up thinking where two policy themes are coming together to a wider purpose. We would not be able to progress the government's forestry policy objectives if MAFF had not aligned the Farm Woodland Premium Scheme with the Woodland Grant Scheme and said that they would only pay that if somebody had an improved WGS. We have a very high proportion of Woodland Grant Schemes which are dependent on FWPS funding.

  Mr Opik: You could say that the Prime Minister could find joined up thinking by taking a walk in the woods.


  90. That does not mean that you could not dish it out from one source, does it?
  (Mr Bills) That is true.

  91. There are places with equally better regulation task forces.
  (Mr Bills) We are a paying agency for European funds as of course are MAFF. We recognise that problem. We had a review two or three years ago to make it a much more one stop shop, and we will be having a review soon, particularly in the light of RDP and what it all means, to see if we can streamline these things further.

  92. What is the average time from application to approval?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) I could not give you the answer on the average time but we do have a charter standard. We are looking in the new spending round arrangements for 85 per cent of our schemes to go through the various processes in 11 weeks.

  93. From approval to payment? How does that work?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) It might be best if I provide another note on that because it is going through a process of change tied in with the new discretionary arrangements.

  94. Can we look at Forest Research now, please? You reviewed 18 months ago or two years ago. A review group was concerned that too wide a range of subjects was being tackled with too few resources and it recommended greater collaboration with other researchers. Forest Research said it is taking this forward but that a lot of the research is in response to pests and diseases which cannot be ignored. Have all the possible collaborators been identified? Are there opportunities to subcontract elements of those research projects?
  (Mr Bills) First of all, we have gone through a process of streamlining as a result and there are certain things we have decided we are not going to do or we are going to do less of. We have taken part in these NERC fora and we are collaborating and doing joint ventures or actually saying, "We are not going to do this. Are you doing this?" All this has been done against a funding reduction of about £1 million, about ten per cent of Forest Research over the last four years.

  95. Are you looking to increase commercial income from people other than your customers?
  (Mr Bills) When I first came I set an objective of 15 per cent for external funding and for a variety of reasons that has not been able to be achieved. We are now aiming to do ten per cent and I think we are about eight per cent at the moment. One of the problems with Forest Research is it tends to be long term and strategic. The logical partners in that sort of area tend to be Europe funding and we do quite well there. I think it is fair to say I have been a little disappointed that we have been unable to do better with the more applied research, for example, that might be of immediate benefit to the wood processing industry or the forest management companies. They have been unwilling or unable—there have been tough times of course—to make the sort of contributions that I had hoped they would towards this research.

  96. Have you reflected on why or have you any remedial action which might address that?
  (Mr Bills) Yes. We have the Forestry Commission Advisory Panel which has a research subcommittee which is really looking at research programmes which would be of relevance and that is at the same time trying to attract external funding. When we reflect why, they are often quite small firms involved in this business. It is a disparate sort of processing industry and they often see this as long term, strategic research with no immediate return to the shareholder.

  97. Future targets will be our last main chunk of questioning, which takes us back to this wonderful Service Delivery Agreement published earlier this month. Were you consulted over your key performance targets?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) We provided drafts on both performance measures and the key performance targets which were then discussed with the Treasury and settled in the light of the funding that they were able to make available.

  98. What happens is that you suggest what they should bind you to do and then there is a negotiation as to what extent they think they can reach it?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) Yes.

  99. In that sense, it must be achievable, I assume?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) That is what our intention is.

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