Examination of witnesses (Questions 80
WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER
and DR BOB
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.
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
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
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
(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
92. What is the average time from application
(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
(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
unablethere have been tough times of courseto make
the sort of contributions that I had hoped they would towards
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
(Mr Hill-Tout) That is what our intention is.