Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good morning. Mr Astling is the Chairman and Miss Bell is the Chief Executive of the National Forest Company. I notice in your briefing you gave us you keep referring to a modern forest. What do modern forests do which other sorts of forests do not do?

  (Miss Bell) In essence they revert to the very old forests. We have grown rather used to wall-to-wall trees probably grown strictly for their timber, whereas what the National Forest is doing will be a variety of land uses including forestry but it will be working forest, it is not just there for a pretty face, it is actually going to be a working forest, albeit intermingled with other land use, perhaps in the way the old New Forest is.

  2. When I looked at your aims and objectives when you were first created, and I saw this great long list of all the things you had to do, it rather put me in mind of a Ministry of Defence specification for new aircraft—high level bombing, reconnaissance, support of ground troops, vertical take off and landing and it makes the tea as well! I did rather get the impression you had this enormous—one is tempted to say—Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. Do you feel those objectives were perhaps just a bit too disparate and diverse? Do they always work together? Were they one of the reasons why you then had to come up with what was coyly described as "more realistic targets" by which we mean "lesser targets"?
  (Miss Bell) I think it is genuinely a multi-purpose forest and some of those things are the result of the primary object which is to create a forest. That is our prime concern, to plant trees and create this forest. Out of that come a stream of public benefits providing it is done in a certain way. We also work with a very wide range of partners, and that was the way the company was set up. It does not have many powers to do what it wants to do, so it has to work with partners and therefore a lot of those other public benefits can come through those partnership workings, but we do keep all those objectives in mind in all of our work.

  3. Do you think it is because of the range of objectives that you are a non-departmental public body as opposed to a business?
  (Miss Bell) Yes, I think it is.[1] When the Countryside Commission, as it then was, first suggested the forest, at that point when we were doing the development stage we were actually part of the Countryside Agency. At the end of that stage, when we started to think about implementation, it was very clear that we might just as easily have been a part of the Forestry Commission, a part of the Rural Development Agency, a part of the Countryside Agency. We actually had a remit which fell within all those things. So it was better to make it into a separate organisation encompassing that wide remit but with a single purpose of creating this forest.

Mr Jack

  4. By way of background, in 1994 on 24 September there was an article I think in the New Scientist, in which you said, "Mining will continue to be a major activity within the forest", and you went on to say, "The case for development is certainly strengthened if the developer can show a benefit to the National Forest." Can you fill us in on some of the milestone changes which have occurred since you made this statement which was said to have depressed everybody?
  (Miss Bell) I think it was a statement of fact. There were an awful lot of mineral applications which were already in the pipeline. We have three major mineral works in the forest, we have coal and clay running through the coalfield, many of which at the time were still working. The last deep mine closed in 1990 but there was a great deal of open casting still going on and still is, not as much as there was of course but it still is. Also in the Trent Valley, you have sand and gravel extraction, that continues, we have a lot of existing permissions still going on; and over in Charnwood we have hard rock quarrying, and that again is a long-term business and that is still carrying on. We see opportunities out of that because as the land gets restored, as the quarrying or mining finishes, there are greater opportunities for the forest. But it is a fact of life, there are a lot of minerals there and they are still being worked.

Patrick Hall

  5. I have looked at the Annual Report but have not read every word, and for me it would have been helpful to have a map. You probably have published them before but if you have one here it would be helpful. I have looked at the material but I am not quite sure whether we are talking about 200 square miles which it is intended should all be planted up as woodland/forest, or 200 square miles which is the area of interest within which you are going to have some additional woodland but also all the existing uses side by side. What is it exactly? What is the territory?
  (Miss Bell) It is 200 square miles encompassed by the National Forest boundary, within which about a third will be planted with trees. We started with 6 per cent and it is to be increased to about a third.

David Taylor

  6. The first strategy which was published in 1994 and the target period starting the following April 1995 envisaged that over the then ensuing ten years about 36 square miles would be planted, ie about 3.6 square miles a year. That was fairly speedily reduced to a figure of about 2 square miles a year, which is about 1 per cent of the 200 square miles. I wonder whether you care to comment on that reduction. Are you on target for that revised figure? Could it indeed be increased at all?
  (Mr Astling) The original figures were somewhat optimistic and I do not think bore in mind a sensitive balance between what we could do realistically without distorting the land market. Actually we have probably got now, after seven years, to a target of around 500 hectares, which we think is a comfortable amount for the company to achieve, properly resourced now by our parent Department. Also when we advertise the tender scheme every year it is a challenge fund and we have applicants in of which we can still turn down a certain number which we feel are not good value for public money. So we have got to an equilibrium now between how quickly we should go and how effective we should be in terms of creating the forest. That has meant, as you rightly say, perhaps slower progress than was originally identified, but I think the practice of the matter is that we have an appropriate pace of change. It is still very substantial landscape change, 2 square miles a year is a lot of land being converted from one activity to another every single year.

  7. Mark can speak for himself but I think the local and regional marketing of the National Forest is very effective. Are you happy with the national marketing? I cite, Chairman, one or two articles recently in the national press, one specifically in the Mail on Sunday about ten days ago, which was talking about and describing the reforestation of Britain and England in particular, and the levels of forestry now compared with those over the centuries, with a large map of all sorts of major schemes, quite a large page of text, but the map did not show the forest and the text did not refer to the National Forest. Is this a symptom that the marketing could be and should be improved?
  (Miss Bell) Yes, that was extremely disappointing. We have in fact had some very major features in the national press over the years. That was not. I believe the briefing came from the Forestry Commission for that particular piece. We would welcome it very much if other bodies, particularly those we consider our partner bodies in the National Forest, were to help us with that ambassadorial role.

Mr Mitchell

  8. Did the paper get in touch with you?
  (Miss Bell) No.


  9. Do you think your partners may wish they were doing the job or rather resent your being set up? Tell us what you think about this.
  (Miss Bell) I think the relationship particularly with the Forestry Commission has grown over the years, there is no doubt about that. I do not know how they felt about it at the beginning but it was a Countryside Commission initiative at the beginning. Our relationship with the Forestry Commission has grown enormously and they are helping now to purchase land and develop land in their own right which I think will give them a greater sense of ownership of the project.

  10. So by getting closer you mean you would say at the beginning the partnership arrangement was a difficult one to make work in practice, or people could not see why you were doing it and not them?
  (Miss Bell) I think there was not the same sense of involvement by the Forestry Commission at the very beginning as there is now.
  (Mr Astling) We were set up as a single purpose body and I think there is a sense that other people looked at that 200 square miles which got missed off the map as "ours" and not "theirs". I think over the years we have gradually come much closer together with the Forestry Commission, we have signed a concordat with them earlier this year, where we have a whole series of areas of joint working with them, but there are other national bodies which still regard the 200 square miles as something which someone has got a budget to do things in and not them.

Patrick Hall

  11. To make progress you have obviously to persuade and cajole all sorts of people because it is a multi-use area, but let us just look at the Forestry Commission a bit more. Come on! Let's be honest, the Forestry Commission is known, certainly in the past, for being a very harsh and narrowly-based organisation, not just in the way they have planted and the physical appearance of it but its attitude to biodiversity and public access, and it must be rather a difficult organisation to work with. Are there genuine signs, not because you have to say so here—or think you have to say it here—of making the Forestry Commission relax with regard to their operations where they affect you?
  (Miss Bell) I do not think it is an organisation that is perhaps as well rehearsed in partnership working as some others. On the other hand, I think now you have the England Forestry Strategy, that has helped them enormously to widen their own thinking. There are certain aspects, particularly in terms of land reclamation, where our interests definitely come together. There is a growing interest in the Forestry Commission on the utilisation of forestry to reclaim mineral land and so forth. Increasingly I think they have adopted the sort of approach we have been using in the National Forest through the England Forestry Strategy, so I think there is a change of culture.

  12. Is there some evidence of change of practice in terms of biodiversity in some of their activities and plans in the way they manage their woodland?
  (Miss Bell) There certainly is with the woodlands they have planted in the National Forest. We have worked very closely with them in drawing up the designs for their land, and there are all sorts of things we are trying, including exemplar woodland for commercial cropping such as coppicing and so forth. We have just recently planted with them perhaps the largest walnut plantation in the country. That is interesting, it is going to have some interesting research based on it and so forth. There will also be the biodiversity element which we of course insist on in our woodlands because we have a Biodiversity Action Plan we have drawn up in which there are some quite steep targets to meet, so we will be looking to all our partners to help on that, including the Forestry Commission.

  Chairman: One of the great beneficiaries of climate change is the walnut. Everybody is planting walnuts.

Mr Jack

  13. Can I ask about the credibility of your estimates? If you take the cumulative position between 1995-1996 and to date, you are 639 hectares behindhand. There was one heroic year, 1997-98, where you lost 366 hectares. Now you have your figure to 500, does that incorporate an element of catch-up in it? Convince me that you have got it right, because the track record of forecasting so far has not been terribly good in terms of your performance against your targets.
  (Miss Bell) I think the track record of planting is probably better than the track record of forecasting. There are limitations. We do not, as I say, have any power to make this happen, we have to persuade other people to help, and that includes the private landowner and farmer. The private farmers are now coming in in much greater numbers than they did at the beginning through the Tender Scheme. That has made a fundamental difference. I think the other fundamental difference is that we are now able as a company to purchase land in our own right. We have always had that power but because of our policy surrounding that it was always rather difficult for us to do, which meant we had to persuade other partners to buy land, and we were running out of partners. Now we are able to do it for ourselves, not with a view to owning it in the very long term but to get the land, get it developed and move on. There are different mechanisms at our disposal now.

  14. If I was a landowner in an area covered by the National Forest, how would I know you were looking to use my land? What mechanisms do you use?
  (Miss Bell) We use a number of different mechanisms. First of all, obviously, we talk a lot with their advisers. We also have a document called Land File, which goes out to all farmers in the area, and we got those lists from the then MAFF. They regularly get Land File, reminding them there are a number of options at their disposal, one is land sale, one is the Tender Scheme, and we describe the Tender Scheme, and we have also formed a Tender Scheme Club for all those winners—and there are now 80 or 90 of them—and they themselves act as ambassadors, because the people who tend to come into the Tender Scheme very often have either seen somebody doing it, over the hedge if you like, or have talked to fellow farmers. That is really what is turning them on to the scheme. We also hold seminars of all sorts and days out. We do a lot with the farming community and, of course, through NFU and the CLA.

Mr Todd

  15. The difficulty in meeting the original targets, the revision downwards and the expected achievement each year, does indicate the life of the company—since its purpose is a single objective—will be extended beyond that originally forecast, and that the public expenditure implications of the company's programme are likely to be greater than originally set out. Is that reasonable?
  (Mr Astling) I think the theory of that is reasonable. I understand there was no deadline originally—

  16. There was a 30 year expected life, or at least it was expected it would take 30 years to reach the goal of a third afforestation originally.
  (Mr Astling) But there were also hints, when the first estimates were made, of other incentives for forestry creation which then did not come to pass. So effectively the parameters on which the original guesstimates were made changed quite radically.

  17. So the original proposal assumed you would not be the single club in the bag to achieve afforestation in that area, and that there would be other measures?
  (Mr Astling) There would be others, and I think at least one of the others did not appear.

  18. Which was that?
  (Mr Astling) There was talk of some tax incentive scheme at the time, and that did not get very far. Therefore we were forced back on to the Tender Scheme and it is that which has been the principal mains of creating the forest. Actually, if you look at the figures, the difference between us achieving our target and not achieving our target in the last three years has been land acquisition. We have taken a different view on land acquisition recently and our sponsor Department has, and we have a retained agent in the area now who gives us advice right across the board about land values and the land markets so we are able to buy prudently without risking distortion of the land market.

  19. David asked this question but I was not quite clear there was an absolutely definite answer to it. It was the new target which you produced in your 1997 plan which suggested you would reach 53 per cent of the original target by the end of the first ten years. Is that based on your expectation? Is that reasonable now, based on your experience recently?
  (Miss Bell) I think that actually depends on us maintaining this 500 hectares a year.

1   See Further Supplementary Memorandum, p. Ev21. Back

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