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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Which logically is going to get harder, is it not?
  (Miss Bell) We do not quite know when that is going to happen. At the moment we have actually upped our targets for this year, we have voluntarily upped our target this year by 75 hectares because we had a very good Tender Scheme.

  21. Achieving the Tender Scheme target will be dependent on continued agricultural depression essentially, when farmers say, "Actually this is probably the best deal I can get for this particular relatively marginal piece of land." I recognise in the first period of the forest a lot of unusable pieces of land from old clay workings were developed, and we have certainly seem some genuinely marginal farmland of some quality put into the Tender Scheme recently, but presumably if and when we get an upturn in the agricultural economy farmers are less likely to put that sort of land into play, and it will become more expensive to achieve the targets you set. That is logical, is it not?
  (Miss Bell) It will certainly become more expensive, but I think motives for entering the scheme are rather more varied than just economics alone. Economics certainly play a part, of course they do, we are talking to businessmen here, but they also take into account the succession on a farm, whether their offspring want to take it on, whether they want to stay on the land, whether they want to diversify their business anyway. So there are sorts of things which they take into account apart from just straight economics. Certainly the economics play a part in the bid price they put into us.

Mr Mitchell

  22. I wonder if you have put this emphasis on partnership and consultation because you are not really powerful enough and are dependent on other partners?
  (Mr Astling) This is actually a great strength, the fact we are voluntary. Effectively we are just a company limited by guarantee. We do not have any hold over anybody. Everything we do is by negotiation and by agreement.

  23. That gives a power to the partners to dictate what they will accept and what they will not. I do not see why a weakness is a strength.
  (Mr Astling) The truth of the matter is, by and large, when we started some of the key partners, for example the local authorities, were very keen we should be set up in their area. They have been kept on board very strongly with the forest, and we had a meeting with them only the other day and they were almost saying to us, "Because of your track record, you have the ability to be almost a neutral facilitator between us." That would never have happened if we had been parachuted in with statutory powers as it were. It is because there was a long process of working with them and reaching consensus and then saying, "These are people we can do business with", and I think strength has been gained because everybody knows they can walk away from the table if they want to.
  (Miss Bell) Another thing we perhaps could have had in terms of powers was compulsory purchase powers. That would have absolutely gone against the grain. It would have antagonised people very strongly.

  24. If you exercise consultation though. It is a reserve power and you would not exercise it in a pre-emptory fashion. You would consult and then, if you cannot get anywhere, act.
  (Miss Bell) But at the moment we are getting somewhere and I think it would be a very unfortunate power to have. It would be perceived as being very threatening. One of the first jobs we had to do when we went into the area was to reassure people that those were just not the sort of powers we were going to have to implement.

  25. Does having non-departmental public body status affect your ability to form partnerships?
  (Miss Bell) I really do not think it does either on the public or the private side. It is a very great strength that we have company status because we are perceived as being a business by other businesses. We are an organisation with a face and a recognisable entity which people can do business with. The fact we are sponsored by a government department is a strength, I do not think it is perceived as being in any way threatening.

  26. Let me ask you about the partnership with the Forestry Commission. That is a Big Brother partnership, is it not? I get the impression you are there tugging at his trouser knee, pleading. You mentioned a concordat with the Forestry Commission for joint working, is my picture of the relationship an accurate one and what has happened to the concordat?
  (Miss Bell) We have tried very, very hard over many years to get the Forestry Commission more deeply involved in the National Forest, mainly through land purchase and development. I think they do have a bigger role to play than they have up to now.

  27. Have you worked successfully?
  (Miss Bell) The major curb on their activities now is money. They simply do not have the money to spend to buy the land and develop it. That is the major restriction. I do not think it is an attitudinal one now.

  28. Have you agreed the terms of the concordat?
  (Miss Bell) Yes. I actually have a copy which I am happy to leave here. It is a broad concordat covering three years and there is an annual one within that which includes land purchase.
  (Mr Astling) It also covers some other issues we perhaps have not been very strong on like the training issue. Our assets are now in the ground and what we need to ensure is that our Tender Scheme owners, our farmers, have the right skills to nurture the crop and manage that well. That is where a new opportunity has come with the Forestry Commission saying, "Help us with widening the training opportunities in the area so we have very high quality timber in the long run."

  29. Are they changing under your persuasion then?
  (Mr Astling) I have only been involved in this for a couple of years and it seems to me over that 2½ years they have changed culturally very substantially, and they see things that we do and other people do as being the sort of things which perhaps they ought to have been doing in the past—community involvement, corporate involvement, actually getting corporate sponsors to help you. The walnut wood is sponsored by Jaguar Cars because they use walnut in their product. Those are the sort of things which have been rather alien to the Forestry Commission, but I think they now see there is a lot of mileage here.


  30. As does Jaguar!
  (Mr Astling) Absolutely, why not. Everybody wins.

Mr Mitchell

  31. I am delighted to hear that. I have always regarded the Forestry Commission as a new brutalism. They are changing by example or by persuasion?
  (Mr Astling) Probably a bit of both. I do think there is still some way to go with them. They have a huge organisation and everybody needs to be buying into the cultural change and I am not sure that is happening right across the board, but the people we are dealing with are getting better and better at understanding how we operate. If you were to have the Forestry Commission here I think they would say about us that perhaps we were a bit of an irritant originally but we are now seen as a partner which punches probably slightly above its weight for what it does.

  32. Is the concordat going to speed up the planting?
  (Mr Astling) No, I do not think it is. It would have done. One of the partner concordats is to seek other grants and funding regimes, and we have recently put in for a capital modernisation fund with the Forestry Commission, and that we understand has not been successful. That would have sped up the planting. We have talked to them about land acquisition and that is helpful because if they are part of the land acquisition partnership then we have an end product and they will take it off our hands eventually.

  33. I can see the partnership is going to be a full-time job because you have some hefty contact names with organisations. Let me ask about local authorities, what partnerships have you formed with local authorities in the area? Are you happy with them?
  (Miss Bell) Yes. They vary. There are some local authorities who have a very great interest in the forest, notably the coalfield ones, because so much has been able to be achieved in the coalfield as a result of the forest. It has formed the focus for a number of Single Regeneration Budget bids, for example. RECHAR money, of course, was attracted in from Europe, so we were able to go into partnership to put bidding in for that external funding to make a real difference in those local authorities. We are also seen to be a major attractor for new quality businesses, and that is again particularly true in the coalfield. Independent research some ten years ago in the Ashby Wolds area, for example, said that first of all any industry which was attracted to the area—and this was immediately after the mines closed—would be of the lowest quality, it would be warehousing, distribution and scrap yards and so forth, whereas in fact because the quality of the environment has improved so much and so much investment has been put it, we are now attracting quite a different quality of new business. Also new housing is coming into that area, which again was just not on the cards. It is also forming the centre of a major tourism hub for the forest, for this major new Conkers development, which was again absolutely unthinkable ten years ago. So those particular local authorities have gained an awful lot from having the forest there and are very active partners in the forest. Some of the more peripheral ones we have good relations with but perhaps they are not quite so active.

  34. There are some which are laggard?
  (Miss Bell) I would not say they are laggard, but we do not work on as many projects with them. We do work with them but perhaps it is not as active as some others.
  (Mr Astling) There are some authorities where only a small part of their area is within the 200 square miles. For example, Lichfield. The first thing which Lichfield would say is, "Can you alter your boundaries? We want more of us to be in the National Forest." North West Leicestershire, South Derbyshire, they are major areas, and East Staffordshire, those three authorities have major parts of their local authority area within the forest, and obviously you would expect us to do much more business with them than with Hinckley, Bosworth, Charnwood and Lichfield, for example.

Patrick Hall

  35. The statutory land use planning process is very important to the local authorities, so we have County Structure Plans, District Local Plans and we have development control. What changes in designation have you persuaded local authorities to make to their structure and local plans in the last ten years? Following that, have you managed to persuade the local authorities in the area to obtain real planning gain for goals underpinning the National Forest through legal agreements with developers?
  (Miss Bell) If we go back to the beginning, one of the first things we did in the development phase—and this was before the company was formed and was written into the National Forest Strategy—was to form a planning technical working group with senior members of the planning departments of all the local authorities. From that we managed to get written into all the development plans policies for the forest. It is important those policies do not just say, "The forest is a good thing, we welcome it" but it actually made things happen in the forest. Out of that came a series of planting guidelines as to what would be expected for new development to provide for the forest as it came in. Of course that then has to be implemented, so we have the uniform policies, but the actual implementation tends to be a bit mixed. Some authorities are very much better than others at implementing it. Again it tends to be those two core ones which tend to do the most. We still have a great deal to do to persuade some of the others to do more.

  36. Is the National Forest Company consulted on a voluntary basis by the local planning authorities?
  (Miss Bell) It certainly is on most of the major developments, but not all. We have had some very major ones, for example in East Staffordshire recently, where we were not and there is not a tree in sight along the A38. Quite a lot of the local authorities are obviously extremely keen to attract new businesses into their area and anything which they see which might be a deterrent, like having to provide extra planning gain, for example, they may be a little wary of. That is something we have to persuade them otherwise about, but there are sums coming forward and there is planting.

  37. You have just said that one of the successes you have had in persuading local authorities to be on board is that they understand that there are business, tourist and economic advantages from being designated or part-designated the National Forest. So when it comes to actual investment and building taking place, why is it then seen as a cost they would rather avoid, or rather not impose on developers? Surely there is some conflict here?
  (Miss Bell) There may well be different people dealing with it in different organisations who perceive it differently.

  38. Have you got evidence of good practice where you have managed to get a quantum of land use, forest planting or whatever, which would not otherwise have been achieved in the area?
  (Miss Bell) Yes, we do.
  (Mr Astling) We did produce about 18 months ago with the local authorities a guide for developers, and this is broadly examples in the forest, although one or two outside, showing how they can get forest benefits in the planning process. We have most people signed up to that. As Susan was saying, the truth of the matter is that most of the authorities, most of the time, are pretty good. On occasions, there is an example of something which slips through and we are not very happy with it and we make our position publicly quite clear on that.

  39. Are you able to, or can you afford to, top up a private developer's proposal, through legal agreement or otherwise, so that they put in not just the landscaping which is usually not very good but something which might contribute to a linear planting development with links through to other woodlands? If it is at the margins, are you able to say, "Come on, we will chuck in £10,000" or something like that? Can you ease the machinery with funds?
  (Miss Bell) No. In fact, if anything, that is not what we would wish to do because we have other ways of spending funds and we would expect the developers themselves to make that contribution. In fact, as part of the planning obligation or condition they cannot use the Tender Scheme either; once there is a planning application they cannot draw down money from the Tender Scheme to fulfil it, that is up to the developers. It is, after all, planning gain.

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