Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 5 DECEMBER 2001
40. In the spirit of partnership, you produced
your annual corporate plan which your briefing to us says is "presented
to the relevant minister each summer". How often do you sit
down with ministers to review progress, objectives and the plan?
(Mr Astling) We sit down once a year with ministers.
We might see them informally during the course of the year but
we actually have a formal meeting once a year with our minister
or ministers and go through the performance of last year and our
objectives for the coming year.
41. You have politely suggested the record on
planning is patchy, which certainly in my experience it is. There
are two difficulties. One is that you are not a formal planning
consultee and there is a voluntary process. Would it assist if
the local authorities in the area were advised you should be a
(Miss Bell) I think within reason. If we were a formal
consultee on every application which came in, we would be absolutely
swamped, so there would have to be a de minimis, I think.
I think we would wish to be, yes, I think it would be helpful.
42. You referred to one of the big lacunae,
which is the awful stuff on the railways around the A38, which
some of my constituents have to look over the river at, and that
gives an example of a bleak outlook which can be created by not
having proper consultation. The second element is that you have
touched on the process of minerals planning and rightly referred
to the fact that there were a lot of outstanding mineral exploitation
permissions in the area when you were founded. However I think
it is fair to say that you have actively participated in some
new projects which have certainly caused some concern about the
apparent conflict of purpose in generating open cast and landfill
activity which may in due course in ten or 20 years' time produce
some trees. Those are new applications as opposed to old ones
which had to be worked out somehow. How have you squared that
(Miss Bell) I think you are referring to our membership
of the Ashby Wolds Regeneration Forum, which is a forum of mineral
land owners, local people, local authorities, ourselves, people
with an interest in the area, who tried to come together to formulate
an overall strategy for this area. I think 25 per cent of the
mining dereliction in the whole of Leicestershire was concentrated
in this one parish. These people came together, including us,
to draw up a strategy whereby there would be some gains and some
losses. There would inevitably be some new open cast which would
not be objected to in order to fund other things which the community
wanted. We are a member of that as we are with many of these local
partnerships. I think overall the strategy has been very successful,
inevitably there has been controversy about certain aspects of
it, including one particular site which was new open cast and
subsequent landfill which is always controversial.
43. Which many have argued does not entirely
fit the planned purpose of the forest, since it produces a large
new hole in the ground and there is 20 years of rubbish going
into it before you see a tree on the site. So the planning judgment
you are having to make is one which involves significant trade-offs
and is not driven by the single purpose of tree generation, is
(Miss Bell) Yes, and we are always very careful to
tread the line. We do not actually propose or oppose particular
applications coming forward, and we did not in that case. We were
a member of a forum which came to that conclusion that that was
the way they wanted to go forward. As a company, we only object
if there are particular aspects of it to do with the National
Forest. If, for example, any building development was going to
cut a swathe through ancient and semi-natural woodland, we would
obviously have something to say on that subject, but on the whole
we tend not to object or propose.
44. I hope I have not missed this question because
I was slightly late this morning, for which I apologise, but can
you tell us how many local authorities there are in the area?
Have you already said this?
(Miss Bell) No. There are three counties and six districts.
We also bestride, now, two regions.
45. I think that this is interesting for the
Committee in terms of the load that it puts on yourselves. I was
struck by what you said about not wanting to look at all the planning
permissions because this would be a burden that you could not
cope with. I would like to ask you if, in your experience, this
requirement for partnerships, which is obviously necessary, is
getting pretty difficult to satisfy as you go on? Your primary
task, I assume, is to build the Forest. The interaction with the
local authorities and all the other bodies must be fairly time-consuming.
How many other bodies are there as well? You said three counties,
six districts and two regions.
(Miss Bell) Plus the statutory bodies.
(Mr Astling) Two government offices.
46. Quite a lot of parishes.
(Mr Astling) Parishes. You could not count them. It
is just impossible. It is as complex as any area which has parts
of three counties.
47. Exactly so.
(Miss Bell) We actually hold a forum about every 18
months for all the people that we work with, and there will be
about 250-270 people there.
48. You cannot have a discussion with 250 people.
I think most people here, from their experience, would agree that
is hugely difficult. You have obviously made every effort and
it is very important to move forward as quickly as you can with
all these fellow-players. I think, really, the burden of my question
is: is it over-heavy compared with the primary task by which you
will be judged, which is the number of trees that are planted?
(Miss Bell) Yes.
49. Do say, because it is quite useful ammunition
for you and us, if it is a bit heavy with the staff involved.
(Mr Astling) We have enumerated the number of statutory
local authority side and there are nine. One of the issues we
have is that a lot of those bodies outside the statutory side
want to look at specific issues. For example, a lot of the voluntary
bodies, such as the Ramblers', only want to look at walking in
the Forest; the cyclists only want to look at cycling, but they
are very important to us. What we have done to engage with them
is not to call them into the Royal Albert Hall and have a big
meeting with them but split ourselves into subject groups. We
have each of our board directors chairing a group of people having
specialist interest. For example, we have a tourism group and
all the tourist bodies come to that, and we have a sport, access
and recreation group and all the bodies concerned come to that.
There are some that are commonthe local authorities do
come to most. We have a nature conservation group where all the
wildlife people come. So we actually divide ourselves up and we
have a mini-committee structure to ensure that we continually
have a dialogue with the people who we think are important that
we carry with us, and we have some mechanism to listen to them.
It is dividing them up into these subject areas that makes it
all manageable. A lot of those bodies, no matter how rational
one might be, you could not do away with. There are voluntary
bodies and they are not the sorts of things that statutory tidying-up
can deal with. They are part of the life-blood of the Forest.
50. So the answer, really, is that it is quite
heavy but you see no way round it.
(Mr Astling) We have tried to put together, with the
other local authorities, right across the Forest area, a sub-regional
structure. So we have a kind of bidding mechanism, largely as
a result of one of the RDAs saying "Would it not be nice
if all areas within our wider region got together into sub-regions".
I think there is some prospect that for certain purposes that
might come together right across the Forest, with the three counties
and the six districts and, perhaps one or two other bodies. That
could tidy-up some of the issues. For example, when we want to
discuss transport you need all those people involved. We have
not got a group to discuss transport at the moment on a standing
basis, but there may be specific topics which that sort of sub-regional
structure can take on board.
51. If we look at tendering, which I found fascinating,
can you try and explain to us your experience of how it works
and some of the problems?
(Miss Bell) In essence, we have a lump sum each year
which is the bulk of our grant-in-aid. At the moment that stands
at about £2 million. That gets put on the table each year,
into which all kinds of prospective tenderers can bid. They can
be existing landowners or they can even use the tender scheme
to purchase land in order to develop it for Forest purposes. It
is, in essence, a woodland creation scheme but it can also encompass
all sorts of other things. At least 50 per cent of the scheme
has to be new planting, because obviously that is what we are
aboutthe creation of the Forest. The rest, however, can
be all sorts of things; it can be lakes and ponds, for example,
that can either be used as fishing lakes or for nature conservation,
or whatever. It can be other nature conservation habitats. It
can also include some existing woodland. We are very keen to get
existing woodland back into management. So that other 50 per cent
of the site can encompass whatever the particular landowneror
hopeful landownerwishes to put into the scheme. It is enormously
varied, enormously flexible. There are certain rules, guidelines,
obviously, that we give as to what we want to see coming out of
these schemes. At the moment, it is open to public landholders,
the public sector, private sector, voluntary sector and charitable
bodies. So, for example, the Woodland Trust has been quite an
active participant in the tender scheme. So a wide range of landowners.
They put in a bid to us initially, they describe the project and
then later, they put in a bid price for that project. First of
all, it goes to the Forestry Commission so that the woodland element
conforms to the Woodland Grant Scheme. They all have to be dependent
on that and go through that scrutiny. Then, once they have been
through that, it comes to our board to decide which of them offer
the best schemes and the best value for moneynot necessarily
the cheapest schemes but those that offer the best value for money.
What, in essence, the landowner is getting is what they ask for;
what they say they need to fulfil the scheme that they describe.
They then enter a 25-year contract with us to fulfil that scheme.
52. Can you give us a feel for some numbers
rather than money? What sort of numbers would you be dealing with
every year? I know we have got some figures but if we could just
get a ballpark figure. Also, how many of those tend to be farmers?
Presumably we are talking, mainly, about new planting and, of
course, some farmers may have existing schemes.
(Miss Bell) Usually, about 24/25 entries a year and
about three-quarters of those will actually win their schemes.
Farmers started to come in in a big way in year 3 and 4 of the
scheme. Before that it was mainly local authorities, The Woodland
Trust and so forth and other public sector bodies. Round about
year 3 and 4 it is the landowners, essentially, coming in. In
terms of land, I think that is one of the things that took us
by surprise, because up until thencertainly in that part
of the world and through WGSpeople might have planted the
odd field corner, so three hectares or so was the average for
the WGS. Then they were putting forward schemes of anything up
to 60 hectares. So we are really talking genuine land and farm
diversification because of the scale of the operation that they
were coming in at.
53. I met a couple of farmers but I think it
would be useful if we could get a feel for what you think farmers
get backapart from some money which keeps them going doing
other things? I found the ones I talked to became more committed
to it. So can you give us an idea of the type of farmer who is
becoming involved again?
(Miss Bell) I found this absolutely fascinating. A
number of them said that, first of all, it was a succession issue;
that they wanted to stay on the land, that their children did
not want to come in and take over the farm, and they saw forestry
as an opportunity. At first I think there was a lot of antipathy
to forestry, they just did not understand it, it was not a crop
that they understood or knew how to market or anything else. That
has gradually been overcome as more of them have come into the
scheme and start to exchange information. I think it does a lot
of things for them. First of all, they were fearful of public
access. It is understood now that although public access is not
a compulsory part of the scheme, frankly unless you offer it you
are not going to get very far in the scheme. You can do in on
the basis that it need not necessarily be the whole scheme, although
increasingly that is what they are offering. They are actually
now beginning to welcome people on to their land. I think that
has been a revelation to them. They actually feel that it is tying
them back into their own community. A number of them have said
that farming is a very isolated business, and now they are actually
talking again to their local community. Likewise, they are beginning
to feel very differently about the land itself. Where once they
might have gone walking round their fields looking at all the
diseases on the crops they are now actually beginning to enjoy
the land and to enjoy sharing it with other people. So there is
a financial element, there is a social element but they are also
seeing it as part of farm diversification and they are thinking
of new ways of diversifying their farm, and a lot of that into
recreational use. In some cases it could be nature conservation,
or educational enterprises, but they are trying all sorts of things.
I think one of the really good things about the scheme is that
a lot of it is left to their imagination. There are certain parameters
but it is their ideas and so they have a very strong sense of
ownership of the schemes that they do produce, instead of us being
very proscriptive and saying "You have got to have X, Y and
Z in your scheme."
(Mr Astling) If I can just add a point there, we have
got 109 schemes to-date, including round 7, and we have got 109
people's or organisation's vision of their bit of the National
Forest. Our remit is quite broad in terms of the criteria we lay
down, but they will come in with what they want, so that there
is a huge amount of ownershipit is their scheme, they will
look after itand it has this interesting kaleidoscopic
effect on the landscape that there is not just one block of planting
there but a whole series that individuals have decided to plant.
It is this variety that gives the Forest some unique characters.
54. I raised with Elliott Morley last week what
I see as an obvious parallel, which is to take in lands which
are flooding on a tendering basis. What other ideas, given that
you have got to find alternative uses for at least some farm land,
or opportunities are there for tendering? Are there any?
(Miss Bell) I think there are, if you want to restore
some former habitat, for example. I am thinking of down land,
in particular. There may well be scope there in areas where that
is appropriate. Providing you have got a vision for the area that
you are talking about, such as we have a very strong vision, then
I think the tender scheme can be applied to virtually anything
you want to see. There is no reason why that should not be applied
to a type of diversification you want to see, or a type of rural
development which you want to see. Providing you have got a clear
picture of what it is you want, and then you can devise a scheme
55. One final question. You talk about £2
million a year. Say that was doubled. Is money the problem in
terms of growing the idea, or would you be a bit reluctant inasmuch
that you want willing participants, and you might get people who
come in for the wrong reasons, thinking "I will have this
for a few years and then I will drop out"? I would welcome
your views on that potential conflict.
(Miss Bell) As the chairman said, you do need to be
able to reject some schemes. You do not want to feel you have
got to accept everything regardless of its value for money or
the quality of the scheme. At the moment I do not think that last
year, for example, we actually turned away any schemes that we
desperately wanted through lack of cash. However, I think we would
like to keep an open mind on that because if many more come forwardand
I think they will, I think the scheme is growingit would
be really good to be able to fulfil as many as we possibly can
but still offer good value for money and good quality schemes.
56. If you compare the process of applying for
the tender scheme to the process a farmer goes through to apply
for a number of the now DEFRA schemes for diversification and
financial assistance for particular goals, do you think that your
scheme is easier to deal with, sharper for the farmer to follow
and quicker in its outcome?
(Miss Bell) They tell us so. I think we have tried
very hard to keep the scheme as unbureaucratic as possible. It
is a complex scheme, but when you think of its complexity it is
actually quite surprisingly simple.
57. Have you compared the forms you use and
the processes you use to the ones that MAFF used to use and now
DEFRA does, because those certainly are routinely condemned as
being immensely complex and long-winded?
(Miss Bell) I think most of the farmers, the first
time they apply to the scheme, will certainly bring in a professional
adviser, and we would certainly advise them to do so for the first
time. After that, when they gain in confidence, they find they
are quite able to do it themselves. We have not had undue criticism
of the complexity of the form or lack of advice or anything else.
When you consider how novel the scheme is
58. I would just say to other Members here,
I have not heard a criticism of the process. I have certainly
heard criticisms of the processes that are involved in applying
for other forms of assistance and diversification.
(Miss Bell) We are, also, very accessible to the farmers.
They can pick up the phone to us. They know who they are going
to be talking to and that the nature of the advice they are going
to get is goodand if we should not be giving that advice.
We certainly do not advise on the bid price, for example, of course
not, but to do with the rest of the schemehow biodiversity
applies and that sort of thingthey have got several places
that they know that they can come to and they are going to get
(Mr Astling) I think one of the keys is that they
know exactly the date on which we are going to make a decision.
I suspect, with some of the other grant regimes, you put an application
in and you are not quite sure when you are going to get a decision.
They know when our board meeting is and that within 48 hours of
that board meeting they will have a letter saying "Yes, you
are successful" or "No, you are not successful, and
these are the reasons why you are not successful". That end-date
is very important.
59. The other element to this is the current
debate about the form of British agriculture. I think it is a
reasonably consistent view that any mechanisms that we should
choose to use should be as market-led as possible, in other words,
someone should see a clear return to achieve a goal. Have you
taken the trouble to make sure that the message of what you have
done with this particular scheme is communicated to Don Curry
and others who are considering agricultural policy in the next
(Miss Bell) Yes, I am afraid we have bored people
rigid with it. We certainly wrote to Sir Donald and Lord Haskins,
and we are very keen that what we are doing gets better promulgated.
I think it has come as rather a surprise to us, actually, how
little it has been used as an exemplar by the department itself,
for example, in ministerial speeches. We feel that this is something
that the UK is very much in the lead on, and we would like to
take this message to Europe because the way that the Forest is
being created is unique, and we are learning an awful lot of lessons
along the way that, perhaps, are not being widely heard about