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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. You talk a lot about access in your annual report. Does the Countryside Rights of Way Act impact at all?
  (Miss Bell) Not in any major way because we do not actually have very much mountain or open land.

  81. It was the open land aspect I was thinking of.
  (Miss Bell) No. In fact, woodland was excluded.

  82. I know, because I moved the amendment that sought its inclusion unsuccessfully.
  (Miss Bell) Most of our woodland is accessible anyway.

  83. That does interest me a great deal, coming back to the tender scheme and what you have said about the ways in which landowners' views have, perhaps, changed because of the way that process takes place—changed in particular in relation to access.
  (Miss Bell) Yes.

  Mr Lepper: Thank you, Chair.

Mr Breed

  84. Could we turn to the economic aspect? You give some evidence there of growth and stimulation of enterprise and job creation. Could you give us a little bit of an idea as to how you know it is directly related to what you are doing rather than, perhaps, other things that are happening in the area?
  (Mr Astling) How we know it is directly resulting from our activities?

  85. Yes.
  (Mr Astling) The way we have measured it is activity right across the board. Some of it may not be a direct result of our activities but through the partnerships that we have been involved in, through SRB, RECHAR and other activities like that. Most of them have only happened because the 200 square miles was delineated and the mechanisms for partnerships have been formed. So the sort of thing we have been trying to measure is inward investment—the amount the partnerships have been bringing into the party over the years. That is about £35 million now. The partners themselves, to get that money, have been specifying job outputs and we have a clear indication of that. We have also been looking at things like the fact that in 1990 this was an area where there was distinct disinvestment. So we have been trying to look at how people have been reinvesting in the area. It is now an area where people want to live right across the board. I think the local Members might have a comment on this, but it is quite interesting to see how much developers have now said "This is an area where we wish to put our money" and we have tried to measure house-building rates, population growth, therefore, and growth in school populations as an indicator of the success of the area. It is an area people are walking into as opposed to people walking out of. So it is right across the board; the economic, the physical and the sort of social activities, and those are the things we have tried to measure.

  86. Just looking into the future, the forward plans, and the amount of access you have already got and what you are hoping for, you have alluded to the potential problems with transport. I share your concerns on that because I have the Eden Project in my own constituency which has been wonderfully successful on the one hand but, in terms of transportation and the sheer number of people trying to get there, the problems have been enormous. One of the other aspects is that for the existing tourism businesses some have gained; there have been winners and losers and some have seen their visitor numbers go up, but some, of course, have not. What has happened is that Eden has taken away their business, and they are suffering a reduction in their visitor numbers. Have you had similar experiences?
  (Mr Astling) I think with the opening of Conkers, which is attracting a mere quarter of a million compared with the sort of numbers I think you are getting at Eden, that has happened to one or two of the facilities. What the facility operators, as part of our tourism group, have been promoting is a sort of passport scheme; so trying more to encourage visitors to come to the area and once they get to one destination to pass them on to a second destination and build up repeat visitors. Most of our business at the moment on tourism—95 per cent—is on day visitors. What we are going to do next year is launch the passport and have very clear ways of giving people back to other facilities within the area—in other words, build the repeat visit. I think the other thing we want to do is encourage overnight visitors. The economic spend for an overnight visit is believed to be eight or nine times greater than the day visitor, and that is one area in which we want to make much greater impact. Over the years we will do so, but one of the problems at the moment is the lack of really good quality accommodation, which visitors now expect everywhere, throughout the whole of the country.
  (Miss Bell) Of course, traditionally, it has not been an area for tourism. There are certain attractions in the area which have very high visitor numbers but essentially it is not considered to be a tourism area. That is something that is going to grow very rapidly now they have got this designation of the National Forest.

  87. Your accessibility is very good.
  (Miss Bell) It is superb.

Mr Jack

  88. Conkers. I see from page 7 of your report that this is now in the second phase of the £16 million project. Could you say a little bit about how it is funded? Do you own it? Is it free access? Do you have an income stream derived from it? It is quite difficult to see from the accounts quite where Conkers fits.
  (Miss Bell) Conkers is a classic partnership that we instigated, and a separate foundation has in fact been established on which we participate but we are not the owners; it is owned and run by the foundation. The foundation has also been responsible predominantly for the fund-raising necessary for it. They put in a bid to the Millennium Commission, for example, and got £6 million, and also raised the match funding through private sector donations, through landfill tax, and through all sorts of other means. So, essentially, we got the thing started together with the local authorities and then that has been taken on by this foundation.

  89. Is it free access for the public?
  (Miss Bell) No it is not, it is a paid attraction. It has got to make its own way. None of the local authorities, nor we ourselves, are actually underwriting it.

  90. How are visitor numbers progressing now? Obviously, there has been some diminution in numbers through the countryside due to foot-and-mouth, and things have been a bit depressed. Are there signs that things are picking up?
  (Miss Bell) It is not altogether clear how badly we had been hit because the latest figures we have from the tourist boards were for 1999, so we have not had the latest figures. I would think that, probably, the numbers will have increased, not least because Conkers was open throughout. It benefited, I suppose, really, from the fact that so much of the countryside was closed, because it did offer (a) a new attraction and (b) 150 acres of outside attraction. It was anticipated it would get 200,000 visitors in its first year and it got 200,000 in the first six months.

  91. As far as the financial side is concerned, effectively, it is entirely free-standing. You are not required to put any money into it, at this stage?
  (Miss Bell) No. We have put money in the past into various bits of it, but no, we are under no obligation.

  92. Moving a little more centrally to the question of your financial position, what, if you like—leaving aside the published accounts for the year—are the top financial concerns that you presently have?
  (Mr Astling) I think the top financial concern is that we operate on just an annual basis. This is true of all government spending, but we only have certain funding for a year which is confirmed during the course of this year—so we know what we are going to have as a budget next year. As I say, that is common with all projects. The one thing I am concerned about is the rigidity of the funding mechanism. If we want to buy land, for example, this year there may be no sensible sites for us to buy but next year there may be three or four that are in areas that we could do things; we have got partnerships, we have got end-users etc. What we could really do with is a sort of land capital fund, whereby we could make, perhaps, a provision every year to build up a land capital fund so that when good projects come along we can respond. At the moment we have to deal with that within our annual revenue, one-year budget. We have been lucky that we have been able to do that so far with assistance from other bodies.

  93. Given that departments are now being told that they are on a series of three-year budgets, when you last saw the Minister did you not say, "Well, Minister, if you know what you're going to get for the next three years, can't we have a three-year budget too?"
  (Mr Astling) We did talk to him about the land issue in a three-year possibility, and I think that was a matter to be considered.

  94. So it has been played a little bit into the slightly longer grass?
  (Mr Astling) I suppose you could say that.

  95. Or the denser forest, as my colleague says. On the landfill credit scheme figures, in terms of an important source of funding, could you explain a little bit more about that? As I understand it, some questions are now being raised as to the future of the current arrangements. It would be interesting for the Committee to know how, if those changes come to pass, it will impact on your work.
  (Miss Bell) It would be a loss, there is no doubt about it, because if the community project element were to go, we have used it, and not only have we used it but a number of our other partners, including Conkers, for example, are heavily dependent on a substantial landfill tax credit to match-fund. We have certainly used it for a couple of purchases and site development, so it actually results in more forest as opposed to projects within the forest. It actually helps our target figures. So it would be a substantial loss, there is no doubt about that, if it were to go.

  96. So your message to Ministers is, "Think carefully about any changes"?
  (Miss Bell) Very much so. Obviously there is the question of regulation and so forth, but we have certainly found it extremely useful, particularly in terms of match-funding, because it is considered to be private sector funding and it can be used against other monies that are being raised, and that is a real benefit.

  97. Your accounts show that in the year 2000-01 you received nearly £3 million in terms of grant-in-aid. What did you bid for? Did you bid for £3 million or did you bid for more than that?
  (Miss Bell) No, we did not bid for more.
  (Mr Astling) I am not actually sure this is a bidding process. No, I am wrong there, we did bid for a specific grant, in addition to our grant, to help us with contract compliance. Under the tender scheme we have 109 tender scheme winners. We need to know that all those assets on the ground or farmers' assets that we have paid for are well managed. We said that we needed an officer to do that, to go round and be a forest policeman, as it were, that there was a cost on that, could they add that to our budget, and they did, so they thought that was sensible and we got that approval.
  (Miss Bell) We have on other occasions asked for specific money for land-use projects. If there was any indication that there was any underspending in the Department, we are always very happy to help spend it.

  98. Are you saying effectively that what you are asking for is what you can manage?
  (Mr Astling) I think that is probably true.
  (Miss Bell) I think it is.
  (Mr Astling) We are now at the stage where we think we can meet the 500 hectare target and the other public benefits we believe we deliver within the budget we have got. I think that three years ago we were not at that stage. I think we have built up to that stage now.

  99. Turning to public/private partnerships which is the buzz expression, if public bodies want to increase their rate of activity, some might express a concern that you are buying land. Have you looked at alternative models that might bring more capital in, bearing in mind that at the end of the day for some of this land there is an economic outcome, namely a crop of timber? Have you explored public/private partnerships to help with the capital side of buying land?
  (Miss Bell) In essence, that is exactly what we are doing, because we draw down sponsorship funds. For example, there was considerable funding from Jaguar, also from Severn Trent Water and also other commercial sponsors. We also draw money from the Forestry Commission. We also work with people, for example, like the Woodland Trust. So there is very often an element of public and private, without the formal title of public/private partnership.

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