Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
WEDNESDAY 5 DECEMBER 2001
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
(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 placechanged in particular in relation
(Miss Bell) Yes.
Mr Lepper: Thank you, Chair.
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?
(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
investmentthe 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 tourism95 per centis
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 areain 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
87. Your accessibility is very good.
(Miss Bell) It is superb.
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
(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
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 likeleaving aside
the published accounts for the yearare 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 yearso 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
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
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.