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House of Lords

Tuesday, 5th December 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.

Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern): My Lords, before the commencement of business, I take the opportunity to inform the House that, with the approval of Her Majesty the Queen, I am to visit Sweden at the invitation of the Swedish Speaker between the dates of Friday 8th and Monday 11th December. Accordingly, I trust that the House will agree to grant me leave of absence on Monday 11th December.

Forestry Policy

Lord Taylor of Gryfe asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their future policy on forestry in view of the failure to achieve new planting targets in both private and public forestry and the planned further disposal of publicly owned woodlands.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay): My Lords, the two main aims of our policy on forestry continue to be the sustainable management of our existing woods and forests and a steady expansion of tree cover to increase the many diverse benefits that forests provide.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, can he give me further assurance regarding the future of the Forestry Commission? Is he aware that the Forestry Commission has now sold off 200,000 hectares of land to private owners? Is he also aware that in very few of those cases are there access agreements, which means that ramblers, hill walkers and others who enjoy the countryside will no longer be able to enjoy the countryside? Secondly, does the reduction in the planting programme of the Forestry Commission in the past five years, from 5,000 hectares per annum to the recent figure of 586 hectares per annum, indicate an intention on the part of the Government to privatise by the back door?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, as the noble Lord well knows, the Forestry Commission owns well over a million hectares of ground in the UK. In Scotland, it still controls over 45 per cent. of all woodlands. In respect of those 1 million hectares of ground there is a disposals programme which will last only until the end of the century and which comprises only 1 per cent. of the total estate of the Forestry Commission per annum. Any

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business of such extraordinary proportions can well do with continuing review and rationalisation. That is all that is happening.

The Government fully appreciate the value of our forests for recreation and access. Therefore we have taken steps to strengthen the arrangements which either maintain or create access when disposals take place. We have a presumption against the sale of any Forestry Commission plots where there are high levels of public access. We encourage local authorities to enter into agreements, and we fund the legal costs of local authorities in meeting those agreements. Woodland access is probably increasing in this country for the first time ever. What is more, it is increasing where it is most needed.

In relation to planting figures, the noble Lord paints an unnecessarily gloomy picture. The UK leads the way worldwide in increasing forestry cover. We are planting more than 70 million trees per annum. We have met the total planting figure of 33,000 hectares, which comprises new planting and replanting. Since 1979 we have done a great deal to expand the forest cover of Britain.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, in view of the enormous investment which has taken place in the forestry processing industry, is my noble friend worried that the swing to hardwood will result in there not being enough softwood to supply those firms with timber in the years to come?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, my noble friend raises a good point. The commercial production of timber will remain a fundamental element of government policy. To that end the grants for new conifer planting were increased by nearly 30 per cent. last year where planting takes place on better ground. We expect that increased incentive for coniferous planting to feed through as a major boost to the processing sector. In the past 10 years £1 billion has been invested in the forestry processing sector. That provides many jobs in rural areas. It is important that we protect that investment; we intend to do so.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, the Minister referred to legal costs of management access agreements. They are only a small proportion of the costs to the local authorities of the agreements. Are there any guidelines, or is there any way, in which the costs can be controlled? It is apparent from some of the agreements made that the price exacted for access to the forest is out of all proportion to the possible value of that access.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I looked into the question previously in response to a point put to me by the noble Baroness at the time. I continue to believe that in most cases costs for public access in disposed Forestry Commission sites are cheap. They may involve as little as a gate and the maintenance of the safety of a footpath through natural cover. There are 28 access agreements already in place in disposed Forestry Commission woodlands. Another 44 on Forestry Commission properties are due to go to the market. The local authority response has been tremendous regarding our offer of local public access agreements. We shall

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certainly continue to work with local authorities to consider the best way of ensuring future public access where Forestry Commission sites are being put on the market.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that forestry in this country is important in terms of employment, notably in rural areas? Will he say how many people are employed in forestry, both in the public and private sector, compared with 10 years ago?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord with the exact figures. However, I can underline the fact that some 20,000 people in Scotland alone are employed in forestry. A similar number of jobs depend on the downstream activities which forestry generates. We are acutely conscious that the planting, management, felling and all other stages of forestry create jobs in rural and remote areas. If you maintain families in those areas, you maintain post offices, schools, buses and so forth. Therefore the Government place a very high priority on forestry as an employment creator.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, the noble Earl mentioned sustainable management of woodlands. Can he possibly define "sustainable management" in this instance?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lady for that question. Sustainability involves the wise use of a resource which meets, as far as possible, our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. As regards forestry, we want to plant the right types of trees in the right places. I believe that 10 years ago the preoccupation regarding forestry was in terms of quantity and whether we could achieve a specific planting target. Now we know that we must produce quality at the same time. We must not plant the wrong trees on the wrong ground and therefore close off options for future generations.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that preliminary figures from the forestry authority show a significant decline in levels of restocking this year? In the light of that, will he reconsider the 50 per cent. cut in restocking grants?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the reduction in the restocking grant announced in September last year did not apply to any applications for a restocking grant which had been received previously. Therefore many restocking operations are still taking place at the original rate.

Since most of the storm damaged areas in England resulting from the 1987 hurricane have now been replanted, less replanting is going on for that reason. In Wales, restocking has increased. The fundamental point about restocking is that there is only a finite level of public moneys available to forestry. Given the level of resources that we have, we must ensure that we derive the maximum possible benefit. At the old rate,

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restocking grants were not seen to be delivering the value for money that was possible through redeployment to planting grants.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for mentioning Wales. Is he aware that forestry is as important in Wales as in Scotland? As a Minister in the Scottish Office, he is replying for the Forestry Commission and others because the Forestry Commission is based in Edinburgh. What arrangements do the Government propose to ensure that the Welsh interest is properly preserved rather than having to write to Edinburgh every time we want something?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, it is very simple. One of the forestry ministers is the Secretary of State for Wales.

Cyprus: Demilitarisation

2.48 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What discussions have taken place with the Cyprus Government regarding the proposed demilitarisation of the island as a basis for reaching a settlement.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, the subject of demilitarisation arises regularly in our talks with both communities in Cyprus. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary discussed it with the Cypriot Foreign Minister, Mr. Michaelides, when he was in London on 1st November. Moves to reduce deployment of troops and levels of military equipment on the island can only help to improve the climate for a settlement.

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