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Forestry Sales

7.26 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley asked Her Majesty's Government when they will announce a long-term policy on forestry sales, and what measures will be taken, first, to ensure that forestry is not sold for inappropriate development within areas of outstanding natural beauty and, second, to ensure secure public access following sale.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, although I am spokesman on conservation and the countryside for my party, I do not claim to have a detailed knowledge of matters to do with forestry, unlike other noble Lords who, I am delighted to know, are to speak in this debate. However, my attention was drawn some time ago to what seemed to me to be an appalling development--in both senses of the word--in the Folkestone area. The more I studied what had happened, the more it was clear to me that a system which was meant to protect both areas of outstanding natural beauty and public access had failed to protect either.

When I asked the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which had opposed the development, what had gone wrong, the answer prompted the form in which this Question is asked. I shall briefly raise the question of the development at Lyminge in Kent, of which I have given the Government notice, and then briefly turn my attention to the formal matters laid down in the Question.

West Wood in Lyminge is an ancient woodland dating back 2,000 or more years and covers an area of about 460 acres. It was bought by the Forestry Commission in the early 1920s and replanted, mainly with conifers, for the production of timber for the mining industry. Being owned by the Forestry Commission, the rights of way and bridleways were maintained and there is a freedom-to-roam policy over the entire site.

In 1994 the wood was the subject of a planning application by Rank Hotels & Leisure, who wanted to develop an Oasis holiday village there. This village would accommodate up to 4,000 people at any one time, provide a golf course, a 12-acre lake and a domed water world, with shops, restaurants, bars, indoor squash courts, etc.

West Wood is set high on the North Downs in an area of outstanding natural beauty and is a site of nature conservation interest. Because of this, the Secretary of State for the Environment called in the application as being a departure from the local plan. In April 1995 a public inquiry debated the merits of the development, with Rank, Shepway District Council and Kent County Council all claiming the importance of the site and that there was no alternative site, while the Countryside Commission, the CPRE, Kent Trust for Nature and the Save Lyminge Forest Action Group all argued against any development in the AONB. The inquiry lasted nine weeks, with the inspector's report finding in favour of Rank. A judicial review was sought and in October 1996 the judge again found in favour of Rank. The action group appealed to the High Court earlier this year but

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again the judges found in favour of Rank. Save taking their case to the European Court, this exhausted the means at their disposal for objection.

The area is used extensively by the public on foot and in addition may have some important bridle paths through it. The development proposed will ring-fence the whole site with two-metre high fencing excluding all except paying guests. The substitute bridle/pedestrian pathway around the exterior is sandwiched between a busy B-road and that fence, rather like a trip around a prison camp. The proposed village is not small. It has 350 villas, 400 forest lodges and intends to provide a dome big enough to contain full-sized trees. The guest numbers will be between 3,500 and 4,300 at any given time.

The matter cleared all planning barriers and it is not the planning system about which I potentially--though I may well do so--protest. It is clear that everything was done properly. It is also clear that what is happening is horrendous in a place of outstanding national beauty and in ancient forest land. It is not the only example of its kind. In Cranbourne Chase and the West Wiltshire Downs AONB exactly the same thing happened. That account of what happened in one place is an appalling breach of all that we are trying to do when we try to save the countryside and areas of outstanding national beauty.

That brings me to the heart of the Question. In that example we see Forest Enterprise disregarding the views of the Countryside Commission in order to sell off forestry land of an historic nature for private and inappropriate development and indeed planning to revive a lapsed option after the Government announced a moratorium on the sale of forest land. That cannot be right. Therefore I am entitled to ask, and your Lordships to know, what the Government intend to do to ensure that such scandals will not be repeated in the future so that we can protect our countryside and those kinds of site in the future.

7.32 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, forestry is badly treated in this House. On the last occasion when I moved a debate on forestry it had a two-and-a-half hour time limit and 24 speakers declared an interest in speaking on that occasion. They were awarded three minutes each. Tonight again we are meeting on a one-and-a-half hour debate on forestry matters at a somewhat late hour, so it does not permit us to examine all the questions that are raised when forestry is the subject before us.

I shall not speak at great length but felt that, as Chairman of the All-Party Forestry Group in Parliament, I ought to intervene. I shall not speak at great length because it is a time-limited debate and following me is one of the most distinguished foresters in this country and one of the most progressive landowners--I refer to the noble Duke, the Duke of Buccleuch.

The noble Duke has shown a continuing interest not only in good forestry management as an example to others who are in that business, but also at one stage he joined the Ramblers Association as an indication of his

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interest in making at least his estates available to people who want to walk in the countryside and enjoy the beauty of the Buccleuch estates. Therefore, I feel that I should not speak long in this time-limited debate so that the noble Duke, the Duke of Buccleuch, can follow me.

I want to say a word or two about the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, on the question of access. It is a matter which gives us all some anxiety. The Forestry Commission was once well known for its ability to plant large areas of cypress, spruce and conifers, notably in Scotland. But recently it has been concerned not only about the production of timber, but also about opening up the countryside so that the public can enjoy all the pleasures of the peace and quiet of the woodlands. Last year some 50 million day visitors visited the forestry estate, and that is a great thing.

The question of access was not taken on board when the Forestry Commission was instructed by the government of the day to dispose of large areas of woodland. It is only recently that it has become more aware of the importance of tying into the disposal programmes access agreements. It is a difficult area because of the variety of uses of the countryside for sport and other interests. It is important that the social obligation for access agreements should be observed, but there must be a balance. I have always felt that private landlords, the private sector and those who will acquire the lands that are being disposed of must accept the social obligation of access, but at the same time the commission must be reasonable in its judgment of good land use.

Originally disposals of Forestry Commission land started in 1981 as a kind of tidying up process. There were lots of small pieces of land here and there that had been acquired over the years and it was important to manage those woodlands successfully. There was therefore a rationalisation of Forestry Commission ownership. But it has gone way beyond that now; it is no longer a tidying up process and the last government initiated substantial disposals. The great pursuit of privatisation was part of the general philosophy of the government of the day. I would not have minded privatisation to some extent, but forestry cannot be managed in that kind of ideological way.

The Forestry Commission disposed of large areas and I hope that the Minister who is to reply to the debate tonight will assure us that the moratorium on further disposals will be observed by the new Government and that any further disposals of Forestry Commission land will have built into them, where it is reasonable, access agreements so that people can enjoy the pleasures of their own estates.

I hope I may be permitted to suggest that the new Government should be looking at new policies in relation to forestry. It is not only access agreements and disposals that are involved in new policies, but, in pursuit of privatisation, the previous Government deliberately cut back substantially on Forestry Commission activities. When I was chairman of the commission we planted between 20,000 and 30,000 hectares a year in Forestry

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Commission land. Last year 580 hectares were planted. There was a deliberate starving of the commission of funds and a restriction of public forestry.

In the old days we had a very good relationship in forestry. Forestry was a prime example of good partnership. The private sector and the Forestry Commission worked together in training, research and so on. But in the last years of the previous Government the continued emphasis on privatisation meant that the private sector was encouraged with grants--I have no objection to that--to plant trees and the Forestry Commission was totally neglected.

I make a plea to the new Government to try to restore the kind of partnership we used to enjoy in forestry policy. It is part of the philosophy of New Labour that partnership in industry and in other areas should be pursued. It would be to the advantage of this country if we were to restore the kind of partnership that existed some 20 years ago.

One point I would make, if I may transgress a general forestry matter in this rather narrow debate, concerns the question of devolution. I notice that in the new devolution proposals forestry will be a devolved subject. That means that Scottish forestry will have an office, a policy and an administration; English forestry will have a policy and a separate administration; and Welsh forestry will have the same. That is an absolute nonsense. One of the few things I did when I was chairman was to remove forestry from No. 25 Saville Row, W1, which was my office, to Edinburgh. Forestry was run from Edinburgh--national forestry. To break up that activity into separate national units will not be an encouragement to good planning, good forestry and sensible policies. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board if she does not reply to it tonight.

My plea is for the restoration of partnership in forestry. It was a happy relationship. I am sure that the noble Duke, the Duke of Buccleuch, will confirm, in his long experience, that this partnership was a useful and happy one. That is about all I want to say in this limited debate. I look forward to hearing the contributions of my other forestry friends.

7.45 p.m.

The Duke of Buccleuch: My Lords, perhaps I may start by saying how glad I am that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, should have raised this subject, which is one very close to my heart. It seems that we have several things in common. Both he and I are founder patrons of the Small Farmers' Association, which is now called the Family Farmers' Association. I do not know whether he has plans to have a Small Foresters' Association, but I am glad that he should have raised this subject.

It is always a pleasure to hear the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, because no one can compete with him in knowledge, wisdom and sound common sense on the subject of forestry together with his enormous wealth of experience. What he says is well worth hearing, listening to and, I hope, acting upon.

Before I go any further I feel I must declare an interest. Perhaps I could be described as a backwoodsman in every sense of the word. My family--and my family company, of which I am chairman--has

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been very much involved in forestry for about 14 generations, and access has always featured prominently in that operation. So I speak with an axe to grind as a backwoodsman.

We all talk glibly these days about multi-purpose forestry. I personally prefer the expression "multi-benefit forestry" because it provides such a huge variety of benefits. Access is one important ingredient in the multi-benefits. That is becoming more and more widely recognised. For a short spell of two years, which ended last year, I had the honour of being president of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society. Following an initiative by my predecessor, we carried out a scheme called Visit a Forest Week, wherein we got a great many owners of woodlands to open their woods to the public and make them feel welcome. That we did for two years. A lot of woodland owners joined the scheme. Unfortunately, however, the take-up by the general public was disappointing. So the scheme, I am afraid, faded out.

Nevertheless, forests are becoming increasingly attractive to huge numbers of people as an alternative to seaside resorts, which become more and more overcrowded. The figures for the number of day visits are quite impressive. Perhaps the Minister will correct my figures if they are inaccurate--they may be three years out of date--but I think they were provided originally by the Forestry Commission. They showed that there are around 250 million day visits in a year into woods and forests. I was always surprised that the Forestry Commission claimed only some 50 million day visits, which is only 20 per cent. of those day visits, yet it has 40 per cent. of all woodlands. It means that someone is being very generous in their hospitality to visitors.

The Forestry Commission has some magnificent honeypot locations to which people swarm. My praise is unstinting for the way in which it manages those operations. It provides the excellent infrastructure which people want and can enjoy. It deserves full praise for that.

There is a fear that the selling off of woodland will result in reduced access. That has been one of the main arguments against selling Forestry Commission woods in many localities where people feel that tourism and the rest may suffer. But that argument needs to be looked at rather closely. So many of the woodlands the Forestry Commission has been selling are the kind of unthinned sitka spruce in which no self-respecting rambler would be found dead. Therefore, those are not really problem areas.

All kinds of curious reasons are given against selling Forestry Commission woodlands. I heard another one in my own locality. It is that if you sell the woods beastly commercial people will come along and lorries will trundle along all the local roads, making a mess of the bridges and everything else and spoiling all the villages. It is perfectly true that lorries would go trundling through. But at the same time it does not matter whether the woods are owned by commercial firms, the man in the moon or the Forestry Commission. You are still

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going to have the lorries harvesting the timber and trundling through the villages. So that was really a non-starter.

The possibility of sales worries a great many people in the countryside. My own personal experience as regards access is that my own family company offers over 400 square miles of countryside, from beautiful hilltops to rushing rivers. Some of it is covered with trees and some is open country. We provide everything in the way of leafleted trails, car parks and signs. There is provision for horse riders and separate provision for cyclists and the rest. These facilities are grossly under-used. This area is within a one-and-a-half hour drive for two-thirds of the population of Scotland. So, when people say that landowners and estate owners are very negative and mean in their attitude to access, I believe that one should look at the enormous opportunities which exist for people to get into the countryside, but which are not taken advantage of, which is very sad.

Access is important, but we should never be distracted from the primary role of forestry and the forestry industry. That is to produce more and more of a replenishable raw material in a way which is environmentally sensitive; which takes account of landscaping, is good from the point of view of conservation and recreation and harmonises with farming. It should also be carried out in an economically viable way.

Timber is a vital raw material. Imports today, which account for nearly 90 per cent. of our needs, cost us between £6 billion and £7 billion a year. That is equal to £1 million every 80 minutes. I find that pretty horrifying. That is despite the fact that we have heaven-sent soil and climatic conditions which enable us to produce the sort of timber which is required by our industries in about two-thirds of the time it takes our suppliers to provide it. In Scandinavia and Russia it sometimes takes twice as long to provide the same timber.

In this country every one of us uses two trees every year. If the whole of the developing world started to use anything like as much timber as we do there would not be a single tree left standing anywhere in the world. I say that only because we must concentrate our minds on the primary purpose of our industry and not be distracted by over-emphasis on access. Important as that is, it is a bit like going to a football match in Rome and finding ourselves mesmerised by the spectators and the fans instead of watching the players.

I find the sale of Forestry Commission woodlands regrettable, unless of course there are commercially sound reasons for selling certain land, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said earlier. But I believe that the staff of the Forestry Commission and the commissioners have the expertise and knowledge. They are a dedicated body of people who know what they are doing. They can decide which woodlands they should sell from their own point of view. They should be allowed to get on with that. But where bigger sales take place, as happened recently, and which I have always regretted,

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I believe that they should be carried out only if the proceeds are reinvested in planting more trees and more forests.

There is the question of access. I would have thought it possible to write special access conditions into the sale particulars whenever an individual wood is sold because every wood will have different requirements. If tailor-made conditions are written in that should be a safeguard as regards some of the worries mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont.

There is one more point which I must mention, and it is in the form of a question. If we have much more access to forests, what about insurance? When someone trips over a log and sues, who pays? Who pays the insurance premiums? That could be quite a major problem. It is something that requires looking at if people are going to be encouraged to be generous in opening up their woods or their countryside. The question of cost and insurance needs to be looked at.

Perhaps I may end with words that were written 103 years ago by the borough surveyor of Sanquhar. He was a fairly radical sort of fellow in his outlook. He said:


    "What besides increases the attractions of the district to the visitor"--
he was saying how marvellous Upper Nithsdale was--


    "is the almost absolute and unrestrained freedom to be enjoyed. Notices of 'Trespassers will the prosecuted', 'Keep to the road', and others of a like nature, by which a selfish and exclusive landlordism would seek to deprive the general public of enjoyments which are the heritage of humanity, are nowhere to be seen. In this respect the Duke of Buccleuch, and, following his example, the other landed proprietors of the district, have allowed to all the liberty to roam wheresoever they list".

That was 103 years ago, and it is becoming a talking point today. But, of course, a lot has changed since then. For instance, the invention of the motor car enables vast numbers of people to find their way into the countryside. Likewise, the explosion of interest in country matters is something which has to be taken into account. We know of places in the Lake District and elsewhere where people can destroy what they come to see. I believe that any idea of having a free-for-all should be approached with very great caution. In my own part of the country, where we have access available to one and all, that problem has not arisen as yet. It may one day, but I do not know. At the moment there is no need for restrictions and limitations.

I urge those who are in charge of our affairs, whether in forestry or the countryside generally, to approach this subject with caution as well as sympathy.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I would like to offer my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, for asking this Question on this important and interesting matter. I believe that it has been fascinating for all noble Lords who have been in the Chamber tonight to listen to the noble Duke, the Duke of Buccleuch, and hear what he has had to say about his experience of forestry. I also recognise the great experience and knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. He will perhaps forgive me if, standing where I do, I say to him that the record of the

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previous government is perhaps not as bad as he paints it. Perhaps he will also forgive me if I put on record tonight the fact that the previous government, in their rural White Paper in 1995, committed themselves to promoting and preserving the rural way of life. The importance of forestry was recognised in that White Paper. The need to increase woodland was recognised, given the very low percentage coverage in the United Kingdom compared with the rest of Europe. The White Paper also referred to the opportunities offered for recreation and leisure and for the conservation of wildlife. Programmes foreshadowed in the White Paper aimed at reducing the dependence on imported timber, to which the noble Duke referred.

On the question of access, the White Paper recorded that under the previous administration, unless there was very good reason, the Forestry Commission allowed public access. Private owners, influenced partly by the woodland improvement grant, were also encouraged to allow access, but it was access by way of co-operation and partnership rather than by compulsion. We on these Benches continue to support that, because we would have great doubts about compulsion.

It is worth recording the fact that grants to woodland owners have increased from some £16 million per annum to approximately £40 million per annum in the past six years; and that some 70 million trees are being planted per year, with one-third of a million hectares--that is, over three-quarters of a million acres--of new woodland being planted since 1979. I suggest, therefore, that the record of the previous administration was not wholly bad, as was perhaps suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor.

I turn to the specific case raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. I should be interested to learn--I am sure that other noble Lords will also be interested in this--the Government's answer to the noble Lord's question about what went wrong in that instance. I believe, however, that that is a planning issue. The noble Lord said that he was satisfied that the planning procedures had been complied with properly in all respects. Having heard the facts as set out by the noble Lord, I see this as an example of how careful we have to be with our planning policies to ensure that not only woodland, but the rest of the countryside and the green belt, are properly protected by our planning policies. I am not familiar with the circumstances of that particular application other than as I have heard them given in the Chamber tonight, but if, as the noble Lord told us, it is possible for an application quite properly to be passed in respect of a site such as that described, perhaps we need to look again at those planning policies to ensure that they are all they ought to be.

The present discussion about whether building should be allowed in green belt areas is another matter which needs careful consideration. There have been references in previous debates, including the debate in your Lordships's House some weeks ago about the use of land in the countryside, to the development of housing on brownfield sites. Tonight is not the time to debate that at length, but the example which we have heard described--others could arise--makes it abundantly clear that the first presumption ought to be against the development of the countryside and sites such as described tonight.

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8.3 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I join others in expressing our delight at the opportunity that has been given to us to debate this important topic. Forestry is an increasingly important land use throughout the United Kingdom, given that our woods provide habitats for wildlife, jobs for rural communities and opportunities for recreation and quiet enjoyment that I, for one, find unequalled and unique in terms of the quality of the experience. I am therefore delighted to be able to underline the Government's firm commitment to promoting forestry which is both sustainable and multi-purpose, thus contributing to the economic, environmental and recreational well-being of the country.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, expressed concern about sales of Forestry Commission land. In dealing with that question, perhaps I should begin by saying clearly that the commitment to which he referred was legally binding in terms of the Forestry Commission and West Wood. I shall return to that point later.

As soon as the Government were elected, we imposed a moratorium on the sale of Forestry Commission land, as promised in our manifesto. As I said a few moments ago, the commission was legally or morally committed to some sales which had been agreed before the election was called. Those sales, which represent only about half of 1 per cent. of the commission's estate, are being completed. They are sales which at the time of the election the commission was negotiating with public or charitable bodies under its sponsorship arrangements, and other legally binding sales. Since 1st May, the Forestry Commission has entered no new negotiations to sell any of its forestry land.

In considering our longer-term policy, there are several factors to take into account. It would not be sensible to stop the commission selling any land in the future. The noble Duke gave an example, as did my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe, of cases where it would be inappropriate to have a rigid opposition to all sales. Some local communities have expressed a desire to buy their local woods from the commission so that they can manage them for the benefit of their own community. Where those woods are small, or distant from the commission's main forests in the area, a change of ownership may well be in everyone's best interests. Some charities, such as the Woodland Trust, can often obtain funds specifically to manage small woods which are of particular value for recreation or conservation, so the public and the woods benefit if the woods are bought by such bodies.

Like any large landowner, the commission needs to be able to buy and sell land if it is to manage its holdings effectively and achieve its objectives. There is always scope for rationalising landholdings, particularly where the existing boundary of the commission's land creates problems in designing the forest edges to suit the landscape. In such cases, an exchange of land with a neighbouring landowner can often suit everyone. In other words, just as we shall avoid the pitfall of ruling out all purchases, so shall we refrain from ruling out all sales, regardless of size or justification.

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Noble Lords will know that a significant proportion of the commission's income currently comes from the sale of large areas of forest each year. The budgets that we have inherited assume that that will continue to be the case. As I have said, we have imposed a moratorium on sales while we consider the commission's comprehensive spending review. Before reaching our conclusions, we shall be looking carefully at other sources of income which could replace the income from sales of land. We do not wish to rush to a hasty conclusion, so I cannot give the exact date on which we shall announce our long-term policy on sales and, indeed, purchases of Forestry Commission land. However, I can assure those who have expressed concern here tonight and elsewhere that the moratorium will stay in place until we reach our conclusions and make an announcement.

The question about what will happen when the commission sells land in future needs to be answered with a clear and specific assurance. We shall ensure that public access is preserved wherever possible. The Forestry Commission encourages quiet and peaceful recreation in all its forests, so perhaps I should turn now to the numbers of visitors to Forestry Commission land. Surveys indicate that 300 million people visit our forests each year, but that figure includes people who visit regularly on a daily basis when, for example, taking their dog for a walk. Such people may visit only a small and local area. The Forestry Commission estimates that there are about 50 million day visits to its woods. In general, the visitors are day visitors as opposed to local people taking their dogs for a walk.

I referred to the possibility of imposing access constraints. It is extremely important to ensure that wherever possible they are followed through. Obviously, there are cases where, for example, property is held by the Forestry Commission and there is a leasehold constraint. That is an example of where it is not possible. We wish to preserve all of these opportunities for informal recreation. If the land was open to the public in the past we expect it to remain so in future.

A question was raised about insurance for those using this land. I make a general rule of thumb statement, not one that can be applied rigidly to any individual case. I make that disclaimer. I am advised that in general visitors can make a claim against a landowner only if he has been deliberately negligent or has deliberately created a dangerous situation. The presence of tree roots and rabbit holes does not appear to fall into that category. I repeat that that is a general observation and not one to which the Government can be held in individual cases.

One of the important matters raised in the debate is the need to encourage the Forestry Commission to plant more. This was stressed by my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe. We shall be considering how best to increase the woodland areas of Britain. To ask the Forestry Commission to plant on more land is one option that will be considered. It will be done within the framework of a partnership approach, which is the hallmark of the approach of the Government to such issues.

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My noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe also referred to devolution. The functions of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales in relation to forestry will be transferred to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly respectively. The commission will however continue to be the government department with responsibility for forestry throughout Britain. The commission will report separately to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly but will still be a national responsibility. I hope that that provides some comfort and confidence to my noble friend.

Overall, woodland is becoming more widely available for general public access and recreation. For example, the work of my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe, whose chairmanship of the All-Party Committee on Forestry is widely respected, can be used to draw attention to the important area of recreation and amenity for people throughout the whole country.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, expressed concern about developments in areas of outstanding natural beauty. AONBs are designated by the Countryside Commission and confirmed by the Secretary of State for the Environment. The designation confers formal recognition that the natural beauty of an area is of great importance and worthy of protection. I take the example of the commission's concern about West Wood. It is important to recognise that AONBs must be seen in the context of the very full and careful consideration given to this proposal before planning permission was granted in April this year. It was right that the proposal should have been subject to the full rigours of the planning system. The Forestry Commission is now fully committed to the sale of the wood.

The Countryside Commission's review of areas of outstanding natural beauty is concerned with funding and management arrangements. At the moment it is not considering planning issues. We believe that well established planning policies for the protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty and development within them should be based on the fact that development is not prohibited within such designated areas but that it is only when development is proven to be of national interest and there is a lack of alternative sites that a major development can be justified. The former

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Secretary of State for the Environment accepted that the West Wood scheme constituted a major commercial development in the AONB but agreed with the inspector that there was a proven national interest for the development. This is a matter of history and is the former position.


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