Examination of witnesses (Questions 60
WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER
and DR BOB
60. Is this being treated as a priority or is
this one of those things which could run and run?
(Mr Bills) The Forestry Commission is treating it
as a priority.
61. Yes, but you are only one side of the discussion.
Is it being treated as a priority on the other side?
(Mr Bills) Yes, it is. It has been inevitably involved
in the settlement of finances for this year in this difficulty
we have because we are in the transitional stage on devolution,
but another thing that we need to watch out for is that we can
get a settlement or a model which can be agreed by each of the
three countries. It will be easier if it can be agreed by each
of the three legislatures.
62. I am following up the question of Dr Turner
when he was approaching you on the question of benchmarking and
the comparison with commercial forests. That ran into the farming
question that Mr Todd was putting to you. You stated in your answer
to Dr Turner that the commercial forests do not have some of the
same objectives as you do and I think we probably know what they
are but perhaps you would very briefly say what you consider the
main difference between the commercial forest and your forest
is? Secondly, in light of that, can there be any realistic benchmarking?
Thirdly, if you wish to separate your environmental or heritage
obligations on the one hand from your commercial operations on
the other hand, can that be done in practical terms within one
(Mr Bills) The principal difference is clearly the
scale of our operations, coupled with the fact that in effect
this is public land or the nearest thing to public land there
is within Great Britain. We can offer recreation and conservation
more than the private sector. Within the FE estate, there are
thousands of hectares of SSSI. There are opportunities for restoring
heathlands, all of these things that you might persuade a private
owner to do but you cannot necessarily make them do. In line with
the government's policies on conservation on their European and
international agreements, we are able to deliver. Many of these
things we cannot charge for and even if we could it would not
be as practical as it might be for an estate owner or a much more
focused boundary enterprise. We believe we have a major responsibility
to promote and encourage access to our forests for a whole range
of reasons. It should be good quality; it should be safe; it also
should be appropriately challenging. Probably it is difficult
to argue that we should charge for that sort of work.
63. To take a facetious example, if you have
some sort of exotic form of mushroom growing on the ground of
your forest that you wish to preserve and you have an obligation
to and you feel you ought to, that might interfere with the harvesting
of the timber in some way; whereas the commercial operator may
well take the view that he is not that interested in mushrooms.
(Mr Bills) We would be looking at the conservation
status of that particular organism and we would lose money in
order to conserve it.
64. If this is so, is there any real merit ultimately
in trying to benchmark, to use that absurd phrase, to try to compare
your commercial return with that of a commercial forest?
(Mr Bills) That is the discussion we have been having.
There are what I call community service obligations which are
placed upon us as managers of public land which the private sector
does not have. The only thing we can legitimately benchmark is
where we have a plain Jane forest and we are doing a commercial
harvesting operation but, as an organisation, I do not think it
is practical to benchmark us with the private sector.
(Dr McIntosh) We could benchmark individual components
of what we do and we do that now. The difficulty is benchmarking
the whole entity because there is nothing to compare it with.
65. Are you saying there are some parts of the
forestry land where biodiversity and all of the other high objectives
are not going to be taken into account and you are just going
to get on with it and grow the timber, cut it down and make as
much money as you can?
(Mr Bills) We are not saying they are not going to
be taken into account. It is just that within some of those forests
there are not the ancient, semi-natural woodland relics that are
there; there is not the archaeology relic that is there; there
is not the charismatic landscape which people might like to visit
there. There would still be a case for sustainable forest management,
but in that kind of forest the prospect of harvesting would not
damage some of those other, more unique values we have been talking
66. Are all your forests managed to the United
Kingdom Forestry Standard?
(Mr Bills) Yes.
67. Is that the case for all commercial forests?
(Mr Bills) It should be.
(Mr Hill-Tout) Through the regulatory and grant giving
functions that we have, before any felling licence is awarded
or before any grant is given for any operations, our officers
have to satisfy themselves that the operations that are being
proposed and the plans that are set out are in accordance with
the United Kingdom Forest Standard.
68. What assurances does the United Kingdom
Woodland Assurance Scheme offer?
(Mr Bills) UKWAS is rooted in the overall United Kingdom
Standard. The United Kingdom Standard of course is the overall
objective of forestry within the United Kingdom. There was an
interest by retailers and consumers to have third party, independently
certified product in stores, independently certified as coming
from sustainable sources. UKWAS was an exercise involving all
of industry plus environmental NGOs to derive a standard which
could be applied at a forest management unit level to certify
that those forests were indeed being managed according to best
practice. Coupled with that is the trackability element so that,
the way that we sell timber, the way the timber goes through the
sawmills and into the B&Qs of this world for example, you
can be sure that that very stick of timber has come from a certified
forest. UKWAS was a standard against which we could certify. People
could tick boxes and say yes, this can carry the FSC label, in
69. There is clear consumer labelling for that?
(Mr Bills) Yes.
70. Are you confident that the wood that is
labelled is genuinely achieving that standard?
(Mr Bills) Yes. We will be looked at from time to
time. I do not want to make too much of this, but we are concerned
of course with timber prices low and with the current level of
fundingwe are net fundedthat some of the things
we need to do in order to maintain that standard may be very difficult
to do. We may have some hard choices in front of us.
71. Another hard choice might be the environmental
goals given the low timber price. Have you managed to maintain
your environmental objectives? The implication from your previous
answers is that you have.
(Dr McIntosh) We are doing our best to maintain them.
What is suffering at the moment is that we are not able to divert
any funds to new activities. We are not developing any new recreational
facilities. We are not getting involved in any new initiatives
in biodiversity. We are managing to maintain what we have, but
we are not funded to deliver any additional outputs in that area
at the moment.
72. When would you intend to restart? Is it
simply price dependent?
(Dr McIntosh) It is simply a funding issue, yes. There
are lots of good projects on the stocks but nothing to fund them
at the moment.
73. You are not planning to close any of the
(Dr McIntosh) We are having to look hard at some of
our existing facilities on recreation and some of our existing
programmes on the biodiversity front. Because of the tight funding
nature, it is not impossible that we will have to cut back on
some of these.
74. I have sometimes thought it would be interesting
to take one area such as mid-Wales for no particularly good reason,
other than the fact that I represent it, and see how high it is
in terms of environmental issues and biodiversity and so forth.
Accepting that there is a financial issue at present, would you
in principle be interested or would you be supportive, for example,
of a Welsh initiative to do that kind of an experiment?
(Dr McIntosh) Yes, that would be quite useful. In
a sense we are getting that through the Welsh forestry strategy
now. I think there is an agenda coming out that suggests we should
be managing the forests in Wales to produce more of the non-market
outputs but that comes down to a funding issue.
75. So yes in principle, subject to finding
(Dr McIntosh) Surely.
76. The Forestry Commission's sixth PSA target
is to "submit proposals to Ministers by 31 March 2001 for
a more transparent system to improve accountability for public
policy decisions on environmental outputs". What does that
(Mr Bills) It is in hand. We are working up a framework
which will make our current processes more transparent. They will
be reported on quite openly and also improve our current process.
It has yet to go to ministers. I am confident that we will have
no difficulty either meeting the deadline or giving a quality
77. What was the motivation for doing that?
(Mr Bills) Again, I think it was a feelingand
I have some sympathy with the Treasurythat this multi-benefit
forestry is a very difficult thing to get a grasp on. How do we
make the balances? We cannot just use economic measures. Therefore,
should just these three gentlemen here decide or should we have
a more transparent process?
(Dr McIntosh) The difficulty of valuing the non-market
outputs is a big issue for the Treasury. We can say how much we
are spending on producing recreational facilities but what is
the value of the output? If 100 million people come and enjoy
themselves in our forests, what value do you put on that?
(Mr Bills) What is one pair of golden eagles worth?
(Mr Hill-Tout) If we reflect back on the diversification
of our objectives over the years, which perhaps goes back to the
1960s and particularly the 1967 and 1968 Countryside Acts, as
we have diversified in the range of objectives over the last 30
years government has quite rightly asked us to account for these
benefits at various stages. Reflecting back over the last 30 years,
this has taken place on a number of occasions. We have made improvements
and refinements and improvements in clarification. For example,
when Forest Enterprise was set up as an agency, there was a further
major improvement in the transparency on how our recreation conservation
heritage programmes were funded and the benefits associated with
them. We are just moving on to another stage in the sophistication.
78. If you finish this by the time you have
achieved your goal, you will have found some way to quantify the
kinds of things, the golden eagles and the recreation element?
At least that is what you will try and do?
(Mr Bills) I think in the strict sense of the word
we will not be able to quantify it but we will show a process
by which we arrive at a balance. It will be an open process. The
forest strategy process is the beginning of that which you see
operating in Wales.
79. The English Forestry Strategy was published
two years ago or so. To what extent was that a book shelf document?
To what extent is it clearly aligned in financial and objective
terms with what you are doing?
(Mr Hill-Tout) It is most certainly not a book shelf
document. It is very much alive and well. I could follow through
a number of areas there. Four key programmes were identified and
captured the government's priorities with respect to rural development,
economic regeneration, access to recreation and conservation of
the environment. We are now working through those programmes and
have been building those into the spending review 2000 round with
explicit proposals for programmes of work to achieve that plan
and performance measures and targets related to that, wherever
we can, identifying those areas of resources which will be on
balance favouring rural development and those which would be contributing
to conservation of the environment.