Forestry: Independent Panel Report — Question for Short Debate
7:47 pm

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The Bishop of Liverpool (Bishop)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry, published on 4 July 2012.

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, because the right reverend Prelate's Question for Short Debate will now be taken as last business, the time limit for the debate now becomes 90 minutes rather than 60 minutes. Speeches should therefore be limited to eight minutes, except for the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool's speech and the Ministers speech, which remain limited to 10 and 12 minutes respectively.

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The Bishop of Liverpool (Bishop)

My Lords, you do not need to be a sociologist to know that there are moments in history that reveal the character of the nation. Such was the public reaction to the possibility that something might happen to our forests and woodlands. The people of England discovered a passion for trees that they hardly knew they had. It was a surprise to some, not least because our woodland cover hovers around 10%, whereas Europe as a whole has forests that extend to about 40% of the landscape. Maybe it is because we are less wooded that the people were even more protective of the trees that we do have.

I pay tribute to local people who emerged as guardians of the forests, to the 42,000 people who made submissions to the Independent Panel on Forestry, and to the hundreds of stakeholders who came to our regional consultations. The panel, set up by the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, was made up of dedicated experts in the field of forestry and was served by an equally determined and industrious secretariat. Our report and recommendations were unanimous. They captured the public mood and, more importantly, interpreted that mood into policy recommendations. There was robust debate in the panel but never any acrimony, because we were all united in a determination to lay before the Government and the people of England the clearest signposts for a new public policy on forests and woodlands that would serve the country for whole of the next century.

I am delighted with the Government's response. Although the panel was disbanded on completion of its task last July, I shall shortly convene a meeting of the panel at which members can express directly to the Secretary of State the full range of their views. However, no one can deny that the direction of travel in the Government's response follows the signposts of the panel's recommendations, and the Government are to be congratulated on responding constructively to the mood of the nation, expressed so vociferously and articulated so cogently.

Forgive me now for going through this alphabetically. First, on access, forests and woodlands provide the largest leisure facility in the country, with an estimated 300 million visits a year. For the sake of recreation and health, user groups must now work with owners locally to agree the fairest access, each considerate of the needs of the other.

Secondly, on biodiversity, wildlife is affected directly by woodland management. It is a mistake to think that nature, without the symbiotic co-operation of humanity, will protect our biodiversity. The Government must now fulfil the requirements of international obligations on biodiversity that they have helped to formulate.

Thirdly, on conservation, our ancient woodlands are as integral to our cultural heritage as are ancient buildings and landscapes. They are a priceless asset. They must be protected as much as possible from the encroachment of development.

Fourthly, disease and pest control are seriously threatening and require research and resources on a cross-border basis, not least because disease and pests do not respect national boundaries. Each nation must contribute urgently and generously to this work, and the core expertise available at the moment through forest services must be expanded.

Fifthly, ecosystem services are, simply, vital. Trees deliver clean water and clean air. They protect against flooding and contribute to a low-carbon culture. Speaking very personally now, and without the authority of the panel, I wish that there were some way of linking payment for such ecosystem services to our utility bills. That would show the public their worth and provide money to invest in our ecosystem infrastructure.

Sixthly, forestry expansion and better management require both public and private investment. Creating the woodland industry action plan, as the Government have already done, and renegotiating the rural development programme are both steps in the right direction of stimulating the woodland economy, which in itself will help to green the nation's economy. Forestry is good value, as the Church Commissioners' investment portfolio shows; I declare an interest.

Seventhly, guardians will hold the public forest estate in trust for the nation under a parliamentary charter. The Government's response to this recommendation from the panel could not be clearer. Succeeding the Forestry Commission, this new and evolved body will have important freedoms. It will be set free from the short-term political cycle that is so at variance with the lifecycle of trees, and it will be free to be entrepreneurial, so that within a stated plan of forest expansion it will be able to maximise the potential of all its assets. By buying, borrowing, selling and sowing, it will create more woodland nearer to where people are, not least in and around our urban areas.

The Government have accepted the guiding principle of the panel's work that a new national policy on trees delivers a triple bottom line of public benefits: social, environmental and economic. Trees are good for people, good for nature and good for the economy.

The Government's response would gain even more support and traction if they were able to indicate a timetable for the implementation of these recommendations. The sector has been marking time now, unsure of the Government's intentions. Those intentions are now clear, but could the Minister indicate when they will publish a timetable?

As I said in the foreword to the panel's report:

"Our forests ... are nature's playground for the adventurous, museum for the curious, hospital for the stressed, cathedral for the spiritual, and a livelihood for the entrepreneur. They are a microcosm of the cycle of life in which each and every part is dependent on the other; forests and woods are the benefactor of all, purifying the air that we breathe and distilling the water of life".

The voices of the people showed how fertile England is for trees, the independent panel prepared the ground, the Government's response is like a planted sapling, and the water to make it grow must be the political consensus and will to ensure that these recommendations are now translated into policy. The narrative of faith that has influenced this nation is based on a wise and sacred text that begins and ends with human life centred on a tree. Similarly, I believe that the forests and woodlands of England can provide, as it were, a canopy of leaves through which light and shade are shed for no other purpose than the health of the nation itself.

7:56 pm
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Lord Eden of Winton (Conservative)

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. I applaud his most interesting speech and the constructive and comprehensive report of the panel over which he presided. I want to highlight one or two aspects that featured in his report. I particularly welcome the emphasis given to education-the need to involve people and to teach them, as he pointed out, the value of trees, woods and forests and the importance that they represent not just for our pleasure but for our survival. However, I hope that education will not be restricted to visits by primary school children; older people need to know about the value of trees just as much as small children do.

The second point that the report emphasises is the need for access to forests for the purposes of leisure, recreation and tourism. Those activities can be damaging to the very environment that we are seeking to protect in our forests and woodlands. Many decades ago I wrote a report for the Council of Europe on sites of national scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty. I remember that in preparing the report it was clear that too many people going into sensitive environments like woodland settings can, as a result of their footprint and their sheer numbers, cause an enormous amount of damage. Damage was also caused by other leisure activities, and I just hope that whoever runs our country's forestry activities will recognise the need to control them. Noisy activities such as motorcycling should not be allowed because woodlands are places to be enjoyed in quiet and in a degree of silence. People can absorb what the woods can give to them only if they listen. If they have ears to hear, they will hear what the woodland has to teach them.

The third point I want to stress is the value of woodland, of tree planting, as a role in flood prevention. We have had a lot of experience of floods-too much recently in some parts of the country. If trees are planted in the river source, they will not only stabilise the soil, they will control the tendency of those rivers to flood. It is most important that we do not look simply at flood barriers at the end of the river, we look at the flood protection work that tree planting can achieve at the source of the river.

The Government have now declared themselves as intent upon nationalising the public forest estate, or rather, to put it more delicately, keeping it in the public sector. I hope they will stress the need for the public forest estate in the public sector to engage as much as possible in joint venture activity with the private sector. The forest cover of this country should not be retained solely in the hands of a public sector organisation. Too often, a public sector organisation becomes excessively bureaucratic and expensive, and develops its own degree of inertia.

I hope that the Government will press forward vigorously with their own statement of priorities and principles. Among other things, these are to reduce Government involvement; minimise the amount of regulation; encourage local participation and local initiative; and, above all, work in partnership with other interests. Other interests are well represented by private landlords; by estate owners; by organisations such as the Tree Council, the Woodland Trust and the International Tree Foundation; and also by those who are engaged in wood-working enterprises and industries of various kinds. Joint venture, private public partnership, seems to me to be the right way forward.

8:02 pm
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Baroness Parminter (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate today and for the important work of his Independent Panel on Forestry. It seemed a model in capturing the public mood and their undoubted love for woodlands and forest while, at the same time, achieving the difficult job of coming up with some very practical and workable policies which have secured the consensus of a vast number of stakeholders. I congratulate him.

Equally, I congratulate the Government on their response to this broadly welcomed report, with the majority of stakeholders supporting the commitment of the Government to increase our woodland cover from 10% to 12% with the long-term vision of moving towards 15% and keeping the publicly owned forests in public hands.

How we take this forward is key for the future. I hope that the Minister, in his summing up, will cover these three points. First, on the crucial issue of funding for forestry, we welcome the Government's commitments during the current spending review period. But both the independent panel and the Government see funding through the common agriculture policy as crucial to deliver on these forestry goals. The Government have been making a strong rural development regulation a priority in the ongoing CAP reform negotiations, pressing for more money for Pillar 2, as we need incentives to work with private landowners to deliver more woodland.

In the recent letter to the House of Lords Sub-Committee D setting out the result of the recent vote by the European Parliament's Agriculture Committee on CAP reform, including the future of the RDR, the Secretary of State outlined that MEPs are not allowing the payment of income foregone for afforestation. Can the Minister offer some clarification on that and the impact that would have on incentivising and achieving the Government's goal of increasing the amount of woodland cover to 12%?

Secondly, on delivery vehicles, we all look forward to the debate in this House when the Government bring forward proposals for the new operationally independent body to manage the public forest estate. Meanwhile, however, there is a question mark over the future of forest services. The Government say they will confirm the organisational arrangements through which the Government's forestry functions will be delivered after the triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England. We expect the initial conclusions from that in the spring.

The Independent Panel on Forestry supports the retention of the Forest Service organisation. The Forest Service is a small organisation with fewer than 30 members of staff, but has a key role in promoting sustainable forestry and biodiversity. I therefore welcome that the Government are considering the synergies of function between the work of Natural England and the Forestry Service as part of the triennial review.

As someone who has real concerns about any proposals to merge the Environment Agency and Natural England, I am open to the potential of closer links or, indeed, merging Natural England and the Forestry Service to create one organisation with a strategic overview of all terrestrial landscapes and habitats.

The report of the Independent Panel on Forestry was clear that delivering landscape-scale conservation would require the integration of policy and delivery mechanisms for woods, trees and forests with the wider landscape, for example, by integrating incentives for woodland management and creation with agri-environment schemes.

It is also important that we retain a strong body of advice and expertise capable of influencing government on the delivery of a wide range of agendas where forestry has a decisive role to play, from areas across government as diverse as providing green space for public health to carbon storage.

Finally, on engaging stakeholders, the independent panel's report rightly challenges stakeholders as to how we can all play our part in delivery. Post the report from Ian Boyd's tree health and plant biosecurity task force next month, are the Government planning to resource any further stakeholder engagement mechanisms to aid implementation and ensure a sense of shared purpose? Are they looking at the merits of the old England Forestry Forum or the success of the Green Food Project as models to ensure that momentum is kept up and the outcomes we all want for forests are delivered?

8:07 pm
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The Earl of Courtown (Conservative)

My Lords, I have an interest to declare from the register. I have also been involved as a land manager and a contractor for the past 20 years.

I would like to thank the right reverend Prelate, as other noble Lords have done, for introducing this debate and commend his report for its thoroughness. I also read with interest my right honourable friend the Secretary of State's response to the report.

There are a few points in the right reverend Prelate's report that I would like to explore a little further. One of the first matters of prominence raised was calling on the Government to pioneer a new approach to valuing and rewarding the management, involvement and expansion of the woodland ecosystem. The Government referred in their response to the Rural Development Programme, which the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, also mentioned. I am much interested in whether the Minister can say how this fund could help in those periods where funding in forestry can be very difficult to attain.

Another objective was to increase public access to woodland. In the report, the public estate-in other words, Forestry Commission land-amounts to around 18% of UK forestry. This is not the whole story. I should be most interested to know whether the Minister can give an idea of how much of the remaining part of the forestry estate UK in public, NGO and private ownership provides some form of public access. Perhaps it might be easier to say how much of the forestry estate does not provide any access to the public.

It has also been proposed and agreed by the Government that there should be more woodland closer to areas of high population. I do not want to appear negative on this subject, but in my book woodland areas considered to be close to urban areas would be within an hour's travelling. There is high demand for land close to the urban population. An illustration of the value of that is a four-acre paddock close to me for sale at £20,000 an acre. Planting trees on it with reasonable spacing will cost £1,500 an acre. Once trees are planted, the value will drop to about £8,000 an acre, as can be seen by the value of forest land already on the market.

The big difficulty is that if trees are planted on very high-value land, there will be an immediate drop in its value. Encouraging people to plant trees in these areas, whether in the public or the private sector, will be very difficult. Following that, there will be about 20 years of high maintenance costs and very low income before gaining even the lowest amount of income from thinning or whatever. It will be in the region of just a couple of hundred pounds an acre. I of course recognise the social and environmental reasons for woodland, but if we are to increase our woodland by a substantial amount-even 1% or 2% is a substantial amount-we will have to get around that problem.

The report also calls for an increase in the amount of woodland managed to the UK forestry standard from 50% to 80%. Perhaps the Minister will clarify how much woodland managed to the UK forestry standard is grant-aided and whether we have a gap of forestry that has been grant-aided but does not reach the UK forestry standard. Having entered many forestry holdings in the past into management agreements, even then I was horrified by the amount of paperwork involved in the exercise. Last week, having downloaded all 116 pages of the UK forestry standard, I hope my noble friend will listen very closely to me when I say that perhaps we could look at cutting a bit of red tape.

I have also consulted some of my forest manager friends who are very concerned that if management plans become a key driver in securing grant assistance for woodland creation and management, it could be a major disincentive to landowners at large to bring their woodlands into better management or to plant new woodlands. Recent experience with linking grant aid to forest certification has had a similar effect.

Some planting that we see nowadays, particularly by some non-governmental organisations, has provided excellent amenity woodland and public access but has not produced good-quality timber. It is possible to have good amenity and public access, and still grow quality timber. Some amenity timber planting has been planted at three-metre spacing. The outcome of this spacing is poor-quality timber and high maintenance costs. At three-metre spacing, a forester would have just over 1,200 trees per hectare. If he decreased that spacing to 1.5 metres, he would have 5,000 trees per hectare. The higher the density, the less maintenance and the better the quality of the timber.

I could go on on this subject. We have to ensure that we plant the right trees in the right place. That means not just planting in the countryside but structural planting and planting on housing estates where we end up planting enormous trees at great expense. We should look at planting far smaller trees and letting nature take its course. They will grow far better, but if they die it would not be that expensive to replace them. I greatly look forward to hearing from the Minister and other noble Lords.

8:16 pm
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Lord Framlingham (Conservative)

My Lords, I join the congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool on securing this debate about trees, which are so central to our national welfare. His panel's recommendations are excellent, very timely, positive and forward looking. Like us all, I have a huge affection for trees. I founded and ran for many years my own forestry company and I was for some time president of the Arboricultural Association. It is hard to improve on the description of the value of trees given by the right reverend Prelate, although I shall try briefly.

It is hard to believe that trees fulfil so many functions. They take our waste carbon dioxide and give us their oxygen. They provide us with timber for so many uses, including construction, housing and flooring. They provide habitats for birds and insects. They alleviate flooding and stabilise land, to which reference has already been made. They help landscape lawns and gardens. Most importantly of all, they are beautiful to behold.

The holy grail, the most important buzzword politically in these days of economic recession, is growth. Trees cannot by themselves solve our economic problems, but they can help a little because they grow. Trees have not heard about AAA rating, the value of the pound, the national debt or the balance of payments. You plant a tree and, provided you take some care in doing it, it will grow year on year, increasing your investment both in timber and in pleasure. We have every reason in the world to plant more and to look after them.

I want to make just two points. My first point, which has already been touched on, is about the balance between public and privately owned trees, leaving aside the question of access, which I acknowledge has to be handled carefully. I am anxious that there should not be the idea in the mind of the public that one is more desirable than the other. While it clearly is helpful and desirable to have public and government involvement in the planting and maintenance of trees and woodland, I trust it also will always be acknowledged that private landowners planting and caring for their own trees on their own land will always have a huge investment in those trees financially and, more importantly, emotionally.

My second point is about the vexed question of chalara fraxinea, ash dieback, its possible disastrous effect on our landscape and what can be done to prevent similar outbreaks. I do not want to rehearse all the history of how we got to where we are. We are all waiting now to see what the new growing season will bring and then what action, if any, will prove necessary. My concern is how it got here from Europe and the fact that we are squandering the priceless asset of being an island nation in terms of our bio-security.

Since the Plant a Tree in '73 campaign, the demand for trees has increased steadily. This has coincided with the globalisation of tree diseases as trees are routinely shipped around the world. As nurserymen have increasingly imported stock, the situation has been exacerbated by two other factors. First, to protect themselves against the last-minute cancellation of orders because of lack of funding or grant withdrawals many UK growers have used foreign suppliers as a kind of bank to draw on rather than growing the trees. Secondly, UK seed has been grown abroad and reimported as plants to preserve its UK provenance. This has resulted in the importation of trees on a massive scale: 500,000 ash trees alone on an annual basis. Oliver Rackham, a well-known botanist and ecologist, has written:

"It seems that any of the world's plant diseases is at liberty to enter Britain provided it does so via some other European Union country. By the time the problem has been detected and the bureaucracy has clanked into action, it is too late. Once a tree disease has become established in a country, it is almost unknown for it to be controlled, let alone exterminated".

It must be possible with the co-operation of all the organisations concerned and with the Government to devise a system that allows for the sensible forecasting of demand, by species, of the number of trees required nationally in the coming years. Without sacrificing the competitive tendering process, surely the nurserymen and the horticultural trade can be given the kind of firm commitment to numbers required that would allow them to expand and grow the trees that we are going to need in the years ahead. We could then be more self-sufficient and reduce our dependency on foreign imports. This would not eliminate the possibility of importing new diseases-only a complete ban would do that and we may have to consider that-but such a commitment would be an enormous step in the right direction, and I urge the Minister to give it the most serious consideration.

Perhaps I could give your Lordships' House two illustrations. If you go to Christ's College, Cambridge, and walk through its fantastically ornate and famous gate to the fellows' garden you will see a mulberry tree under which John Milton is supposed to have sat as he composed Paradise Lost. You could not imagine a more idyllic situation. If you drove up to Wakefield and got the Home Office's permission to go into the top-security prison there, you would go through a very severe-looking gate into a yard at the back. There is another mulberry tree, standing in the circular island in the middle of the yard. This used to be the exercise yard when the prison was for female inmates. They were allowed to exercise only around this island that contained the mulberry tree. They were not allowed to speak, so they had to mime. This of course is from where we get the mime: here we go round the mulberry bush on a cold and frosty morning.

These illustrations show the part that trees play in all our lives. We must look after the ancient ones because they have such wonderful history, like our own Catalpa trees in New Palace Yard., and we must plant new ones because trees play such an important part in our national life.

8:23 pm
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Lord Lyell (Conservative)

My Lords, I begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate for instituting the debate tonight. I also have to declare an interest. If noble Lords glance at the relevant documents, they will find that I purported to be responsible for some forests in Scotland. I have enormous interests in Liverpool. In an earlier incarnation, the right reverend Prelate was once kind enough to bring some wonderful primary school children to play harp music, which showed us one aspect of that wonderful city. The right reverend Prelate has spoken broadly. Those of your Lordships who might go to Liverpool are perhaps not aware of an area that I tend to go to, Quickswood and Woolton, together with huge areas of parks. I do not tour round many of the great cities of northern England. There are certainly lovely parks here in London. What the right reverend Prelate has in Liverpool is something of which to be very proud and it is relevant that he has started this debate.

I go to Liverpool for various activities and have been going there for 45 years. Last night, and all the time, there is a blue glow. Interestingly, the son-in-law of my great friend at the blue glow centre-he will be known although he was not on the panel with the right reverend Prelate-is called Chris Starr, and he lectures and teaches. Above all your Lordships will be pleased to know that he put a sharp pin into me and told me to cut down the speech and just concentrate on what is necessary. From the University of Cumbria he has taught me a great deal about forests.

Will the Minister let me know later-not necessarily tonight-about item 6 in the Government's response, which was referred to by the right reverend Prelate, looking at what is good for the economy? I understand that the benefit of the forestry industry in England and Wales is £400 million per annum. That is the net financial benefit to the nation. There were costs of some £72 million, which have gone out, and at the moment land sales are frozen. That does not necessarily worry one too much. Above all, can my noble friend confirm and give us any good news about resilience in the forestry industry? There is a great partnership of public and private owners throughout the country.

Item 6 of the Government's response states that forestry is good for people and the right reverend Prelate referred extensively to that. Every single one of us-the right reverend Prelate has the figures-sees, enjoys, visits and relaxes in the forests. Here I may clash ever so lightly with my noble friend Lord Eden, though this may not be something covered by tonight's debate. Not 50 miles from where he and I used to meet in Scotland, one of the most valuable sources of income for the Forestry Commission, doing minimal damage, on one day in the year, was car rallies. If my noble friend thinks that everything is sylvan rural and that you can hear a pin drop, he might wish to hear some of the forest machinery at work, but he is absolutely right that a forest should be a place of enjoyment and relaxation.

As I have said, it is above all good for people. I found a headline about a bit of education. We are lucky that this aspect is in Scotland, and more and more in England and Wales, and in Liverpool too; it is about encouraging youngsters and older people of all types to come out and learn to appreciate trees and forestry that they might not otherwise have looked at. Stressed in the Government's reply to the wonderful report by the right reverend Prelate and his colleagues, and particularly important, are local participation and the involvement of local communities for their advice and thoughts. In almost all cases, they produce very constructive results, especially when foresters join in. They might come and ask whether you have tried, for instance, kestrels, on a Lodgepole Pine, which apparently kept the voles down, but until the RSPB came nobody had necessarily thought of that. Participate as far as you can with local communities.

Perhaps my noble friend can write to me on this. I understand that we have seen a figure, and that it is hoped that 12% of England will be forested by 2060. I am not too sure what the percentage is as of today, but I know that many years ago I was catapulted off to Northern Ireland, where I was given the responsibility of agriculture. Guess what we had there-forestry. I seem to recall that the figure for England, Scotland and Wales was something in the region of 10%, but I would be most grateful if my noble friend could indicate tonight or later how near we are to that target figure of 12%. In 1984, I noted that in France and what was then West Germany the relevant figure for land covered by forestry was 22% and 23%. Perhaps it is dangerous to talk of like for like, when they have different climates and different types of tree.

The report has been very encouraging, but the finance will take a generation. I am not married, but for those who are married, it will take virtually until their grandchildren are around before they see the benefit and, above all, note what is there.

I make one main, lasting plea. My kind friend in Temple Sowerby in Cumbria asked me to ask the Minister to see what his department could do to use the existing land that is available for planting or is not being fully utilised for forestry purposes. If he could look at that, it would be the first step. Then one can expand elsewhere, planting suitable trees in suitable land.

I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate. I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister and even to getting my knuckles rapped by him.

8:32 pm
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The Earl of Caithness (Conservative)

My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for securing this important debate today. It is always good that this House, which is so knowledgeable on forestry, has the chance to debate it. I declare an interest as a surveyor, although not one who has practised for some time; however, when I was practising, I did quite a lot of forestry.

I want to focus on three parts of the Statement that my honourable friend the Minister of State made on 31 January about the future of forestry. My heart lifted when I read that the Government are going to review the "wider forestry functions". This is a wonderful opportunity to sort out the Forestry Commission. I have disliked it ever since I started to learn about forestry; it is judge, jury, prosecution, defence and practitioner all in one. It is totally inappropriate these days that all those functions should be held in one body. It plants the wrong trees in the wrong place and regularly lags behind the pace of change of the private sector, which is totally in hock to the Forestry Commission and has to follow its bad practices of even-aged, single-block woodlands, followed by the dreadful desecration of clear felling. Nothing could be more unnatural. We are not good at forestry in this country, but we are very good at growing trees in straight lines, sawing them flat and bulldozing the remains into piles. That is not what I call forestry.

For 40 years, I have been saying that we should move to mixed, uneven-aged forestry, with no clear felling. I have advocated that, and I hope that now is the right time for Her Majesty's Government to insist that at least half the state forests should be converted to this type of management. That would require massive retraining and education to make our foresters proper foresters in this country. We would have to bring in overseas experts, who do this well, to train them-but if the Forestry Commission and the state sector were doing this, it would encourage the private sector to do it and fulfil all the aims of what the right reverend Prelate is trying to do. You would get better disease control, better diversity and better wildlife, as well as better economic return from following that type of management, if done properly.

I move on to the future of forestry. To paraphrase part of what my noble friend Lord Courtown said, "It's the economics, stupid". There is only one tree in this country that is economically viable, and that is a Sitka spruce. Some 80% of the timber produced in this country is from that tree. There is a good market for its timber, and it is producing some 3% to 4% annually biological growth. That used to be a poor return, but today it is a very good one when compared to other investments. The land prices continue to rise. As my noble friend Lord Courtown said, there is a differential between agricultural land and forestry land.

So Sitka spruce is good, but what about the rest? They range from variable to just acceptable to disastrous, unless one has top quality hardwoods. Ash and larch are a disaster at the moment because of disease, and oak might well go that way soon. So let us look at what has happened to prices. The coniferous standing sales average price index shows that there has been a 58% decline in real terms since March 1985 to September 2012. That is a staggering loss for landowners and, until that situation is rectified, there is only one economic tree available.

With regard to hardwoods, the right reverend Prelate said that we must have a plan for the whole of this century. That is about three-quarters of the time it takes to grow a decent stand of oak, so we are not looking at a 100-year programme but at one of at least 200 years. Of course, our hardwoods have been decimated by two world wars. The whole planting system is out of kilter and we have a lot of catching up to do. Perhaps one chink of light is thinnings, which have been a disaster area for so long, but they are beginning to show some sort of return because so much is now being used for fuel.

My third point is that we need to plant more land. However, we must plant the right trees in the right places. The Forestry Commission has planted 72% of its land with conifers, but in the private sector the figure is only 17%. That is a much more interesting figure. If we plant 50% more woodland, as the right reverend Prelate says in his report, what will it mean? He also wants the land cover to rise from 10% to 15%. That would roughly take us back to what this country had at the time of the Domesday Book. To plant that amount of land would require about 650,000 hectares, which is about the size of Cumbria. For noble Lords who are not very good on anything north of Watford, that is more than the size of Kent, Surrey and Sussex put together. It is a fair chunk of the country.

If the only tree that is economic to grow is Sitka spruce, the only land that should be used is in the north of England. The right reverend Prelate now faces a dilemma because he wants trees to be planted much closer to the towns, which is right; there should also be more trees down south. How will those trees be funded? If they are to be recreational trees, which people can go out and hug and which make them feel better-I fully agree that that is essential-who will fund them? Will it be taxpayers? Have the Government got taxpayers' money for that? Unless the Government give considerably more subsidies and good grants to those landowners who are prepared to use their land for a loss-making enterprise-they will have to look more than 100 years ahead-with the best will in the world, that will not be done.

As this is a very long-term operation, the dark cloud on the horizon in forestry terms is climate change. If anything like the worst predictions come about, we will not be able to grow the kind of trees that we have now and to decide now about hardwoods, which might not be growing in the same places in 50 or 60 years' time, is another disincentive. That makes it very difficult for the Government to sell that to the private sector and to their own state arm, but we need to take it into account because if this country warms up or we get more gales and more wind blow, we will have to plant different areas with different species. We have not been good at that in the past and I fear that we might not be very good at that in the future.

8:40 pm
Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Labour)

My Lords, I begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for this debate, but more importantly for so brilliantly chairing and guiding the independent panel on its journey through the challenging but beautiful landscape and livelihood of our forests and woodlands to a superb report on their future and the social, environmental and economic opportunities that they offer. He made a splendid speech today and I wholeheartedly agree with his ABC, but I also rather like the idea of linking the benefits of our trees and forests to our utility bills, and I hope that that can be explored.

The panel's report gave us hope after the depressing, dangerous and quite extraordinary proposals from a Government willing to sell off one of our most precious assets: our forests and woodlands. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the terrific campaigns that swiftly grew and gave powerful voice to our concerns, specifically my own Hands off our Forest, which was instrumental in bringing together thousands of members of the public under the Forest Campaigns Network and helped to inform the panel's deliberations.

I welcome the positive tone of the Government's response to the report, their commitment to retaining the public forest estate in public ownership, the rescinding of the policy of disposing of 15% of the estate, and their commitment to expanding our public forests. I have to disagree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Eden, on the public forest estate, which I believe is well and sustainably managed and is much more efficient in many ways in its productivity than the private estates are. To the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, I say that in the Forest of Dean we have good access, we have great social benefits and we have a well managed sustainable forest with excellent timber.

In answer to some supplementary questions in this House a couple of weeks ago, the Minister hinted that we might expect a Bill to be announced in the Queen's Speech. I would welcome that, but I would also suggest to the noble Lord that such a Bill should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny to ensure maximum opportunity for consultation. I am extremely concerned about the much valued and multi-expert Forestry Commission, both its future and its current situation. I do not agree with the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, although he was right to point out that our forests were decimated by two world wars. In the Forest of Dean, our forest was decimated by the Armada and by Trafalgar.

The Forestry Commission has already suffered massive cuts, yet its work increases by the day, especially on diseases such as ash dieback disease. Today in Eastleigh, I happened to meet Forestry Commission people from the New Forest who, like my friends in the Forest of Dean, are overburdened and deeply anxious about their future and about the effect that the cuts will have on the viability of the proposed new management organisation and the implementation of the proposed policy. I again ask the Minister for confirmation that there will be no further redundancies and no further cuts to the budget, and for his assurance that the Forestry Commission will be adequately funded. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I am concerned about the future of forest services and the retention of its invaluable expertise if there is to be a merger.

When considering budgets, I urge the Government to take a holistic rather than a silo-based approach, looking at the public benefits of our forests. In addition to the green economy, which has massive potential for expansion, mental and physical health as well as the social and wider environmental and biodiversity benefits should and must be taken into account. The independent panel informed us that,

"If every household in England were provided with good access to quality green space, an estimated £2.1 billion in healthcare costs could be saved. And the social costs to the impacts of air pollution are estimated at £16 billion a year in the UK".

Many things should be taken into account.

The new operationally independent body is to have,

"the ability to hold the assets"-

-the land and trees comprising the estate-

"in trust for the nation",

but nowhere does it say whether it is to be freehold or a leasehold vested in the guardians or the trustees. I would be grateful for clarification; likewise about the guardians. The Government's response appears to have substantially watered down the role of the guardians when compared with the intention of the independent panel.

Who will those guardians be and what will the balance be between industry and community and between environment and economics, and who will appoint them? Indeed, how will the independent body itself be constituted and appointed, and how will the contents of the charter be agreed? As the right reverend Prelate said, the independent panel recommended that the quantity and quality of access to woods be increased so that access to woodland should be the norm. I understand that one way in which the Government are looking to increase access is through developing rights of way improvement plans. In the light of a recent Ramblers report showing that nearly 70% of councils have cut their rights of way budgets over the past three years, will the Minister ensure that the necessary resources are in place for local authorities to review and develop these plans?

Many noble Lords have spoken about access to the private and public estate. The independent panel's report suggests that,

"The public forest estate represents more than 40% of accessible woodland in England despite representing only 18% of the total woodland area".

That suggests that access to the public estate is far greater than access to the privately owned estates. As a forester I have to mention a specific concern of my friends in the Forest of Dean. The Government's policy statement recognises,

"the unique historical, environmental and cultural characteristic of the living, working landscapes in its individual forests and woodlands, such as the New Forest and Forest of Dean".

That echoes the words of Lord Mansfield in this House on 1 July 1981 when he said that the Government recognised that the Forest of Dean was unique. On that occasion the Forest of Dean's unique qualities secured exemption from the power of disposal granted by the 1981 amendment to the Forestry Act 1967; it was the only forest in the United Kingdom to be so exempt.

Today, however, we seek something more than protection from disposal. We expect the new operationally independent body to respect, protect and sustain the history, environment and the natural and cultural heritage of our populated working forest. I will be looking to Parliament to impose on the new body the duties to secure these and grant it the necessary powers. I say that having regard to the more limited aspirations in the Secretary of State's statement that:

"The new body will have clear statutory duties, powers and functions focused on maximising the economic, social and environmental value of the Estate, including a requirement that it should improve the financial sustainability of the Estate".

We must not lose sight of the fact that people live and work-for example, Freeminers-in my forest, the Forest of Dean.

I end where the right reverend Prelate began. Trees are good for people, nature and the economy. They are vital to the future well-being of our nation. I therefore trust that we can now move forward to implement, through legislation, the recommendations of the independent panel's report.

8:48 pm
Photo of Lord de Mauley

Lord de Mauley (Conservative)

My Lords, I start by saying how grateful I am to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for his leadership of the independent panel and for calling this debate today. Before going further, like him, I have to declare an interest-in my case as a woodland owner and lover. Under his leadership the Independent Panel on Forestry brought together senior experts for the land management, forestry, wildlife charity and wood business sectors, and produced an excellent report, setting out a compelling vision for the future of England's trees, woods and forests. I am grateful to him for his kind words about our response to his panel's report.

In his introduction to that report, the right reverend Prelate commented how, as a society, we had lost sight of the value of trees and woodlands. The panel's report challenged all of us-the Government, the forestry sector and society as a whole-to value our nation's woodlands more. We have embraced this challenge with passion and conviction. Our Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement, published on 31 January, addressed all of the issues raised by the panel, and went further by setting out a new policy approach to our forestry responsibilities based on the clear priorities of protecting, improving and expanding our woodland assets. It also recognised the scope for realising more or our woodlands' value through a better understanding of the benefits they provide and the importance of ensuring that we have the most effective and efficient delivery arrangements in place. It included over 30 new steps that my department and the Forestry Commission will be taking and it invited all stakeholders, including those involved in the panel, to work with us to deliver the new woodland culture envisaged by the panel.

At the heart of this new policy statement is a firm commitment to the public forest estate. It will remain secure in public ownership for the people who enjoy it, the businesses that depend on it and the wildlife that thrives in it. To achieve this, we will set up a new operationally independent body to manage the estate and hold it in trust for the nation. It will have greater independence from government, greater freedom to manage its resources sustainably and a clear remit to maximise the income it generates from the estate through entrepreneurial activity. The estate will, however, remain firmly in public ownership and the right safeguards will be in place for it to operate for the long-term benefit of people, nature and the economy. Our statement also recognises that there is an important job for the Government to do with the wider woodland and forestry sector, providing it with appropriate leadership and support so that we can grow our forests and protect what we have.

Last year's outbreak of Chalara ash dieback, to which my noble friend Lord Framlingham referred, reminded us that our most urgent priority is to protect tree and plant health. I had the opportunity to see for myself the effects of Chalara fraxinea in Wayland Wood in Norfolk. I would like to thank my noble friend for his helpful suggestion about the benefits of more advanced notice of requirements for saplings. We are giving this careful thought.

In recognition of the scientific advice that it will not be possible to eradicate Chalara and that, on the basis of the experience in Europe, there is no effective treatment, we are now focusing our efforts on minimising the impact of the disease on our economy, environment and society, and discovering how we can build resilience to this and other tree diseases. The next step will be the publication of an updated control plan at the end of March, which will set out our approach around four key objectives. They are slowing the rate of spread; developing resistance in the UK ash population; encouraging citizen, landowner and industry engagement; and building resilience in UK woodland and associated industries.

In addition to the control plan, we have introduced tighter controls on the import of native tree species and established the independent expert task force-convened by Defra's chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd-to examine further ways to prevent plant pests and pathogens entering the country. This task force will report later this spring.

Recognising the long-term investment needed into tree health, we have allocated £8 million from the existing but unallocated evidence budget for new research into tree health over the next four years and are working with partners and stakeholders to take forward further research. The Forestry Commission has also increased investment in tree health research from its existing resources by 30% over the next 3 to 4 years. In addition to protecting what we have, we also need to make more of what we have. This means improving our woodlands in order to help drive economic recovery.

Just under half of our woodlands in this country are unmanaged or undermanaged. We want to encourage landowners to bring neglected woodlands back into management, improving their resilience, supporting economic growth and delivering benefits for wildlife. To do this we need to remove barriers preventing them from doing so and to develop further the markets and supply chains that will help them realise an economic return from their woodlands. We therefore warmly welcome the initiative to develop the industry's new action plan under the leadership of Dr Peter Bonfield. It is one of the most exciting developments for the sector in a generation.

Making more of what we have also means maximising the social contribution of our woods and forests, including recognising the health and educational benefits that they provide and supporting communities in playing a greater role in management of their local woodlands. We want to improve public access to our woods and forests, particularly those close to towns and cities, so that the greatest number of people can enjoy them for exercise, leisure and recreational purposes.

The panel rightly encouraged us to take the long-term view. We need to act now to ensure that we have resilient woodlands and a secure supply of timber in the future. England's woodland cover currently stands at just over 10%, double what it was a century ago. We believe that there is scope for increasing this cover further to deliver economic, social and environmental benefits. We will therefore work with others to expand our woodland resources by creating new woodlands and increasing existing woodland cover where it will most benefit the economy, communities and the environment.

We want to see better quality outcomes for the environment, the economy and society, and that involves the contributions of all our network bodies. We are putting the public forest estate on track towards a sustainable long-term future in public ownership. It is right that we also consider our broader forestry functions alongside the outcomes of the triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England and the conclusions of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Task Force. We fully recognise the important work that our forestry experts within the Forestry Commission currently do and will ensure that any changes strengthen our national forestry expertise.

I turn now to the questions asked. The right reverend Prelate asked about the publication of a timetable for implementing the commitments. My department and the Forestry Commission are currently developing an implementation plan for the 37 commitments in the statement. This includes setting up significant projects, such as that to establish the new public forest estate body, and we will set out our progress in implementing these commitments later in the spring.

My noble friend Lord Eden referred to the value of silence. I agree with him about woodland noise rather than the noise of motors. I think there is-dare I say it?-a place for both, although I share his personal preference for the predominance of woodland noise. He asked whether leisure facilities have an adverse affect on the environment. I agree that there needs to be a fair balance struck between the two. He asked about the role of the private sector in the public forest estate. I agree with the points that he made. The public forest estate already works closely with private sector partners, including on joint ventures. My noble friend may be aware of Go Ape!, which is an excellent example of a joint venture with the private sector. We have made it clear that we will expect the new body to act entrepreneurially and work closely with the private sector. He made a point about the role of trees in flood alleviation, and I agree with him on that.

My noble friend Lady Parminter asked about funding through the common agricultural policy. She will know that we are currently negotiating the new rural development programme and very much hope that this will provide resources for the future. We cannot make any firm commitments about how much will be available to support forestry initiatives at this stage. We will, however, be consulting on its objectives in the spring. She asked about the functions of the various forestry bodies in the context of the triennial review. We have confirmed that we intend to retain forestry expertise within government and will set out our plans for delivering forestry functions after the triennial review has reported.

We are now considering the functions currently delivered by the forest services directorate of the Forestry Commission alongside the work to review the functions and form of the Environment Agency and Natural England their triennial review. This work is separate to but following the same principles underlying that review, namely better integration, greater affordability and improved service to achieve better quality outcomes for the environment, economy and society. We will confirm the organisational arrangements through which the Government's forestry functions will be delivered after the triennial review reports its preliminary conclusions in the spring.

The noble Baroness asked about stakeholder engagement. We agree that it will be vital to involve stakeholders as we implement and build on the policy statement. We have established the National Forestry Stakeholder Forum and have committed to bringing it together again to report on progress later this year. We are also including clear stakeholder engagement strands in the new projects that we are establishing to develop the new public forestry safety management body and to review the functions of Forest Services.

My noble friend Lord Courtown asked about the UK Forestry Standard active management plans. We recognise concerns over the size of the documentation. We have recently published a new quick-start summary of the standard aimed at enabling more landowners and businesses to understand and use it.

I apologise that I have run out of time. There are a lot of questions that I have not yet answered. I will take advantage of the invitation of my noble friend Lord Lyell to write to him about his question. May I write to other noble Lords?

I will try to address a couple of the important questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. She said that I hinted that there might be a Bill in the Queen's Speech. I actually said that Governments zealously guard the secrecy of what is in the Queen's Speech. Her own Government did that, I am sure, as much as we do. She suggested that the Bill should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. That is a suggestion that I will take back, if I may.

The noble Baroness asked about redundancies and cuts. We continue, as she will know, to face very challenging financial circumstances, requiring hard choices to be made across the whole public sector. The Forestry Commission has had to bear its share of the cuts that we have had to make to bring public expenditure under control. The department has confirmed the Forestry Commission's provision for 2013-14 at £39.2 million and we provided an initial £3.5 million as cover for loss of income from woodland sales that were to have been made, making a total of £42.7 million.

The noble Baroness asked about a charter and what a guardian will do. We will consult on the finer details of the organisation's shape, structure and remit in due course and I hope that she will contribute to that process. I will write on the other questions, if I may.

Delivering on the vision of the panel and the objectives set out in our policy statement calls for creative thinking and partnership working to protect, improve and expand our woodlands and forestry assets. Success will see our environment, wildlife and economy thrive and create the new woodland culture that we all want to see.