Forestry Commission.

Part of Civil Estimates, 1938. – in the House of Commons on 1st July 1938.

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Photo of Sir George Courthope Sir George Courthope , Rye

My recollection is that there are one or two comparatively small acquisitions inside the Special Area, but the greater part of the land so acquired is within the 15 miles limit but not within the Special Area. The present position, which I have tried to summarise, leads one to consider what is the best programme for the future. Very often statements are made which suggest that it would be quite easy for the Forestry Commission, if the money was available, to double, treble or multiply by ten times its planting programme. It could not do that. If we are given, as I hope we shall be, the support of the Committee and a steady grant, without interruption—and our grants have been interrupted twice so far because of financial crisis, involving very great economic difficulties and ultimate loss—we think our planting area could usefully be expanded during the next few years from the present 23,000 acres up to about 40,000 acres. As far as direct planting is concerned, we think that is about the limit of useful annual activities.

What could usefully be done, if we had the money—and to this extent I disagree with my right hon. and gallant Friend the Financial Secretary, who said that we could not usefully use more money—and what would be very much to the advantage of our forests, would be to house a larger proportion of the labour that we employ on forest work in our own area. We have not the money to do that. Every year there is an expansion in that direction, but we should like to house a far larger number of the people we employ, not only because we want to see that they are properly housed, but because it would be of great advantage to have the men on the spot for the protection of our forests. As the woods grow up, the requirements in men per thousand acres will increase very substantially, and we should like that increased number of men to be on the spot. The importance of their being there will be realised when I refer to what has happened in connection with forest fires this year. During the forest year, which began last September—for practical purposes we must say that it began last February—we have had close on a thousand forest fires.

We have now a very good technique for dealing with fires, and the great majority of them were stopped by our own men before much damage was done. Indeed, with one exception, the only fires which were really destructive of plantations of large value were fires which had assumed large proportions on other people's land, so that when they reached our areas they had a frontage which was irresistable. That was particularly the case at Cannock Chase, where I understand that 2,000 acres of common lands were ablaze before the fire reached our land, and then of course it could not be stopped. Therefore, it would be a great advantage to have as many men as possible living on the spot, so that if a fire was reported they could get to work and stop it before it assumed large dimensions. I cannot help feeling that when so much money is being spent on housing, a little bit of it might be spent on increased facilities for housing our forest workers on the spot where they are needed. They have to be housed somewhere.

We shall probably have to ask for authority, and a little more money, to extend the systematic development of National Forest Parks. We have made a start, and made it cheaply. The Argyll National Forest Park was established at a cost of £5,000, apart from the ordinary planting costs. That amount covered the making of camping grounds and so on available to the public. There is another matter in connection with which I think we shall very likely have to ask for increased financial powers, namely, for the purpose of dealing with privately-owned lands. It very often happens that on a private estate a plantation reaches the stage when thinnings should take place, but they are not done either because the owner is hard up or for some other reason, so that the whole plantation is in danger. There is very often a temptation to sell immature timber for felling, and the effect may be very great. Probably if there are Death Duties to be paid the temptation is almost irresistible. Looked at merely from the point of view of the Commissioners' responsibility for building up a reserve of timber, we should like to have the financial ability to step in and to buy those plantations, thin them and maintain them so that they shall be added to the national reserve of timber. It is not that we have not the power, but we have not the means. We could not spend very much money in that direction without cutting into our planting programme, which is our primary consideration.

I hope I have said enough to show that the money which is being spent is a good investment, and I turn for a moment to the less satisfactory side of our picture, that is, the private woodlands. My hon. Friend has not exaggerated the case in saying that the condition of the private woodlands is, on the whole, deplorable. There are, of course, exceptions. There are some estates both large and small, particularly some of the greater estates, where the woodlands are splendidly managed, but those are the exceptions and not the rule. There has been a great deal of change of ownership of country estates since the War. In many cases the woodlands of estates which have been well managed in the past, have been bought up by investors, sometimes by timber merchants, stripped of the timber, and sold for building or for whatever they would fetch for any other purpose. That very often means that the woodland area simply runs to waste and is not developed. In some few cases we have been able to intervene and take some action, but very often such an estate falls into the hands of those who have no concern in looking after the woodlands properly, and there are many other cases where from one cause or another the woods are neglected.

We have to face these facts. It is no good shutting our eyes, either to the position which exists or to its cause, and there is no doubt in my mind that my hon. and gallant Friend is right in saying that the principal cause is lack of confidence. He is not right, however, in saying that Death Duties are paid on standing timber. Standing woodland does not pay this tax. But that is not the whole of the problem. There is no confidence in any landowner's mind now that his grandchildren will be in possession of the properties which he now holds. A good many of us unfortunately, are not sufficiently altruistic to feel an obligation to spend money on our properties so as to leave them in the best possible condition, unless we have some confidence that our children and grandchildren will reap the benefit. That lack of confidence is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons why so many privately-owned woodlands are not properly maintained. I am not suggesting now what we ought to do to meet that situation, but, having looked at one side of the picture, we must face the facts on the other side. With the exception of 115,000 acres which have been planted under the grant system, the steps contemplated by the Forestry Act, 1919, have failed, so far as private woodlands are concerned. The grant system has had this very limited effect.