Home-Grown Timber (Marketing)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th April 1954.

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Photo of Mr John Baldock Mr John Baldock , Harborough 12:00 am, 30th April 1954

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the appointment by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture of a committee to investigate the marketing of home-grown timber; and urges them to invite the committee to do everything in its power to submit an early report. Some 18 months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir I. Orr-Ewing) moved a Motion in this House very much on the lines of the one I am moving today. It might be asked what purpose is served in again asking the House to give consideration to a Motion rather on the same lines, especially in view of the announcement made by the Minister of Agriculture just before the Easter Recess that a committee was being set up to investigate the marketing arrangements for homegrown timber.

We believe that we are justified in raising the question again because of our feeling of urgency about the importance of the problem and because we want to go further than the proposed committee can go under its terms of reference. We believe that a national policy for the marketing of home-grown timber is required, and clearly national policy must be decided by this House and not by a Departmental committee.

Trees can be grown for three purposes. The first is for defence and stockpiling in preparation for emergencies. That aspect of the matter is largely taken care of by the Forestry Commission, and I understand that that was largely the purpose for which the Forestry Commission was set up. The second purpose is the commercial interest of the private owners who grow timber. The growing of timber is a commercial enterprise, but it is also of considerable national interest because the products of our forests must be made available for building and for similar operations. Otherwise, timber must be imported from overseas at an expensive outlay in foreign exchange and hard currency, frequently dollars. Timber growing is therefore a matter of considerable interest to the Exchequer and to the national economy.

The third purpose in the growing of trees is to balance the features of the landscape. This is of interest to the town and country planning section of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which has devoted considerable time to deciding where trees should be grown and what types of trees they should be. Trees also balance the national climate. We have debated in this House methods of inducing artificial rainfall and of controlling in other ways our climate artificially, but I think we are all agreed that little can be done in this direction at the present time. On the other hand, trees are generally understood to play an important part in the control of climate. It is, therefore, a matter of national importance that an adequate proportion of the acreage of this country should be covered with trees.

All three aspects of tree growing, whether for defence, for commercial and foreign exchange reasons, or for balancing the landscape or climate have a very considerable national interest. The whole community is very much concerned with what is done, so that anyone who plants trees must naturally expect to have the Government and their agents looking upon what he does from the national aspect, as indeed they do.

Perhaps it would be suitable at this moment to declare my own private interest. I am the owner of a very small acreage of woodland. I am not sure that it is sufficiently large to justify my declaring it at all, but I do so to put myself on the right side. I may add that I am in process of renting part of that very small acreage to the Forestry Commission and so helping it to find the further acreages it requires to carry out its planting-up policy.

This is a national problem, and the Forestry Commission is the principal national instrument for carrying out the policy of the Government with regard to the further planting of forests and trees. I should like to pay my tribute, as so many other hon. Members have done at different times, to the very fine job which the Commission has carried out over the last 30 or more years, often under quite difficult circumstances. That the Forestry Commission is not so much in the news as many other national concerns which spend Government money is, I think, only a compliment to its efficiency and businesslike methods. I hope that it will continue to carry out the Government's aims in this direction as efficiently and as well in the future as it has done in the past.

I suggest that there might be an important extension of the Forestry Commission's functions. The Commission is always very helpful, as I have found in my own personal experience with regard to the interest I have just mentioned. It is very pleased to give advice, in an informal way, to owners of woodlands as to how they should plant them. I think that something in the nature of a more formal advisory service on the forestry side—more parallel to the National Agricultural Advisory Service—would be most helpful, particularly to the smaller woodland owners who probably do not at present realise that they can seek help from the Forestry Commission.

I am sure that the National Agricultural Advisory Service is one of the most important factors in the whole agricultural scene at the present time. It is the principal method of increasing agricultural efficiency and of allowing farmers to make use of the experience and knowledge of the scientists quickly and freely in order to improve their methods and efficiency. Something of that kind is required at any rate for the smaller woodland owners.

We hear much criticism of the poor quality of our home-grown timber. I think that most hon. Members realise that this is, to a large extent, a result of the vicious onslaughts made on our forests in the two world wars. That has tended to leave only the inferior timber, under normal conditions, to be put on the market. That is not the fault of the timber growers. There is, nevertheless, a strong feeling that home timber is of poor quality.

If marketing of home timber is to be facilitated, everything should be done to eradicate that prejudice and to improve its quality as quickly as possible. An advisory service of this kind could do a good job there. It could help the smaller woodland owners to improve the quality of their timber. It could perhaps consult the trade to find out the types of timber required and the right way to present them. It could advise not only on how to grow but on what to grow—and advise also on profitable outlets. It might be asked where the finance would be found for such a service. I do not say that the cost should be borne by the Exchequer. It might be met by some kind of levy on imported timber, but I will return to that a little later.

A great deal of disquiet has been felt about the fall in the prices of homegrown timber. That point was in the forefront of my hon. Friend's speech when this matter was last discussed in the House about 18 months ago. Since then there has been a further considerable drop. Foreign timber has been permitted to be freely imported and sold and that has led to a further fall in prices. There has also been, of course, the unfortunate windfall of very large areas in Scotland and that has also tended to put a considerable amount of timber prematurely on the market.

In the previous debate, my hon. Friend said that the problem was urgent, that prices were falling and that unless something was done there would be little incentive for private owners, at any rate, to continue the planting they had done so well between the wars. Their record then was at least as good as, if not better than, that of the Forestry Commission. It was felt that that trend could not continue unless there was a reasonable return from the sale of the timber—not only because of lack of confidence but also because there would not be the finance available for the planting of new areas.

If the problem was urgent 18 months ago, it has certainly become even more urgent today. Prices have fallen further. Although my hon. Friend then introduced that note of urgency, it was only a few weeks ago that a committee was set up to investigate the problem and to propose improved methods for marketing homegrown timber. This Motion today asks that the committee, having now been set up after the lapse of this fairly considerable time, should produce its report as soon as possible. Time is running out.

The nation is very much concerned with all aspects of forestry policy. It affects everyone. Naturally, therefore, it is subject to a considerable degree of regulation. The forestry owner finds that his costs and prices are regulated in many directions. From a forestry point of view he is instructed what trees to fell and what trees not to fell. In the southern counties, or if he is anywhere near one of the National Parks, he is also frequently instructed by the town and country planing authorities on what trees he may not fell even though, from a forestry point of view, those trees may be mature and in a condition for felling.

His principal outlay is on the wages of his men. Those wages are also fixed on a national basis. He has also to pay Schedule B taxation which, again, is regulated for him. Yet, with all these regulations imposed upon him in the national interest—and I would not argue against any of them—the sale of his product, by which he has to finance his operations, is not in any way supported or regulated on a national scale. His product has to compete on the open market with timber from foreign countries where conditions may be much easier and wage rates much lower. To me it rather seems that he is competing with one hand tied behind his back, while with his one free hand he has to try to get the finance to support his operations.

I think that in this respect it can be said that the forestry industry receives less consideration than any other important national interest, and certainly compares very unfavourably with agriculture. In many ways it is parallel to, or a branch of, the agricultural industry, but whereas agricultural prices are guaranteed in return for various restrictions and regulations, in forestry this is not so.

I believe that what is now required is a permanent national policy for the marketing of home-grown timber to give the whole industry confidence. This can only be done by arranging that the prices should stand at a better level than they do today. There are, I think on both sides of the House, many strong objections to any form of Exchequer subsidy, and therefore I return to the point that I briefly mentioned earlier.

I should like to suggest the consideration of an import levy on imported timber, which represents over 90 per cent. of the timber we use in this country, and therefore the levy could be on a very low basis, in order to provide adequate finance to make our own timber industry remunerative and stable. Something of this kind worked very well under the Wheat Act in rather a comparable situation, where the imported product was in preponderance over the home-grown product.

It is interesting to learn that a very small levy, as small as a penny a cubic foot, on imported timber would have introduced last year more money to the industry than all the Exchequer subsidies were able to do. Could that not be extended so that not only could the industry be put on a more remunerative basis and given more confidence, but also the Exchequer could possibly save all the money which has been spent in subsidies, thus effecting a dual purpose—the encouragement of further planting by private owners and the reduction of the present Exchequer payments to woodland owners?

In the past the private owners have had an excellent record of replanting, but I think this has mainly been, since the war at any rate, because of tradition. These woodlands are largely in the hands of men who for many years have been brought up to replant where they have felled, and they probably find it rather difficult to change their ways even though they may begin to suspect that it is no longer economic to do so.

I suggest that as new generations come along and as further death duties are paid, new owners of woodlands will have to consider the matter in the cold reality of economics, and they will appreciate that at present prices it cannot possibly be justified economically to replant on the scale that they have done in the past, which it is generally agreed they should continue to do in the national interest. I believe that some kind of a prop to the prices in this respect would give the incentive which is so badly required.

I should like to know where the Conservative Party stands with regard to its pledge of putting the home producer first in the home market. Some kind of support of this kind, some kind of small levy on imported timber to support the price of home-produced timber, would be a very practical demonstration that this party believes in what it has always said about putting the home producer first.

I wonder how the industry is being treated by the nationalised concerns which are such important consumers of home-grown timber. Is the home-grown producer really being put first in this respect? It has been suggested that a considerable quantity of imported hardwood is being used in the repair of railway wagons, some of which, at any rate, could be replaced by home-grown timber.

I have also heard that the National Coal Board, which is the largest user of the thinnings from forests, when negotiating for the purchase of pit wood from home sources, is inclined to have very much in mind the possibility of buying its pit wood overseas. The National Coal Board does not always give the impression that it is going to consume all the home-produced pit wood that is available before turning to foreign sources. I cannot imagine any other country where it would be considered good policy to use a foreign product in a nationalised industry if it were possible to use its home product or before making sure that the whole of the home product had first been used.

That brings me to the point of the disposal of thinnings, a large proportion of which are, or should be, inevitably consumed in the mines. From reports it would appear that the Forestry Commission is finding some difficulty in disposing of the whole of its thinnings to the National Coal Board. I should be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that point. I should like to know whether he is still satisfied that the National Coal Board will continue to be able to take up all of the future increased quantity of thinnings, or whether other outlets are going to be required.

I now come to the field of the committee which has been set up and which will presumably investigate other possible outlets for thinnings and second-grade timber of that kind besides pit wood. Various suggestions have been made, such as the manufacture in this country of more hardboard from softwood thinnings and the manufacture of wood pulp for paper. I believe there is considerable doubt whether the hardboard and wall-board industry will be capable of taking up much of the home-produced thinnings, because in most cases these are produced in countries where there is a considerable amount of forestry waste which it is possible to put into the factories at negligible cost. Therefore, I doubt whether thinnings, which have to carry a considerable amount of overhead expenditure to get to our factories, could compete with pure waste from foreign countries. It seems doubtful whether that offers a very optimistic outlet for further thinnings.

The pulp industry would seem to me to have better prospects. We all know that newspapers are very concerned about the shortage of pulp and the lack of newsprint. I am not suggesting that the small quantity that we shall produce in this country in the immediate future would make very much difference to the situation, but at least there is a strong demand. A very big proportion of what we now get comes from dollar sources, and perhaps some kind of pulping plant would be a valuable addition to the outlets for this kind of timber.

The capital outlay for such plant would be considerable, and I suggest that the Minister might consider whether some kind of grants or loans could be given to selected companies in suitable areas by the timber trade for installing plant of this kind for pulping. I suggest that the Minister should also consider whether such grants could be made available under any present legislation, or whether there might be some possibility of using some of the American credit which, I think, could be used for this purpose, on experimental lines.

A certain amount of unrest has been caused among the trade and among growers of timber because of the bad reputation of home-grown timber. This is certainly aggravated at the present time by the difficulty of obtaining felling licences for the better-class timber. It is easy to understand why that policy has been introduced; nevertheless, I should like the Minister to consider whether it might not now be good policy to allow a greater quantity of good timber to be felled in order gradually to rebuild the reputation of our home-grown timber, which certainly cannot be done whilst only the rather second-rate timber is licensed for felling.

It is very important that our reputation should be re-established in these days, when marketing is becoming the most essential factor in any industry. If no really good product is available on the market, it is very hard for the home-grown timber trade to begin to rebuild its reputation. Even if only a comparatively small quantity of timber were involved, it would at least form a basis for large supplies of well-graded and good quality English timber which we hope to see coming in later years both from the Forestry Commission and from private owners.

It is trite to say that many of our economic difficulties are the result of a lack of natural resources. In our forests and woodlands we have very valuable natural resources, which are greatly neglected by the nation. With a little more interest and concern by the Government and by those in authority—a little more help and a little more confidence in the industry—we could not only build up a wealth of natural timber for the future but could encourage a product which would strengthen our defences in an emergency and improve our balance of payments.