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 Colonel Sir Ralph Clarke Colonel Sir Ralph Clarke , East Grinstead 12:00 am, 30th April 1954

I beg to second the Motion.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) on having chosen this subject, for, though it is not a very popular one, as may be seen by the attendance at debates on forestry, it is of immense importance. The products of forestry enter into our daily lives in an inconceivable number of ways. I need mention only the wood that forms so much of the places in which we live. Also, paper—it may be that Members of Parliament see more of this than we should like to. I, also, must declare an interest in this subject, as I am an owner of woodlands.

I want to speak, first, on what I may term the preamble to this Motion, which calls attention to the deteriorating markets for home timber … It is not necessary to bring forward much evidence in support of that statement. During the last 18 months all kinds of responsible bodies have furnished unfavourable reports. The regional advisory committees of the Forestry Commission have furnished theirs, and the Minister has no doubt seen them. The Country Landowners' Association, whose Council meetings I have attended, has discussed resolutions from many counties, as have the Land Agents' Society and the Royal Forestry Society. There have also been complaints from dedicated estates that their plan of operations, whereby they had engaged to sell a certain amount of standing timber each year and employ the money received in replanting, has been thwarted because it has proved impossible to sell the standing timber and there is, of course, difficulty in finding the capital from other sources.

Apart from these statements by public and other bodies, many of us have personal knowledge of what has been happening. In my own part of the country, some sawmills are closing, the staffs of others are being reduced, and there is a reluctance to buy new equipment or replace that which is wearing out. I also hear of quite ridiculous quotations being put in when timber is offered for tender. That can only mean that the merchants who put in those very low figures, while wishing to remain on the list of those invited to quote, would be very loth to take over the timber at the present time at all. There are few things which do more to show the existence of a rotten market than quotations of that sort.

It is only fair to say that from 1939 until 1949 prices were strictly controlled, so that the Forestry Commission and woodland owners, quite rightly, could not take advantage of the great rise in world prices at that time. They were given one small increase on the controlled prices, but the rising cost of labour and materials far outstripped this additional price, and by 1949, when decontrol came into operation, the industry was in a deplorable condition. Then, for about three years, until the autumn of 1952, things were better, but from then on they again worsened, and the complete freeing of imports of foreign timber last autumn precipitated what is almost a crisis.

I do not want to go into any detail about prices, because they are very difficult matters to deal with in debate. They can be given if anybody wants to ask specific questions, but they do not carry very much weight otherwise. But I want to point out that the present situation may lead to serious financial embarrassment for the Forestry Commission, and that affects the national purse; and has nothing to do with the private owners.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough has said, it will certainly lead to a discouragement of planting. It is also bound to lead to the closing of many small sawmills which were either started at the beginning of the war or increased in size then, and which, once closed, are not likely to reopen. They were started in those days largely because of the pressure put upon them by wartime conditions, and if they once close they are probably gone for good. They would represent the loss of an alternative source of employment to ordinary agriculture, which would be a pity.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the round timber which we now produce is not competing satisfactorily with that which comes from abroad. This is largely due to the fact that home-grown timber is rougher, contains more knots, and is rather coarser. There is also an almost complete lack of the grading and sizing which is done by foreign importers. That is a great disadvantage to the purchaser, who is not able to order what he wants from a catalogue as it were, in the knowledge that he will get it exactly according to specification.

I should like, however, to add a word to what my hon. Friend has said about not blaming the quality of the English timber too much. In the two world wars, and in the economic crisis that followed the second, the cream of our home-grown timber was put on to the market, and we have now come back to the second grade. I have referred to this before, and I am not arguing that it is wrong, but deliberately, to preserve what is left of the top grade, the Forestry Commission, through its licensing system, is still allowing only the poorer qualities to go on the market, though not entirely, very largely.

However, it is a little unfortunate that persons and institutions such as British architects and others almost invariably encourage the use of foreign timber. Of course, they find it easier to work with. but the British Standards Institution also, I think, is a little hard on British timber as compared with foreign. I came across a case the other day in which, although the British Standards specification for wood poles for overhead lines for power and telecommunications gave the same strength values for both home-grown Scots pine and imported European red-wood poles, the specification for 11,000 volt overhead lines specified a factor of safety of 3.5 of home-grown poles and 2.5 for imported red fir poles. Although it was admitted that the strength value is the same it was insisted that there should be a very much higher specification when home-grown poles are used. I have no doubt that the explanation is that home-grown poles are more irregular in quality. Indeed, I have been told so, but it seems a little unfortunate that there is not a little more support forthcoming for home-grown articles.

I come to the second part of the Motion, in which we welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture have set up a committee with the object of promoting stability, and, bearing in mind output from both Forestry Commission and private woodlands, and the need to secure markets, to consider what measures may be taken within the home-grown timber industry to improve the arrangements for marketing the produce. I think that everybody who has any connection with the home-timber trade, as a producer or converter or distributor, heartily welcomes that, because we believe it is necessary at the present time.

Some people think that this debate is rather unfortunate in its timing because of the establishment of the committee, but I do not agree. I think it is unlikely that that committee will call any Members of Parliament to give evidence. I am not suggesting it should. After all, it wants expert evidence, and Members of Parliament are not necessarily experts in this matter. Nevertheless, through their contacts in their constituencies, they are very often able to make suggestions or start lines of thought that may be of advantage to the trade. I believe, therefore, that this debate is not inopportune but really rather fortunate, and, of course, there is no question in the mind of any of us of prejudging that committee's report. It is on those lines that I venture to make a few observations now on the marketing of home-grown timber.

First, it is very important that the products from both Commission forests and private forests should be considered as a whole, and that any organisations or schemes that are suggested should be applicable to both. If that is not done the work will be duplicated, and there may be a risk of buyers playing the one off against the other, the Commission against the private grower, and vice versa. I believe, too, that it will be impossible otherwise for all the timber producers, public and private alike, to work for the re-building of the home-grown timber trade, and to operate an agreed plan whereby they can endeavour to find what the public wants to buy rather than, as in the past, to put on the market what they happen to have grown. It is only by co-operation that a really sound trade for the future can be built up.

In many industries of which the forestry industry is one, we are now entering a stage where we have what is termed a mixed economy, in which we have public and private enterprise working side by side. It is very important, whatever one's feelings about the one or the other may be, that they should be encouraged and every help given to them to work together as partners, and I see no reason why that should not be so. It is the case in many other countries. Sweden is the one I know best, and there that system seems to work quite easily.

I believe that, by and large, producers should concentrate on production, and should not be drawn too far, at any rate, into distribution and conversion, and so on. From my own commercial experience in other directions I have noticed that generally the man or the company who is a really good producer is not often a very good distributor and marketer. Production and marketing are two quite different jobs, and it is a pity that one man or organisation should try to attempt both. As far as possible timber should be sold free on rail or free on lorry, and in the case of mature timber particularly, it should be left standing by the producer for the merchants to cut themselves.

I turn to the question whether a floor should not be given to the prices for home-grown timber. My hon. Friend has touched on that and I should like to support what he said. As practically all other agricultural produce has a floor under the 1947 Act, timber, which is really agricultural produce, too, should have a floor as well. After all, timber producers have to work under just as many regulations as farmers, and they are just as strictly under control and under the same surveillance as other agricultural workers.

We are now endeavouring to build up this industry from srcatch, or near srcatch; to build what is practically a new industry. In the past we never had the volume of timber or timber products to make it worth while—at any rate, we did not think it worth while—to build up a really skilled and businesslike industry. Times are changing. The Forestry Commission, year by year, now is putting more and more thinnings into the market, and more and more round timber will be coming in, too, as the forests grow older.

We are building up a new trade and industry and are doing so in the face of competition from countries where these industries have existed for generations, such as the Scandinavian countries, where timber has been the main source of income for many generations. In those countries the industries are highly organised and highly experienced and are often supported by Government funds. There is, therefore, a reasonable claim for at least a floor for the home industry. I do not like grants or subsidies if they can be avoided and I am asking only for some sort of floor.

As my hon. Friend suggested, something on the lines of the Wheat Act of 1932 might be applicable. I shall not try to explain the details of that Act, which was based on a levy on all imported flour which was ground. It was a highly complex Act and I remember the difficulties I had before the war in trying to explain it to my constituents. If anyone is interested, I suggest that they turn up the Quarterly Journal of Forestry for July, 1949, which, no doubt, is in the Library, and read the very comprehensive article on the subject by Mr. McGregor, the forest economist at Oxford University.

The great advantage is that a levy subsidy, where the home production represents only about 10 per cent. of the global figure, cannot have a great effect upon prices. I believe that the total figure for imported timber is about 93 per cent. to 7 per cent. from home sources. I do not suggest that those figures are accurate—they vary from month to month—but that is about the proportion, and where the disparity between imports and home production is so great, a levy subsidy represents a very minor addition to prices as a whole.

My hon. Friend referred to processing plants, and here I apologise to him because I differ slightly from him. I have more faith in their future and I believe that there is some scope for them. There is scope for the manufacture of paper and wall-board in this country, for turnery and the making of brush backs. One day last week I visited a flourishing little factory in my constituency which employs 25 men and girls and which is turning out meat skewers and ladder rungs. One would not think so many would be required, but the factory is working full time and using as material much of the overgrown coppice-ash which we have in over-supply in some of our woodlands and for which it is not easy to find an outlet. In my opinion, there is scope for processing plants of that sort, although they should be well spaced to ensure that they do not clash with each other. Possibly money may be found in the development areas which will not necessitate a new Vote. The money may already be in suspense and available for such a purpose.

There is a corollary to it: something would have to be done to try to help with the price of the carriage of the raw materials. That difficulty has already been overcome in relation to the beet sugar factories, for a farmer at some considerable distance from the factory pays practically the same as a farmer much nearer the factory. It would not be difficult to devise a similar system for forestry products.

As the end of the Motion we urge the Ministers to invite the Committee to do everything in its power to submit an early report. We feel that this is important because there has not been a sufficient sense of urgency in this matter in the past. I know that round timber is coming mostly from private woods, and that is not a matter of such interest to the Forestry Commission. On the other hand, thinnings are coming from the Forestry Commission in ever-increasing volume. The last annual report of the Forestry Commission was issued at this time last year and was for the period ending 30th December, 1952. Unfortunately, there is nothing more recent.

That was before the slump started, but we do not find in it a sufficient sense of the importance of developing the marketing side of the industry. There is an excellent account on pages 13 and 14 of the Commission's negotiations with the National Coal Board, but that is almost the only reference to markets. The Commission must turn its attention to this matter.

One point is fundamental. The Forestry Commission was set up not to act as a purely business concern even in the sense that an ordinary nationalised industry exists to supply a need and to supply it on businesslike lines, making a profit. The Forestry Commission was set up to try to put into store a sufficient supply of timber to tide us over any emergency like that of the last two wars. The Commission's policy must, to a certain extent, be different from that of the ordinary commercial concern, but views are held in the timber trade that this may make it difficult for a long-term marketing policy to be put into effect and that it might be better if the Commission were to try to revise its policy so that, instead of having the final crop from the present forests about the year 2000, it reverted to what I believe is the more modern idea in forests at home and abroad of a rotation of 40 to 50 years.

It is easier with modern sawmill equipment to cut up much smaller logs and to make useful boards and timber from them than it was in the past. That line should be explored, since sections of the timber trade believe that the present long-term policy may be much harder to fit into a marketing scheme.

We owe a good deal at present to a similar debate which took place in the House rather more than a year ago. It was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-Super-Mare (Sir I. Orr-Ewing), who raised the question of the need for a comprehensive policy on the marketing of timber grown in the United Kingdom. He started the ball rolling, and since then many of us have been pressing for more to be done. The emergency has grown worse. I congratulate the Ministers on having set up this committee, and I hope they will accept our suggestion that they should invite the committee to do all in its power to report as early as possible so that some progress may be made before too many of these sawmills are closed and too many planting programmes cancelled.