Public Bodies Bill [HL] — Committee (7th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 28th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative 5:15 pm, 28th February 2011

I could not agree more with the noble Lord, other than that I believe that a smaller-I am not going to suggest a figure, as I think that it would be wrong to get into figures at this stage-manageable panel under an independent chairman is the best way forward. I apologise if the noble Lord felt that I had put words into his mouth. I appreciate that I have probably done that in the past and I will probably do it again in the future. However, I got the impression that he was pushing for bringing everyone in. The danger when a great many people want to be on something is that, if you do not make it clear right from the start that you want a small and appropriately focused committee, you end up giving in to every possible demand and you end up with something that is unwieldy and unfocused and cannot do the job. This panel will have the right to set up sub-groups or sub-committees-whatever you call them-so that it can consult. We want to make sure that it talks to all those who have put in their views.

That is why it is also very important that we have an appropriately independent chair. I am grateful for questions that I have received on this from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and others about how that will be done. All I can say at this stage is that the independent chairman will be appointed by the Secretary of State after consultation. As we want this to report by the autumn, we want to move on relatively speedily. I am sure that whomever we appoint, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who is smiling at this stage, will accept that we have appointed the right person, because he always does in the end when we find the right person. I am sure that he is not putting himself forward for this job. He will accept that we will find the right person in due course. It will be an independent panel under an independent chair.

That brings me on to the other comments that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made. As a former Member for a Birmingham seat, he raised the question of motorsport and its use of the forests. He was right to do that because it is important that we remember that there are diverse users of all the forests. Forests are not just there for growing timber, even though that is very important. Forests are also there for people who want to walk, to ride or to drive and for those involved in motorsports. They are also very important for biodiversity. In my own part of the world, up in Kielder, the forest is important for the few surviving red squirrels that we have in this country. There are a whole host of different uses that conflict with one another, which means that any decision about access has to take into account biodiversity interests. I imagine that not all of those who are keen on walking in the forests are that keen on some of the motorsports going on. We have to balance those issues. I am sure that the noble Lord will accept that. It is one of the things that we will make sure is done in due course.

Both right reverend Prelates referred to the Forest of Dean and the fact that it is a special case. I accept that the Forest of Dean is a special case. It was made a special case in law as a result of the 1981 Act, if not before. Actually the Forest of Dean and the New Forest have been special cases-I cannot say for how long, so I had probably better use this legal term-"since time immemorial". It goes back that far. The odd thing about the Forest of Dean and the New Forest is that, as I understand it, they were originally part of the Crown Estate and then for some reason-why they but not others I do not know-became part of the Forestry Commission. The simple fact is that they are now part of the Forestry Commission and not part of the Crown Estate. That is where we are. Another public forest, Epping Forest, has gone into the ownership and management of the City of London. The Forestry Commission is not necessarily the only public body that can look after public forests in the best way. Epping Forest is not the only exception to that, but I accept that it is a special case.

That brings me to the planning issues raised by my noble friend Lady Williams and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. Yes, we are aware that there will be changes as a result of the Localism Bill. We can give assurances, as my right honourable friend Greg Clark has done, that protection for ancient woodland in the existing planning guidance will be carried over into the national policy framework. All that will be done, but we also feel that, as a result of the Localism Bill, it is important, as my noble friend Lady Williams put it, that local communities should have a right to have some input into what is going on in the forests or small woodlands in their area.

I want to touch on one or two other points. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, talked about jobs. I must make it quite clear to the noble Lord and his party that the Forestry Commission, like a lot of other public bodies, including public bodies within Defra, will have to take its cuts and reductions as a result of the mess that we inherited. It is no different from any other body. The change of tack that we have indicated on forests does not necessarily mean any change of policy in what the Forestry Commission does in terms of its staff. That is a matter for the Forestry Commission to manage.