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Forest Policy (Government Programme)

Volume 416: debated on Friday 30 November 1945

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I have a statement to make to the House. The Government have given careful and detailed attention to the future forest policy of this country. They are impressed with the necessity, as a safety measure, of rebuilding as quickly as possible our reserves of standing timber and also with the possibilities which systematic forestry and afforestation hold out for the better utilisation of large areas of poorly productive land and for increased rural employment in healthy surroundings. For these reasons, and taking into account all available information on present and prospective world supplies of timber, the Government consider that well-planned afforestation represents a sound national investment.

The Forestry Commissioners proposed in their Report on Post-War Forest Policy (Cmd. 6447) that the country should aim at having in all 5 million acres of well-managed forests in 50 years, and towards that end they allocated to the first postwar decade a programme of replanting and afforestation amounting to 1,100,000 acres. They further recommended that that policy should be reviewed at 10-year intervals and the current programme every five years or so. These are large proposals which, however desirable for the purpose of timber supply, will need careful consideration from the point of view of their possible effect on agriculture. The Forestry Act, 1945, places on my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Scotland, and myself, the duty of promoting forestry and of reconciling the claims of agriculture and forestry. For this purpose it will be necessary, before finally deciding on our ultimate forest programmes, to carry out such surveys as may be required to determine the best utilisation in the national interest of the limited supply of rural land in this country. It will also be necessary to consult my right hon. Friend the Minister of Town and Country Planning on acquisitions of land for afforestation in England and Wales.

While for these reasons the Government cannot, at this stage, be finally committed to the acceptance of these programmes in full, they are fully seized of the great importance of pressing on, as a matter of urgency, both with a large programme of new afforestation and also with the replanting of our felled woodlands. We intend to prosecute both these tasks with the utmost vigour and for this purpose my right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is proposing to ask Parliament to replenish the Forestry Fund during the five financial years 1946–50 by a total sum of £20,000,000. The annual instalments of that total sum will be presented to the House by the responsible Ministers in the ordinary way. This should provide for the afforestation and replanting of 365,000 acres (which is the first five-year quota of the Forestry Commissioners' 10-year plan), provide for additional land for future planting, and for ancillary services, and where necessary provide modern up-to-date houses for workers in State forests. In the Government's view this programme is not likely to give rise to any serious conflict between the claims of forestry and of agriculture. In carrying out this programme due regard will be given both in timing and location to the employment situation and the Government's general employment policy.

If we are to achieve our objectives it will be very desirable that the owners of private woodlands should play a full part and so relieve the Forestry Commissioners of some of what will anyhow be a heavy strain on their organisation. The Government, therefore, accepts the dedication scheme propounded by the Forestry Commissioners. This scheme postulates a covenant of dedication whereby the owner, in return for stated scales of State assistance, undertakes to manage and to continue to manage his woodlands in an approved way. For details of the dedication scheme and scales of State assistance, I refer hon. Members to the Forestry Commissioners' Supplementary Report on Private Woodlands (Cmd. 6500) and par- ticularly to paragraphs 7 and 8, and paragraphs 12 and 21. The rate of interest to be charged to private owners is still under consideration. I wish to add that while reasonable time will be given for owners to investigate the applicability of this scheme to their woodlands, the alternative to proper management under State aid will be State acquisition and that the Forestry Commissioners will be so directed. For woodlands which ought to be used in the national interest for timber production but are unsuitable for dedication, there will be grants on a smaller scale, that is, for replanting only.

In order to secure that the present inadequate reserve of standing timber is duly conserved the Government propose to continue the war-time system of licensing timber fellings. To implement this large programme of forestry development it will be necessary to increase the facilities for education, training and research into all branches of the work, including timber utilisation. The Government will continue to establish and extend National forest parks as and when suitable opportunities occur.

I realise that the House has other business this morning, and we cannot now debate the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has made. I merely rise to say that I think it would be in accordance with the wishes of a great number of hon. Members if an early, convenient day could be set aside for the whole discussion of forest policy.

I think this is a matter which had better be discussed through the usual channels with the Leader of the House, and perhaps a suitable occasion may be found before long.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Agriculture whether, in developing some of these large forest areas, he will have regard to the necessity for planting a portion of hard wood trees, particularly in the drier parts of the country, which act as a barrier against the spreading of fire, and also because of the added beauty to the district of having beech in addition to conifers; also, whether, in connection with the housing of the forestry workers, he will consider, wherever possible, doing that through the local housing authority, so that we do not have segregated communities of forestry workers apart from agricultural and other workers; and whether, in accordance with modern methods of town and country planning, we can have proper communities together in villages with modern amenities? I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can give an assurance on those two lines.

I can assure the hon. Member it will be the policy of the Forestry Commission to plant sufficient hardwoods in relation to conifers for the purpose of making adequate provision for hardwood in the future. With regard to housing, it is, as hon. Members will appreciate, a difficult proposition for the Forestry Commission to rely entirely upon rural district councils to meet the special needs of this special service. However, where a local authority displays a willingness to meet our reasonable requirements, it may be that it will be called upon to do the job. Failing that, I must make it quite clear that the Forestry Commission cannot carry on its work without houses in the right spot to enable them to prevent fire and the depredations by jay walkers here and there.

I hope that the Government will give every aid to forestry. The country will welcome the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has made, but there are considerable gaps in the timber, which should be filled if there is to be that amount of afforestation in the near future which is so badly needed. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman it he is aware of the urgency of deciding whether the Government will accept the full 5,000,000 acres as the total amount of land devoted to forestry, and if he is aware of the importance of deciding on a short-term programme rather than the five years which he has announced today? I would also like to ask whether any provision is being made in the near future for working parties, under skilled supervision, to be provided by the Forestry Commission, to relieve the grave shortage of labour in the case of private owners desirous of embarking on a planting programme.

I can assure the hon. and gallant Member that although this programme is designed to cover the first five years, it does involve the same amount of money recommended by the Forestry Commission. It is, however, our intention to conduct a nation-wide survey within the first five year period so that we shall be well prepared to decide, having reconciled agriculture with afforestation, well before the expiration of the five year period, on preparations for the next five years ahead. With regard to working parties, it will be obvious to hon. Members that owing to wartime conditions, when all the work has had to be slowed down, labourers have been taken into the various Services. These workers will have to be restored and the general services will have to be rebuilt, and, I hope, accelerated.

May I ask the Minister three questions? First, is the Minister prepared to link up an improved system of marketing small woodland produce with his planning schemes, and so reduce the need for financial assistance; this is at present the big gap in British forestry? Secondly, is he prepared to see that rabbits are exterminated at an early date, because unless we do that a good deal of public and private money and effort will be wasted? Thirdly, the Minister has mentioned the Forestry Commission in the course of his statement rather than other forest interests; would he confirm that the great bulk 0f our timber which was provided during the war has been drawn from private woodlands, in spite of all their faults?

Let me assure the House that the Government, as did the predecessor of this Government, fully appreciate the big part played by private woodland owners during this war and the last war. Of all the timber supplied to this nation for its multifarious purposes, not less than 95 per cent came from private woodlands. It is not unfair to remind the House that this saved not less than 17,000,000 shipping tons, and although the programme of the Forestry Commission was one of 5,000,000 acres in 50 years, it was estimated that of this 5,000,000 acres, 2,000,000 replanted acres would be private woodland.

In view of the difficulties experienced in acquiring suitable land for afforestation by agreement—and I speak with experience as a Forestry Commissioner in 1930—will the Minister advise the Forestry Commission not to hesitate, where necessary, to use their compulsory powers in order to acquire this land?

My hon. Friend will recognise that the Act of 1945 gives the Forestry Commission all the necessary power to acquire all the land they require for forestry purposes. So long as they can purchase, according to their immediate needs, by voluntary agreement, well and good, but they have the power, and they will exercise it, to see that these 365,000 acres are planted within the next five years.

Has the Minister any additional statement to make regarding the operation of the Forestry Commissioners in Wales? Secondly, will he undertake to give the farmers whose land is being taken for afforestation, an opportunity of presenting their case to the Minister before the Forestry Commission take the land? He will be aware that there is at present in Wales, particularly in my constituency, Merioneth, resentment at the method by which the Forestry Commissioners work. The farmers recognise the desirability of some afforestation, but resent the somewhat high handed methods of the Commissioners. It would go a long way towards mitigating that resentment if there was some method of consultation with the men who farm the land.

The hon. and gallant Member will agree that he and I discussed this problem only a few. hours ago, and I can add nothing to the statement I made to him then.

What is the machinery in regard to the forestry workers? Are their wages to follow closely those in agriculture? Does my right hon. Friend think we shall attract the necessary men to work in the forests unless they are housed, through the rural district councils, in village communities, and not away from the amenities of the villages? There would be great difficulty in getting these men to settle down in isolated places.

I take the view, "No houses, no forestry workers; no forestry workers, no timber; no timber, no security for this country." My hon. Friend will appreciate that I have fully in mind the need for building as many houses in the right places as the Forestry Commission will require, and we shall spare no effort to see that the houses are provided. My hon. Friend knows that wages are parallel to those fixed by the Central Agricultural Wages Board, except where piece work is paid, in which case wages are much higher.