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Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 17 May 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Hannan.]

10.30 p.m.

I want to raise tonight a subject which has received all too little attention both in this House and in the country during the recent past. I refer to the subject of the planting of trees, and to their use both as an amenity on the landscape and as an asset both in agriculture and in industry. The factor about which I shall have most to say is tree-planting as an important part of good planning, rather than about forestry as such. That explains why my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, whom I do not yet see here, is, as I hope, going to reply to the Debate tonight rather than his opposite number in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Let me say before going any further that I deplore the division of functions which seems to exist between the Minister of Town and Country Planning and the Minister of Agriculture in connection with all matters affecting trees. I think it would be far more suitable if these problems were placed under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Agriculture rather than that they should have anything to do with the Minister of Town and Country Planning. At the present time the Minister of Town and Country Planning has quite a big say in regard to the amenity aspect of tree planting through the planning committees which have been set up by various local authorities. But it is my contention that the Ministry of Agriculture, being in closer touch with farmers and landowners, would normally be in a better position to give advice and guidance in respect even of the amenity side of tree planting. It is a shocking thing that in many parts of our country there are large areas practically denuded of trees. In those parts particularly, people seem to have purchased farms with very little knowledge of farming and to have indulged in practices which are responsible for this sad state of affairs. Having paid high prices for these farms they have in many cases tried to recoup themselves by having the trees on them felled quite wantonly, and without regard to the national interest. So serious have the results of this policy become that, as I have said, many parts are without trees at all where they once existed. In fact, it would be no great exaggeration to say that some of these areas appear to-day as if an atom bomb had struck them.

In a recent census of woodlands in the country it was revealed that the proportion of felled, devastated and scrub woodland was as high as 60 per cent. in some counties. In addition, the policy of cutting sapling trees in the hedges of the country, besides removing a potential reservoir of hardwood trees, is making the country dull and stereotyped. Plain, precise and shaven hedges everywhere will eventually make the landscape dull and ugly, besides removing a shelter for birds, many of which are a great advantage to our farmers.

In the first war, nearly all the timber requirements of Great Britain had to be cut from a meagre 3 million acres of woodland, and our forests at that time covered only 5 per cent. of the total land area of the country, compared with 26 per cent. under trees in Germany, 56 per cent. in Sweden, and 8 per cent. even in a country like Holland. A very dangerous drain has been imposed on that sorry position since then and, I would add, lamentably little has been done about it. The fact is that our country is felling too much timber. This, I suggest, should stir everyone's conscience to demand that appropriate action should be taken about it. Some local authorities, I admit, and some private organisations, are doing splendid work. I am particularly proud of the Bedfordshire County Council and its efforts.

In a report by the Agricultural Smallholdings and Allotments Committee of that Council, dated 25th February, 1949, the following paragraph appears:
"The present public interest in re-afforestation and silviculture because of serious losses, and dereliction from tree diseases, together with the need for general replenishment, for utility and amenity, has convinced your Committee of the need for a County Forester (Advisory), and they feel that the services of the County Land Agent should be made available for this special work."
The Bedfordshire County Council unanimously accepted this suggestion and quite remarkable results have been achieved. There is a growing realisation in the county that every farm and field has a potential tree value. A little sensible co-operation between farmers, landowners and county forestry advisers can work wonders in restoring and maintaining local beauty, as well as in helping the whole nation. One of the happiest things which the Bedfordshire County Council decided on was to plant trees on selected highways as a constant recognition of rejoicing—and they put it in that way—at the birth of Prince Charles. The usefulness of shelter belts and small spinneys as a means of enhancing the attractiveness of the landscape has also been recognised in Bedfordshire.

"Truth" is not a periodical with whose views I normally associate myself, but in that publication there recently appeared a paragraph with which I am in most hearty agreement. This is it:
"Desiccation of the climate and the erosion of the soil are among the penalties which a nation has to pay when it allows its land to become denuded of trees. Warning examples abound not only in past history but also in contemporary developments in many parts of the world. Scattered trees well distributed over the countryside do even more than compact forests to avert the danger. Bedfordshire County Council is showing good sense and foresight which other public bodies might profitably imitate."
I wish my hon. Friend who is going to reply tonight would circularise every local authority in the country commending Bedfordshire's example to them, and underlining the powers that all local authorities possess but do not often use to make tree preservation orders under the Town and Country Planning Act. Those orders can be made, I understand, if it appears that it is in the interests of amenity to do so.

Emphasis should, of course, be placed not only on conservation but on planting, too. Here I should like just to mention the work of a small voluntary society in the county of Devon, called the Sid Valley Tree Society. It states its objects to be
"the planting in the district of Sidmouth of trees, cedars and hardwood trees to preserve and increase the beauty of our valley."
In less than two years its members have planted upwards of 200 trees. There has been the utmost local co-operation. Public interest is immense, and I believe what is being done there could be repeated in thousands of other places throughout the country at no cost to the Government. I should like my hon. Friend to give such projects his blessing. He might perhaps look into the particular scheme I name to see if it is not a model he could generally commend to others to follow.

Through careful foresight and through the use of commonsense, pleas for beauty and utility could be combined in a concerted campaign to make our whole country tree-minded. Trees properly placed and appropriate to their surroundings can be an inspiration to good living. Bad planning, on the other hand, leads to the sorry activities of an army of ignorant tree loppers, as is frequently to be seen in London. Their services would often never be needed if the trees in London had been put in the right places to start with. I believe that the public conscience in the country is awakening on this subject. Where it is still asleep I feel my hon. Friend can do a good deal tonight to arouse it.

10.44 p.m.

I will only detain the House for a very few minutes. I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) upon raising this matter at all, but he has to some extent confused amenity and economy. I agree with all his remarks with regard to local authorities making their highways and towns more beautiful by the planting of ornamental trees. I do not think local authorities could do too much in that direction, although I am bound to say that having seen some of their efforts, I think they would be well advised to take expert advice before planting the rather haphazard and dreadful mixtures that one sees sometimes along our highways. In spite of the fact that my speech is to be short may I mention one point in that connection? Frequently one sees trees, which, if they mature, are bound to be tall, planted directly beneath telegraph or electric wires, whereas trees such as pyrus, prunus, and crataegus should have been planted and would have added greatly to the beauties of the countryside.

But I thought that the hon. Member's remarks with regard to tree planting, in which he touched on the business side of forestry, were not quite so well informed as those in which he was speaking about amenity. I was surprised, also, that he did not mention the activities of the Forestry Commission to encourage in every way private landowners to plant trees. The fact that there has been some difficulty in obtaining seed from abroad and that it is necessary that young plants should remain in the nursery for a number of years has been rather overlooked by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bedford.

My final remark—and I will not delay the House because I am anxious to hear what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say—is that, at the moment, private forestry at any rate, is greatly discouraged by the prices paid by the Board of Trade for home produced timber. It is no use asking private landowners who are compelled to pay something like £40 an acre for establishing woods to undertake that expenditure when they know that, even in these days when the world price of timber is reasonable, they will be made to accept a price far below that paid for imported timber. If the Government desire to see private woodland-owners making a genuine contribution to the establishment of new forests in this country they must be prepared to pay at least the world price for timber produced now. I hope the hon. Gentleman in his reply will, although perhaps it is a little beyond the scope of the Adjournment Motion, have at least a word or two to say on that matter.

10.47 p.m.

I do want to make a plea in support of what the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) has said for the decorative trees, especially in London. We have the planes in The Mall. It is a most suitable tree for London because its bark peels off in little pieces and it gets rid of the smuts and the soot. I regret that last year these trees were lopped and they looked rather like shorn sheep. They have been done a little better this year. In suburban gardens it is good to lop them, and perhaps necessary, but in The Mall trees should be in their full glory, looking as majestic as good trees can look. I would make a special plea for more rhododendrons in the London parks, because in London one must have a shiny leaf so that the rain washes oft the soot and the smuts very quickly. Rhododendrons comply with that request of nature very suitably and although euonymus and skimmias and other evergreens such as laurels, are good, the rhododendron is the best evergreen of all. It gives a capital appreciation year after year, growing bigger and bigger, and gives a hundred per cent. dividend in the wonderful trusses it produces in May and June. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will say to us tonight that he will do his utmost to see that more rhododendrons are planted in our parks. Could I also ask the hon. Gentleman if he will not forget the catalpa? There is a row of these trees from Big Ben to Parliament Square, so that hon. Members must have seen it. It is the most suitable and most decorative perhaps of all our trees.

10.49 p.m.

Might I at the outset take up, first, one of the points raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Ropner)? He referred to the problem of trees which were planted under telegraph wires and which then grew to such a height as to make them appear absurd. We have already, as a Ministry, touched upon that point. I speak from memory, but I think if he looks at Circular 24 the hon. Member will see that precise point dealt with. It will be seen that the same circular will take up many points raised by the speech of the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams). Of course, this sort of matter is most frequently one for local authorities and for various kinds of authorities. Indeed the whole topic has ranged over every Department of State far outside my own and we are often only in a position to give advice. But we have given some very good advice, as, I think, will be evidenced from the circular I have mentioned.

Can the hon. Gentleman say why the present Government have withdrawn grants from the Roads Beautifying Association which has done the best work in this country in this field?

The hon. Member will get the fullest information on that subject if he reads the Debate which took place in another place last week when there was a full Government statement by the hon. Gentleman the Minister of State for the Colonies.

That is a matter of opinion. I do think it was a quite unique move to celebrate the birth of Prince Charles that the Bedford County Council should have taken upon themselves the scheme they did in which they planted 500 trees on their small-holdings estates with hedgerows and small groups of trees on the homesteads. They planted lime, plane, Norway maple, sycamore, horse chestnut, beech, and red oak. I certainly commend that example, as I commend their appointment of a tree planting officer to serve their planning committee; such an appointment is not frequent. In Devonshire, at Sidmouth, a group of tree lovers without any encouragement from any Government or other Department at all, themselves got together and formed a local tree-planting society, an entirely voluntary organisation equipped with expert advisers, who largely give their services. That is another example I would equally commend.

But the important point is what His Majesty's Government do, and I must turn my attention to that. The hon. Member who raised this subject on the Adjournment referred to bad farmers. What have we done on this subject? We have in mind farmers who are using the land for purposes which are apparently mischievous. Section 28 of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act empowers local planning authorities to make a tree preservation order where
"It is expedient in the interests of amenity."
I do hope Members in all parts of the House who are interested in this sort of subject will spur on their local authorities in that direction. Many of them have not yet sought to make such an order but I hope more will seek to do so. Such an order, if made, provides that trees or groups of trees cannot be cut or topped or lopped without the consent of the authority. An order, too, provides for re-planting and any authority wishing to make such an order must first forward it to the Minister, but we are, generally speaking, glad to confirm such orders if they are at all appropriate. In all urgent cases, my right hon. Friend can make provisionally an order himself, and sometimes he does.

I do not want to make too much reference to circulars but if hon. Members read Circular 66 of my department, or the memorandum recently published on the Preservation of Trees and Woodlands they would be satisfied at least that so far as it lies within the competence of my right hon. Friend, we are doing all we can to push that forward. It is a difficult Adjournment Debate to which to reply as so many Departments are concerned. The Board of Trade have to issue a cutting licence if more than 250 cubic feet of timber, or something like eight large trees are to be felled in one month. That is our negative action.

Let me turn to positive action, not merely prohibition upon cutting, but actual positive advance in planting. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) and myself both serve on the Committee now considering the National Parks Bill, and he will perhaps have in mind, as will the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane), Clause 72, which grants to local authorities power within national parks to plant trees in order to preserve or enhance the beauty of the countryside and restore or improve derelict land. Further, for any national park or any area of outstanding beauty there is a 75 per cent. Exchequer grant for this purpose, to which should be added the equalisation grant. So in fact the Exchequer is paying, and is willing to pay, a very high proportion of the cost of replanting.

This is not a new policy. Circular 24 was issued in 1946 in conjunction with the Ministry of Transport and I think it would be as well if I quoted a couple of paragraphs from it:
"Many authorities take insufficient advantage of the pleasant effects that can be created by planting trees in urban areas, particularly where the buildings are drab and monotonous. Even where trees are planted full advantage is not always taken of the various decorative types available and not enough attention is paid to designing a planting scheme in harmony with the lay-out and architecture of the buildings. The Minister feels that fresh attention should be given to this question at the present time, when numerous and extensive reconstruction schemes are being put in hand."
I must press on, it is the last sentence which I wished to quote:
"The employment of sound technical advice will also contribute to economy."
We have in that circular, and in others, frequently advised the local authority to be careful with their advisers and to get expert advice before taking action.

I have not the time, nor would I propose were there time, to deal at any length with the Forestry Commission and the system of dedication into which many owners of important woodlands do enter, by which they subject the whole of the woodlands to the control of the commissioners and obtain in exchange grants towards replanting. There are something like 3 million acres of private woodlands, and it has been estimated that something like two-thirds of that area may one day be under that system of control. This system became effective only last year so that we have within the term of our own Government made considerable advances in this matter.

Nor would I deal at length with the Ministry of Agriculture because apparently I am not competent to do so. My hon. Friend did suggest that tree planting officers under the Planning Act should be under the agricultural executive committees. I would suggest that that is inappropriate. Those committees work under Section 71 of the Act of 1947 and are charged with the duty of promoting agricultural development and efficiency. Agricultural efficiency is a very desirable thing, but it does not always conform with amenity. They are often quite separate issues, and it is difficult to see how an agricultural executive committee could have sole responsibility for amenity planting.

So the work goes on, with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Transport—I feel like a veritable Pooh-Bah in this matter—the local authorities and the Park Planning Committees, powerfully aided as they will be by the National Parks Commission, all at work upon this subject. I would express the hope that in the future more and more local planning authorities will appoint tree planting officers and more and more local planning authorities will obtain tree preservation orders. We share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend for the tree. In our youth we climb it; in our adolescence we make love under it, and when our day is done our bones lie under its long shadow. So may our enthusiasm for it grow and grow.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'Clock.