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Forest Lands

Volume 21: debated on Thursday 1 April 1982

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the total value of the forest lands which have been or are in the process of being sold under the Forestry Act 1981.

The total value of plantations and plantable land that have been sold or were in the process of being sold at the end of February 1982 under the powers contained in the Forestry Act 1981 was £12,925,000.

Is it not a blatant example of doctrinaire asset-stripping for the Government to sell off more than 6,000 hectares of good forest land, including more than 3,500 hectares in Scotland? As the Government refuse to disclose to me and to Parliament the purchase price and the name of the purchaser of each individual property, and in the light of the recent Amersham International scandal, is there not a case for calling in the Comptroller and Auditor General to see whether Tory Ministers are selling off some of the nation's best assets to their rich friends?

I totally repudiate the hon. Gentleman's allegation. I remind him that, as my right hon. Friend explained in his reply to the hon. Gentleman on 11 February, it would be a breach of confidence to disclose the names of individual purchasers and prices. The objective is to reduce the call on the Exchequer for the management of the Commission's forestry enterprise—no more and no less.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the success of her policy in my constituency, where 2,700 acres have been sold for more than £2 million—producing not only a substantial sum of money for the Treasury but the prospect of new jobs from the development of peat resources?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I realise that the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) is unlikely to be in favour of anything that reduces total State control.

Is the Minister aware of the concern among hill farmers that, whereas the Forestry Commission used to maintain fences around the plantations, that obligation will not necessarily pass to those who purchase plantations?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the purchasers enter into the contract prepared to maintain the land as forestry. If there is concern about fencing, I shall certainly make inquiries.

Does the hon. Lady accept that her predecessor said expressly in Committee that the maintenance of the fencing was excluded from the conditions of sale under the Forestry Act? Will she also tell the House what proportion of the £12·9 million has been leased back to the Forestry Commission on a management basis? How many sites of special scientific interest have been sold from public to private domain?

I ought to give the hon. Gentleman a comprehensive reply to the two latter points, so I shall write to him.

Is it not the case that the British taxpayer has been pumping money into the Forestry Commission for the past 60 years? Is it not about time that the taxpayer had a break by getting something back? Will my hon. Friend note that the taxpayer applauds the new policy?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The original purpose of the Act was to reduce the call on the Exchequer, which is what is happening. We are not in the business of dismantling the Forestry Commission.