To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he is yet in a position to announce the outcome of the Forestry Commission's review of the composition and procedures of its regional advisory committees.
The Forestry Commission has now completed its review, and my right hon. Friends and I have agreed a number of changes designed to improve the effectiveness of the regional advisory committees in their role of conciliating over forestry proposals in respect of which there are unresolved objections from statutory authorities consulted by the Commission.This review stemmed from the undertaking given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) on 31 January 1985 in his response to the Countryside Commission's Report "A Better Future for the Uplands" (
Official Report, columns 282–90), that the Forestry Commission would be seeking ways to achieve greater public accountability for the regional advisory committees' proceedings. The basis on which the Commission approached this task was to look for ways in which the proceedings of the committees might be better publicised when they are exercising their conciliation role in disputed forestry grant and felling applications, so that
the public can have an opportunity to voice their opinion. The Commission subsequently extended the review to consider possible improvements to the composition of the committees with a view to achieving a better balance on them between forestry and other countryside interests.
In the course of the review, the Forestry Commission issued a consultation paper setting out its proposals which drew comments from over 50 organisations and individuals with interests in forestry, land use and the environment. The consultation paper, a copy of which has been placed in the Library of the House, also provided a helpful background summary of the Commission's present consultative procedures for forestry grant and felling permissions and the key role played in these by the regional advisory committees.
The Commission noted the concern which has been expressed by environmental bodies that the planning and environmental members on the committees cannot be expected to be in a position to cover the whole range of environmental interests—such as landscape, recreation and nature conservation—and that the numbers should be increased to accommodate members with expertise in those areas. The farming interest on the committees was also considered to be under-represented. In the past, this problem has to a certain extent been met by the appointment of forestry members with multi-disciplinary backgrounds, but this was clearly not a satisfactory answer in the longer term.
With the growing importance attached to the regional advisory committees' conciliatory role, coupled with the Commission's new environmenal duty introduced under the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985, we have some sympathy with the Commission's conclusion, which has received fairly wide support from both forestry and environmental interests, that the membership of the committees should be raised from a maximum of nine to 12, and we are considering this matter further.
In the meantime, the regional advisory committee chairmen will be encouraged to invite to meetings considering disputed grant or felling cases any persons whom they think might be able to assist in achieving an agreed solution, particularly when a case involves an interest not represented on the committee. The Commission will prepare and maintain lists of persons who could be asked to serve in this capacity as the occasion arises.
As regards other aspects of the appointment of committee members, we agree that the Forestry Commissioners should give closer consideration to ensuring that appointees are suited by technical, professional and practical experience and knowledge to speak for the general interests they are appointed to represent. We also endorse the Commission's proposal that the service of Committee members should normally be restricted to two three-year terms, although exceptions might be made in special circumstances to retain the services of a particular member for an extended period. This proposal has merit in allowing a reasonable turnover of members. Further, we endorse the principle that new regional advisory committee chairmen should as far as possible be appointed from backgrounds which are unlikely to cause any real or apparent clash of interests when disputed cases come before their committees. It is also desirable that the chairmen should have a broad range of knowledge on relevant land use matters.
Turning to the main purpose of the review, which was to find ways of achieving greater public accountability in the proceedings of the regional advisory committees, the Forestry Commission proposed in its consultation paper that procedures should be introduced to give the public the opportunity to submit views to the committees when they were considering disputed planting and felling proposals. It was envisaged that this would be done through a system of advertising details of cases to be considered by the committees and inviting those wishing to comment to do so in writing; such comments would then be taken into account by the Committee in its discussions with the parties to the dispute.
The Commission received a wide variety of views on this proposal, ranging from those which felt that it would detract from the regional advisory committees' chances of successfully fulfilling their conciliation role to those which considered that, while it was a small step in the right direction, it did not go far enough. A number of environmental interests wish to see all forestry proposals presented for public comment, not just the small percentage referred to the committees.
We have considered these representations very carefully, but have concluded that the Commission's proposals strike broadly the right balance between wider public involvement and the risk of increased bureaucracy and administrative costs. However, the statutory authorities consulted are already encouraged to consider the views of voluntary bodies and others in commenting on forestry applications, and we have asked the commission to discuss with the local authority associations the effectiveness of those arrangements and any ways in which they might be improved and made more cost-effective.
Again, we have carefully considered calls for the meetings of the committees to discuss disputed cases to be open to the public, and for the record of such meetings, including the intended advice to the Foresty Commissioners, to be published. We accept the commission's view, however, that it would not be practical or conducive to the committees' conciliation role to throw open site discussions with the applicant and the objecting authority or authorities to anyone who wishes to attend. As was stated in the consultation paper, the committee chairmen will nevertheless have discretion to invite any person or non-statutory organisation who has submitted views to attend or be represented at the site meeting, if it is considered that this will assist in the conciliation process.
We also take the view that the publication of a record of committee meetings could inhibit full and frank discussion between the parties and hamper the prospects of a compromise solution being found. It would be the intention, however, to notify those who had submitted comments of the outcome of the case.
The procedure for public particiption proposed by the Commission is necessarily a limited one, but the Government is satisfied that it should broadly meet the need for public views to be taken into account by the regional advisory committees without detracting from their conciliation function. We have therefore asked the commision to introduce it in respect of all future cases.
The Government greatly appreciate the dedicated and constructive contribution that the members of the regional advisory committees make, not only in giving general advice to the forestry commission but in the part they play in the Commission's consultation procedures. We hope that the changes I have announced will assist them in their work and lead to a wider understanding and acceptance of their role.