Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)
I am very grateful for the opportunity to open this debate on the future of the Forestry Commission. When I applied for the debate the Government were, of course, intent on selling off up to 100% of our public forest estate, which by any standards was an outrageous proposal, especially given Ministers’ repeated boasts of their intention to be the greenest Government ever. The U-turn made by the Secretary of State on 17 February, heralded by the Prime Minister’s disowning of the policy the day before, has to be one of the most humiliating ever. Just like the U-turns on green individual savings accounts, housing benefit, rape anonymity, dissolution of Parliament, knife offences, school sports, Bookstart, free nursery milk and debt advice, the forestry U-turn was the result of a rushed and ill-conceived set of proposals, put forward by an ideologically driven Government.
Where did the policy come from? It certainly did not come from the people who carried out the Labour Government’s review of the public forest estate. I suggest that once again we see a Secretary of State out of touch with the community of interests relating to her Department, and I only hope that the 500,000 people who rose up in protest against the forest proposals will do so again to defeat another Secretary of State and his plans to restructure the NHS.
As a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, I had responsibility for the Forestry Commission for a short time, and was very impressed with how the custodians of our public forest estate were developing their mission. They had moved some considerable way from the overriding timber priorities of the past, to delivering multi-purpose sustainable forestry, embracing the need to combat climate change, to enhance both biodiversity and leisure pursuits, and to develop sources of renewable fuel. We, the Labour Government, wanted to build on that progress, alongside our Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the creation of two new national parks, and so in November 2008 we launched the review of the public forest estate, to which I referred earlier. That review was conducted by independent representatives from academia, the civil service, industry and nature conservation, and the research covered the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of the public forest estate. It was accompanied by a public consultation, which received more than 4,000 responses. The review group’s final report was presented to the Forestry Commission in May 2010, and its findings offered a way forward that was very different from the wholesale sell-off proposed by the Minister.
The right hon. Lady has made a number of comments about the Labour proposals, but she has not mentioned that the Forestry Commission is both a big commercial operator in the forestry market and a regulator of everyone else—all its competition. Was that part of the Labour party’s consideration, and did it feature at all in its report?
The report, which was of course independent, was never responded to by the Labour Government, for the obvious reason that there was an election. The report went to the Forestry Commission and there was no opportunity for us to respond, but I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman. It took a considerable amount of time—more than a year—and came up with a huge range of suggestions, and the underlying research, which was reported on, was very important. The issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions are in the report, and I will come on to say what I think was very important about the review.
Has the Minister read that report? I wonder whether he has read this:
“Public consultation and social research showed passionate engagement with the public forest estate…and most people saw it as relevant to their lives”,
or this, among the major recommendations:
“The public forest estate should remain large scale, widely distributed throughout England, have a flexible and varied cross-section of all types of woodland, be able to provide a significant volume of products, services, skills and experience, and remain under public control and accountability.”
I have to assume that the Minister did not read the report; otherwise, how could he and his colleagues have embarked on such a reckless policy of selling off the lot?
That brings me to future sales. I say immediately that some sales can be justified when holdings are small or distant from the main estate, and when they are degraded or appropriate for restoration to open land. Over the 13 years of Labour Government our policies resulted in the sale of 9,000 hectares and a consequent purchase of 5,000 hectares—a net change of 4,000 hectares over 13 years. The comprehensive spending review announced the sale of 10 times that amount—40,000 hectares over a mere four years—quite separate from the new legislation that had now been abandoned. This Tory-led Government have sold 1,748 hectares to date, but we have been told that no further sales will take place—awaiting new advice. Can the Minister tell us how the Government—not necessarily his Department—expect to find the £745 million that their forestry sales were expected to realise, or what percentage of the public forest estate he still expects to sell off over the next four years, albeit with his new potential safeguards?
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I can assure the right hon. Lady that I have a number of points to make when I wind up the debate, but I am slightly puzzled about where she got the figure of £745 million—the supposed gain from the sales—from, given that during the debate on this issue in the Chamber, the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby), said that there was nothing in it financially for the Government.
I am simply citing the Government’s own ambitions, and there are substantial sums to be realised from sales. I cannot, off the top of my head, remember what the Government have raised from the 1,748 hectares sold off already, but it is certainly many millions. I would be delighted if the Minister answered my question in his response, and told us what was expected to be raised from the sales of the forestry lands—the 15%. Will he also indicate how the Government will make up that money if they do not go ahead with the sale of the 15%? They cannot have it both ways; either they plan to sell or they do not. If they plan to sell, I know—I have been a Minister myself—that the Minister will have a real estimate of the financial result of those sales.
I have another question for the Minister. In principle, does he rule in or rule out the sale of woodland in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, community forests and sites of special scientific interest? Will he confirm that DEFRA still requires the Forestry Commission to cut its budget by 25% this year, with a potential loss of 400 jobs? Surely job losses of such magnitude undermine any recommendations that his new panel might make for the future of the Forestry Commission.
In the drafting of the terms and conditions of the independent panel, is any account being taken of the findings of Labour’s review of the public forest estate? The Minister frowns, but it was an independent review carried out by experts over 12 months and was available to his Government the moment they took office, and it appears that he did not even bother to read it before coming up with these madcap proposals. Referring to the review would be significant.
Critically, will the panel be allowed to consider continuing public ownership? The Minister frowns again, but the consultation that has just been cancelled prohibited continuing public ownership. The new panel’s terms of reference will be significant. The public believe that they have won a great battle now that the consultation and plans have been cancelled pending the findings of the independent review, but the panel’s terms of reference are critical to determining the future.
Is the right hon. Lady aware that in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in the area that I represent, public forests are retained for public use and are not to be sold? Does she feel that the decisions of other regions in the United Kingdom to retain public forests should be part of the panel’s review and its final decision making?
Perhaps forests in the other part of the United Kingdom are safer left out of the Government’s review. I am not sure that I would trust this Government with any bit of the forest, whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. History to date suggests that we in England have been poorly served by this Government and their proposals; perhaps other regions are on safer ground. However, it will be for the Minister to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.
I have a list of questions for the Minister. I shall not speak at huge length, as I want to hear his answers and do not want him to run out of time. Will he guarantee that there will be a place on the panel for representatives of the Forestry Commission work force? How will the voices of those who campaigned to defeat his proposals be represented? Will the panel’s deliberations be held in public?
The public have shown overwhelming support for our public forests; I pay tribute to the campaign 38 Degrees. The Government would be well advised to harness that support. The public forest estate in England must be maintained as the national asset that it is, under a single management structure. Rather than being sold off, it should be extended.
I pay tribute to my constituents and those of other MPs who took the time not only to express their outrage at the Government’s proposals but to tell us what the forests mean to them. Annette Lewis from Brockley wrote to me:
“As I have always lived in cities, I know how important it is for city dwellers to access the countryside. I believe in the preservation of woodland in public ownership for future generations. I want my children and their children to be able to find the joy and relaxation I have found from a walk in the woods.”
Hazel Montgomery from Lewisham Central wrote that
“there are many places around south-east London and Kent which are woodland. They are fantastic because London is so overcrowded and children love to roam freely in safety with parents; this is so for all our national woodlands.”
Simon Brammer of Telegraph Hill, who works on climate change, wrote:
“How can we ask other countries much poorer than our own not to chop down forests, critical in regulating our climate and storing carbon, when we are prepared to sell our own for a song”?
I am more than aware of that. I am expressing the passionately held views of my constituents. If people are concerned enough to write to their MPs in unprecedented numbers, it is important that we understand their concerns. Concerns about climate change and the future of this planet are dear to the hearts of many of our constituents.
If the hon. Gentleman will calm down for a moment, I will be more than pleased to give way. I am dealing with a point already raised. The issues are important, and it is greatly to the credit of the public in this country that they can and do associate our precious forests with tackling climate change and have linked that issue to the fact that we should not only do what we must in the developed world but seek to influence those in the underdeveloped world who have custodianship of the most important forests in the world. That is important, and I resent the fact that Conservative Members should attempt to rubbish my constituents on an issue about which they are passionately and properly concerned.
I did not hear anybody rubbish anybody, but for the avoidance of doubt, although important issues are being discussed about the future of the Forestry Commission’s estate, will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that the subject is not in the slightest related to deforestation or the chopping down of forests?
No, absolutely not. The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. We have one of the smallest forest estates in Europe, so the extent of ours is important to people. I argue that if we keep the forest estate in public ownership, we are more likely to be able to deal with the diseases that are arising and manage it comprehensively and effectively, and less likely to encounter some of the problems that occur when forest estates are fragmented and people fear, maybe wrongly, that trees will be felled unnecessarily. He will know that over the years, the Forestry Commission has changed its culture and become very aware of the great issues of our time, such as the threat of climate change and the loss of biodiversity. People understand that. It is important that we as parliamentarians associate ourselves with those concerns and in no way criticise people when they want to bring them to our attention.
I was about to wind up, but gave way because there was such agitation opposite. I now come to my final point. I have read out only selected comments from the long e-mails that I received from three of the 392 constituents who contacted me, and they will now ask, as I do, what exactly is the future of the Forestry Commission?
One of the depressing things about this House is that, sometimes, hon. Members do not listen to what has been said. I am not sure whether the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who introduced this debate, was present in the main Chamber when the Secretary of State made her original statement when launching the original consultation document. The right hon. Lady has sought to suggest that the Government intended to “sell off” the forests, but I heard the Secretary of State clearly say two things. On commercial forest, she said that the Government had no intention of selling freehold interests, but that they would grant leaseholds for the specific reason of enhancing protections for access and other rights—for walkers, cyclists and so on—within those commercial lettings.
On heritage woodland, I heard the Secretary of State make it very clear that, if community, voluntary or other groups did not come forward to run community and heritage woodland, it would remain within public ownership. I invite the right hon. Lady to re-read what the Secretary of State said in her statement to the House, because her comments bear absolutely no relationship to the Government’s policy. Part of the problem with this whole debate is that the perception of the Government’s policy bears no relationship to what Ministers actually proposed.
The hon. Gentleman has to take into account the many remarks that have been made, not least by the Minister, about the so-called sell-off and disposal of up to 100% of the forest estate. The hon. Gentleman criticises the term “sell-off,” but the fact is that disposals of whatever kind mean that the estate is totally fragmented. That is the big difference and that is why it is so significant.
I do not wish to pursue this point, but the right hon. Lady was a Minister in the previous Government and understands the concept of collective government, so she well understands that comments by a Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box represent the collective view of the Government. The Secretary of State could not have been clearer when she spoke at the Dispatch Box about what the Government intended to do.
I was fortunate to grow up in Burnham Beeches, which is a substantial area of woodland between Maidenhead and Slough that is owned and very well managed by the City of London corporation. It makes the point that much of our woodland in this country is owned by a diverse group of owners. I am a Church Commissioner and the Church Commissioners own a fair amount of woodland, much of it in our agricultural estate, and we lease woodland to the Forestry Commission. Having had the opportunity as a child to enjoy the benefits of Burnham Beeches, I am conscious of the importance of woodland. Moreover, as a representative of the county of Oxfordshire, which has very little woodland cover, I am conscious of how important it is to encourage woodland cover as a whole.
When I was fortunate enough to be a Minister in the Department of the Environment, I was proud to be part of a ministerial team that advanced initiatives on both the national forest and the community forest. At that time, Mr Gray, you were a distinguished special adviser to Ministers in the Department.
Order. It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to remind me of that and to be so flattering, but for the sake of today’s debate, I cast aside all previous party political roles that I may have had. I am highly dispassionate about today’s debate.
I did not want you to think, Mr Gray, that I was trying to steal all the glory of those days under Lord Heseltine and others in the Department of the Environment, when we benefited from your advice. It is worth recalling that the Conservative party has a long tradition of seeking to enhance woodland cover in the UK. The national forest, which was an initiative by that Government, has been a great success story. Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee reported:
“Fifteen years on from its inception, The National Forest is a success story. It is delivering tangible environmental, economic and social benefits out of a bold vision to transform a 200 square mile swathe of the Midlands—much of which was suffering economic and environmental decline—through planting trees to create new woods and forests. Its achievement is not so much in trebling the proportion of land with tree cover to 18%, but that, in so doing, it has helped to regenerate the local economy, open up the Forest to greater public use and improve the natural environment.”
On community forests, the Countryside Agency commissioned consultants a few years ago to assess their impact, and they concluded that, overall, the community forests programme
“has been successful in levering in high levels of private and voluntary sector support”,
“over the period 1990-2003, the total amount levered”
into new woodland
“totalled £42.9 million.”
They also noted:
“Overall, the CFP is performing well in terms of increasing woodland cover and improving the environment.
The CFP is performing particularly well in terms of providing opportunities for informal recreation and opening up rights of way.”
I am proud to have been involved in initiatives such as the national forest that encourage the development of everything from community forests to local pocket parks, and which have enhanced community woodland.
It is sensible for the Secretary of State to establish an independent panel to consider forestry policy in England. It will report its findings to the Secretary of State in the autumn, and it will advise on the direction of forestry and woodland policy in England and on the role of the Forestry Commission and the public forest estate. I hope that the independent panel will be able to look at all the questions raised in the consultation paper—it was published by DEFRA, but subsequently withdrawn—on the future of the Forestry Commission. Part of the difficulty in this whole saga is that the clauses relating to the commission in the Public Bodies Bill had, by necessity, to be published before DEFRA was able to publish its consultation on the commission’s future. When their lordships considered a number of different issues in the Bill, they managed to get themselves confused and allow a considerable degree of speculation about what might have been happening when it was clearly not what was intended. I think that that was made clear by the Secretary of State’s statement to the House.
Could it not be that their lordships’ understanding of the proposals was based on what was said to them by the Minister? He said that
“we wish to proceed with…very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.”
That sounds very clear and it is hardly surprising that their lordships took the Minister at his word.
That highlights a fundamental misunderstanding. The Forestry Commission has within its control two different types of woodland. It was brought into being at the time of the first world war to enable the country to have access to commercial forestry to provide timber for such things as pit props for the mines, and the vast majority of commercial forestry in this country—about 82%—is and has always been in private ownership. It would be very surprising if, at a time when we no longer expect the state to run airlines, own travel agencies, generate electricity or operate sewage treatment works, we thought that the state should be growing Christmas trees. Such a view is slightly bizarre.
The Forestry Commission also has heritage woodland within its ownership. I suspect that there has sometimes been a deliberate attempt by those wishing to create mischief to cause confusion between the Government’s policy on commercial forestry and on heritage woodland. The Secretary of State could not have been clearer about the matter when she spoke to the House when launching the consultation paper: the Government consider those matters to be two very different entities. The Secretary of State could not made it plainer to the House that if appropriate bodies do not come forward to manage heritage woodland properly, that woodland will remain within the public estate.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak. The other points I want to make are that we have heard a lot about the Forestry Commission during the past few weeks, but I hope that the independent panel will give regard to how we can increase woodland cover more generally in the UK, particularly in England. On commercial forestry, I hope that the panel will consider the effect and impact of the tax regime in England in comparison with regimes elsewhere in the world—for example, considerable tree planting is taking place in the United States. The trust funds of universities such as Harvard, Yale and others are investing considerable money in commercial forestry because, as they are charities, there are incentives for them to do so under US tax law.
On heritage woodland, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what will follow the environmental stewardship schemes that have formed part of the rural development programme for England for a considerable time. It is clear that the majority of agricultural land is almost entirely in private ownership and therefore planting for new broadleaf community woodlands will almost certainly take place on private land. What incentive or encouragement will there be for farmers, as landowners, to plant new community woodland?
When the independent panel concludes its work, I hope that there will be two coherent chapters on different policies. I hope that there is one chapter on the future of commercial forestry—how we can encourage more of it in the UK—and the Forestry Commission, and a second on how we enhance heritage woodland and encourage access and amenity in relation to community woodland, as we did with the national forest and community forests. It should be on the record that the Government have made it very clear that they wish to enhance and protect the rights of access. I suspect that the main concern of a large number of constituents who have understandably contacted us about the issue is that they should continue to have access to woodland. That is very important. The Government have made it clear throughout that they want to protect access to woodland. However, that needs to be stated and restated time and again.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) for securing the debate. There are people who think that the issue has been resolved, but it clearly has not. This morning’s discussions have shown that.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) started his speech by saying that we should listen. I have spent my life listening to what Conservative Ministers have said. I read what they say and, more importantly, I always read between the lines of what they say. I do not need faceless bureaucrats or Government Front Benchers, who perhaps want to extend their already big land ownings, to tell me about heritage. My heritage is the coal mine industry. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that when he talked about the shortage of pit props during the first world war. My grandfather was a miner during the first world war, as were some of my uncles. They were working in dangerous conditions that were made even more dangerous by the shortage of things such as pit props. People were basically failed by the private sector and the Forestry Commission was set to ensure that such a situation did not happen again.
The heritage of the forest is more than just the heritage of the nation; it is the heritage of individual areas. The area of the world that I am massively proud to represent includes a place called Chopwell. In that area is Chopwell wood, which is owned by the commission and has been classed as a heritage site. We did not need people to tell us that because we knew it was our heritage. We believed that that was our land and that we owned it as part and parcel of the work we put into it. Anyone—no matter what their background or wealth—should be entitled to enjoy that country.
People came together to defend their woods against these proposals, including the Friends of Chopwell Wood, the Chopwell Wood Horse Riding Association, the organisation representing Northumbria ramblers, of which I am proud to be the president, and the people who represent the Friends of Red Kites in the North East of England. I am a member of that organisation, which has been involved with the re-introduction of red kites in the north-east of England during the past six years within 3 miles of one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe. The fact that organisations worked together in relation to Chopwell wood and other such places meant that the re-introduction of red kites was so successful. The re-introduction of red kites has been one of the most positive of any such actions that have thankfully taken place in this country over the past two decades.
We should take stock and say, “Where exactly are we?” A lot of people think that this battle has been won and that the Government have seen sense and have agreed that the forest will stay in public hands, but that is not the position we are in today. Let us remind ourselves what the Secretary of State said. First, she said that she had ended the consultation. Secondly, she said that the Government are supporting the removal of the relevant clauses from the Public Bodies Bill. Thirdly, she said that she has set up the review. That is all she has done. She has not stopped the Forestry Commission from being looked at in respect of privatisation and she has not cut off the potential for the whole of the estate to end up in private hands. That might not happen immediately, but it could happen over time.
A great concern of many of the campaigners—I am talking about people who devote their lives to these woods—was that they may well have had to take control and ownership of certain areas of the woods. They were worried that they could not sustain that. They were also concerned that, when they had gone, their children might not have shown any interest in the woods or have been able to manage them. Ultimately, the woods would have gone into private hands. That is the real issue.
The truth is that people do not trust what the Government have said. That comes through time and again. I read the consultation thoroughly and listened very closely to what the Minister has said because people do not believe that the Government will stick to what they are saying. What people believe is based on the Conservative party’s history and the privatisation that people have seen under Tory Governments during the past two decades. Let us think about some of those things.
There was the deregulation of buses. If we had been in the House—some of us probably were—25 years ago, Ministers would have said, “Don’t worry; the public will have control. This will give a bus to every community in this country.” That has not been the case. Monopolies are running the buses and public service comes last. We could have had a discussion about the deregulation of the utilities. There was the “Tell Sid” campaign—tell Sid we are going to become a shareholding democracy. Now the big six utility companies are putting prices up by 9% when people have seen their pay frozen and their pensions held back.
I accept entirely what the Chair says, but I am talking about the reality of why people have not got on board with what the Minister, the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Banbury, for whom I have a lot of respect, have said. They have said that people are not listening. People are listening, but they are saying, “We don’t believe what we are hearing because we believe that what is happening is an attempt to dethrone us from where we were.” We have been here before. We were here in 1992, when the previous Tory Government set up a review when there was a rising up when Michael Heseltine, who was mentioned earlier, decided he was going to close 31 of the most technologically advanced coal mines in this country.
Order. It is not for the Chair to agree or disagree with where a particular hon. Member is “coming from,” as the hon. Gentleman puts it. It is my job to ensure that the debate is about the future of the Forestry Commission and nothing else. The hon. Gentleman will return to the subject of the debate; otherwise he will return to his seat.
I accept, again, what the Chair says and I hope that he will accept that we have a situation where people worry about what the future holds, because they do not trust what has happened in the past.
Another issue that people are unsure about is exactly where the Liberal Democrats are on this, because they will play a key part in deciding the debate about where this country is going. In the next period, what will they feed into the consultation? What is quite clear on the ground in Chopwell, is that the Liberal Democrats are nowhere to be seen, despite the fact that in part of that area Liberal Democrat councillors represent some of the people who live at the side of the woods. So people have the right to say, “Where are you?” We have been here before. In 1921, under a coalition Government of Tories and Liberals, there was an attempt to sell off Runnymede, of all places. That did not happen.
I come back to the statement made by the Secretary of State. She said:
“I am sorry, we got this one wrong”.
I think every one of us would admire the Secretary of State for saying that and accepting that, but she then said,
“we have listened to people’s concerns.” —[Official Report, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 1155.]
Well, I am very pleased about that, but if she has listened to people’s concerns, and if she has listened to the responses to the consultations, and if she has listened to the 500,000 people who signed up on the website, she will know that those concerns are saying one thing and one thing only: the Forestry Commission, and the 18% of forest lands that are in public ownership and control, must remain. If we end up, at the end of the review procedure, with anything other than that, then clearly she has not listened and has not responded to what the people of this country have said.
The truth is that the people of this country will be watching the Secretary of State, her ministerial team and the Government like a hawk for the next few months. They will be very concerned, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford said, about the make-up of the independent panel. If there are no work force representatives, or representatives from green groups, on the panel, it will fail before it starts. If the terms of reference do not allow the latitude for the Forestry Commission to continue with full control and ownership, it will have failed before it starts.
To the people outside—wake up. Do not pretend that this is all done and dusted and that we had a great victory two weeks ago. We had some success two weeks ago, and it was people power that did it, but we have been here before: reviews have been used to put things on the back burner in the hope that we will forget about it and that it will be slipped through in six months’ time. Do not fall for that one.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing the debate.
The background to this situation is that the Forestry Commission has been running a deficit—a microcosm of the overall national position—for some years, with the gap being plugged by asset sales. There is a revenue funding gap, which is being plugged by capital sales. That is not a sustainable situation, because in time the asset base runs down. Sadly, those assets that have been sold off have, in many cases, gone with inadequate protections. The Government’s recent proposals clearly focused and magnified the great interest in our forests—in my own constituency, the much-loved Bushy Leaze, Chawton Park woods, Alice Holt forest and Queen Elizabeth country park. The correspondence that many of us received—we could all trade a considerable number of e-mails and letters—amplified how much, although we knew this already, people value the recreational benefits of those facilities, and want to protect biodiversity.
It is a little unhelpful to introduce things into the debate that are not directly relevant, such as climate change and the development of the countryside. As was pointed out, in this country, we cannot just fell large numbers of trees, raze them to the ground and build things. That is just not allowed, whoever owns the land, as I think the right hon. Lady knows. There are, however, a number of reasonable, legitimate and important questions, and people have some deep, understandable concerns about aspects of the proposals. One key point, with the distinction between heritage forests and other forests, is that the protections for the heritage forest are clear. However, people want additional comfort about forests that are not classified as heritage forests and, indeed, how they can appeal for a forest to be classed as a heritage forest. That is the case with some of the forests in my patch of East Hampshire.
I welcome the Government’s new independent panel. I hope that it will be an opportunity for us to improve forest cover, relative to the starting point. It is worth restating that the Forestry Commission is not the only owner of forest. I was at a forest planting last week as part of the Woodland Trust jubilee project, which is an excellent project. The next opportunity is not just to protect, but enhance access and amenity. This debate has helped to put into sharp focus some of the issues not just for walkers, but for cyclists and horse riders. I urge the Minister to say a little more on those matters, and what he hopes will come out of the independent panel, which I very much welcome.
Thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me to speak in this debate. I will keep it short. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing the debate. I well remember her contribution as a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in previous Parliaments.
I would like to declare an interest. I am a member of a partnership that is in receipt of a farm woodland grant from the Forestry Commission to promote both the management of woodlands under our responsibility and the public good through, for example, access and biodiversity. I will return to that—not that I am an example of a good forester, although I am an enthusiastic one—because it is not just the public estate that is important for access and biodiversity, but private woodland and private forestry too.
I have another small interest to declare. Some members of my family, although not immediate members, are involved in the sawmill industry, which is a commercial aspect of forestry that has not been mentioned today. Many jobs in my constituency are dependent on sawmills and on a consistent throughput of material, both in quality and quantity, to go into those sawmills. Sadly, only 10% of all timber used in this country for construction or for furniture manufacture originates in this country, but that is still an important part of the rural community.
Sadly, the House has not shown much interest in forestry until the past couple of months. In fact, in almost 10 years as an MP, we have had no debates in Government time on forestry. We have had one debate in Opposition time on forestry, and that was the recent debate. We have had two Adjournment debates on the New Forest. We have had two Westminster Hall debates, one sponsored by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and, in 2005, one that I sponsored. Unfortunately, DEFRA did not manage to put up a Minister to reply to the debate, such was its interest in forestry, and the reply was made by a member of Her Majesty’s Treasury team—the former Whip, Nick Ainger, who is no longer a Member of the House. We had a good debate in this Chamber for 30 minutes.
That is the sum total of interest that the House has shown in forestry in the past 10 years, so I am pleased that we are now able to debate this issue more calmly than we did a fortnight ago—I am sure that the Minister is not very pleased that it has caused the interest that it has—because the future of forestry in this country is important. Some 20% of the forest cover in England is in the public estate, and 80% is privately held. Of that 80%, 40% is either undermanaged or not managed at all, and that is a real challenge for the Forestry Commission in the future. How can we better manage that woodland, not only in commercial terms but also in terms of access and biodiversity?
The sporting potential of forests should be taken into account. One of the points that I would make if I had more time is about the great demand on our forests for different kinds of access. In my area, there are not only walkers, cyclists and horse riders, but people who go scrambling and rally driving as well. Rally driving and horse riding do not go together very well, so we have to manage the diverse demands on our forests.
Yes, the Forestry Commission was set up in response to the lack of timber for pit props, but its reputation has not always been as holy as it is now. Indeed, the contraceptive conifers that march up and down our woodlands were all planted by the Forestry Commission. The planting of the Flow country in Scotland, where we had the last of our native conifer woodland, was not to its glory, but, yes, it has improved; it has altered its terms of reference and its priorities.
When the panel meets—I hope that it will be called the wood panel, because everyone would then be able to recognise it—I hope it will take into consideration not only the public estate, which is managed by the Forestry Commission, but private woodland as well, which can make a huge contribution in this country. As someone said, we probably have less woodland cover than almost any other European country, so it is important that we take private woodland into account. The Forestry Commission is already making planting grants to the private estate, so that would be within the panel’s terms—at least, I hope that it is—because, in making those grants, we can ask for public good to be demonstrated. We can ask for access and improvements in biodiversity.
We should remember that conifer woods are not completely aseptic, or without any life at all. In fact, the red squirrel and the dormouse have been shown to use such habitats, so they are important. The Forestry Commission also has a big part to play in ensuring that there is a supply of timber to go through our sawmills, so I would ask the Minister whether there is any way in which all of that can be taken into consideration. In the enthusiasm to protect our public estate, we have forgotten about the contribution that private woodland makes as well.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I have been inspired to speak by the previous contributions, particularly that of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). I congratulate her on providing this useful opportunity to have a considered discussion about an issue that is hugely important to me personally. I am enjoying the debate.
I agreed with much of what the right hon. Lady said about objectives. I love forests. As a farmer, I planted forests on my land, purely for my own pleasure—they are of limited commercial benefit. Like the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), I, too, should declare an interest, albeit a small one, in that I planted woodlands with the support of Forestry Commission grants, and my main farm is surrounded by Forestry Commission land.
Clearly, the objective has been to increase biodiversity. That is a stated objective of the Government as well as the Opposition. It is also hugely important that we increase and improve access. I must say that when I first saw reports on the coalition Government’s intention to change the ownership of woodland, I had personal concerns because of my huge interest.
When I was a young man, I spent much of my time on Forestry Commission land at Cwmystwyth in central Wales looking at red kites. I make this point because it is relevant to another contribution that we heard. There were probably no more than about a dozen red kites left in the whole of Britain. The only way we were able to reintroduce the red kite into central parts of England—people can now see them everywhere along the M40 as they drive into London—and the north-east is because many people in mid-Wales put in a lot of voluntary effort to retain the red kite when its very existence was threatened.
The one part of the right hon. Lady’s speech that caused me concern was the way in which she misinterpreted what the coalition Government intended to do. Like other Members, I have received letters and e-mails—I think there were 250, although the proposals did not even apply in Wales. Even before I heard the Secretary of State’s statement in the House, I thought that people had misunderstood what the Government were proposing. After the statement, I wrote to those 250 people and sent them a copy of what the Secretary of State actually said in the House. Much of the statement was drowned out—it was a noisy, highly emotional debate, and I do not think that people actually heard what was said. I have not had 250 e-mails back, but I have probably had 15, and people are saying, “We didn’t know that. We didn’t understand what the Government were actually planning to do.” They were much more supportive of the plans. However, I do not want to hark back too much to that, because we are now moving forward.
Is it the hon. Gentleman’s understanding that the Government were proposing—and, therefore, could propose again in future—the disposal of anything up to the whole national forest estate? He has criticised use of the words “sell off”, but “disposal” would mean that the Forestry Commission and its comprehensive approach to the national forests would no longer exist. The situation would be very different.
No, that was not my understanding. Clearly, I had an interest, and I had concerns because of reports in the newspapers, but I must admit that I do not always believe everything I read in the newspapers. Sometimes interesting issues are raised, but that was not my understanding, which was why I said that I waited to hear exactly what the Government were proposing before making a judgment. I thought that the speech in the House during the last major debate was sensibly based.
However, I want to move on from that to an issue of concern that has not been addressed: the position of the Forestry Commission as both regulator and a major operator in the field. That is a real issue which, at some stage, the Government will have to address. It cannot be right that the body that is the main commercial operator in the field also regulates all its competitors. That matter will have to be dealt with. The one other aspect to which we must refer—this something which my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) raised—is dealing with commercial property. I cannot see the sense in Government dealing with commercial forestry. Changing the ownership or management of forestry through lease is crucial. We have to get back to a position of maintaining or increasing access, increasing biodiversity wherever possible, and contributing to fighting climate change if that is part of the wider debate, as it should be. That can be better done through lease than sale, which is why I hugely welcomed the original debate.
I want to refer to Wales. I live in Wales, and a lot of people say that the Government there are taking a completely different line on the issue. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made that point. What is proposed in Wales is that the estate should be retained, but there will be improved and more dynamic management, and there will occasionally be sales. That policy really is not very different from what we might propose. One does not know where we go from here, but a report is coming, and things will not be the same as before. To say that we will simply retain forestry in aspic in the other nations is not accurate. In all areas, where a large part of land is owned, there has to be a degree of flexibility and of management responding to conditions as they come along, and that will be what we will do. That is all I wish to say.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing the debate. It is clear from the contributions that Members have made that, despite the Government’s somewhat change of approach, this is still a current issue for us. As she reminds us, the context of her request for the debate was the threat to England’s woodlands and forests seeming immediate and imminent. Although there has been some change since then, that threat has not gone away, as she and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) reminded us.
It is evident from the contributions to this debate and to the debate in the main Chamber on 2 February that our forests and woodlands are precious to us and to our constituents. The steward of those forests and woodlands—the body that has oversight of them on our behalf, which cares for, looks after and nurtures them—is the Forestry Commission. Its role in undertaking those tasks on our behalf is vital. It is vital for the land that it directly manages, for the oversight, regulation and advice that it provides to others, and, most particularly, for the example that it sets to others on how to manage the woodland under its control.
As the debate on England’s forests on 2 February highlighted, the Forestry Commission manages 258,000 hectares of land in England. As pointed out during the debate, that represents only 18% of all woodland in England. That 18% represents only 44% of the total woodland accessible for the public to enjoy and appreciate. Our debate today is not simply about the woodland in England, but about the Forestry Commission in general and its stewardship.
That is indeed the case. As I acknowledged, we very much welcome the fact that the Forestry Commission, in the exemplary way it manages its land—promoting biodiversity, providing education, interpretation and access—offers an example to others, which some follow.
Woodland managed in England is only about one third of the total woodland and forest managed by the Forestry Commission across Great Britain. It is estimated that that is more than 1.4 billion trees—although I do not think that anyone has actually counted them all.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) spoke about how the Forestry Commission dramatically has changed its approach to management over the years and about how it has become an exemplary organisation. It is a major land manager that sets very high standards. It has one of the largest collections of sites of special scientific interest, with an excellent record of 99% being in favourable or recovering condition. It provides for a substantial number of visitors, and is estimated to have had more than 40 million visits last year. He put his finger on it when he mentioned previous debates—
Or the lack of debates on forestry in the House over recent years. That is interesting because I think that it points not to a lack of interest in forestry, but to a belief, up until now, that the forests were in safe hands and it was not a matter about which Members needed to concern themselves. That was why it was so distressing and surprising when we heard the Government’s proposals to sell 40,000 hectares immediately. The hon. Member for Daventry cannot get away from it and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) cannot suggest that we misinterpreted the Government’s intentions. As shown by the quotes earlier, the Government were clear about their intentions for the public forest estate. I quote the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
“We wish to proceed with very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.”
That is clear. People were not making it up. People did not misunderstand it. Those words meant what they—
They could mean nothing other than that. There could be a wholesale sell-off. The outcry was totally predictable to everybody other than the Minister and his colleagues. They tried to dismiss that as scaremongering, and in the run-up to the 2 February debate, they said that they were doing it for the money. Perhaps the Minister will explain some of the figures behind the proposals and say what he now believes the net proceeds would have been. They tried to justify the sale in that way, and when that fell apart, they tried to justify it in terms of the big society. But that fell apart and, as we heard again from Government Members, they invented the spurious explanation that it was about trying to resolve a conflict of interest within the organisation of the Forestry Commission. It was somehow inappropriate for the Forestry Commission to be both the operator and the regulator, and it was incapable of doing something that it has done successfully for many decades.
I did not really support the plans the Government introduced, but I thought that it was right to have a consultation period, for which I voted. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should think more about what the independent review might say and about how we might funnel our views and the views of our constituents towards it?
I will come to questions to the Minister about how independent the review will be and what its terms of reference will be in one moment. Before doing that, I will return to the concerns about the continuing threats to the Forestry Commission’s work expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford when she introduced the debate and later by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon. They pointed out that although it appears that there has been some pause in the Government’s headlong rush to dismantle the public forest estate, they are pressing ahead with requiring the Forestry Commission to make substantial cuts in its staff. Some 400 jobs—about a quarter of the total—are at risk immediately. That will inevitably reduce its capacity to undertake the excellent stewardship achieved over recent years. Its ability to manage the deer and wildlife will be reduced, learning and educational programmes will be cut, and there will inevitably be extended charges for services or the shutting of facilities. Elements of what the Forestry Commission manages directly and excellently at the moment will have to be passed over to others.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. My right hon. and hon. Friends have already mentioned some of them, but I will list the points again and allow the Minister plenty of time to respond. When will the Government bring forward details of who will sit on the new panel, and how will they guarantee the independence of that panel? Will the panel include public and local campaign groups that have been involved in the campaign to save the forests, and will it include members of the work force? Will the panel meet in public? Will all existing planned sales be halted pending the panel’s report?
Will the panel be able to recommend maintaining the land in public hands? The Minister muttered “Rubbish” from a sedentary position when this point was raised earlier, so perhaps he will take the opportunity to tell us if it is untrue. How can the Government deliver better woodland access and biodiversity when the Forestry Commission is cutting staff by a quarter over the next three months? Finally, will any future receipts from sales of land stay within the Forestry Commission so that they can be used for the enhancement of our public forest estate? That is what the previous Government did and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford reminded us, it is something of which we are proud.
The public were appalled by what the Government proposed, and they understood clearly the full extent of what it might mean. Those who campaigned so effectively were aware of the threat to our precious woodlands and forests, but they must be reminded that the threat has not gone away, and we have had the opportunity to do that today. Conservative Members have been dismissive of those fears in the past, and we have heard such fears dismissed again today. Hon. Members from all sides must have heard the clear message during the run-up to the debate on 2 February, and it is still something that we need to hear. Our woods and forests are just that—they are our woods and our forests. They must be kept that way and properly managed by the Forestry Commission, an organisation that has an excellent record in the stewardship of those precious assets on our behalf.
I have attended many debates in Westminster Hall, which is normally a place for relatively non-controversial issues to be raised and discussed in a calm manner by hon. Members from all parties. I am afraid I cannot say that of today. The opening speech by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) repeated many of the myths and nonsenses that we have heard during previous discussions and questions about forestry. It was not the serious contribution to the future of the Forestry Commission that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) referred to and urged upon us.
I will address some of the key issues and respond where I can to the questions raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) rightly pointed out that part of the public concern arose from the Public Bodies Bill. One can look back and say that the cart was put before the horse, but because we believed that changes to the Forestry Commission were necessary and we were conscious of the constraints of the legislation, we decided to put the provision into what appeared to be a suitable vehicle to permit us to make those changes. I am the first to recognise that, together with the remarks I made to which the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby) referred—I am not withdrawing those remarks, but they were back in October—that allowed people to become concerned. As it happened, that concern was unnecessary, but it allowed a number of myths to gain credence.
In the communication to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I used the word “disposal” carefully. I did not use the word “sale” because, as will be observed, the consultation document often implied disposal but not sale. Part of the absurd nonsense from the right hon. Lady included the figure of £745 million, which I suspect she took from the Forestry Commission’s annual report. That is actually the book value of all the public forestry estate, prior to any discounts for the preservation of access and other public interests. It includes the book value of the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, and we made it clear that for both of those the disposal was to be free—gratis—had it gone through. The right hon. Lady’s figures were absurd; the concept of disposal included a free handover to a charitable trust.
As the right hon. Lady knows, the consultation document contained a lot of variability, particularly about what might be called the middle strata of woodlands and forests—not heritage but not the main commercial areas—where there was a range of options. The income from that is not easy to estimate, but we published an impact assessment as required, and the figures are in the public domain. I repeat: the primary objective of the proposition was not simply to raise cash. I will return in a moment to the issue of ongoing sales.
The right hon. Lady referred to the 0.5 million people who expressed concern about this matter. I cannot help but observe that she took a lot less notice of the 0.5 million people who opposed a ban on fox hunting and whom she treated with disdain.
Quite. As we have said, and as the Secretary of State said in the House, we recognised that public concern was raised dramatically, and that it was a pointless exercise to continue with the consultation in that environment. Therefore, we have withdrawn it and I do not propose to waste more time discussing what was or was not in the consultation document. That would not be constructive.
The issue was raised of the ongoing sales, or the 15% of the Forestry Commission estate that is in the spending review for the next four years. It is estimated that we would have raised £100 million from the sale of up to 15% of the forestry estate in England. The hon. Member for Leicester South asked what is happening to that, and as the Secretary of State made clear, we have suspended that process. No parcels of land or forests will be offered for sale until the panel—to which I will refer later—has reported and made recommendations regarding the protection of public interests. At the moment, there is no direct financial consequence. The £100 million, although placed in our spending review, was not allocated to any heads of expenditure. Therefore, other than a short-term cash-flow issue, there are no direct consequences of deferring those sales. I hope that explanation has clarified the issue.
A point was made about sales by previous Governments. Again, that makes me doubt the right hon. Lady’s—the hon. Lady’s—
My apologies. It makes me doubt the right hon. Lady’s commitment to the whole picture. On her website, she has been on about how much land the previous Conservative Government and the Forestry Commission sold. Of course, she omits to point out that most of that was in Scotland, because under that previous Government the Forestry Commission was one body, so in comparison with what happened under the Labour Government, who were selling only in England after devolution, the figures look dramatically different. She also omitted to mention, although one of my hon. Friends did mention it, that under the previous Government tree planting fell to an all-time low. The rate halved under the Government of whom she was so proud to be a member.
Much has been said about the fact that the public forest estate comprises just 18% of all woods and forests in England. We should not in any way ignore that statistic. It is clear that many people were confused about how much of the forestry in this country was owned or rented by the Forestry Commission. It is just 18%. Although the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford and other hon. Members have been, by implication, quite damning of the 69% that is held in private hands—the rest is in other forms of public or community ownership—we do not see with that 69% all the disasters that we were told would befall public land if it went into the private sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) rightly pointed out, people cannot fell trees in this country without a felling licence, and almost certainly they will have to replant. Indeed, since I have been the Minister responsible, I have had to intervene on a few occasions to enforce the replanting requirements to ensure that that happens. Therefore, suggestions of massive deforestation are completely absurd and take us away from the serious debate that others want to address.
Let me deal with some of the specific questions that I was asked. I will not disclose anything about the content of the panel, because the Secretary of State will announce in due course who will serve on the panel and what its terms of reference will be. I can emphasise, though, that the status quo—the hon. Member for Leicester South asked about this—is of course an option. If the panel recommends that, clearly it is entitled to do so. To rule it out would be nonsensical. If the panel recommends change, the issue of public consultation comes back into play, so there will be plenty of time. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) said that if the panel concludes in favour of anything other than the status quo, we will not have listened to the public. I say to him that we will consult the public about any changes if the panel recommends them. I do not want to prejudge what the outcome of the panel will be.
The hon. Member for Leicester South asked how we would guarantee independence. The chairman will be appointed and will be completely independent; indeed, all the members will be. We are not filling the panel with civil servants or anything like that. It will be completely independent. It will be for the members to decide how they operate, but I cannot see why they should not have public meetings if that seems appropriate.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the 25% cut, and other hon. Members have raised that. All Opposition Members should be well aware that they managed to leave this country in desperate straits and we have had to take very tough decisions on public expenditure. All DEFRA’s arm’s length bodies have had to take a 25% cut, just as core DEFRA has had to. That is tough, and I feel for all the people who may find themselves losing jobs or not being able to get a job because the job has disappeared as a result. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, the deficit must come first—we must deal with it. I will not apologise—indeed, it should be for those on the Opposition Benches to apologise—for the fact that we have had to make those reductions. The details of how they will be made in this area are a matter for the Forestry Commission. It has made its proposals, which are out for consultation. It would be wrong of me to discuss them in public while that consultation is going on.
A number of other points were raised. I shall try to encapsulate some of them but, most importantly, I want to make the point that, contrary to the impression that the Opposition have tried to give, the Government feel very strongly about forestry. Perhaps I should have said, like other hon. Members, that I have the grand total of 1 hectare of woodland on my own little property. Like others, I planted it myself 20 years ago under a woodland grant scheme, although that has long since expired, and I am proud to spend a lot of time in it managing it. I passionately believe in the importance of forestry. What I do not believe is that the status quo is automatically always the best way forward. It is right that we should reconsider how the Forestry Commission operates, and the panel will advise us on whether there should be changes.
It is worth pointing out that the Forestry Commission’s commercial arm makes a margin of just £1 million on its commercial activities. That is substantially offset by the understandable costs of recreation, amenity, biodiversity and the other services that the commission provides, as a number of hon. Members rightly identified. That means that there is a massive overall cost to the taxpayer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, in the past the commission has made that up by selling off assets on an annual basis, and it has been selling those assets without the protection for public access, rights of way and all the other things that Opposition Members now preach to us about. Those things were not protected, so Opposition Members are not in a good position to criticise us.
We hope that the panel will consider all aspects of the public forest estate. As I said, the Secretary of State will publish details of the proposed membership and the terms of reference of the panel shortly. We look forward to the conclusions that it comes to. I can assure the House that the present Government’s genuine commitment to forestry in this country—public, private and community—is real and as strong as it has ever been.
The truth of what I have just said is underlined by the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, the National Forest was brought in by a Conservative Government, who did a tremendous amount of work in developing forestry in the former coal mining areas of the midlands. That is a great place for everyone to visit. The real point to make, though, is that virtually none of it is on state-owned land. Planting has been incentivised on private and community-owned land, not public land bought by the Forestry Commission. Therefore, we can have a vibrant, strong forest in this country, with access and with all the necessary protection for biodiversity. Whether the state needs to be involved not only in owning it but in managing and running it is now a matter for the panel, the details of which we will announce shortly.
I understand the Minister’s reluctance to give the names of those who might serve on the panel, but surely he will accept that it is important that those who have spoken out so strongly on behalf of woodlands and forests have their voice heard on that panel. Will he at this stage agree to ensure that on that panel are members of the public and local campaign groups who have been speaking so vehemently on behalf of our forests?
I am sorry, but I will not be drawn on the membership of the panel because once I give way on one aspect of who might be on the panel, I will be drawn into discussing everything. The Secretary of State will make the announcement shortly. I hope that we can then go forward with the seriousness of approach that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned so wisely in his contribution.