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Elm Disease In Scotland

Volume 387: debated on Wednesday 16 November 1977

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2.55 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether there is any provision whereby a householder in Scotland whose property includes a diseased elm tree can claim financial assistance in the expensive operation of having the tree removed.

My Lords, the responsibility for felling trees which are dead or dying for any reason is the responsibility of the owner. The Dutch Elm Disease (Local Authorities) Order 1977 gives Scottish regional authorities powers to serve notices on owners requiring them to fell and destroy diseased elms at their own expense. These authorities also have powers to remove sources of infection without cost to the owners; the choice of action, however, is at the discretion of the authorities.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that South of the Border certain county councils are proceeding apace with removing diseased elm trees, that thousands of pounds have been spent at a rate of about £30 for the removal of each tree and that towards this a grant of 62½ per cent. is made by the Countryside Commission? What I should like to ask the noble Lord is whether we in Scotland could follow that very helpful course and enlist the assistance of the Countryside Commission, thereby saving from great anxiety a number of poor persons who find themselves at risk of being faced with a very substantial bill?

My Lords, there is nothing to prevent an owner applying to his local authority for assistance, as has been done in some regions in the South of England, notably in East Sussex. With regard to the future, a Working Group has been formed by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, including representatives of each of the Scottish regions, with the Countryside Commission for Scotland and the Forestry Commission. The first meeting was held in March last, when it was agreed that the main function of the Working Group would be to act as a forum for the exchange of information between regions, and I will see that they are acquainted with the points put by the noble Lord.

My Lords, as the Answer applied to Scotland, can the noble Lord say what is the situation with regard to England, because the problem is very widespread and has a very wide effect? The noble Lord indicated that assistance from some quarters is available for Scotland, and may I ask whether that applies to England? Also, can he say what is the position with regard to trees menacing a highway which are apparently rooted on common land?

My Lords, the position in England is that there are some 25 million elms in the country as a whole of which, I regret to say, half in England and Wales are dead or dying. The position legally is the same on both sides of the Border. There is no money available from central funds, nor was there of course during the time of the previous Government. But there is nothing to prevent an owner, as I said, applying to a local authority for assistance, and indeed in extreme cases of hardship assistance may be available from the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

My Lords, while we are grateful for what the noble Lord has said, in so far as it goes, Dutch elm disease has been creeping northwards and is only just starting in Scotland. Will the noble Lord give an assurance that the authorities there will be as ready to assist as are those South of the Border? Further, can he give an assurance that the Government will do their best to assist in the removal of dead wood, wherever it is to be found?

My Lords, we have no dead wood on this side of the House. With regard to the position in Scotland, there are 2 or 3 million elms, of which at present I am glad to say only 3,000 to 4,000 are diseased. I am sure that, wherever possible, local authorities there will be as willing as they are South of the Border to help owners.

My Lords, since the matter can apply to trees which are often on rights of way, does the noble Lord realise that this will involve a great deal of litigation? Would he consider making a recommendation to the Minister that consideration should be given to the grant of assistance where the obligation to cut down trees is imposed by a county council and there is a dispute as to the exact ownership of the soil upon which they are growing?

Of course, my Lords. There are difficult border cases of this kind, and I will certainly put the points which the noble Lord has made, with all his great experience, to my right honourable friend.