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Forestry Bill

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 3 June 1986

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8.28 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

It is with much pleasure and anticipation, for I am aware of your Lordships' knowledge and expertise in woodland matters, that I introduce this modest Bill. It may perhaps be modest in size, but not, I would suggest, in impact. What we have before your Lordships is an important measure which is designed to close a loophole in our present controls on tree felling.

As your Lordships will be aware, the Bill began its life in another place with an additional clause designed to increase the maximum membership of the Forestry Commission's regional advisory committees from nine to 12. That was designed to meet growing concern that there should be an appropriate broadening in the representation of environmental and farming interests on the committees. That indeed was the view taken by the commissioners in a consultation paper which was issued to interested parties in March this year. Paradoxically, it was this very consultation exercise which brought about the removal of the clause. I understand that a number of conservation bodies felt strongly that any increase in membership at this stage, however modest, would inhibit the possibility of more comprehensive changes at a later date. Pressure was therefore brought to bear in another place and the clause was removed in order to save the rest of the Bill.

I am sure that many of your Lordships will regret the omission of this clause from the Bill we are considering today. I share such disappointment, since the opposition to this small change was certainly illogical. Nevertheless, I feel we must accept the realities of the situation. Had the clause in question remained in the Bill it would almost certainly have been lost in another place and we would not have had the opportunity of debating the present proposal this evening. If we were now to restore the clause relating to regional advisory committees, as I am sure many of your Lordships may be tempted to do, I am advised that the Bill as a whole would again be placed in jeopardy when it was referred back. This is a risk which I am sure your Lordships will not wish to take in view of the very useful nature of Clause 1.

If I may now turn to Clause 1, this is intended to strengthen the controls on tree felling exercised by the Forestry Commissioners under powers contained in the Forestry Act 1967. Normally a licence must be obtained from the commission before an owner or tenant can fell growing trees. There are exceptions to this requirement. These are specified in the 1967 Act and in regulations made under that Act. For example, trees growing in orchards, gardens, churchyards or public open spaces are exempt from the need to obtain a licence. So too is felling carried out in accordance with an approved plan of operations under one of the commission's grant schemes. However, it is license-able trees with which this Bill is concerned.

I should make it clear from the outset that the issue of a licence to fell trees is no mere formality. All applications for a felling licence are considered most carefully. Almost invariably the commission, upon receipt of an application, will arrange for the trees to be inspected. Consultations are normally carried out with the local authority and with other statutory authorities, as appropriate, in order to ensure that relevant environmental or land use aspects are taken into account.

The controls are exercised with environmental considerations very much in mind. In granting a felling licence the commissioners have powers to impose restocking conditions where it appears expedient for them to do so in the interests of good forestry or agriculture or the amenities of the district, or for the purpose of complying with their duty of promoting the establishment and maintenance in Great Britain of adequate reserves of growing trees. In carrying out this and other functions the commissioners also have a duty to seek to achieve a balance between forestry and the environment.

There have regrettably been those who, either by default or by design, have felled trees without a licence in contravention of the Act. When this happens the offender can, of course, be taken to court. On conviction he may be fined up to £1,000 or twice the value of the trees, whichever is the greater. There are, however, at present no powers to require the restocking of that land with trees. The owner or tenant is free to do what he wants with the land. Some have taken advantage of this situation to turn the land to another use. Too many fine amenity woods have been lost in this way to future generations.

Clause 1 of the Bill seeks to redress this situation by giving the Forestry Commissioners the power to issue a notice requiring an owner or tenant who has been convicted of illegal felling to restock that land with trees. If necessary, enforcement of that notice can be taken against a successor in title. In practice it is envisaged that the commissioners, in deciding whether or not to impose a restocking notice, will take into account the same factors which they would otherwise have considered if the owner or tenant had applied for a licence in the normal way.

Circumstances might arise where, had a felling licence been applied for, the commissioners would not have insisted upon restocking, and it is right that they should be able to take account of such a situation in considering whether to issue a restocking notice. A notice would, however, be issued in those circumstances where a felling licence would either have been refused or granted subject to restocking conditions.

The clause also allows for restocking to be carried out on a suitable site nearby. This is to cater for those exceptional circumstances where it would be sensible to allow planting to take place other than on the land where the offence took place. There could be a number of reasons for this—a waterlogged site, perhaps, or where another site would realise greater amenity benefits. I stress that these would be few and far between. In most cases the commissioners would insist upon restocking the actual site where the illegal felling occurred.

Your Lordships will have observed that a restocking notice will specify the period during which the trees are to be maintained. The maximum for this has been put at 10 years. This is also the maximum period laid down in the Forestry Act 1967 for any restocking conditions attached to the granting of a felling licence. The Bill also allows a right of appeal to the Minister against a requirement to restock a site with trees. The commissioners will also have powers to enforce unfulfilled conditions of a restocking notice. These provisions have been applied simply by taking the existing provisions of the Forestry Act 1967 as they relate to felling licensing and applying them to restocking notices.

My Lords, there is a great deal of support for this measure. Until recently a parallel situation existed with local authorities who could not require the replanting of woodland which had been felled in contravention of a Tree Preservation Order. The Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Act 1985 closed this loophole, and the Bill before your Lordships seeks to give the Forestry Commissioners similar powers in respect of illegal felling.

I commend this Bill to your Lordships, and I beg to move that it now be read a second time.

Moved, that the Bill be now read a second time.—( Lord Gisborough.)

8.38 p.m.

My Lords, I indeed welcome my noble friend's initiative in bringing this Bill before your Lordships. There can be no controversy over this measure. It is entirely to be applauded. My noble friend has, however, referred to another clause in the Bill as introduced in another place and there withdrawn because of opposition. Declaring my interest, as I suppose I must, as president of the Timber Growers of the United Kingdom, I must offer to your Lordships, with your great knowledge and wisdom in matters such as this, my brief comment on what that clause which was withdrawn in another place was about and also the motivation behind the challenge that caused its withdrawal.

In the face of opposition from conservation lobbies to the very necessary expansion of our home-based forestry produce, which has been examined and enforced by your Lordships in recent years, the Forestry Commission, as forestry authority, has recently produced a document entitled The Composition and Procedures of the Forestry Commission's Regional Advisory Committees—normally referred to as RACs. This is an effort on their part to increase the membership of RACs from interests other than forestry, such as farming and environmental interests. It was an honest job, for the job of the RACs is to look into and advise the forestry authority over giving planting grants for newly projected forestry schemes where these have been challenged on grounds of amenity or conservation or agricultural interests. The findings of these committees go through the forestry authority to the Minister concerned and where the application for planting grants is turned down timber growers advise their members to respect this decision and not to go ahead with planting without a grant. It is quite an important point.

Certain voluntary agencies in the amenity lobbies—and I could name them—hold that the RACs are biased towards forestry, despite their having already representatives of the other interests named. The forestry authority are therefore recommending in that document which I held up that,
"Additional places should be allotted on the RACs to environmental and farming interests".
This seems an eminently reasonable approach, but apparently it calls for legislation.

The voluntary agencies referred to want forestry—this is inescapable—placed under full planning control; that is, that of the local government planners who, in general, have very little knowledge of forestry and of the considerations surrounding it. That is why the voluntary agencies concerned motivated the objections to the very reasonable approach towards a broadening of the RACs' membership suggested by the forestry authority. They think it would weaken their case for forestry being placed one day under planning control. As one having a strong personal commitment to environmental interests, which have been recognised in some places, I shall hope to invoke the wisdom of your Lordships' House, during later stages of this Bill, in applying your minds to the subject I have outlined.

As my noble friend pointed out, it may be impossible to reintroduce this lost clause and get it past the Commons when it goes back, but I still believe that a bit of debate in which the wisdom of your Lordships' House can be aired would be a very good thing. It is lamentable that the forestry authority's own initiative towards broadening the base of consultation should be blocked, from the ulterior motives to which 1 have referred. I believe that noble Lords on all sides of the House will feel as I do about this, and will join in taking action to discuss the matter of the lost Clause 2.

8.43 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to intervene to make a couple of points, despite the fact that the dinner hour allocated to the two Bills had already gone by before the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, rose to speak on this one. But that is a matter for which none of us can be responsible.

I should like to join in the general welcome to this Bill and to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, on introducing it here today. There are already quite sharp teeth to stop landowners from felling trees without applying for a felling licence. As the noble Lord has mentioned, the maximum fines are substantial and can be of up to £2,000 for every tree that is cut. But that does not put new trees back into the ground, and this Bill will make it possible to bring pressure to bear upon people who cut down trees without having felling licences.

A restocking notice will require the person who cuts down trees to replace them and I assume it will be stated in that notice how many trees will have to be planted, of what species and in what area. In my experience, if you are going to replace a tree you should plant at least 10 others, because only one will eventually grow on to maturity. Perhaps it should be specified in the Bill that a restocking notice will give those particulars which would be agreed with the party concerned.

The other point to which I want to draw attention is that under the Bill the trees that are planted when a restocking notice has been issued must be maintained for a maximum period of only 10 years which, as the noble Lord mentioned, is the same period that applies when a felling licence is granted. In my opinion, 10 years was not long enough in the case of a felling licence and it is not long enough now.

After 10 years, if trees have been properly looked after, they should certainly be fully established and should need very little subsequent attention to ensure that they grow on to maturity. But the point that occurs to me is that at that age whatever trees are planted, particularly if they are hardwoods, they will not be at all big, and under Section 9(3)(b) of the 1967 Act it is not necessary to apply for a felling licence if the aggregate content of the trees felled does not exceed 825 cubic feet in any given quarter, unless they are sold. If they are sold, it is still permitted to sell trees with an aggregate content of 150 cubic feet in any quarter without a felling licence.

To most of your Lordships, 150 cubic feet gives a fairly clear impression of the amount of timber concerned. But in case any noble Lord is in doubt, 150 cubic feet is approximately the content of a tree with a diameter of 3 feet and a length of 20 feet. That is a very sizeable tree and far bigger than one will be after 10 or even 50 years. The person to whom it applies can cut that amount of timber without a felling licence in any given quarter.

The relevant point is that if under this Bill anyone is forced to plant trees he has to maintain them for only 10 years—that is, if he wants to clear an amenity area in order to build houses—or for a shorter period if that is specified when the restocking notice is given. He can then cut them all down without a felling licence and there is absolutely no redress. So, I feel today, as I feel about the 1967 Act, that 10 years is not a long enough time. It is a moment of time in the life of a tree which will live for 150 or 250 years in the case of an oak or a beech, and a longer period should be specified. Having drawn attention to those points, I should like to say that the Bill has my wholehearted good wishes and I support the noble Lord.

8.49 p.m.

My Lords, may I intervene briefly to say from these Benches that we wish the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, every encouragement and support in the Bill which he has introduced. It is one of the good things about the House of Lords that we can draw on a good deal of wisdom and experience in the various fields which we discuss.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, will be encouraged by the support which he has just received from the very distinguished forester who sits opposite—the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton. The noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, is typical of the enlightened forester who not only has a concern about growing trees, but has a deep concern for the environment and for wildlife conservation.

The noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, has been honoured internationally for his work in this field. This should be some reassurance to the environmentalists and the others who are campaigning to bring forestry within planning permission and to provide that planning authority is necessary in new planting of forests. It should be a reassurance to them that foresters have the kind of overall concern for the countryside which is exemplified by the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, and other Members of this House.

The discussion tonight may be resumed at the Committee stage, because we have been discussing largely something that is not in the Bill—the question of the omitted clause, the clause that was withdrawn. I am not sure whether we are going to insist on the return of that clause. Whether it endangers the future of the Bill may be a matter for consideration. I very much welcome the steps that have been taken by the Forestry Commission to extend the regional advisory committees and to ensure that the regional advisory committees are well representative of different interests and present a sensible balance of the various interests in new planting.

It is not only a matter of environmental protection; other interests are at stake, such as the creation of rural employment and the requirements of the timber trade. All these things have to be weighed in discussing whether forestry should proceed. In my own experience the RACs have worked admirably in the past. They have been a source of good and well balanced advice to the commission and to the Minister. By the same token the adding of two members, perhaps with a substantial environmental interest, to these RACs will I hope satisfy some of the interests who are seeking full planning permission for forestry development.

I suggest that planning officers with their wide responsibilities for planning in the counties are perhaps not the best judges in this matter. If planning permission were to be imposed on forestry it could quite readily lead to a much more bureaucratic and less flexible system than the RACs presently supply. I hope that the good work of the commission in adding to the RACs might be encouraged if it is possible within the Bill. I hope that the House will reject the imposition of bureaucratic planning controls.

There is a built in assumption sometimes that foresters are against environmental control and are against preservation, conservation and wildlife. That is not so. The men who work in the forests, the men who create the forests of this country, have shown a great concern for environmental interests and are probably in a better position to make assessments of environmental impact than, say, a planning officer in a county office.

With those remarks, I strongly support the Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough. We shall look more closely at its provisions at the Committee stage.

8.53 p.m.

My Lords, I thought I was going to be under the scowls of the Chief Whip but I see that he has departed. I shall be very brief in what I have to say.

The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, introduced this Bill in a first-class manner. He made all the points very clearly and I see no reason why I should go over them. I wish only to congratulate him, to welcome the Bill and point out that its objective is most laudable and no one could possibly object to it. The noble Lord pointed to the amount of consultation that goes on before felling licences are given. I do not understand why the environmental people should not be pleased with this clause in regard to felling, replanting and everything else. This fills a gap in the regulations and I am sure that they should be pleased at that.

Like other noble Lords, I am very worried that the second clause, which gave the commission power to increase the numbers of the RACs from nine to 12, had to be dropped. The regions were reorganised a few years ago. The number fell from 11 to seven, making much larger regions. That alone is a reason for increasing the numbers to cover the larger regions. I should like to point out to conservationists and environmentalists that 21 new members were to be appointed and the commission gave notice that it would ensure that with these new members conservation and environment would be represented. These people have probably lost for a very long time any chance of getting the representation that they would have received had they not opposed this new clause. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. My experience of forestry over the short period that I was chairman of the commission showed me how much is done by the commission and by private forestry. I should like to include the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, here. I have seen what he has done and the way he has looked after the environment and conservation. I cannot understand the continuous criticism of foresters, both private and public.

I very much deprecate the action that was taken. I realise that because of parliamentary procedure it would be dangerous for this House to try to put the clause back again unless we had some guarantee from another place that it would go through without objections. With those remarks, I welcome the one clause, which fills a gap in the regulations which it was quite necessary to fill.

8.57 p.m.

My Lords, I too should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Gisborough for introducing this Bill so clearly and succinctly. It is indeed a pleasant task to be able to support a Bill which in the form in which it comes before your Lordships' House has received widespread approval for what it is seeking to achieve.

The felling licensing controls are necessarily comprehensive, but they provide a vital safeguard for our woodlands and for the contribution they bring to the amenity and diversity of our countryside. As my noble friend has observed, however, we have nevertheless seen some fine woods cut down without the necessary permission and the land put to some other use. While it has been possible to take offenders to court the felling controls are obviously lacking if we could not also insist on restocking. The Bill now before your Lordships seeks to redress the matter by closing this loophole. It does so by giving forestry commissioners powers at their discretion to issue a restocking notice to an owner or tenant who has been convicted of illegal felling. I am certain that the commissioners will use these powers in a reasonable manner.

We have heard my noble friend Lord Gisborough explain that the commissioners will issue such a notice only in those cases where, had a licence been applied for, they would have either refused the licence or issued one subject to restocking being carried out. This seems to me to be a very practical and sensible approach.

Changes to the countryside brought about by the felling of trees can have a major impact. We must therefore try to ensure that felling proposals are carefully considered through the commission's consultation procedures. This Bill is designed to provide a sanction and a discretionary remedy in those cases where the statutory requirements have been bypassed. I commend it to your Lordships.

My Lords, I am grateful to all the noble Lords who have supported this Bill. They have all regretted the loss of Clause 2. Environmentalists may well contemplate on the lack of support that they have had from people from all parties and feel if they continue their opposition and do not ask to have the clause reinstated that they may stay for a long time without support. I hope that voluntary bodies who read this debate may wish to think again and ask to have it put back.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, raised some interesting points. The first concerned the maintenance of trees under restocking orders and whether 10 years would be sufficient to ensure that they could not be felled without a licence. Many trees will be of licensable size after such a period, particularly bearing in mind that in the case of amenity lowland broadleaves, one is likely to be talking about planting in a good fertile soil.

The noble Lord referred also to the provision in the Act that allows for 825 cubic feet of unlicensed timber to be felled in any one quarter. That figure was altered in 1979 to 30 cubic metres. That was a metrication measure. In December last year a statutory instrument was made by the Forestry Commissioners and approved by Parliament, reducing that figure to five cubic metres. That large reduction in the permissible licence-free quota was undertaken for reasons of environmental protection.

The noble Lord mentioned the restocking notice and asked whether it would specify the number of trees, where they should be planted, and the species. The answer is that the notices will prescribe such details.

My Lords, I intervene to ask the noble Lord to consider whether any tree could have anything like five cubic metres of timber in it after 10 years.

My Lords, that may be true; but there is also the fact that if it is amenity timber, it is quite likely to be over the size of eight centimetres. But I should like to follow that point up. I thank my noble friend the Minister for welcoming the Bill and other noble Lords for making valuable contributions.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.