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Forestry Commission

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 2 February 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the expected social benefits from the sale of Forestry Commission land.

My Lords, the consultation on the future of the public forest estate, published last Thursday, proposes new ownership and management models which will maintain the benefits which the estate currently provides. There are additional benefits, too. For example, transferring heritage forests to charities will allow stakeholders to have a far more significant role in their care and protection, and providing opportunities for community and civil society groups to buy or lease forests will bring high levels of local knowledge and enthusiasm to their management.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. I want to ask him a very specific question. There is currently de facto access on foot to virtually all the public forest estate. There is de facto access by bicycle to virtually 100 per cent of the forest estate. There is also a great deal of access for horses. Will the Minister give the guarantee to the House this afternoon that if there were to be a transfer of land from the Forestry Commission, there would be no decrease whatever in any of those levels of access—on foot, by bicycle or for horses?

The noble Lord is a very distinguished former chair of the Forestry Commission. He will know that what he said is not strictly speaking accurate and that something of the order of 20 per cent of the forestry estate has no access because it is on leasehold land and access was never granted to it. He will also know that under his watch and that of the Labour Government, some 25,000 acres were sold without any safeguard whatever. I can give examples of woods that are now locked as a result of that, one of which is quite close to where the noble Lord was speaking only last week at a rally in Cumbria. As he will know from our consultation, we are very anxious to maintain access. Where we lease land, as we propose in the consultation, we will be able to provide secure conditions for it and will do what is appropriate at the time.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister agrees that preserving our heritage conveys a very special social benefit. In that context, I would be grateful if he would say what plans the Government have to treat ancient woodlands as a special category? Furthermore, will the Government make available the appropriate resources if they are to hand over to charities and communities responsibility for their preservation?

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for mentioning our ancient woodlands and heritage forests. What we are setting out in relation to, for example, the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, is the idea that they should be taken over by charities. We are thinking of something possibly along the lines of what we have proposed for the British Waterways Board, where we have provided the money for it, in effect, to be mutualised. We are looking also at the charities option. All these options are laid out in the consultation document. I would advise the noble and gallant Lord to study it and produce his responses in due course, but I can offer a guarantee that our ancient woodlands will be protected appropriately—that is what we want. We are looking to realise assets on commercial forestry in places such as Kielder.

My Lords, the comprehensive spending review put forward proposals to sell 15 per cent of the forestry estate within the next four years. As that is possible under existing legislation, what is the rush to legislate for forestry in the Public Bodies Bill? Why does it have to take place now rather than at greater leisure in the next Defra Bill that comes along?

My Lords, I am not sure that there is a Defra Bill in the pipeline, but I cannot comment on that. We are seeking powers to take the appropriate steps with regard to the Forestry Commission and the forestry estate in the Public Bodies Bill. We are looking not at an immediate sell-off of the entire estate, but at a process that will take place over a number of years. My noble friend need not worry about that.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the rights—or, rather, the lack of them—of those who live in or by our forestry estates and of the reasons why Parliament in 1981, with the support of all sides of your Lordships’ House and the other place, exempted the Forest of Dean from, I use shorthand, “sale”, and thus the reasons why the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, my brother, will present an amendment to the Public Bodies Bill? I speak as a householder in the Forest of Dean.

My Lords, I remember the Bill in 1981. Although I cannot remember specific parts of it, I am aware of the concerns relating to the Forest of Dean. I know that the Leader of the Opposition also has concerns about this. We will look at the amendments from the right reverend Prelate’s colleague when we get to that stage—if we ever do—in the Public Bodies Bill, and we will then respond in the appropriate manner.

My Lords, how does the Minister justify the classification of forests in the consultation document and how was it decided? While I hope we all agree on the importance of the Forest of Dean and the New Forest, describing a forest such as Kielder simply as “commercial” flies in the face of the fact that it contains 31 areas of special scientific interest, is home to most of England’s remaining red squirrels and has become increasingly important in recent years for tourism and recreation. How does the Minister justify this?

As the noble Baroness will be aware, it is commercial woodland on an area that used to be open moorland. She and I know that part of the country very well. It is now covered in what people refer to as serried ranks of conifers and should be treated as commercial woodland. The important point is that the manner by which we propose to realise assets from it will mean that we can protect various areas. The sales conducted by the previous Government of some 25,000 acres were made without any protection whatever.

My Lords, is there any reason why, before any sale, the Forestry Commission should not create a public right of way over many of the paths in each and every piece of freehold woodland, which would be enforceable against purchasers and would persist as do all other public rights of way?

My Lords, that would be possible on freehold land. We believe that by leasing land rather than selling it as freehold, one can impose greater conditions and ones that are easier to enforce. As a much greater lawyer than me, the noble and learned Lord will know that covenants imposed when land is sold are easily avoided when it moves on to a subsequent owner.