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Forestry Commission

Volume 725: debated on Thursday 3 March 2011


Moved By

To call attention to Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to dispose of the Forestry Commission estate; and to move for papers.

My Lords, I spent a great deal of my political life being involved in forestry, and I made my maiden speech in the other place 41 years ago on the subject. I introduced the Private Member’s Bill that required the Forestry Commission to move from simply producing timber to multipurpose forestry, and I served for eight years as chair of the Forestry Commission. Given that, I was not exactly happy with the Government’s proposals, which I regarded as ill judged, to sell off the Forestry Commission estate. However, I was thrilled and amazed by the response of the British people. I did not expect them to share the appreciation of trees and woodland as fully as I did. The fact that over half a million individuals have signed a petition against the Government’s proposal—the petition is still there; lapsed, but growing each day—was symptomatic of the feeling of the British people. I was quite frankly staggered that I ended up addressing meetings of thousands of people, deep in our forests, who were objecting to the Government’s proposals.

However, that is in the past. The Government, thankfully, saw the light, and they retreated. We are all grateful for that retreat, because it gives us an opportunity now, in a calmer atmosphere, to debate the long-term future of a long-term business. As the House knows, we are talking about an industry that thinks in terms of decades, as a minimum, and occasionally in terms of centuries. It is right to take stock and see where we are.

Over a number of years, we in Britain have had a healthy partnership between the public sector and the private sector in forestry. Twenty per cent is owned by the state and the remainder by the private sector. I think that this is about the right balance, and both sectors receive support from the public finances. This balance is right because the state can do some things more easily than the private sector can. On access, for example, I remind noble Lords that the Forestry Commission estate is the largest single provider of countryside access, with 40 million day visitors per year. I remind the House that under the CROW Act almost all the freehold land is legally open for access on foot, and that on almost all the land there is de facto access on cycles for mountain biking and general recreation. Access is given wherever possible for horses as well. This is much easier to provide where the land is being supported by the general public through taxation than it might be for a private owner. I concede that straightaway, and it is one of my arguments for why we need to retain a sizeable public sector ownership of our forestry.

The issue is not only access. In terms of biodiversity, 26 per cent of the forestry estate is designated as SSSI; and of those sites, 98 per cent are designated as either favourable or at an advanced stage of recovery. Forty-five per cent of the estate is within national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty. There are constraints on the production of timber, yet the Forestry Commission estate still produces 60 per cent of all the timber produced from woods and forests in this country. In addition to that, there is the storage of CO2 as well.

As for timber supply, although I have long argued for multi purpose forestry, it is also still very important to produce timber. What has not come out in debate on the Government’s proposal to sell off the Forestry Commission is how opposed most of the big users of timber were to it. Modern timber-using industry needs a high level of capital investment and, usually, a great deal of labour. It is imperative that those users of timber are guaranteed a supply 365 days a year, every year. The private sector, quite understandably, will not give those guarantees of supply. When timber prices fall—and it is a highly volatile market—the private sector simply withdraws timber from the market. That makes sense to the private timber owner but not to the timber user in a highly capital-intensive, labour-intensive industry.

I accept that one cannot stand still. As chair of the commission, I was for ever pushing the commission to see if we could find better ways of meeting more public benefits and of doing so in a better way. That was an obligation that I felt we had to the taxpayer and to our customers as wood users. I was pleased, for example, to persuade Parliament to agree to a regulatory reform order that allowed the Forestry Commission, as a government department, to do all sorts of adventurous initiatives. We were allowed to form joint ventures with the private sector, and we have done so with effect. There is much more opportunity for us to continue with that as we progress. While I am open about the way in which we go forward and how we manage and utilise our assets in the state sector, I hope that the Government will be as open as they look ahead with their proposals.

We were all pleased—certainly on this side of the House, along with the overwhelming majority of the British people, including 82 per cent of the Government’s own supporters—that the Secretary of State announced on 17 February that they were dropping their wilder proposals to sell off 85 per cent of the Forestry Commission estate. That was a vast amount, but there still remains the question of the 15 per cent. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance about that 15 per cent today. Is it still the Government’s firm intention, after they receive the report from the committee of experts, to sell off that 15 per cent? Before the Government throw back at me the fact that we did that I should say, yes, we did. It makes sense to reshape your estate. But we sold about 2 per cent of the forest estate, a net sale, over 13 years. The Government are proposing to sell 15 per cent over four years. The effect will be dramatic in many parts of the country and it is clearly not what the British people wish.

I say this to the Minister. The Government may feel that the protests and the protesters have gone away, but they have not—they are still there. The forests campaign network is having regular meetings because it wants to hold the Government to account on this issue, and it does not want the sale of the forestry estate asset.

I shall conclude my remarks by asking the Minister a number of straightforward questions. The Government intend to set up the panel of experts, which we appreciate will be widely drawn. Will he give us an assurance that it will meet in public, that its records will be public and that its members will be drawn from throughout the regions of the country?

On an organisational matter, the Forestry Commission is currently being pressurised by Defra to reorganise its administrative structure. This would encompass huge areas, stretching from the north-east of England right through to the east coast. I firmly believed that the way forward for the Forestry Commission was to move to regional and local bases. I thought that the Government shared that idea, with the big society. Will the Minister look at this and suggest to Defra that it work with the Forestry Commission so that the reorganisation is put on hold until we have the report?

Defra has also put proposals to the Forestry Commission that it should come up with a new vision. I have seen a copy of that vision and, frankly, it is disturbing. It mentions all sorts of proposals for the commission that I agree with, but at no stage does it mention any role for the Forestry Commission estate. Will the Minister have a word with his Defra officials on that issue?

This is a very short and rushed debate, in time allocated to the Opposition. There is sufficient interest in this topic within this House, where there is a great deal of knowledge, and I ask the Government to give us some time in government time so that the House can debate this issue and play its part in the forestry debate.

My Lords, I respectfully remind noble Lords that Back-Bench contributions in this debate are limited to two minutes and that those two minutes are already up when it says two minutes on the clock. If any noble Lord exceeds that, he risks restricting my noble friend’s ability to respond to your Lordships.

My Lords, those who expect a rational debate on this, as the noble Lord, Lord Clark, has mentioned, will be totally disappointed that we are limited to two minutes, which was the decision of the Labour Party. The recent debate on forestry has neither been measured nor rational, which is in large part due to the Forestry Commission itself.

I ask my noble friend Lord Henley to justify the role of the Forestry Commission today. It is funded by the taxpayer and has always made a loss. With its huge inbuilt advantages, it competes with the private sector for land in the production and sale of trees and timber yet, at the same time, it totally controls what the private sector can do, often through its overbureaucratic and costly regulations. The private sector must have an approved management plan to plant and manage woodlands in order to obtain grants from the Forestry Commission, which are often delayed. That only adds insult to injury for the private sector.

I recall that when we privatised water my late friend Nicholas Ridley, Lord Ridley of Liddesdale, made the bold decision to break up the river management authority organisation and separate the regulator from the producer. I hope that my noble friend will be equally bold in looking at the Forestry Commission. Who, for instance, would support the idea that the Bank of England should not only be the Bank of England but should run high street banks? Why is the Forestry Commission any different? It is not. It is acknowledged by everybody that we need to plant more trees in the UK but there is no way that those trees will be planted by the private sector unless it can be assured that it can produce managed, sustainable woodland at a profitable price. With the present structure of the Forestry Commission, that will not happen.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for securing this debate and declare an interest as the past president of the Ramblers. I was so delighted to hear the news, here in this House, on Monday 28 February that Clauses 17 to 19 and Schedule 7 had been withdrawn. Thank goodness that common sense prevailed. Now we can see the wood from the trees as we make future plans, because I am sure that the Minister will agree that the issue of access to woodlands was at the heart of those clauses.

We all know that access to the Forestry Commission estate facilitates not just walking but social interaction, play, relaxation, discovery and enjoyment among all backgrounds. Therefore, it is key that this access is maintained. As an avid walker, I can vouch for the fact that walking has been proven to improve moods. It has also been shown that it reduces the risk of certain cancers and strokes, and that it reduces diabetes and so on. By cutting off access to one of England’s most loved places to walk, we cut off a key way of exercising those benefits.

Walking in a group can be a tonic. It is a sociable activity that can help improve mental health and overcome feelings of isolation. The Ramblers’ research has found that this benefit is valued by participants in group walks. Believe it or not, walking a mile burns around the same amount of calories as running a mile—although, of course, it takes longer—and can be so wonderfully enjoyable. Improving public spaces and promoting walking as an active means of transport will help to reduce health inequalities as well as combating climate change.

It has been proven that walkers in the English countryside spend over £6 billion a year, generating income of over £2 billion and supporting a quarter of a million full-time jobs. I hope that my noble friend will keep all these thoughts in mind when the Government are making any future plans that affect our heritage and, most of all, the well-being of generations to come. Let us all make access a priority. Then, if we go down to the woods today, or tomorrow, we will not be in for a big surprise.

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clark, for creating this all-too-short debate. Secondly, I declare some interests: I was an independent member of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee from its beginning and for several years; and, more generally, I have a significant and international engagement in research in conservation biology. It is against that background that I make just one substantial point.

The UK is formally committed not just to preserving biological diversity of plants, animals and ecosystems in the UK but also, going further, to restoring the lamentable and well documented declines and losses seen over the past century. This necessarily requires co-ordinated overview of actions which would be greatly impeded under the suggested free-for-all of privatising the Forestry Commission estate.

The Government’s plans are in this sense, to a degree, incompatible with commitments that successive previous Governments have given. Furthermore—and, admittedly, more speculatively—it is quite likely that the proposed privatisation will lead to significant deforestation as land is cleared for property development or agriculture, which could cut against our commitments under climate change legislation.

In short, I am of the strong opinion that this is a thoroughly bad idea.

My Lords, the future of the state forests is clearly of great importance. I acknowledge the long-standing commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Clark, to it. I would be the first to recognise, as a countryman, that forests and woodlands are much loved and treasured by our nation. I am proud to be wearing the Red Squirrel Survival Trust tie, a species dependent on forestry.

Regrettably, the Government appeared not to be explicit enough to reassure so many that the enhancement of the state-owned forests was always the first priority in any transfer of ownership. Following the recent appointment of a group to assess the regulations governing forestry and woodland management, I would expect people who have practical knowledge of the countryside, and the timber industry in particular, to be fully represented. I hope that all of us can unite in co-ordinated and rigorous action to counter the all-too-many alarming diseases among tree species.

I also draw attention to the substantial amount of woodland which is managed privately. Of course, there is no ideological opposition to private ownership, as the noble Lord, Lord Clark, has said. Under the previous Administration, 25,000 acres of Forestry Commission land was sold. There are many examples of flourishing private woodland. There are also many examples of England’s community projects, and these are a continuing success. There are other public organisations which also manage woodland. Epping Forest, for instance, managed by the Corporation of London, provides a much cherished environment close to the capital.

One of the most important issues that should have come out of the last few months of debate is the position of the Forestry Commission as both the industry regulator and a major operator in that industry. This must at least be a matter for scrutiny. The unique arrangement of the Forestry Commission being the main commercial operator in the field and also regulator of its competitors presents a clear conflict of interest.

My Lords, the future of forests can be summarised by the ABC of accessibility, biodiversity and conservation. Whatever plans emerge in the future, the public clearly want accessibility to be a priority. Biodiversity has recently received more attention from the Forestry Commission, but there are those who believe—and I share this view—that more needs to be done to take us beyond the monocultural forest of conifers and spruces.

The Secretary of State has emerged as a champion of biodiversity at the recent international conference in Japan. She needs to ensure greater biodiversity in our forests. We lecture the world about the evil effects of deforestation. Therefore, we should set an example to the forest nations and adopt the highest principles and standards of conservation and sustainability.

The Liverpool poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in an evocative poem, “Binsey Poplars”, laments:

“O if we but knew what we do

When we delve or hew—

Hack and rack the growing green!”.

I commend the poem to all who aspire to manage our forests accessibly, biodiversely and—if I may say so—conservatively.

My Lords, that is a splendid poem.

Like the majority of the people of this country I think that the Forestry Commission does an excellent job in the management, stewardship and protection of our forests, and like the majority of people in this country I want the public forests remaining in public ownership to remain in public ownership.

I say to the noble Earl that the Forestry Commission had absolutely nothing to do with the recent public debate about forests. It was not allowed to say anything. I think that it should have been able to speak out. I am very pleased that the Government are responsible for appointing the independent panel. I wish to ask some further questions to the many that have been asked. Will the panel travel round the country, taking views from people on the forests in which they live or about which they care, because forests are about not just woods and trees but communities as well? I live in a very strong community.

My next question concerning a conflict of interest has already been raised. I am somewhat perplexed about this because in 1992 the Conservative Government created the authority and enterprise sides of the Forestry Commission. Those are clearly demarcated with different offices and staff. In my view there is no conflict of interest but I would like further clarification from the Minister on that.

As we know, a consultation on jobs is going on with the unions. I hope that that will cease until we know exactly what the outcome of the independent panel will be. How many jobs are in dispute and are the subject of consultation? Might those jobs be got rid of speedily? The Secretary of State has said that she wants the Forestry Commission to do more in terms of biodiversity and access. Therefore, it would be foolish to have even fewer people working for the Forestry Commission.

My Lords, this is a bit like Punch and Judy—up you come, down you go, that’s the way to do it. However, it is absolutely clear that the debate that we have had over the past few months has been narrow, divisive and based on ill judged proposals. That is not the way to do it, but thanks to the sensible government decision that has been taken we now have a real opportunity to have a broad-ranging, inclusive, constructive debate about the future of forests and woodlands in this country. However, it all depends on the panel of experts, how it is set up, who is on it and their terms of reference. It has to be broadly based and I am confident that that will happen. Its terms of reference must be as wide as possible, not just about the future of the forestry estate but about the work of the forestry commissioners and the Forestry Commission in the widest sense, including the future of woodlands and forests in this country.

My honourable friend Roger Williams pointed out in the House of Commons debate yesterday that 80 per cent of the woods and forests in this country are private, of which 40 per cent are not managed properly or not even managed at all. That must be the basis of the whole debate but it must not under any circumstances be based on an assumption of disposal. We have to start with a clean sheet. As regards the terms of the panel’s operation, it must be able to look outwards to the knowledge, expertise and wishes of the people. It must be open and involve people throughout the country and do as much of its work as possible in public. I hope that it will hold a series of constructive seminars around the country in which people can take part. We have a real opportunity now to get away from the oppositional debate that we have had towards an inclusive project aimed at building a consensus for the future—not just for the next four, five or 10 years, but one in which the Forestry Commission, the forestry commissioners and our woods and forests can go ahead on a basis of 50 years, because trees take quite a long time to grow.

I shall celebrate two important forests that are in my area, namely Delamere and Cannock Chase, both not far from where I declare my interests as a farmer, although the farm does not have any appreciable woodland.

Delamere and Cannock Chase consist of 2,500 hectares of forest, wetlands, heathland and grassland including internationally important bogs and sites of special scientific interest. They are multipurpose forests with a high degree of public recreational use, providing an impressive network of walking, cycling and horse riding trails, and attracting around 1.25 million visitors per year. In addition, they host popular attractions—for example, outdoor concerts, one of which drew 15,000 people to Delamere over three nights and helped boost the visitor economy, because all the local accommodation was booked up. Another example is provided by Go Ape, which provides adventure activities that employ seven seasonal staff and remits surpluses of around £50,000 to the Forestry Commission.

Attention should now turn towards management and getting the best use out of what we have. It cannot happen without resources; and the 30p per annum that each of us contributes to maintaining the PFE represents tremendously good value for money. The proposed cut to 17p per annum per person and approximately 500 redundancies will not only impact on management but affect many local communities.

The best starting point for the newly announced expert panel should be to dust off the comprehensive public consultation carried out by the previous Administration. Here will be found ideas to reinforce the priorities of the Forestry Commission, provide social benefits to urban populations, and make a bigger contribution to the UK’s climate change strategy.

The nation’s trees are under attack from pests and diseases—red band needle blight, sudden oak death, bleeding canker of horse chestnut and pine lappet moth. Research into these threats is woefully underfunded. Forest activity needs to be energised, not debilitated.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and woodland owner. It is clear that our woodlands are important to the people of the UK. In some areas, the timber they produce can be a vital part of the rural economy. The income forests provide from shooting is also important in some areas. Equally, as regards climate change, CO2 is locked up in timber, and if that timber goes into, say, housebuilding, it remains locked up. Also, wood that is used to create heat or energy is carbon-neutral. Woodland also hosts numerous species of flora and fauna. Woodland is an important part of our landscape and cultural heritage. Finally, woodlands, because they contain all these benefits, are a vital resource for access, and thus the spiritual and physical health of our nation.

However, the real problem is that whatever use they are put to, woodlands require expensive management. Of all the benefits that they bring, only timber and possibly sporting income are capable of paying for that management. The situation in the private sector—some 80 per cent of woodland cover—is even worse. The employment of woodland workers is not an allowable business expense. It is the fiscal equivalent of employing a butler. It is true that one can possibly get a tax-free income after a tree has grown for 50 years or so—or rather one’s children can, which is not perhaps such an inspiring motive—but when woodland is managed for public benefit, we are entering the realms of charitable giving. The trouble is that in forestry, the tax system does not recognise expenses incurred in producing marketable or non-marketable goods

The point is that we desperately need better and more focused management of our woodlands to provide all the outcomes that we clearly value. Please can the new panel of inquiry look carefully at how we can better encourage proper woodland management? That is the key to successful and multipurpose forestry in this country.

My Lords, it is great that thanks to the brave decision of the Secretary of State, the forestry debate can now focus much more on management than on ownership. I follow the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, on that very point.

About 50 years ago, I wrote a report for the Council of Europe on national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest. In the process of gleaning evidence for that report, it was borne in on me how vitally important it is to be sensitive to the requirements of the forest when considering their management. Forests and woodlands vary in type and size. One size does not fit all. Therefore, management has to be acutely aware of their individual and specialist needs.

That leads me to comment with a word of caution about the recent emphasis, which has been made in some of our exchanges, on public access and recreation. If that is overdone, it will destroy the very thing that we all want to preserve. It is incredible what damage can be done by walking or trampling feet, whether human or horse, and even more if it is done in the name of motorsport or motorcycles. This is not what forests are designed for. They are primarily designed for biodiversity, for the production of timber, and as we now understand, for the valuable role they play in relation to climate change. So I hope that we will be careful how we use our forests, and recognise that the greatest benefit is in experiencing the wonderful quiet, the silence, and the beauty. Let us preserve that.

My Lords, I begin by expressing my admiration to noble Lords all around the House for managing to make so many telling points within the rigorous confines of a two-minute deadline. I am fortunate in that I have slightly longer, but I none the less share the frustration that noble Lords feel in having to deal with such important issues in such a short time.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere very much on initiating this debate, and on his starring role in recent forestry campaigns, which have been so happily successful. My noble friend, through his previous work as chair of the Forestry Commission, and also throughout his long parliamentary career, has been an unmatched champion for our countryside, for the rural economies of our country, and for the natural environment.

As I was not able to be in the House on Monday when the Public Bodies Bill was debated, I take this opportunity to give my thanks to the Government for removing the forestry provisions from that legislation and to express my delight at the dramatic turnaround in their approach to their forestry policy. The Government’s original proposals, as we know, unleashed a tidal wave of public concern. Like others, I pay tribute to the various campaigns which immediately got under way. I recognise in particular the national petition organised by 38 Degrees, which was so astoundingly effective, but I recognise equally the local and regional campaigns up and down the country, which had such an important influence on Members of Parliament, and indeed on public representatives throughout our country. The campaigns attracted celebrity support as well, and support from people of different walks of life. My noble friend Lord Clark said that he was, in a way, astonished at the scale of the reaction, yet there were reminders during the campaigns of how long the history of public support for our forests is. Some looked back, for example, to the campaigns by Octavia Hill and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century to save Epping Forest.

Certainly, if this was the big society in action, it was very impressive, although ironically for the Government, who see the big society as their cherished idea, in this case it was the big society standing up to and opposing what the Government were doing. The public certainly showed that they were passionate about the future of our forests, and many noble Lords have expressed passion for our forests in the debates that we have had in this House. In considering the Public Bodies Bill and in the debate today, various forests around the country have been mentioned: the Forest of Dean, the forests in the Lake District, and the forests of Delamere and Cannock Chase, which my noble friend Lord Grantchester mentioned. I share that passion for my local forests and woods in the north-east of England—Chopwell woods, Hamsterley forest and, a bit to my surprise, Kielder, which is a very large forest, described by the Minister as containing serried ranks of conifers. I remember being dismayed in the past at some of the very large ugly plantations in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Huge changes have occurred in forestry policy over the years, thanks in no small measure to the work done by my noble friend Lord Clark at the Forestry Commission and by the commitment of the previous Government to make forests an amenity for all our citizens, as well as being important in terms of timber production. That has been seen in Kielder, as elsewhere, with the many sites of special scientific interest and habitats for endangered ospreys and the red squirrel. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, on wearing his red squirrel tie. I do not know whether he has headscarves or other items that might be more suitable for women supporters of red squirrels, but certainly the cause of the red squirrel is one that is dear to the hearts of many of us in this House. It reminds us of one of the most important aspects of this debate which is the promotion of biodiversity. Indeed, that point has been made tellingly in some of the briefings sent to us by outside organisations, particularly the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which speaks effectively on the importance of biodiversity. I commend the succinctness of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool in saying that our watchwords should be accessibility, biodiversity and conservation. These are important watchwords when it comes to how to approach this debate.

I took the Minister to task at an earlier stage for his categorisation of forests and the categories of forest that Defra came up with in its original proposals. It is wrong to try to oversimplify whether forests are commercial, heritage, mixed, or whatever. I believe strongly that each forest has to be looked at on its own merits and that we have to look at them not only for what they mean for timber production but for nature conservation and wildlife, public access and amenities, and for what they contribute to the rural and regional economies in terms of tourism, timber production and related issues. All forests should be considered in that way and I hope that the Government will now accept that as the way forward.

While I disagreed with Ministers’ oversimplification of forest categories, I agreed with the point that he and his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, made in our debate on the Public Bodies Bill. It is a challenge to reconcile the valid different interests which seek to use our forests, whether ramblers, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, sports interests, wildlife interests, general tourism, and so on. They all need to be reconciled within our overall international environmental commitments.

A number of issues were raised to which I hope the Minister will respond. My noble friend Lord Clark mentioned the issue of the 15 per cent and I hope that the Minister will respond to that. On Monday, concern was expressed that repeated sales at 15 per cent could result in the serious whittling away of the public forest estate. In response the Minister mentioned that a substantial public forestry estate would be retained. In order to reassure people, particularly given the extent of public concern, a definition of what constitutes substantial will need to be given, so I hope that the Minister will respond to that.

Questions have been asked about the composition of the panel and how it will operate. I echo those concerns that it should operate in public and be as inclusive as possible. That has to be the message that results and one of the lessons learnt from the experience of the past two months. My noble friend Lady Royall of Blaisdon mentioned concern about jobs. We are concerned about cuts in expenditure in terms of managing our forests in all our interests.

I have to conclude, and time is frustratingly short, but we owe it to the public who have shown such strong feelings on this matter to come back to these issues many times and to be vigilant in the months ahead. In the mean time I look forward to the Minister’s reply and his answer to the points that have been made so tellingly today.

My Lords, I start with a brief comment on the length of the debate. We are limited to one hour, but that is, as my noble friend Lord Caithness said, entirely a matter for the Opposition. A request was put in that this debate could be held on some other occasion in what is referred to as “government time”. I am not so sure that there is such a thing as government time in this House, but I am sure that the usual channels will discuss this in due course.

I go back to the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool when talking about his ABC of accessibility, biodiversity and conservation. Those three are very important, but we should add others. The first and most important one to remember is that the public forest estate, which covers some 18 per cent of English woodland, is there to produce timber. That was what it was set up for back in 1918, 1919 or whenever. Timber is its primary role, but it has the other duties of accessibility, biodiversity and conservation as well. It also has a very important role against climate change as a storer of carbon, as my noble friend Lord Eden mentioned. That, again, is a role that we should remember.

To return to the question of accessibility raised by the right reverend Prelate, one should underline—and I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for doing so—that there are competing demands in the whole accessibility question. This point came up in our debate on Monday on these matters, when the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, raised the question of motorsports. The noble Lord is a former Member for a Birmingham seat, so he has a great interest in motorsports, which make use of the public forest estate—it is very important to them. Within accessibility, we have competing demands from those who want to work, those who want to ride and those who want to drive, whether in motor or horse-drawn vehicles. All of those compete with each other and cannot use the land at the same time, and all of them compete in biodiversity and conservation. All these things cannot go together, so very difficult decisions have to be made. That is something that we will take into account in any decision.

A lot has been said in the previous six months about the future of the public forest estate, but a lot of that has been based, dare I say it, on speculation rather than fact. I say that having listened to some of the speeches today, in particular to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Clark. Although he never seeks to mislead the House, he talked about selling off the entire forestry estate, which was never set out by us. What we set out in our consultation document, which has since been withdrawn, was very different indeed. It might have helped if the noble Lord had read that and studied it in detail. I refer back to the same point made by the noble Lord, Lord May, who was one of the signatories of that great letter that we received—or which came to the papers. I think the noble Lord will find that he signed that letter before our consultation document came out that has since been withdrawn. As my right honourable friend announced on 17 February—so we have now moved on—we have ended that consultation on the public forest estate and withdrawn the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill. So we can now have a rational debate, and I hope that it will not be based on misinformation, or whatever.

I accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Clark, put it, that the past few months have demonstrated just how much people care about the forests of England and the rest of the country. The noble Lord referred to half a million people responding to these things and signing petitions. It is probably worth reminding him that much the same happened on the subject of hunting under the previous Government. I am not sure that the previous Government took much notice of that, but I seem to remember that the previous Prime Minister, when he wrote his memoirs, recognised that that might have been one of his great mistakes. Half a million here, half a million there—pretty soon we are talking about big numbers.

As the noble Lord said, we are now setting up an independent panel on forestry that will consider the whole future direction of policy for England's woods and forests. I can assure the House that it will seek to consult and advise broadly. It will go out and discuss these matters with as many people as possible. It will want to engage with as many people as possible who have already come in and consulted our department. I do not want to go into all the details of who will be on the panel because I discussed that the other day, but I will mention again that, first and most importantly, it will be independent. Secondly, it will have an independent chairman and I hope that fairly shortly—whatever that might mean—we will be able to announce the chairman of that panel and advise both Houses who will be the other members.

The other point I wish to make, again as I stressed on Monday, is that although we want to keep that panel fairly small and ensure that as many interests are represented as possible, we hope that all those on the panel are there for their own individual expertise and knowledge, and not as representatives. We do not want them there as delegates of particular bodies, but to provide their expertise and knowledge. We hope that they will cover as wide a range as possible. Because it is independent, we hope that the panel will go out and discuss with as many different bodies as possible their concerns and views. It will be open to that panel, being independent, to set up its own sub-committees to bring in other people. As I made clear on Monday, we have already had a large number of different people coming into the department to say they would like to be on the panel or that they would like X or Y to be on it. It is a matter for us to appoint that panel, but it is then for the panel to look at these things carefully.

Until we consider the panel's advice, as my right honourable friend made clear, we have suspended the planned sale of 15 per cent of the public forest estates. Some sales have gone ahead since we came into government last year—they were sales that had already been agreed by the previous Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Clark, and others know full well. No decisions on the ones that we have suspended will be made until we have heard the views of the panel.

I want to make it quite clear that we have been perfectly free to sell a certain amount of forestry land. It has always been sold. The previous Administration, as I made clear and I reminded the noble Lord, Lord Clark, sold some 25,000 acres over the course of their time in office. I should remind the House that they sold it without any safeguards at all other than those that were available under the CROW Act. We will make sure that what we sell in future, should we sell anything post the panel's advice, will have appropriate protections where necessary.

The 1967 Act allows that. The Act requires the Secretary of State to maintain a considerable land bank for the use of forestry. Currently, the Secretary of State owns some 258,000 hectares—approximately 550,000 or 600,000 acres—making her the largest landowner in England. That is a pretty large forestry estate. Under the Act, she is obliged to maintain what is described as a large land bank that is a substantial part of the forestry resources in England.

We know that forestry resources in England under the current arrangement amount to approximately 18 per cent of what there is. At what point the land bank would cease to be “considerable”, having sold off 15 per cent, would obviously be a matter for interpretation of the Act. Lawyers would describe what that amounted to as a question of fact and degree. I have written to the noble Lord, Lord Clark, about that. No doubt in due course we can debate what the appropriate amount would be. Our judgment of the Act is that with the sale of 15 per cent of the estate, the Secretary of State would continue to own a considerable land bank. I remind the House that all sales have been suspended as we await the outcome of the panel.

On the Forestry Commission itself, I particularly note what my noble friend Lord Caithness said about its possible conflict of roles—the fact that it is, as it were, like the Bank of England also running a high street bank. There are conflicts. The panel will also consider the role of the commission in supporting and enhancing the delivery of forestry policy. I state for the record that the Forestry Commission, under the noble Lord, Lord Clark, and others, has done a valuable job since it was created in 1919. I appreciate that the noble Lord was not involved then; a whole host of different commissioners and chairmen have done that job.

We also accept that in the Forestry Commission we have a wealth of professional knowledge and experience of forestry matters. We all hold it in high regard, and it will be important in facing the challenges of forestry diseases. The noble Lord and others will remember that only the other day we dealt with the question of sudden oak disease—more properly called Phytophthora ramorum—and the dangers that it is creating in the forestry estate, both public and private. We welcome all the expertise that we have in the Forestry Commission but also in other Defra bodies, such as Fera, and all the work that they are doing to deal with those challenges.

On the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, I also accept that the Forestry Commission is facing challenges, as are all other parts of government and all other parts of what I might refer to as the Defra family, as a result of the cuts that we have had to make as a result of the position that we inherited from the party opposite when we came into government. There is no point the noble Baroness shaking her head, because she knows that if her party had still been in government, it would be having to make reductions in public expenditure to deal with the deficit that we face.

The Forestry Commission is in the middle of a serious retrenchment, but we still think that it can do its job. It is in the middle of a period of major staff consultation as a result of the spending review. In that consultation, it will discuss matters with the trade unions, deal with their responses and formulate the next steps, which will then be presented to staff. Until the outcome of that consultation is known, I cannot give any more detailed information.

I return to the panel and what it will be discussing, because that is important. A number of subjects have been raised in the course of today's debate, but the panel might want to consider other matters. We want to consider the challenge of increasing our woodland cover. We all know how small our woodland cover is and how little it has increased over the past 10 or so years—despite the fact that it was increasing before that—and how large the woodland cover in some of our fellow European countries is.

We also want to consider our ancient woodlands; I was grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord May, and my noble kinsman Lord Eden said about their importance and the importance of biodiversity. We also want to consider how access and recreation opportunities can be provided, but I remind the House how important it is that we look at the competing demands of access and recreation against biodiversity and timber production. All those matters must be considered appropriate.

I end by reassuring the House that the Government are committed to a sustainable future for our woods and forests. Now is the time and opportunity to look at how to do this and to tap into the obvious enthusiasm that we have discovered and which the noble Lord, Lord Clark, mentioned, and the love of our forests, which many have expressed. I look forward to seeing the views of the independent panel in due course.

My Lords, this has been a first-class debate that just emphasises the need for a further, longer, debate. I have been so impressed by noble Lords for the way in which, in such a short period, they have been able to make their cases so clearly and succinctly, and I am full of admiration. I thank the Minister and every Member who has contributed for their efforts and time. I beg leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion withdrawn.