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Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to introduce legislation in this Parliament to establish the Public Forest Estate management body proposed in their response to the Independent Panel on Forestry’s Final Report.

My Lords, subject to parliamentary time, the Government will look to introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity in order to establish the new independent body to manage the public forest estate and hold it in trust for the nation. I declare an interest as a woodland owner.

My Lords, I hope the whole House will join me when I thank the Government for the good sense in what they call their “refreshed” forestry policy, when I thank the Independent Panel on Forestry, under the excellent chairmanship of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, and when I congratulate all those people who rallied some two years ago when they felt that their local forests and woods were under threat.

Does the Minister agree that, following the despair and fear there was at that time, there is now hope and expectation about the future of our public forest estate, to be held in trust for ever for the people of this country, and that there is a real enthusiasm for the Government getting on with their new, refreshed forestry policy, certainly during this Parliament?

Yes, my Lords, we are committed to keeping the public forest in public hands, to maintaining and improving public access to our woodlands, and to increasing woodland cover very substantially over the next 50 years. Everyone has a role to play in managing our woodlands better, as well as in increasing woodland cover. Noble Lords will know that all Governments zealously guard the contents of the Queen’s Speech and these are not divulged in advance. What I will say is that the Government fully intend to do this, and to do it expeditiously.

My Lords, I, too, join the noble Lord in thanking the Government for their U-turn on forestry, which is very welcome. But it is incumbent upon us now to make sure that the new architecture is right and fit for purpose. I have my doubts as to whether we will see legislation in this Parliament. Therefore, the Forestry Commission is going to have to ensure that the forest estate is kept in a suitable state for it to be handed over to the new body. Bearing in mind the massive cuts that the Forestry Commission has had of late, will the Minister give me an assurance that there will be no further redundancies and cuts in the budget of the Forestry Commission?

My Lords, what I will do is confirm that we will support the Forestry Commission to the level required to secure the long-term success of it and its successor. This long-term success includes enabling it to become more financially sustainable through the increased generation of trading income. We have put back £3.5 million into the Forestry Commission’s budget next year specifically to make up for the income that would have come from sales of woodland. We have allocated £2 million to the Forestry Commission to recognise additional pressures arising from Chalara and the importance of implementing the commitments in the IPF response. We will continue to provide funding to ensure that the public can access their public forests and woodland over the remainder of the current spending review period.

Does my noble friend not agree that with four bodies already dealing with forestry, one more is really one too many?

My Lords, I do not think we are going to have one more, save that we will effectively split the management of the public forest estate away from what Forest Services does.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Government’s commitment to keep the public forest estate in public ownership and I salute all those campaigning organisations that did a splendid job in changing the mind of the Government. Like my noble friend, I am concerned about the forest estate as it is now. Recently, Ministers have quietly cut 500 Forestry Commission staff and a quarter of the budget, and the admirable chair of the Forestry Commission has resigned. My noble friend quite rightly asked for an assurance from the Minister that there will be no further cuts in the staff of the Forestry Commission. Will the noble Lord answer that specific question?

My Lords, we recognise concerns about the future funding of the estate. However, we continue to face very challenging financial circumstances, requiring hard choices to be made across the whole public sector. The Forestry Commission and the public forest estate have had to bear their share of the cuts that we have had to make to bring public spending under control. Nevertheless, we want to ensure that the public forest estate can continue to provide a high level of public benefits. We are therefore carefully considering the estate’s financial needs for the long term. In particular, we want to place it on a secure financial footing for the future by enabling it to generate as much income as possible through its commercial activities without having to resort to unsustainable land sales to make ends meet.

My Lords, like my noble friend, I declare an interest as a forestry owner. Does he agree that the present situation, under which the Forestry Commission is my competitor but also my regulator, is intolerable, and will the new arrangement reverse that situation?

Has the Minister ever experienced any conflict of interest by being both a Defra Minister and a woodland owner?

Can my noble friend explain why the Government are trying to get rid of tree preservation orders, which was announced as part of the Red Tape Challenge on the same day that they announced their very welcome policy on forestry?

My Lords, as part of the Red Tape Challenge, tree preservation order regulations have been included on the website. We are not saying that we want to get rid of the regulations or protection for trees. It is a chance for the public to tell us which regulations are working, which are not, which should be scrapped, which should be simplified and what can be done differently.