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Independent Panel on Forestry Report

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 17 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in implementing the recommendations of the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry.

My Lords, good progress has been made in implementing the commitments set out in January in the Government’s forestry and woodlands policy statement. An update report published in July highlighted progress in establishing a new body to manage the public forest estate, in maintaining forestry expertise in government, in supporting the forestry sector to improve its economic performance and in giving greater priority to plant health. A further update report will be published in the new year. I declare an interest as a woodland owner.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answer. Is he aware that there are suggestions that the new forestry body will be forced to sell some of its land almost from its inception? Will he assure the House that that is not the case, and that the Government’s new forestry body will be provided with sufficient finance so that it is not forced into land sales within its first 12 months of existence?

Yes, my Lords. Although the new body will be able to buy and sell land in its role as a land manager, there are no plans for it to sell any part of the estate to raise revenue to support itself.

Do the Government intend to maintain transitional arrangements so that there are woodland grants until the introduction of England’s rural development programme in 2015, so that the Government’s welcome commitment to increase woodland cover can actually be achieved?

Yes, my Lords. We have addressed the impact of a gap between rural development programmes by encouraging applicants who were originally considering applying for grants in 2014 to bring these forward to 2013. The Forestry Commission is presently considering applications to fund the planting of up to 2,600 hectares of woodland in 2014. The current RDP has seen over 12,000 hectares of woodland planted and funded through the English woodland grant scheme. Current applications for planting in 2014 therefore represent an annual planting rate above that in the rest of the current programme.

My Lords, I declare my interests as on the register. Is the Minister aware that I have a children’s forest school in one wood and much used public access in another? However, this question is not just about greenery and fresh air. Do the Government accept the report’s point about the economics of our forestry and its supply chain? What resources will they provide for adding value to British timber, not just using it for firewood and biomass?

That is an important point. The Grown in Britain initiative is genuinely making a difference. Early successes show that it is already delivering results, including gaining commitment from several major corporates to buy or stock more home-grown wood products. To date, 19 major UK contractors-group companies, with a collective turnover of over £24 billion, have pledged to look into ways of procuring more British timber. Grown in Britain is also forging partnerships with businesses in the construction sector to seek good examples of projects using British-grown timber to promote as case studies for other forestry supply chains to follow. There is a lot going on in that sector, and it is important.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that most landowners in this country who have forestry think that it makes a great contribution to their businesses? Can he explain why state-owned forestry in all parts of the United Kingdom has failed to make money over so many years?

My Lords, I agree with the first half of the noble Lord’s question but the Government would not agree with the second half. The Forestry Commission is a dedicated and well run organisation. It has an important function to carry out, and the various functions that it carries out will continue to be carried out.

My Lords, as Her Majesty’s Government will be aware, there are several very serious diseases affecting trees in this country. What steps are being taken to ensure that, with the reorganisation of the responsibilities of the Forestry Commission, this important disease prevention, control and elimination work will not only continue but be strengthened?

That is one of my department’s top four priorities, and we are making rapid progress in taking forward the implementation of the recommendations of the expert task force that the Secretary of State set up. In fact, this morning I attended our monthly biosecurity meeting and we are absolutely focused on both those plant health issues that are approaching us from overseas and those that are here already. We have established a prioritised plant health risk register, we are appointing a new chief plant health officer and we are engaged in contingency planning, among many other things.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the steering committee of Hands Off Our Forest. Primary legislation is clearly needed to set up a new management organisation for the public forest estate. The Forest Campaigns Network has been told by Defra that Ministers are committed properly to pre-legislative scrutiny, so I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House when we will see a draft Bill and whether or not it will be in this Session of Parliament. Will the Minister also confirm that the organisation’s mission will be to protect and improve the public forests, woodland and other assets held on behalf of the nation and that, however the organisation is structured, it will not be in danger of future privatisation?

My Lords, we have always said that we will legislate as soon as possible, subject to the availability of parliamentary time. That remains the position and we are serious about it. Yes, we intend to make draft legislation available for pre-legislative scrutiny, but it is important to understand that we have also been focusing on making progress on all 36 commitments, and not all of those need legislation.