Question for Short Debate
My Lords, you may wonder why, when all has been quiet on the forest front for some time, I tabled this Question for Short Debate. Well, the long silence was my catalyst. It is more than 18 months since the Independent Panel on Forestry published its excellent report and more than a year since the Government published their Government Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement, which incorporated their response to the report. It is also almost the anniversary of the debate initiated by the Bishop of Liverpool, who did such a splendid job as chair of the independent panel and whom we miss greatly.
I am delighted that the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Worcester and the Bishop of St Albans, are speaking today. I can see the diocese of the former from the Forest of Dean and the former Bishop of St Albans, Bishop Christopher, was born in the forest so I feel a very strong link. Bishops up and down the country, including my own right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Gloucester, and my friend and almost neighbour, the former Bishop of Guildford, have done a superb job in supporting our forests and woodlands.
My own interest in this issue is clear and strong. I live in the Forest of Dean, I am a forester, and I am proud of our strong community and our thriving culture and traditions which are rooted in the forest. Indeed, “We like the trees seek the light” was my school’s motto. I am also a member of the steering committee of Hands Off Our Forest—HOOF—the campaign that led the country in its fight against the sale of our forests, when people from all parts of the country and all walks of life rose in protest.
In their statement published last January the Government said that they would establish,
“via legislation a new, operationally-independent Public Forest Estate management body to hold the Estate in trust for the nation. It will be charged with generating a greater proportion of its income through appropriate commercial activity and with maximising the social, environmental and economic value of the assets under its care”.
There was much anticipation, and I know that Defra has had many discussions, including with the National Forestry Forum, but there has been no visible action in terms of legislation. The Minister, told me in a letter of 6 January, for which I am grateful, that,
“we remain committed to bringing forward legislation to establish the new public body to manage the Public Forest Estate when parliamentary time allows”,
“that we intend to subject draft legislation on this matter to full pre-legislative scrutiny”.
I welcome both those commitments but I cannot accept that the legislation has not been forthcoming because of a lack of parliamentary time. The Commons have been twiddling their legislative thumbs for weeks, with most of their days filled with Back-Bench and Opposition debates. There was ample time to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny on a draft Bill and then perhaps make the Bill a carryover.
As everyone including the Minister recognised, there needs to be a long consultation on a Bill that in essence determines the future of our forests and woodlands. I fear that the Government are now running out of time. I would be grateful for an assurance that a Bill will be announced in the Queen’s Speech and that adequate time will be made available for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny before it begins its legislative process through both Houses. I am conscious of the fact that, knowing that the general election will take place in 448 days, time is of the essence.
Noble Lords may wonder why I am so anxious to have a Bill. The people living in and around our forests, the people who enjoy all that they have to offer and the fantastic people who work for the Forestry Commission are concerned about lack of action. Everyone was delighted by the Government’s very positive response to the independent panel’s report and by the commitment to retaining the public forest estate in public ownership and to extending it, but what now? There is a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity.
The Forestry Commission is still doing a magnificent job but its challenges grow by the day as its numbers dwindle. I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on the number of people currently working for the commission, the number of jobs lost since 2010 and the number of jobs that are still to be lost. I realise that all departments have had to make cuts and that the burdens on Defra are immense due to the floods—burdens which are likely to be increased as a result of climate change—but the management of our forests and woodlands should be a priority, not least because of their role in a low-carbon economy and climate change mitigation. We should not forget that the Forestry Commission is the largest provider of countryside recreation opportunities in England and that those have a real impact on the physical and mental health and well-being of the nation.
I turn to what the Government Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement—Implementation Plan stated will be,
“a new, operationally-independent Public Forest Estate management body to hold the estate in trust for the nation and manage its resources effectively to maximise the value of the land, trees and other assets under its care”.
I remind noble Lords of the recommendation from the independent panel. It said:
“We propose that the public forest estate should remain in public ownership and be defined in statute as land held in trust for the nation. A Charter should be created for the English public forest estate, to be renewed every ten years. The Charter should specify the public benefit mission and statutory duties, and should be delivered through a group of Guardians, or Trustees, who will be accountable to Parliament. The Guardians will oversee the new public forest management organisation evolved from Forest Enterprise England.”
That is very good.
Defra has published 10 core principles for the PFE management body. Those are welcome and reflect much of the ethos of the independent report, although they lack one core duty which was recommended: to promote, expand and enhance public access to woodlands. I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that this important principle has not been lost. That notwithstanding, the principles appear to offer a welcome framework but no information has been forthcoming about the body itself, and that raises concerns for many people in the Forest of Dean and, I suspect, the people of Cannock Chase, Sherwood Forest and Delamere Forest to name but a few. What sort of PFE management body is being proposed and is it in line with the panel’s recommendations?
There are rumours that the body will be a public corporation with an executive board. If this were to be the case, there would be much anxiety about the future of our forests and the potential threat of future privatisation. I well understand that the Government have categorically said that the public forest estate must remain in public ownership, and I am grateful, but it is imperative that the necessary safeguards are in place to ensure that our public forests are truly secure. Establishing a body that could be prey to future privatisation does not provide that security. Indeed, I suggest that the setting up of a public corporation could facilitate rather than inhibit future privatisation of the estate, in whole or in part.
What about the membership of the board? I ask for an assurance that it would be a mixed board with proper representation of stakeholders, for example from forest communities, NGOs and forest industries. Naturally, I recognise that the board must consider economic objectives as well as public value with commercial freedoms while protecting the estate, but there must be a balance, and this balance must be reflected in the membership of the board. The board must value the estate in terms of wildlife, access, recreation, education and cultural heritage as well as considering income generation.
I mentioned earlier the charter and the guardians which were critical recommendations from the panel. I understand that it is the Government’s intention to publish a charter alongside a draft Bill. This must mean that the charter will have no statutory authority, and I wonder whether it will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I very much hope that it will be. Its purpose is too important to relegate it to a mere mission statement.
I believe that the role of the guardians is fundamental to the protection of the public forest estate but also to public confidence. The independent panel was clear that their role was vital, but I fear that the Government are intent on watering down their envisaged role. A right to appeal to the Secretary of State against decisions taken by the board of the new public body is simply not enough. They need powers to intervene when decisions are taken by the board which are detrimental to the public forest estate, for example in relation to land sales. Will the Minister confirm that it is currently the Government’s intention that the Secretary of State will be the only person with the power of veto on land disposals or change of land use?
I realise that we have travelled a long way since the publication of the original Public Bodies Bill in 2010, and I pay tribute to the way in which the Government have listened, consulted and embraced many of the challenges set by the Bishop of Liverpool and his colleagues, but we are still on a journey and neither my party nor my friends in the forest will rest until we are confident that the future of our publicly owned forests and woodlands is truly secure, and this means confidence in the establishment of the new management body, the charter and the guardians. I have to agree with the concern expressed by the RSPB in its very good briefing that the recommendations of the independent panel are being lost in translation during the Bill drafting stages.
I urge the Government to maintain the integrity of the recommendations in the draft Bill that I hope that they will bring forward in the very near future. This would demonstrate that they really can see the wood for the trees. I finish by thanking the Minister and all noble Lords for participating in this debate and by quoting the poetic words of Bishop James:
“Our forests and woods are nature’s playground for the adventurous, museum for the curious, hospital for the stressed, cathedral for the spiritual, and a livelihood for the entrepreneur. They are a microcosm of the cycle of life in which each and every part is dependent on the other; forest and woods are the benefactor of all, purifying the air that we breathe and distilling the water of life. In short, trees are for life”.
My Lords, I am sure the whole House thanks the noble Baroness for tabling this Question. I will echo some of the points that she made during her interesting speech.
I shall start by once again congratulating the Bishop of Liverpool and his team on the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry. It is well crafted, comprehensive and constructive. I also welcome the Government’s new policy and proposals for the public forest estate. We are fortunate that at Defra we have a very strong team of Ministers, among whom is my noble friend who is replying to this debate. He has real understanding, experience and knowledge of environmental issues. The Ministers are supported by many enlightened officials whose advice I know is frequently sought far beyond these shores. I am optimistic that we are possibly on the brink of exciting developments in the forestry sector, but forgive me if my optimism is tempered by some degree of caution.
For a moment I want to look at the international scene. Despite meetings, conventions and declarations of good intentions, the destruction of our tropical rainforest continues. Tree cover, so crucial for worldwide climate conditions, is still being ravaged to make way for oil palms, soya and cattle. I know that this is not the occasion and I do not have the time to go into it in any detail but, unless we take the warnings seriously enough, it may prove to be too late for effective action to preserve what remains.
For decades, His Royal Highness Prince Charles has spelt out the dire consequences that will follow if we carry on damaging the environment on which we depend. Being a largely urban population, we are in danger of becoming too remote from the natural world. Very often, we have no idea what is being done in our name. Consider for a moment the operation of the food chain. A recent publication, called Farmageddon, describes how, to satisfy mass demand for milk, eggs, bacon and other foods, the treatment of our domestic animals is in some cases horrendous.
While I am cautiously optimistic, I see these proposals on forestry as a much needed step change in our attitude towards the natural world. We should try to avoid approaching it piecemeal; we need to look at it nationwide, over our land as a whole. But how will all this be achieved? There is a remarkable array of agencies, organisations and initiatives, all committed to supporting biodiversity and sustainable growth in our woods and forests. The hope must be that they will work together and co-ordinate their endeavours, but even more is needed. We should go beyond government to businesses, landowners, schools and societies such as the RSPB, the Ramblers and the National Trust, as well as to the designers and contractors of road and rail communications and, most importantly, the broadcast media. The BBC, through its wonderful wildlife programmes, has shown what can be done to educate the public about the realities of nature, which must also apply to trying to achieve wider knowledge and understanding of the significance and importance of tree cover in our country.
In addition, there is the most impressive list of supporters for Grown in Britain, a brilliant concept. As the Secretary of State Owen Paterson wrote in his foreword to the report,
“Dr Bonfield sets out the actions taken to put forestry on a firmer economic footing”.
I stress the words “economic footing”. That is a point that needs to register with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Although it may not be possible to set it out in strictly monetary terms, there is economic value attaching to all our woods and forests and in the wonderful biodiversity of our beautiful landscape. That should be a factor in every corporate, local government and national balance sheet.
In conclusion, I have to ask again: how will all this be achieved? The answer has to be through leadership from the top. We would be right to look to the Prime Minister to set a firm timetable for progress. I hope that then, as these plans for the public forest estate come to fruition, increasing numbers of people, young and old alike, will experience the values and many benefits that can come from a walk along a path through the woods.
I add my thanks to those of my noble friend to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for securing this debate today and for being such a formidable champion on behalf of our precious trees.
The noble Baroness said that there was strong support for the Government’s forestry and woodlands policy statement in January last year, which set out a clear vision for expanding England’s woodland cover while protecting our trees from the ever-increasing range and scale of threats, recognising that woodland assets would deliver benefits for society and the environment as well as contributing to economic growth. A commitment to legislate for a new forestry body was a central plank in the delivery of that vision.
The stakeholder consultation closed on the funding, governance and purposes of our new body. The presentation to the National Forestry Stakeholder Forum on 29 January outlined, as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said, the 10 core principles underpinning Defra’s plans. While they were broadly welcomed, they left much unsaid. Big questions remain about the contractual relationship of the body with Defra, and the body’s remit, scope and duties. I add my voice to hers in asking when the Government intend to bring forward a draft Bill to allow for necessary pre-legislative scrutiny.
It is clear that woodland and forests offer good opportunities to deliver manifold environmental and public goods, from carbon capture to providing habitats for wildlife and flora, and places that people want to share. They want to go out and explore our glorious countryside. At a time like this, we should not forget how afforestation can help to reduce the risk of flooding.
I want to pick up on one of those 10 principles outlined to stakeholders on 29 January—that the new public forestry body should be a pioneer in natural capital accounting and payment for ecosystem services. As the Woodland Trust said, this is an opportunity for the forestry sector to,
“demonstrate its value to society”.
One way to ensure that development does not lead to erosion of natural capital assets is a well designed biodiversity offsetting scheme. The Government’s Green Paper consultation on biodiversity offsetting is now concluded. Liberal Democrats are clear that the guiding principle for any offsetting scheme should be that there is a net environmental and biodiversity gain. Equally, and in contrast to the views of the Secretary of State, habitats such as ancient woodlands are irreplaceable, and as such should not be included in any scheme.
Decisions about biodiversity offsetting are important for the future of the public forest estate, given that it has huge potential to provide offset sites for any market-based scheme. It is ideally placed to deliver landscape-scale projects and the wider benefits that they can deliver. The Lawton report in 2010 made clear that nature areas that are linked together have a greater ecological value than similar areas of natural environment that are broken up and separated. This view was endorsed in the Government’s 2011 environment White Paper. Given its importance to the future of the public forest estate, can the Minister say when the Government will make clear their intentions about introducing a biodiversity offsetting scheme?
All three legislatures in England, Scotland and Wales are keen to see substantial levels of new woodland planting over a substantial period. It is important that non-market values are taken into account in decisions about the future locations of Britain’s new woodlands, thereby ensuring that we maximise the value for agriculture and timber outputs, climate change mitigation and recreational opportunities. This would make a reality of the threefold mandate, as outlined in the core principles for the new public forestry estate of enhancing the estate for the benefit of people, nature and the economy.
If we do not do that, we face the danger of locating new forests in areas that do not deliver all the benefits that society and the economy need. We could pick locations, for example, that maximise value of timber production but do not help tackle flooding in key catchments, or maximise greenhouse gas capture but do not help to increase recreational opportunities near our major urban conurbations. Such decisions need to be looked at using the right decision-making framework, and I therefore look forward this spring to the annual update from the Natural Capital Committee, set up by this Government, on its work in ensuring that natural capital accounting is embedded in decision-making. The successful completion of that work could be as important in delivering the future we all want for our British forests and woodland as the legislation necessary to put the public forest estate on a more sustainable footing.
My Lords, I was eager to participate in this debate and I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for raising this vital issue, which has touched the nerves of so many people right across the country, in every part of our nation. I want to pick up four details of the Government’s response. They are minor, not major, points but I hope that they will be helpful.
The first is to build on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, about the unprecedented levels of flooding that we are having in the UK. Over the past week, I have been in touch with many individuals and groups across the country who are working in the 13 dioceses most badly affected by flooding —noble Lords will be aware of many of them; indeed, many will know some of them—in preparation for a meeting that I had yesterday morning with the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley. I am very grateful to him for giving me, two of my colleagues and some staff time to talk about some of the issues.
A typical response that I received was from the chair of the Plymouth and Exeter district of the Methodist Church, who wrote precisely about the connection between trees and flooding:
“The failure to dredge the rivers is only part of the problem. Not only are measures needed to increase the flow of water off the moors and levels, but the flow onto them is just as much a problem.
Over the last 30 years there has been little integrated thinking about the whole river catchment area—essentially the whole of Somerset and a small part of Dorset. In the upstream areas changes of crop patterns, removal of hedgerows and land drainage improvements, as well as domestic building, have increased flow levels into the rivers. 30 years ago, according to one of our church stewards, a farmer, it took two days between rain and the flooding of the levels. Today it can be as little as two hours. In the last two days flood levels … were raised by a metre overnight.
This is a complex ecosystem which needs to be treated as a single system not as lots of bits under different organisations, drainage boards, district councils, county council, Environment Agency etc.
The solution is not just dredging, though this will help, but tree planting in the upper reaches of the system and other measures to slow flows onto the levels down. A 5 year old tree plantation can absorb 60 times the water of pasture land and much more than this compared to harvested maize fields which after an autumn harvest leave bare, compacted earth over acres of the catchment area”.
It seemed to me that that was an extraordinary thing to receive in the past couple of days, and I wanted to raise it with your Lordships.
In this debate, we are concerned not just with leisure and the economy—although that is terribly important for woodland—but with the protection of thousands of homes and businesses. Flood protection, and the planting of trees to help with that, has a strong economic benefit. Can Her Majesty’s Government ensure that there is as much joined-up thinking as possible in the aftermath of this flooding, including tree planting?
Secondly, some weeks ago I put down a Written Question to ask Her Majesty’s Government,
“whether they are taking steps to ensure that the collective knowledge and experience of Regional Advisory Committee staff is being retained within the new Forestry and Woodlands Advisory Committees”.
Again, I am grateful for the response from the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley. He replied:
“Around 40% of the current Forestry and Woodlands Advisory Committee membership previously served on the Regional Advisory Committees”.—[Official Report, 15/1/14; col. WA 22.]
Unfortunately, in the past we have seen examples where we have lost from such bodies experienced people who understand woodlands. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that we do not lose the contribution of such skilled people so that we not only maintain our woodlands but increase them.
Thirdly, the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry contained a section on “Trees in our neighbourhoods”. The section entitled “Aspiration” states that it believes that we need,
“more, and better maintained trees, close to where people live. This means more trees on urban streets, more trees in town parks, and tree ‘corridors’ from the centre of towns and cities out to local woods and forests with good access”.
I am glad that the Big Tree Plant funding scheme, run by Forestry Commission England, is giving £4 million in grants to community organisations between 2011 and 2015 to support the planting of 1 million trees, but the question I want to ask is: what will happen after 2015? This needs to be a long-term project that enhances the urban environment. Anecdotally, I know of two communities that feel that their local council positively discourages tree planting in urban areas. I hope that local councils will be required to address this important area in the legislation for which the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, is rightly calling.
Finally, perhaps I may share a thought about the potential of woodland in addressing another challenge—namely the acute shortage of land for burial. There are now around 40 woodland burial sites in the UK. In my own diocese of St Albans we have our own St Albans Woodland Burial Trust, which is in north Bedfordshire near the village of Keysoe. It is 12 acres of land surrounded by 60 acres of woodland. There is a very real and sensible concern, as the noble Lord, Lord Eden, pointed out, about the economics of how all this will work—how we are to pay for the upkeep of our woodlands as the surpluses from the sale of timber are likely to decline because we have, of course, been harvesting it rather effectively. In some places there is the potential—admittedly very small potential—for a small section of woodland to be used for green burials. In our woodland burial site, a single grave space costs £700; to bury cremated remains costs £180. You have to be buried in a biodegradable coffin. You can have only a wooden memorial—you cannot have stone headstones—so eventually they will simply disintegrate and rot way and the woodland will be left as woodland. In addition, many people want to plant a tree in memory of their loved one, and for that privilege they are paying £100 a time. In other words, they are paying to plant the forest. Some of these sites are cared for by volunteers, so the cost is small—just a few hours’ administration, as in our own diocesan woodland burial site. Could this not be one small way in which we can pay for the planting of more trees and find a modest amount of further funding for our woodlands?
I am very happy to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in his very clear exposé of the close links between flooding and forestry and woodlands, and I agree with everything that he said. However, one way of mitigating flood risk is by trees in catchment areas fixing soil and diminishing run-off, whether they are part of the public or the private forest estate. A great strength of the independent panel’s report is that it does not erect a conceptual iron curtain between the two spheres in its powerful recommendations, rather it links the public and the private estates. I know that that is welcomed by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon.
These recommendations are far-sighted stuff, as one would expect from anything chaired by Bishop James—a man of great spirituality, huge insight and equally great intellectual bandwidth, which has enabled him to range, as he has in recent years, over everything from helping victims in Hillsborough seek some kind of solace to his great report on woodlands and forests with his colleagues. The recommendations say clearly that England’s woods and forests should be revalued for all that they provide, from recreation via clean air and water to wildlife habitats and flood reduction. That was prescient stuff when the then Lord Bishop of Liverpool wrote it with his colleagues back in 2012. Living in Somerset I recognise that it was indeed very prescient—we have much flooding but some of the lowest acreage of woodland in southern England. Both the polders that are the levels in Somerset and the few patches of woodland that we have are manmade. There is no ancient forest of any sort at all. What is there is in specimen trees, coppices and shelter belts.
As I am sure both right reverend Prelates would recognise, from every stance, planting any tree is an act of faith. Few of us live long enough to see a sapling in magnificent maturity in future years. However, all trees play as vital a role in water as in carbon capture—and again the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans recognised that point. They also play a great role in and around housing, as in open fields. That is why I applaud the conclusion of the report, at page 58, where it calls for planning policy and building practice to:
“Ensure woodland creation, tree planting and maintenance is part of the green space plan for … housing development”.
This is especially so where such housing is being constructed on steeply sloping land which is naturally prone to water run-off before any concrete is poured or asphalt is laid.
Let me give one such specific example which is currently under construction at New Barns Farm on the edge of Wincanton in Somerset. Incidentally, this is not a piece of housing development that is in my backyard in any way; I have no interest to declare here. More than 250 homes are to be built. I recognise that we need such homes on greenfield sites when all the local brownfield land has gone, and I support the policy. The site is on a hilltop with very steep slopes going down to the River Cale, a small stream that after a few miles across the Blackmore Vale becomes a tributary of the River Stour in Dorset, which itself has been subject since Christmas to a number of red danger to life signs because of massive flooding. When the site was first developed, it was excellently landscaped by a local developer, the Abbey Manor Group of Yeovil. Again I have no interest to declare because I do not know the company. Before the first houses were even started, the company ensured that good hedges and fencing were put in, and quite a wide shelter belt was planted at the top of the slope. It was sited exactly where it should be. Everything was maturing nicely before the site was sold on to a publicly listed company called Bovis Homes. My noble friend Lord Eden of Winton referred to the need for corporations to pay attention to this kind of thing. Since the site was sold on, I am afraid that there has been a spot of what one can only call environmental vandalism. Part of the shelter belt has been cut into, trees have been cut down and failing trees have not been replaced. Trees that were leaning have been left until they fall over. Gardens for the newly built houses have been encouraged to go into the shelter belt, which has led to more tree cutting.
Over the past sodden days we have had a lot of celebrity visitors coming to Somerset for a spot of grief tourism and photocalls, where people point vacantly at things while the cameras click. My ad hoc survey suggests that green wellington boots have mostly been sported, although we did enjoy the wonderfully bizarre sight of Mr Nigel Farage appearing in the Somerset Levels wearing chest waders and a jaunty cap. It must have been some sort of fashion statement while he posed for his photographs. I wonder whether the chairman of Bovis Homes, Mr Ian Tyler, and his chief executive officer, Mr David Ritchie, might put on their gumboots and come and see what their company is doing to the landscape.
What has been happening will exacerbate rather than help to control the run-off of water in this area of Somerset in the future. The behaviour of this company is bad for its business and bad for its relationship with the local authority, South Somerset District Council. I am broad-minded: it is Liberal but it is quite a good council in terms of planning matters. It has been having a bad time because it was given unfulfilled undertakings by Bovis Homes to replant the trees and maintain the woodland. That has not happened for the past three years. This is very bad for the image of Bovis Homes in terms of meeting its corporate social responsibilities for the environment. If only the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, was free of her Front Bench duties, I would recommend the all-male board of Bovis Homes to hire her instantly as a non-executive director to sort out its gross failures. It is certainly very bad for water run-off and flood risk.
I am talking about what may be only a few dozen trees, but as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has just said, a few dozen trees here and there mean that, over time, those trees will make an integrated contribution to mitigating floodwater run-off. The whole building industry urgently needs to revisit its role and responsibilities in these critical issues. I do not know what the situation looks like in the diocese of Worcester, which I know has quite a lot of trees and has had quite a lot of flooding. I look forward to hearing what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester has to say about it, associating myself if I may with the best wishes of we web-footed ones in Somerset.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for securing this debate. Like her, I am a great lover of the Forest of Dean, which until recently was part of the diocese of Worcester. When I say “recently”, I mean the 16th century, but what are a few centuries in the life of the church or, indeed, in the life of a forest? I pay tribute to her for her work, as I do, along with other noble Lords, to the recently retired Bishop of Liverpool for his significant contribution to the welfare of our forests made as chairman of the Independent Panel on Forestry.
As has already been observed in this debate, the estate provides enormous benefits in all sorts of ways: ecological, economic and, perhaps most importantly, in terms of people. Research has shown that regular access to woodlands leads to a healthier population in body, mind and soul. People feel recharged by encounter with woodland. It reaches the soul in a way that other landscapes very often cannot. It is no wonder that Thomas Merton, the celebrated monastic hermit who lived alone in the woods of central Kentucky, found the experience there and the silence provided by his simple home of vital importance. He wrote:
“I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realization that just being there is enough, and to add something else is to mess it all up”.
It is not for nothing that the Book of Revelation refers to the leaves of the trees being for the healing of the nations.
That is all the more important in this country at this time. No generation has lived more remote from the land than ours, the majority of people being urban dwellers. It means that places such as the Wyre Forest in my diocese and within very close reach of the great urban sprawl of Birmingham—which until recently was part of the diocese of Worcester—adds so much to people’s well-being. There is so much for people to do and take part in there, quite apart being still, from mountain bike trails to going ape like Tarzan in the treetops or partaking in the gentler activities of bird-watching or walking along the trails.
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us about the timetable for legislative changes that are ahead. I hope that, when that timetable is announced and the legislation is brought forward, those three areas—people, nature and the economy—are all given equal consideration. As has already been articulated, managing the public forest has in recent years been a careful balancing act between economic, environmental and social or recreational aims.
Reference has already been made by several speakers to the recent floods. The situation in Worcester is very serious—the city is gridlocked as a result of the closure of the bridge in the middle of the city—and is expected to get worse even if no further rain falls. The river peaks in Worcester some four days after the rain stops because the water comes to us as a gift from the people of Wales—which generally is welcome, but they have been somewhat overgenerous in recent times. Attention to woodland far beyond Worcestershire will be needed if floods of the sort which we are experiencing at the moment are not to be repeated. The statistics which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans quoted about the enormous contribution that woodland can make to soaking water away are pertinent in this regard.
I hope that the governance structure that is developed for the future carefully reflects the balance of people, nature and economy. I want to ask in conclusion one or two specific questions. Reference has already been made to this by the right reverend Prelate, but it seems to me important that continuing measures are put in place to ensure that the collective knowledge and experience of Forestry Commission staff are retained within new organisations to ensure that policy decisions taken today do not have a detrimental effect on trees, forestry and the community when those trees come into maturity—which we will not see—in 40 to 50 years’ time.
I am delighted that the newly formed forestry and woodland advisory committees are beginning their work and will be actively encouraging the protection, expansion and promotion of the agenda of the Forestry Commission. How do Her Majesty’s Government see the role of those groups in future in extending and improving the diverse range of community involvement in woodlands?
Finally, I turn to a detailed but crucial point. As I am sure that we are all well aware, several very serious diseases affecting trees in this country are slowly spreading across the landscape. What steps are being taken to ensure that, with the reorganisation of the responsibilities of the Forestry Commission, important disease prevention, control and elimination not only continues but is strengthened?
My Lords, I have listened with enormous interest to the very learned speeches of all those who have been active in this debate today. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for introducing this subject today because, at the moment, agriculture in every shape and form is so topical and so very difficult for those who are involved. I hope that the Minister may say something about the general picture as well, because it all folds in together.
My only reason for standing up is that I planted the first tree at the national Forestry Commission. I have a photograph of me from the Daily Telegraph which proves that, as I am carrying that wretched tree in order to plant it. I hope that it has flourished and perhaps given shelter to several, if not many, red squirrels throughout the years and will do so in future.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for calling this debate. I know how passionate she is about the subject and I say humbly that I share that passion. I thank her for her eloquent speech. I strongly agree with almost everything she said, except of course her scepticism about the Government’s intentions.
England’s public forests are a cherished national resource which provides precious habitats for wildlife and natural spaces for people to enjoy, as many noble Lords have said. We want to conserve and enhance them for now and for generations to come. Half of the country’s population lives within six miles of one of the 1,500 individual forests, woodlands and other landscapes that make up the public forest estate. That estate attracts 40 million visits a year, providing a wide range of recreational activities for people to enjoy, from dog walking and picnicking to mountain biking and abseiling. The public forest estate is also a vital natural asset, providing sanctuary for wildlife, as well as carbon storage, water improvement and flood prevention—the importance of which we are all currently extremely conscious, as was referred to by my noble friends Lady Parminter and Lord Patten and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester. The public forest estate is also England’s largest timber producer. It helps to employ about 40,000 people in the forestry, wood products and paper industries, and it supports tens of thousands more jobs in local rural economies through tourism and other commercial activities.
The nation holds those things dear, and so do we. That is why we said in our forestry and woodlands policy statement this time last year that we wanted to establish a new public body, in line with the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry, to hold the estate in trust for the nation. We have no intention of selling off the estate; nor do we have any plans to privatise the body that manages it. Our vision for our public forests is crystal clear. The public forest estate will be safe under the stewardship of the new public body that will own and manage it with a clear remit to conserve and enhance the estate.
Our forests will be better for people, better for nature and better for the economy—that is in answer to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester. No Government can bind future Governments, so no Government can promise that the estate will be protected in perpetuity, but we can put the right safeguards in place to ensure that it is less vulnerable to short-term political demands and ensure that any plans to dispose of it in future will require further primary legislation and be subjected to full parliamentary scrutiny.
We have made good progress over the past year in developing our plans for the new body. We have held numerous meetings with interested parties including Hands Off Our Forest, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred, and we are most grateful for their constructive contribution to our thinking. We published some initial thoughts on the shape, structure and governance of the new body last summer, and we received more than 250 helpful comments and suggestions on how we might improve our proposals. We have used these to shape our plans for looking after this unique asset, and at the recent National Forestry Forum my colleague the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Forestry, Dan Rogerson, set out 10 core principles that we are using to underpin the new PFE management body, which I shall set out.
The new body should conserve and enhance the estate for the benefit of people, nature and the economy. The precise wording of its statutory purpose and objectives will be confirmed in due course, although we are clear that the new body should be focused on maintaining the quality of the estate and the benefits that it delivers. It should be publicly owned and operationally independent of Government. We confirmed last year that the estate will remain in public hands, owned and managed by a new public body with a clear remit and no day-to-day involvement from Ministers. It should be underpinned by statute. We intend that the new body will have its own founding legislation. We also intend that it will have a charter, which will amplify its statutory functions and objectives and set out how it will work with others in order to achieve those objectives. It should be managed by experts and have access to the best advice. We intend that the new body will have a management board drawn from across the sectors interested in the public forestry estate. This might include experts from the forestry and timber business sectors as well as recreation, environmental and community interests. It should have commercial freedoms but will be required to protect the estate. Forest Enterprise England currently generates around £50 million a year from its timber production and other trading activities.
We want it to continue to earn income from timber production, tourism, recreation and other commercial ventures but any commercial activity will be subject to relevant planning controls, be justified against the wider interests of the estate and its users and be undertaken in a sensitive way so that the long-term quality of the estate is not put at risk. It should be able to buy and sell land, but any land sales must be for the benefit of the estate. As the panel recommended, we want the new body to be able to buy and sell land as part of its everyday management role. We intend, however, that land sales must be in line with the body’s responsibility for maintaining the quality of the estate and that the income generated should be reinvested in the estate. It should be a pioneer in natural capital accounting and payment for ecosystem services, something that my noble friend Lady Parminter referred to. We are developing a set of natural capital accounts for the PFE. These will be used as a baseline for assessing the performance of the new body and will help to inform the innovative funding arrangement that we are currently exploring for it. This will be based on a contract for the delivery of ecosystem services such as recreation, access and biodiversity.
It should work closely with local communities, estate users and businesses. It should have consultation at its heart. Forest Enterprise England already has a good track record of involving local communities in the management of the estate. We intend that the new body should build on this track record and be as open and transparent as possible in everything that it does. It should be an exemplar of sustainable forest management. We want the new body to be widely respected and regarded as a good manager of our public woodlands. It should build on the strengths of Forest Enterprise England, which currently does a good job in managing the estate and has a highly skilled and committed workforce. There is always room for improvement but we believe that the new body should build on the strengths of its predecessor and, over time, become an even better trustee for our vital public forests.
I turn to noble Lords’ questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester asked about legislation. As I have said, we are working on how we might establish the new body. Good progress is being made but our priority must be to get things right because forestry, as noble Lords have said, is for the long term and forestry legislation must last for many years. Therefore, I cannot say at the moment when a Bill might be published. However, I can say that we as a Government remain committed to allowing an opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny. Once a draft Bill is published, I will of course be very happy to discuss it with noble Lords.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked about the prospects for Forestry Commission staff. I can say to her that there is absolutely no intention that there should be any redundancies. She also asked about access. We are committed to protecting the public benefits that are currently provided by the public forest estate, including public access. The new management body will ensure that public access to the public forest estate is maintained and improved wherever possible. Current access on foot is guaranteed where the land has been dedicated under the provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, as all of the freehold estate has been.
The noble Baroness asked about the board. We would like to see the interests of relevant sectors, including local communities, properly represented in the governance arrangements. She also noted the importance of the guardians. We are in the process of determining the final details of the guardians in collaboration with interested parties. We are clear that the guardians will play a vital role in overseeing the conservation and enhancement of the estate for the benefit of people, nature and the economy. They would be drawn from across the full range of interested sectors, including not only forestry and business but also environment, recreation and local community interests, to advise the new body and hold it to account.
The noble Baroness suggested that a public corporation might be a halfway house to privatisation. Public corporation classification has no bearing whatever on whether or not a public body might be privatised. I can confirm that we have no plans to privatise the public forest estate. We are designing the new body to own and manage the estate within the public sector for many years to come.
The noble Baroness mentioned the charter. I have already mentioned that the new body would have a charter which would amplify the statutory duties and objectives in its founding legislation and set out how it plans to work with others to deliver its statutory remit. We intend that this charter would be laid before Parliament.
The noble Baroness asked about land sales. The body will need to be able to buy and sell land as part of its day-to-day management role, as I have mentioned. We intend that there should be appropriate checks and balances to ensure that land sales decisions are in line with the body’s responsibility for maintaining the quality of the estate and that income generated from sales should be reinvested in the estate. We certainly do not intend for it to sell any part of the estate to raise revenue to sustain itself. In answer to her specific question, the Secretary of State will have a veto on land sales. There are no plans for anyone else to have such a veto.
The noble Baroness knows, but I will repeat clearly for the record, that we have no plans whatever to privatise the estate. We are designing the new body to own and manage the public forest estate within the public sector for many years to come.
My noble friend Lord Eden asked about economic benefits. England’s woodland cover is as high as it has been since the 14th century. We want woodland cover in England to increase through planting of the right trees in the right places for the right reasons. We also want more of England’s woodlands to be sustainably managed to maximise their public benefits. We believe that the current rate of planting, of 2,500 hectares per year, can be accelerated and that an eventual level of 15% coverage could be achieved over time. However, this is not a matter just for Government. Conditions need to be in place so that landowners choose to plant trees in locations where it best suits them and their local conditions and priorities.
My noble friend Lord Patten raised the issue of woodland in the context of new housing development. I share his aspiration for people living in new housing developments to benefit from the social and environmental improvements that woodland planting can bring to these sites. There are many good examples of such sympathetic landscaping and planting on developments across the country. I am sorry to hear of the far less successful example to which he referred.
My noble friend Lady Parminter referred to natural capital accounting. I can tell her that good progress is being made on national natural capital accounting. The Natural Capital Committee is working closely with the ONS and Defra to implement the road map to 2020 which the ONS published in December 2012. Early progress had been made with accounts for woodlands. Further work is being taken forward on accounts for enclosed farmlands, wetlands, marine and a more detailed set of accounts for the public forest estate.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester referred to skills and experience, both within the Forestry Commission and more widely. I agree entirely. We are keen to see experience retained and new blood coming in and adding to the skill base and experience levels.
I am being prodded; I have run out of time. One thing that is really important to finish on is the reference made by a number of noble Lords to flooding. The allocation of Defra grant in aid for flood and coastal erosion risk-management projects is undertaken by the Environment Agency. Afforestation is funded where there is sufficient evidence that it will reduce flood risk or for experimental purposes. The Slowing the Flow project in north Yorkshire is an example. In addition, the Forestry Commission has contributed to various assessments of using woodland to alleviate flooding. In 2011 it joint-funded a review called Woodland for Water, which highlighted how woodland could contribute to reducing flood risk as well as deliver other water and wider ecosystem benefits. That led to the development and use of national, regional and catchment “opportunity maps” to direct planting to where woodland would be most effective.
In conclusion, good progress is being made on how we might establish the new body, but our priority must be to get things right. As I have said, forestry is for the long term, and forestry legislation must last for many years. We remain committed to allowing an opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny. Once a draft Bill is published, I will of course be happy to discuss it with noble Lords.