To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect the Forestry Commission’s stake in Forest Holidays and to ensure that in the event of a sale by the majority shareholder they would not lose all management control of any future development.
My Lords, the control the Forestry Commission has over developments by Forest Holidays is exercised through the arrangements in the legal framework agreement between Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission, rather than through its shareholding in the business. Any change in ownership would not change the level of control exercised under the framework agreement and as landlord.
My Lords, concern about the future of our public forest estate continues, and the Answer of the Minister does nothing to assuage the fears that there are at the moment or the anxiety over the nature of the relationship between the Forestry Commission and Forest Holidays. What is the process for approving new and existing sites? Further to that, why does there not appear to have been any competitive tender process when Forest Holidays was restructured through a joint venture in 2012?
My Lords, the Forestry Commission has to approve of any new sites for this activity, such approval not to be unreasonably withheld, which is a reasonably common requirement. In practice, Forest Holidays is unlikely to be able to progress a site if it does not have the full support of the Forestry Commission. Forest Holidays also has its own site selection criteria, which exclude any site where there are significant environmental constraints.
I spoke to the chairman of the Forestry Commission today, and he confirmed that only a limited number of sites are available within the public forest estate.
I declare an interest as the chair of the Forestry Commission from 2001 to 2009. As the House may know, there have been two joint ventures with the Forestry Commission and Forest Holidays, one on my watch in 2006 and a later one in 2012. Will the Minister confirm that, on the first occasion, it followed full parliamentary procedure, had the approval of the Treasury and went out to full competitive tendering?
As regards the second venture, will the Minister assure the House that if the private sector investor decided to sell its share, the Forestry Commission would not be forced to sell the commensurate share at the same time?
I can confirm most of what the noble Lord said. The terms under which the current joint venture operates are very much the same as for the original joint venture. If the controlling interest is sold, the Forestry Commission may be required to sell its interest in the company by the buyer, including the Forestry Commission’s stake in the business. The sale would not change the controls set out in the framework agreement and the site leases.
My Lords, I declare my entry in the register of interests. Public access and amenity are obviously most important, but they are not the only consideration. When it comes to marketing, will the Government ensure that the Forestry Commission does not intentionally undercut private owners and producers?
My Lords, when this Question was first put down, I had no idea what Forest Holidays was, but I have been looking into it, and the more I do so, the murkier the whole business seems. It appears that, since the framework agreement in 2012 and the new joint venture companies having been set up, pieces of the forestry estate have effectively been handed to venture capitalists to pursue log cabin developments. The questions that need to be asked are: first, are the public getting value for money for that through the forestry commissioners? There are arguments that they are not. Secondly, is it true that the forestry commissioners are not exercising their powers effectively over such developments? Thirdly, how far will this go? Is it the intention that Forest Holidays will expand substantially, using cheap Forestry Commission land and taking over some of the national forestry estate for its purposes?
My Lords, as I said, I discussed this matter this morning with the chairman of the Forestry Commission. As he said, the reality is that only a limited number of sites are available within the public forest estate, principally because much of the land is either ancient woodland or SSSI or protected in some other way.
My Lords, that is an interesting question. It is important that we retain visibility of the trees as well as the forest. Primary responsibility for management of feral boar lies with local communities and individual landowners. This means that local land managers are free to control wild boar as they see fit, as long as that control is carried out in a humane and legal manner.
My Lords, the Forestry Commission in England is to be congratulated on the significant rise in the number of people visiting our public forest estates, not least as it is against the background of a recent report which suggests that the number of people visiting rural areas has slightly declined. It shows the huge value that our population puts on both the social and economic benefits of the forest, as well as on the environmental benefits because of carbon capture. Have Her Majesty’s Government made any assessment of the possibility of increasing the total amount of public forest estate to enhance those benefits even further?
We have not given particular consideration to that, although the House will be aware of the background and the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry. It is important that we continue to increase the amount of woodland cover generally in the country. That is under way, principally funded through the rural development programme.