House of Commons Debates – 4 November 2010
3. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What recent estimate she has made of the monetary value of the land managed by the Forestry Commission. 
10. Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): What plans she has to sell or lease part of the Forestry Commission estate. 
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): There is an ongoing programme of sales run by the Forestry Commission, year on year, to achieve operational efficiency. In the 2009-10 accounts, the public forest estate in England was valued at £700 million. That is the net book value; it does not necessarily reflect the true market value. I intend to consult on proposals for new ownership options for the public forest estate in England, and on how to secure the important public benefits that they provide.
Kerry McCarthy: I think that for once, given the answers that we have heard today, The Daily Telegraph might be right, because it says that the Government cannot see the forest for the fees. However, can the Minister give a categorical assurance that, contrary to other press reports, if Government-owned forest is sold off, it will not be sold off to developers to be turned into things such as Center Parcs and golf courses?
Mr Paice: I am delighted to have the opportunity to debunk that absurd notion. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, before trees can be felled, one requires a felling licence from the Forestry Commission. The Forestry Commission will continue to have that role, even through those disposals, if that is what happens; and, of course, planning consent would be required to undertake any of those things, such as golf courses or Center Parcs. We have no intention of seeing our forest damaged; we want to maintain the public benefits that we already have.
Caroline Lucas: Will the Minister make a commitment that all land transferred from the Forestry Commission's control will be covered by legally binding commitments on new owners to maintain current policies for environmentally and socially beneficial use, especially those on the restoration of planted ancient woodland and on public access? Can he also put on the record what will happen to the funds raised from the proposed new programme to sell off those woodlands?
Mr Paice: There would be no point in having a consultation if I were to announce the results of it now, so I am not going to do so. However, I can tell the hon. Lady, as my right hon. Friend has said and I have just said, that we have absolutely no intention of allowing any public benefit of our woodland, be it access, biodiversity or carbon storage, to be damaged by whatever action we take on public ownership.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the Forestry Commission's involvement in a pilot flood protection project to protect Pickering from future floods by planting a great number of trees to soak up the excess water and prevent it from entering Pickering? Will he give me an assurance today that that project will not be at risk from any future cutbacks and that the Government will continue with their tree planting programme?
Mr Paice: It is worth making the point to my hon. Friend that under the previous Government the amount of trees and new woodland planted in this country fell dramatically. The Opposition, as they now are, need to account for that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; trees have a vital role in flood prevention and alleviation, and although I do not know the detail of the scheme to which she refers, I have no doubt that it will continue in some guise.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): ConFor, the Confederation of Forest Industries, represents sawmills and other processing businesses, and it values the supply of timber that it receives from the Forestry Commission estate because of its quality and consistency. As he considers the sale of some of that estate, will the Minister consult ConFor and the timber industries to ensure that their interests are taken into consideration?
Mr Paice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I assure him that I have already had consultations and discussions with ConFor. I have discussed various options with its representatives, who, obviously, will submit a response to the consultation when we launch it. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a number of the timber trade businesses rely on a constant supply of timber from the Forestry Commission, and I am very much aware that that factor will have to be taken into account to ensure that our important timber industry gets continuity of supply.
Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his letter of last week about the future of Forestry Commission land, even if it is regrettable that it has not been accompanied by a full statement to the House.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Woodland Trust have said that the sale price for that ancient forest land does not match its environmental or social value and that they lack the resources to purchase the land. Why has the Minister failed to give the House any assurance that the money raised from this fire sale of English woodland will be reinvested in environmental protection or green jobs, rather than simply ending up in the Treasury's coffers? Is not the reality that big business, not the big society, will benefit from this land grab?
Mr Paice: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position-and long may he hold it, if that is the best that he can do. I had hoped that we could have a rational debate about the future of our forests. Much of what the hon. Gentleman said is absolute nonsense. As I have repeatedly said, we are determined to protect our forests and increase the rate of new planting in this country, beyond the failure of his Government, whom he supported. That is what has to be done. Working towards new ownership does not in any way countermand the important value of our British forests, which we intend to maintain.