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?