On 27 January 2011 the Government outlined its plans to sell off England’s public forests and thereby bring about the biggest change in land ownership for more than 80 years.
It is the largest sell-off the Government can authorise without the need for an act of parliament.
A public consultation was started on 27 January and will run until 21 April 2011.
Caroline Spellman is the Environment Secretary lumbered (!) with the task of overseeing this latest Government attempt not to court universal popularity.
England's premier "heritage" woodlands such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest will be handed free to a new national charity or to existing charitable trusts to manage in the national interest. Communities and environment groups will be invited to buy tens of thousands of hectares of other forest land at the market rate which they will be able to run themselves. In addition, large areas of commercial woodland are planned to be sold on 150-year leases to companies.
The Government’s proposals are set out on the DEFRA website and are contained in a consultation document on the ownership and management of the 18% of England’s woodland currently run by the Forestry Commission (so 82% of England’s total wooded areas will be unaffected). The document lays out different approaches for different types of woodlands.
The Government has already committed to taking 15% of the public forest estate out of state control over the course of this parliament, generating (say DEFRA) “up to” £100million of receipts. The consultation paper invites views on a range of ownership and management options for the remaining 85% of the public forest estate.
The key proposals in the consultation document are that:
· Heritage and community forests which provide high public benefits will be protected by inviting new or existing charitable organisations to take on ownership or management.
· There will be opportunities created for community and civil society groups to buy or lease forests.
· Commercially valuable forests will be leased to commercial operators. DEFRA say that leasing rather than selling will allow the lease conditions to ensure that the public benefits of these woodlands are preserved while allowing the operators to maximise their commercial potential (although of course that begs the question of what exactly those lease conditions will be).
The proposal to sell off this woodland is hugely controversial and has already received a great deal of press coverage.
There is considerable uncertainty over whether communities might choose to buy and manage land, and also confusion about the legal access to land that the Forestry Commission presently leases rather than owns outright (what are the terms of those leases, can they be assigned or terminated?). There is also confusion over what happens to forests that are not taken up by communities, as well as the uncertainty over the precise lease terms that will apply to commercial operators.
What happens if no one either wants or can afford to buy these woods? The Woodland Trust has already said it does not have the funds to participate and it is unlikely that local authorities will either. However, according to this Guardian report and this report from the BBC it is possible the National Trust might step in to fill the void.
Green groups and trade unions have said the plans would be bad for wildlife and the public. Over a quarter of a million people so far have signed an online petition opposing the sell-off.
The forests of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will not be affected by these plans.
Of course there are two sides to every story and there are those who think the Forestry Commission hasn’t done a particularly brilliant job in managing these forests over the years. The weight of opinion being expressed in the press and online however is opposed, often vehemently, to this policy (for which there does not appear to be any mandate).
There are a great many unanswered questions and we shall have to see how the Government responds to the deep concerns felt by many when it reports back after the consultation has ended. Between now and then there will doubtless be several forests-worth of wood pulped to house the acres of newsprint yet to be expended on this subject. In case you haven’t seen much of the coverage so far or want to read more, here are links to some comment pieces in the Telegraph , Telegraph (again), Guardian, Guardian (again) and Independent. (The only reason I’m not also linking to similar stories in the Times and the FT is because the Digger won’t give anything away for nothing and the FT don’t like you using their copy.)
So, is this a scorched earth policy of wanton vandalism being visited upon our national realm or a bit of artful pruning that will help cut a swath through The Deficit?
Well, according to the Telegraph,
“at present the Forestry Commission in England costs the Government about £18 million a year, after timber sales are set against costs. After the forests are sold, the commission will continue to regulate, administer grants, carry out research and provide advice, functions that at present cost £18.4 million, without an income to offset them. And the Government's own figures show another £17.7 million will have to be spent supporting the new owners – leading to a bill for the taxpayer of £36.1 million a year, twice the present level.”
If that’s the case then the Government is clearly barking up the wrong tree.