With the pressure to dispose of the public forest estate, you might be forgiven for imagining that the Forestry Commission (FC) is a fat, inefficient, bureaucratic body that spends huge amounts of public money but delivers little. Nothing could be further from the truth!
The FC looks after a huge estate for us – over 250,000, or about 18% of all woodland. Many of the familiar forests that you might list are actually owned and/or managed by the FC – the New forest, the Forest of Dean, Thetford Forest, Grizedale Forest and, more locally, Abbots wood, Friston Forest, St Leonards Forest and Tilgate Forest. Virtually all are managed to deliver multiple public benefits with nature and wildlife pretty near the top of the list.
So how much does it cost us to have them look after this enormous estate?
Figures from year to year vary but the difference between the FC’s income from sale of timber against the cost of management is just £13m. So it costs us just £13m per year to have a FC that looks after over 250,000 ha of some our most cherished areas.
Let’s put this into perspective.
This works out as about 30p per person per year. 30p – that is about the same cost as going to the toilets at Victoria Station once (per year!), it’s about half the cost of a newspaper, one sixth the cost of a cup of coffee and quite a bit less than the cost of a decent bar of chocolate. And for this we get over 250,000ha of forests. Not bad for 30p!
It would be incredible, but maybe you consider 30p per year too high a price to pay. Maybe we could even save this if the forests were sold, then perhaps you could enjoy an extra one sixth of a cup of coffee instead. Maybe not though. If charities like us or the private sector took over the estate then we would be eligible for grants to help us manage these forests. Grants that come from public funds. It wouldn’t save money, it would probably cost more.
So - what are the benefits that the public would get from this public asset being disposed of?
In order to judge this we would need to know how badly FC is failing in its duties. If this is clear then perhaps this would justify a change.
- Are they failing to manage woods? Well they provide 60% of England’s timber from just 18% of the woods, so the woods are being managed and timber is being produced.
- But are they destroying the environment in the process? Well the whole public forest estate is independently certified as sustainably managed by the Forest Stewardship Council - a pretty good tick in their favour.
- Are they destroying nature (which might have been a criticism over 30 years ago)? Well, as a measure, 99% of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest in their care are in favourable condition, which is better than we in the Wildlife Trusts achieve, so there isn’t much room for improvement there.
- Are they keeping people out? Well with around 40 million visits per year, obviously not. Not only are people welcomed but FC have legally designated the public forest estate as open access land in perpetuity, so no failure here either.
So – FC are doing everything pretty well, they don’t seem to be failing at anything and they are doing it all at a negligible cost – it may even save us money!
I can’t see this as a reason for break-up.