Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Forestry Commission – still a shaky future?

The current round of forest sales may have been postponed and the consultation on a new proposal for the public forest estate after 2014 cancelled but the future of the forestry commission is still unsure.

The FC is still a very under-funded organisation yet a key thing that has come out of the recent public interest is a realisation of what amazing value for money we are getting.

For a net cost of about £20m per year we get a forest estate of about 250,000 hectares managed to deliver public benefit. A bargain!

Of this £20m, about £12m to £13m comes from the public purse (from DEFRA) the other £8m comes from money ploughed back into the FC from the sales of forests (the government has been quietly getting FC to sell woods for years). The current situation, however, is that the funding for FC is still being cut. First, some £2.6m is being cut from the DEFRA money to the FC, reducing the public funding from just over £12m to about £10m. Second, the £8m per year from the sale of forests is no longer going to be ploughed back into the FC, it will all go straight to the treasury.

So FC is still being cut by about £10m per year and FC are still likely to loose about 25% of its staff.

Some of the current threats may have died down but an already slim organisation is being cut still further. And, as I’ve explained in previous blogs, this is not going to raise any money for the treasury – an extra £10m per year to the treasury will soon be lost in grants to the new owners. This “cut” will just appear as an expense somewhere else. It is not simply a matter of FC having to share some of the pain we all have to suffer under the current thrust for cuts in public spending.

The government has done the right thing in holding back on making any decisions and setting up an expert panel to look at wider issues of forest policy. It looks like it will be a rather small panel, however – just 5 people – so I’m not sure how it will be able to represent a good spectrum of views. Obviously I feel that someone from the Wildlife Trusts should be there, or at least one of the conservation NGOs. But it should also invite people from the grass-roots campaigns that have sprung up around the country. Add in a few academic experts, industry representatives and politicians and it sounds like a panel far larger than 5 is needed.

Hopefully any output from the expert panel will link in with the emerging Natural Environment White Paper. But in the mean time the government should not be eroding FC still further while the panel sits. For the time being the current £12m that FC gets from DEFRA should be increased to £20m and the sales of forests halted.

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