Thursday 27 January 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off

A consultation starts today about a proposal for the government to sell some or all of the land looked after by the Forestry Commission – the Public Forest Estate.

Governments (of whatever political colour) tend to do this from time to time – the last consultation along these lines was only just over a year ago. In fact government has slowly been nibbling away at the estate for years. Every now and then it tries to work out why we have a public forest estate, but even when it satisfactorily answers the question it can’t resist the urge to sell-off some of the family silver to fill a short-term financial hole.

To some extent this is quite reasonable. We have had changing needs from forestry over the last few decades. So it might make sense to look at the resource again to see if it is satisfying its purpose. This may result in selling, or buying, some sites to make sure it is still delivering public benefit.

Unfortunately this sort of logical thinking is rare and it is not happening now.

There is no strategy to this particular sell-off, in my mind this is its biggest flaw. Government is writing a Natural Environment White Paper and early signs are that this could be quite good. The logical thing would be to publish the white paper and then see how the public forest estate is delivering its objectives. Government might then have some rationale for deciding what to do with our public forest estate. Instead, however, we are given the answer – to sell the estate – without really knowing what the question was!

Obviously, the reason given in the current climate is money. No need to mess about with strategy – times are hard and the country needs cash. The proposal will probably involve selling off about 15% of the estate in the next few years, maybe more (or all of it) later. Estimates I have seen indicate that this will make about £100 million. Not much for a valued natural asset. However, even this sum is unlikely. The first thing a new owner will do is look to see what grants they can get for their new acquisition – for replanting, management and capital items. This is perfectly reasonable – if the Sussex Wildlife Trust acquired a site this is what we would do. In practice these grants can often add up to more than the cost of buying the wood. So, government would make money from the sale but then give it all away again in the form of grants. No gain to the treasury there!

However, how much threat would these sold-off woods actually be under?

Woodland is one of our most protected habitats, there is a lot of regulation to prevent damage, and loss of ancient woodland is rare these days. Also those grants are often paid to private landowners to deliver just the sort of wildlife gain that we would want - and some private landowners look after their woods better than the FC. Also, government has indicated that if there is a hole in the layers of protection then they will do more to enhance protection. Nevertheless, I remain concerned. FC often lead the way in the way it does conservation management. It has become a very effective organisation in trialing approaches to deliver good results. Some major aspects of conservation management might never have got going if it was not for the initiative showed by FC. This trial of policy and practice is unlikely to be as effective if the estate is disposed of.

Access for the public might also be a problem. Most of the public forest estate is designated as open access land so access rights should not alter. However, in practice a landowner can do quite a lot to discourage access, whereas FC very effectively encouraged it.

It is not a matter of privately owned woodlands being worse that the publically owned estate. In Sussex we have some fantastic woods owned and managed by estates and private landowners. But public and private should be complementary. For example, FC has been able to support the timber industry by using their “selling power” to help support the market. Trees take a long time to grow; a landowner needs a decent amount of certainty about future markets.

On balance my view is that FC has turned into an efficient and effective body that is doing a great deal to look after the nation’s forest. This proposal comes at the wrong time. Government should work out what it wants from its public estate first and then see whether it should be selling (or buying) land in order to support its objectives. Do the Natural Enviornment White Paper first.

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