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.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off – 4: A government change of heart.

It is welcome news that the government has changed its mind over the dismantling of the Forestry Commission (FC). It might be a little uncharitable to call this a u-turn; the proposal was only a proposal and it is sensible to think again in the light of both public concern and the clear arguments against the direction proposed.

I am glad that the government has decided to take more time over this. Instead of the proposal it now looks like a panel of experts will be set up to look at public access and biodiversity in publically owned woodlands. This sounds good and I hope it will address wider aspects of the role of the entire public estate in landscape-scale ecological restoration. The future of the Public Forest Estate is part of a much bigger discussion as Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“From the start The Wildlife Trusts have called for more time to have this debate and so we welcome this announcement.

“This is, however, part of a much bigger picture about the future of England’s natural environment. The context is that our first Nature White Paper for 20 years is being prepared. The new panel and the debate about the public forest estate must feed into this or we will lose sight of the big picture and miss a big opportunity.

“As local organisations with a long track record of working with the Forestry Commission and local communities on the ground, The Wildlife Trusts are keen to play our part in the debate.”

We are, however, left with the spectre of continual sales of the estate and a continual haemorrhaging of FC staff. And it is now clear that this practice will not make money for the treasury, so why continue?

Wildlife Trusts around the country are very pleased to be working in partnership with FC. This will become very difficult as staff levels go down, offices close or move and FC officers inevitably become more remote. This is the opposite of what should be happening. We need to build on strength – more, better partnerships delivering still better public benefit. This can be delivered on the public estate, and, through partnership, on land in private and charitable ownership as well.

I talked in a previous blog about an example in Tilgate Forest. This is a normal partnership, replicated many times around the country, engaging local communities in their local forests. It is only held back because of lack of capacity (i.e. we’re all too busy to develop it as fully as we would like). These sorts of projects are surely good examples of what is meant by the “big society”. Instead of cutting back, we should be investing more, giving FC the steer and capacity to build on this success.

The government may have changed its mind – and good for them for doing so – but the genie is out of the bottle now. They can’t go back to quietly selling-off 15% of the estate every 4 years, and laying off staff accordingly. Forest policy and wider policy regarding the public estate, must now be part of much larger, positive, forward-looking policy for the natural world as a whole and should be linked in with the emerging Natural Environment White Paper. This will require commitment, investment and reasonable staffing levels. In practice it may be justifiable to “re-configure” the public estate so that it continues to deliver public benefit and this may result in the sale of parts of the estate but the purchase of other areas. However, as the public estate needs to be of a sufficient size and diversity in order to be effective in contributing to the delivery of policy it is likely that we should be expecting a net increase in the public estate not a net reduction.

In 2009 the FC itself did a consultation to see what the public wanted from the public forest estate. I have not seen the results of this but I wouldn’t be surprised if it showed a great level of support for FC and a general desire to increase the estate, not reduce it.

Friday 11 February 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off, 3: How much does the Forestry Commission cost us?

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.

Monday 7 February 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off – 2: An example.

Some of the concerns about the Forestry Commission sell-off can be illustrated by taking an example and looking at how things might play out.

Tilgate Forest is a conifer plantation just outside Crawley designated a “small commercial” forest in the consultation document. At present we in the Sussex Wildlife Trust work with the FC (through the Gatwick Greenspace Project – see the link in my previous blog) to open up the canopy in target areas, holding back the dark conifers, letting light in and encouraging the development of heather-covered heathland. This is good for wildlife (we are noticing increases in common lizards and adders for example) and is also improving access and peoples enjoyment. And all this can be done alongside timber production. FC’s forest plan for the area will continue this enhancement, linking up heathland blocks and maybe encouraging less common species (such as the bird the Nightjar) to colonise again. As it is so close to Crawley, there are immense opportunities not just for improving nature but also to encourage quiet enjoyment by people. It sits adjacent to an urban area where open space is much appreciated. We are developing an exciting vision for a Living Landscape in the area where enhancement takes place on a landscape scale for people and wildlife.

That’s how it is at the moment. What of the future under the new arrangement?

As it is a small commercial plantation the proposal would result in a long term lease on the site being sold to the private sector. Charities and community groups may put in an offer but it is unlikely that they could raise enough funds. A private landowner would wish to see a return on their investment so the emphasis would be on commercial forestry. It may be possible to protect what is there to some extent, through restrictions placed on the lease arrangement, but it is most unlikely that any further enhancement would take place. Indeed the new owner only has to “neglect” management of the recently restored heathland for it all to be lost. Whilst access could be legally protected, this too needs investment in order for access to be maintained in practice.

The best that is likely is that the existing value might be preserved, but not improved. In practice even this is unlikely.

And the money gained by the Treasury? There would be some income from the sale, and FC would not be spending money on management, but the new owner would be eligible for a range of grants. Any net gain to the Treasury would be small or even negative. There is no financial benefit to the public in doing this.

So - there would be no financial gain to the government coffers, wildlife and access might not even be maintained, let alone improved, a fruitful partnership between FC and the Sussex Wildlife Trust would have been brought to an end and any vision of landscape scale enhancement for people and wildlife will be forgotten. Not only this but we will probably spend hours in meetings trying (and probably failing) to get the best for wildlife in any future arrangement. So what are the benefits? Why are we even talking about this?

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off 1

I have had the chance to have a glance through the public consultation on “The future of the Public Forest Estate” since my last blog. We can now see some more details but concerns remain. I’ll just highlight one in this posting.

Woodlands have been classified in the consultation as large commercial, small commercial, multi-purpose and heritage. The first question here regards which wood is classified into which category as this will make quite a difference to the outcome.

The proposal seems to be to transfer the freehold of heritage woods on to a charity or community group without charge. This could include woods like St Leonards Forest, near Crawley. This might be a reasonable idea but there are questions. How about long-term funding? It costs money to look after woods so any community group will wish to ensure that funds are available, long-term, to enable such management. At present Forestry Commission grants could be sourced to achieve this. However, as an intention seems to be to save money one has to question whether government will continue these grants long into the future now that there will be far more people applying for them. This will be quite an expensive part of the proposal. FC already manages these sites very efficiently, probably at a lower cost than would be the case if charities did it with the aid of grants. More community and charity owned woods with local people more involved in their care – this could be a good thing. Maybe this is the only part of the proposal that is at all innovative and worthy of further consideration. But it will cost money.

More serious, however, are some of the other woods. We in the Wildlife Trusts may still consider some commercial and multi-purpose woods as very important ecologically, and could be made more so with sensitive management.

This might include sites like Friston Forest
near Eastbourne
and Tilgate Forest
near Crawley
where the Sussex Wildlife Trust is already active.

Government seems to have the intention of offering these to charities first, but we’d have to buy at “open market values” (i.e. a lot of money). There is an ethical question here for charities. Should we be giving money to government in order to purchase public woods in order to keep them as public woods? Indeed I wonder whether the Charity Commission would consider that a good use of charitable funds. Assuming we did purchase any then once again these would have to be managed utilising FC management grants. Even considering the income government could get by selling to charities (or selling long leases to commercial companies) it is unlikely that government would make much (if any) money from the process.

The “background” section in the consultation makes interesting reading. It reads as a list of major achievements delivered by the FC. I agree with this (and much more could be said). FC is an efficient and effective body delivering much public benefit. So I am still left with the question “why?”