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.

1 comment:

ImogenRadford said...

Thank you for another excellent blog - I and many others who value the Forestry Commission were very pleased with your last one.

You say you haven't seen the Forestry Commission's evidence from its 2009 survey. It is very much worth a look, and as you guessed, it did show a very high level of support for the public forests and for their expansion -- 85% of those questioned wanted to see an expanded public forest estate. There is tons of other really useful and interesting evidence -- all available and clearly signposted from this page