Thursday 24 March 2011

A step back for Society?

I’ve just looked at our Wildlife Trusts National Office response to the Governments planning reforms announced as part of yesterday’s budget. It seems that whilst this Government may consider itself to be the greenest ever, this approach is more a blast from the past – a retrograde step for Society.

Increasingly it is clear that we can’t go on sacrificing the natural environment. The debate is not jobs or wildlife but jobs and wildlife. It seems this Budget is all for Big Business but not the Big Society.

The Sussex Wildlife Trust is not against all development and clearly some aspects of the current regime could be simplified. Indeed we often work with businesses to ensure opportunities are taken to put wildlife back on the map and create truly sustainable development. However, this promise of a faster planning system could lead to missed opportunities.

Nature is not a luxury but a necessity we cannot afford to do without. The Chancellor has missed an opportunity to put in place positive planning for nature’s recovery and to optimize strong public feeling for the natural environment; so clearly expressed during recent consultations on both the public forest estate and Natural Environment White Paper.

Planning must focus on adaptation to protect, restore and create a robust and resilient natural environment which can stand up to the challenges of climate change. We fully support the recommendations made in the Making Space for Nature report, including the establishment of Ecological Restoration Zones.

The uncertainties of a changing climate are just as relevant for people as they are for wildlife. Well connected, landscape-scale areas for wildlife are great for people and the economy. The added benefits of creating, or restoring, wildlife habitats include flood control, pollution control to food production and long-term solutions to climate change impacts.

Paul Wilkinson, head of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts, said: "Opportunities for people to enjoy the countryside, coast and seas, and the green spaces in towns and cities, are crucial to our health and wellbeing. The natural environment provides a source of inspiration, refreshment, excitement and challenge. Experiencing the environment has repeatedly been demonstrated to be an influential factor in assisting in the development of individuals’ personal character and confidence.” This all seems to have been put on one side in a rush to push through planning decisions (“the answer is yes – now what is the question…”) as we go back to a simplistic view of development no matter what the cost.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

The independent panel on forest policy

It’s good to be wrong sometimes! I mentioned, in a previous blog, that the proposed forestry panel was going to comprise just 5 people. This turns out not to be the case – in fact it will consist of 12. I had heard that it would be only 5 “somewhere” and had simply passed this on in my blog. This goes to show that I should always check back to an original reference rather than re-stating hearsay!

So – I was wrong, it is 12 people not 5 (or did someone change their mind somewhere!). However, this is good news as a panel this size is far more likely to cover a range of interests. It is also good news that key NGOs are represented, and I’m particularly pleased that Steph Hillbourne (CEO of the Wildlife Trusts National Office) is on the panel.

Some, however, have mixed feelings about the make up of the panel. And some grass-roots campaign bodies are less than happy with NGOs being there at all. They feel that these same NGOs were not active in opposing the government’s plans to dispose of the public forest estate and in effect have put themselves into position to “cherry-pick” the best sites for themselves. My view is that this is unfair; the NGOs were pretty active, although not as visible as some of the grass-roots campaigns, and are certainly not there top facilitate a government sell-off.

Nevertheless, it is a fair point that there is no representative from these grass-roots campaigns. With a panel of 12 it should be expected that at least someone from an on the ground campaign should be there. The representatives who are there need to bear this in mind. If local campaigns are not represented then at least us in the NGOs should be prepared to pass on their views.

I was reminded of this in an excellent example of local action in Friston Forest, Sussex, last weekend. A local group (Keep Our Forests Public) organised a rally and walk around the forest. Nearly 100 people turned up and we were fortunate to hear an impassioned, principled talk from Dave Bangs (who fronts the group) and a valuable overview from Kate Ashbrook (Chair of the Open Spaces Society). I felt particularly privileged to be asked to speak – bearing in mind that some there felt let down by the NGOs. No doubt some still feel that we have not been principled enough in our stance but I do hope that campaigns like this will realise that Steph, and other NGO reps on the panel, will be doing their best to get the best outcome for the nations estate.

It was a great day out in a site that is an excellent example of how a partnership in a forest can deliver great multiple public benefits. This is a privately owned site, managed by the FC and with a small area managed by us at the Sussex Wildlife Trust – so government, non-government and private all working together. It’s just the sort of partnership that should become “normal” in a positive new approach for the Forestry Commission.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Friston Forest Rally

The sale of public forests may have been delayed and the consultation on the future of the estate has been closed, but the future of the Forestry Commission is still unsure.

The government is now very aware of the public concern for the nation’s forests and is looking again at forest policy. A panel is being set up to look at the future and the Wildlife Trusts, along with the other major conservation NGOs, are hoping to influence this and push for a positive role for the public forest estate.

This is still very much a live issue.

It would be all too easy to slip back into the programme of cuts and forest sales that has been going on for years.

Local campaign groups are therefore keeping up the pressure by holding events around the country. A local event in Sussex is being held at Friston Forest by the “Keep Our Forests Public” campaign.

The views of this campaign are not the same as my views or the position of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, but they do show good principled support for the public forest estate and have galvanised public interest perhaps more than us in the conservation NGOs. They deserve our support. I aim to be there and hope others will be able to join in as well.

The plan is to meet in Exceat car park, Friston Forest on 20th March at 12 noon. This is located off the Litlington Road, near the junction of A259, by the Seven Sisters Country Park Visitor Centre. Map reference: TV518995.

Speakers will include a Forestry Commission trade unionist; Kate Ashbrook (Open Spaces Society) and Dave Bangs (Keep Our Forests Public).

The rally will be followed by a picnic and at 1.30pm there will be a guided forest walk with two stop-and-return points for those who do not want to do the whole ramble. The maximum distance will be 6 miles. Wear strong walking shoes, bring lunch & refreshments. The campaign group asks people to bring along banners, placards, friends and family.

Email for any more info -, or FACEBOOK - Keep Our Forests Public

2 further walks are being planned by the Keep Our Forests Public campaign at St. Leonards Forest, Horsham (Saturday April 9th) and at Abbots Wood, Wilmington (Saturday May 7th)

Wednesday 2 March 2011

A future for the Public Forest Estate

The problem with the current debate about the public forest estate is that it started in the wrong place. Admittedly it did attract a great deal of public interest, but instead of asking
“how can we dispose of the estate?”
it should have started with the question
“what is the purpose of the estate?”.

This question has been asked and answered many times over, most recently in a report done in 2009.

Not long ago perhaps, but a lot is changing. The “Lawton review” has made strong recommendations about how to develop a coherent ecological network and the National Ecosystem Assessment has looked at how we can better value the benefits we get from nature. Both of these are key drivers in the forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper. Any future for the public estate must fit within the concept of restoring the natural environment that flows from these documents.

If you want to read some of my thoughts on these please take a look at my blog posts around September last year starting at:

Against this background, perhaps it is relevant to ask the question again. If we did then I suggest that the purpose of the estate should go along the following lines:
  • The purpose of the public estate is to contribute to realising the full potential of England’s current and future ecological network, so that it provides the ecosystem services on which we depend.

(If you don’t know what I mean by ecosystem services then again please look back to my blogs in 2010)

In practice this is perhaps just a current way of describing multi-purpose forestry, which FC tries to do anyway. But it is perhaps a better recognition that forests deliver a lot more than just timber.

The problem is that this could be the policy objective for all forest management (indeed all land management) – public and private. So the public forest estate must have a special role, something complementary to the private sector.

In my mind this specialness is that the public estate should deliver ecosystem services that are not easily valued in traditional economic terms and so not easily delivered by the private sector.

We can work out the price of timber, but it is harder to value soil formation, nutrient cycling, wild species, climate amelioration or ecological interactions. Other services we get include recreation, access, spiritual enrichment, wildlife and the appreciation of wildlife. We know these are essential, but we hope nature provides them for free. These ecosystem services are our public benefits and do have a value (when the sums are done the value can be 100 times more than the cost of conservation) and the public estate should be there to deliver them as its primary role.

Outside the public estate, management approaches that support these services might be seen as a “cost” to be supported by providing “grants”. A public forest estate, however, should support these as its normal way of operating. So, as well as producing timber, the estate should use (and demonstrate) management approaches that also deliver all other services. It would therefore be an exemplar of multi-purpose land management. One consequence will be that, as so many other benefits are recognised, there will be significant areas of land where other ecosystem services are emphasised and timber production will be far less of an objective.

In order to do this the public forest estate will need to be large and diverse, covering the range of ecological conditions and management situations found in England. It will also need to be transparent and accountable. It will need to be in the places where it can best deliver aspects of public benefit that are less easily delivered by private and charitable sectors. This could mean re-configuring the current public estate, maybe selling some areas but purchasing others. In order to achieve its purpose, it is likely that the net size (i.e. after selling some areas and acquiring others) will be larger than it is at present, not smaller.

This is perhaps my long-winded way of supporting the position statement articulated by the Save Our Woods campaign

What’s more this seems to be what everybody wants – a bigger, more effective public estate.

Maybe this will be difficult to achieve in the current economic climate but plans for a public estate should be long term. At least we should hold on to a good thing while we’ve got it. A more expansive agenda could then follow when conditions permit.