Thursday 8 August 2013

A new body to look after the nations forests

Following the governments welcome change of heart over the sell-off of Forestry Commissions woods, an independent panel was established to look at how the estate could be managed.  The panel reported last year – a good report probably indicating the minimum of what we should expect from government if it is serious about looking after this public asset.  Since then government has produced a forestry policy and now a consultation summary for a new Public Forest Estate Management Organisation (PFE MO).  This is essentially government’s response to the independent panels report.  So what is the progress?

Unfortunately, in my view this government response falls at the first hurdle. 

In its very first recommendation the independent panel called on government “to pioneer a new approach to valuing and rewarding the management, improvement and expansion of woodland ecosystems for all the benefits they provide to nature, people and the green economy”.  It was clear from this that new ways of accounting for all the benefits provided by forests should be adopted.  Furthermore, at the same time the National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) and the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) were providing the tools to do this. 

This “Governance Premises Summary”, however, falls back to a traditional approach of simply “maximising economic opportunities whilst maintaining public benefit” – a phrase that would not have looked out of place 50 years ago.  What is written in the governance summary is old fashioned language reflecting flawed economic thinking and is a huge missed opportunity.  It will mean that the Forestry Commission may just revert back to a narrow role of selling timber in the hope that a surplus can “pay” for other public benefits. 

The independent panel report itself showed that whilst the cost of the Forestry Commission was about £20 million, the public benefit it produced was valued at a minimum of about £400 million.  A 20 to 1 return on investment - if you actually did the sums.  To ignore this is like a business ignoring its income stream and then being surprised when the books don’t balance!

The governance summary appears to have been written as though the NEA and the NCC did not exist.  Many of the ecosystem services provided by forests are quantifiable, timber production is just one.  Many others are of such fundamental importance that they underpin all other values.  Forestry, as with any valuation from now on, must fully account for all these services.  Indeed forest management should be the natural cause célèbre for this new approach to valuation.  Only by doing so will we start to properly value forests – and foresters.

Forest economics must therefore be fundamentally reformed to reflect full natural capital accounting.  The full range of public benefits must be properly accounted for, with a hefty contingency allowance for all the essential services which cannot be easily reflected in financial valuation.  This is a requirement that flows from the independent panel report and should be a strong theme that runs through any proposals, yet there is no hint of this in the governance summary, its supporting “review of functions” or in the Forestry Policy.

The governance summary also assumes the PFE MO will be of similar size to current Public Forest Estate.  What is the basis for this statement?  This provides an answer without addressing the question.  The public forest estate should be led by its objectives and then the size would come out of that.  The question then should be “what size should the estate be in order to deliver its functions?”, rather than “it’s this big, what shall we do with it?”

I have worries about the phrase in the Mission statement “for the benefit of people, the economy and nature”.  This implies a balance between three competing elements which, on the contrary, should be complementary rather than competing.  This is reflected in the overarching objective - “the sustainable management of the estate to balance and maximise the benefits to people, nature and the economy”.  This is more a bland catch-all than an objective.  In practice it is meaningless – is it “sustainable management” (in which case what does it mean?) or “balance” (in which case of what for what?) or “maximising” (in which case of what?), you can’t have all three.

The Annex then gives fairly predictable, second-level objectives under economic, social and environmental.  The wording and organisation of these fail to get over recent thinking on how it is ecosystems and ecosystem services that underpin everything else.  Without healthy forest ecosystems there will be no economic and social benefits yet as it is ecosystems only appear in a rather confused last bullet point in the list.

In my view the overarching objective is not overarching.  It starts from the perspective of “here’s the Public Forest Estate, how are we going to manage it?”  An overarching objective should actually start from the perspective of “what is the purpose of the Public Forest Estate and therefore how should we manage it?”

Therefore, an overarching objective, I suggest, should read something like:
The purpose of the Public Forest Estate is to contribute to realising the full potential of England’s current and future ecological network, so that it provides an enhanced level of the full range of ecosystem services.  In particular the Public Forest Estate should deliver those aspects of ecosystem services that are not adequately valued in traditional economic terms and/or not as easily delivered by the private or charitable sectors. 

The sub-objectives in the Annex should then articulate how it will deliver high quality forest ecosystems, rich in wildlife and how is it going to deliver benefit for people.  Economic objectives must then be articulated in terms of delivering benefit for people whilst maintaining and enhancing the natural capital on which it depends.  It also means that any economic approach or valuation will have to rise to the challenge of saying how it has accounted for everything and how value is being provided to people.  At present “economic growth” is presented as a catch-phrase without any hint on what it means, how it will be measured or how it indicates benefit to people.

The administrative structures for the PFE MO are secondary to what it is actually required to do, we do not want the ideal structure delivering the wrong things.  Nevertheless, the right administrative structure should provide the capacity and legitimacy for a PFE MO to deliver public benefit.  There is a fear that the independent panel’s requirement for a Charter has been weakened and that the proposed role of “Guardians”, who should be accountable to parliament, has been toned-down.  One of the greatest benefits that the PFE could deliver is by providing the resource (i.e. the public land) for vibrant and diverse community and public engagement in forests.  I can see no reference to this so far but maybe it will appear in later detail.

I hope I am wrong, and I hope that people engaged in this can tell me so.  Maybe the bland phrase “maximising economic opportunities” does hide a far more sophisticated approach which really does mean proper accounting for all of the vital services that we get from healthy forest ecosystems.  I see nothing yet to give me any confidence though.

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