I spent a good deal of time yesterday reading through the Government consultation The Future of the Public Forest Estate in England. Defra minister Caroline Spelman has been urging people to read the consultation before passing judgement on the proposed disposal of public forest. I urge you to read it too.
I’ve been watching the Save Our Forests campaign build and grow over the last few weeks, but I wasn’t completely convinced by the argument that all forest should stay in Forestry Commission hands. I’m not a lover of conifer plantations, and if getting rid of commercial forest helps the public purse, then so be it. I have to say that reading the consultation document has made me change my mind.
Spelman claimed in the Politics Show today that we will be reassured when we read the consultation. I can assure Mrs Spelman that the document is anything but reassuring. The very first sentence of the executive summary had me spitting and screaming into my notebook:
“The Government is committed to shifting the balance of power from ‘Big Government’ to ‘Big Society’.”
There’s no ‘we’ve got to do this to reduce the deficit’ rhetoric here. The proposals are being put forward as part of the Big Society agenda, where the Government wants to shrink the State and make us accountable instead. I didn’t like the next sentence either:
“For forestry, there are compelling reasons for changing the status quo by reducing the level of Government ownership or management of woodland.”
That would be fine, except that I’ve looked for the list of ‘compelling reasons’ in the consultation document and I as far as I can tell there aren’t any. Vague noises are made about a conflict of interest where the Forestry Commission is both a regulator and supplier of timber, but that’s as compelling as it gets – and not a justification by itself for the disposal. It’s great that the public are being consulted, but it’s hard to respond when we are not told convincingly why the Government thinks disposal is the only option.
Instead of making a convincing case for disposal, I think the consultation makes a very convincing case for maintaining the status quo:
If you had any doubt over the importance of the Forestry Commission and the amazing things it does, just read page 12 of the consultation. It makes a good case for leaving things exactly as they are. Did you know that over a quarter of the estate is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)? Or that Forestry Commission land includes 15% of the total area of ancient woodland in England? Or that 45% of the estate lies within National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty? I didn’t, but now I do, I feel very proud of the Forestry Commission and the work it does on my behalf.
So what are we being consulted on?
The consultation splits the 258,000 hectares of Forestry Commission land into four roughly equally sized categories:
- Large commercially valuable forests and woodlands
- Small commercially valuable woodlands
- Multi-purpose forests and woodlands
- Heritage and community forests and woodlands
These categories are pretty vaguely defined, as many woods combine forestry, public access and heritage elements. Categories one and two are considered to provide ‘low to moderate public benefits’. I’m not sure the dog walkers, cyclists, horse riders and other users would agree. Kielder Forest, the largest man-made forest in Europe, is one of the best places in the country to see red squirrels and ospreys. Low to moderate public benefit? Only if you place no value on two of our most iconic species.
The consultation does not ask us if we want the Forestry Commission estate to be disposed of, it only asks us if we agree with the method of disposal proposed. To me this makes a mockery of the consultation: not only is the case for disposal not made, we are not even asked for our views on whether disposal is the right thing to do.
We are asked if we agree to dispose of the public estate in the following way:
- Transfer management or ownership to a charity. The woodlands affected have not been identified but are likely to have high historical, biodiversity or cultural significance. There will be no capital cost to the new owner, and financial support will be given initially, but reduced over time
- Offer community groups the right to buy or lease. Small areas of non-heritage woodland will be offered to community groups at market value, so long as this will not interfere with commercial operations. If no community group comes forward within a specified ‘window of opportunity’ the land will be leased on the open market
- Leasehold for commercial forests. The majority of the Forestry Commission estate will be leased to commercial forestry operators on a 150 year lease. The Government plans to ensure public benefits are maintained through leasehold agreements. The new leaseholders will need to be monitored to ensure they comply with the terms of the lease
Do I agree this is a good way to dispose of the estate? I don’t know, but I do want to be asked if I want the estate to be disposed of at all.
Finally, 40,000 hectares of woodland are being sold outside of the consultation process. Hidden on page 24, we are told that: “Sales will target woods which provide limited added value in terms of public benefits”. One could ask why this land is being sold and is not included in the consultation.
Why dispose of the forests?
We already know the main driver is the Big Society agenda, and that the economic card is being played down. Page 18 tells us:
“The Government believes we need to protect the environment for future generations, make our economy more environmentally sustainable, and improve our quality of life and well-being.”
That’s all very nice (and green and fluffy), but what I’m now wondering is: if the status quo is doing a sterling job of supporting this aim already, why risk this by giving up the responsibility to others? Page 19 lists how the Government is going to ensure this happens:
- Focus the Government’s role on research, regulation and advice
- Ensure woodlands are managed and expanded to enhance the environment and biodiversity, combat climate change and support economic growth
- Encourage more tree planting and sustainable woodland management
- Support and develop a competitive forestry sector
- Seek to enable more public benefits from woodlands at reduced taxpayer cost
- Secure the best return for the taxpayer from capital receipts or lease arrangements
These are all very noble aims, but the consultation document lacks any substantial proposals for ensuring these aims are delivered. How will handing over management responsibility to others help protect the environment? How will the Government ensure woodlands are managed and expanded? How will it encourage more tree planting? Or ensure more public benefits are realised from our woodlands? We cannot seriously be asked to comment on the proposed method of disposal if we are not told how the Government intends to deliver on these aims, and how disposing of the public estate will support delivery.
From reading the consultation, I can’t see how disposing of the forests will help deliver any of these aims. Keeping them in public ownership will give the Government a lot more power and influence to make it happen. Ultimately it comes down to trust and risk. Do we trust the Government to get it right? Do we share their vision of the Big Society and Small State? Do we think the risks involved in the proposed ownership model are worth taking? Finally, what’s so wrong with the current system that the changes need to be made at all?
So here’s what I think. The Government has laudable aims regarding forestry stewardship in England, but the consultation fails to make the case that disposal is the answer. Unless Mrs Spelman can convince me otherwise, I believe the proposals risk undermining these aims. Let’s keep as much of our forests in public ownership as we can: it’s what a majority of the public want, it doesn’t cost very much (30p each – that’s an apple a year), and it supports the aims listed above. On the other hand, the proposals are risky and have unproven benefits, and do not even contribute to reducing the deficit – the only argument for Government cuts that holds any water.
In other words, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Please take a look at the consultation and decide for yourself.
- The Consultation
- The Save Our Woods campaign
- Sign the 38 degrees petition
- Follow the #SaveOurForests twitter hashtag