English forests set for sell off

27 Jan 11
Ministers have revealed plans to sell off the majority of England’s forests currently in public ownership, insisting that the best known will be protected.
By David Williams

27 January 2011

Ministers have revealed plans to sell off the majority of England’s forests currently in public ownership, insisting that the best known will be protected.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman today proposed to take a ‘Big Society’ approach to the 18% of woodlands currently run by the Forestry Commission.

In the Comprehensive Spending Review, the government set out plans to transfer 15% of that land out of state control, generating up to £100m. Today, ministers launched a consultation on what to do with the remaining 85%.

Spelman said the forests would not simply be sold off to the highest bidder, and proposed a range of different ownership and management models to suit each area of woodland.

She added that ‘heritage forests’, such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean would be transferred to charitable trusts, enabling the public to access them as they do now.

Spelman said: ‘State control of forests dates back to the First World War, when needs were very different.

‘There’s now no reason for the government to be in the business of timber production and forest management. It’s time for the government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England’s woodlands to play a much greater role in their future.’

‘We want to move from a “Big Government” approach to a “Big Society” one, so we can give different groups – individuals, businesses and civil society organisations – the opportunity to be involved in managing the natural environment. And we will make sure that public access is maintained and biodiversity protected.’

The consultation document pledges to create new opportunities for ‘community and civil society groups’ to buy or lease forests, and for ‘commercially valuable forests’ to be leased to businesses.

Spelman said the lease conditions would ensure that public benefits were preserved. The Forestry Commission’s felling regime will be retained, along with a presumption of re-planting.

The Public and Commercial Services union, which represents 900 Forestry Commission staff, raised fears that swathes of woodland would be lost, and pointed out that the quango cost each taxpayer less than the price of a packet of crisps per year.

General secretary Mark Serwotka said: ‘Our public forests are extremely important for the environment, for wildlife and to help solve problems such as climate change.

‘The government is putting all this at risk with a dangerous ideological plan to sell them off to the highest bidder. 

‘While the voluntary sector does a lot of good work in our forests, we do not believe volunteers can replace experienced staff and forest managers.

‘With the Forestry Commission providing such good value for money the alternative is clear, and the government should scrap its plans to allow big businesses to profit from our natural environment.’

Stripped of its ownership role, the Forestry Commission will in future focus on responding to outbreaks of tree pests and diseases, regulating feeling and setting management standards.

The consultation runs until April 21. The government will publish its final plans in the summer.


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