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Yew-turn on Forestry Commission sell-off ~ by Angus

Yew-turn on Forestry Commission sell-off

On 17th February 2011 the Environment Minister, Caroline Spelman (DEFRA's Cabinet minister), announced that the consultation on the Forestry Commission sell-off was being cut short and that the Government would rethink the whole thing.

However, things are never as simple as they seem.  The Government is still committed to reducing DEFRA's costs and whether the vast woodland and forestry estate in England will remain under the management of the Forestry Commission is debatable. As the Government has the legal authority to sell up to 15% of the estate without going back to parliament, it is conceivable that some 100,000 acres could still be disposed off; this is the small part of the estate described as "small commercial woodland" (which has the least public access).  There is to be a panel of experts set up to look at  what should be done.

But why did they really change their minds? One suspects that it became such a ‘hornets’ nest’ that it was likely to interfere with other matters, such as the local elections and voting referendum to be held in May.  Could it have affected the stability of the Coalition? Perhaps it was an opportunity for the PM to say “we have listened”.  Maybe the government simply realised that they needed a parliamentary majority to get it through and that they wouldn't have got this. Whatever the reason, it seems there will now be much further thought.

The proposals and consultation undoubtedly raised some good sentiments such as the desire to have
·    more local control,
·    more volunteers involved in management, and
·    some transfers of some woodlands to local communities.

This would be described by some as Big Society and by others as localism.
Even the move to have the larger commercial forests more efficiently managed will be thought by many to be a reasonable aspiration.

The Woodland Trust and the National Trust may yet regret having been so lukewarm in their response.  They complained that they had not really been consulted in advance and that was surely a bad mistake on the part of Government.  Had these Trusts endorsed the plan to transfer the Heritage and Community woodland to them (and organisations like theirs), they may have created a more positive response to that part of the proposal.   Instead they may have missed the chance to get some of these woodlands under their management with their strong emphasis on biodiversity and public access.  These Heritage and Community woods will now, therefore, stay with the Forestry Commission who are culturally somewhat more inclined towards commercial timber management.

Throughout the public debate, while many had only seen the headline proposals, they did know that leasehold sales on a significant scale were proposed.  The Government had, perhaps unwittingly, put itself in opposition to the whole of the conservation lobby as well as many notable public figures.   If they persisted then the atmosphere could have become even more inflamed.

Posted in: Community use, Energy, sustainability & economics, Flora & Fauna, ~ On: 20 February, 2011

14 comments so far

Chris Southall
24 December, 2011

I’ve not seen it mentioned that the government has cut the size of the Forestry Commission by 30%. Our experience with an adviser from the FC was very positive and if they are understrength then the management of private woodlands may well suffer.

7 June, 2011

I don’t think the Forestry Commission are rubbish. Like all organisations both public and private, large and small, there is always room for improvement. It is also not possible to please all of the people all of the time.

As involving local communities, groups, businesses etc, the FC are already engaging these type of stakeholders in their activities and have been doing so for years. What is lacking is a genuine committment from the general public to stump up the operational costs, skills and time involved to run a woodland successfully.

Believe me the ‘voluntary groups’ will be handing it over to private landlords in a matter of years, seen it happen so many times before at a local level. The government will say something along the lines of “it’s best placed in the community where local people can have a say” etc etc. What that means is a volunteer group to manage it.

Volunteer groups managing things have a pretty dismal record – it usually means in the first year everyone and their wife is willing to help out, by the second year the membership is down, and after 5 years there’s either; (a) no volunteers to run it or (b) there’s no funds to run it. The asset is then (as if by magic) transferred over to a private owner.

Government then steps back and says, “shame – but what can WE do? It’s not a government matter”, when they knew all along the whole thing was a way of allowing the title to pass to some spiv thereby avoiding an outcry. It’s land privatisation by the back door. Simple as that.

As for relying on volunteers to do what the professionals do, this is a joke. I don’t see government ministers sacking their private financial advisors to replace them with some volunteers to look after and advise on their private financial dealings.

Chris Hemmings
30 May, 2011

National Trust and Woodland Trust and their ilk were probably marginally embarassed but knew they’d not have to buy these properties so just faced down the government on the issue. I agree with Ian about parking charges – why discourage visitors? And now, though, after the stand off, it’s obvious that we should look for a change in woodland organisation and away from distant management, be it public or private. Find ways to encourage local groups to take over and run these estates so as to enhance the connections between the local people and these valuable assets. Get inputs from schools, hospitals, commerce, youth groups and the like and see the woodlands thrive and create many new uses and users, all under some simple rules of forest perpetuity.
Then start planting loads more fosests for the future and to restore our ailing climate and ecosystem.

Dan forester
26 May, 2011

So much for addressing each-others point then.

It’s not getting “nasty now” Ian. This is a vitally important discussion, surely your argument can stand up to a little criticism- my intentions were to be constructive. I don’t know if you’re passionate about your work, I would imagine that you are- given the nature of the work your involved in. I simply want you to think, instead of regurgitating some nonsensical economic argument that doesn’t recognise the root causes of our problems. Yes the forestry commission as custodians are rubbish, we agree there. At least, however, it is currently “US” that lawfully own the forests.

You seem to think that the alternative [private ownership] might be an improvement, and to be willing to take a chance- without any evidence to suggest it would be an improvement. We are talking about ownership, not methods used to manage the woods, but ownership. Currently the people own the public woodland, and thus are supposed to have a say in the running of it. You think we’d have a better deal if private companies/ chartable organisations owned the woodland- and that they’d run it in a way that is more beneficial to people and wildlife. What are you basing this opinion on, I am open to the idea- but you fail to present any evidence.

5 May, 2011

The FC cannot exclude the poor, this is just a bit of spin I think. The FC does not lose money but spends it on the things any organisation requires to run and maintain it’s activities and infrastructure. Currently the FC costs the English taxpayer 30 pence a year each. Any business or orgainisation will have people on high earnings but many many more on more modest sums. They do answer effectively to communities where woodland is situated. For a start they are responsible to parliament which is made up of your elected representative. Secondly the forest design plans invite input from individuals and organisations, these forest design plans are updated about every five years. Thirdly the FC is certified under the Forest Stewardship Council’s principles & criteria and part of this certification process invites comment and involvement from local communities. So I think you have an axe to grind and no offence meant but you appear to have a chip on your shoulder about publicly owned and resourced forests and woodlands in this country.

Ian Williams
29 April, 2011

It is getting nasty now so this is my last comment. To correct Dan, I work for charity, earn half what a teacher earns, but teach what they cannot. My brief is to keep the disaffected engaged in learning and hopefully at school. I do this by getting out of the classroom on a regular basis. I am sorry you have taken the view that “I lack passion”.

I listen to the views submitted and they all depend on the assumption that a private landowner would prevent access. The whole discussion hinges on the sale being dependant on proper safeguards to allow public access. I feel an effective “right to roam” is missing from England. Woodland owners or farmers have a right to farm their land, not obstruct public access. A woodland owner can be required to maintain a standard of access and diversity the same way that a farmer can be required to maintain footpath signs and hedgerows.

My central discussion point has been that I feel the forestry commission in my area is effectively excluding the poor. As such, perhaps it would be better in someone elses hands. The FC is losing money. However, it does have a number of staff earning in excess of £90K and another 50 earning over £43K. As a central quango, they don’t effectively answer to the communities where the woodland is situated. Perhaps the answer is to break it up? My last comment, thanks for reading!

28 April, 2011

Sorry DanForester – my mistake. I meant to say more than 50% of the woodland in England consists of native trees and not, of course, 50% of the land in England.

10 April, 2011

“If you do the research and the maths you’ll find that an awful lot more of England than 50% is already covered with native trees.”
Sounds spectacular. Next time you travel back in your time machine, take me…. please!!

Oh and Ian, if you want a space to teach, to help children see the natural world for what it is- why not use an abandoned farm, there are plenty about, or just meet them in the woods, or by a road. Stop asking to make your own little bit of profit off them, and let your noble work be one of passion- instead of just another job. Plenty of people across the country are using “occupied space” to host skillsharing and workshop events etc. We need more people to do this. Think about it.

I have many issues with the Forestry Commission, for whom bio-diversity is something that briefly occurs in-between conifer harvests, and in special conservation sites, or sites too small, or too inaccessible to drive a large machine through. This said, their forests are often infinitely better than the private woodlands- acidic wastelands than will take future generations many years to restore, to build up the living soil layers required for bio-diverse, productive woodlands- teaming with life. There are other ways, people that know how woodlands work, how they operate and live- they should look after, and restore the once great woodlands of this country.

I am a student of ecology and permaculture, and have little interest in politics, which is really just an element of the perception management of the state, they are administrators of a human livestock system, that is all. The whole world is run by powerful banking interests- not politicians. This said, I am very concerned about the woodlands, and as everyone seems to still be turning to politicians for solutions and answers, (usually to the problems they cultivate and to the questions given to you by the media) I find myself having to engage people on these issues, as they concern, nothing less than the survival of us all.

Guess what people, the state has been selling “public” land to their friends in high places since before you were born. They’ve got remarkably good at hiding it from you, too They will sell the woods, and unless it is mentioned on your truthbox, most of you will remain blissfully ignorant- a state of mind that most of you are familiar with.

The Forestry Commission, and the Commissioners before them, are supposed to Act as custodians for the Crown/Government that we, purportedly “own”, through some intangible archaic system of law. It is we, that own the forest, lawfully. Not that any of that seems to matter to this Corporate State-ship. What an odd notion, eh? The people actually owning the land their forefathers labored, slaved and died for. No place for that kind of absurdity in this completely sane, slave world.

Be under no illusion, what they are doing is breaking the law, (natural and their own), they are criminals. Stop looking to vote in the color red, or the color blue. These are meaningless distinctions, a fake duality that they use to control you. If you are not “left”, you must be “right”. If you are not a capitalist, you must be a communist. If you are not a liberal, you must be a conservative. It’s all B.S.

Wake up, and start taking individual responsibility for your own lives, and the systems that support you. You need the forests to breath, and private logging companies are run by people than know less about the natural world than most children, politicians know even less. They are layers and bankers, people with “special friends”, their elitist families have plagued humanity with war and deceit for centuries. Read about David Cameron’s family, Clan Cameron. Look for the real decision makers, the puppet masters, if you want to see the truth, and help save the Earth.

10 April, 2011

I am a car mechanic in a local garage, not an employee of the Forestry Commission. The public forest estate run by the Forestry Commission costs the public 30 pence per year for every person in England. Good value I say.

6 April, 2011

Ian, I’m not and never have been a Forestry employee – I’m a humble, lowly paid hairdresser with 2 kids and we use the forest a lot as it’s such good value.

You’ve obviously got your own axe to grind against them but the idea that the forestry are driven by profit is bizarre. Private forestry companies exist to make a profit – if you think the forest would be cheaper run by a private company you are deluded. You think there will be safeguards under private ownership? Think again!

It costs me way more to park in the local town for shopping than it does at the forest. And all I get in town is a car park space – in the forest everything (apart from the cafe and Go Ape) are free.

Your key point about the forestry costing the taxpayer…..do you think the private forests cost us nothing? Look at the grants and tax relief they can get, do the maths and you’ll find that they are costing us an awful lot more. That’s one of the really odd things about the government’s ideas – it must be ideology that’s driving them as the old ‘public bad, private good’ mantra of the children of Maggie doesn’t stack up in this case. Roger isn’t making his figures up – look at the Woodland Trust’s own accounts on their website and if you think they’re lying report them to the charity commissioners.

By the way, your last comment about stopping planting pine. If you do the research and the maths you’ll find that an awful lot more of England than 50% is already covered with native trees.

Ian Williams
5 April, 2011

I take it both the comments above are from FC employees. Plenty of stats to show doing a good job. Reality is that it is £20 to park a minibus or even to simply drive through with Coach and unload. The classroom prices must have dropped since I asked to book it 5 years ago. I guess this due to it never being used. The bike hire tell me that a significant part of their fees is due to FC charges for use of site so they are lying or the FC make on top of parking fees.

Over the last ten years I have spent in excess of £10K at High Lodge and introduced 1000s of young people to the existence of High Lodge, love of sport and the outdoors. Many return with their families at a later date. I have made a decision to find other places and leave High Lodge to chase the custom of the more wealthy. My issue is that the FC is profit driven to maintain its own management fees and has lost its understanding that the land is not theirs to profit from. There is also more to diversity of woodland than different types of conifer.

I say put in place clear safeguards for public access & diversity and sell it. The key point is that the FC currently costs the tax payer and the most in need in my area are excluded from public land by additional fees to access it, hence the FC currently behave no better than a private owner but without the safeguards.

Action points for High Lodge to restore public confidence might be: free parking for school trips, free use of classroom for school groups, end to pine planting until 50% of this land is native.

4 April, 2011

Ian – FC monopoly? On only 18% of the woodland?

My local Discovery pass (= car park eason ticket plus a bit added) was only £30 for the year. I park in the car park nearly every day. The FC bike hire centre is privately run and aims to make a profit – and why shouldn’t it – it’s a private venture?

The local classroom is £20 for an afternoon – not £100s (I think you’re mis-quoting).

Exclude the poor? Where else can you get such a cheap day out?

4 April, 2011

Now then Ian, if the Forestry Commission are offering you such a bad deal why don’t you go and look to the private sector for your requirements. After all the Forestry Commission only look after 18% of the wooded land of this country with the private sector owning the other 82%. Remember though that over 60% of homegrown timber and 44% of public access come from the Forestry Commissions measly 18%. Coupled with that 99% of their SSSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) are in favourable condidion (the Woodland Trust is only 95%) and even those are much better than the private sector as a whole. And what does the Forestry Commission cost the taxpaying public? 30 pence per year for every person in England, which is the price of half a Mars Bar a year. On an area basis the Forestry Commission’s costs per hectare for management are £60. The Woodland Trust costs are about £540 per hectare. Whatever way you look at it the Forestry Commission providing muti-purpose forestry including timber production, bio diversity conservation and improvement, and public access and recreation, represents excellent value for money especially when compared the the private sector. (Incidentally the private sector receive taxpayers cash in the form of woodland management grants and even then they can’t compete with the quantity and quality of the social, environmental and economic benefits offered by the Forestry Commission. Publicly owned forests should not be sold as access, bio diversity conservation and economic stability for the timber processing industry would be lost.

Ian Williams
1 March, 2011

I welcome the sell off of some woodland. My local areas of Thetford Forest are effectively closed as there is a £20 fee to park a minibus and the local bike hire also have to pass on a significant charge from the Forestry Commission on the the bike hire cost. In the last ten years I have run mountain biking skills sessions for hundreds of pupils that cannot afford the fees. There is no discount for schools, low incomes or providers like me that work with the most likely to be excluded from schools. Even in Winter on a school day, no discount. Thetford Forest appears to be run for the benefit and profit of the Forestry Commission. To hire their on-site classroom (built with public money) costs hundreds of pounds for a day. They behave is if they own the land and exclude the poor as there is no profit to be had from them.

The sell off would reduce their monopoly and put in place proper public access and diversity measures.

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