In response to global concerns around deforestation, and its contribution to climate change, the United Nations has declared 2011 the ‘International Year of Forests‘, to raise awareness of conservation issues.
With some irony, the UK coalition Government has chosen 2011 to suggest a large-scale change to the way the English Public Forest Estate (PFE) is managed (the forests of Scotland and Wales are managed separately and this proposal doesn’t cover them). As many readers will already be aware (if activity on Facebook is anything to go by), the Government proposes to sell off the forest land comprising the PFE to private bodies for regulated management. This they aim to do through a staged process: first refusal for the lands currently under State control will go to charitable bodies. If charities cannot be found who are willing or able to take on the management of the land, then the State will look to ‘local community groups’. Failing sufficient uptake by such groups, any remaining land will be put on the open market for commercial sale.
In all cases, the Government assure us that proper management within set restriction on use and development will be a condition of sale. In all cases as well, some funding support will be offered by Government over the initial period until the new arrangement becomes self-funding.
At present, the remaining forested/wooded area of England totals 1,189,000 hectares. Of this area, 18%, or one fifth, is in State ownership and is managed by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), via the Forestry Commission.
The Public Forest Estate totals 258,000 hectares, or 638,000 acres, much of which is commercially viable forest managed primarily for timber production, regularly harvested and replanted. It also includes a number of ‘heritage’ sites and forests of particular interest, such as the New Forest and the remnants of Sherwood, with the remainder being what the Forestry Commission classifies as ‘multipurpose’ forest, suitable for commercial activity and recreational development. The Forestry Commission maintains biodiversity and conservation as key priorities in all these areas.
The Government presents its proposals as part of its commitment to the ‘Big Society’ – the Coalition’s stated aim to devolve control to local communities and reduce centralised governmental authority over people’s daily lives. “Big Society, not Big Government” is the vision. Selling the PFE into private ownership, the Government argues, is the best way to give local communities more control over their local forest areas.
Concerns have been raised, some passionate. Many people (and I share the worry) perceive the proposals as a sure-fire route to the demolition of forests to make way for commercial developments. They fear the land being sold to Faceless Monolithic Corporations; that the moment the sale goes through, Certain All-Conquering Supermarket Chain™ will bulldoze Rendlesham Forest and put Yet Another Extra Store down on it (and with due apology here to any readers who might work for said Chain™). I think this is a valid point, although the Government and the Forestry Commission* specifically state that the new owners, whoever they are, will be required to adhere to a set, monitored standard of behaviour.
Conservation bodies have been more cautious in their reaction. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, funded by charity, has pointed out that it, along with other conservation bodies, already privately owns forest; so it isn’t necessarily the case that private ownership means inevitable loss of the forest land, or of public access to it. The main concern of such organisations about the proposals seems to be ‘fragmentation’ – the transfer of single bodies of woodland to multiple owners. This would make it more difficult, they suggest, to properly monitor and manage biodiversity across such areas.
Some people have accused the Government – engaged as it is in a programme of massive (and fiercely debated) cuts in public spending – of seeing nothing in the PFE land but pound signs: they’re trying to flog off the land to make some quick cash. If a private company would be interested in purchasing and working the commercially viable forest, can the State not work that land for similar profit?
In addition, a question has been raised around the political concept of ‘ownership’. The Coalition asserts that selling the land into private ownership is the best way of returning it to the control of the people: local groups should be able to manage the forests according to the wishes of local people. Some disagree, and point out that a forest – particularly the naturally occurring, historical forests – doesn’t belong specifically to local people, but to all the people. And inasmuch as the State represents ‘all the people’ in a democracy, those forests should not be anywhere other than in State ownership.
Finally, a question of efficiency: the Coalition suggests that a cut-down Forestry Commission (a Deforested Commission?) would remain to supervise and regulate the new private owners. If this is so, then the sell-off is in effect doing little but creating a three-layer regulatory system for the PFE land (Government – Forestry Commission – Private Owner), rather than the two-layer system currently in place. This does not seem much of an improvement in terms of efficiency.
This week, a joint DEFRA/Forestry Commission consultation opened, inviting concerned citizens to submit their views in relation to the sell-off. The consultation response form can be found via either of these two sites (both agencies have information pages about the consultation, both link to the same online response form):
The consultation opened on 27 January 2011 and will run for twelve weeks.
Readers will likely notice that the consultation paper asks a number of questions relating to the way in which the proposed sell-off would be carried out, but does not directly ask whether the respondent believes it should occur at all. In fact, this appears to be the second consultation on ‘the future of the Public Forest Estate’. The first apparently took place in 2009, with little evident fanfare, and seems to address more general questions about the PFE. The results of that survey can be found in PDF format HERE.
I’ve said before that I don’t want to use this site as my personal soapbox, so I’ve tried to be as objective as I can above, although I’ve no doubt that I’ve failed, and that my bias on this issue is quite clear. To declare myself for the record, I’m opposed to the principle of the private ownership of forest, no matter how well-meaning the body the land is sold to. In fact, I would prefer to see more rural and wild land brought into public ownership than see any sold off, simply because the State is comparatively less subject to market pressures. It might seek to make the land as self-financing as possible, but it needn’t constantly chase ever-increasing profits to satisfy directors and shareholders. In addition, expecting charities to take on greater expenses and responsibilities at a time when many people are experiencing deep financial difficulties seems counter-productive. While the British have a proud record of giving, even in hard times, there is a practical limit to the charity of even the most generous person.
Those are my concerns. You may share them or you may not. You may think I’m talking total codswallop or that I’ve completely misunderstood the situation. Either way, I suggest you might take a few moments to look over the two websites and follow one or the other link to the online survey. Tell them what you think, whatever that may be.
* Yes, it could be argued that they’re the same thing. But the Forestry Commission does have some independence from the Government itself, and so is a limited shield against political pressures as well.