UK Forest Sell-Off

by David Murray on 27 January 2011

in Environment, Forestry

Today the British government’s Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, unveiled her proposed plans for selling considerable amounts of state-owned forest land or, as it turns out, selling long-term leases.  In the run-up to this announcement there has been a considerable volume of speculation as to what would be involved, with wild guesses in all directions often presented as though they were known fact.

A few days ago I tweeted to the effect that I had not yet made up my mind about what should and should not be done. Now I want to make a few points, some of which may be controversial among my readers, and arrive at a conclusion that is highly likely to satisfy no-one.

Firstly, it should be remembered that the document released today is a consultative paper. It is not the last word.  (At least the present government is consulting, which is more than the previous one did when starting the sell-off process  – more than 30,000 acres already gone by my calculation).

Secondly, whenever change is proposed in any policy area songs of praise to the existing public bodies inevitably seem to be triggered.  Well just think back to the environmental desecration of vast swathes of formerly beautiful hillside by the existing Forestry Commission.  What about its monocultural acres of straight up and down conifers?  Granted, it eventually saw the light, and has more recently been trying to atone for some of the worst of its sins, but let’s take off the rose-tinted spectacles. Neither has the Commission’s record on access always been as pure as driven snow. So let’s keep a balance.

Yes, heritage woodland has to be preserved. Yes, rights of access need to be protected in what have developed as popular recreational areas. As a native of Cumbria, and currently living close to Sherwood Forest, I’m in no doubt about these two points.   However, even under the existing regime it is inevitable that from time to time there would be changes; forests, after all, are living and therefore changing entities.  But also, on the other side of the argument, there are forest areas which owe their existence solely to the commercial production of timber, and these need to be managed professionally in an economically viable manner.  This is not a single-issue policy area; it has many strands.

Another factor, of which I’ve heard less mention, is the current crazy situation in which the Commission is both operator and regulator – a serious conflict of interest that should never have been allowed to develop in the first place. It’s rather like Ofcom running a TV station, or Ofsted managing schools and assessing its own performance. This is something that must be changed.

So where do I stand on all this? I still don’t yet know. I need to read the consultative document carefully and thoughtfully, and then make up my mind.  It is no virtue to jump to prejudiced, doctrinaire, ill-informed conclusions before digesting the proposals, the facts and the arguments.

The consultation document can be downloaded from the Defra site here.

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