31. 01. 2011

Forest Sell-Off: New Wrapping Same Poisonous Proposal

On Thursday last week, Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State at DEFRA, released the consultation paper on selling off the Public Forest Estate in England. Here’s how I see it:

1. The campaign against the sell-off has already achieved some notable successes
2. This has forced the Government to try and get much smarter about the sell-off
3. This consultation is little more than a sophisticated smoke screen
4. There’s still all to play for.

The proposals that they are consulting on are simply explained:

• Ideally, Government would like to take the totality of the Public Forest Estate (all 285,000 hectares) out of public ownership.
• If possible, they intend to create some new not-for-profit organisations to own and manage both the “heritage forests” (such as the Forest to Dean and the New Forest) and smaller, “local” woodlands with special conservation value.
• They want to get rid of the rest via long leases sold to the private sector
• They will apparently undertake to maintain the Forestry Commission’s current arrangements on access and biodiversity via conditions in these long leases
• They would like to see the Forestry Commission converted into a straight regulator of all forestry enterprises in England.

To be fair, that is indeed somewhat different from what they first wanted to do, which was to sell of the lot at the best possible price into the private sector. And this was seen explicitly as part of its ideological drive to shrink the size of the State.

But I hope people aren’t going to be fooled by these apparent concessions. The basic intent is still exactly the same: privatise one the country’s most cherished public assets.

Which means that people shouldn’t get too diverted by the consultation. The focus should instead be on the Public Bodies Bill, currently going through Parliament. If this goes through unamended, it will allow the Government to do what it really wants to do whenever it’s most convenient for them.

So just imagine the following timeline. This spurious consultation will conclude sometime in the summer; the Public Bodies Act will be on the Statute Book by the autumn. The Government can then start formally negotiating with private forestry companies regarding long leases. But, surprise, surprise, they decide not to play ball because they can’t make it work commercially. So this time next year, Mrs Spelman “regretfully” informs Parliament that the leasehold proposal hasn’t worked, and they are going to have to sell off the freeholds after all. Bit of an uproar, but there’s sod all our sad MPs can do about it – as Mrs Spelman herself confirmed in her appearance before the EFRA Select Committee:

Chair of EFRA Committee: “So that’s a once and for all legislative permit that you will never again as a Department have to come back for future sales of forestry or such?”

DEFRA Civil Servant: “That is the intention.”

Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: “The Public Bodies Bill is an enabling Bill on the reform on a wide range of arm’s-length bodies.”

Chair of EFRA Committee: “So you’ll never, ever again have to come and ask permission?”

Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: “We should not have to, no.”

Chair of EFRA Committee: “So this is our one and only chance?”

DEFRA Civil Servant: “Yes.”


Does that sound a bit paranoid? Possibly, but stick to the basic intent: reduce the size of the State. Which means getting the Public Forest Estate out of Public Ownership by hook or by crook.

All the rest is flim-flam. All the “Big Society” guff in the Consultation about community ownership is just window dressing. A few thousand hectares might indeed end up as community-owned and managed (or NGO-owned and managed), but so what? They won’t be managed any better than the Forestry Commission manages them today, and most users won’t feel any more or less enthusiastic or empowered than they do today.

And all the Consultation’s warm words on securing the same levels of access and biodiversity benefits that the Forestry Commission delivers today borders on the dishonest. Will they really enforce all the Forestry Commission’s permissive access agreements on any potential leaseholders? I don’t think so. Will they really obliged potential leaseholders to maintain existing FSC certification on every hectare, as is the case today? I don’t think so.

Good try, Mrs Spelman, but not good enough.

Which is why there is still all to play for in terms of killing off this scheme stone dead. Astonishingly, more than 250,000 people have now signed up to the 38 Degrees petition against the sell-off, 20,000 of whom have now emailed their MPs to get them focussed on the Public Bodies Bill and not be distracted by yet another tokenistic consultation.

In that regard, it’s worth pointing out that all this has been achieved without a single one of our big environmental NGOs having even flexed their muscles. And that in itself is a very interesting issue – to which I will return next time.


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31. 01. 2011
Barbara Foster

Well said! I am completely outraged by the manner in which this proposed sell off is being buried in a couple of clauses in a much larger Bill (with a vague title) as well as being immeasurably distressed by the proposed sell off itself. This is idealogical vandalism on a grand scale given that the purported savings are a drop in the ocean even in the context of the deficit. It cannot be said to be in the national interest in even the narrowest sense. Transferring the costs of "Heritage Forests" to charitable trusts who must themselves be feeling the pinch can only be described as chicanery - and tinkering round the edges of the proposal.Only members of the Woodland Trust and the National Trust et al will bear the cost of management of public land originally bought with and still maintained with public money. We own the land and nowhere in any election manifesto was the sale of this public asset mentioned! The consultation makes it clear that all the estate is up for sale - even the new National Forest, a wonderful asset near me - which seems to think it has been spared. I do wish that the notion that all tax is bad could be altered - as someone has said - taxation is a sign of civilisation - or words to that effect.

Have written to my MP - not even an email acknowledgement, never mind a reply, done the "consultation" and have signed the petitions -but am not sanguine about the prospects of success. WIth 84% of the public against the sale according to a national poll how can this be called a democracy in anyone's interpretation of the word.

01. 02. 2011
Ian Savage

Although the full details of the new Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) have not been issued. we should note that the primary fuel which will increasingly become important in the increase in heat from renewable sources is wood.

Perhaps the government can see the wood from the tree's after all?

Although I am a strong supporter of using wood to heat homes, I am concerned that the sell off of our forests will be exploited as the demand for wood increases, and the management of these forests will become more associated with a business. Depleting another valuable natural resource.

02. 02. 2011
Philippa Roberts

As I understand it, permissive routes are just that. It is entirely up to the current owners of land about whether or not they allow the public access via permissive routes. This isn't passed from owner to owner.

Just because the Forestry Commission allows public access it doesn't mean a private owner will. Unless it is a designated public right of way, we will lose the access. And even if it has legal status, such as CROW land, if local authorities do not have the money to prosecute, then there will be no one else to protect our access rights. Public rights of way is already suffering from the cuts - I think it highly unlikely money will suddenly be found to enforce our rights.

05. 02. 2011

Come on Jonathon - spill the beans on the NGOs and why they are keeping quiet. Perhaps self interest is more important to them than doing the right thing?

06. 02. 2011
Frank Baynham

I was in the front row at MP Mark Harper's public meeting on Friday last, 4th February 2011. Given the circumstances the audience was extremely courteous and respectful and did listen carefully to his delivery of the party line. However in response to a question I asked him he confirmed that the "Consultation" on disposal of Forests was based on the acceptance of the assumption of the "dismantling of the Public Forest Estate in England and the separation of its ownership and/or management from public control". If the Public Bodies Bill is allowed to become law, the consultation and any public opposition to disposal of our forests would be irrelevant. We must raise the profile and oppose the passage of this draconian Public Bodies Bill in all its stages.

07. 02. 2011

Thank you for this. I've been waiting to be asked to contribute to charities' fighting funds or to campaigns to purchase local woods and- Nothing! I'm particularly disappointed that the objections centre around access for leisure pursuits. As usual the focus is people-centred and anything wild is only of value if a human can do something with it. Personally, I think that the more woods and forests that are left alone the better

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