Friday, January 28, 2011

England's Public Forest Estate.

Now I have to admit that my Coalition Government's proposal to transfer from public ownership the Public Forest Estate in England was (how shall I put this) not my favourite policy, when I first considered it. And I've received a mighty stack of letters and cards opposing any change in the current arrangements. This has instigated me to look a bit more carefully than I might otherwise have done at what is actually proposed.

First point to make is that about 82% of England's forest area is already privately owned, and as far as I know has not attracted accusations of being vandalised by private ownership. In fact it cannot be so vandalised because it's subject to Forestry Commission regulation. This will continue. Most of the woods and forest that I love and walk in have always been privately owned.

Another point worth making is that its only the parts of Forestry Commission land that are currently managed commercially will be transferred to commercial operators, and by long term lease as an additional safeguard to ensure that the public can continue to enjoy any benefit that currently exists.

Next point is that what are termed 'heritage forests' (Forest of Dean or the New Forest for example) will be transferred (ownership or some form of management) to new or existing charitable organisations, creating opportunities for community or civil society groups to buy or lease forests they wish to manage. It will be interesting what responses emerge in the consultation process.

It is proposed that the Forestry Commission will continue to play an important role through its regulatory, grant-giving, research and expert advisory roles. What it will no longer be doing is regulating an industry where it is itself the largest player.

Now none of this cuts any ice at all with Peter Oborne in today's Telegraph. It may well not cut any ice with the 100 plus people who have written to me objecting - though before they could have seen the Coalition Government's proposals, which were published on Thursday. I've not written this post to be a defence of the Coalition Government's proposals, but to try to ensure the debate is based on what the Coalition Government, rather than what its thought that it proposes. Even though this does not impact on my constituency of Montgomeryshire, I may well want to contribute if and when this issue is debated on the floor of the House of Commons.

1 comment:

the outsider said...

It was Gordon Brown who announced that the Government's Forest landholdings would be sold. He made the public announcement on that fateful day when he and Darling gave a press conference to announce plans to deal with the banking crisis and huge government deficit, so it would have been in the immediate aftermath of the Lehman bankruptcy. The Forestry Commission has always been able to sell of parts of the state owned land holding but this sell-off was intended to be the complete national holding. There was no public consultation. Most government owned Forestry land had, I believe, been dedicated as public access land under the so called right to roam idea, ie.the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. So walkers rights should be protected. Huw Iranica Davies was the Minister for Forestry at this time and Hilary Benn was the Defra Secretary of State. There was some urgency for the Treasury to get money in fast before the 2010 election, given the size of the deficit and the plans the Labour Government had to dole out money to some of the constituencies were it wanted to bribe the electorate. So in March 2010, circa 200 acres of woodland next to my farm in Sussex was sold for £500,000 to a private landowner, and without any public advertisement or notification to the local community or parish council, BHS or any one at all. The people in this village had, for as long as anyone can remember, enjoyed riding, walking and cycling in this area of woodland, there is a prima facie case for a bridleway from one side to the other as it connects two old lanes to the south of the village and has always been used. The new owner has put up fencing and locked gates, notices saying access can be had by licence but giving no contact telephone number or address, and trees have been felled in what amounts to obstructions to some of the old tracks. This is what has happened and people in Wales should take note. However be in no doubt that it was a Welsh Labour Minister who allowed this to happen.

the outsider