Sunday, 23 January 2011

Selling off the forests - or not? Is there a road through the woods?

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.
I must admit to not being especially bothered one way or the other about the future ownership of around 15% of England’s woodland. It seems to me that this is, in truth, a matter of little consequence in the reduction of debt or the elimination of deficit. And, while I understand the motives behind realising the woodland’s value and also see no good reason for the state owning large swathes of upland conifer forest, the proposal to consider disposal has turned into a cause célèbre. A letter from 100 celebrities and paid up members of the great and good sums up this cause:

“We, who love and use the English forests, believe that such a sale would be misjudged and shortsighted. It is our national heritage. We are an island nation yet more people escape to the forest than to the seaside.

“Our forests nurture countless species of native plants and wildlife. We have relied on them since time immemorial yet we are only a heartbeat in their history. We who know the value of the forests fear that over time, the public’s access to them will be limited and their protection, eroded.

“We, the undersigned, believe it unconscionable that future generations will not be able to enjoy the guarantee of a public forest estate.”

And the Telegraph, delighted that these famous folk have selected it rather than The Times or The Guardian has leapt enthusiastically onto the ‘Save our Forests’ bandwagon with an emotive piece about woodland as a ‘precious asset’ and appeals to David Cameron’s greenery. Indeed the whole debate is wrapped about with misinformation, misrepresentation and appeals to emotion rather than any rational or objective assessment of the issues involved.

Just look at the excerpt from the letter that I quoted above. I get all misty-eyed just reading it – it plays to my love of England, it talks of heritage and alludes to ancientness, to the mystery of the woods. And it’s a load of eyewash.

Nearly all of the Forestry Commissions woodland is recently planted upland commercial wood – which isn’t to say that it isn’t important and doesn’t contain lots of wildlife but is to say that it isn’t ‘ancient woodland’. Indeed, there is a public record of ancient woodland and, if you want, you can go and view it because Natural England has put all the maps on-line (a caveat here is that this excludes smaller woods – under 2ha). And the planning system in England also affords a degree of protection to such woodland:

Planning Policy Statement 9 (PPS9) states that local authorities should ‘identify any areas of ancient woodland in their areas that do not have statutory protection’ and normally ‘not grant planning permission for any development which would result in its loss or deterioration’.

Since this is a planning matter, the issue of ownership is not relevant – the planning authority can regulate and control activity within any ancient woodland. Plus of course access rights (on foot) to the woodland is also protected:

The CRoW Act also introduced the ability to voluntarily dedicate woodland for free public access in perpetuity. Since then, Forest Enterprise has dedicated the majority of the public forest estate in England. The total area of dedicated woodland in England is 137,000 Hectares.

So –regardless of future ownership – your and my rights to access the forest is guaranteed (unless a future government opts to repeal or reform the Countryside & Rights of Way Act).

To sum up then we are debating a change of ownership that will not change access rights, involves very little ancient woodland, doesn’t alter planning regulations and retains (even extends) regulatory oversight of woodland.  There may well be a strong case for retaining public ownership but it isn’t contained in the emotive arguments presented to counter the government’s proposals.

Instead of this emotional blackmail we could instead have a serious discussion that covers:

  • Whether the government should own young growth commercial woodland – this is a straightforward business better in the private sector and issues around leisure uses for these forests (and especially uses such as cycling, wild food foraging and horse riding) can be protected and encouraged through regulatory oversight or prescriptive covenant
  • How future management of ancient and old plantation woodland should be conducted – rather than being managed by a remote national body (that is really a logging business) would it not be better to transfer management to local authorities, create local trusts or transfer to the Woodland trust or similar?
  • What changes to planning regulations, rights of way and other property considerations might enhance the public value of woodland outwith the issue of ownership and, as importantly, how can we continue to balance competing interests and objectives (for example, nature conservancy versus rights to roam)?

This would be a sensible debate – one that might allow us to better appreciate the issues relating to England’s woodland and its conservation. Emotive nonsense about “our forests” may get you public sympathy and might get the government to change its plans. But it won’t result in better managed, more accessible and valued woodland.



marks said...

Good post. They should have you on the News ro balance the tree hugging loonies.

SadButMadLad said...

Considering the efficiency of the Forestry Commission any private company would be better than the current shower.

Kelvin said...

"So –regardless of future ownership – your and my rights to access the forest is guaranteed"

On foot only.

Cycling access is not protected at all, as shown by the gating up and banning of bikes on most forestry land sold off under the last government. Once woods are sold, landowners stop any public use other than walking, and even that is normally heavily restricted, by removal of car parks and stiles etc. There have been very few cases where this has not happened.

Private ownership of yet more forestry land will reduce access for the public, no doubt about it. The discussion should be about whether this is a price worth paying, we should not pretend or claim that access is not an issue as regards ownership.