Don't sell our woodland walks
The Government's proposals amount to the biggest change of land ownership in Britain since the Second World War, says Geoffrey Lean
By Geoffrey Lean
29 Oct 2010
Don't sell our woodland walks
The Government's proposals amount to the biggest change of land ownership in Britain since the Second World War, says Geoffrey Lean.
It is perhaps the most audacious, and controversial, sell-off ever contemplated – the privatisation of Britain's wild places. But no sooner have ministers' plans to dispose of forests and nature reserves begun to emerge, than they have run into serious trouble.
At first, it must have seemed so simple. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suffered one of the most savage chops of the Chancellor's axe in his spending review. So the temptation to cushion the blow, by flogging off assets, was surely irresistible.
Sure enough, as The Sunday Telegraph reported this week, ministers drew up plans to sell off half of the Forestry Commission's woodland. And they have been aiming to privatise at least some of England's 224 National Nature Reserves, the country's most important wildlife areas.
The proposals amount to the biggest change of land ownership in Britain since the Second World War, raising immediate concerns that protected woodlands would be felled to make way for golf courses, housing, adventure grounds and Center Parcs-style resorts. Vital wildlife sites would be compromised, it was feared, and private companies would be given the right to cut down trees in, for example, the New Forest, Sherwood and the Forest of Dean.
Local protests broke out. Business Secretary Vince Cable materialised from his wife's cottage in the New Forest to call for the area to be preserved as "a national resource". And, most embarrassing of all, the Welsh and Scottish administrations – who, under their devolved powers, are responsible for three quarters of the Forestry Commission's land – announced that they had no intention of privatising any, leaving only England's 258,000 hectares in play. Indeed, the plans seem to have been drawn up on the back of a recycled fag packet, perhaps discarded by Nick Clegg before coming out as a smoker on Desert Island Discs.
The Treasury has long lusted after selling off the Forestry Commission, originally formed after the First World War to guarantee a supply of pit props for the trenches. One serious attempt was made under John Major, dropped in the face of public opposition, and another was internally discussed in Labour's last years, only to be killed off by the then environment secretary, Hilary Benn.
Experts say it would need primary legislation at Holyrood, as well as Westminster, to clear the way for privatising the Commission – which, given the Scottish government's stance, is nowhere in prospect. So ministers have dropped the idea, concentrating instead just on selling much of the land. But even that is looking less and less attractive.
Officials have held talks with environmental bodies like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to try to persuade them to buy both woodlands and nature reserves, only to be told that they don't have much money and that – if they did – they would already be using it to buy land. In desperation, the Government has privately offered them to the organisations for free, only to be reminded that they cost money to run. The groups would be happy to accept the gifts if ministers paid for their upkeep, but that would rather defeat the object of the exercise.
Commercially, too, they're less attractive than first appears. Nature reserves are protected by British and European law. The Commission's last chairman – former Labour cabinet minister, Lord Clark – ensured that public access was granted "in perpetuity" over all its land. That greatly reduces its value, but would take a highly unpopular Act of Parliament to reverse.
Elderly, wealthy people could well be tempted, all the same, as forestry is exempt from inheritance tax – but the government would then lose income as a result. Pension funds might also be attracted but they, too, could get tax relief.
By yesterday, some of this had begun to sink in, not least in Downing Street. Instead of, as expected, announcing its ambitious sell-off plans, Defra issued a cautious statement pledging to "diminish public ownership" of forests while promising to "preserve their public benefits".
There is no reason why this could not be done, and done effectively. But unfortunately, the Government is also planning to emasculate Natural England, the very body whose job it would be to enforce that promise – and which protects the National Nature Reserves themselves. Under pressure, ministers make clear that they are, in part, punishing it for being too effective in criticising government in the past.
And, on Thursday, the Cabinet Office introduced a new Public Bodies Bill, enabling Whitehall to abolish or change bodies such as the Commission, without having to get full legislation through Parliament. Then it could be privatised – and public access to forests withdrawn – very much more easily. So this week's skirmishes may only be the start of a long, and bitter, war.
Government clears path for Forestry Commission sell-off plan
Proposals expected to provide a boost to the biomass energy sector, but green groups remain concerned over commercialisation of the countryside
James Murray, BusinessGreen, 29 Oct 2010
Environment Minister Jim Paice has today confirmed reports that the government is considering selling off the Forestry Commission, although she insisted strong safeguards would be put in place to protect biodiversity.
In an open letter to MPs, Paice said that the Public Bodies bill introduced in parliament today will allow the coalition to deliver a "modernisation of the forestry legislation".
"By including enabling powers in the bill we will be in a position to make reforms to managing the estate," he said. "We will consult the public on our proposals later this year and will invite views from a wide range of potential private and civil society partners on a number of new ownership options and the means to secure public benefits."
He added that the government intended to deliver a "managed programme of reform" that would result in "a new approach to ownership and management of woodlands and forests, with a reducing role for the state and a growing role for the private sector and civil society".
The decision has prompted concerns among environmental groups, which have characterised the move as an attempt to sell off some of the UK's most prized natural assets.
Speaking earlier this week, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, said the sale of forested land to private developers would represent "an unforgiveable act of environmental vandalism".
"Rather than asset-stripping our natural heritage, government should be preserving public access to it and fostering its role in combating climate change and enhancing biodiversity," she said.
However, Paice said the changes would have relatively little impact, stressing that the Forestry Commission's estate covers only 18 per cent of England's wooded areas and that safeguards would be put in place to protect biodiversity.
"We will not compromise the protection of our most valuable and biodiverse forests," he said in the letter. "Full measures will remain in place to preserve the public benefits of woods and forests under any new ownership arrangements.
"Tree felling is controlled through the licensing system managed by the Forestry Commission. Public rights of way and access will be unaffected, statutory protection for wildlife will remain in force and there will be grant incentives for new planting that can be applied for," he added.
It is hoped that the reforms could lead to a major boost to the UK's biomass sector, by encouraging landowners and renewable energy firms to expand managed forests to produce fuel for biomass plants.
According to recent figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, just 10 per cent of UK forests are managed, resulting in a huge untapped resource that could be developed in a sustainable manner.
A spokesman for Defra said the department planned to launch a consultation exercise on the plans before the end of the year.
He also downplayed fears that the move would lead to increased felling of forests, noting that the existing Wildlife and Countryside Act and the Town and Country Planning Act would ensure high levels of protection for existing forests.