The government's forest sell-off policy is unthought out, undemocratic and unnecessary. It was not included in either Coalition party manifesto, nor was it debated at election-time. Today, this policy will be forced to the vote in the House of Commons. It should be defeated, for it is ill-considered and has all the hallmarks of a sell-out to benefit the interests of the rich.
The Forestry Commission is outstanding value at £10 million; it is the dogma of the current government that the state should not be involved in running forests. Today the Forestry Commission does a very good job of balancing the environmental, economic and leisure aspects of our forests. It has a legacy of past forest practice to overcome, such as the rows of rigid pine plantations in the uplands. It takes 50 to 100 years for a plantation to mature so it takes many years for such actions to be erased. In future, as we try and move to a more sustainable economy, we may decide we can not afford to import as much timber as we do now.
Changing forestry policy and acting on it is a long-term project that requires careful management and co-ordination. There is no guarantee that a piecemeal sell-off will continue this co-ordination and balancing of needs. It is just as likely to lead to more ugly, commercial monoculture that is environmentally and spiritually degrading. The Conservative manifesto makes no mention of selling off our forests. It now seems that 84 per cent of the people of this country are opposed to this policy.
In the light of the protest this proposal has aroused, it is now being suggested that bodies such as the National Trust and charities should run forests such as the New Forest and Forest of Dean. This will require funding, which rather beggars the question as to whether any money will be saved and what advantage there is in losing the experienced teams that have, for example, run the Forest of Dean; evidently so successfully, given the public opposition this Sell Off has aroused.
The Lords is considering an amendment to the Public Bodies Bill which is intended to save the Royal Forest of Dean from its worst excesses. This forest is unique because, despite encroachments within the statutory forest boundary and assarts that go back almost 1,000 years, the community has never acquired rights within it. Without these rights, those who live in the Forest of Dean are, as the late Lord McNair said, "uniquely disadvantaged and therefore uniquely endangered" by a power of disposal. Foresters rely on customary privileges, and it is because of the Forestry Commission's respect for these that inhabitants and visitors are able to enjoy recreational activities and the running of sheep. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 falls well short of what the Forestry Commission has traditionally permitted. It is worth quoting Sir Harold Macmillan, musing about a previous Tory administration: "First, all the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon." Are we now selling off the garden?
It would seem so; woodland is Inheritance Tax free so it is unlikely that the public purse will benefit from the sale of these assets. There are further fears that private ownership will restrict access (there is nothing in the law to prevent this) or that private forestry may damage wildlife or archaeological features in the persuit of private profit. This concern is strong in the uplands where the most profitable forestry are the ranks of dark and gloomy sitka.
If the Coalition is serious, it has to address these concerns, particularly in the light of its promises to be the “greenest ever” government. It could simply remove the Forestry Commission from the burden of an economic duty and charge it to replant our uplands with more mixes of larch, pine, fir and broadleaves for a sustainable building industry of the future on sites such as lowland heathland, our broadleaved forests and key sites of wildness or natural value in the uplands.
Selling our forests raises nothing, it seems, for the exchequer, while scratching the back of corporate interests - some of whom fund the Conservative party. What about the Big Society and themes such as common ownership, participation and responsibility?
The government should return with better proposals as to how communities can truly own their "commons", guaranteeing public access, timber production and the strategic obligations of our international commitments to our wildlife. "Selling It Off" is not the way forward.
There is a further analysis of government strategy by Jonathon Porritt here.
Find out here how to sign the petition 'Save our Forests' launched by the organisation 38 Degrees and ask your MPs to vote against the government's forest policy.
Peter Crispin Hack is a member of the Hands Off Our Forests campaign.