Protecting the Public Forest Estate: Now!

The battle for Britain's forests hots up, this is a detailed account of how they can be saved for the public rather than fixed up by special interests.
Jonathon Porritt
16 February 2011

Ten days ago, I posted a blog which was more than a little critical of the “Big 10” environmental NGOs in terms of their failure to campaign against the Government’s proposed sell-off of the Public Forest Estate. Most have now responded with varying degrees of anger, indignation and sheepishness. And I have to admit, they’ve raised a lot of important points.

But I’m afraid that they are still ignoring the big picture – namely, the future wellbeing of the whole of the Public Forest Estate. They’ve mostly declared themselves to be “agnostic” as to who actually owns forests and woodlands here in the UK, just so long as they are being properly managed in terms of access, biodiversity and other public benefits. I still find this unbelievably naive.

The EU average for publicly-owned forests and woodlands is around 35% of the total forested area. We are already down at 18% here in England. (By the way, that 18% represents a full 50% of the woodlands that are open to public access). So we’re already in a dire situation here in England, which will be made a great deal worse if the Government’s current proposal goes through. That’s what I mean by seeing the big picture – rather than the particular issues associated with particular kinds of woodlands and forests.

And I’m afraid that that indicates that our NGOs have fallen into the Government’s trap of “divide and dismember”. They’ve segmented the Public Forest Estate into four categories – as a crude but effective way of directing attention away from the Public Forest Estate as a whole. Here’s the breakdown in the consultation:

Large Commercial Forests – roughly 25% of the total.
Small Commercial Forests – between 20 and 25% of the total.
Multi-Purpose Forests – between 20 and 25% of the total.
Heritage and Community – between 25% and 30% of the total.

The Government’s game plan has been to get people used to the idea of the Large Commercial forests going straight to the private sector, and as much as possible of the Heritage and Community category going either to existing NGOs or to newly-designated, “Big Society” organisations.

This latter plan is not going so well. Even the Government’s most optimistic assumption on that score is that no more than 15,000 hectares of woodland and forest will transfer over in that way – no more than a quarter of the Heritage and Community category.

So that still leaves all the Small Commercial and all the Multi-Purpose Forests, together with 75% of the Heritage and Community Forests and Woodlands to be “sorted” – amounting to somewhere between 60% and 70% of the total hectarage of 258,000 hectares.

It’s that bit in the middle which hasn’t received anything like as much attention as the story about commercial forestry and the very well-known “Heritage Forests” such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean. Yet it’s here that people’s real loyalties and affections lie – which explains the outcry from so many different local campaigns from all around the country.

Once we lose the idea of an integrated forest estate, under a single management regime, we lose a lot – including the opportunity to cross-subsidise the non-commercial forests through timber sales from the commercial forests, to achieve consistently high standards across the whole hectarage (as with the 100% Forestry Stewardship Council accreditation, compared to a miserable 18% on privately-managed forests), to share knowledge and experience, to undertake research, manage disease, build professional competencies, use equipment and machinery more efficiently, and to develop national campaigns (for instance, promoting physical activity in partnership with public health bodies) as a way of demonstrating what sustainable development means in practice. Very little of that will be possible once the Estate as a whole has been dismembered.

In short, the Public Forest Estate is so much more than the sum of its parts.

So what have our NGOs got to say about this rather more holistic approach? Not a lot – apparently because they believe that the Government really will be able to impose access and biodiversity conditions on any new owners and managers. But that will still leave a massively weakened and stripped-down Forestry Commission to go on managing the rest. Without any of the revenues it currently gets from the commercial forests. Without the big Heritage Forests which provide the seedbed for innovative, community-led management practices.

What kind of a deal is this in reality? The NGOs will get to cherry pick up to 15,000 hectares of heathland, remnant ancient woodlands and a few other “special woodlands”, whilst the remaining 245,000 hectares is split up and put permanently at risk from this point on.

This is a wretched trade-off. Our national NGOs must start thinking nationally – and it is peculiar for me to see both the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail instructing them in how to do this. They have got to put their own narrow interests to one side, and think about the national interest as represented by the Public Forest Estate as a whole.

Let’s be clear about this. If any of these NGOs, however big and however ‘cherished’ by their sizeable memberships, lets the Government off the hook by doing deals behind closed doors to secure a few ‘crown jewels’ for themselves, whilst ignoring the national interest, they will indeed stand accused of outright betrayal.

Please don’t get me wrong here: I’m no apologist for the Forestry Commission. There is so much more that the FC could be doing about biodiversity and habitat restoration. And it is by no means perfect in terms of the way woodlands are managed all across the country. But the transformation the Forestry Commission has undergone over the last 15 years has been seriously impressive, and to have people like Simon Jenkins of the National Trust describe the Forestry Commission as a “Stalinist organisation” is simply ridiculous.

So my simple suggestion for the Big 10 is this: start all over again, but urgently. Develop a joint position to maximise the massive leverage that your collective membership still commands.

Then approach Mrs Spelman with a deal: if she withdraws the relevant clauses in the Public Bodies Bill, you will hold back from launching a national, joint, high-profile campaign to oppose the current proposals root and branch – in effect, to take on some of the heavy-lifting that has been carried so far by 38 Degrees and some brilliant local campaigns.

In return, you offer to work with Defra, the Forestry Commission and representatives of local action groups to come up with some genuinely radical proposals on how best to improve and extend the Public Forest Estate, how best to involve community groups, NGOs and the private sector, how best to turn the turgid rhetoric about the “Big Society” into a living, breathing blueprint for sustainable forestry in the UK over the next 20/30 years.

And this might well include creative ideas about different patterns of ownership, different ways of optimising public benefit, and indeed different ways of improving the conditions of the 60% of privately owned woodlands in England that are already poorly managed from a commercial point of view and are providing zero public benefit.

This is what the public wants. As the NGOs know only too well, Defra Ministers have refused to acknowledge the findings of the comprehensive public consultation carried out by the Forestry Commission in 2009. This revealed overwhelming support for the direction that the Forestry Commission has already adopted (in terms of promoting multi-functional forestry), and for extending, not dismembering, the Public Forest Estate – as an integrated public asset. Proof of this support is best seen in terms of the 50 million people visits per annum – more visits than to the seaside!

Everyone, (including NGOs and, more and more MPs and Ministers) can now see that the Government’s proposals are simply absurd. They will end up costing the taxpayer more money rather than saving money – and how many people really feel that the 30p we each pay every year to maintain the Forestry Commission is such a “shocking waste of public money”? The proposals will not improve the overall ecological condition of our forests, and will do nothing to improve the status of our ancient woodlands. They will diminish the pool of professional skills and expertise available to all forest owners in England, and they will weaken the kind of regulatory standards and effective disease control on which good, sustainable forestry still depends.

It’s a complete mess at the moment. Our NGOs have the opportunity, the skills and the influencing “muscle” to dig the Government out of the pit it has so foolishly cast itself into, whilst regaining some of their lost credibility.

And in the process, it will remind Ministers that the Green Movement is still a force to be reckoned with.

(38degrees is still gathering signatures for its increasingly influential petition. Whilst we wait for the Big 10 to get their act together, this is still where the action is – so please get everyone you can to get signed up!).

Cross-posted from Jonathon Porritt's blog

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