The government has retreated partially from its plans to end state ownership of 258,000 hectares of England's woodlands following a public outcry.
It has postponed plans to sell 15% of the public estate, but is refusing to scrap other proposals which include cutting down the role played by the Forestry Commission (FC), the government body that currently owns about 18% of England’s woodland, and opening up the forests to commercial operators.
These plans, outlined in a consultation from Defra, will see heritage forests, such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, taken over by charitable trusts, while commercially valuable woodlands will be leased to private companies.
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman says that Defra will press ahead with the proposals, but has promised to look again at the separate sale of up to 40,000 hectares of woodland.
The consultation paper invites views on a range of ownership and management options for the remaining 85% of the estate, and says that up to 130,000 hectares could be leased to commercial operators for at least 150 years.
“State control of forests dates back to the First World War, when needs were very different.
There’s now no reason for the government to be in the business of timber production and forest management,” explained Spelman.
Despite assurances from Defra that public access, restoration activities and biodiversity will be safeguarded, forestry bodies fear the changes could endanger woodlands.
"We don’t believe that the charitable sector can be the solution to the future care of all of the publicly owned heritage woodlands, as it will not have the resources to manage these for decades into the future without substantial and sustained government funding,” commented Sue Holden, chief executive at the Woodland Trust.
The environment department claims opening up the woodlands to commercial operators will generate significant receipts for the government.
However, a separate report from Defra and the FC says that leasing large-scale commercial sites will cost more than £678 million but only generate benefits worth £655.5 million.
The consultation document proposes that in the future the FC focuses only on responding to outbreaks of tree pests and diseases, regulating felling and setting standards for sustainable forest management.
It acknowledges that the commission will become much smaller as a result.
The organisation has already announced 400 job losses – one-third of its 1,200-strong workforce – because of reduced funding from Defra. About 300 jobs will be lost in England and at least 100 will go at the commission’s head office in Edinburgh.
8th March 2011