Public interest in the proposed sell-off of the public forest estate in England has been high; fuelled by considerable media interest (see my previous post about this).
This week the (uncorrected) minutes of a meeting of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, held at the House of Commons on 16th November, were published. Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, faced questions about the proposed sale of the public forest estate in England, currently owned by the Forestry Commission.
Some details emerged, as well as some confusion. Here are the highlights:
- The Department of the Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) plan to make savings of £100 million pounds. Mrs Spelman said “That is largely made up of the planned sequential sales of the forestry estate, which have gone on since, as far as I can tell, the beginning of time, including in each of the years of the last Government.”
- The capital raised from the sell off can be put to anything that the Government see as a priority: flood defenses were mentioned as an example.
- Mrs Spelman said “Well I think once again there’s been a lot of media speculation about forestry, and I think there are a couple of really important points to emphasise. We’ve had to do quite a bit of myth busting in this area. Only 18% of forest and woodland in England is publicly owned, so we are talking about quite a small percentage. Historically, year on year Defra has disposed of hectares of forestry. Just going back to 2000, 406 hectares, 2001, 97 hectares, the reason for these differences is to do with market conditions; last year 1,100 hectares. The yield from that is what we are hoping to recover, and we are allowed to keep by the Treasury, as long as we redeploy it for other capital projects. It will depend on market conditions as it always has done, this is not a new practice.”
- When asked about the values realised from recent sales, Mrs Spelman replied “It was £13.5 million for 1,100 hectares sold.”
- The Secretary of State was keen to dispel some of the myths saying “I think it’s very important for the sake of public understanding that there’s a distinction between commercial forestry and what I would call heritage forestry. So to suggest or raise any speculation that we’re just about to build a golf course all over the New Forest is ludicrous, quite frankly. That is heritage estate; commercial estates are what we all know of as plantations, largely, of timber. Sequentially over time, including by the previous Government, this has been sold to realise that asset. So there is a distinction.”
- Committee member Richard Drax asked “You are committed to selling off parts of the Forestry Commission’s estate, and we know that. In oral questions you said one advantage of that would be that “community and civil society are most likely to give it”-that’s the forest-“the best protection”. What evidence is there for that statement?”
– Mrs Spelman replied by explaining that local communities and interest groups would get involved and that this would fit with the Government’s vision of a Big Society.
– Mr Drax pushed her further by asking “ Which is all well meaning, but how are they going to manage it as well as the Forestry Commission do now? In the sense that they’ve got their own lives to lead, they’re all busy people and suddenly they’ve got a great lump of forestry to maintain, which takes a lot of work.
– The short discussion that followed questioned who could manage these under contract. Major NGOs such as the Woodland Trust were mentioned [although I’ve heard from them that they can’t afford to take this on!].
- Finally, the Chair realised “So your consultation[referring to a public consultation planned for early 2011] is actually going on before we’ve got the legal basis for the sale.”
– Dame Helen Gosh then explained the Public Bodies Bill should lead to an act that would make these and future sales possible.
– The Chair then stated “That’s a onceandforall legislative permit, that you will never again as a Department have to come back for future sales of forestry or such?”
– Peter Unwin: “That is the intention.”
– Mrs Spelman: “The Public Bodies Bill is an enabling Bill on the reform of a wide range of arm’s-length bodies.”
– Chair: “So you will never, ever again have to come and ask permission?”
– Mrs Spelman: “We should not have to, no.”
– Chair: “so this is our one and only chance?”
– Mrs Spelman: “The disposal of the public forest estate is possible under existing legislation-”
– Dame Helen Ghosh: “Yes.”
- One of the most interesting emerging ideas and phrases in my view is the divergence between ‘heritage’ and ‘commercial’ forestry: – the term ‘heritage forestry’ being new to me. Clearly the Government are keen to distiguish between the crown jewels of Britains woodlands such as the Forest of Dean, and our commercial forests such as Kielder or Thetford.
- Capital raised from the sell-off will go into other areas of the Defra’s portfolio – with flood defenses appearing as a favourite.
- The sell-off is being planned although it is not yet legal or possible, and before the public have been consulted.
- There seems to be a notion that the Big Society will come into play with communities and NGOs taking on these forests. This doesn’t really fit with the Government’s admission that most of the likely sold-off areas will be the ‘commercial’ and not the ‘heritage’ woodlands. I can’t imagine a local community wanting to invest in a wall-to-wall coniferous forest. Concern about the quality of the management under private hands may be over-played as the private sector is very capable. However, the wider community’s involvement via the Big Society may be a different matter. And, how will these new groups afford to contract the FC, or the private sector, to provide advice and practical management of these woodlands to the world-leading standards exemplified by the Forestry Commission?
You can read the full transcript here.