More questions about the public forest sell-off

The proposed sale legal_forestof the public forest estate in England continues to cause problems for the coalition Government as public disquiet continues to grow, media interest does not appear to be fading, and more and more issues come to light.

I wrote about some of these in a recent post.

Here are some more questions and important facts:

Safeguarding public benefits?
There has been much said by ministers about safeguarding public benefits when woodlands are sold:

  • A key issue is securing a right of access on foot.  Who is going to enforce this?  The public are welcomed into Forestry Commission woodland but there are many ways a new owner can discourage access, e.g. by closing car parks and by failing to keep paths open.
  • As a “section 28G authority”  the Forestry Commission has a legal obligation to consider conservation but a private owner does not have the same obligation.
  • Some people think that by placing conditions of sale on Forestry Commission woodlands, these public benefits can be safeguarded after sale.  The problem with this is that the more conditions that are placed on a woodland before sale, the less valuable it becomes.  Also …
  • Many conditions will only apply to the first new owner, but not to subsequent purchasers when the woodland is sold on.  A restrictive covenant may be an appropriate tool to safeguard public benefit.  If land is sold adjoining a retained property it is possible to restrict its use to protect it.  However, if a nearby asset is not retained, then the covenant is unlikely to be unenforceable in court.
  • Furthermore, positive covenants even if worded as restrictive covenants can only be enforced against the first purchaser.   They are therefore unenforceable beyond the contract between the seller and the first purchaser.

45 percent of the public forest estate is located in high priority public benefit areas

  • The area of Forestry Commission land within National Parks in England is 80,240 ha (31% of the public forest estate in England).
  • The area of Forestry Commission land within Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) in England is 35,234 ha (14% of the public forestry estate in England).
  • So the combined area of public forest estate within AONBs and National Parks is therefore 115,474 ha (45%).
  • Is the Government including this 45% of the public forest estate in their proposed sell-off?  If it is not, perhaps because it deems these to be priority areas for preserving public benefit delivery, then it will be selling very much less than has been presumed in announcements to date (£100 million plus a further 45,000 ha).

Saving money?

  • Is the sell-off about raising money to pay off the budget deficit in England?  Presumably the answer is yes, although we have already been told that the income raised from the public forest sell-off (£100 million plus 45,000 ha) will go towards costs elsewhere in Defra (e.g. flood defense).
  • Defra announced that it is giving £100 million to forestry abroad.  So forests everywhere else are more important than those in England?
  • Presuming that some existing grant support mechanisms will remain, the cost to Government of providing grant aid to the new owners of the privatised woodlands for their management, may be greater than the cost of Forestry Commission management.
  • The Forestry Commission’s woods are independently certified against the internationally recognised Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) standard.  A new owner would not be required to certify their woodlands.
  • Management to these standards and to deliver current levels of public benefit costs money, a net cost of about £9m a year to manage 635,000 ha  This may sound like a lot of money but in terms of Government finances it is in fact small change, and amounts to less than £0.30 a year for every taxpayer.  The majority, 70%, of the costs of managing the public forests in England are covered by commercial revenue (timber sales, rents, leases and so on).  To put this in perspective Hampstead Heath in London, which is only 315 ha, costs the tax payer over £6m.
Read more posts about the public sell-off
Read more posts about the public sell-off

Gabriel Hemery

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