So it seems that the public consultation on the public forest estate in England is likely to be launched in late January 2011, and may run for 12 weeks. I understand that are likely to be four main scenarios put forward, that the public will be invited to comment on. These will be:
- Sell the public forest estate to the private sector on the open market (some ‘heritage’ forests may be retained);
- Offer the public forest estate to big society with an emphasis on existing NGOs;
- Create a new national charity to manage the public estate on behalf of society;
- No change.
Many people may not be aware that the last Government held their own public consultation on the public forest estate in England just one year ago. There were of course many diverse points of view as a result of the consultation, which attracted a very high response, but I reproduce below some salient points from the conclusion section:
The Estate is seen to represent good value for money in providing multiple social and environmental benefits and there is a strong desire for the Estate to increase in size. In particular, expansion is sought to provide social benefits to urban populations and to protect areas with special characteristics.
Woodland creation and free public access remain top priorities.There is strong resistance to the Disposal Policy and concern over relinquishing
management to third parties, notably the private sector.
Public funding is seen as the basis for supporting the Estate. A diverse range of
commercial opportunities are supported, but with caveats centred on minimising the
negative impacts of these on public benefits.
The Save our forests petition on the 38degrees website has today over 92,000 signatures objecting to the sell off. The leak from Defra in November seems to have surprised civil servants but must have served a useful purpose in alerting then to the strength of feeling in the British public. Several big guns in the political and environmental world have joined the fray in the media, including Jonathon Porritt, Lord Clark of Windermere, and Caroline Lucas MP.
I know that the large NGOs, which Defra and ministers seem to think will take on the forests, are deeply worried about the sell-off. They do not have the funds to purchase any significant proportion of forests, and furthermore, as they will likely be sold off over at least five years – how can they prioritise their purchasing to secure the high priority areas?
We are heading for a very interesting public consultation …