No sooner had Our Forests sent out the press release and background briefing about the lack of any substantive response to questions under FOI and EIR procedures about the proposed disposal of our public woods and forests, than both Defra and the Forestry Commission sprang into life and sent in their replies. It challenges credulity that responses would have been received at all, were it not for our press release of 5th October, pointing out that the 40-day deadline as prescribed by the Information Commissioner’s Office expired on 3rd October and we were therefore logging a formal complaint.
Our Forests have now released the formal responses received from Defra and the Forestry Commission. These are published on the resources page (and below), along with Expressions of Interest from the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust towards specific woodlands. Also provided is a paper from the Forestry Commission outlining intended assett sales for 2010-11.
Perhaps the most extraordinary information to emerge is in this quote from Defra in their response:
“We recognise that there is a public interest in disclosure of information concerning government meetings and discussions about the future of England’s public forest estate. However, where incorrect assumptions are made or expectations raised through publication of discussions and views exchanged in earlier communications, government staff resources would need to be diverted to respond to any incorrect media stories and campaigning based on such stories. Given the ongoing heightened interest in forestry policy, there would be a clear risk of being drawn into a public debate on matters which are not government policy. Therefore we have concluded that in most of the circumstances for this case, the information relating to notes of meetings and discussions should be withheld.”
Defra response to Our Forests, 06 October 2011
Readers will be able to judge for themselves from the responses published here, in what has and has not been said, and from the mass of information already in the public domain, whether the Government and its departments acted responsibly in their misguided attempts to flog-off England’s public forests.
Our Forests will come back with a more detailed response, once that we have thoroughly digested and sought to unpick the minimal information that Defra and the Forestry Commission appear to have sent through, but our immediate reactions are:
- the delays on claimed grounds of “complexity & volume of information requested” do not compute with the paucity of the responses provided;
- the responses do not tell us much. Perhaps there is not much to tell? If so, that would suggest that the Government’s intention to dispose of all of the woods and forests that make up the public forest estate by one mechanism or another was set in motion with astonishingly little preparation;
- but the little information we have received does not convince us that this is the whole story. The period we requested details of meetings or discussions between officials and bodies (UK/overseas) as to the latter taking on any parts of the public forest estate was from 1st Jan 2010 – 29th July 2011. Defra acknowledges there were 6 meetings or discussions between: 20th Oct – 8th February, but does not provide information re: any prior to or post those six. The Forestry Commission refers to approaches made to all the NGOs specified (NT, RSPB, TWT, WT) in July 2010 as to taking on parts of the PFE- referring to these as relating to the “ongoing asset disposal programme” 2010/11. We take that to mean the initial 40k has (15% of PFE) that was possible to dispose of without requiring changes to the legislation i.e. via the introduction of the now dropped Public Bodies Bill. Although there do also appear to have been expressions of interest from some NGOs (NT) for sites not in that initial 40k has list;
- In August, the NGOs responded to the FC:
– National Trust provided a list of ‘sites of potential interest’ = 22 sites, of which 11 = leased by FC from NT as freeholder;
– The Woodland Trust is quoted as saying it was not interested;
– The Forestry Commission response includes a list bearing the Wildlife Trusts’ logo, which appears to identify around 170 sites. Many of these may be adjacent to or part of existing Wildlife Trust holdings, but that is not clear.
– The RSPB stated it was only interested in discussing the lease on one site, Rempstone, in Dorset.
- Were these the responses that led officials to record in the Impact Assessment cited in Our Forests’ background briefing that members of Wildlife Link had expressed an interest in acquiring c. 10,000 hectares of the public forest estate?
- By October 2010 and certainly January 2011 it was out in the media that the Government was up for disposing of as much of, if not all of the public forest estate. The public consultation on the disposal proposals was launched on 27th January 2011. According to notes of meetings from Defra, the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman had meetings with the National Trust on 28th January 2011 and the Woodland Trust on 2nd February 2011. The Woodland Trust’s meeting was on the same day that David Cameron made the comment in the House of Commons that,
“I am, of course, listening to all the arguments that are being put on this matter. However, I ask whether there are organisations, such as the Woodland Trust and the National Trust that could do a better job than the Forestry Commission. I believe that there are.”
Prime Minister [i]
It is not clear from the minimal documentation supplied whether officials met with the Woodland Trust before or after the Prime Minister made that comment. But are we to believe that the Prime Minister had not been briefed on the situation as regards the attitudes of such key conservation bodies by officials and was simply shooting from the hip? The implication, accurate or otherwise, drawn from his comments by many people was that that he believed that both the National Trust and the Woodland Trust were indeed up for taking on more of the public forest estate than they had apparently expressed an interest in from those earlier approaches by the Forestry Commission back in August.
- The National Trust was quoted in The Guardian the day after the public consultation was launched as being, “…poised to offer to take over or buy much of the state-owned English woodland which the government is planning to sell off.
The initiative, says the trust’s director, Dame Fiona Reynolds, could protect in perpetuity not just large areas of “heritage” areas such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest, but other woodland expected to be offered for sale to communities and commercial enterprises in the biggest change in land ownership for more than 80 years.[ii]
(NB – Our Forests background briefing incorrectly dated this article as 23/1/11 i.e. before the announcement. That has now been corrected.)
However, an earlier article in the Daily Telegraph on 23rd October quoted a National Trust spokesman as saying, “Potentially this is an opportunity. It would depend on which 50 per cent of land they sold off, if it is valuable in terms of nature, conservation and landscape, or of high commercial value in terms of logging. We will take a fairly pragmatic approach and look at each sale on a case by case basis, making sure the land goes to the appropriate organisations for the right sites, making sure the public can continue to enjoy the land.” [iii]
- Defra FOI response to Our Forests 06Oct2011
- Forestry Commission FOI response to Our Forests 06Oct2011
- Forestry Commission proposed sales – Notifications List 2010-11
- National Trust – Expression of Interest
- WildlifeTrusts – Expression of Interest
- For more Our Forests background information and documents, see Resources