I wrote in yesterday’s FT about Caroline Spelman’s plans to sell off much of the Forestry Commission’s estate.
The environment minister is keen to rebut the idea that she is poised to flog every tree in Britain to private companies who will then chop them down and replace them with golf courses, leisure centres and business parks.
So what is her plan? Put simply there are two legs to the strategy.
1] The commercial forestry estates – largely monoculture conifers – which mainly grows logs for commercial sale, could be sold off under one of four options put forward. This could raise several hundred million pounds. As Julian Glover at the Guardian suggests: “The state has no business being a lumberjack.” Much of the forestry that covers the uplands of the north and Scotland is so unlovely that perhaps it might as well be in private hands. Alternatively, community groups could club together to buy some of this land and – perhaps – turn it back to native deciduous habitat.
2] The slightly smaller “heritage” forestry owned by the state will NOT be sold into private hands. Instead, places like the Forest of Dean or the New Forest could be given charitable status and managed by, for example, the Woodland Trust.
The Forestry Commission would retain its regulatory functions.
This may all sound utterly reasonable. The problem is, however, that it is hard to see how the state can retain the heritage woodland – while selling the commercial land – without having to pump much more annual funding into its upkeep. I’m told that the Forestry Commission requires public funds of only £10m a year – thanks to annual millions it currently makes in profits from sales of timber. You can see how the state funding would have to rise sharply to maintain the heritage woodland as a stand-alone concern.
The charity sector has noticed this, unsurprisingly. Not only does the Woodland Trust point out that the heritage woodland owned by the Forestry Commission dwarf its relatively modest estate. It has also questioned how it – or other charities – could afford to maintain these forests.
It says: “We don’t believe that the charitable sector can be the solution to future care of all the publically owned heritage woodlands, as it will not have the resources to manage these for decades into the future without substantial and sustained government funding.”
Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary, makes the same point: “Private companies will cherry pick sites for commercial development and voluntary gruops will be left to look after ancient woodlands without a budget.” I’m yet to hear a convincing rebuttal of this from the government.