Controversial plans to sell off England’s public forest estate were finally abandoned by the Government today, after an expert panel called for the 637,000 acres of woodlands owned by the Forestry Commission to remain in public ownership.
The panel was hastily set up last year after the initial plan to dispose of the forests, and raise £250m, brought down an unprecedented barrage of criticism on the Government and forced the first major u-turn of the Coalition’s time in office, with the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, shelving the scheme and publicly apologising for putting it forward in the first place.
Today, barely minutes after the report was published online, Mrs Spelman announced that she accepted its main recommendation and that the idea of a sell-off, one of the first of the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ policies, had been given up for good. “Our forests will stay in public hands,” she said.
"We will not sell the public forest estate. We'll be talking to all those who are passionate about our forests to decide how we will manage our forests for the future.”
It remains to be seen whether ministers will accept several other major recommendations made by the panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones, which range from setting up two new bodies to look after woodlands, to increasing the amount of forest cover in Britain by half – from ten per cent of the land area, to fifteen per cent, by 2060.
Britain has one of the lowest percentages of forested land in Europe, where the average is 37 per cent, and indeed, a century ago UK forest cover stood at merely five per cent.
The panel, which included the heads of the National Trust, the Confederation of Forest Industries, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB among others, and which received the remarkably high number of 42,000 individual submissions, called for a new culture of valuing woodlands for their benefits to people, wildlife and the green economy.
“England’s trees, woods and forests represent a vast and underused national resource,” it asserted.
The panel said that in future, the public forests, which represent 18 per cent of the total, should be managed by a new body evolved from Forest Enterprise England, currently part of the Forestry Commission.
The new body should be free from political control and should be governed by a charter, they said, which would set out its mission to provide public benefits, to be delivered through a group of guardians or trustees accountable to Parliament.
It also recommended that all English woodlands, public and private, should be overseen and promoted by a new body evolved from Forest Service, the part of the Commission currently delivering scientific expertise, incentives and regulation.
It proposed that funding such new bodies to 2020 would cost £22m and £7m respectively.
Asked if he thought this was “a big ask” of the Government during a recession, Bishop Jones said: “It’s an important question. These are important sums of money, but relatively so – when you discover that nine kilometres of dual carriageway costs 160 million pounds, you think that 22 million for the public forest estate, given all the benefits it delivers for society, is a legitimate call on the public purse.”
The panel’s report was widely welcomed today. Hilary Allison, policy director of tjhe Woodland Trust, said the charity was delighted that the Government had confirmed the public forest estate was safe.
“It is vital that the Government now works towards ensuring the estate is effectively resourced and developed to deliver more benefits for more people,” she said.