Appeals to halt forestry sell-off: Privatisation plans attacked after report claims safeguarding public access to woodlands would cost pounds 170m

THE GOVERNMENT'S plan to privatise woods and forests throughout Britain is in disarray because it is proving impossible to guarantee public access to woodland after it has been sold. MPs from all parties appealed yesterday for the sale of woods and forests to be halted, unless access can be ensured by legislation.

The Government's Forestry Review Group, which was considering how to privatise national forests, has now been told by consultants that the cost of guaranteeing public access through legislation would be pounds 170m, making privatisation prohibitively expensive. The consultants, Environmental Resources Management, were commissioned to review ownership and management options for Britain's forest estate.

The leaked consultants' report reveals the Forestry Review Group was considering options which included putting national woods and forests in the hands of a public company; a trade sell-off; a management buy-out; and an accelerated disposals programme. All would involve loss of access to woodlands, unless such rights were ensured by legislation.

Most of the pounds 170m cost of the privatisation plan would result from a fall in the price of woodland if it were sold with indissoluble guarantees of access attached. Under present law, it is impossible to prescribe that access, which is provided for in a deed of sale and passed on when the land is resold.

The consultants calculate that, in addition to the loss on sales, it would be necessary to spend more than pounds 30m a year in grants to owners to pay for the costs of providing and monitoring access. Privatisation would thus cost double the amount now spent providing the same benefits through Forest Enterprise, the executive arm of the Forestry Commission.

It now seems likely that this financial impasse, together with pressure from MPs and the public, will force a government U-turn on forestry privatisation.

In June 1989 and again in November 1990, Malcolm Rifkind, then Secretary of State for Scotland, made an implicit promise that public access to forests would be maintained. He referred to 'the Government's concern that the general public should continue to enjoy access to those forests to be disposed of by the Commission'. Since then it has become clear that the Government's attempt to secure access for woods and forests disposed of in the last three years have not been effective. A report placed in the House of Commons library last week notes that 544 woods and forests were excluded from arrangements intended to secure access, either because the sales were too far advanced when the arrangements were brought in, or because they were made special exceptions. An attempt was made to negotiate access arrangements with 299 local authorities, but these failed in all but 19 cases. Of the properties sold, 90 per cent were within two miles of some sort of settlement. A quarter of them had been assessed as having medium or high public access.

The report concludes that 'no amount of modification could make the arrangements provide consistently for public access'.

In 1981, the Forestry Commission owned some 2 million acres of woodland and moor. Since then, about 13 per cent of its estate has been sold under the Government's disposal policy. But the Scottish Office rejects the use of phrases such as 'forestry sell- off' and 'forestry privatisation' by the Ramblers' Association, which is opposed to the sales policy.

Describing these phrases as 'misleading and mischievous', the Scottish Office said: 'A review group has been set up by the Government to review the various grants and other mechanisms we have to encourage the planting of trees, and also to look at possible structures for ownership and management of forests for the future. Privatisation is only one option.'

The Ramblers' Association is campaigning against further sales of forests and has obtained a list of all the publicly-owned woods and forests in Britain, to be published shortly as a gazeeteer so that people may locate national woodlands near their home. The association claims to have the support of 174 local authorities.

Paddy Tipping, who launched the Ramblers' campaign yesterday, together with an all-party group of MPs, said: 'These woodlands have been ours for centuries. Robin Hood and his colleagues would rise from the grave if they knew what this wicked Government was doing.'

(Photograph omitted)