Forestry sell-off facing the chop

MINISTERS will be warned this month against wholesale privatisation of Britain's forests by a special committee of senior civil servants.

The committee, which was expected to pave the way for the biggest land sale in the nation's history, will instead deal the plans a potentially fatal blow. Ministers are expected to drop the idea of selling off Britain's 2,800,000 acres of public forests - covering 5 per cent of its land area, and ranging from huge conifer plantations to small neighbourhood woodlands - and instead concentrate on making the Forestry Commission more businesslike.

The Forestry Review Group, which brings together six government departments and the Prime Minister's office, will finalise its report at a secret meeting this week, before delivering it to ministers by the end of the month.

It will recommend that the Forestry Commission should be commercialised by being turned into a Next Steps Agency, having greater autonomy within the public sector.

The group will report that it met virtually unanimous opposition to the sell-off plans from the 300 organisations and 3,000 individuals it has consulted during a 10-month investigation, ranging from environmentalists and ramblers to the timber industry and people who already own private forests.

It has also found that the sell-off - far from providing the Treasury with a windfall of more than pounds 1bn - would be likely to cost the Government tens of millions a year.

But environmentalists and foresters fear that the report may be used to justify 'creeping privatisation' by an increasingly piecemeal disposal of Britain's woodlands. They are also worried that the forests will be commercialised at the expense of wildlife and the landscape.

The push to privatise the 75-year-old Forestry Commission - Britain's largest landowner - began 18 months ago when John Gummer, then Agriculture Minister, wrote to the Scottish Secretary, Ian Lang, saying that he 'wanted to raise money and get the forest estate out of the private sector'.

John Major backed the sell- off, even though he had told trade unions during the general election only months before that the Government had 'no intention of privatising the Forestry Commission'. (His office later said that this assurance had been 'drafted incorrectly during the frenzied activity of the election campaign'.)

The cash-strapped Treasury also pressed for privatisation, attracted by the Commission's own valuation of its estate at pounds 2.5bn. Last March the Government set up the interdepartmental group to review options for 'ownership and management'. In an unusual move, which marked the Prime Minister's personal commitment, a senior Downing Street official joined the group.

But the allure faded as the Commission cut its valuation by half. Two former director-generals of the Commission estimated privatisation would bring in pounds 500m. Other estimates ranged down to pounds 150m.

The plans ran into massive public opposition. The public enjoys free access to Commission forests, which receive more than 50 million visitors a year. Under government pressure the Forestry Commission has sold off nearly half a million acres piecemeal since 1981, and the public is almost always excluded. Access remains in only 19 of the 544 woods sold in the last three years.

After decades of unpopular planting of huge unsightly blocks of conifers, the Commission has been redesigning its forests, introducing native species and winning awards. Critics of privatisation say private owners may not bother. As the Independent reported last week, a confidential report by the Government's own consultants estimates that ensuring access after privatisation would cost twice as much as the Commission spends at present. If nature conservation and other payments and the loss of revenue from timber were added, the cost of privatisation could rise to more than pounds 80m a year.

In addition, timber processing companies have invested pounds 1bn in Britain over the last eight years because the Commission guarantees regular supplies. They say this would be scaled down.

Mr Gummer has moved to the Department of the Environment, where he is less keen on privatisation: his successor at Agriculture, Gillian Shephard, opposes it. Mr Lang has long been sceptical, the Treasury has lost interest and Mr Major is worried that he would not get a Bill through the Commons. Only the right-wing Welsh Secretary, John Redwood, remains enthusiastic. Ministers say privately that the most likely outcome is a Next Steps Agency.

However, the group is likely to recommend that the piecemeal sale of forests to private owners is accelerated.

(Photograph omitted)

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