If the government wants us to believe that its consultation about the future of England’s public forest estate really is ‘to allow those who are most involved with England’s woodlands to play a much greater role in their future’ and not just about reducing state ownership of woodlands, it’s gone about it in a funny way.
Last October, it publishes the Public Bodies Bill, giving ministers powers to make swingeing changes to the Forestry Commission without recourse to parliament.
Next, environment minister James Paice tells the House of Lords subcommittee on agriculture, fisheries and environment on 24 November: ‘Part of our policy is clearly established: we wish to proceed with … very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.’
If the consultation was serious it would have preceded these events.
The public has a legal right to walk in all England’s Forestry Commission woodlands, thanks to the commisson’s far-sighted act of granting a deed of access under section 16 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. If the land is sold that right subsists unless the government changes the law, but the quality of that access could plummet. Riders and cyclists, who also enjoy much Forestry Commission land, may in future be banned. A new landowner could prevent or deter people from getting onto the land to enjoy that right. The Forestry Commission provides trails, interpretation, car parks and visitor centres -there is no guarantee that a new owner would maintain them, or would allow us to enjoy these simple pleasures without payment.
The government intends that charities will take over our heritage woodlands, but it is not offering long-term cash for this. It would be foolish for any organisation to take on such a massive undertaking unless substantial funding was to be assured in perpetuity. But it won’t be, because the government wants to save money. If it simply wanted to give the public greater involvement in the running of woodlands, its consultation would seek views on how this could occur under the present ownership.
The environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, claims that ‘the government is absolutely committed to the ongoing provision and protection of the public benefits provided by the public forest estate’, but has given no indication of how this will work. Without cast-iron guarantees of long-term funding and protection for our woodlands, I for one shall certainly oppose the sale of state land.
MPs will be debating the future of Forestry Commission land on Wednesday 2 February. Look at the Ramblers’ website to join the campaign and contact your MP to call for current levels of access to be guaranteed.