Our forests for the chop

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.

Cowleaze Wood in the Chilterns - threatened with sale

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.

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About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
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3 Responses to Our forests for the chop

  1. I see the consultation document gives no space to actually oppose the sell-off of forests

  2. tom fisher says:

    I am confused. Kate says that access for walkers is guaranteed by CROW dedication but Ramblers staff, including Tom Franklin, were on 2 February stressing the problem with permissive access which will not necessarily be transferred to the new owner/lessee. Kate, can you clarify this.

    Is the Ramblers position robust enough? J Porritt has accused us of being supine and Herefordshire is considering sending an angry letter to CO about our weak response.

    Tom

    • The Forestry Commission has dedicated most of its freehold land in England and Wales with a public right to walk, under section 16 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. That right cannot be taken away when the land is sold (unless the government changes the law). However I understand that on FC leasehold land much of the access is permissive, and access for riders and cyclists is largely permissive on freehold and leasehold land. All permissive access is at risk.

      I don’t agree that the Ramblers have been weak, but would love to hear from others on this. I paste below the comment which Tom Franklin has posted on Jonathon Porritt’s blog:

      ‘A provocative article, Jonathan, but not an accurate one.

      ‘The Ramblers has been clear from the start: unless the Government can guarantee access at least as good as it currently is, Forestry Commission land should not be sold.

      ‘The Government’s consultation document makes no such promises. Only rights of way, and legally enforceable access under the Right to Roam legislation, is secure under the plans. So-called “permissive access” which covers much forestry land, is not secure, and there is no intention for the Government to dedicate this land with a legal right of access.

      ‘So we’ve been urging members and public to contact MPs with the message: “no access, no sale”. You can do this via the Ramblers website: http://www.ramblers.org.uk Members have responded in droves.’

      Tom Franklin
      Ramblers CEO

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