Three large parcels of publicly owned land in the Quantock Hills may be sold, leading to concerns about future access and conservation in the Somerset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
As one of the most accessible and scenic hill ranges in the southwest the Quantocks are very popular with walkers, and received protected status in 1956. But to help it meet a budget squeeze Somerset County Council (SCC) now intend to 'dispose' of three large tracts of woods and moorland that it currently owns as amenity land - bits of Great Wood, Custom Common and Thorncombe Hill - an area comprising 1950 acres in all. Will the environment and public access to the sites be safeguarded in the sale? Would private owners maintain footpaths and manage the land in the interests of all users? Those opposed to the sale fear not.
'The Quantock Hills have a surprising amount of history behind them' says UKC/UKH user Oms. 'It's a stunning place (many thanks to the The National Trust and AONB) and it has so much packed into a relatively small space. Having visited most of Britain's national parks, I would say that the Quantock Hills are very special place to visit - whether you're a walker or a cyclist.'
'I believe that it is in our best interests to keep 'public' land owned by the public.'
Julian Anderson of local group Quantock Eco (QE) agrees:
'Quantock Eco opposes the sale of Great Wood, Thorncombe Hill and Custom Common to private enterprise. A principal part of QE's Mission is to protect and enhance the biodiversity of the surroundings in which we are privileged to live. We believe that the sale to private enterprise runs the risk of possible damage and/or neglect to these precious areas. They are all areas of outstanding natural beauty and under private ownership the AONB would most likely have no say in how the areas should be cared for.'
'It seems to us that the SCC is "selling the family sliver to pay the fuel bill". Surely other sources can be found to meet the debt?'
'If the sale does go through I am not sure what recourse we will have. We can only hope that if it does, that it goes to the National Trust and/or Forestry Commission, and that the AONB is still able to make sure that it is well cared for. Who will maintain the areas remains to be seen.'
QE has helped co-ordinate local objections to the sale, and yesterday members took part in a demonstration. They have also been pointing people towards an online petition on the SCC website that currently stands at over 2000 signatures.
However local fears are unfounded, say Somerset County Council, and full public access will be retained whoever ends up owning the land. On Wednesday the council issued a 'categorical assurance' that the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty will be sold complete with all existing walking, riding and public access rights.
Responding to criticism of the sale, Cabinet member David Huxtable acknowledged that the land was highly valued by both residents and the council and confirmed he would ensure there was no change in public access.
'There has been some unfortunate and inaccurate comment that has worried some people' he said. 'I can absolutely reassure them all that walkers, riders and in fact anyone who currently uses this area of land will continue to be able to do so. They will notice no change whatsoever. All we are proposing is that ownership is transferred from one public body to another.'
Cllr Huxtable also confirmed that Somerset County Council is in talks with the publicly owned Forestry Commission over the sale of Great Wood. The Forestry Commission currently leases Great Wood on a 999 year lease. What if they did purchase it?
Since the Westminster Government has not definitively abandoned its ambition to sell off Forestry Commission land (see UKH news) the long term public ownership of any area sold to the FC remains in considerable doubt. In any case the other areas might still fall into private hands. Assurances notwithstanding, could a future private owner seek to restrict access rights or water down environmental protection? If they did so what recourse would SCC and the hill-going public have?