Forest Sell-off Finally Felled

The UK Government announced yesterday their decision to finally abandon controversial proposals to privatise England's public woodland.

Out of the woods?, 174 kb
Out of the woods?
© Dan Bailey

A storm of protest at the plan was an early setback for the Coalition, and led to some hasty backtracking with the setting up of an Independent Panel on Forestry in 2011 to advise on the next step (reported here on UKH).

The panel's recommendations are now in, and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has issued its response, the Government Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement.

The statement confirms the Government's support for the Panel's vision, accepting many of its recommendations in full. It states once and for all that public forests will not be sold off. The Government has also backed the Panel's aspiration of a future where every person has access to a wood or wooded area close to where they live.

'Today's announcement means we can finally breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that our public woodlands will not be sold'

The policy sets out an ambition to expand wooded areas, increase the amount of woodland being well managed, maintain and improve access to public woodland and improve the economic performance of the forestry sector.

Perhaps the biggest change is that a new, independent public body will be set up to work in tandem with the Forestry Commission to own, maintain and safeguard our forests on behalf of the public.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said:

'I want to put the future of our public forests on a clear and firm footing. Our forests and woodland will remain secured in public ownership for the people who enjoy them, the businesses that depend on them and the wildlife that flourishes in them. A new, independent body will ensure our woods are held in trust and managed for the long term benefit of future generations, nature and the economy.'

'We all care passionately about our woodlands, which is why I share the Independent Panel's vision for the future of our forests. We have listened to views of woodland organisations, interest groups, businesses and the public and their ideas have also helped to shape this policy.'

'Our woodland economy has the potential to create jobs and growth, and the action plan the forestry industry is establishing will set out a road map to achieve that. Most importantly of all, we need to look after this precious resource. Recent pest and disease outbreaks have underlined that in addition to increasing woodland we must protect what we have and help others to do so.'

David Heath, the spookily-aptly-named Forestry Minister, added:

'Government cannot and should not do this alone. The spirit of partnership forged by the Panel and more recently during the outbreak of ash dieback must continue, not least because many of the Panel's ambitions are wider challenges for the sector and society as a whole. People can play an important role in protecting and improving our woodland.'

Defra have increased the Forestry Commission's budget by £3.5m next year specifically to make up for lost income from sales of woodland and have also allocated them £2m in recognition of additional pressures arising from Chalara (ash dieback).

Our woodland has a key role to play in economic growth, say the Government, and they have promised to work closely with retailers and contractors to increase the timber grown in Britain. The Government also wants to help make woods more economically productive by working with landowners to ensure that woodland is being managed sustainably to increase production whilst conserving wildlife; backing a new industry-led 'action plan' being developed by the forestry sector to grow the domestic wood market; and working closely with a range of groups to encourage local people to get involved in managing their local woodlands.

Recognising (if belatedly) that the public are passionate about their woodland, the Government is also encouraging people to get involved in a new survey on tree health, the Open Air Laboratories, to be launched in May 2013. This will give people the opportunity to take part in a major field examination of ash trees for pests and pathogens, including chalara. The Open Air Laboratories citizen science project is led by Imperial College and to date more than 600,000 people, 3,000 schools and 2,400 other organisations have taken part in its surveys.

The Ramblers, one of the many groups to speak out against the original privatisation proposal, have welcomed the news.

'[Yesterday's] announcement means we can finally breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that our public woodlands will not be sold' said Benedict Southworth, Ramblers Chief Executive.

'However, the Ramblers campaign doesn't end here. We will continue to work with government, local authorities and other stakeholders to ensure that the aspiration of everyone being able to access local woodland becomes a reality.'

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