Time for something a little different on my blog tonight, concerning a cause that I would very much like to draw your attention to.
Social media and the traditional press have been awash these last few weeks with myriad responses to the UK governments proposal to sell off the entirety of our publicly owned woodland. Hundreds of thousands of people are in uproar over the potential loss of a valuable resource for both wildlife and the general public to organisations whose main interest may lie more with the bottom line than with the enrichment of our woodlands. An online petition currently stands at just over 467,121, which rather admirably demonstrates the strength of public opinion being generated by this debate. Before adding my name to the list I wanted to do my own research to see which side of the fence I sat on to avoid just joining a campaign through ‘peer pressure’.
Firstly the facts. The Forestry Commission currently owns 258,000 hectares of forest estate, making it the largest government owned land holding in England. This covers 2% of the total land area of England but only 18% of the country’s total woodland, the rest already residing in private ownership or with charitable trusts. The proposal is to sell off or lease this land to a combination of individuals, charities and for profit companies in an effort to save money, allow the Forestry Commission to become a solely regulatory body and move us closer to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. On that latter point it seems to be working as almost half a million people getting involved in what is at its heart a political issue is something that we should all be proud of.
When I first think of the Forestry Commission I immediately picture the dark and virtually lifeless mass plantations that dominate some of our hillsides. With tightly packed tress filtering out almost all light at ground level and regular felling for commercial trade, I can’t really see the problem in passing on that land to private firms to manage. The issue is that these areas do not make up the majority of land for sale. Of the 80% of land that is wooded only 70% is designated as conifer or mixed with 30% being broadleaf. The remaining 20% consists of everything from limestone pavements to urban green spaces. These areas are absolute treasures to this country and I would be much warier about losing these to the private sector.
The reasons for these concerns are multiple. Firstly, any private company would surely be more interested in making a profit off the land than building visitor centres, opening up trails or encouraging wildlife to prosper. In the current commercially intensive plantations this may be acceptable but in places like the New Forest? And if the government were to apply stiff legislation on what a company could do with the woodland prior to the sale or lease to encourage these activities, then what are the chances of someone actually wanting to take it on in the first place. On a similar point why would a private company take on the 20% of land that is currently tree free if there wasn’t the opportunity for development, whether that be for more commercial plantations or god forbid yet another golf course (and that’s coming from someone who likes a good round of golf every now and again).
The other option is to let interested individuals or charities take over sections to manage themselves. This sounds fantastic initially. Who wouldn’t want someone with the forests best interest at heart looking after an area for the good of the nation? Personally I’d be at the front of the queue bidding to play my own part but in reality this option could never work, and it’s all down to money. The British people are capable of some amazing acts of generosity when it comes to charitable causes, but surely managing the nations forests and enhancing them for the next couple of hundred years is just one step too far. Initially the government is proposing to offer grants to help the newcomers but it is intended that these will substantially reduce in size after a few years. So what might start off as a boom may quickly leave us with huge areas being poorly managed and maintained, with little option but for the government to step back in.
And this brings me to my biggest misgiving about the whole issue. We are told that the country must reduce its deficit and to do that we need to save money. I couldn’t agree more and it was one of the key decision points for me when choosing who to vote for at the last elections. Therefore things like tax rises and public spending cuts are to be expected and I fully support them. However, short sighted and rushed policies such as this, which could have massive long-term consequences, were not what I had envisaged. Firstly the sell off would actually cost the government some £20 million, not including as yet unannounced redundancy and restructuring costs within the Forestry Commission itself. These are one off fees but the ongoing grants will not be, particularly if my prediction of struggling organisations comes true and the government is forced to step back in to help.
If the financial arguments don’t really stack up then why not just sell off the most commercial areas that offer little to no value to the general public (something which it appears the Woodland Trust have long advocated), while concentrating efforts on preserving the vast majority for the nation. Keeping this land in the public domain is precisely what I believe the government should be doing instead of going looking for a quick buck. At the end of the day the status quo costs £655 million a year. That sounds a lot but not when you consider that apparently the government can save over £6 billion simply by cutting waste. Surely that means we can keep our woodlands out of the hands of the private corporations?
I have tried to take as balanced a view as possible while reviewing the literature, coming at it from the point of view of a very interested party more than any sort of expert in the field, and I hope that comes across with the points I have made. I haven’t seen anything that has convinced me that this is a sensible or safe route to go down, and for that reason I have firmly added my name to the ever-lengthening petition. If you are of a similar mind then please head here to lend your support. Before that I encourage you to follow some of the links below to enable you to make an informed judgement based on your own interpretation of the available material. Thanks for reading.