Tessa recently wrote this letter to the Rt Hon Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State at DEFRA.
The Future of the Public Forest Estate in England – a Letter from Tessa Munt MP to the Secretary of State at DEFRA
The Future of the Public Forest Estate in England
I was alarmed to discover that the 100,000 acres planned for sale over the next four years is not included in the consultation. This can only confirm the deep suspicions already expressed by those of us who believe that the sale of forests is motivated only by the desire to raise cash, and not by a desire to seek improvements to the condition of England’s forests. I have to ask why this major disposal is not included in the consultation? Consultation should take place before the commencement of any sales.
I have asked the Secretary of State for confirmation of the following:
1. Whether it is the Government’s intention to sell off and lease the whole Forestry Commission landholding during this Parliament?
2. What proportion of Forestry Commission land is planned for sale and what proportion will be disposed of by way of leases?
3. Where disposal is to be by lease, what length of lease will be issued for Forestry Commission land?
In DEFRA’s letter, it states that the Government’s consultation has been shaped by the following four over-riding principles: to protect and enhance biodiversity; to maintain public access for recreation and leisure; to ensure the continuing role of the woodlands in climate change mitigation; to protect nationally important landscapes. Clearly, the inclusion of these “overriding principles” signifies the importance Government attaches to them. However, the suggestion that Ministers will “seek to secure equivalent rights” of access in the transfer of ownership or management, or “seek to agree the continuing restoration of plantations on Ancient Woodland sites with any new owners or managers” offer no guarantee to access or improvement.
4. Will the Government give clear, long term guarantees that any change in woodland ownership will not undermine the quality of the landscape, diversity of wildlife or the public’s ability to enjoy the forests?
Currently, the Forestry Commission has a legal obligation to consider conservation of biodiversity in all it does. Private owners need only comply with specific legislation relating to particular species in particular locations. Biodiversity depends on management. 60% of private woodland in England is not managed at all and that lack of management in the private sector has led to a decline in bird and butterfly species, many of which survive only in Forestry Commission woodlands. Environmental law and the enforcement available is insufficient to hold private landowners to account.
5. What safeguards will be put in place to ensure that fines for non compliance are a true deterrent, and significantly outweigh any benefit that can be gained from non-compliance?
By early 2010, 99% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) managed by the Forestry Commission as an ‘industry operative’ were in “favourable condition” – exceeding the previous Government’s target of 95% and greater than any other public, private or charitable, benevolent or philanthropic organizations’ achievements. Clearly, the scale and skills involved in such management cannot, without high levels of investment and revenue funding, be replicated with fragmented ownership.
6. What duties will be conferred on new owners and leaseholders to restore Ancient Woodland sites to native species?
7. Will covenants ensure that replanting continues in areas with existing Ancient Woodland even where that Ancient Woodland is less than 10% of the area proposed for sale?
Restrictive covenants that guide and change behaviour may reduce the market value of woodland and forests.
8. Does the estimated revenue from sales and leasing include factoring for the effect on market value of restrictive covenants?
All Forestry Commission woods are dedicated under CROW (Countryside and Rights of Way Act) which gives the public certain rights to quiet enjoyment on foot. In the consultation it is suggested that such rights and environmental safeguards “will be maintained and could be buttressed further”. Any new owner can restrict or discourage access without breaking the law, for example by closing a car park or limiting the use of other facilities, such as picnic areas and visitors’ centres.
9. How will the rights under CROW and the enjoyment of existing facilities be maintained and improved?
10. Will CROW be buttressed to include access for bicycles and equestrian use?
11. What access rights or licences will be available to off road motorcycles and vehicles, including 4x4s?
12. Which body or bodies will be charged with the responsibility for issuing licences to use land previously managed or owned by the Forestry Commission, for example by horseriders?
13. Will private owners be required to continue the existing permissions system for events – such as charity fundraisers and butterfly surveys – to take place on land previously managed by the Forestry Commission?
The Forestry Commission has an excellent record of providing access for all and compliance with Disability regulations. However, DDA compliant facilities are expensive to build and maintain.
14. Will private owners and leaseholders be required to provide access in compliance with DDA regulations?
The Forestry Commission currently runs an internationally admired, nationally recognized (LOTC) education service for thousands of school children and college students, funded from the Forestry Commission’s commercial arm.
15. How will the Forestry Commission’s education service be funded in the future?
Currently, the Forestry Commission is committed to maintaining a steady flow of timber onto the market, whatever the price. This enables the forestry sector to continue operating whilst reliant on a steady supply. Without the Forestry Commission’s support, contractors may need to react to the changing circumstances and irregular needs of private owners and fluctuations in the market. The Forestry Commission delivers 70% of its business through private contractors – large and small, thereby making a massive contribution to the rural economy.
The Forestry Commission also provide the backdrop for a wide range of other businesses, such as cycle hire, cafés, etc. There are over 40 million day visits in England to Forestry Commission land, which generates a huge customer base for the tourism industry. Selling off of Forestry Commission land might therefore have a significant impact on both the national and local economies.
16. Has this impact on jobs and communities and the potential decline in the rural economy been factored into the Government’s calculations?
The Government proposes leasing large scale production forests to the private sector. The Forestry Commission would act as regulator, making sure the terms and conditions of the leases were observed. Leases would be awarded on the basis of securing best value for the sale and providing public benefits.
17. What does Government define as a “production forest” and on what criteria will it base this definition?
18. How will the Government arbitrate between leasing production forests to a private company and selling to a community or civil society group who may regard the forest as a community asset and consequently pursue a Community Right to Buy application?
19. How does the Government intend to measure and balance the relative values of a sale with the provision of public benefits when a lease is to be awarded?
Currently, the regulatory function of the Forestry Commission is funded through its commercial operations, but it is unclear how this work would be funded in the future.
20. What policies will apply, and how much funding will be available, to ensure the continuation and improvement of a concerted, joined-up approach by the Forestry Commission in its role as regulator?
The Government’s consultation document states that it proposes to transfer ownership or management of the large Heritage sites in the Public Forest estate to a charity or charities. The consultation states these would be forests of between 50,000 and 80,000 hectares (125,000 to 200,000 acres) “which could include forests of national historical, biodiversity or cultural significance … like the New Forest and the Forest of Dean”. This approach was trialled recently with Natural England, without success, as the Wildlife Trusts and others were happy to take on Natural England’s land, but only on the condition that Government covered the existing cost of land management, staffing and pension arrangements. This led to a zero cost-saving.
21. What criteria will be used to identify ‘significant forests’ to be included within these provisions?
22. How will the Government assess which charitable organisations will be considered appropriate?
23. How can the Government be sure the experience with Natural England is not repeated?
Over time, the charity or charities are expected to reduce reliance on Government grants, moving towards financial self-reliance.
23. How does the Government envisage charities generating income to manage forests in the long term?
24. Will taxpayers’ money be used to support such charities?
I understand the Forestry Commission’s costs overall in England are £85 per hectare per annum (£212 per acre per annum). These include woodland management, recreation, access, education and engagement of all kinds. The Forestry Commission currently raises funds to offset its own costs through commercial forestry and sales of timber. Once this land is sold, that avenue is closed to the Commission.
25. What costs are involved in running the regulatory function of the Forestry Commission?
26. How will the Forestry Commission be funded for regulatory work after the sale of its commercial forests?
27. How much of this funding will be raised from the taxpayer?
DEFRA proposes giving community or civil society groups the opportunity to have first option to buy or take a lease over parts of the Public Forest estate not selected for transfer to a charity. This could apply to areas under consideration for leasing to commercial investors. However, the provisions suggested under the new ‘Community Right to Buy’ clauses in the Localism Bill do not guarantee the community or civil society group the right of first refusal. Therefore it is possible for a community group to be outbid once the land is free to be sold on the open market. The ‘window of opportunity’ outlined in the Localism Bill does not offer a sufficient safeguard as the owner of the land is not required to sell to the community group during that time period.
28. Where will community or civil society groups find the funding to take on significant areas of forest?
29. What level of support will the forestry grants give community groups?
30. Will this funding be available during the bidding stage or only once a community group is successful?
31. Will the Government strengthen the ‘right to buy’ in the Localism Bill by requiring the owner of the land to enter into a binding agreement to sell to the community group during the ‘window of opportunity’ assuming the group’s proposal is sound?
Finally, as currently only 9% of England’s total land area is woodland, if the quality of our biodiversity and the quantity of woodland are reduced, how can we ensure that we mitigate climate change in the future?
Tessa Munt MP
Member of Parliament for Wells
2nd February 2011