Dec 31 2010
We now know, thanks to the junior environment minister Jim Paice’s frank evidence to a recent House of Lords select committee, that the government is considering the sale of not just “some”, or even “substantial”, amounts of woodland as the public was originally led to believe, but of all state-owned English trees across the commission’s 635,000-acre Forestry Commission estate. This includes many royal forests, state-owned ancient woodlands, sites of special scientific interest, heathland, campsites, farms and sporting estates.
Here is Paice is in front of the House of Lords select committee:
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…
Paice also accepts that foreign companies might want to buy up the trees, and that foreign-owned energy companies might want to cut the whole lot down for renewable energy. This is clearly not going to be received well in the Tory shires, where the trees mostly are.
I have worries about two or three potential aspects of disposal, which we are looking at very carefully. Foreign purchases are one, although I do not think that they are automatically necessarily bad. Indeed, we could not prevent them under EU law. I am much more concerned about the possibility of established forest being bought by energy companies who would proceed to chip it all for energy recovery.
So if not the energy companies, who does that leave to buy the trees? Major charities like the Woodland Trust and the National Trust, who may be tapped up to buy chunks of the estate on the cheap as “preferred bidder”, are not exactly beating on the commission’s door; very few communities have the means to buy even 30 acres of woodland, let alone maintain it, and the idea that the “big society” can raise £2bn – the rough cost of buying the commission’s 635,000 acres – is bizarre.
The answer clearly is that the government expects developers to step in to exploit the land for whatever profit they can.
But the opposition is mounting. By last night more than 98,500 people had registered their opposition to the sale with the group 38 degrees and more are joining the many local forest protection movements springing up as word spreads and people realise what is at stake. Many people want to protect access to “their” public woodland which is now at risk and they pose a real political threat to local Tory and LibDem MPs who never mentioned any of this in their separate or joint manifesto.
Opposition is particularly intense around the Forest of Dean, where the Tory MP and junior minister for consitutional reform Mark Harper presides over a small – 2,500 – majority, and who must must be sweating already. Former sustainable development commission chair Jonathon Porritt this week warned Harper of the folly of supporting privatisation of the local – or indeed of any – forest:
“When [Harper’s predecessor] Paul Marland supported an earlier attempt by a Conservative government to sell off the forest estate in the 1980s, he was quickly persuaded as to the error of his ways. I’m sure Marland’s words will be resonating with Harper today:
‘I regard the possible sale of the Royal Forest of Dean and other Crown Forests to faceless investors as a national disaster. The Royal Forest of Dean is steeped in ancient history and tradition. Today’s Forester is of the same independent mind and rugged character as were his forefathers. It is our duty to preserve his ancient rights and traditions.'”
Porritt also makes the good point that it is not the trees that the government wants to sell. The Forest of Dean has coal, and other resources. Other Forestry Commission land could be used for windfarms, holiday villages, the routes for new roads and so on.
And if the private sector can run the forests profitably, could it not also oversee the rivers and even the national parks?
The sale is clearly ideologically-driven, a statement that the private sector – traditionally the large landowner, but now the corporation – should maintain the environment.
As such, we should see the sale as further evidence of the dismemberment of conservation in England, the approach that has marked environmental stewardship in Britain and most European countries for the last 60 years.
- Government plans huge sell-off of Britain’s forests (independent.co.uk)
- Selling England’s woodlands will not be easy | John Vidal (guardian.co.uk)