New direction for England’s public forest estate

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England’s best known historic forests will be protected for future generations under proposals announced by Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman today. The transfer of heritage forests such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean to charitable trusts will mean walkers, riders and cyclists will still be able to enjoy them as they do at the moment.

The proposals are contained in a consultation document on the ownership and management of the 18% of England’s woodland currently run by the Forestry Commission. The document lays out different approaches for different types of woodlands.

The plans make clear that these woodlands will not simply be sold off to the highest bidder. Instead they recognise that no two woodlands are the same and that no single ownership model is appropriate. The document suggests a mixed approach that would deliver benefits for users and taxpayers, and makes clear that public access and biodiversity will be protected. The government will bring forward amendments to the Public Bodies Bill to ensure the public benefits the forests provide are protected.

The key proposals in the consultation document are that:

  • Heritage and community forests which provide high public benefits will be protected by inviting new or existing charitable organisations to take on ownership or management.
  • There will be opportunities created for community and civil society groups to buy or lease forests.
  • Commercially valuable forests will be leased to commercial operators. Leasing rather than selling will allow the lease conditions to ensure that the public benefits of these woodlands are preserved while allowing the operators to maximise their commercial potential.

These changes of ownership will allow the Forestry Commission to focus on its key roles of responding to outbreaks of tree pests and diseases, regulating felling and setting standards for sustainable forest management. The proposals would remedy the situation where the Commission is the largest commercial operator in the sector it also regulates.

The Government has already committed to taking 15% of the public forest estate out of state control over the course of this parliament, generating up to £100million of receipts. The consultation paper launched today invites views on a range of ownership and management options for the remaining 85% of the estate. This will be an open consultation and Government will listen to all responses before publishing its response in the summer.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said:

“State control of forests dates back to the First World War, when needs were very different. There’s now no reason for the Government to be in the business of timber production and forest management. It’s time for the Government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England’s woodlands to play a much greater role in their future.

“We want to move from a ‘Big Government’ approach to a ‘Big Society’ one, so that we can give different groups – individuals, businesses and civil society organisations – the opportunity to be involved in managing the natural environment. And we will make sure that public access is maintained and biodiversity protected.”

On amending the Public Bodies Bill, Mrs Spelman said:

“The government is absolutely committed to the ongoing provision and protection of the public benefits provided by the public forest estate, and the consultation shows how we intend to achieve this. We will bring forward amendments to the Public Bodies Bill to create a strengthened framework to safeguard the natural and social capital our forests provide now and for future generations. This would apply to the powers of sale, lease and management of the public forest estate. The consultation proposes that conditions will be attached to leases so that access and other public benefits are protected.”

The public forest estate makes up 18% of all woods and forests and 2% of the total land in England. The estate delivers a wide range of important public benefits, which will be protected, such as supporting biodiversity, storing carbon, supplying timber and energy and providing access to green space for recreation and employment opportunities. The Forestry Commission has long bought and sold land but any woodland sold under the new proposals would benefit from increased protection.

Pam Warhurst, Chair of the Forestry Commission, said:

'Ministers have set out a new vision for forestry in England that will require a fundamental shift in our thinking and how we work. The proposals provide an opportunity to think about forest ownership and sustainable land management in a new way and to engage a wider cross-section of society. The consultation will allow people to have their say and we encourage everyone with an interest to give us their views.'

The Forestry Commission will continue to provide expertise on a wide range of tree-related matters, including tree health, the environmental role of woodlands, the links with climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the social and economic benefits of forestry.

Reform of the public forestry estate is expected to take place over the next decade with the Government’s overall policy approach to domestic forestry being set out in the Natural Environment White Paper in spring 2011.

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