Forestry Panel defends public forests in interim report
The Independent Panel on Forestry published its progress report on Thursday 8 December, in which it clearly recognises the important role that the Public Forest Estate plays in providing public enjoyment and access, helping to develop new green jobs and protecting biodiversity. The panel wants to see ownership of the public forest estate in England “secured for the future” and calls for the public forest estate to remain in public hands. The full report can be read here.
This echoes the views contained in my own submission to the panel, which I made in July. I highlighted the excellent work that the Forestry Commission does to manage public land for public benefit. I argued that public forests should remain public and made the case that the Government should not only drop its idea to sell Forestry Commission land; but should pursue a policy where England ends up with more, rather than less, publicly owned forest each year, because of the huge environmental, health and leisure benefits generated by the public forest estate which would not be promoted by private land owners.
The panel’s report recognises the significant benefits provided by the Public Forest Estate and argues that these were overlooked by the Coalition Government when it announced its plans to sell off Forestry Commission land. It notes that at £20 million per year, the cost of maintaining the Public Forest Estate is “very modest and delivers benefits far in excess of this”. I stated the principle that these public benefits could be increased by expanding the Public Forest Estate, rather than selling it off.
It is encouraging that the Forestry Panel recognises the important role of the Public Forest Estate and wants to see this continue. We need public forests to set high standards of biodiversity and public access, to show private forest owners what a well-managed forest can achieve. I am pleased that the Panel acknowledges this and has stated it will make recommendations that will increase the benefits generated from all forests in England.
The panel received over 42,000 responses in total and expects to publish its final report and recommendations in Spring 2012. What is clear from its progress report is that the panel will not recommend a full-scale sell-off of Forestry Commission land, which is what the Coalition Government planned. However, we have not won the war yet. No sales of publicly-owned forests will take place before the final report, but the Government still intends to sell 15% of public forestry land and is cutting the Forestry Commission’s staff by a quarter, which will undermine the ability of the Forestry Commission to effectively manage the forests and deliver better woodland access and biodiversity. This is at odds with the Forestry Panel’s desire to see the managers of the public forest estate be “exemplars of managing land for social, environmental and economic benefits”.
I do not accept the idea that only some forests will be left in public ownership or that some access rights will apply to land that is sold off. I am pressing the Government to drop its plans to sell Forestry Commission land. It is important to keep the pressure up on the Government, so that it knows the strength of opposition to forest privatisation. I hope the Forestry Panel’s final report will recommend that public forests should remain public. I will continue to press the Government to drop its plans to sell public forestry land.