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Woodland "Sell-Off"? David Heath Gives His Views

Thursday 10 February 2011, 18:42
By David Heath

David Heath, MPI am getting more letters at the moment about woods than on any other subject. Judging by the content of the letters, you would assume that the government had issued an edict that not a single tree in the kingdom would be left standing, and that only the protests of the concerned stand between us and a far from green, far from pleasant wasteland.

If I thought for a moment that what is being considered would lead to the sort of outcome some have been led to believe would be the case, I would be the first to raise objections. But I honestly think the whole thing has been blown up into a major issue where none, in reality, exists. The government is not selling off all our ancient forests to unscrupulous developers to allow the bulldozers in where walkers, cyclists and riders will no longer be permitted. It simply isn't going to happen.

Firstly, let's be clear about the proportion of woodland owned by the Forestry Commission. It is a small part of our forests; just 18% in total. Locally, virtually all the woodland is already in private ownership or in the hands of bodies such as the National Trust. Indeed, the Forestry Commission do not own a forest in my constituency, and the only one they list in Somerset is Neroche, down on the Blackdowns outside Taunton, which is already managed in partnership with community organisations.

Secondly, there will be no sale of the so-called heritage woodlands, such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest. They have been specifically excluded by the Secretary of State, although she will explore whether they can be better managed by the National Trust or the Woodland Trust, with additional funding from the government, rather than a body like the Forestry Commission with a production focus. The stories about selling off the birthright handed down from the days of William Rufus is simply nonsense.

Thirdly, the land that is up for disposal will not be sold freehold. It will be available on leases, which means that restrictive conditions can be placed on them, such as access rights, species preservation and all the things which people quite rightly are concerned about. That contrasts rather favourably with the 25,000 acres or more which have been sold by the Forestry Commission over the last ten years or so, apparently without anyone noticing or feeling the need to launch a campaign, without any such conditions attached. In passing, I wonder if the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is apparently exercised about the current plans, is confident that the Church of England estates, one of England's biggest landowners, have not sold any woodland without appropriate conditions over recent years.

The Forestry Commission was not set up to preserve forest. Far from it. It dates back to the First World War when Britain found it was struggling to keep up with wartime demand for timber, and so the government set up the commission to maintain a strategic reserve. Its main activity is still production, providing nearly 70% of England's softwood timber from its holding of 40% of the country's conifer forests. The question is whether it makes sense for the government to directly own and control those operations, or whether it would be better to regulate the activity, preserve the access and ecological value, but let others operate the sites.

The other big question is whether we can actually get more public benefit from the forests. Can local interest groups be more involved? Should communities be given the opportunity to own woodland in their areas? Do organisations purely devoted to the preservation of heritage sites make better custodians for the future than the government would?

The last point to make is that these proposals are precisely that at the moment. No decisions have yet been made, and the consultation paper is there for anyone with an interest to have their say. The consultation period runs through to the 21st April, so it's not exactly a rushed job. I understand that people have strong feelings about this. There is something deeply atavistic about woodland. But I hope they will comment on the basis of fact, rather than the disinformation which is being spread at the moment.

David Heath


Posts: 1
It's a vote loser David
Reply #1 on : Sat February 12, 2011, 00:10:38
A view from outside the hot-house of Westminster for what it's worth.

Strong feeling of deja vue here, defending government policy (but not our policy, and on this occasion not even in anyone's manifesto) against massive crowds of protesters, except this time they are from right across the generations and political spectrum.

Firstly the consultation looks dodgy because of the Public Bodies Bill that preempts anything the consultation may say, by giving blanket rights without a further vote in the Commons (see Porritt's blog on this - link on my site).

Then the general public understand the Coalition "yes but.. " justification to the protesters as much as they understood the positive things we did for students about tuition fees.

I feel that LD MPs should distance themselves from this issue, ask for the clauses relating to the forests to be dropped from the Public Bodies Bill and, when the whole thing gets kicked into the long grass, at least we won't get associated with supporting Spelman's folly.
We need to pick our battles and accept that the 500,000 signatories against the whole idea are not all labour supporters or extreme radical tree-huggers - a lot of them are Lib Dem voters...

so why exactly are we supporting this?

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