Forestry sell-off consultation launched amid growing backlash

Popular sites could be sold to charities; bike access details vague

The UK Government today released more details of its planned sell-off of Forestry Commission land in England, as the public consultation period on the proposals began.

One of the coalition's stated aims is to create 'Heritage Forests' run by "new or existing charitable organisations". Only two possible Heritage Forests are mentioned – the Forest of Dean and New Forest. The consultation document says "high quality access" would have to be maintained.

The general aim seems to be to lease out the most commercially valuable forests, while continuing to "deliver public benefits through lease conditions". The consultation will run until 21 April – you can fill out the consultation questionnaire online or as a PDF here.

The Government is inviting views on key questions:

  • What do you think of the overall idea?
  • What do you think about charities managing Heritage Forests?
  • What do you think about communities buying forests, about the leasing of commercial forests and about the future role of the Forestry Commission?

At present, only 15 percent of Forestry Commission land can be sold off. The Government want to change the law to allow a greater proportion of state-owned forests to be sold or leased to private concerns. Opposition to the plans has been growing steadily over the past couple of months.

There are particular concerns about access for mountain bikers and horse riders. Pedestrian rights were largely protected in perpetuity by the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW). Cyclists and horse riders remained restricted to higher rights of way (bridleways and byways) and permissive routes – which, as the name implies, can be withdrawn by the landowner.

In a press release issued today, the Government said: "Statutory rights of way and dedications under the right to roam legislation will remain in place. Where there's currently permissive access, for example by bike and horse, we'll seek to secure equivalent rights as part of any transfer to new owners and managers."

At BikeRadar, we've received several emails and calls to highlight just how strongly the mountain biking community feel about the plans. Jack Dobson, a 16-year-old student from Exeter in Devon, told us: "My local trails at Haldon Forest are in serious jeopardy. I can't stress enough how worried and angry I am. The proposal is for this pocket of beautiful woodland to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Whether that be a golf club or Center Parcs, they don't care." 

High-profile public figures as varied as the Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams), Dame Judi Dench and author Bill Bryson recently joined 80 others in signing a Save England's Forests letter addressed to the Government. They called the sell-off plans "unconscionable" and noted "We're an island nation yet more people escape to the forest than the seaside".

The facts behind the forests

The Forestry Commission have more than 1,500 woods which attract around 40 million visits a year and put over £2 billion into the economy, mainly in rural areas. They employ 3,240 people, 70 percent of whom work in managing the forests.

The Government has pledged to sell 15 percent of the Forest Estate by 2015 in the hope that this will raise around £100m. It's also aiming to introduce changes via the forthcoming Public Bodies Bill that will allow it to sell off a far larger proportion of English public forests, with the aim of raising a further £370m by 2019. The Welsh and Scottish governments have stated their forests will remain in government hands.

A research paper in the House of Commons library put together earlier this month by policy analyst Oliver Bennett revealed some surprising facts:

  • Although the FC estate constitutes only 18 percent of all English woodland it makes up 44 percent of all accessible woodland (ie. public woodland is much more accessible than private woodland)
  • It costs the Government £15m a year to run FC estates – outlay is £76m annually but FC activities bring in around £61m
  • The 1981 Forestry Act lead to thousands of hectares being sold off but this policy was partly reversed under Labour after 1997, with increased subsidy reducing the need for sales. After the 2008 financial crisis Labour were looking for ways to generate more income from the forests rather than sell them off as a debt relief measure.  
  • The FC estate was valued at £700m in 2010. Evidence presented to a Lords' Select Committee in November 2010 stated the aim of the coalition was "a very substantial disposal of public forest estate which could go to the extent of all of it". 

There are several online petitions where you can voice your concerns about a possible sell-off:

There are also campaigns to save particular forests already facing privatisation plans:

You can fill out the Government's public consultation on The Future of the Public Forest Estate in England online or via a downloadable PDF document.

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