Public forest estate sell-off – what next?

Following the Government’s aborted plans to sell parts of the Public Forest Estate in 2010, it signalled its intention to establish, via primary legislation, a new public body to manage the forestry estate. No legislation has yet been forthcoming and environmental groups are concerned that this has left the nation’s forests unprotected.

The introduction of the Infrastructure Bill in the 2014 Queen’s Speech compounded these fears as concerns were raised that specific provisions could be used to sell off the public forest estate.

Despite repeated government assurances that the Bill would have no impact on public forests, campaign groups have continued to lobby the government to explicitly protect the public forest estate from sale. The Government has now added an amendment to the Bill which protects the public forest estate from being sold.

Independent Panel on Forestry

Following widespread criticism of the Government’s aborted proposals to sell around 15% of the Public Forest Estate in 2010, the Minister set up an Independent Panel on Forestry. The Panel, chaired by Rt Rev James Jones Bishop of Liverpool, was established to advise the Government on “the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England, on the role of the Forestry Commission, and on the role of the Public Forest Estate”.

The Independent Panel issued its final report on 4 July 2012, recommending that the public forest estate “should remain in public ownership”. It also made a number of suggestions for the reform of forest management in England, including:

  • Establishing a new public forest management organisation with a new statutory purpose;
  • The expansion of woodland cover from 10% to 15% by 2060;
  • A recognition of ecosystem services, such as recreation, clean air and water, habitats for wildlife, locking up carbon, shading in cities and flood reduction; and
  • A revival of a woodland culture that appreciates how important trees are for people, for nature and the economy.

The report also pointed out how, on balance, the forestry estate is providing a good return on investment, taking into account the full range of benefits it provides and therefore there should be no question about continued investment by government.

Government Response: Woodlands Policy Statement

Defra published a full government response to all of the Panel’s recommendations in its Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement in January 2013. This statement set out a “refreshed government forestry policy” based around a clear hierarchy of priorities of “protecting, improving and expanding public and private woodland assets.”

In the Statement, the Government also “welcomed” the Panel’s report and “accepted many of its recommendations in full”, including, but not limited to:

  • The importance of protecting our woodland assets;
  • The value of the Public Forest Estate, which will continue to benefit from public ownership, be held in trust for the nation and be managed by a new, operationally-independent body; and
  • The importance of preserving and maximising the social and environmental benefits provided by trees and woodlands, particularly in and around our towns and cities.

Thus, the Woodlands policy statement reaffirmed the government’s commitment to not sell off the public forest estate and also stated its intention to establish a new public forest management body.

Public Forest Estate Body

In July 2013, the Government published a paper building upon the Woodlands Policy Statement. This outlined the mission and objectives of its proposed new Public Forest Estate Management Organisation – a body with a provisional mission statement: “to protect and improve the public forests, woodland and other land assets held on behalf of the nation for the benefit of people, nature and the economy.”

The Government did caution that because the governance structures required primary legislation, when it was established would be dependent on the parliamentary timetable.

Legislation to establish this new Forest Estate Management Organisation was not included in the Queen’s speech in June 2014. Consequently, the Independent Forestry Panel issued an open letter to the Government in which they expressed regret that the Government had failed to bring forward legislation to protect the public forest estate. The Panel also urged all the political parties to legislate, as soon as possible, after the general election to bring forward a Bill on establishing a public body to manage the forest estate.

In August 2014, Defra Minister Lord De Mauley explained that the Government was still committed to establishing a new operationally independent public body to manage the estate. He continued that limited space within the Fourth Session programme meant that the proposed forestry measures could not be accommodated in the Parliamentary timetable.

Infrastructure Bill: Forest sell-off concerns

While there was no Forestry Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech, it did include the Infrastructure Bill, which makes provision for the Government’s proposals to fund, plan, manage and maintain the UK’s national infrastructure.

Upon seeing this Bill, environmental groups immediately raised concerns that provisions within the Bill could be used to sell-off public forest land. For example, the Woodland Trust stated that it was concerned about the potential implications for the forest estate of particular elements of the Bill and would therefore push for amendments to the Bill in order to protect the Public Forest Estate from sale.

The sale of the public forest estate was never the government’s stated intention for this Bill. On 1 July 2014, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Baroness Stowell made a statement that clauses within the Bill would not result in the sale of the public forest estate.

Despite these reassurances, campaign group 38 degrees launched a campaign in November 2014 calling for the forest estate to be excluded from clause 26 in the Bill. Over 150,000 38 Degrees members signed this petition.

Responding to the campaign on 6 November 2014, Local Government Minister Lord Ahmad stated that extra protection for forests would be put into the Infrastructure Bill. At Third Reading on 19 November 2014, the Government proposed a new clause extending protection to the public forest estate. The Bill has now moved to the Commons for further debate.

 David Hirst

For further information and background on the aborted sale of the Public forest estate, please see the Library Standard Note The Forestry Commission and the sale of public forests in England.”