With an irony that will be lost on the ideologues of the ConDem Government, 2011 is the International Year of Forests. The UK’s response to this UN led drive to raise awareness among people of the importance of woodland will be to sell off England’s publicly owned woodland. [The sell-off proposals only apply to England, thankfully for the other British Nations this is a devolved function]
England is no longer a well-wooded country, with only 9% of its land area designated as forest. A long history of clearances and the depredations of the industrial revolution denuded the once lush natural woodland cover that would, if left to nature, cover much of the land area. By the end of the first Word War, cover was down to less than 5% and our strategic reserves of timber reaching crisis point. Blockaded, the UK had come close to defeat through a lack of pit props, which threatened our ability to mine the coal desperately needed for the war effort. In 1919, the Liberal-Tory coalition of Lloyd-George responded to this by establishing the Forestry Commission, giving it the task of replanting and managing our Forests as a strategic reserve. It is with further irony that the present alliance of these Parties is set to emasculate the Commission.
How Lloyd George, Liberal father of the welfare state, must be turning in his grave!
The English Public Forest Estate [PFE] is made up of over 1000 woods covering 258,000 hectares, 18% of English woodland. Of this area, 24% is ancient woodland and 10% classified as priority conservation areas. 45% of the woodland is in the National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and 26% are Sites of Special Scientific Interest. These figures demonstrate the heritage and ecological value of publicly owned woodland. To add to its public value, 90% of the Forestry Commissions free holding is open to public access. In Derbyshire, there are 3154 ha of Commission woodland, from the Heritage woods of Ladybower to part of the new National Forest in South Derbyshire.
In simple monetary terms, the PFE is currently valued at around £700 million, a mere drop in the ocean of the National Debt of £950 billion. In 2007-8, the net cost of managing the estate was £15 million, after accounting for profits of about £60 million. This is about 30p per person in England. Put this in perspective. The official cost of the Bank bailout, agreed by the Treasury, was £850 billion of public money. This is £13,755 per UK resident. At least Caroline Spelman, Minister charged with the job of overseeing the sale, admitted that this was not a revenue generating exercise by a cash-strapped Government. What she would not admit was this is ideologically driven – that the Tory landowners want this land under their control.
One of the first acts of the Thatcher administration in the 1980’s was to enable the sale of public woodland through the 1981 Forest Act, resulting in the sale of thousands of acres of public land. The Labour Government reined in this policy after 1997, with about 10,000 ha of ‘surplus’ land being sold over the next decade. This was land considered marginal to the Forestry Commission’s core business. On coming to power, the Tories once again lined up this publicly owned land for sale, immediately planning to sell 40,000 ha, and planning to change the law to allow the disposal of most of the rest.
What is their motivation? Spelman says it is not primarily economic. When fully worked out – that is when all values are based on the restrictive covenants that the Tories are promising – it is likely that there will be no net gain to the Treasury from their policy. She claims that one of the main motives for a sale was the need to ‘enhance biodiversity.’ Other’s claim that sale to the private sector will enhance ‘public enjoyment of woodland’. These claims do not stand up to analysis and are frankly laughable. Certainly, there are well-managed private woodlands with excellent public facilities. Most of these facilities are charged for, and, reading the small print you will find that access is concessionary and not a public right ‘in perpetuity’ as with present Forestry Commission owned land.
Since the Norman invasion, land ownership has underpinned the power structure of this country. The Conqueror awarded his loyal lieutenants rich country estates and there after, crowned heads continued to buy loyalty with gifts of land. All this built on the presumption that the land area of the British Islands belonged to the monarch. The ordinary British people did not quite see it this way and fought to keep traditional common rights of use and passage. But the greed of their Lordships knew no bounds; they excluded the people, denied common rights, hung them, flogged them, and transported them if they had the effrontery to try to exercise these rights by taking small animals for the stew pot or wood with which to heat it. Land ownership was the clear line in the sand that divided the ruled from the rulers – and that is the way the descendents of the Norman Barons want to keep it.
History aside, there is another reason for the sell-off that fits in with the right wing agenda of this Government, tax avoidance. Investors who buy woodland can benefit from a range of grants and tax incentives and tax avoidance loopholes designed to encourage private ownership of woodlands in the UK. The income and profits from timber sales in woodlands managed commercially are free from both Income and Corporation Tax and after two years of ownership, woodland is not subject to inheritance tax. With a shortage of such investment woodland on the market, the Tories, with the help of the Liberal Democrats, are offering public land as tax-free investments to their loyal and rich supporters. So once the land is sold, it will provide zero return for the taxpayer.
No matter what Spelman says, incorporating this private landholding in to a strategic plan for biodiversity, for watershed management, for erosion control, as a reserve of a vital resource, as a managed carbon sink and as a national recreational asset will be all the more difficult for being split up and managed according to different criteria. Forging agreements that will last hundreds of years, across a wide range of different interests, many with a commercial imperative as the bottom line will be expensive. The private players will want and expect public subsidy if they are to act in the public interest. This policy therefore has a price tag that we will have to pay. The Tories are selling an asset that could at the very least is revenue neutral, and are creating a liability, the scale of which they have no clue.
What can you do? Look at the Defra consultation, which is open until 21st April 2011.http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/forests/index.htm.
Support the Woodland Trust that has a petition and a response to the consultation.http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/Pages/default.aspx
Sign the petition by 38 Degrees opposing the sale, and join in their campaign. http://38degrees.org.uk/
Write to your MP stating clearly your views and seeking his or her position. Publicise both through letters to the papers. Make your voice loud and clear, ‘Our Forests are Not for Sale.’
[Mike Shipley, 30 January2011]