Campaigners critique 'draconian' forest sell-off law

Tony Gosling tony at
Wed Nov 10 19:58:59 GMT 2010

Campaigners question need for 'draconian' forest sell-off law
Liz Roberts, Reporter
Tuesday 09 November 2010 01:27 PM GMT
Last updated at Tuesday 09 November 2010 01:29 PM GMT

The coalition Government was accused of taking on 
draconian powers in a move that could see access 
to England’s forests curtailed.

The Open Spaces Society expressed its suspicion 
about the Public Bodies Bill, which has its 
second reading in the Lords today, saying it 
gives the Government the right to alter how the 
Forestry Commission disposes of land, manages it, and uses it.

The Secretary of State can use this power for 
‘any purpose and unconditionally’ under the proposed legislation.

In a briefing sent to members of the House of 
Lords, the OSS general secretary Kate Ashbrook 
said: “It is hard to conceive why ministers want 
such draconian powers unless they intend to 
dispose of much or all of the Forestry Commission’s estate.

“At present, the public has a right to roam on 90 
per cent of the 200,000ha of freehold Forestry 
Commission land in England – an area the size of West Sussex.

“The access is provided by a dedication under 
section 16 of the Countryside and Rights of Way 
Act 2000.  This land provides immense pleasure to 
people, for recreation and relaxation. The 
recreational opportunities are as varied as the forests themselves.

“The minister must guarantee that those public 
rights of access will continue forever, 
regardless of land ownership.  He must also 
guarantee that the quality of those rights will 
be maintained, with good access points, clearly 
waymarked trails, picnic sites, interpretation and education opportunities.

“The Forestry Commission has a fine record for excellent-quality access.”

Ms Ashbrook pointed out that if the land is used 
for another purpose the access to it may be lost, 
because it could become ‘excepted land’ to which 
the Countryside and Rights of Way Act does not apply.

“We fear that the effect of this bill will be the 
wholesale loss of public access and enjoyment, 
not only in the famous woods and forests like the 
New Forest, Kielder, Bedgebury and Westonbirt 
arboreta, Cannock Chase and the Forest of Dean, 
but in numerous smaller woods close to people’s 
home – their local breathing spaces,” she continued.

“There has been no consultation about this 
measure, which could have a damaging effect on 
people’s lives.  We hope that the Government will 
rethink these devastating proposals.”

The Open Spaces Society call echoes that of the 
Ramblers last week. Their chief executive Tom 
Franklin said:  “We are seeking assurances from 
government that guaranteed public access will be 
a prerequisite of any sale so that we can all 
continue to enjoy a woodland walk, and that the 
right to access British forests will be protected for future generations.”

More than 58,000 people have so far signed a 38 
Degrees petition against the sell-off of Forestry 
Commission land in England. In Scotland and 
Wales, the devolved issue will be dealt with by 
the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government.

Minister confirms forest sell-off plans
Liz Roberts, Reporter
Friday 29 October 2010 07:04 PM GMT

Much of England's forest land will be sold to private owners

The coalition Government today confirmed reports 
that large tranches of publicly owned forestry will be sold off.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural 
Affairs said it intended to fundamentally reform 
the public forestry estate, with private owners 
and ‘civil society partners’ taking over much of 
the Forestry Commission’s land.

The confirmation of the widely leaked plans came 
in a letter sent by Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman to MPs.

In the letter, she said: “We are committed to 
shifting the balance of power from ‘Big 
Government’ to ‘Big Society’ by giving 
individuals, businesses, civil society 
organisations and local authorities a much bigger 
role in protecting and enhancing the natural 
environment and a much bigger say about our priorities for it.

“We envisage a managed programme of reform to 
further develop a competitive, thriving and 
resilient forestry sector that includes many 
sustainably managed woods operating as parts of viable land-based businesses.”

The Public Bodies Bill, which was published by 
the Cabinet Office today, contains sweeping 
powers to abolish or reform public bodies beyond 
those detailed earlier this month in the 
Government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’, will clear 
the way for the privatisation of much of the 
Forestry Commission’s land in England.

The Cabinet Office said: “Where proposed changes 
have implications for the devolved 
administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern 
Ireland, the Government will continue to work 
closely with them to develop and implement changes.”

Defra’s plans have caused consternation among 
walkers, mountain bikers and other outdoor 
enthusiasts, who fear recreational access will be 
curtailed by private owners of woodland and 
forest. An online petition by pressure group 38 
Degrees had, at the time of writing, attracted 
almost 27,000 signatures against the sell-off.
Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman

However, Ms Spelman said: “Full measures will 
remain in place to preserve the public benefits 
of woods and forests under any new ownership 
arrangements. Tree felling is controlled through 
the licensing system managed by the Forestry 
Commission; public rights of way and access will 
be unaffected; statutory protection for wildlife 
will remain in force and there will be grant 
incentives for new planting that can be applied for.”

When the plans were first revealed, Green MP 
Caroline Lucas said: “If Government plans mean 
vast areas of valuable forest being sold to 
private developers, it will be unforgiveable act of environmental vandalism.”

And Allan MacKenzie, secretary of the Forestry 
Commission Trade Unions, said: “We will oppose 
any land sale. Once we’ve sold it, it never comes back.

“Once it is sold restrictions are placed on the 
land which means the public don’t get the same 
access to the land and facilities that are 
provided by the public forest estate.”

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