Indie: Revealed: The true scale of Britain's woodland sell-off

Tony Gosling tony at
Sun Dec 18 20:55:05 GMT 2011

Revealed: The true scale of Britain's woodland sell-off
Forestry Commission forced to get rid of 
thousands of hectares as it attempts to balance the books
Brian Brady - Independent - Sunday 18 December 2011
Thousands of hectares of Britain's forests have 
been sold off by the Forestry Commission as it 
struggles to meet financial targets imposed by successive governments.
A detailed inventory of woodland sold off by the 
FC, which is charged with protecting our forests 
for future generations, shows that it has raked 
in millions from sales to private companies, many 
of which hold licences to carry out logging. 
Campaigners complain that several buyers have 
barred the public from newly acquired woodland, 
despite signing legally binding contracts saying 
they will preserve traditional rights of access.
The FC's own records show that between 1997 and 
2010 it sold almost 12,000 hectares of forest, in 
contrast with the 5,403 hectares acquired for the 
nation in the same period. An official account of 
transactions over the past decade obtained by 
this newspaper shows that more than 170 plots of 
public woodland have been sold to private buyers 
across the country since 2001. The largest was a 
712-hectare site at Threestoneburn Wood, 
Northumberland, sold for £2.7m in 2007.
Despite a public outcry over the Government's 
plans to sell the Forestry Commission's entire 
stock of public woodland earlier this year, sales 
have continued. Although Caroline Spelman, the 
Environment Secretary, abandoned plans to sell 
off England's 258,000 hectares of state-owned 
woodland in February, an independent forestry 
panel is currently mapping out its future.
Opponents of the plans last night claimed the 
Forestry Commission's long-term policy on 
woodland sales make a large-scale sell-off inevitable.
Ian Standing, honorary secretary of the Hands Off 
Our Forest campaign in the Forest of Dean, said: 
"Due to government pressure on the FC to balance 
its books, sales revenues appear to have funded 
revenue deficits. Thus there were major sales 
during the Blair years. And along with the 
forestry consultation of last January there was 
an order to the FC to sell off, right away, 15 
per cent of the English forest estate. This is 
now on hold pending the panel's final report in April."
While it awaits this, the FC is pressing ahead: 
it pushed through the controversial sale of 525 
hectares at the Stang, County Durham, last 
January, at the height of the row over the 
Government's plan to sell all public forests. The 
site, which produces 7,000 tonnes of timber a 
year, was bought by a London-based consultancy for over £3m.
Most recently, 36 hectares at Sawrey Ground, 
Ambleside, in the Lake District, were sold last 
March for £200,000 – although there was local 
opposition at the loss of a "historic forest". 
The FC's operations manager, John Bruce, said: "I 
hope people can understand we would rather keep 
hold of all our assets but we have to sell 2,000 hectares to keep afloat."
Maria Castellina, of the Ramblers, said: "Forest 
sales continue to be an issue as the Ramblers is 
also campaigning to open up the other 80 per cent 
of England's forests that remain in private hands."
An interim report from the forestry panel last 
week said the benefits of the country's publicly 
owned forests were "greatly undervalued" by the 
planned sell-off, and claimed the £20m-a-year 
cost of maintaining woodlands "delivers benefits far in excess of this".
The shadow Environment Secretary, Mary Creagh, 
added: "Labour wants a long-term future for our 
forests that will prevent the kind of 
smash-and-grab approach we saw from ministers earlier this year."
An FC spokesman said the organisation sold land 
"according to criteria agreed each year with 
respective ministers". He added: "The criteria 
tended to keep those woodlands with highest 
public benefit and conservation value and 
selected those woodlands with lowest public 
benefit or that were inefficient to manage."

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