Govt's plans for England's Forests - summary

MarkiB mark at
Sat Feb 19 14:10:43 GMT 2011

As Dave has said, the government's proposals for a 15% sell-off over the
next 4 years are still in the pipe-line.  Despite now ditching clause 17 &
18 of the Public Bodies Bill, within the existing legal framework, the
government can sell-off up to 15% of it’s public forests in each four-year
public spending period.  The existing 15% sell-off and future sales are now
subject to them agreeing new acceptable criteria for sale which they are
consulting on now in a review (the consultation into the future ownership
and management of the public forest estate in England has been cancelled
with the ditching of Clause 16 & 17 – a consultation which was premised on
narrow terms of reference of only how public sell off should occur).

The new panel of experts set up to look at public access and biodiversity
within the publicly owned woodland is to be occupied with representatives
of the big NGOs (such as English Heritage and the Woodland Trust) – whom
some have said were initially slow to respond critically to the
government’s unconditional sell-off proposals (see other email).

The suspicion that this raison-detre of public sell-off will continue
irrespective of a proper evaluation of the singlemost importance of the
Forestry Commission in how it manages our woodland puts the onus on us as
landrights campaigners to maintain and build upon the amazing groundswell
of resistance against the government's initial plans and the networks which
brought it about.  We must be clear why we value them in Public ownership
and why that is important as Dave Bangs has done and which I admit I have
been confused on, having initially thought that transforming the FC into
more of a regulatory body would be sufficient (it wouldn't).

The government's fast-track cuts agenda is preempting the agenda for
sell-off to excuse cuts in the Forestry Commission deemed necessary in
response to a 25% reduction in DEFRA’s funding imposed by the government as
part of the comprehensive spending review. And with dark forboding, this
shrinking of the Forestry Commission’s capacity comes at a time when there
is a frightening spread of Sudden-Oak death across our natural and
semi-natural woodland.

This crisis perhaps provides further weight to my earlier contention that
the FC’s operational mandate should be strengthened to increase (as opposed
to reducing) it’s current capacity to employ more thorough all-encompassing
regulatory mechanisms in the management of all woodland across the UK. 

It also provides an opportunity to rally behind a public defence of the
country's public forest management body so that it is better equipped to
defend our broadleaved heritage from a rapidly spreading disease. 

RE: this debate about the public ownership of forests as against the
exploration of what community ownership of forests would mean:

On the surface, the idea of community-owned forests and the idea of a
flurry of small forestry businesses springing up based in local areas all
over the country is appealing.  However, even whilst a regulated sale that
ensured sales of forest was only sold onto community trusts or cooperatives
embedded in the immediate locality, even this such scenerio such
investments in forestry could not be guaranteed to not be prey to vulture
capitalists in the future overtime. As with every other sector of the
economy, not least the market in land, we know that capitalism tends
towards market concentration over time, as Marx says (capitalist monopoly).
That would be the threat to once state-owned forests, which in any case
from the outset in the first instance would likely to be bought up not by
the community or local cooperatives but by the highest bidder - large
forestry companies and agents within international venture capitalism.

The other side of this is that with a contract and convergence model of
the economy associated with a new carbon-reduction economic model and which
is frankly also the logical future trajectory in terms of long term
slowdown of economic growth in post-industrilased society, the idea of a
national resource like forestry being utilised by small community
businesses up and down the country as part of a new decentralised
rural-based economy seems compatible with that vision. But how to do it? 
I'd humbly suggest with public ownership retained through leasing of
parcels of forestry. To whom? Well, that is the question. How does one
define a 'community business'. Maybe a locally based cooperative? But
under the dictatorship of world trade/EU competition rules, exclusive
marketing to only community based cooperatives would be in breach of these
rules that underpin our capitalist dictatorship.

... or maybe it's time we all started to just ignore them......


Though the Forestry Commission controls only 18% of woodland the
Commission produces 60% of home grown timber, and harvests 92% of its
softwood increment, as opposed to just 37% in the private sector. The
public forest estate counters the business cycle by a steady timber harvest
irrespective of market conditions. They maintain their network of staff and
contractors, their forest infrastructure and year-on-year thinning and
planting operations, irrespective of market conditions because they know
that, if they don't, their long term forest plans are jeopardized. By
contrast, only 60% of all private woodlands are in management schemes, and
commercial pheasant shooting represents the only real management many of
the woods in my county receive. My countryside is tarnished with privately
owned semi-derelict forestry plantings, ancient woodlands strangled by
invasive rhododendron, giant veteran trees strangled by encroaching
conifers, and gill woodlands dating back to the 'wildwood'now flooded for
commercial duck shooting ponds.

But the Commission doesn't just grow trees. They are a major player in the
restoration of ancient woodland, as well as endangered heath, mire, fell,
and other open habitats. About 26% of Forestry Commission land has SSSI
status and 96% of this is in favourable condition. The Forestry Commission
today bears no resemblance to the Commission of a generation ago, with its
narrow remit to grow conifers, conifers, and conifers, irrespective of
landscape and wildlife. Their recent dedication of their entire freehold
estate as statutory access land, and their energetic creation of Community
Forests and multi-purpose urban fringe and brown field woodlands, exemplify
a major progressive turn.

Down here in Brighton we have some previous experience of the bureaucratic
inertia of the conservation NGOs. Fifteen years ago the Labour Council
proposed privatizing our 13,000 acre farmed downland estate. Every one of
the rich local conservation organisations accepted that the privatisation
could not be stopped, and contented themselves with seeking tokenistic
measures of amelioration. A hastily cobbled together coalition of
community and wildlife activists 'Keep Our Downs Public' refused to accept
this sell-out, campaigned furiously, and won. This victory set the scene
for four more successful local anti-privatisation struggles, including a
77% tenants' vote against council housing stock transfer, and a recent
success against the privatisation of council-owned downland at nearby

The lesson is clear. We need a two-pronged battle. First, the widest
possible independent mobilization against this privatization, on a clear
demand for the protection and expansion of the public forest estate as an
exemplar for a people's countryside, and, secondly, a hard challenge to the
rich NGOs to adopt a common position of refusal to take over any privatized
fragments of the Forestry Commission estate. Such a boycott will blow out
of the water the government's smokescreen proposals for an increased role
for the 'third sector', social enterprises, and community control.

If we do not succeed in this the ramifications of failure will spread far
beyond the decline and commercialization of ex-Forestry Commission land,
for the fire-fighting role of the NGOs will be even further compromised. We
will be faced with a huge diversion of the energy of countryside NGOs and
activists to the effort to absorb chunks of privatised forest and preserve
their public values, without the commercial cross-funding and professional
resources of the Commission.

The struggle for the public forest estate is one that we CAN win, and in
so doing we can make further gains. We can use this campaign to re-connect
people with the wider countryside and its problems. Down here in the south
east many of our Forestry Commission estates are scattered and relatively
remote. Our campaign will make sure that the public get to know better what
they are at risk of losing.

We can, too, gain traction for the case for greater democracy and local
initiative in the management of public forests, without fragmenting
ownership and strategic control amongst a rag tag of third sector
organizations, private forestry companies and landowners.

State ownership's major advantage is that it subtracts a resource, at
least partially, from the irrationality and greed of the market. The answer
for our public forests is the same as the answer for our economy.
We need more democratic public ownership and economy-wide planning -
enough to break the dominance of the market not some porridge of private
businesses and social enterprises struggling for market share.

'Keep Our Forests Public' is a new coalition formed with the intention of
galvanising campaigning activity across the Forestry Commission's South
East Region.

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