Press release

New direction for England’s public forest estate

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Consultation document on the ownership and management of the 18% of England's woodland currently run by the Forestry Commission. 

England’s best known historic forests will be protected for future generations under proposals announced by Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman today. The transfer of heritage forests such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean to charitable trusts will mean walkers, riders and cyclists will still be able to enjoy them as they do at the moment.

The proposals are contained in a consultation document on the ownership and management of the 18% of England’s woodland currently run by the Forestry Commission.  The document lays out different approaches for different types of woodlands.

The plans make clear that these woodlands will not simply be sold off to the highest bidder. Instead they recognise that no two woodlands are the same and that no single ownership model is appropriate. The document suggests a mixed approach that would deliver benefits for users and taxpayers, and makes clear that public access and biodiversity will be protected.  The government will bring forward amendments to the Public Bodies Bill to ensure the public benefits the forests provide are protected.

The key proposals in the consultation document are that:

  • Heritage and community forests which provide high public benefits will be protected by inviting new or existing charitable organisations to take on ownership or management.
  • There will be opportunities created for community and civil society groups to buy or lease forests.
  • Commercially valuable forests will be leased to commercial operators. Leasing rather than selling will allow the lease conditions to ensure that the public benefits of these woodlands are preserved while allowing the operators to maximise their commercial potential.

These changes of ownership will allow the Forestry Commission to focus on its key roles of responding to outbreaks of tree pests and diseases, regulating felling and setting standards for sustainable forest management. The proposals would remedy the situation where the Commission is the largest commercial operator in the sector it also regulates.

The Government has already committed to taking 15% of the public forest estate out of state control over the course of this parliament, generating up to £100million of receipts. The consultation paper launched today invites views on a range of ownership and management options for the remaining 85% of the estate.  This will be an open consultation and Government will listen to all responses before publishing its response in the summer.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said:

“State control of forests dates back to the First World War, when needs were very different. There’s now no reason for the Government to be in the business of timber production and forest management. It’s time for the Government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England’s woodlands to play a much greater role in their future.

“We want to move from a ‘Big Government’ approach to a ‘Big Society’ one, so that we can give different groups - individuals, businesses and civil society organisations - the opportunity to be involved in managing the natural environment.  And we will make sure that public access is maintained and biodiversity protected.”

On amending the Public Bodies Bill, Mrs Spelman said:

“The government is absolutely committed to the ongoing provision and protection of the public benefits provided by the public forest estate, and the consultation shows how we intend to achieve this. We will bring forward amendments to the Public Bodies Bill to create a strengthened framework to safeguard the natural and social capital our forests provide now and for future generations. This would apply to the powers of sale, lease and management of the public forest estate. The consultation proposes that conditions will be attached to leases so that access and other public benefits are protected.”

The public forest estate makes up 18% of all woods and forests and 2% of the total land in England. The estate delivers a wide range of important public benefits, which will be protected, such as supporting biodiversity, storing carbon, supplying timber and energy and providing access to green space for recreation and employment opportunities.  The Forestry Commission has long bought and sold land but any woodland sold under the new proposals would benefit from increased protection.

Pam Warhurst, Chair of the Forestry Commission, said:

“Ministers have set out a new vision for forestry in England that will require a fundamental shift in our thinking and how we work. The proposals provide an opportunity to think about forest ownership and sustainable land management in a new way and to engage a wider cross-section of society. The consultation will allow people to have their say and we encourage everyone with an interest to give us their views.”

The Forestry Commission will continue to provide expertise on a wide range of tree-related matters, including tree health, the environmental role of woodlands, the links with climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the social and economic benefits of forestry.

Reform of the public forestry estate is expected to take place over the next decade with the Government’s overall policy approach to domestic forestry being set out in the Natural Environment White Paper in spring 2011.  

Notes

  1. The consultation will run from 27 January 2011 to 21 April 2011. Details of the consultation can be found on National Archives website or on the Forestry Commission website at: www.forestry.gov.uk/england-pfeconsultation

  2. The proposals set out in the consultation are designed to protect public and environmental benefits:

a) We will secure continuing good stewardship by requiring adherence to internationally recognised standards of sustainable forest management as part of any leasing arrangements. These standards cover in particular, woodland design, conservation and enhancement of biodiversity and the well-being of local communities and forestry workers;

b) Statutory rights of way and dedications under the right to roam legislation will remain in place. Where there is currently permissive access, for example by bike and horse, we will seek to secure equivalent rights as part of any transfer to new owners and managers;

c) The Forestry Commission’s felling regime will remain in place, alongside the presumption of replanting. Any change of use will be subject to strict controls under the planning system. It is simply wrong to suggest that our forests will be chopped down for housing development or conversion into golf courses; and

d) We will seek to agree the continuing restoration of plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS) with any new owners and managers.

  1. There are numerous safeguards in place which will ensure that public benefits provided by our woods and forests are protected if they pass into private ownership.  These safeguards include:
  • regulations governing felling and replanting;
  • protection for biodiversity through the Wildlife and Countryside Act and Sites of Special Scientific Interest;
  • incentives to protect ancient woodland;
  • guarantees for public access - the majority of the freehold areas of the public forestry estate are protected for access on foot by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act;
  • protection of ancient monuments is overseen by English Heritage;
  • any proposals for development would be subject to the Town and Country Planning process; and
  • Biosecurity - the Plant Health Act sets out a legal framework for the control of pests and diseases of forest tress and timber.
  1. The Forestry Commission has always bought and sold land to achieve operational efficiency. In last ten years, they have sold 7,800ha and acquired 5,400ha of woodland.

  2. Selling 15% of the public forest estate is part of Defra’s Spending Review settlement and will help to contribute to tackling the deficit.  The sites that will be sold will be woodlands where Forestry Commission activity adds the least in enhanced public benefit and do not contribute significant revenue to the running of the estate. 

  3. Any forest or wood for which a suitable offer cannot be achieved will continue to be part of the publicly owned forest estate.

This consultation focuses on the public forest estate in England. The woodland managed by the Forestry Commission in Wales and Scotland is the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government.

Written Ministerial Statement

Public consultation on the future of the Public Forest Estate in England  - The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Caroline Spelman)

I have today published a public consultation on the future of the Public Forest Estate in England. A copy of the consultation document is available through the National Archives website and  the Forestry Commission website at: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/england-pfeconsultation and I have placed copies in the libraries of both Houses.

The Public Forest Estate in England is around 258,000 hectares of Government-owned land managed by the Forestry Commission. It represents less than one fifth of the woodlands of England, with the majority of the remainder in private and voluntary sector ownership.  The estate was started at a time of national crisis after the First World War, with severe shortages of timber and a woodland resource depleted to less than 5% of the land area in Great Britain. 

In line with the Government’s broad policy to effect a shift from Big Government to Big Society, the consultation sets out the rationale for reducing state ownership and management of forest resources. The status quo is not an option. There is a fundamental conflict of interest in the Forestry Commission’s role. It is the largest player in the commercial forestry sector, a sector it also regulates.

The Government’s approach to looking at new models of ownership and management of the Public Forest Estate in England will be underpinned by a set of key principles which are designed to protect public access and other public benefits that so many enjoy. The Government’s proposals, on which the consultation seeks views, are for a mixed approach which includes:

  • Recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the different types of woodland and forestry;
  • Inviting new or existing charitable organisations to take on ownership or management of the heritage forests in order to secure their public benefits future generations to enjoy;
  • Creating opportunities for community and civil society groups to buy or lease forests that they wish to own or manage; and
  • Issuing long-term leases on the large-scale commercially valuable forests. By leasing rather than selling, it will be possible to ensure that the public can continue to enjoy their benefits.

The Government is committed to the ongoing provision and protection of the public benefits provided by the public forest estate. The policy we are consulting on shows how we intend to achieve this.  We will ensure that the powers in the Public Bodies Bill reflect our policy objectives, so that the powers and duties within it are strengthened to safeguard the natural and social capital our forests provide now and for future generations. This would apply to the powers of sale, lease and management of the public forest estate. The consultation proposes that conditions will be attached to leases so that access and other public benefits are protected. We will consider:

  • introducing a general duty on the Government to have regard to the maintenance of public benefits when exercising the powers under the Bill;
  • exempting the most iconic heritage forests from the full range of options so that for example, the Forest of Dean or the New Forest could only be transferred to a charitable organisation or remain in public ownership, in line with the policy as set out in the consultation.

The Forestry Commission will play an important role in supporting the wider forestry sector - through its regulatory, grant-giving, research and expert advisory roles - to provide a wide-range of public benefits.

The consultation relates to 85% of the Public Forest Estate. The remaining 15% is covered by the Spending Review settlement, announced in October 2010.

I am today publishing tightened criteria for those sales under the Forestry Commission’s programme to deliver £100 million in gross receipts during 2011-15. During 2010, the Forestry Commission’s asset disposal programme continued under criteria established by the previous administration. At the end of 2010, pending review of the sales criteria, Ministers withdrew some sites from sale. The new criteria have been amended to strengthen the protection of public benefits through the withdrawal from sale of woodlands with significant areas of unrestored plantations on ancient woodland sites.