The government’s plans for state forestry are so weak and feeble that it is hard to understand why there is so much fuss about them. Maybe people do not realise that three-quarters of the English woodland that they love so much is already privately owned. And those private owners face strict standards on public access and recreation, environmental quality, and conservation. So why is there so much fuss about selling the rest?
People forget that broadleaf woodlands comprise just 8 percent of the Forestry Commission’s estate. The other 92 percent is farmland and conifer plantations, and it is hard to get worked up about who owns either of those. But according to business analyst Miles Saltiel in a new report for the Adam Smith Institute, just those parts of the estate – forgetting the touchy-feely broadleaf stuff – could bring in a rather useful £4.3 billion for hard-pressed taxpayers.
The endless acres of identikit Forestry Commission conifers are a blot on the landscape. They are dense and impenetrable: so much for public access. They do little or nothing for rural employment. They discourage biodiversity and wildlife with their monoculture. They are poorly managed. And they lose money – the Forestry Commission cannot even cover its costs.
On every measure that the objectors should cherish, in other words, the present arrangement is a complete failure. It is not fit for purpose.
The government’s limp proposals talk about leasing, not selling, the forests, and involving charities and all sorts of ‘civil society’ groups. Why? The regulation on private owners strictly maintains the public interest, and private owners would be far more dynamic managers. Private owners would bring new ideas and new capital into forestry.
But we need to think more widely than just England. Other parts of the UK should be selling the state forests too. That is not in the government’s plans, though, because under devolution, the Forestry Commission is split into separate parts for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. With four sets of accounts (and more for its separate production and management functions), it is hard to know what it’s up to. It is effectively unaccountable.
And that is bad news, given that the Commission is not just the regulator for the forestry industry, but the biggest owner, manager and producer in that industry. Such a conflict of interest would never be allowed in any other sector – certainly not any other private sector. We should stop pussyfooting and get the state out of forestry entirely.
Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith InstituteTags: Big Society, Coalition, Economy, Environment, Forestry, Heritage, Private sector, Privatisation, Public sector, UK politics