Fixing forestry


The knee-jerk public and celebrity outrage is entirely predictable. We saw it thirty years ago when the government was trying to sell off other 'priceless national assets' like the telephones (where business customers used to wait three months to get a phone line, and for domestic customers it was eighteen), the steel plants (which lost £1m a day) and the gas board (need I say more?). Now we're told the nation's forestry heritage is up for grabs.

From the sound of it, you might think that Britain's forests are going to be sold off to keep Rupert Murdoch in paper, or maybe concreted over for car parking. Hardly. State forestry is a mess, and private ownership will revitalize it, and will actually extend the public amenity that our forests afford us. Private owners are actually more likely to encourage public access than the Commission has been – they can see more commercial potential in doing precisely that.

The Forestry Commission already plans to sell small bits of its forest estate, which will earn taxpayers a useful £100m. The question mooted by the government today is whether it should sell the whole lot. That's actually no really big deal. The Commission owns only a fifth of England's forest land. Most of the rest, about 68%, is already in private hands. (Various government departments, like Defence, own other bits too.) Many of the celebs who are saying how much they love forests could well be thinking about ones that are already private.

And private forestry is already heavily regulated in terms of the owners' obligations to the protection of nature, logging schedules, public access, and development. Thos protections would remain, even if the whole estate were sold. And indeed there would be extra protections for ancient woodlands like the Dean, New, and Sherwood forests. As in New Zealand and other countries, there could be a mixture of commercial, non-profit, community and mixed ownership.

Right now, the Forestry Commission is compromised. It is supposed to be the regulator, but it is also the biggest owner and manager on the block. You can't be poacher and gamekeeper at the same time. The whole of its forestry estate should be sold, and it should become the pure regulator, protecting those amenities that the celebs are screeching about.