By CHRIS HILL
, Rural affairs correspondent
Thursday, January 31, 2013
A new independent body will own, maintain and preserve East Anglia’s public forests for future generations, government ministers announced today.
Environment secretary Owen Paterson said an organisation would be established to work alongside the Forestry Commission to safeguard woodland in places such as Thetford Forest.
“I want to put the future of our public forests on a clear and firm footing,” he said. “Our forests and woodland will remain secured in public ownership for the people who enjoy them, the businesses that depend on them and the wildlife that flourishes in them.”
The announcement formed part of the government’s response to a report by the Independent Panel on Forestry (IPF) – appointed in the aftermath of the U-turn which resulted from a public outcry over the proposed sell-off of forests last summer.
The government policy supports the IPF’s vision for expanding wooded areas, improving public access and boosting the economic performance of the forestry sector.
It was welcomed by campaigners including South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, whose constituency contains part of Thetford Forest.
“Today’s statement is really excellent news,” she said. “I am particularly pleased that there is the emphasis on tree-planting and giving greater priority to tree and plant health. Thetford Forest is a superb example of a forest which has unique biodiversity, supports multiple recreational pursuits, attracting tourists as well sustaining commercial woodland activities.
“The statement refers to the promotion of community involvement in the management of woodlands. This is already a reality in South West Norfolk with the Friends of Thetford Forest actively engaged with the activities of the forest.
“There is the encouragement of more woodland based businesses like tourism and leisure. This is particularly relevant in the Brecks where the area is being promoted as a destination in its own right with Thetford Forest supporting new enterprises such as eco camping.
“I will be inviting the Defra Secretary of State to tour the forest with me to meet some of the individuals and organisations that make Thetford Forest a wonderful and unique environment, as well generating a valuable source of income for the local economy.”
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents private forestry owners in the East of England, also welcomed the government’s response to the IFP report.
CLA East director Nicola Currie said: “This statement of forestry policy is timely and encouraging. It is particularly good that the government has reiterated its pledge to give a higher priority to tree and plant health than ever before with up to £8.5m found from various sources to undertake in-depth research into tree diseases.”
Sir Harry Studholme, chairman of the Forestry Commission said: “The Government has published a positive response to a positive report and this is good news as it provides a firm foundation on which to build the future of forestry in England.
“It is clear the Government will preserve the nation’s public forests for the future. The new policy underlines the value of our natural resources and how important woods are to communities.
“Crucially, the report recognises the value of woods to the wider rural economy and that a strong economy will drive all the benefits we get from our woods and forests.”
Although few details were given about the structure of the new independent body, forests minister David Heath said it would have “greater independence from government and greater freedom to manage its resources and maximise its income through commercial activity.”
Sue Holden, chief executive of the Woodland Trust, said: “We welcome the government’s reaffirmation that the public forest estate will be overseen by a publicly-accountable body, but urgently need clarification on plans for the future of forest services as we are concerned that this remains uncertain.”
The government’s policy statement also provoked questions from Prospect, the union representing Forestry Commission staff, which asked why a new body was necessary, and how essential expertise to battle threats from tree diseases could be maintained if cuts to forestry staff continued.
Sue Ferns, Prospect’s director of communications and research, said: “We welcome the government’s commitment to continued public ownership of the Public Forest Estate. But it is disappointing that it has taken six months to respond to the IPF’s report and, as we feared, has continued to make cuts in the meantime. The new policy statement will lead to unnecessary and disruptive change.”
As well as creating a new independent body to safeguard the nation’s public forests, today’s government announcement included a commitment to increase the country’s woodland cover from 10pc to 12pc – although the IPR recommended it should increase to 15pc.
However, the government is increasing the amount of money that will be spent on forests, boosting the Forestry Commission’s 2013/14 budget by £3.5m to make up for lost income from sales of woodland.
It is also allocating £2m to recognise the additional pressures arising from the outbreak of Chalara ash dieback disease and the importance of implementing response measures.
There are more than 1,000 publicly-owned forests in England, covering an estimated 258,000 hectares.
The Public Forest Estate (PFE), which accounts for about 18pc of English woodlands, has been valued at about £700m and costs about £15m per year to manage, equivalent to about 30p per year per person in England.