Will they see the wood for the trees at Thetford Forest?

A major consultation launched today will seek to determine public feeling about a government proposal to privatise a large swathe of Forestry Commission land. REBECCA GOUGH took a closer look at what this could mean for the future of woodland in our region.

Ministers are finalising plans for a mass sale of forests which could potentially net the treasury hundreds of millions of pounds.

But the news has appalled users of the woodlands, including those at Thetford Forest which, in 2009, saw 120,000 people take advantage of its cycle and walking routes and open spaces.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman today launched a public consultation into the proposals but with as much as half of Forestry Commission land potentially being privatised, what could be the country's biggest land sale has prompted much debate – despite a lack of detail so far on how the changes could be implemented.

Anne Mason, chairman of the Friends of Thetford Forest Park (FOTFP), has ratcheted up a campaign to keep the forest open to everyone amid fears that privatisation would restrict access.

She hopes to persuade people to tick the Forestry Commission box when it comes to choosing potential owners – effectively maintaining the status quo.

'We have two primary concerns at the moment,' she said. 'One is that we still haven't had a guarantee from Caroline Spelman or Jim Paice [minister of state for agriculture and food] that in the public consultation the Forestry Commission will be included in any list of potential future owners.

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'Our second concern is the Public Bodies Bill, which is in the House of Lords at the moment and has two clauses, 17 and 18, which would give the government the power to sell off the commission.

'We can't reconcile the pubic consultation and the bill.'

She also raised concerns that if forestry staff were lost, essential skills would disappear which could affect the nation's timber resources, wildlife and archaeology.

The Friends group has been working in the forest park for 15 years and sees itself as an example of the government's own Big Society concept. But it says it could not carry out its work without the help and guidance of forest staff.

Nor could the volunteers, who have raised �90,000 since 1995, dedicate time and resourses to managing a commercially-run forest.

Ms Mason added: 'Many of us on the committee are still in full-time work and we cannot give the number of hours needed to take on the management of what's the largest lowland man-made forest in the country.'

South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss said she did not believe the bill would affect Forestry Commission proposals but was in the process of arranging a meeting between Mr Paice and FOTFP for the group to air its concerns.

She added: 'I understand the bio-diversity and access routes will be protected and that it will be economically beneficial.

'If that's the case I think it's a good idea to go ahead. I use Thetford Forest myself and I well understand what a great asset it is but I think we should be open-minded about how it can be managed better.'

There are those who agree with FOTFP though.

Currently, only walkers have an automatic right to access within private land which means horse riders, picnickers and campers, as well as thousands of other people, could be cut off if the forest were sold.

Carole Jackson, secretary for the Mid Norfolk Ramblers Association, said there was nowhere else like Thetford Forest within Norfolk. She added: 'I think it's a great concern because we're used to using the forest and I can't see there are any guarantees this space is going to be kept open. We want access to it in perpetuity really.

'In one breath they're saying they want people to spend more time outdoors and walk and live a healthy life, and then they're going to take away an area that's used not just by walkers but families and cyclists.'

A letter was also released nationally last week, signed by almost 100 dignitaries who branded any sale unconscionable' and 'ill-conceived'.

The signatories, organised by a new campaign group, Save England's Forests, include Dr Rowan Williams; Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate; Dame Judi Dench, the Oscar-winning actress; and Bill Bryson, the author and president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

The campaigners' letter stated: 'Our forests nurture countless species of native plants and wildlife. We have relied on them since time immemorial yet we are only a heartbeat in their history. We who know the value of the forests fear that, over time, the public's access to them will be limited and their protection, eroded.'

In addition, executive members of the Mid and South West Norfolk Liberal Democrat Constituency Parties voted unanimously in favour of retaining the status quo.

The Forestry Commission already runs itself as a business and, in its own words, has always 'bought, leased and sold land as part of good asset management'.

In 2009 alone, 51 sites were sold, totalling 2,500 acres, with another 37 woods covering 2,000 acres sold last year. In the current financial year, the Forestry Commission anticipates it will make around �13.5m from open market sales – focusing on sites with good sale value but where Forestry Commission ownership adds least value.

So why the need for a review of our forests?

In a letter to MPs announcing the decision to reform the forestry estate, Defra said: 'We are committed to shifting the balance of power from big government to big society by giving individuals, businesses, civil society organisations and local authorities a much bigger role in protecting and enhancing the natural environment and a much bigger say about our priorities for it.'

While it went on to say grant systems would be in place and access and rights of way would be unaffected, there are thousands of members of the public who believe otherwise.

An online petition has collected more than 171,000 signatures, while community groups and individual users continue to ratchet up awareness on the issues sacrificing access could have.

But West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock said he believed there could be benefits to the sale of Thetford Forest.

'When the government gives reassurances like that it takes that very seriously,' he said.

'Having been to Thetford Forest and spoken to people who run privately owned parts of the forest I don't think it would have a very big impact.

'At the moment much of our wood is imported for high value products like construction timber. In Thetford, it's used for wood fuel or low value products like fence posts. In terms of the economy we could get a lot more out of it and use it for high value usage and I think that's what's part of the proposals.'

A Defra spokesman added: 'We will consult on our proposals this week to invite interest from a wide range of potential private and civil society partners on a number of new ownership options and the means to secure public benefits. No decisions have been taken on any particular sites.

'We will not compromise the protection of our most valuable and bio-diverse forests.

The Forestry Commission has and will play an important role in protecting and expanding the trees, woods and forests in England.'

*The public consultation on the future of the public forest estate in England runs for 12 weeks until April 21.

*You can see the consultation document on the website www.forestry.gov.uk/england-pfeconsultation or www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/forests/index.htm.

Or you can request a hard copy by ringing 0845 3673787 or writing to Public Forest Estate Consultation Co-ordinator, Forestry Commission England, 620 Bristol Business Park, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol, BS16 1EJ.