The Woods and the Trees

The CONDEM proposals for selling of forests owned by the Forest Commissions have attracted, quite rightly, a lot of opprobrium, with particularly concern expressed about the potential threats to both the natural and cultural heritage connected to British woodland. The latest versions of the proposals appear to show some governmental concessions to these widely expressed worries. However, it is still clear that they don’t seem to ‘get it’ and here is why:

First of all, forests are dynamic things. This is an obvious and banal statement; of course they are living ecosystems. The crucial issue, though, is the fact that the vast majority of British forests are actively managed. They haven’t achieved their current state through being left to ‘get on with it’; they are the result of a long period of monitoring, management and control by humans. Like the majority of the British landscape, woodlands and forests are not simple natural landscapes, they are cultural products. It is incredibly important not lose site of this for two reasons. First, it has direct implications on how forests are looked after; they can’t simply be left to grow, they require continual investment in time, money and expertise for them to flourish. Secondly, a clear acknowledgement of this is important to avoid any accusations that those of us who have concern about the current policy are dewy-eyed mystic tree huggers with an obsession with a quasi-mythical wildwood (populated no doubt by Robin Hood, Herne the Hunter and possibly Bambi).

This is where the government’s proposals about forests hit their first snag. Whilst saying that many forests will be sold off to commercial companies, they are keen to promote their inchoate ‘Big Society’ agenda, with the proposals that a significant number of forests should be sold off to local community groups (under the Community Right to Buy provisions in the planned Localism Bill). We can take as read the implicit assumption that despite the recession there are lots of community groups out there with the initial capital to invest in the purchase of a wood (the consultation document is clear that any sale would be at the commercial market price and that the local groups simply have the option of first refusal- woodland costs c £3,500 and £7,000/hectare, so an average side wood could cost c £300,000). We can also pass over the assumption that there is an endless stream of volunteers and enthusiasts who are ready to get involved in running the forests (if not a zero-sum game, the size of the volunteer community is far from elastic). The biggest worry is the assumption that a small group of enthusiasts can easily run a wood. It takes more than committee meetings to actively run and maintain even a moderate sized wood. They need to be worked on and looked after. This includes felling dead wood, planting new trees and maintaining the infrastructure (drainage, fences, gates etc). Add to this, the need also to research, understand and curate any elements of the ecosystem (protected plants, animals etc) or the historic environment. This is going to involve money, time and expertise. There is no indication where this money is going to come from, nor the expertise. The planned massive expansion of the ‘big society’ is clearly going to put immense amount of pressure on existing funding sources (e.g. the Historic Lottery Fund and charitable bodies) who are unlikely to see a massive expansion in their own resources to meet this challenge. Equally, at the very time as all these new community groups are going to need professional advice, the bodies that provide them, including local government (e.g. rights of way officers, county archaeologists etc), quangos (e.g. English Heritage) and charities are facing massive cuts themselves. These forests are living organisms. They are going to require management and investment on an on-going basis year after year after year after year, long after the relatively short-term financial gains made by flogging them off are made. Are those community groups who purchased the woods in the first place even going to be around in ten years time? One only has to look at the number of local community initiatives funded by the HLF that have withered and died to realise that such groups often have a relatively life-span, usually relying on the drive and enthusiasm of often a very small group of individuals. The consultation documents states states that if the local group was wound up, the forest would return to the control of the State, presumably then to be sold to the commercial sector and leaving the community. This lack of appreciation of how forests work is disturbing and is symptomatic of a resounding short-termism.

Overall, according to the consultation document, the forests which might be available for management by local groups total about 13,000-26,000 hectares (c. 5-10% of the Forestry Commissions holdings). Another chunk of forests are what they call ‘forests of national historical, biodiversity or cultural significance’ (e.g. the Forest of Dean, New Forest) these might potentially be managed by charities (rather than smaller community groups) on a trust or lease-hold basis – forests potentially to be treated this way comprises a total of 50-80,000 hectares (c.20-30% of the FC holdings). Again, the same problems apply (funding etc), as well as some potentially interesting issues of governance (e.g. what would the relationship be between, for example, the New Forest National Park authority and a charity running the related woods, although, to be fair, the NPA could presumably bid to run the woods). These charity-run woods would have greater obligations to maintain the woods for public access etc. As with the smaller woods, they could apply for Forestry Grants, but there is an explicit assumption they should move away from reliance on state aid (how?). There are finally ‘commercial forests’ which would be leased to the private sector. These would have far less restrictions about public benefit (although there would be some) – key example given of this is Kielder Forest, and over all commercial forests make up a total of c35-50% of the FC holdings.

Whilst it is clear that some forest areas, particularly larger areas of ‘ancient woodland’ have some particular public importance, I am a little worried about the notion that it is possible to separate out some important forests in this way. Some elements within a landscape may not be of particular antiquity, but nonetheless contribute significantly to the character of a particular area. With this in mind, I was more than a little surprised to see that Kielder Forest in Northumberland is classified simply has a ‘commercial forest’/ Whilst in terms simply of antiquity it does not compare to the Forest of Dean, nonetheless, it defines its surrounding landscape, and although very much a working forest, it is of far greater significance to that part of the country than simply an economic one. It dates back to at least the 1920s and there will be increasingly fewer people who remember that area as anything but wooded. Kielder Forest is as essential to local distinctiveness in central Northumberland as the New Forest is to south-west Hampshire.

So, all in all, there are still real problems with the proposals. Let’s be clear, forests need to be managed and a major element of this management is best carried out in a commercial context. Also, there is nothing inherently wrong in the selling off of some elements of the Forestry Commission portfolio on a periodic basis in order to rationalize the estate, if balanced by a more or less equal level of purchasing more threatened forests to protect them. However, the current proposals, seemingly driven by an ideological move towards ‘localism’ and a short-termist demand for immediate capital, fail to address some very real problems. Currently, by operating a mixed portfolio of woodland the Forest Commission can use profits from commercially dominated woodlands to fund and manage forests with greater public / environmental benefits. By splitting up the estates the government are simply offloading the costs of running the woods with a greater public benefit onto a community with a limited capacity and a no secure source of financial support.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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