Some say DEFRA was forced to make today’s screeching U-turn on its forest disposal plans simply because it got its preparation and presentation wrong.
According to this view, its proposals for state-owned woodland in England had merit, but were victims of scaremongering by press and campaigners. The average reader/viewer was given the impression that all England’s woodlands were in danger of the chop, ministers complained.
In reality, under a fifth of the nation’s total woods and forests were involved. Tree planting and felling would have continued to be regulated by the government’s Forestry Commission, with no upsurge in deforestation.
And DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman had promised that biodiversity and public access would be protected in Forestry Commission woodlands being sold or leased.
All true. Even so this was a rotten set of proposals; rushed, poorly justified, fuelled mainly by dogma and deficit-cutting, short-term greed. They richly deserved to be scrapped, but the Forestry Commission and its state-owned forests are now left in a kind of limbo.
The proposals had threatened to make the Conservatives (for they stem from the Tory part of the coalition) the nasty party on green issues. And they threatened to further contaminate the ‘Big Society’ brand. Now they have become the coalition’s biggest reversal to date.
Woods and trees form the most potent green symbols and connections for many voters, perhaps most. We all can, and do, agree about what we want from woodlands: biodiversity, beauty, space for all kinds of recreation, carbon storage, and timber and biomass production which reduces our reliance on imports.
Sometimes it is difficult to reconcile these things, but if we can increase the total woodland area – another universally recognised good thing – it gets a little easier.
The proposals should have been tested against all these desirables long before they were published. But this was a rush job – mentioned in neither of the two parties’ election manifestoes, nor in the coalition agreement.
In fact the plan fails to guarantee better performance on a single one.
Its major element was to transfer the great bulk of state woodlands to the private sector within a decade, either by sale or on very long lease. Outside of the few “heritage forests” like the New Forest, even that small fraction of the remainder earmarked for “big society” would have gone private unless the voluntary and charitable sector could take them on.
DEFRA did nothing to demonstrate that the private sector would do a better job than the Forestry Commission in producing the public goods, environmental services and wood we want from woodland. Astonishingly, the department’s impact appraisal for the proposals (a document which confessed its own superficiality) suggested the overall costs to society outweighed the benefits.
So what on earth was DEFRA thinking? Its chief argument was that a government body should not be both the forest regulator and the biggest timber producer. But it produced no evidence on problems or economic harm arising from the FC playing both roles.
Nor did it venture any explanation of how or why the commission was performing either role badly. The commission may be far from perfect and a (modest) drain on public funds, but following reforms there has been no public or industry clamour against it in recent years.
The world over, governments are involved in both owning and protecting trees because the forests have suffered millennia of market failure. DEFRA’s ministers appeared not to have noticed. There is an immediate gain from clearing a wood, but you have to wait more than a generation for the benefits of planting one.
So what else could conceivably have justified these proposals? Forest sales and leases would have brought government a little desperately needed money. But the more ministers said they would compel future private leaseholders to conserve public access and biodiversity, the less the latter would have been willing to pay. And the rush to dispose of the entire Forestry Commission estate in England in one decade could have further lowered prices.
DEFRA is not the only organisation with egg on its face.
The major woodland-owning green NGOs – the National, Woodland and Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB – have not emerged well from the last three weeks. They came out against the proposals cautiously and singly; some of them appeared to fear a loss of influence with DEFRA. It was left to smaller, nimbler bodies and people to mount an effective opposition campaign.
And that was a missed opportunity. DEFRA’s proposals were fundamentally forest-unfriendly; that was clear the moment they were published. The big NGOs should have campaigned against them robustly and jointly from the start.
There is a case for giving local and national voluntary groups a bigger role in running England’s more attractive and cherished woodlands. It is also conceivable that some private owners could do a better job of extracting overall public benefit from the more commercial, softwood forests, than the Forestry Commission.
By scrapping the proposals, the government has given itself the chance to make those cases properly – though its earlier bulldozer tactics will leave it facing public suspicion.
Meanwhile the Forestry Commission is left to get on with the job of looking after its – or rather our – 258,000 hectares of forest while facing hundreds of redundancies and deep cuts in its government funding. What a mess.