The coalition Government plans to sell off half the Forestry Commission’s land in England, according to a newspaper report.
The move was condemned as environmental vandalism by a leading Green politician.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Caroline Spelman wants to sell off half the commission’s 748,000ha of land as a contribution to Chancellor George Osborne’s attempt to cut public spending by £81bn.
However, Forest Commission land in Scotland and Wales is a devolved measure, so the Westminster Government would be able to sell off only parts of the English estate, which totals only 258,000ha, with an estimated value, according to the FC’s latest accounts, of £697m, of which just over 200,000ha is woodland.
An attempt in the 1990s by John Major’s government to sell off the Forestry Commission failed due to lack of interest from potential buyers and a concerted environmental campaign against the sale.
Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party MP in the House of Commons, Tweeted: “If Government plans mean vast areas of valuable forest being sold to private developers, it will be unforgiveable act of environmental vandalism.”
And Allan MacKenzie, secretary of the Forestry Commission Trade Unions, told the Sunday Telegraph: “We will oppose any land sale. Once we’ve sold it, it never comes back.
“Once it is sold restrictions are placed on the land which means the public don’t get the same access to the land and facilities that are provided by the public forest estate.
“The current system means a vast amount of people can enjoy forests and feel ownership of them. It is an integral part of society.”
The FC, which plants 17 million trees each year, also employs more than 3,000 people, mostly in rural areas. More than 50 million visitors use its land every year and it provides 2,600 km of cycle trails.
There are also 61 visitor centres, 183 easy-access trails and 103 forest classrooms or educational facilities.
The commission produces almost 5m tonnes of timber a year – more than 40 per cent of UK wood production or around 300 forty-tonne truckloads of timber every day and maintains 24,000 km of forest roads – seven times the total amount of motorway in Britain.
Labour’s Shadow Defra Secretary Mary Creagh told the Guardian: “We are concerned developers will cherry-pick the most profitable land and we will see huge pressure for development in sensitive places. The environment is going to pay a high price for its settlement in the recent spending review.”
In recent years, the Forestry Commission has undertaken major environmental projects such as the ‘rewilding’ of Ennerdale in the Lake District, ridding the valley of many of the conifer plantations despised by Alfred Wainwright.
It has also set up the new visitor facility and cycle trails in the Grizedale Forest, opened by top rockclimber Leo Houlding. Britain’s newest national park, the South Downs, includes more than 5,800ha of woodland and open countryside managed by the FC.
It has also carried out work in northern England to help the re-establishment of red squirrels and halt the incursion of the non-native grey squirrel.
The Forestry Commission was set up during the First World War to deal with the war effort’s need for timber. Its first trees were planted on 8 December 1919 at Eggesford Forest, Devon.
The forest estate expanded between the 1950s and 70s, nearly doubling to 1.6m ha as mechanisation increased and investment in forestry soared. After this period, conservation and amenity issues became more central in the commission’s planning and forestry policy and today, its estates provide both timber and outdoor activities.