We may have just about struggled to the end of mid-winter, but if you were fortunate enough to have been down to the woods this weekend and gently moved some of the fallen leaves on the ground, you may well have spotted the first tentative shoots of the wood anemones and bluebells that will carpet our woodlands come the spring.
Our glorious woodlands and forests, with their amazing biodiversity, are sensitive barometers of the changing seasons; just one reason why, down the ages, they have been the cherished destinations of families, walkers, cyclists and equestrians. But now, our traditional right of access to forests and woodlands – an integral element of our heritage – is under threat; a threat sufficiently serious to jeopardise our historic relationship with these mystical places.
What is happening?
On Wednesday, Parliament will debate a proposal that could change the face of our countryside and our enjoyment of it. A quarter of a million people have already signed a petition opposing the government’s proposal to sell off the 260,000 hectares of land that comprise the public forest estate in England (powers in Wales and Scotland are devolved), and which the Forestry Commission (FC) currently manages. This accounts for 18% of England’s woodland.
Why is the government doing this?
Well, certainly not for the revenue it will raise: it’s estimated the sale will bring in £100m, a proverbial drop in the ocean. Furthermore, campaigners say the sale will not save money because the FC carries out its regulatory and conservation work for £10m a year and its work is subsidised by the timber it supplies to the market. “Subsidies to private forestry operators already amount to £36m,” says Eric Robson, Chairman of Gardeners’ Question Time and a high-profile opponent of the plan. “And that could go as high as £60m-£80m if more forests go to private ownership.”
So, the cynical amongst us may wonder if it is yet another depressing example of dogma: perfectly fitting the prevailing government view that if it moves, privatise it; that anything in the public sector is fundamentally bad and would be much better off in the hands of private shareholders.
Perhaps, but in this particular case there may be another ulterior motive. Investing in forests brings some juicy tax breaks for those who can afford it, like exemption from inheritance tax (after two years of ownership), no capital gains tax on any rise in value of the trees, no income tax on timber sale: a few little sweeteners to compensate for the continuance of the 50 per cent tax rate?
Why should we oppose it?
1.The FC already does a great job in managing our woodlands, why change something that works?
2.There are big holes in the government’s promises:
- They say they want to encourage community groups and charitable trusts to buy, but as even the Woodland Trust cannot afford it, what chance is there for any other group?
- Plausible government ministers appear in the media to re-assure us that current access rights will be guaranteed, but many experts challenge this and believe this only applies to those on foot, not so-called higher access rights for cyclists, wheelchair users, equestrians and orienteers.
- And the portents are not hopeful: forestry sold into private ownership at Riggwood in the Lake District has already sparked anger among locals about the reduction of access, with the car park now fenced off and entry restricted to those on foot.
- In any case, if full access rights are retained, this reduces the commercial attraction for any future purchaser, so defeating the entire objective in the first place
What should we do?
- Write to our MPs: http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/speakout/MP-forests
- Sign the petition: http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/save-our-forests#petition, or http://www.savelakelandsforests.org.uk/
- If you can, contribute to the fund to place adverts opposing the plans throughout the national media: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/contribute/sponsor-a-forest-ad
Numerous “celebrities” – Dr Rowan Williams, Melvyn Bragg, Carol Ann Duffy, Dame Judi Dench, Bill Bryson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – organisations, like the Woodland Trust, the Ramblers and other walking groups, cycling organisations like the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), as well as the National Trust, have been vocal in their opposition. Please join them, make your voice heard and help keep our forests out of the hands of developers and tax avoiders.
And this is a battle we can win. Although Cameron and Spelman may be motivated by an obsession with privatisation and a desire to reward their city friends with more tax avoidance schemes, opposition to the sell-off has enraged many traditional Tory supporters, including the British Horse Society, the New Forest Association and even the UK Forest Products Association: a rather different, but potentially explosive, Countryside Alliance.