So anyone who read the papers last week will have seen the story that the government is considering selling-off a chunk of the UK’s publically-owned forests. This is because DEFRA is rumoured to be looking at offloading about half of the 1m hectares of land managed by the Forestry Commission (FC), in order to meet the 30% cuts to it’s funding in last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review.
The FC’s land includes 800,000 hectares of sustainable woods and forests, or 1.4 billion trees, according to the FC themselves. This seems a fairly counter-intuitive and irresponsible idea, on all counts:
Selling off assets like this will contribute only a one-off payment to cutting the deficit. This is a classic case of where unsustainable economics fosters unsustainable land practises – rather than finding ways in which it can raise more money through visits, multi-use areas, or sustainable forestry, and continue revenue-raising over time, the government is going to simply hand it over to someone else to do with it what they please. Once it’s gone it’s gone.
It is suggested also that the government is expecting charitable organisations to pick up their slack, with conservation groups presumed to bid for the forests; holding them for the public good, and protecting the land against development by commercial interests. The government would effectively be blackmailing the already-cash-strapped third sector over woodland, and forcing them to hand over money to the Treasury’s coffers. It would represent a straight transfer in financial resources from charities to the Government or else the forests may well be lost forever. Hello, Big Society!
The likelihood is that if the land is sold-off, there will be a loss of (free) public access to these sites, meaning more of us will be further away from a free publically-held natural space that we can all enjoy. Currently only 49% of UK woodland is publically accessible and if these plans go ahead, this will fall further; if woodland is sold off to private commercial ventures, they’re hardly going to let people ramble through their shiny new holiday parks.
A recent visitor survey showed (perhaps obviously) that the most popular activities were walking, wildlife-watching and taking kids out. Forests offer a free environment to keep healthy whilst appreciating green spaces and wildlife that are otherwise rare opportunities for many. This is not to mention the role of education that such sites offer through centres, walks and trips. Furthermore with obesity rates still rising, and the general cost of exercising as high as ever, this experience is irreplaceable.
Assuming we agree that natural habitats and biodiversity have intrinsic value, environmental impact is an obvious downer from selling-off forests. Unless the purchasers are interested in the same aims as the government – and arguably the only ones that fit into this category are third sector organisations – the primary use of forests and land will change significantly.
For example, commercial logging would lead to a uniformity of trees planted, drastically reducing diversity and resulting in regular tree-felling. Even if the woodland survives intact, other recreational uses such as having a couple dozen people on a ‘team-building’ exercise storming through the undergrowth is hardly a conducive habitat.
Of course ecologists point out that there is more to biodiversity than sheer quantity, and the conservation director at the RSPB has been quoted as saying that their organisation would be ‘quite relaxed’ about the sell-off of certain areas of woodland, as long as more unique habitats remain protected.
Finally, woodland is a significant national carbon sink, absorbs air pollution, and reduces surface-run-off, thus lowering the ever-increasing risk of flooding.
The Prime Minister will no doubt come to regret committing to provide ‘the greenest government ever’. Thus far we’ve only seen greenwash. One of the first things the government axed was the Sustainable Development Commission, which scrutinises government policy and offers policy suggestions for saving carbon and money – having saved millions upon millions (and thus paid for itself) over the last few years alone.
The coalition agreement contains a commitment to a national tree planting programme. Where are these going to be planted, and will this even result in a net gain of trees? It’s anyone’s guess.
In seems that aside from being incredible short-termism, the forests’ sell-off is a symptom of the coalition government’s general attitude to things – one shiny headline policy, and then under the layers of newspeak, plenty of other sneaky announcements that undo whatever good work the former does, several times over.
If publically-owned forests go, we’ll all end up worse off.
38 Degrees, noble bombardiers of all parliamentary email inboxes across the land, have started a petition on the issue, which can be signed here; http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/save-our-forests
And finally, if you find online campaigning too wishy-washy, perhaps consider this instead.