Ramblers Association on the Privatisation of the Forestry Commission

10:20 Tuesday 11th January 2011 Mid-Morning Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

ANDY HARPER: .. And then this one, which came from Anne, who says, Andy, I know how much you love trees, by listening to your programme every day. So what do you and your listeners think about the latest news of the Government plans to sell off their Government-owned forests and in some cases cut them down?
Nothing seems sacred. She is referring to the fundamental reform of the management of the country’s forestries estate, which was announced by the coalition Government last Autumn. And that basically refers to the Forestry Commission of course. Not very evident in Cambridgeshire, but just over the border of course in Norfolk and Suffolk, Thetford Chase, one of those huge expanses of forest which in the early days were built, not built, were set up to provide timber for the mining industry among other things, but of course have become more and more featured in the leisure industry. At the end of last year, users of Thetford Forest which reached 120,000 in 2009, called on fellow woodland walkers, cyclists, horseriders, birdwatchers and conservationists to sign a petition to protect the lowland forest. And of course they have terrific concerts there as well. So it’s much more now than just a stretch of woodland, which it was when I grew up in Thetford Chase, when my father worked for the Forestry Commission. Well that was the point made to us by Anne on our Facebook page. So we thought we would talk about this a little bit more. And I’m delighted to say we can talk to Justin Cooke from the Ramblers Association. Justin, good morning to you.
JUSTIN COOKE: Good morning.
ANDY HARPER: Now the fear always is with private woodland that straight away the public are barred. And I know this from my years of being connected with forestry through my father. The Forestry Commission allowed access to people, but private woodland owners didn’t. And that’s the big concern here, isn’t it?
JUSTIN COOKE: It’s very much a concern. The Forestry Commission is very good at allowing access to its land, and has dedicated some of the land it owns as open access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. But the real risk if land is transferred to private ownership, they might bar access.
ANDY HARPER: And have you, the Ramblers Association, made representations, let your throughts be known at this early stage?
JUSTIN COOKE: We have. At the moment the Government is debating a Bill in Parliament which will give them the powers to sell off the Forestry Commission. But they haven’t told us how they’re going to do it. And we asked them how they plan to sell the Forestry Commission, and what kind of public access rights they will give once it’s sold. And unfortunately we haven’t had an answer as yet.
ANDY HARPER: You see the minute you sell to private owners, those private owners can virtually do what they like, can’t they? The Goverrnment can seek reassurances all they like. We got reassurances off the bankers, and we know what that’s worth. So consequently, they can give all sorts of assurances, but then put fences up.
JUSTIN COOKE: It depends on what type of Forestry Commission land it is. The Ramblers were very instrumental in getting the Countryside and Rights of Way passed, and under that Act, the Forestry Commission is actually dedicated, or the land it owns, and that land is safe. And nothing in the Bill that we’ve seen so far will change that. So even if they sell a piece of land, bnecause I believe Thetford Forest actually is dedicated as access land, if they sell that land, the new owners will have to allow access, because it’s open access land. However that doesn’t cover all of the Forestry Commission’s estate, and there’s vast amounts of land which they could sell, which could go to private ownership, and then access will be barred.
ANDY HARPER: Indeed. Thetford Forest being a big one, I suppose Kielder, but there are others dotted around the country, aren’t there, which may well .. small pockets. I suppose the other thing is that rightly or wrongly, when people enter Forestry Commission land they can stick to the rideways, or they can just ramble off wherever they like. Well, that might not be the case in the future.
JUSTIN COOKE: It is, I mean, if you’ve got a piece of forest that has rights of way through it, they will obviously be safe. But it might mean that you have to stick to the tracks from then onwards. One of the enjoyments of being in a forest is almost a kind of imagination that you can lose yourself in it.
JUSTIN COOKE: It gives you a sense of freedom, and we wouldn’t want that to be taken away from the public.
ANDY HARPER: Do you only concern yourselves with walkers? Because in the article which I read in the Eastern Daily Press it was featuring horse riding, and hearing from somebody who had been breeding horses for many years, and they were able to take them into the forest. Do you as ramblers include people who might want to ride mountain bikes or horses, or are you solely interested in the rights for walkers?
JUSTIN COOKE: We do work with our colleagues in equestrian societies and cyclists as well. Because obviously we look after bridleways which allow walking and cycling at the same time, and if a large open area of land has access for equestrian users, we wouldn’t want that taken away, because it’s (INAUDIBE) to the countryside, which we want to promote to as many people as possible.
ANDY HARPER: I mean as I said this is very much in the discussion stage, but you always have the feeling these days that these things become a fait accompli, don’t you, and it’s all about money ultimately, isn’t it?
JUSTIN COOKE: Well yes. I mean that’s the bit that we’re particularly not happy about, is what happens after it’s sold. Because at the moment the Government says they will have a full public consultation. But they haven’t told us what will be in that consultation. So they’re giving themselves the powers to do this, before they’ve told anyone how they’re going to do it, which we think is the wrong way round.
ANDY HARPER: Well it’s been good to talk to you at the moment Justin, and let’s hope that ..I’ll nail my colours to the mast here, as our listeners spotted straightaway I’m a firm believer in the access of people going into woodland .. and let’s hope that your campaign bears fruit.
JUSTIN COOKE:Yes, I mean we’re very much going to be asking the Government continuously now how they’re going to secure public access, and hopefully how they’re going to improve it by this. Because there could be that they could give some of this Forestry Commission land over to community groups to open up as community forests. That would be the best course of action. But unfortunately that probably isn’t going to make them any money.
ANDY HARPER: Indeed. Jusin, thanks very much for talking to us.
JUSTIN COOK: No problem at all.
ANDY HARPER: Cheers. That’s Justin Cook from the Ramblers Association.