The Woodland Trust on the Privatisation of the Forestry Commission

The Woodland Trust07:24 Thursday 27th January 2011
Peterborough Breakfast Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: Now later on today the Government launches its consultation on forests. It’s considering selling off some publicly owned woodland to raise funds to help tackle the budget deficit. We mentioned this last week. There’s been a heck of a hooh-hah though since it came out. Paul Hetherington is from the Woodland Trust. Morning Paul.
PAUL HETHERINGTON: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: What are the Government potentially thinking of doing?
PAUL HETHERINGTON: Well they’re going to be putting out an options paper later today. This will look at what the future of the Forestry Commission is. And our understanding is it will have a number of options, which will basically be around the amount of the Forestry Commission estate that will be sold off, to raise money for the Exchequer. Now that sounds all very good, because we are very short of money in this country. But what you need to look at is what is the net effect on the future of our country. And it’s a very very worrying picture for wildlife, and for our ancient woodlands. And that is what the Woodland Trust is fighting for at the moment. It’s fighting for the Government to put adequate safeguards in place before any ancient woodland is sold off, and in particular, to restore any areas of ancient woodland that are in need of restoration, several of which are not very far from Peterborough itself, and there is also a couple more within the Cambridge county area.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. The Government’s done what it usually does on this. They put out some little rumours, don’t they? They test public opinion. And there are rumours now that they’re actually reining back from all of this, and they probably won’t put plans in place to sell off these woodlands. Do you hope they’re listening?
PAUL HETHERINGTON: We certainly hope they’re listening. But it’s also very very important they do carry out this restoration work, and they do put in place proper safeguards. And if they’re not going to be doing that as part of this process, we will continue campaigning to get those safguards put in place. Becuse that’s the most important thing for our ancient woodlands.
PAUL STAINTON: Surely we should be saving these forests, shouldn’t we? We should be at all costs looking out for our woodland. They’re concreting over enough of the countryside already, aren’t they?
PAUL HETHERINGTON: Yes. Since 1930 we’ve lost half of the ancient woodland in this country. We’re one of the least wooded countries in Europe. We have about 12% land cover of woodland. The Continental European average is 44%. So we’re way way way behind our European partners. And ancient woodland has more rare species in it than any other habitat within the UK. It really is our equivalent of the rain forest. That’s why it’s so so important. And yet people can go around, they can destroy it, they can damage it. There’s been one prosecution in the last 20 years. You think how many prosecutions in that time period there’ve been for people who have damaged Grade Listed buildings.
PAUL STAINTON: Are you surprised by the strength of feeling that the public have shown on this? Because an opinion poll at the weekend suggested a large majority of us are against the Government’s proposed proposals.
PAUL HETHERINGTON: Not really, no. Because there were previous attempts, back in the 1990’s. to privatise the Forestry Commission. And again, there was mass public outcry against it. I think the people of this country do realise how important our woodlands are to us, how important that wildlife is, and how precious it is to the whole nation, that we just can’t afford to let it fall into the position where it could be desecrated for ever. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t make new ancient woodland by ploughing a field and planting trees in it. The whole idea is this is an ecosystem that has built up over thousands of years.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it worth that much anyway? Would we get much money for it?
PAUL HETHERINGTON: It depends where the bits of Forestry estate are. If some of it is on relatively cheap land, then it’s probably got a land value of a couple of thousand pounds per hectare. But other bits are in quite expensive areas. Some of the stuff in East Anglia is now quite sought after property in quite sought after agricultural land, so it might be going for up to ten thousand pounds a hectare. So there is potentially quite a bit of money locked up in the estate. But on the other hand, you also need to think what the Forestry Commission does at the moment. And it basically self-funds. It funds between 85% and 90% of its total cost from its estate. And with those costs, it does things like pay for the restoration of ancient woodland, pay for the protection of ancient woodland, and it pays for the planting of new native trees in this country. Now if you take away the commercial part of its estate, where does the money for that come from? It either stops happening, so that protection goes, and that new planting goes, or it has to come out of the taxpayer’s pocket.
PAUL STAINTON: Paul, thank you for coming on this morning. We’ll wait and see what the Government announces later on today, and we wait with baited breath. Paul Hetherington from the Woodland Trust.