Giving the Forestry Commission’s perspective on working with communities on the Public Forest Estate, our latest guest post in this series is from Tristram Holborn, Head of Recreation (East England Forest District):
“My role involves working with many different communities, from the rural areas of Norfolk and Suffolk through to the busy urban populations of the Thames Chase Community Forest in east London and south west Essex.
A common theme throughout is that woodlands can really improve our quality of life and there is great value in providing opportunities for communities to become involved with them.
Communities with an interest in the Public Forest Estate are very diverse and can include the local population, the area that visitors come from and a community of interest, such as businesses. Communities can consist of individuals or groups, or both. Some communities can be very geographically dispersed. So working with and responding to the needs of those people who have an interest in the Public Forest Estate requires many different approaches.
There have been some really successful examples of this on the estate. Just in the East of England for example there are volunteering opportunities, imaginative play features that attract people to our visitor centres and outreach work in our community woodlands. We also try to seek the views of communities, and where possible, respond to local needs and aspirations. Engagement may be through the use of Forest Design Plans that set out how our forests will be managed, specific consultations on new projects or just an informal discussion with staff or volunteers.
The results of this work are often inspiring. Whilst there are sometimes very difficult challenges in balancing competing demands, generally it leads to more people interacting with the public estate and gaining benefit from it. Many representative groups have formed and now work with the estate, enabling much more to be achieved then we could ever hope to do alone. Again, looking at examples within East England, we are lucky enough to have a number of highly successful ‘Friends of’ and special interest groups who sometimes have their own volunteer groups, manage events and can provide an excellent link into the communities we serve.
The Independent Panel on Forestry clearly recognised that trees and woods are good for people and made a number of specific recommendations in this area. These are currently being considered by a working group that will help advise the Minister on how to respond to the Panel report. Over the last few months I have been working as part of this group.
A really important first step for us has been to look at how we as an organisation currently interact with the communities who live, work and play in the woods we manage. We have been considering where there are gaps in current activities against the Independent Panel’s vision and developing potential actions that could fill those gaps.
We have been looking at community interaction through three very distinct lenses:
- Engagement – This is about the active involvement with the community of interest.
- Accountability – Focused on social accountability, to those who have an interest in the estate.
- Transparency – Looking at what information is available people. I would see transparency as been essential for accountability.
The work done to date has shown that community engagement is a significant part of what we do, but it also identified that there are gaps which we could fill. For example, could more be done to involve interested groups with decision making? Are there opportunities to make information more widely available and easily accessible? Could we better target our community engagement?
We have already had some excellent early discussions on this subject with some ‘Friends Of’ and campaign groups and this has informed our work. However, we are interested to hear what you think too. What works well at the moment? Where are there gaps in our work? And what actions do think could fill those gaps?”
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