Communities are stirring: Government must respond

Quietly but steadily, there’s a movement gathering momentum in England. It hasn’t been prompted by the Government’s drive for localism, but coincidentally aligns with it.

Over the past six months, at the Woodland Trust we’ve been talking to communities keen to be more actively engaged in managing, even owning, woodland, and it’s clear the numbers are gradually increasing. The drivers are various – from fuel security to wildlife interest, to securing access, building enterprises, and a desire to take control and protect their neighbourhoods from encroaching development.

It’s inspiring to see groups coming together over a shared passion for woodland, but they face a lot of challenges on their woodland journey and it’s easy for enthusiasm to be dampened. If the Government is truly committed to localism, it needs to put its money where its mouth is and support these groups.

The Independent Panel on Forestry has recommended an evolved Forest Services organisation should provide grants and “other support” for community groups and woodland initiatives, and that further opportunities should be created for communities to engage in management of the public forest estate.

From talking to community groups we know that their objectives and needs are almost as varied and numerous as the groups themselves, so the support provided needs to be flexible and adaptable. In some cases, groups may find what they need in, for example, an online hub where they can access resources and information and share their experience. In other cases more intensive, face to face advice may be needed. The Government needs to look at how this can be provided. In our response to the call for views we asked for Government to “support a new community woodland advice service to inspire local communities to become involved in caring for their local woods”, noting that food-growing has such a service (the Community Land Advisory Service) that could be expanded. There are plenty of organisations out there with the expertise – not just in woodland management and conservation, but in community development and enterprise – but they need to pull together and the work needs to be funded.

Community ownership or management isn’t a cheap alternative, particularly at the outset, though it can bring a substantial payback, either in monetary or social terms. A range of financial solutions is needed to enable groups to buy woods or land, and manage them, including grants and loans, as well as advice on raising funds including, for example, community share issues. It’s important, too, that communities receive information on how to make their ownership and management of woodland economically sustainable in the long term.

Woods, and land for planting, need to be recognised as potential community assets, so that communities can identify them and have a chance to bid for them if they come up for sale. Public bodies that own woods  – FC and local authorities, for example – should identify those that could be candidates for asset transfer, and offer communities the opportunity to take them on.

Image: WTPL/S.Atkinson

Community engagement in woods, if properly resourced and supported, offers a range of opportunities, from increasing tree cover with all the benefits that entails, to securing active, sustainable management in woods that might not otherwise be economically viable, to regenerating rural economies.

England lags some way behind Scotland, where perhaps the different land ownership history has driven a more proactive community woodland movement in recent years. But the signs are that something is definitely stirring south of the border. The findings of the Panel offer a real opportunity to catalyse a new and deeper connection between people and their local woods. 

Is your community managing a wood, or looking to manage or create woodland?

How easy did you find it to set up a group? What kind of barriers are you facing? What do you think Government should do to help? The Woodland Trust is gathering views from groups to see what kind of support they need. Please post a response below or participate in our online survey: add your thoughts here.

Sian Atkinson, conservation communications and evidence adviser


About Kaye Brennan

Trying vegan, staying warm. Occasional bursts of words.
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38 Responses to Communities are stirring: Government must respond

  1. Roderick Leslie says:

    At the heart of this debate, we all need to remember what communities said about the sell off. It was clear Government (and some others) hoped for an upsurge of demands to buy FC forests. Exactly the opposite happened, and the response from interested communities was a good deal more sophisticated than many of the other contributors: communities almost without exception:

    (1) were far more aware of the complexity and skills needed to manage large public forests and very strongly supported continuing public ownership & FC management.
    (2) were very supportive of the incredible progress FC (FE) have made in working with communities.

    The sales fiasco showed very clearly that FC was well ahead of the game in recognising community involvement in its woods, to the surprise of many including politicians and NGOs. It also shows very clearly indeed that ownership is way down the list of priorities in working with communities. It inevitably leaves anyone knowledgeable about the community scene rather suspicious when the first issue raised over community involvement is ownership – quite simply, it is not and to avoid misunderstanding anyone getting involved should ask the key question that FC has proved itself to be so good at which is: what sort of involvement does your community want ?

    As the comments on this blog prove – many commenters being real woodland community people – anyone coming along suggesting that the first step in community engagement is to transfer ownership of our national forests to their group is likely to get very short shrift.

  2. Mad About Woods says:

    I sense the difference here is a question of scale and objectives.

    The vast majority of the PFE has objectives which are above those of “community engagement”. For example, Thetford Forest is 20,000+ha, and is a significant economic and environmental resource. To suggest that community groups may wish to take over the management of Thetford Forest, or indeed that the WT, NT or RSPB could achieve the same or similar economic objectives, I believe, is unjustified.

    What sets the PFE apart from many of these other conservation based landowner is income. Not from membership fees (which is valuable and has a place / role to play), but cash from providing timber and wide scale recreation. To manage this takes something far beyond being able to manage small pockets of (often very important) woodland; it takes the skills and knowledge of specialist resource managers. This is the role the FC plays in managing the PFE. I believe the FC has struck a very fine balance between the social, environmental AND economic benefits of woodlands.

    However, we should certainly not forget the active role the FC plays in community management and engagement. The work the FC has done in the Community Forests, on neglected and degraded landscapes and working in deprived communities has been at the forefront of delivery. This is not a side line for the FC, but a core part of their work. They have been very targeted, as is inevitable with 250,000ha and such a small budget. This targeted approach should be welcomed as a cost effective way of spending tax pounds.

    Environmental objective are also very well met; as the largest land manager of SSSI, the FC is setting a prime example with (I believe) 99% of SSSIs in favourable or recovering condition. This is better than any other conservation body out there (including the WT)!

    In summary, the FC is about a balanced approach. Community engagement is a key part of what they already do, and many groups and communities have benefited from this. However, in considering community engagement, we should not let the issue of economic and environmental benefits disappear. Don’t let a “single issue” become the driver for change.

  3. Imogen
    Thanks for your comments – Sian is away so I’m happy to reply. We seem to be provoking the kind of debate which DEFRA hasn’t been able to engender thus far with the clock ticking rapidly towards the publication on a government response to the panel report so I hope they are monitoring this debate as well.

    A few points to make:

    The forestry panel report does in fact talk about communities becoming more involved in at least some of the public forest estate woods. On page 51 it says ….

    “Recommendation: The new English public forest management organisation will have statutory duties, powers and functions, expanding on those currently placed on the Forestry Commission and Commissioners, set by the legislation that creates the Charter. Its main purposes will be (inter alia) …..

    • engaging communities in developing and achieving the estate’s goals;
    And on page 52…
    Recommendation: The new public forest management organisation should enable stakeholder consultation on its annual corporate plan. At a local level the public forest management organisation should see consultation and partnership with friends’ groups, charities, businesses and others as central to its way of working, benefiting from their experience and helping to draw in additional resources to support local projects. This could include community management and partnership agreements.

    We welcome these recommendations at face value; I certainly didn’t read this as being about back door disposals although I know others have. It certainly mustn’t end up being a way of selling locally important forests. There is a world of difference between encouraging and engaging communities in managing local publically owned woods where there is strong desire and motivation to do so which is what the panel report does talk about, and pushing for leases and sales of woods to communities which it does not.

    As you show in the various documents we have signed up to over the past 2-3 years, we have consistently supported the concept of retaining a public forest estate throughout the whole debate. But we have also said consistently that we want to see a better estate which provides even more public benefit. (You can read that in our submission to the panel). Where public forests don’t provide what they imply on the tin (i.e. benefits to the public) then disposing of those and reinvesting funds in woods which are close to people, good for wildlife and delivering environmental services is no bad thing provided it is done to clear transparent criteria. Fossilising the existing estate won’t give the level of public benefit which a public forest estate should be capable of delivering. In fact that is what the panel report says too.

    It would be great to make sure the debate about communities and their local woods doesn’t focus purely on the public forest estate though. Bringing people and woods closer together to re-establish a woodland culture, a central rallying cry of the panel’s report, means finding ways of re-connecting communities with their local woods whoever owns them and in ways which match capacity and aspiration.

  4. Mark Fisher says:

    A crashing of gears as the Woodland Trust excursion bus is rammed into reverse!!! Of course this blog is about the break up of the PFE!!! Why say that England lags some way behind Scotland? Because Forestry Commission Scotland has since 2005 been flogging off land under their National Forest Land Scheme: some woodlands to communities; “surplus” land to NGOs; and land for affordable housing. This not to say it is necessarily a bad scheme, but its too early to say whether those communities will make a success of the 1735ha or so of forests transferred to community woodland groups thus far.

  5. Imogen Radford says:

    Is my comment going to be published? I put it on here 18 October, 2012 at 19:18

    • Kaye Brennan says:

      Thanks for coming back Imogen, I have just found it in the wordpress spam filter, possibly it was caught because there was a lot of text and () with links in your comment; the blog often receives spam from websites which look similar. Apologies – you should see it now?

  6. Pingback: Guest post: Jane Hull, Forestry Commission | Woodland Matters

  7. Imogen Radford says:

    The forestry panel’s report does not say what this blog suggests it says about communities managing public forest estate woodlands.

    The blog says (4th paragraph):

    “The Independent Panel on Forestry has recommended an evolved Forest Services organisation should provide grants and “other support” for community groups and woodland initiatives, and that further opportunities should be created for communities to engage in management of the public forest estate.”

    This is what the forestry panel report actually says (page 21):

    “Recommendation: The work of community groups and woodland initiatives should be supported by the evolved Forest Services organisation (see Section D) through grants and other support, and by the public forest estate management organisation engaging with local communities across its whole estate.”

    The panel does not recommend creating opportunities for communities to engage in managing the public forest estate.

    It is not clear to me why this blog has misrepresented the panel – whether they didn’t read it properly or whether they read into it something which doesn’t actually say but that they would like it to have said.

    Woodland Trust is yet again advocating the sell off or transfer of our public forests to communities – and no doubt 3rd sector organisations that will help these communities run them – as it did in 2010 and 2011.

    The blog says (7th paragraph):

    “Public bodies that own woods – FC and local authorities, for example – should identify those that could be candidates for asset transfer, and offer communities the opportunity to take them on.”

    This sounds rather familiar – isn’t that what the government said in January 2011 when it launched its disastrous consultation on selling, leasing and transferring the public forest estates to 3rd sector organisations, community groups and the private sector?

    Extract from press statement 27 January 2011 (4th paragraph) (

    “The key proposals in the consultation document are that:
    • Heritage and community forests which provide high public benefits will be protected by inviting new or existing charitable organisations to take on ownership or management.
    • There will be opportunities created for community and civil society groups to buy or lease forests.”

    It is no surprise to me that the Woodland Trust is once again advocating that the government sells off, transfers or gives away part of the public forest estate together with money for other organisations or community groups to run those parts. This is what they have been wanted all along, including during the time when everyone else was campaigning against the government’s ill thought out and unpopular plans to dispose of the public forest estate.

    For example Woodland Trust was one of a number of conservation groups that in October 2010 signed up to a statement entitled ‘Principles to inform delivery models for public benefit associated with public sector land’. You won’t find this document on the Woodland Trust website but it can be found by Google searching for the title of the publication. It includes this (under 2):

    “We have no in-principle objection to government seeking efficiencies in the management of land through outsourcing, including to third-sector bodies.”

    And this (under 6)
    “Government must ensure sustainable funding packages are in place to support delivery throughout the length of service delivery agreements” [with these 3rd sector bodies]

    They weren’t only saying that in January 2011. In July 2010 the Woodland Trust signed up, together with a large number of other conservation groups, to a submission to the government entitled ‘Informing Defra spending decisions: Wildlife and Countryside Link submission July 2010’ (14 July 2010, )

    Wildlife and Countryside Link (Link) welcomes the opportunity to present its thoughts on how Defra might be able to reduce its budget whilst supporting key aims outlined in the coalition agreement.

    5. Areas of Defra spend where efficiencies might be found
    [subsection 4.]
    State ownership of land …
    We agree that state-owned land should be reviewed to ensure that it is delivering public goods cost-effectively; e.g. there may be merits in selling commercially valuable forestry which offers minimal public benefits, provided those funds are re-invested in delivery of public goods not in reducing the public deficit. Outsourcing the management of other state-owned land to credible nature conservation NGOs is a possibility but may well be a costneutral option once the implications of such transfers are fully reviewed.
    If this is considered a viable option, Link members would welcome early dialogue with Government to consider the conditions on any such arrangement.”

  8. Ian Standing says:

    What I don’t quite understand is why the Woodland Trust has chosen to appoint itself as a voice for communities but it looks like a PR exercise aimed to follow the recent mentions of WT on the Archers and the recent slot about Ash trees on the Today program. Most communities with an interest in their local woods are already vocal and well able to speak for themselves. They are also active, having long since found that FC, and a few private owners are keen on involving them. Managing woodland is scientific,long term discipline best done by those qualified in it. The idea that well meaning groups of community volunteers should take on the management of Britain’s woodland is plain silly. WT really shouldn’t be encouraging it.

    • Hi Ian,
      The Woodland Trust has long supported communities that are involved in woodland, through the Community Woodland Network, which the Trust set up some years ago, and which has provided advice and information, and a forum for groups to share their experiences, including conferences for groups to get together. We know from the groups we have worked that, as you say, they are active and able to speak for themselves, but they also value this kind of support. We also know that while some groups need help developing their skills and capacity in woodland management, or other areas, others already have a wealth of expertise. Community ownership or management isn’t for everyone – or every wood – but there are plenty of cases where it works really well with benefits for the community and the wood.

  9. Tapio says:

    Your banner picture is laughable and like the say, says a thousand words about how little the Woodland Trust understands about forestry and woodland issues.
    Community forestry is important but community forestry should mean well managed plantation (I don’t believe there is very much remnant woodland that was never planted/managed) for the economic sustainability of a community as well as for a few people to walk the dog.

    • Hi Tapio
      You are right that practically all woodland in the UK has been subject to human intervention at some time – in fact, woods have tended to survive where they are useful. Community management should mean good management, as with all woods, in line with whatever the community’s objectives are – whether these be wildlife, or timber production, or recreation, or, as is often the case, a combination of all of these. We strongly support sustainable management of woodland as set out in the UK Forestry Standard, or in line with the UKWAS certification standard (to which all Woodland Trust woods are managed). In fact, we have community groups carrying out such management in some of our own woods, like the Pepper Wood group who have been functioning for years in a largely self-sufficient way, ploughing money from wood sales back into the group to keep it going.

  10. Julie says:

    Giving this government even half a chance to ‘redirect’ funding away from FC sounds very risky to me. I totally agree with Liz, community input is to be welcomed but I don’t wish to see it replacing the role of FC.

    • Hi Julie,
      I hope my posts above have helped clarify that we are certainly not talking about communities being expected to replace the role of FC. This is about facilitating a small but nevertheless real demand for more involvement in woodland management.

  11. Liz says:

    Wonder where you have found all these people who are willing and able to manage a woodland. There are plenty of people who want to use the woodland for recreational purposes, but very few willing to do any management or basic woodland work !

    Friends of Chopwell Wood have some volunteers who want to help the FC and be involved to a certain degree with the planning for the woodland, but this can only go so far. The overall day to day management and work needs more than an online hub, or advice, it needs reliable expert staff. People have other priorities in their lives and volunteers are not obliged to turn up – even when there is something vital to do. Funding doesn’t always help with this, and we would rather see the money go to the FC.

    You say that this would not be a cheap option – well if we can’t afford the FC, this sounds as if it will cost more. Where will the funding come from, and what will happen to public access in these community woods ? This looks like privatisation by another method !

    • Hi Liz, I sympathise as I know what great work the Friends of Chopwell do, but also how difficult many groups find it to maintain sufficient numbers willing to do work “on the ground”. That is one of the reasons we are calling for better support for groups that want to be involved in managing their local woods.

      • Liz says:

        Hi Sian, Yes and we want that support to come from the FC in the form of expert staff to provide leadership for our volunteers. We certainly do not want to take on full-time management of the woodland, just assist the FC staff. When we had a FC Ranger based at Chopwell, we had many more willing volunteers and big groups who came along, as they could plan ahead in the certainty of there being a guaranteed expert leader available.

        We already had the involvement you talk of, but the public spending cutbacks removed some of that by reducing the FC staff levels. Just get the Government to put that money back – that is what we want.

        • Nikki Williams says:

          Hi Liz, As Sian works part time & isnt around today, just to confirm with you – We totally agree! You should, absolutely not be seeing a loss of Govt. investment into FC and the work they are doing with you and the wider community. This is why it is so important that you make that very, very clear to Defra as they collate people’s thoughts during this ‘conversation’ period. These blogs are a taste of the converations we have been asked to contribute to, but we in no way feel our thoughts are the total answer or the lead answer. They must hear from people like you to get a proper, rounded understanding of where investment is needed and valued by the public.
          This afternoon we will publish a blog by Jane Hull of the FC, who is doing a grand job pulling together the information for communities (amongst other things) – please have a read. & I hope you have given Defra your thoughts and opinions via their e-mail address Thanks for your comments – it’s good to discuss these things.

          • Liz says:

            Hi Nikki/Sian, Friends of Chopwell Wood have indeed already submitted a Response to the Forestry Panel Report. Although, we have in fact been complaining about the spending cuts since it was first proposed over a year ago. Sufficient funding for the FC to do their job properly was a main point made by most of the campaign groups during the protests against the sell-off proposals, and much of that was said during January/February 2011. How long have we got to keep saying this before the Government choose to hear ?

  12. Alan Spidy says:

    I wonder which organisation will gain the most from the transfer of “assets” from the public sector to community groups? Doesn’t the Woodland Trust receive public money from Forest Services to set up community woods? Bit ironic if FC has to – in effect – pay a third party to transfer some of the Public Forest Estate it manages on behalf of the public to the, er, public. And then who manages this “new” woodland? Wouldn’t by any chance be the Woodland Trust would it?

    It wasn’t the Woodland Trust or any of the national conservation NGOs that saved the Public Forest Estate for the people of this country – it was hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who were already engaged with their own woods and forests, who had been doing so for years and who passionately stood up to be counted. Quite happy for the Woodland Trust to find some new bits of wood to play with but they ought to leave the PFE well alone and in the hands of its expert custodians and its public.

    • Alan, you are absolutely right that the Government withdrew its consultation because of the huge wave of public opinion. We agree too that we need a PFE, properly managed by the Forestry Commission. That is not in dispute here. But where people want to have a greater level of involvement, or even take over management, or create new woods, we believe there should be an opportunity for them to do so.

  13. Sue Baillie says:

    Can I please see the evidence base for your claims that communities want to manage their woodlands? When you say “Evolved Forest Services” do you mean the 82% of woodland outside of the Public Forest Estate? If WT want to have a grown up discussion on this subject perhaps you could provide the evidence and clarify exactly what part of England woodlands you are talking about – then perhaps we can engage further?

    • Hi Sue
      See my response above to wildelycreative – we have been talking to community groups for a number of months. I have not said the demand is massive, but there is a small and growing movement of people who want to be more involved in managing their local woods for the reasons spelt out above. This isn’t about the PFE specifically, but about the woods that particular communities happen to care about.

      • If it’s not about the PFE specifically why mention it in your article? Why mention Forestry Commission or Local Authority?

      • Sue Baillie says:

        Thanks Sian – although this should have been clarified at the start of your blog and I think the title used is outrageous ‘spin’. So, just to clarify for me and others reading this blog – there is a SMALL number of people wishing to manage their local woods; these woods are NOT within the Public Forest Estate.
        Your emotive language of “communities are stirring” suggests more than what you are prepared to put on this blog, so, what do you know that the general public DON’T?

        • Hi Sue
          “Communities are stirring” just sums up our experience, from talking to them, that there’s a growing movement out there among local groups and communities who have a passion for woodland, and are keen to manage their own wood. There’s no hidden agenda.

          • I’m sorry to appear “crude” again but the experience I’ve had through Save Our Woods has shown the WT always has a hidden agenda. Maybe you, Sian, just aren’t party to it yet.

          • Sue Baillie says:

            Hi Sian,
            More emotive language! “Growing Movement” – we are all passionate about our woodlands and forests and we all do what we can to lend a hand where we can, on a voluntary basis – I would hardly call that a growing movement – we’ve been doing it for years here in my village. You still haven’t given a difinitive answer. I would really like you to please point me in the direction of your quantitive data to support this claim.

  14. Sorry. Am I talking to Sian or Kaye?

    • Kaye Brennan says:

      This is Kaye posting up Sian’s reply as Sian is not able to get online this afternoon 🙂

      • Would this Community Woodland Scheme be run by the Woodland Trust? If so, how can you guarantee that publicly owned woodland/land would remain in public hands and not be transferred to the Woodland Trust in – effectively – a land grab by yourselves with the communities managing and benefiting from it for a short time (the length of the leasehold/longer term management agreement) but for the Woodland Trust to be the eventual owner?

        If this community woodland scheme is managed by the Woodland Trust does that mean the government are devolving responsibility for public lands to charitable trusts like yourselves instead of public bodies?

        Is this a land grab by the back door with the aim to become as big as the National Trust in terms of acreage owned under the guise of the Localism Bill?

        Will the Woodland Trust be funding community groups in their “purchase” that would include any clause that the Woodland Trust are the actual owners?

        If any of these are the case how will your members feel about the WT taking ownership of publicly owned land by a back door channel?

        If not, what happens to the land in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years as community groups get older/change/dissolve? What happens to continuity of care for woodlands and wildlife?

        Are the Woodland Trust now the government’s mouthpiece for forestry matters in terms of localism?

        • Also, how many jobs will be lost if Forestry Commission/LA managed woodlands are transferred to community groups/volunteers/charities? Will this wave of charity mentality/volunteer(free) labour/localism compromise careers, such as the Forestry Commission’s apprentice scheme? We really need to be investing in apprenticeships to ensure the long-term knowledge retention and continuity of care for woodlands and wildlife.

          • Over the past six to eight months we’ve been doing some research and talking to groups, and there is a small but growing movement of community groups that want to be more actively involved in woodland. Some are linked to Transition Town groups or similar, looking to produce sustainable fuel, some are interested in setting up social enterprises to create local jobs, some are groups concerned at development threats to their local woods, others simply have an interest in woodland management and biodiversity.

            All we are saying is that where there is this demand, there should be support to help people achieve their aspirations. As I have already said, it is often not about ownership– it may mean leasehold, or management agreements, or even less formal “Friends of…” groups like the Friends of Chopwell (see Liz’s post below), and the woods that groups are interested in are not necessarily part of the PFE. In some cases, they are groups looking to create new woodland, as they don’t have woods nearby that they could manage.

            One thing we have learned by talking to aspiring groups is that they are all different in their objectives, the degree of involvement they want, and the level of skill and capacity they have. To suggest therefore that this is about a “sell-off” or “land grab” is crude, when what we are actually lobbying for is a flexible system of support to enable local people to improve their lives and their environment, where they have the desire to do that with woodland. We’ve also talked to many fantastic, inspirational groups who already successfully manage their local woods. We’re just keen that others are able to do the same, if they want to.

  15. I’m all for more community engagement in woodlands and all other environments but this sounds suspiciously like a selling off of the Public Forest Estate under the guise of community engagement. No sale of any of the PFE should happen. It utterly negates everything that 500,000 people signed a petition against last year. A petition and fight the Woodland Trust’s Sue Holden said they were at the forefront of (they weren’t).

    “Public bodies that own woods – FC and local authorities, for example – should identify those that could be candidates for asset transfer…”

    Is this the Woodland Trust asking the Forestry Commission and other authorities to sell publicly owned woodland?

    If so, shame on you.

    • Kaye Brennan says:

      Thanks for this, Karen. It raises a really important distinction. We support the idea of offering communities who want to manage woods (and there are many of them) the opportunity to do so, but we certainly wouldn’t support the idea that communities are a convenient place to offload liabilities. And we don’t support large-scale sell-off of the public forest estate. However, there are many groups out there who want to take woods into their care or play a more active role in their stewardship, to provide themselves with a sustainable source of fuel, to create local jobs, or to do something for wildlife. We believe they should be given the opportunity to do this, but it is crucial they are also given the right support. It’s also worth noting that asset transfer may not mean sale – it may mean groups taking on a leasehold or long term management agreement. Sian

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