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.
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