Today is the very first International Day of Forests designated by the United Nations to celebrate forests globally. But do we have much to celebrate especially in England? In many ways yes, especially with renewed public passion and concern.
For example, I expect you thought the Forestry Commission in England was safe now that plans to sell off the public forest estate have been well and truly ditched and the government has announced it will set up a new kind of public body to hold the nation’s forests in trust.
Well, half of the Commission may be safe but the other half isn’t. The Forestry Commission not only owns and manages the public forest estate (about 18% of the total area of woodland in England) but just as importantly the part known as ‘Forest Services’ also offers advice, support and grants, and regulates the activities on the other 82% of England’s woodland which is in private ownership.
If we want a new woodland culture in England, this is where most of the action needs to take place. But it is this 82% by area which presents the greatest challenge for those seeking a real change in our attitude to woodland – it provides less than 60% by area of all the accessible woodland in England, it only produces 40% of all softwood timber harvested and only 47% is in a programme of management supported by public funds[i]. Forest Services has a big task on its hands.
And let’s not forget Forest Services’ other functions of research and setting high standards of sustainable management shared with opposite numbers in Scotland and Wales.
Yet it is Forest Services whose uncertain future is now tangled up with that of two other government environmental bodies: Natural England (the government’s adviser on nature conservation) and the Environment Agency (the government’s environmental regulator on rivers, flooding and pollution). Both are currently subject to their once-in-three-year review by government though Forest Services is not technically part of this.
Forest organisations including Our Forests, the Royal Forestry Society and CONFOR are almost universally united in their concern that the already emasculated Forest Services (subject to budget cuts of 25% cut in the past 3 years) will quietly slip into a coma and out of existence. On the other hand, there is an argument that a merger of Forest Services with Natural England into a new forest and wildlife service may create a stronger voice for wildlife.
Here are three reasons why that argument doesn’t stand up and why Forest Services needs to retain its own identity:
- No reorganisation of environmental bodies has been achieved in the last 30 years without massive emotional turmoil and turbulence for staff and without decreasing overall effectiveness. The risk here is of a haemorrhaging of skills, experience and knowledge – the cost is too high and the time is wrong in the face of the tree disease crisis;
- Forest Services is currently responsible for promoting the social and economic aspects of sustainable forestry as well as an environmental and wildlife agenda; so for example it gives grants and advice to woodland owners on promoting timber production and establishing wood supply chains. These are important functions, yet how can these sit comfortably within a wildlife-focused organisation?
- The renaissance of forests and woods as a means of tackling multiple public policy issues often simultaneously –(e.g. carbon sequestration, water quality, soil conservation, human health, high quality green infrastructure in towns and cities, climate cooling in cities and renewable resources) – will in all probability stutter to a halt in a body devoted to a single focus around wildlife conservation. Of course woods are critical wildlife habitats but they are even more than that – they offer a unique amalgam of environmental services underpinning the health of both natural and human worlds.
DEFRA has invited many of its stakeholders to a workshop sometime in April to outline their thinking and to ask our views on what they call “future governance arrangements” for forestry functions. Will they already have decided what to do? David Heath, the Forestry Minister, is already inclining towards a merger judging by recent remarks to the All Party Conservation Group. But we doubt he has heard the anti-merger arguments clearly so far.
So are you worried about the bit of Forestry Commission you were almost unaware of?
You should be. Let us know your thoughts about the future of Forest Services below and we’ll pass them on wherever and whenever we can.
Hilary Allison – Policy Director
[i] These figures come from the Independent Panel on Forestry report July 2012