Forest estate in England to remain in public ownership

For the past two years, the future of England’s forest estate has been uncertain. Proposals to sell-off large areas of forest in early 2011 were quickly withdrawn, but not replaced by reassuring policies. The publication of the Government’s response to the Independent Panel on Forestry’s final report on the future of forestry and woodland governance today, however, provides closure on this process. The decision that the forest estate will remain in public ownership has been finalised. Proposed forestry and woodland policy to be taken up later this year is also outlined, highlighting the response to the recommendations of the Independent Panel.

Rumours of the sale of up to 150,000 hectares of forest began in late 2010, and the controversy and resistance this sparked was shown in the huge response to the consultation process early in 2011. Just 21 days after the consultation was launched, we saw its abandonment in a historic u-turn, with the acknowledgement by Government that they “got this one wrong”. The creation of an Independent Forestry Panel to advise on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England followed this, and their final report and recommendations were published in July 2012. Today’s report marks the response of Government to these recommendations, and proposals for their implementation.

The protection of woodlands and forests is high on the agenda in today’s report, with the threats of disease and climate change clearly understood. The policy proposals also focus on the potential that forests have to contribute to economic growth, and how best this can be realised in practice.

The key objectives in priority order are:

1) Protecting the nation’s trees, woodlands and forests from increasing threats such as pests, diseases and climate change;
2) Improving their resilience to these threats and their contribution to economic growth, people’s lives and nature;
3) Expanding them to increase further their economic, social and environmental value

Tree disease features highly in the proposals, with the announcement that £2m will be allocated to the Forestry Commission this year in recognition of the additional pressures arising from ash dieback. In addition, the need for a long-term and robust plant health regime is recognised, and recommendations from the forthcoming Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce final report in spring will be reviewed for future policy amendments (see the interim report here).

The creation of an independent body to manage the resources of the forest estate was also announced, marking the sincerity of the plans over the medium-term at least. The ability for the new body to maximise its income through forest resources could help to ensure its continued existence in the future to ensure long-term benefits of forests and woodlands for people, nature and the economy.

Many of the 31 recommendations given by the Panel were accepted in full. Others, however, were shaved down considerably. It was recommended by the Panel that the Government commit to increasing the woodland cover of England from 10-15% by 2060. To achieve this goal, approximately 10,000-15,000 hectares of woodland would have to be created per year. Given current rates of forest expansion are 2000-3000 hectares per year, this would require rapid changes in policy and mind-set. Rather than embrace this challenge, Government have filtered down these recommendations, aiming for 12% forest cover by 2060 (through the creation of 5000 hectares per year) and 15% at an undefined point in the future. Although it is disappointing to see what is essentially a non-commitment to a target of 15% woodland cover in England, the outlining of 12% cover by 2060 is a good compromise. The setting of a quantitative target by a defined date means that progress can easily be tracked.

Overall, the response of Government to the Panel’s report is very good news for the future of forestry and woodlands in England and represents a first step towards the future management of England’s estate to ensure resilience and sustainability in light of future threats.