The Future of England’s Forests: What next for the Public Forest Estate?

The future of England’s forests has been a hot topic of debate in recent years. When the idea of selling off a significant portion of the public forest estate was floated by the Government in 2011, it was met with strong resistance from the public and civil society, and resulted in a hasty U-turn. In response, the Government convened an Independent Panel of Forestry to review the direction of forestry and woodland policy, and at the start of 2013 set out its response to the Panel’s recommendations in the Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement.

Almost two years have passed since the government set out its three key objectives for forestry and woodlands policy – protection, improvement and expansion – and its intention “to establish a new, separate Public Forest Estate management body to hold the Estate in trust for the nation”. What progress has been made since then? How close are we to seeing the formation of this new management body? And how will the Government ensure that this body is able to maximise the benefits of the nation’s forests for people, nature and the economy in equal measure?

These were just some of the points of discussion at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity on 21 October. Chaired by Barry Gardiner MP (Labour, Shadow Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries), the meeting asked the question: “How should the Public Forest Estate be managed to achieve optimal benefits for people and biodiversity?”

Dan Rogerson MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for water, forestry, rural affairs and resource management) opened the meeting by reiterating the Government’s forestry priorities: protecting the nation’s trees, woodlands and forests from increasing threats such as pests, diseases and climate change; improving their resilience to these threats and their contribution to economic growth, people’s lives and nature; and expanding them to increase further their economic, social and environmental value. Resilience was a key theme cutting across all of these priorities.

The minister’s opening remarks were followed by a number of perspectives on the management of the Public Forest Estate. Professor Ian Bateman (University of East Anglia) outlined how increasingly comprehensive data on land use and the value of ecosystem services can enable better decision-making. Focusing on the question of expanding the forest estate, Professor Bateman illustrated how accounting for the non-market values generated by forests, from recreation to catchment management, could direct expansion towards areas where it could have most benefit for people, nature and the economy – predominantly on the fringes of major conurbations.

Justin Cooke (The Ramblers) emphasised the need for public access to be placed at the heart of the new Public Forest Estate, and that resources needed to be appropriately directed to enable this, whilst Austin Brady (Woodland Trust) highlighted the need to think beyond “forests” to encompass trees in the wider landscape, and also the opportunity for the Public Forest Estate to be a potential showcase and test-bed for payments for ecosystem services.

Finally Simon Hodgson (Chief Executive, Forest Enterprise England) outlined current progress towards the establishment of the new body, which is currently focused on reviewing current legislation and working with legal advisors to establish the basis for an organisation with a triple purpose – delivering benefits for people, nature and the economy.

While the ensuing discussion was wide ranging, a few recurring points stood out. First, raised by both the Woodland Trust and Caroline Lucas MP (Green) was the question of why the Public Forest Estate was not explicitly excluded from provisions under the proposed Infrastructure Bill that permit the transfer of public land to the Homes and Communities Agency. While Dan Rogerson reiterated that the Government had no intention of transferring any of the Public Forest Estate in this manner, and that an amendment to the bill was not necessary, it was clear that this did not fully address the audience’s concerns.

Second, the degree to which the language of natural capital and ecosystem services permeated the debate, and indeed the Government’s stated plans for the management of the Public Forest Estate. Professor Ian Bateman’s presentation was a perfect example of how taking into account non-market values of the services nature provides can lead to better environmental decision making.  However, it was noticeable that considerable uncertainty remains around the application of this approach in day-to-day practice; whilst the reorganisation of the Public Forest Estate is seen as a great opportunity to test tools such as payments for ecosystem services, there were few concrete examples of how this would work.

The Government’s commitment to following the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry and establishing a new management body for the Public Forest Estate with a genuine triple bottom line represents a real opportunity to ensure a sustainable future for England’s forests. However, with the legislation required to create this body looking increasingly unlikely before the 2015 General Election, ongoing scrutiny is required to ensure that the new body lives up to its potential.