Following the Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010, where the Defra budget was cut by a whopping 30% (the government average was 19%) Environment secretary Caroline Spelman MP announced plans to sell off the Public Forestry Estate: 258000 hectares of publicly owned woodland that currently costs £20 million to manage. This sell-off was met with fierce public debate resulting in suspension of the plans, an official apology, and the establishment of the Independent Panel on Forestry, a team of experts chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool.
Today, the Independent Panel have published their Final Report recommending that ‘the public forest estate should remain in public ownership, and be defined in statute as land held in trust for the nation’.
This is an important announcement, not only for community groups and individuals who enjoy access to UK woodlands, but also for those that champion a holistic approach to environmental policy, i.e. not only considering the direct balance sheet of income and cost, but valuing the many ecosystem services that a habitat can provide.
Ecosystem Services are processes and resources provided by a particular type of environment. So, in this case, woodlands provide not only timber, but flood prevention, nutrient cycling, clean air and water, habitats for pollinators and access for recreation to name a few.
Some services, such as timber, hold a straightforward monetary value, but services such as pollination, recreation and flood defence also hold great economic value that needs to be taken into account; providing these services by other means could place a vast burden on the public purse.
The Final Report recognises that the Public Forest Estate and the wider UK woodlands provide valuable ecosystem services that far outweigh their management costs, and provide a great sense of social cohesion; within the 42,000 individual responses to the call for views, the ‘message to emerge most strongly was… the personal value that people place on being able to visit and enjoy woodlands.’
This sense of public relationship and ownership of our forests was apparent from the immediate backlash against Spelman’s plans, and the panel have carried out a broad consultation process that incorporates this public concern with evidence and expertise. Despite concerns from some campaign groups that a partial sell-off might be announced, the panel appear to have made sound suggestions that reflect the public mood.
The Report also recommends a governance structure for England public forestry organisations and cross border relationships, and more opportunities for communities to become more engaged with their local trees, woods and forests. This takes into account not only access to the public forest estate, but encourages enhanced good quality access to privately owned woodlands. 82% of woodland in the UK is privately owned; better informal access would provide recreation opportunities beneficial to both mental and physical health.
The Society of Biology policy team will be monitoring the outcome of these recommendations and the wider implications of the Defra budget cut.
The Society wrote to the Independent Panel on Forestry Policy in England last year, and responded to the Lords and Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry on the forestry research budget following the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review- http://www.societyofbiology.org/policy/consultations/view/48
Jackie Caine, Science Policy Officer, Society of Biology