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Publicly-owned forests good, privately-owned forests bad?

Tim Montgomerie

In yesterday's Sunday Telegraph Janet Daley noted how the British people may not like politicians very much but they still like the idea of them running things and spending their money:

"Even voters who express the most profound contempt for politicians of all parties fail to ask themselves why those very politicians should be regarded as superior moral beings when it comes to spending other people’s money. However much personal and historical experience teaches that state spending is inclined to be at best incompetent, insensitive and unproductive, and at worst corrupting and invidious, there is scarcely a professional politician who will dare to commit himself unequivocally to the value of private spending."

Janet's remarks coincided with a new YouGov poll showing deep public opposition to greater private sector involvement in the NHS (concerns that David Cameron attempted to address today). They also coincide with widespread opposition to Caroline Spelman's plans to privatise part of the Forestry Commission. Opposition comes from many ConHome regulars (see the comments below the audio of Mrs Spelman's Radio 4 interview).

Anyhow, here's my attempt to defend what Mrs Spelman is trying to do...

What is Caroline Spelman proposing to sell?


When we think of the Forestry Commission we perhaps think of the New Forest and the Forest of Dean.  It is certainly these beautiful woodlands that campaigners want to plant in our minds in their attempt to stop the coalition government’s plan to privatise parts of the forests that are currently in public ownership. In reality these national treasures won’t be sold to ‘capitalist profiteers’ but entrusted to esteemed organisations like the National Trust who will cherish them and be required by law to do so. It is mainly forests that exist to produce timber that will sold to profit-making companies. The Government has studied New Zealand where privatisation of such commercial forestry created jobs and increased tax revenues.

Why all the anxiety?

Anxieties are high because, in a rush to raise money, the last Labour government started selling Forestry Commission lands without ensuring that the public had rights of access for walking, cycling and horse-riding. The public outcry was legitimate and lessons have been learnt.

Can the Coalition guarantee that the public will still have access to woodland?

All of the forests that the coalition government will pass to new owners will be leased on 150 year terms rather than sold completely. Leaseholders that break the terms of those leases will lose all rights to run the woodlands and they will return immediately to public ownership. One of the benefits of the campaign to ‘save England’s forests’ ( will probably be a bomb-proofing of the terms of these leases, guaranteeing stricter public access requirements.

What will proceeds of sales be used for?

The money raised by partial-privatisation of the Forestry Commission will be used for other important environmental objectives including investment in vital flood defences and the government’s capacity to improve animal welfare.

Is this a Big Society project?

In part. The government refuses to believe that the state is a better steward of precious resources than community organisations like the Mersey Forest and Sherwood Forest Trusts. Both of these Big Society organisations run beautiful woodlands for the benefit of local schools and wildlife enthusiasts. They invest thoughtfully in enhancing rich habitats within those woodlands. One of this country’s crowning glories is its private gardens. Cultivation and protection of the natural environment is in the British people’s DNA. Put the right people in charge of our woodlands, subject them to proper regulation and they can do a better job than a big government bureaucracy.

 Will Cameron and Spelman u-turn?

The ‘save England’s forests’ alliance that has brought together Ken Livingstone, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Boris Johnson’s sister and 300,000 online petitioners is obviously of concern to David Cameron and Caroline Spelman. Government plans to change the way schools sports are funded, and also to drop the supply of free books to disadvantaged children, have already been amended following smaller celebrity-driven campaigns. The government does not want to get a reputation for u-turns however. It is more likely that ownership changes to England’s forests will be slower and more tightly regulated than that they will be dropped altogether.

Will the nation lose trees?

No. The Coalition’s overall plan is to increase the number of trees that grow in Britain. Last month, fulfilling a manifesto promise, the coalition launched the Big Tree Plant  – the biggest such campaign since the 1970s. A £4m grant will ensure England is graced with one million more trees by 2014. Many of these trees will be planted in urban neighbourhoods where the need for extra greenery is greatest.

And what about Cameron's pledge to lead the greenest government ever?

Overall, there’s nothing inconsistent with better management of the nation’s forests and David Cameron’s pledge to lead Britain’s most environment-friendly government. The government isn’t yet a year old but it has already scrapped plans for a third runway at Heathrow. It also plans to introduce a new high-speed rail network that will be much less polluting than alternative forms of transport. The Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne has launched his Green Deal to improve home energy conservation. Andrew Mitchell, International Development Secretary, is writing biodiversity into Britain’s aid policy. And Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Agriculture, has commissioned the first Natural Environment White Paper for twenty years. It will set out a comprehensive strategy for protecting Britain’s most precious natural assets. Not bad for nine months’ work.


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