Have your say on the future of forests

I’VE RECEIVED a significant number of letters and emails in recent days about our plans for England’s forests.

It’s an issue that’s got people across the whole country talking and as I submit this article to the County Times there will be a debate on it in the chamber of the House of Commons (Wednesday afternoon). I thought it might be useful if I used this opportunity to explain our thinking.

It’s little wonder that the future of our forests is an emotive subject. To many people a woodland walk or a cycle or horse ride on forest land is quintessentially British. Indeed, our ancient forests are one of the things that make our own corner of West Sussex so beautiful and such a special place to live.

It’s important - for current and future generations – that such areas are protected, as is our ability to access them freely. To this end, last Thursday we published a consultation paper which sets out a range of options for the ownership and management of the forests in England which are currently run by the Forestry Commission.

This consultation has concerned people but it’s predicated on a statistic that we found very alarming: from 1997, the Labour Government was easily able to sell more than 25,000 acres of forestry land – with few protections for the public and future generations – not to mention its wildlife.

As with so many of our policies and proposals, we want a proper transfer of power from ‘Big Government’ to ‘Big Society’ - we want individuals, businesses, charities and other organisations to have a greater role in protecting our forest land.

The consultation paper sets out how heritage forests could be transferred to charitable trusts, while commercial land could be leased – with strict protections secured in its clauses.

Among other important points, the Government is committed to:

Enshrining in law the commitment that no Heritage Forest – such as the New Forest – can be sold to the private sector.

Offering first refusal to community groups/civil society organisations.

Guaranteeing access by only selling land on a leasehold basis.

Preventing the sale of any site that is more than ten per cent Planted Ancient Woodlands.

Protecting biodiversity.

Maintaining public access.

Interestingly, our much-loved National Trust is an example of where preservation and access have been delivered very successfully by a model that is not reliant on state-ownership.

I’m grateful to everyone who has contacted me about this issue and I certainly understand what it means to local people. I’d encourage readers to take part in the consultation: www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/forests/index.htm.