A Point of View

24/08/2012

in Opinion

It’s always been important to SoW to gain a broad understanding of others’ point of view and so we are grateful to Steele for sharing his opinions with us..


I am a commercial forester. I make my living helping my clients grow trees, cut them down and then sell them to other people who make things out of the timber. I want what I do to have the maximum benefits with least damage. I work to make what I do sustainable. I am passionate about what I do – but I operate in a World of real money, real constraints and real opportunities.

These opinions are mine. They are not my company’s.

_____________________________________

by Steele Haughton

 

The final report of the Forestry Panel worries me. I worry that some folk, who believe they have won a shining victory for what they think is ‘right’, may actually have contributed to the long term decline of the woods and forests for which they clearly care a great deal. I will attempt to explain why.

The history and background has, in my view, resulted in many people’s perspectives getting muddled and confused at many levels:

  • Forests and woods:  an oak wood on an ancient woodland site in Dorset is a very, very different entity from a Sitka spruce tree farm in upland Northumberland. Considering them in the same way or requiring the same things from them is irrational and wrong – and, for the Public Forest Estate, wasteful of public money. One of the major errors of the original Government consultation, in my opinion, is that the range and distinction of ‘forests’ was not made at all clear.

 

  • Timescales: forests and woodlands are complex, dynamic systems. The problem for foresters engaging with ‘the public’ is that the cycles in forests are almost as long or longer than most human lives (so people see forests as static and unchanging, they are not) and the complexity and interdependencies are easy to overlook if your interest is in one, narrow aspect of what is going on. Forests cannot – and should not – remain the same forever. Failure to explain that to well minded people (who think that cutting down any tree is a sin) is a favour-currying weakness that magnifies the gap in understanding and will likely contribute to the long term decline of most woodlands.

 

  • The Public Forest Estate: most of the Public Forest Estate in England was either ‘inherited’ (like the New Forest or Forest of Dean) or bought and/or planted in the rush to build a strategic timber reserve after the devastation of the two World Wars. Some areas were planted specifically to produce timber in remote areas in industrial quantities – and they do. Are these producers of a primary industrial resource best managed by civil servants? Does the Nation get the highest public benefit from that arrangement? Does shouting down any suggestion of looking at any other possible approach really best serve arriving at the right way forward? Nobody in their right mind would seek to privatise the New Forest; historically, culturally and, not least, commercially (in forestry terms) it is a non starter.  But should the Nation own a large chunk of upland commercial softwood timber production capacity? Why? And why doesn’t the Nation own similar proportions of milk production or wheat production or concrete production? If your answer to that question is that it should, then you are an advocate of widespread state ownership and the route to that is via the ballot box – not by curtailing debate on the future Public Forest Estate.

 

  • Public benefits: all forests and woodlands produce more than one ‘benefit’. Wildlife habitats, soil stability, attractive landscapes are all important – but they are very difficult to turn into cash – particularly reliable cash that doesn’t disappear with a change of government support based on a change in public fashion. Forests and woodland last a long, long time. Changes in government and public attention and trendinesses tend to be every five to fifteen years – it is impossible for woodlands (and their owners) to keep up –  a failure that has saved many important features of important woods.  Uncomfortably for some, timber production remains one of the very few, truly sustainable methods of producing real money to pay for forests. The management of the Public Forest Estate has been adjusted and tweaked over the last 25 years to respond to generally articulate, direct and indirect, approaches from outside interests and bodies, often those with a single or narrow focus. So, say, birds tend to get attention as does mountain biking – but deer and squirrel management may get dropped or hidden because of ‘sensitivities’.  Articulate campaigning is, in my experience, usually a middle class occupation. Reasonably well off, middle class people (with cars) can get to publicly owned forests and woodlands and enjoy them for doing what they like doing. But what about the ‘public’ who haven’t got cars and who don’t write letters and emails or have websites? Is there not a case for ‘moving’ at least part of the public forest estate to where this ‘public’ can have easy access and enjoyment of ‘their’ woods? Perhaps ‘public benefit’ sometimes gets confused with ‘my benefit’ – and perhaps those who aren’t as good at manipulating the channels of influence, old and new, should be asked what they want from the Public Forest Estate.

 

  • The Forestry Commission is an organisation is made up of two bits: the forest authority that deals with policy, making sure private forest owners keep to the law and administering government grants and then Forest Enterprise that manages the Public Forest Estate. While the Forestry Commission employs some very good foresters and they do some good things, they do not walk on water. Some of the management of the Public Forest Estate is, in my opinion and the opinion of others, poor. Treating the Forestry Commission as the ’experts’ who are always right is very dangerous. The organisation itself has evolved methods and approaches that are often not the best way of doing things – ask any group of operations level FC field staff.

 

The Government ‘consultation’ on the Public Forest Estate was not well run. Once started it should have been allowed to run its allotted full time and then all views considered properly. As it was the Government was scared off by campaigning boosted via Facebook and Twitter. In my view this was a disaster for the publicly owned forest and woodlands. We needed (and still need)  a rational debate about what we (all) want from forests and woodlands, what the best way is of securing those benefits, who should own the forests to best produce those benefits and then who should manage them. I fear the Forestry Panel has essentially shied away from properly looking at ownership for fear of being howled down by another storm of tweets generated by a very few, but very effective campaigners.

Claiming huge ‘non market’ benefits for forests and woodlands has been something forest economists and others have done for over 30 years- the Forestry Panel is in good company. Unfortunately, nice as this seems, when it comes down to it, someone actually has to either produce something they can sell or to write a cheque.   You cannot pay people in the pounds imagined in a glossy report.

The publicity behind the Early Day Motion from Caroline Lucas MP of the Green Party echoed the Public and Civil Service union sound bite that the Forestry Commission ‘only’ cost us less than 30 pence each a year. But we need a rational debate not emotive campaigning attempting to force acceptance of the status quo. The real question is should the public forest be costing ‘us’ 30 pence each or should it be producing an income of 30 pence or 50 pence or £ 1? And that is before we start on whether we should spend that 30 pence each on forests or, in these hard times, should it go to looking after children with cancer or old peoples’ homes or better medical facilities for wounded soldiers.

Wood and timber is a great material; recyclable, reusable, biodegradable and, managed well, sustainable. We import some 80% of the wood and wood products we use. We no longer have an empire we can plunder for cheap raw materials. I think we should do our best to produce as much of our own timber as we can, ourselves, as efficiently as possible. This means that for some areas ‘timber production’ needs to be at the top of the list of objectives. But it is never the only objective. Virtually all of the forests with which I am involved are certified to an international standard. The standard imposes an auditable structure to ensure environmental and public benefits are maintained or enhanced.  Much of the campaigning appears to doggedly over look this.

For example, much was made of the ‘certainty’ of the loss of public access if any forests were sold. Great campaigning stance: scare the public and then set yourself up to save them from the demons. But what about reality? Why not just impose a public access clause on all sales. Commercial forestry works fine with a full right to roam in Scotland – why not in England?

The Forestry Panel highlights the area of private forest and woodland in England and the need to cherish this resource. I agree. But some years ago the high ups at the Forestry Commission appeared to have decided to disengage with private owners – and they have never properly re-engaged.  The focus of the Forestry Commission appears to be on increasingly elaborate administration of whatever public money that is left over for grants after the costs of administration have been paid – and with secondary rules introduced to produce hurdles that NGOs find it easier to jump than private owners –  and you can’t argue it’s for the public benefit. The Forestry Commission, their ‘attitude’ and their grant scheme rules left many private owners behind long ago. They will struggle to regain the confidence of many owners who can, with just a little imagination, encouragement and guidance, produce the benefits that the Panel has recognised. A major strategy for forestry in a region of England I know well, its review and its monitoring was undertaken by committees appointed by the Forestry Commission. The committees included members from local authorities, government agencies representing the environment, heritage and nature, NGOs, education bodies, health bodies – but not a single private woodland owner. In my opinion that represents unacceptable bias and, much more significantly, is totally counter-productive if the objective is to engage with private forest owners and get the most and best public benefit from the very limited public spend on forestry. The Government’s response to the Forestry Panel’s report needs to address this culture within the Forestry Commission – they won’t like it.

Real forests and real woodlands need real money for plants and planters and fencing and roads and gates and weeding and maps and– you get the picture. That money comes from selling things from the forest or government money in the form of grants in one form or another. When Government is cutting spending on social security, local authorities, the armed forces, the police and most other aspects of ‘public’ life it is, in my view, a total abdication of their responsibility for the Forestry Panel to base their ‘solution’ to the problem on substantial additional public spending. This is not make-believe money. We have already seen a reduction of 25% in Forestry Commission staff numbers and many suspect that that is not the end of it.  Does anyone out there really believe that substantial additional public funding will (or, in fact, can) be forthcoming in the next 2 or 3 or 5 years?   Someone needs to come up with some ideas for what happens when the money doesn’t appear.

I have a vested interest – I earn a living from privately owned, commercial forests. But there are other many other vested interests at play here. Forestry Commission staff have a vested interest; they will seek to protect their jobs, terms and conditions. Their costs of management are significantly higher than the private sector; those costs need to be clear and open to scrutiny and criticism. The RSPB has a vested interest: they find the Forestry Commission a relatively easy organisation to influence. The timber users have a vested interest – particularly if they find it easier to buy timber cheaper from the Public Forest Estate than elsewhere. But the Nation has a vested interest:  it currently owns the Public Forest Estate. The Government needs to work out how best to get the maximum public benefit from that resource for the whole Nation. A total ban on all sales, of anything, anywhere, forever, without any further thought or discussion, based on short term political reaction to emotive campaigning may serve the Forestry Commission staff. It may serve the timber users. It may serve the environmental campaigners.  It certainly does not, in my opinion, best serve the Nation. And that is what we all want – isn’t it?

Steele Haughton

 

 

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cheryl Mayo August 25, 2012 at 18:02

Steele has argued his points well and there is much to agree with: long timescales, for example, and the fact that never cutting down a tree is not doing the woodland any favours. However, there are a few critical points in the Forestry Panel’s report which he seems to have missed, and I think that a more careful reading of the report may help to alleviate many of his concerns.
I agree that the report does tend towards a “one size fits all” in that it does not mention specific forests or make distinctions between them. But the report has provided an umbrella under which details – especially the Charter and the Trustees and the way in which the FC is mandated to operate – can now be developed and those distinctions can (and should) be made there. Steele’s major point about why should the nation own a commercial pine plantation misses the extremely important fact – and even more so now that the Panel has recommended that the PFE should be self-financing within a few years – that it is these commercial aspects of the PFE which go a long way towards funding the public benefits which we all enjoy. As he himself says, timber production is the main means to pay for forests. Without this cross-subsidisation, governments would either have to fund the whole PFE or the public would have to pay (a lot) for access.
Steele maintains that articulate campaigning is the preserve of the middle classes who can get into their cars and enjoy the forests but that the rest of the public will continue to miss out on the benefits of the PFE. But the Panel is quite specific about the need for there to be more forests and woods close to residential/urban areas simply so that all people – whether they have cars or not or are middle class or not – can enjoy the benefits.
I am not sure how Steele comes up with the view that the Panel has recommended a total ban on all sales of anything, anywhere, forever. In fact they are explicit about the fact of buying and selling, but – and it is a big BUT – they are also explicit that selling cannot be simply to balance the books but must be done in the context of what is best for the PFE overall.
Finally, there is the old question of hard cash and the need for the government to continue funding the PFE until it becomes self-sustaining. And while I agree that putting values on the various benefits our woodlands bring does not directly generate money to pay people, it DOES say clearly to government that this is an extremely worthwhile investment, NOT a cost. That is a mindset which I am not sure our current government will easily be able to get its head around, so us campaigners are remaining very vigilant for the time being. We will see what happens come next January when the government gives it’s full response to the report.
Cheryl Mayo in the Forest of Dean

Reply

Rod Leslie August 28, 2012 at 11:33

Foresters are very good at doing themselves down on money and Steel is no exception. As people tend to, he assumes that costing the taxpayer nothing is the benchmark the FC estate should be working to. If it did it would be completely, totally unique in the UK countryside. The real benchmark is what the land would cost as farmland – and the answer is between £30 and 40 million per annum minimum – more than twice the cost of the estate to the nation today. The Government’s own figures showed there’d be no saving from selling the estate because proceeds would quickly be swallowed up by the grants the private sector (including Steele) would be able to claim. Forestry grants are much more modest than agricultural grants and unlike the Single Farm Payment foresters have to deliver public benefits to get grants – but don’t go away with the idea Steele’s private woodlands are costing you nothing, because they too are taking public money.

Reply

Alan Robertson September 5, 2012 at 11:01

The forestry debate, and our forests and woodlands, deserve better that Mr Haughton’s tired cynicism. Instead of adopting a backwards, glass-half-empty approach, he needs to take proper account of the Panel’s positive vision and recommendations from which we can all benefit.

To answer each bullet-point in Mr Haughton’s Point of View:

1. There is no suggestion in the report that the Panel anticipates broadleaf and conifer being considered ‘in the same way or requiring the same things from them’. The Panel, which included professional foresters like Mr Haughton, appreciated the distinction between ‘sustainable wood and forestry businesses’ and ‘those based on woodland leisure and tourism’.

Section C3 may not spell out the distinction between broadleaf and conifer but it doesn’t need to. It seeks to promote a woodland culture where forestry of all kinds thrive. Mr Haughton should be heartened by the call for maintaining production of managed conifer and broadleaf forests over the long-term and for the promotion of employment in all parts of the wood supply chain including ‘saw mills, pulp and paper manufacture, wood for fuel in stoves, wood for construction for building homes and offices’ and ‘a flourishing and commercially viable domestic forestry sector’. This clearly has regard to commercial softwood plantations rather than the ancient woodlands to which he refers.
He should be encouraged by the call for ‘a renewed understanding of the potential for wood as a contemporary product, with new demand and market opportunities’. The Panel is not here referring solely or mainly to the broadleaf woodlands of the PFE but, rather, to the commercial environment in which Mr Haughton works.

He should also be encouraged by the vision of ‘the creation of commercially viable new forests’ and a ‘regenerated wood industry’.

2. The report reflects an appreciation of the complexity and dynamism of forests and nowhere advocates that forests should be ‘static and unchanging’. Quite the opposite. What does sustainable management – a recurring theme throughout the report – mean if it does not involve the felling of trees and the use of timber?

3. The Panel made a rational analysis of the current state of English forestry, there was no ‘shouting down’ of any of the options available to it, no one curtailed the debate they invited when they took evidence.
As for responsibility for the production of a ‘primary industrial resource’: 65% of domestic timber production is derived from the PFE’s 18% holding; 100% of the PFE in England is accredited by the Forestry Stewardship Council and Pan-European Certification’, only 15% of private woodland is.

The Panel seeks to increase managed woodland from the current 50% to 80%. As all FC woods (212,300 ha) are managed to the UK Forestry Standard it will be necessary to bring 362,000 ha of private woodlands into active management to achieve this target.

These facts suggest that our public forests and woodlands have indeed benefitted from being managed by civil servants. It is private woodlands that are ‘behind the game’.

In any event, the Panel recommends a new forestry management organisation answerable to the Charter trustees and independent of government. To support this proposal is not to advocate the nationalisation Mr Haughton implies.

4. The Panel did ask the public what it wanted from the PFE and received a considerable response. Unless Mr Haughton has undertaken a similar exercise I doubt if he is in a position to advise the rest of us of the opinions of the non-articulate, non-middle class without access to the Internet (to employ his labels).

Having asked the public what it wants the Panel has recommended that ‘Government and other woodland owners to give as many people as possible ready access to trees and woodlands for health and well-being benefits – this means planting trees and woodlands closer to people and incentivising more access to existing woodlands’. Is this not precisely what Mr Haughton advocates?

The Panel has also recognised that ‘timber production remains one of the very few, truly sustainable methods of producing real money to pay for forests’. That is why they anticipate that the new forestry management organisation will be enabled and incentivised ‘to operate with a more entrepreneurial mindset’ and why they include in their report a recommendation by which they ‘urge Government, woodland owners and businesses to seize the opportunity provided by woodlands to grow our green economy by strengthening the supply chain, and promoting the use of wood more widely across our society and economy’ setting these actions out in a Wood Industry Action Plan.

5. No one expects FC staff to walk on water but the fact that the PFE woods are managed to the UK Forestry Standard suggests that Mr Haughton’s opinion may not be universally shared. Happily, however, the Panel has recognised the advantages of Forest Services working with the forestry sector and other stakeholders, woodland owners and managers, and wider businesses and organisations; and recognises the benefits of the new forestry management organisation seeing ‘consultation and partnership’ with, businesses and others as central to its way of working . Mr Haughton and his clients will thus have the opportunity to influence them.

6. Mr Haughton does the Panel a disservice. He may not like its report but he does not have grounds to accuse its members of failing to come to an honest assessment of what is best for the future of English forestry. The appointment of the Panel and the questions it asked gave the opportunity for a rational debate, more effectively than anything that has gone before.

7. The Panel recognises the need to ‘produce something they can sell’. Does Mr Haughton not appreciate that where it recommends that ‘the public forest management organisation should be explicitly tasked, and incentivised, to get as much value as possible from its assets’ it is referring to the production of timber and the exploitation of its assets in order to finance its investments and activities. That said, the Panel sensibly recognises that the value of our forests lies in more than their monitory value, as do those many private woodland owners who use their woods for non-commercial purposes.

8. Mr Haughton’s argument is specious and philistine. An honest assessment of the value of our forests and woodlands cannot disregard their non-monitory benefits.

Raising emotive non- sequiturs is unworthy and insulting to those Mr Haughton mentions. That kind of killjoy thinking would logically deny us many of the pleasures of life; it would bar the Jubilee celebrations, the London Olympics and Paralympics, the subsidised theatre and arts, and much else which contributes to the rich fabric of our society.

9. The campaign groups have not overlooked the value of domestic timber production and the need to reduce timber imports. They are entirely at one with the Panel where the report says: ‘In the context of rising energy prices and growing global demand for resources, England’s forests are a significantly under-exploited resource. Wood from England’s forests has the potential to provide more low carbon material for construction and other goods, to be an alternative to fossil fuels, and to reduce our current dependency on imports. We want a renewed understanding of the potential for wood as a contemporary product, with new demand and market opportunities, and wood a material of choice for high-value and long-lasting products’ and ‘… we should be realising the untapped potential of existing and new woodlands to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and other imported commodities.’

As regards standards, has Mr Haughton, I wonder, noticed the following in the report? ‘Wherever and whenever woodland management takes place, it must conform to the guidance in the UK Forestry Standard as a minimum’. Also, under the heading ‘Regulate and implement forestry standards’, the report notes that ‘Smartly implemented regulation has a key role to play in meeting international and national commitments on sustainable forestry’.

If Mr Haughton is suggesting that the Panel has neglected to recommend ‘an auditable structure to ensure environmental and public benefits are maintained or enhanced’ he needs to read the report again. The NAO, advised by the Natural Capital Committee (or similar), clearly has this function.

10. As regards access, the reality is that the public has been excluded from many private woodlands in England; neither at common law nor under CROW is there an automatic right of access to private woodland. Such automatic rights as CROW confers are limited to downs, moors, heaths and coastal land. Landowners can dedicate land as access land but private landowners have been slow to follow the Forestry Commission’s good example in doing so – sufficient evidence to suggest that private owners would resist the imposition of public access clauses which Lord Mansfield advised the House of Lords in 1981 would be difficult if not impossible to enforce under English law in any event.

11. I must leave others with the necessary experience to answer this diatribe against the Forestry Commission. However, it again looks backwards. Mr Haughton should be pleased by the roles given to Forest Services and the new forestry management organisation and the extent to which they are to engage with private forestry owners and other stakeholders. To the extent that his criticisms are warranted the review of forestry affords an opportunity to deal with these matters.

12. In the realm of public expenditure the sums called for by the Panel are not substantial, and the benefits accruing from that expenditure are considerable. Time will tell whether the Government will provide the modest amounts the Panel has called for. Defra did, after all, propose to fund the ill-conceived takeover by charities.

The Panel patently recognises the need for the estate to become self-sufficient which is why it seeks a more entrepreneurial management organisation and more effective utilisation of the resource. Large scale disposals for non-forestry reasons would be a disaster. The value of the commercial woodlands is a key factor in maintaining the viability of the estate as a whole and retaining them within the estate is a pre-requisite to retaining both broadleaf and conifer woodlands for the natural benefits they confer.

13. Mr Haughton begins to lose me here. We all have vested interests. And in passing I note that professional foresters sat on the Panel, his interests were represented. Campaign groups were not invited to join the panel.

To consider the points he makes, however: the Panel has indeed suggested ‘how best to get maximum public benefit from that resource for the whole Nation’.

Additionally, contrary to what Mr Haighton says, the Panel has not proposed a ban on all sales.

Mr Haughton practises in the field of timber investment and management, in forestry and sporting estate appraisals, management and advice. I have lived in a mixed, post-industrial, working forest for the last thirty years. We come with different perspectives and, to use his phrase, vested interests.

To do the Panel justice we need to put aside our pre-conceived ideas and pay attention to what the report actually says. There is much in it for him and your clients to applaud: more and enlarged forests and woodlands and a more effective use of the resource. He and they should thrive in the woodland culture that is proposed.

The report needs to be read with a more open mind than evinced by Mr Haughton’s Point of View.

Alan Robertson

Reply

Pip Howard September 11, 2012 at 19:21

The following are Steele Haughton’s answers to the points raised by Alan Robertson from the original email exchange that took place and which Steele has permitted for publication.

AR: There is no suggestion in the report that the Panel anticipates broadleaf and conifer being considered ‘in the same way or requiring the same things from them’. The Panel, which included professional foresters like you, appreciated the distinction between ‘sustainable wood and forestry businesses’ and ‘those based on woodland leisure and tourism’.

Section C3 may not spell out the distinction between broadleaf and conifer but it doesn’t need to. It seeks to promote a woodland culture where forestry of all kinds thrive. You should be heartened by the call for maintaining production of managed conifer and broadleaf forests over the long-term and for the promotion of employment in all parts of the wood supply chain including ‘saw mills, pulp and paper manufacture, wood for fuel in stoves, wood for construction for building homes and offices’ and ‘a flourishing and commercially viable domestic forestry sector’. This clearly has regard to commercial softwood plantations rather than the ancient woodlands to which you refer.
You should be encouraged by the call for ‘a renewed understanding of the potential for wood as a contemporary product, with new demand and market opportunities’. The Panel is not here referring solely or mainly to the broadleaf woodlands of the PFE but, rather, to the commercial environment in which you work.

Are you also not encouraged by the vision of ‘the creation of commercially viable new forests’ and a ‘regenerated wood industry’?

SH: ‘Woodland Culture’ is precisely the poorly defined term that provides the long grass for which I suspect the UK government was desperately looking. It can, and will, mean very different things to different people. Everyone can take away a feeling of ‘hurray, they understand us’ and not until the detail of funding, changing behaviour on the ground and making sure the initiatives match forestry timescales will the very deep cracks become apparent. I fear it is yet another case of mistaking slick words for progress.

I have been round long enough to believe that visions are worthless (and, for many, less than worthless as they cost so much) unless they come with the method, might and money to turn the vision into reality. Government will readily sign up to visions; it is reality that will dictate the future of the forests – and cost the money.
AR: The report reflects an appreciation of the complexity and dynamism of forests and nowhere advocates that forests should be ‘static and unchanging’. Quite the opposite. What does sustainable management – a recurring theme throughout the report – mean if it does not involve the felling of trees and the use of timber?
SH: I have been involved with a number of ‘scoping’ exercises attempting to engage interested parties in proposals for forest management plans. In my experience, quite a significant proportion of the population do interpret ‘sustainability’ as preservation of woodland exactly as is – no felling, no change.
I do not think the Forestry Panel effectively grasped the nettle of setting out the basic fundamentals of sustainable woodland and forest management. The importance of doing this was underlined by the storm of misguided or actively misleading ‘they will cut down the New Forest/Forest of Dean’ responses during the original totally mishandled non-consultation exercise. Current laws, rules and regulations would prevent the wholesale clear felling of ancient woodland areas no matter who owns them.
AR: The Panel made a rational analysis of the current state of English forestry, there was no ‘shouting down’ of any of the options available to it, no one curtailed the debate they invited when they took evidence.
As for responsibility for the production of a ‘primary industrial resource’: 65% of domestic timber production is derived from the PFE’s 18% holding; 100% of the PFE in England is accredited by the Forestry Stewardship Council and Pan-European Certification’, only 15% of private woodland is.

The Panel seeks to increase managed woodland from the current 50% to 80%. As all FC woods (212,300 ha) are managed to the UK Forestry Standard it will be necessary to bring 362,000 ha of private woodlands into active management to achieve this target.

These facts suggest that our public forests and woodlands have indeed benefitted from being managed by civil servants. It is private woodlands that are ‘behind the game’.

In any event, the Panel recommends a new forestry management organisation answerable to the Charter trustees and independent of government. To support this proposal is not to advocate the nationalisation you imply.

SH: The ‘shouting down’ was the sabotaging of the original Government consultation exercise – and the fault for that lies firmly with Government and the civil service. How can it be right to call a consultation exercise on an important topic, with a clearly defined timescale for responses and then stop the consultation before ‘full time’? And then to add insult to incompetence the Government published the ‘results’! The only valid results would have been from the full consultation period.
Many campaigners saw this as a victory – but bullying a particular point of view through before all legitimate opinion can be expressed is a tactic of the extremist and should have no place in a national debate in a civilised nation.
Your analysis of certification statistics and timber supply data neatly overlooks the proportion of very small woodlands owned privately and the area of private broadleaved woodland, some managed sustainably for hundreds of years before the FC was created, that is not certified because of cost and the lack of demand from hardwood buyers.
There is undoubtedly much to be done to bring more private woodland into active management – my concern is, as I said, that the FC have effectively and actively disengaged from private owners and their needs while ‘partnering’ other, more trendy, agendas.
AR: The Panel did ask the public what it wanted from the PFE and received a considerable response. Unless you have done a similar exercise I doubt if you are in a position to advise the rest of us of the opinions of the non-articulate, non-middle class without access to the Internet (to employ your labels).
Having asked the public what it wants the Panel has recommended that ‘Government and other woodland owners to give as many people as possible ready access to trees and woodlands for health and well-being benefits – this means planting trees and woodlands closer to people and incentivising more access to existing woodlands’. Is this not precisely what you are advocating?
The Panel has also recognised that ‘timber production remains one of the very few, truly sustainable methods of producing real money to pay for forests’. That is why they anticipate that the new forestry management organisation will be enabled and incentivised ‘to operate with a more entrepreneurial mindset’ and why they include in their report a recommendation by which they ‘urge Government, woodland owners and businesses to seize the opportunity provided by woodlands to grow our green economy by strengthening the supply chain, and promoting the use of wood more widely across our society and economy’ setting these actions out in a Wood Industry Action Plan.
SH: The ‘least worst’ method of arriving at what the public wants is likely to be a well organised public consultation. That was curtailed because the Government were wrong footed by effective use of modern campaign tools. My point is that the Panel are even less likely to have tapped into anything other than the opinions of a very narrow sector of ‘the public’ and Government needs to understand this.
Requiring me to have the time and money for research to match the resources committed by a well publicly funded Panel before I can express an opinion is, I think, invalid.
Urgings and yet another Action Plan incorporating all the fashionable words are likely to be yet more ‘long grass’ into which forestry can be kicked. Meanwhile, Rome burns.
As an aside, you may be interested to know that my degree research project of many years ago was titled ‘The Influence of Social Background on Amenity Preferences in Forestry’ – it has been an interest for many years!
AR: No one expects FC staff to walk on water but the fact that the PFE woods are managed to the UK Forestry Standard suggests that your opinion may not be universally shared. Happily, however, the Panel has recognised the advantages of Forest Services working with the forestry sector and other stakeholders, woodland owners and managers, and wider businesses and organisations; and recognises the benefits of the new forestry management organisation seeing ‘consultation and partnership’ with, businesses and others as central to its way of working . You and your clients will thus have the opportunity to influence them.
SH: Managing forests to a standard and international certification do not, in themselves, guarantee good management. Some badly managed forests can meet the standards, while some very well managed forests fail. Is a forest that has large, uncontrolled, grey squirrel populations that regularly severely damage 20 year old oak trees well managed? Not in my opinion – but it could well meet ‘the standard’.
If you think all is very well in the public forest estate I suggest you speak to a few operational (out of the office) FC foresters at the field level. Ask them if, despite the certificates and performance indicators, the forests are being run properly and what they would change if they were emperor. I suspect you would be surprised.
AR: You do the Panel a disservice. You may not like its report but you do not have grounds to accuse its members of failing to come to an honest assessment of what is best for the future of English forestry. The appointment of the Panel and the questions it asked gave the opportunity for a rational debate, more effectively than anything that has gone before.
SH: I don’t believe this is the case – but time will tell; unfortunately possibly at a huge cost to the nation’s forests.
AR: The Panel recognises this. Do you not appreciate that where it recommends that ‘the public forest management organisation should be explicitly tasked, and incentivised, to get as much value as possible from its assets’ it is referring to the production of timber and the exploitation of its assets in order to finance its investments and activities. That said, the Panel sensibly recognises that the value of our forests lies in more than their monitory value, as do those many private woodland owners who use their woods for non-commercial purposes.
SH: I do not believe this will cut any ice at all and will raise wry smiles at the Treasury. The FC are already ‘tasked’ with making the most of the nation’s public forestry assets. Changing the name of the organisation and re-wording the ‘mission statement’ is unlikely have any result other than delaying the inevitable painful collision with reality for another 5 or 10 years.
AR: Your argument is specious and philistine. You cannot shut your mind to the non-monitory benefits of forests and woodlands. And to raise emotive non- sequiturs is unworthy and insulting to those you mention. That kind of killjoy thinking would logically deny us many of the pleasures of life; it would bar the Jubilee celebrations, the London Olympics and Paralympics, the subsidised theatre and arts, and much else which contributes to the rich fabric of our society.
SH: The ‘spin’ supporting the Early Day Motion was the specious argument. Much was made of the Forestry Commission in England costing less than a stamp for each person per year. Why is it acceptable for those against selling part of the public forest estate to use spin-worthy, emotive arguments but ‘unworthy and insulting’ to hold a mirror up to that approach?
The debate has been distorted and corrupted by spin, over simplification, scare mongering and emotive campaigning. This is not, in my opinion, the route to the right answer.
AR: So far as I am aware campaign groups are entirely at one with the Panel where the report says: ‘In the context of rising energy prices and growing global demand for resources, England’s forests are a significantly under-exploited resource. Wood from England’s forests has the potential to provide more low carbon material for construction and other goods, to be an alternative to fossil fuels, and to reduce our current dependency on imports. We want a renewed understanding of the potential for wood as a contemporary product, with new demand and market opportunities, and wood a material of choice for high-value and long-lasting products’ and ‘… we should be realising the untapped potential of existing and new woodlands to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and other imported commodities.’

As regards standards, have you noted the following in the report? ‘Wherever and whenever woodland management takes place, it must conform to the guidance in the UK Forestry Standard as a minimum’. Also, under the heading ‘Regulate and implement forestry standards’, the report notes that ‘Smartly implemented regulation has a key role to play in meeting international and national commitments on sustainable forestry’.

If you are suggesting that the Panel has neglected to recommend ‘an auditable structure to ensure environmental and public benefits are maintained or enhanced’ you need to read the report again. The NAO, advised by the Natural Capital Committee (or similar) clearly has this function.

SH: I have noted the mention of UKFS and I am not suggesting that the Panel has neglected to recommend ‘an auditable structure to ensure environmental and public benefits are maintained or enhanced’.
AR: The reality is that the public has been excluded from many private woodlands in England; neither at common law nor under CROW is there an automatic right of access to private woodland. Such automatic rights as CROW confers are limited to downs, moors, heaths and coastal land. Landowners can dedicate land as access land but private landowners have been slow to follow the Forestry Commission’s good example in doing so – sufficient evidence to suggest that private owners would resist the imposition of public access clauses which Lord Mansfield advised the House of Lords in 1981 would be difficult if not impossible to enforce under English law in any event.
SH: If you had to deal with the abuse of permissive public access (damage, fly tipping, fires, raves and hefty public liability claims) that private woodland owners sometimes have to cope with on your own, much loved woodland, your view of why private forest owners behave as they do might be shaded rather differently.
In any case, you appear to have missed my real point: any sale of currently publicly owned forest to a private owner could, quite straightforwardly, incorporate a legally binding obligation to allow public access for all time. Problem solved (but inconveniently for the ‘no sales’ campaigners, that dragon slain).
The public access clause would reduce the price that many would pay for forest properties, particularly smaller ones in areas of high population density. For most upland tree farms it would make little or no difference. The potential price foregone would be a cost to the nation but one, I suspect, Government and the public would see as good value.
AR: I am in no position to challenge what you say. However, you should be pleased by the roles given to Forest Services and the new forestry management organisation and the extent to which they are to engage with private forestry owners and other stakeholders.
SH: Government regularly appears to reorganise, re-badge and re-logo agencies and bodies. Generally the people stay the same and their approach stays the same. In my opinion, what is needed is a change of objectives, priorities and some effective management rather than flash new names and logos. We shall see.
AR: In the realm of public expenditure the sums called for by the Panel are not substantial, and the benefits accruing from that expenditure are considerable. Time will tell whether the Government will provide the modest amounts the Panel has called for.
The Panel patently recognises the need for the estate to become self-sufficient which is why it seeks a more entrepreneurial management organisation and more effective utilisation of the resource. Large scale disposals for non-forestry reasons would be a disaster. The value of the commercial woodlands is a key factor in maintaining the viability of the estate as a whole and retaining them within the estate is a pre-requisite to retaining both broadleaf and conifer woodlands for the natural benefits they confer.
SH: The sums called for by the Panel are substantial. And, in my opinion, unrealistic.
The (Public Forest) estate should do much better than ‘ be self sufficient’. Seeking ‘a more entrepreneurial management organisation and more effective utilisation of the resource’ may seem a huge leap forward to you but not to me. Experience in forestry and many other industries in the UK should have raised the question in the Panel’s thoughts as to whether such a radical change in culture is likely or possible in public ownership. The fact that it did not is an indication to me that any final answer other than the ownership staying as it is was not seriously considered.
The debate should include (and Government should consider) selling some of the private forest estate to fund maintaining and enhancing public benefits from the retained and new publicly owned forests. Inefficient and/or poor management of the public forest estate cannot be justified – and by management I include the setting of objectives and priorities and the control of special interest groups’ ability to get their way.
Maintaining the value and commercial productivity of their forests is something upon which the FC need to be tested very closely. Converting productive Sitka Spruce hectares into widely spaced native broadleaves may be the route to least criticism from readers of Country Living now but it does mean much less money in the future. Maybe selling the spruce tree farm (at maximum value) now so that native broadleaves can be planted in the right places and looked after properly is a better way forward – it should certainly be considered.
AR: You begin to lose me here. We all have vested interests. And in passing I note that professional foresters sat on the Panel, your interests were represented. Campaign groups were not invited to join the panel.
To consider the points you make, however, the Panel has indeed suggested ‘how best to get maximum public benefit from that resource for the whole Nation’.
Additionally, contrary to what you say, it does not propose a ban on all sales.
SH: Many (from all view points) interpret the Panel report as effectively advocating that there should be no sales from the public forest estate. A quick review of the published reactions to the Panel report revealed not one response that interpreted it as anything other than a recommendation for no significant sales.
AR: Generally: You are in timber investment and management, in forestry and sporting estate appraisals, management and advice. I have lived in a mixed, post-industrial, working forest for the last thirty years. We come with different perspectives and, to use your phrase, vested interests.
To do the Panel justice we need to put aside our pre-conceived ideas and pay attention to what the report says. There is much in it for you and your clients to applaud: more and enlarged forests and woodlands and a more effective use of the resource. You should thrive in the woodland culture that is proposed.
Might I suggest that you re-read the report with a more open mind?
SH: The Panel report cannot be considered in isolation. The Panel, its constituents, its remit and its report are a function of a credit crunch, huge changes to public finances, a disastrously managed public consultation exercise, political incompetence and questions in high places about where the Forestry Commission are going.
The Panel’s call for evidence was met by some private woodland owners and professionals with “what’s the point?” There was a feeling that the ‘pseudo-evidence’ and false consultation was going to come up with the predetermined answer anyway. I don’t excuse or support this approach – but it was inevitable once the original consultation had been cut off.
I have, as you suggest, re-read the report. I remain convinced that public ownership of say most of the New Forest and the Forest of Dean is entirely rational and sensible but that public ownership of a large upland tree-farm is inefficient and a waste of public money.
The debate and Government’s thinking should not, in my opinion, rule out forest sales.

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