by Roderick Leslie
As we approach the Government’s announcement of its response to the Independent Forestry Panel report the future of the Forestry Commission is once again up in the air. The estate – Forest Enterprise – looks safe for the time being but rumours swirl around Forest Research and Forestry Services – the arm that advises, regulates and hands out forestry grants. With a triennial review of its agencies already conveniently scheduled, civil servants have the option of reaching for one of their favourite alternatives to decisive action: re-organisation. Natural England is the obvious route for Forestry Services, reinforced by the overlap in some EU-funded grant schemes.
But the risk from this apparently neutral administrative action are huge. Unlike some colleagues I’ve never believed the Forestry Commission has a God given right to exist. The reason I have always supported a free-standing Forestry Commission is that without it the already small voice for forestry and woodlands within Government would be lost completely. Even carried out with good intentions, the realities of management and politics have always meant the smaller partner in any amalgamation losing out – how would nature conservation do against the political immediacy of flooded homes if another mooted amalgamation, of the Environment Agency and Natural England went ahead ?
What happened last time makes the point very sharply: after a very extended period of disruption Natural England have settled to doing a good job around agri-environment. But virtually the whole Countryside Commission agenda has simply gone missing: the dominant interest has simply swallowed it up. Differing cultures contributed: EN/NE’s regulatory based culture was reinforced by the appointment of a Chief Executive with a regulatory background. There was little chance for the Countryside Commissions’ advocacy based entrepreneurial approach.
However, good intentions are scarce as the FERA, Defra’s research agency, thinking behind a mooted takeover of FR showed: project leaders saw it mainly as a chance to grab resources for their own pet projects, none of which had anything to do with forestry.
Business is not core to what NE does. For forestry, however, the prospect of £200m per annum of new business activity is on the table. A radically overhauled Forest Services is the Government’s route to delivering that benefit – and giving Defra real ‘Growth Department’ credentials. But it won’t happen in NE. It simply isn’t part of the organisation’s DNA.
Inevitably, we’ll hear from management consultants talking ‘back office savings’. They can only be tiny because the organisations involved are tiny – perhaps a predicted million or two, panning out at maybe £250-500,000 in reality – not a good trade against £200m of new business.
Timing is also against institutional change: organisational change absorbs energy and reduces effectiveness whilst in progress. It took NE the best part of 5 years to get back to normal. As Chalara takes hold the political risk to Ministers of a forestry service tied up in changes they instigated are horrific: rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship. My advice to Mr Patterson is just don’t go there.
But perhaps most significant of all is the heart of the IFP’s recommendations: the creation of a new woodland culture. To do that there surely must be one body within Government that talks woodland and only woodlands ? And the obvious route to that is a re-energised Forestry Commission where the different arms are pulled together into a delivery led organisation with some clear targets – and for me those are quite simple: more woods in management, more timber, more jobs and more wildlife.
For me, the break up of the Forestry Commission is a line in the sand because it will mean the Government will fail to deliver the promise of the IFP report.