You are probably watching the Forestry Commission debate with some interest but did you know that there is a real threat that access to some of our well known crags, situated on Forestry Commission land, may be lost.
The BMC is in talks with various MPs and Peers as to what the Government plans might mean not only for walkers but for climbers too as access to those crags may be lost in the sale or transfer of public land. We are in the process of collecting together a list of crags that are situated on Forestry Commission land and are sifting through those that are on open access land (to which access rights are guaranteed in perpetuity) and those which are leased (where current rights are by permission only).
The first step of the Government’s plan is to dispose of 38,000 hectares in England, around 15% of the total, to be sold over a four year period, with the aim of raising £100 million. The next step will be to amend the law through the Public Bodies Bill to allow sale of the total estate. Details of how this disposal might happen are presented in the public consultation which was launched on the 27th January. In Wales, the Assembly Government has said that it doesn't intend to sell off any of its Forests.
Last week, David Cameron explained the need for the Government's proposed disposal of 258,000 hectares of state-owned woodland suggesting that the Forestry Commission was compromised by being both the regulator, as well as the major producer of wood in England. He stated his desire for “a system which is better for access and habitat and for natural England”. On the Politics Show, which aired on BBC1 on Sunday, Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, insisted however that the Government plans were only at ‘consultation’ stage and denied the sell-off was a ‘done deal’.
Plans to sell the Forestry Commission estate for up to £250m continue to be met with huge opposition. Recent polls suggest more than 84% of people are opposed to the sell-off and more than 50,000 letters urging MPs to vote the proposals out have been sent in the last week. During last Wednesdays Opposition Day Debate, where the final vote went in favour of the Government plans, three Conservative and four Lib Dem MPs in fact voted with Labour and a further seven coalition MPs abstained. For a resume of the debate visit the Save Our Woods website; details of how your MP voted can be found on the 38 Degrees website.
More bad news came last week for the Government, when a cost-benefit study by the Department for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Forestry Commission was released highlighting the potential loss of income from the sale of timber and recreation licences, as well as the costs required to cover redundancies and potential compensation claims. The study indicates that the Government can expect the disposal of the land to cost £679m over 20 years but the benefits will only be £655m.
DEFRA has said that a preferred option would be to sell / lease to local communities, charities and other membership organisations but admitted uncertainty as to whether such bodies will be able to raise the money to do so. Any charity taking on the ownership and management of Forestry Commission land will have to be given financial incentives to do so successfully and in the long term, may be required to find their own funding to help manage these areas – could this mean charging for access?
The BMC’s main concern is how Government will guarantee public access is safeguarded in the long term and how they will police / monitor the conditions of any new lease or sale. While public rights of way will be protected along with areas of open access under the Countryside and Rights Of Way Act (CROW - 2000) - dedicated by the Forestry Commission on their freehold land - private and leasehold forests may still be fenced, and de facto access to many of our forests and crags may be significantly curtailed.
The BMC will continue to put these issues to MPs and Peers in the coming weeks and has prepared a more detailed briefing paper. However, the more BMC members who write to their local MP to express their concern at the potential sale of Forestry Commission land, and the potential loss of access to some of our best known crags, the better.
Ways to get involved;
(1) Contact your MP directly and raise your concerns.
(2) Respond to the Government consultation launched on 27 January 2011. The consultation is on the DEFRA website and the deadline for responses is 21 April 2011.
(2) Send your views directly to Cath@thebmc.co.uk. Our access officer is in direct contact with members of the House of Lords as the Public Bodies Bill continues to be debated and will be making the national response to the forthcoming consultation.
(3) Join the 38 Degrees campaign.
Better news for our National Nature Reserves came earlier in the week when DEFRA announced that they will remain in public ownership, perhaps as result to the backlash of opinion towards the sale of our forests!
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