The BMC welcomes the publication of the Independent Panel on Forestry report and its recommendations to enhance public access – but argues these don’t go far enough in securing access for climbers and hill walkers.
Its conclusions are ambitious. The report describes a “revitalised woodland culture” using a balance sheet that takes full account of all the benefits forests deliver – from recreation and biodiversity to economic growth and climate change mitigation. It wants to see England’s forested area increase from the current 10 per cent to 15 per cent.
The report warns that if public forests were split up or sold off, England would “lose unique and irreplaceable benefits for little or no financial gain.” It recommends the estate remains in public ownership and held in trust for the nation. The panel also highlights the importance of private forestry, which accounts for 82% of England’s woodlands.
It concludes: “A number of local authorities, private and third sector owners make excellent provision for public access, often in ways that directly respond to local need. We need to support others to follow their example.”
However, while the report recognises the majority of freehold public forestry is already dedicated as access land under the Countryside Rights of Way Act, it only endorses a permissive approach to future access. Decisions about accommodating recreation and leisure activities other than walking should, it says, be taken locally.
The BMC is disappointed that the panel hasn’t grasped the full recreational importance of the forested estate. Climbing and other adventurous recreational activities are not mentioned. It is also the BMC’s experience that permissive access can be removed at any time without prior consultation.
In early 2012, the BMC collated a list of climbing sites in the Forestry Commission Estate, highlighting the number of crags in privately owned woodlands and those to which there is currently no public access. This information was submitted to the panel but no reference is made to it in the report.
The panel shares the government’s ambition to create more woodland in England. The BMC supports this vision but asks that advice to landowners in the future will be clear: it is important to use the right tree, in the right place, to achieve the desired goal. Our woodlands and forests are as important as our wild, open spaces in making up the diverse English landscapes we enjoy exploring – and it’s vital for biodiversity.
The overarching recommendation is for the public forest estate to remain just that – public, secured by charter and renewed every ten years. The report recommends a group of guardians, or trustees, accountable to Parliament. The guardians will oversee a new public forest management organisation – developed from Forestry Commission structures – that will eventually be independent of government.
These would evolve to become a public body with duties, powers and functions to champion, protect and increase benefits from trees, woodlands and forests that are good for people, good for nature and good for the green economy. Relevant duties currently placed on the Forestry Commission and its commissioners would be maintained in this new organisation.
The BMC will continue to press for the safeguard of access to those privately owned forests and woodlands where recreational opportunities, including climbing, have not yet been fully explored. We will attend the Independent Panel on Forestry’s briefing event on Tuesday 10 July.
More than 60 national organisations and 42,000 people gave evidence and views to the panel. These included the BMC and many of its members. The panel also made 10 visits to various woodlands across the country to meet organisations and groups involved in managing and caring for our forests.
The full report has now been made available.