From Forest first to Finance first: Forestry England marks its centenary with a new mission

Forestry England - NEW FOREST

14/05/2019

The Forestry Commission “celebrates” its centenary this year. It will be much less of a celebration amongst those who care for the New Forest. Austerity has seen significant real cuts to the Commission’s budget in recent years, although it still receives some £45million of taxpayers’ money to carry out its core work. The New Forest is paying a heavy price as the Commission seeks to maximise revenue and minimise its costs. Far from putting the Forest first the Commission is turning back the clock to its original purpose of profit instead of protection.

The origins of the Commission lie in the devastating exploitation of the New Forest. Around the start of the 21st century the Commission came to appreciate the fragility of the landscape and the commoning system upon which it depends. It was the Forestry Commission Land Agent who produced the Illingworth Report for the government in 1991, seeking ways to sustain the grazing of the New Forest, and upon which everything else depends.  But now the Commission  appears to be returning to its exploitative, uncaring roots. It is becoming a typical large-scale landlord: Distant, disinterested, and non-communicative. Anyone who has tried to contact the Commission outside of office hours will know full well the level of neglect.

Over the past three years commoners have expressed increasing concern at a shift in the direction of the Forestry Commission. In part it seems that funding for environmental works through the Verderers Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme has allowed the Commission to shuffle away from its responsibilities to maintain open forest grazing and to sustain commoning. The Commission now tries to do as little as possible for the New Forest unless it is paid from specific new funding sources. It is less reluctant to take the credit for this work however, even when it is simply repairing past damage done to the landscape by its own commercial exploitation.

The Commission appears to have reversed the three objectives set out in the Minister’s Mandate for its management of the Crown lands. The primary objective of conservation is now subservient to the third objective of income generation and efficient management. In the Mandate it is made explicit that the Commission’s commercial interest must only be pursued where it is consistent with the first.

Unless maintenance of the grazing land is directly funded by the HLS the Commission now has to be continuously lobbied to undertake essential works. Where major works are undertaken its bureaucratic tender processes make it increasingly challenging for commoners to continue to bid for the work. As anyone who has tried to contact the Commission out of hours will now, it is little more than a remote call centre, with little concern for this small, awkward and unproductive “forest”. Queens House in Lyndhurst has become nothing more than a regional office for a state-owned conglomerate.

The most blatant example of the new “privatisation” agenda of the Commission has been in its disregard for government policy on the management of Crown properties within the Forest. For generations these have provided the bedrock of commoning: The Commission providing employment, and smallholdings for rent, for commoners. As commercial forestry declines the policy requires that these are prioritised to continue to support commoning, made available to commoners (whether Commission employees or not) at affordable rents. This Commission has now decided unilaterally to cease to do so. It is moving all properties to unaffordable market rents, approaching £2000 a month, and prioritising their use as a perk for its own employees. It is setting rents that are at least 70% of average local household incomes, and more than 100% of most young commoners’ incomes. This is no different to a local authority deciding to hand social housing to its managers. In just three months at the end of 2018 the keys for three commoners’ holding were handed to Commission staff, none of whom were commoners. Others are standing empty, but the desire to maximise revenues gives little hope of any being used to support the continuation of commoning.

In 2006 DEFRA ministers stated that the proportion of cottages rented to commoners would increase. It is now in rapid decline. In the past three months alone three excellent commoners’ holdings have been handed to Commission employees. It is now advertising a cottage for £1450 a month for commoners with a minimum of 10 ponies, yet providing little more than one acre of back-up. The criteria are as arbitrary as the rent. It is designed to fail so they can take it onto the holiday homes market. The CDA have been discussing these concerns with the Forestry Commission for three years, but they have ploughed on with the new strategy regardless. It is hard to overstate that damage being done to the New Forest by the loss of these prime commoning holdings. The cottages were placed in these locations for a purpose, but one by one commoners are being forced out of the Forest and the direct contribution of these properties to the local Forest is being lost. The Commission argues that extreme property values in the New Forest mean that affordable rents are nothing more than an intolerable “opportunity cost” for its Bristol book-keepers.

The unilateral abandonment of a “Forest First” strategy is also visible in its increasingly aggressive management of its campsites in the New Forest. The “key strategic focus” for the Commission’s new commercial joint venture for the campsites on the Open Forest is to “grow pitch nights”, against which the protected status of this land is described as the “principle risk” facing the business.

In 2019 the Forestry Commission celebrates its centenary, with the latest rebranding as Forestry England. It seems that it is also reverting to its original 1919 mission, to simply maximise its exploitation of the landscape. The New Forest seems to be little more than a local irritation,  diverting the agency from its relentless pursuit of revenues. In 2011 the country thought it had fought off forest privatisation. It now seems that the same outcome is being achieved under the radar. No-one within the Forestry Commission seems able to act as a voice for the New Forest, and the Minister’s Mandate is simply withering on the vine.

Commoners have fought off similar threats over centuries. We have no intention of standing by and letting them happen today.

Little New Park, Brockenhurst – A Crown Freehold smallholding in the New Forest

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