Gordon Hunter thinks the plans to sell off forests are 'pedestrian' and could go further.
The Forestry Commission is the largest government landowner in England with 620,000 acres of woods and heathland. The previous government agreed to shed 6.5 per cent of the estate. The latest consultation proposes offloading 13 per cent of the remainder.
The rationale is sensible: reduce the Commission’s operational deficit of £75m a year and revert to its regulatory role.
The process sounds reasonable: invite bids from businesses and charities for 150-year leases, attaching conditions and covenants to protect habitats and access.
The Opposition seems to be reflexive rather than reflective, almost saying: “If the government’s selling off green assets, it must be wrong whatever the safeguards”, or, “it’s privatisation as part of a political philosophy”.
I would argue that the Commission’s plans are pedestrian rather than political.
There should be more focus on entrepreneurs, less on subsidies to charitable stewards and a creative rather than a protectionist approach.
All buyers (commercial or otherwise) should contribute to a local community grant pot.
Lessees should submit business plans that demonstrate self-sustainability within ten years, otherwise the lease reverts to the local community.
The Commission should encourage a range of business applications, for example “green burials” where 2,000 acres spread over the UK would reduce carbon footprint and maintenance costs whilst contributing £45m a year to grant making.
Green burial is precisely the sort of practical “product” that could fund Big Society at the local level.