If you go down to the woods today - ownership of England's forests

Materials World magazine
4 Apr 2011

What do you expect to find if you go down to the woods today? Well, as the recent UK Government consultation on the future of the Public Forest Estate in England demonstrates, it all depends on your point of view. To some, it is an important timber resource – the estate produces nearly 70% of home grown timber. To many, it exists for leisure and tourism, as the 27 visitor centres and 40 million visitors per year would testify. With just over a quarter of the estate designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and 45% lying within National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it is clearly important for conservation and wildlife.

A total of 371 organisations from B&Q to the Women’s Institute were consulted on options to transfer ownership to charitable organisations, community groups and commercial operators (strangely, the list of consultees did not include the Institute’s Wood Technology Society). So was it right to consider whether such a resource should remain in public ownership? To answer the question, it is important to consider the historical context of the UK’s timber production.

The Forestry Commission, which manages the estate, was set up shortly after the First World War, when Britain had struggled to meet wartime demands on timber for trench boards, ammunition boxes and pit props. The aim was to create a strategic timber reserve and, as a result, the Government now owns nearly one fifth of England’s woodland. It also owns 36% of Scottish forests and 38% of those in Wales, but these are the responsibility of their respective Parliament and Assembly under devolved powers.

Today, the idea of Government ownership and exploitation of a material resource is at odds with how we develop other resources such as oil and coal. But timber is not like oil, coal or any other mineral for that matter.

Few would argue that it remains a strategic resource, its military use is somewhat less than it was 90 years ago, but timber is still a vital construction material and there are abundant privately owned timber forests in the UK and across Europe. But there are not many working mines and quarries that I know of where the public enjoy unfettered right of access. More crucially, timber is one of a few truly renewable and sustainable material resources.

So while I believe that the private sector can be trusted to manage UK timber production in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner, much of this resource is interspersed with woodland and wildlife habitats that provide an essential and much loved recreational amenity. Unfortunately, this costs money to upkeep with little direct return to the owner, and hence the need for some sort of charitable or not-for-profit ownership. If that is not feasible, then public ownership would appear to be the sensible option. After all, it is not just teddy bears that need somewhere to picnic.