England’s controversial forest sale could attract biofuel energy companies

As the goverment plans to sell England's publicly owned forests attract increasing publicity, industry analysts predict much of the forest could be snapped up by energy companies looking to burn wood as a biofuelVoters have a strong emotional attachment to woodlands. Leaked plans to sell state-owned woodlands managed by the Forestry Commission led to fears of a rise in Centre-parcs-style holiday villages, golf courses and adventure sites. The government quickly attempted to pacify the public.Although refusing to confirm how much woodland would be sold, claiming such details would be considered as part of a public consultation, due to begin in January, Defra promised any new owners would be required to maintain biodiversity and public access. 'Changes in ownership will not affect the public's rights of access or the environmental protections that are already in place,' it said. Defra decided to sell after being ordered to make 30 per cent savings on its annual budget of £2.9 billion by 2015 in last month's Spending Review. Control of the Forestry Commission in Scotland and Wales has been devolved to the regional assemblies, which means the UK government only has power over English woodlands. The English estate was valued at £761 million in the commission's report and accounts for 2008-9. Attempting to downplay the sell-off, it says the Forestry Commission owns just 18 per cent of the woodland in England. While a further 12 per cent is owned by public bodies such as the Ministry of Defence and local councils, the rest is already in private hands. 'A view has been put forward in the newspapers that private ownership of forests leads to felling and development, but the fact is, 70 per cent is already in private hands and it isn't happening,' argues a government spokesperson. John Major's plans abandoned The government is understandably wary of upsetting voters on this issue. A sell-off of Forestry Commission lands was previously attempted by John Major's government in the early 1990s but was abandoned after a public outcry. This time a sale is more likely to proceed, partly because the public's right of access is now protected by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000. These rights remain in place whoever buys the land. However, Mark Avery, conservation director at the RSPB, points out that the new owners may not be obliged to maintain car parks and stiles which enable public access. The pressure group will be pressing the government during the consultation to make sure access rights are fully protected: 'We will be poring all over the details when they are published to ensure the safeguards are as strict as you can make them,' says Avery. He is also encouraged by DEFRA's rhetoric about maintaining public access and biodiversity: 'They are making the right noises and organisations like ours will be trying to make sure that means something.' Hilary Allison, policy director of the Woodland Trust, believes public support for lower government spending will make it harder to argue that forests should remain in state ownership. 'There is a general desire to reduce size of government in every area of public life,' she says. 'There will be so many other areas where people will be concerned about spending cuts, like student loans, university fees and healthcare, that it will be more challenging to argue for the value of retaining state forests.'Public denied access to forestsThe Trust, a charity owning 20,000 ha of woodland that is freely accessible to the public, is concerned that public access may not be guaranteed for around a fifth of Forestry Commission land in England because it is held under lease rather than freehold, so the Countryside Act may not apply. Allison adds that roughly half of privately-owned woodland is barred to the public. 'Estate owners tend to regard public access with suspicion, because of fears over vandalism, fires, dumping, or the land may be used for shooting,' she says. 'In addition, they may not want to shell out for the cost of maintaining footpaths, car parks and gates, or keeping trees safe.'