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January 31st 2011 ~ "Spelman goes down to the woods – and gets a big surprise" Geoffrey Lean

BBC Today Programme - 31/01/2011

(warmwell com;s own unofficial transcript of the audio at Limited availability)

JOHN HUMPHRYS  "....Why would politicians risk it?  Hasn't the forestry commission being doing a reasonable good job since it was set up nearly a century ago?  I'm joined by the Minister responsible for the sell-off, the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, and by Dame Fiona Reynolds who runs the National Trust.'


JOHN HUMPHRYS: Caroline Spelman, why?


Caroline Spelman: Well, I think that quite a lot of members of the public are  reacting to the wildly inaccurate headlines in the newspapers with respect, but there is one specific problem I think that hasn't been understood and that is that the Forestry Commission has a conflict of interest.  It is both the regulator and the largest seller of timber into the market; it accounts for 70% of all sales, and I think you'd agree, John. I mean we wouldn't allow that for OffWat for example, you wouldn't want water companies, um, to be at the same time the regulator and the provider of that utility to your household.


JOHN HUMPHRYS: Yes, but I think we're most concerned, the public is mostly concerned with the effect rather than the process.  If you have a private company owning woodland that has been owned by the Forestry Commission, they can shut it off, we can't walk in it any longer.  They can flog off the trees and make a profit out of it.  We don't want that to happen, do we?


Caroline Spelman:  Well I think people are unnecessarily worried about the effect because, a couple of things.  First, they wouldn't be 'sold off' so that's one thing, they would be leased.


JOHN HUMPHRYS: Well 'leased"It's the same thing.  I mean they'd have it for what, a hundred years or whatever it is


Caroline Spelman:  Yes but you know yourself, that if you lease a property there are often conditions attached and we would attach very strict conditions about protecting public access and other public benefits.


JOHN HUMPHRYS: Well then why would they want it'  If they can't make money out of it, why would a private company want to pay the money to lease the woodland if they can't do what they will with it?


Caroline Spelman:  It's not incompatible with felling timber and on a sequential basis in woodland um, on the plantation forests like Kielder, it's not incompatible with access.  There is in fact a National Park right in the centre of Kielder which would be completely protected under what we're proposing


JOHN HUMPHRYS:  But what about Rigg Wood near Coniston Water? That was sold off to a private businessman and now the car park's closed and the gate's padlocked.


Caroline Spelman:  Well, with respect, that was sold off under the conditions that the previous government attached and we have said'


JOHN HUMPHRYS:  I'm not blaming any particular government but you are doing what you're doing now and the question is, why are you doing it?


Caroline Spelman:  Well, I think you are overlooking my point about the conflict of interests -  but this does not apply to heritage forest.  There is more than one type of forest.  The heritage forests like the New Forest, the Forest of Dean, would be completely protected so they would have the protection, we believe it would be better protected perhaps in the hands of a charitable trust..


JOHN HUMPHRYS:  Ah, a charitable trust, well that's rather different from selling to a private company that wants'.


Caroline Spelman: Absolutely


JOHN HUMPHRYS:  Well, in that case, Dame Fiona, are you happy with the idea?


Dame Fiona Reynolds :  I think what was a big surprise in the Consultation last week was that heritage forests were almost top of the list in the Consultation Paper for sale or long leases and secondly..


JOHN HUMPHRYS: But hang on, she just said they're not'


Dame Fiona Reynolds : Well, that's what the Consultation paper said and the Consultation paper also said the Forestry Commission will no longer be charged with managing a large forest '


JOHN HUMPHRYS:  Hang on..she's'd better come back on that Caroline Spelman


Caroline Spelman:  There's a clear distinction.  The heritage forests would be transferred at no cost to a charitable trust and the government would provide running costs to manage them...


JOHN HUMPHRYS: Well, why not leave them where it is then?


Dame Fiona Reynolds: The point is that they are being transferred out of Forestry Commission ownership which has done a good job for a hundred years  These are complex multi-purpose woodlands as you know and I think it's a very. very big ask of any charity or community organisation to take on either at no or low cost - think about the endowment, think about the running costs - in lieu of what have been in the public sector for a very, very long time in the case of the New Forest and the Forest of Dean there are thousands of years of history there.


Caroline Spelman: Sure, but Fiona I'd like to reassure you.  It's not that it would be at "low or no cost".  At the moment it costs the government 36 million pounds to manage the forest estate and that figure, we believe, remains neutral.  If you took on the running of the heritage forest - you already run 35 000 hectares of forest for the State, we of course accept that you cannot do that with no money, of course we understand you' d need the running costs


JOHN HUMPHRYS:  But why pay a charity -  whether it's the National Trust or anybody else, to do something that Forestry Commission is itself already doing?


Caroline Spelman: Well John, it's to give people an opportunity, to open it up to civil society...


JOHN HUMPHRYS:  It's already opened up if it's Forestry Commission land.  We can wander in it, we can do what we like in it - we can't nick the trees but we can do what we want  in it


Caroline Spelman:  But we have to resolve the conflict of interests that the Forestry Commission.  It has to be reformed..


JOHN HUMPHRYS: WHY? If it works?


Dame Fiona Reynolds :  I think there's an important point about conflict of interests over  commercial forestry...


Caroline Spelman:...Absolutely..


Dame Fiona Reynolds: Where no one is making a huge concern about the major commercial forests where there may be long leases or arrnagementsa as you surmise but I think what has surprised people is the extent to which you are expecting not only the heritage forests but there are many multi purpose forests- I'm thinking of  Thetford Forest or Cannock Chase - that have long histories as well  and actually it's a very complex businesss and putting them out of the public sector, where the Forestry Commission ahs done a good job, poses risks.

Now there may be charities able to do it.  That may be down the line but until we know much more about the financial implications, about the kinds of conditions you'd attach, actually I'm not surprised there is a great public outcry.  People are concerned for something that, you know. We treasure our woodlands and our access to them and people are seeing a big change coming.


JOHN HUMPHRYS: You're going to have to back down on this, aren't you, Caroline


Caroline Spelman: No.  There's a Consultation there and I would urge everybody to get involved.  I think it is wrong to think that we can't protect and enhance biodiversity.  The Woodland Trust has manifested an interest in helping to restore some of these plantations on ancient woodland sites.  It's people's opportunity to get involved.  It's a statutory 12 week consultation period so I hope everybody listening will get involved...


JOHN HUMPHRYS: OK I'm sure they will!  I bet they'll get in touch with you!  We'll have to end it there, I'm afraid.  Thanks to both Caroline Spelman and Fiona Reynolds