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PETER FROST takes a walk in the woods that you and I still own, despite Tory attempts to sell them.

THIS month the Forestry Commission celebrates its centenary.

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After the destruction and mass armament production of the first world war the country needed tons and tons of timber, for building, for pit props and 100 other jobs.

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To provide such timber, the new commission bought large amounts of former agricultural land, eventually becoming the largest landowner in Britain.

Today the Forestry Commission is a non-ministerial government department. It is responsible for the management of publicly owned forests and the regulation of both public and private forestry in England.

It formerly also looked after forestry in Wales and Scotland, however on April 1 2013 Forestry Commission Wales merged with other agencies to become Natural Resources Wales, and Forestry and Land Scotland now exists alongside Scottish Forestry.

Prior to the setting up of separate bodies for Scotland, the Forestry Commission managed almost 700,000 hectares (about 1.7 million acres) of land in England and Scotland, making it the country’s biggest land manager. Nearly three-quarters of its forests were in Scotland.

Since its founding in 1919, the purpose of the commission broadened to include many other activities beyond simply growing timber.

One major activity is scientific research in dedicated research forests across Britain. Protecting and improving biodiversity across England’s forests are also part of the Forestry Commission’s remit.

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Recreation also became important — a walk in the woods was one of the most popular kinds of outdoor activities and over the years more sophisticated outdoor activities were actively promoted.

Camping and lodge developments allowing people to spend holidays actually in the forests were developed. Today they are run as a joint enterprise with the 600,000-strong, not-for-profit Camping and Caravanning Club.

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From its earliest days the commission received criticism for its reliance on conifers, particularly the uniform appearance of conifer forests and concerns over a lack of biodiversity. Dark straight-line forests might grow timber efficiently but did nothing to enhance our countryside.

Major protests from the general public and conservation groups came alive after attempts to privatise the organisation and sell off huge chunks of forest. In 1993 Both John Gummer’s attempt to sell the forests and Michael Heseltine’s attempt to sell the Post Office were halted by public protest.

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John Gummer feeds his daughter a burger during the mad cow crisis.

The Tories were forced to set up the Forestry Review Group which produced its report in 1994. It forced the Tory government to announce that “Forestry Commission woodlands will remain in the public sector.”

The next attempt to sell our woodland wholesale into private ownership came in 2010 when Caroline Spelman (below) became Tory minister for the environment and rural affairs in David Cameron’s coalition Tory and Lib Dem government.

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She wasted no time in putting over a quarter of a million hectares of state-owned woodland up for sale.

A huge public outcry stopped the sales, but was not able to stop the Tory ambition to privatise all of our publicly owned woodlands, along with many other valuable parts of Britain’s publicly owned infrastructure and resources.

It was a classic example of what former Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan had once described as Maggie Thatcher “selling off the family silver.”

Over half a million people signed a petition to stop the forest sale and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dame Judi Dench (below) were just two of the large number of famous names who backed the campaign.

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David Cameron and his other Tory and Liberal ministers looked the other way and, totally embarrassed and out on her own, Spelman was forced to announce the policy was being removed from the Public Bodies Bill going through Parliament.

Spelman would be followed as environment minister by, in turn Owen Patterson, Liz Truss, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove (below) and the present incumbent Theresa Villiers.

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They would all learn from her embarrassing failure but that would not stop them seeking quieter, less public ways of achieving the sale of our much-loved publicly owned forests.

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In fact thousands of hectares of Britain’s forests have been sold off by the Forestry Commission as it struggles to meet financial targets imposed by successive Tory governments’ ministers.

A detailed look at the woodland sold off by the Commission proves that it has raked in millions from sales to private companies.

Some has been sold to commercial logging companies and some of these buyers have closed their now private woods to the public, despite signing legally binding contracts promising they will preserve traditional rights of access. Often the closures are on the spurious grounds of health and safety.

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Between 1997 and 2010 the Commission sold almost 12,000 hectares of forest. In the 10 years ending in 2011 more than 170 plots of public woodland have been sold to private buyers.

The largest is a 712-hectare site at Threestoneburn Wood (pronounced “Thristonburn”), near Wooler, Northumberland,  which sold for £2.7 million in 2007.

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Threestoneburn Wood.

New owners are Lilburn Estates, owned by Duncan Davison — personal wealth £124m — who founded the much-criticised housebuilding firm Persimmon. His family owns and farms 12,500 hectares in Northumberland.

Some 525 hectares of forest at the Stang, Co Durham, sold in 2010 at the height of the Spelman’s government’s plan to sell all public forests. It was quietly sold off to a London-based consultancy for over £3m.

There are many other examples, although it isn’t always easy to find details of such sales in the public domain. The excuse of commercial sensitivity is all too easy to use in such cases.

Increasing the size of our forests was the main reason for the creation of the Forestry Commission in 1919. Since then forest coverage has doubled and the commissions remit expanded to include greater focus on sustainable forest management and maximising public benefits.

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The Forestry Commission is also the government body responsible for the regulation of private forestry in England.

Cutting forest trees is generally illegal without first obtaining a licence from the Commission.

The Commission is also responsible for encouraging new private forest growth and development. Part of this role is carried out by providing grants in support of private forests and woodlands.

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Today woodland creation should continue to be an important role of the commission’s work. Its target is to have 12 per cent forest coverage by 2060.

The real questions, however, are who will own that woodland? Who will be able to use it? And what for?

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This article first appeared in he Morning Star 6 Sept 2019.

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