I spent a lot of time as a kid, and since, in the New Forest and there are two things I know about it - it's not new and it's not all forest.
This mix of ancient woodland and modern tree farms, grassland grazed by ponies and heathland alive with Dartford warblers is a very special place. And a very complicated place with a long past and we hope a long future. But the government consultation on forestry suggests that one potential future for the New Forest might be for its forests to be managed by communities or NGOs like ourselves at the RSPB.
The RSPB manages over 140,000ha of land across the UK, and a good chunk of that is heath, grassland and forests of various types, and we do have some expertise in inviting the public in to see the landscapes and wildlife that we protect. But, let's be clear, we don't think running the New Forest can be done by charities. And we don't think it's desirable.
The New Forest, as with the Forest of Dean (of which I also have fond childhood memories), is a Crown forest - not strictly speaking owned by the state - and benefitting from its own specific primary legislation. The New Forest has a complicated suite of overlapping designations such as National Park, Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area for birds which aim to protect its public and wildlife value. Its adminstration is a complex mix of ancient and modern with an ancient Verderers Court and a modern National Park authority.
And does off-shoring management of the New Forest pass the Osborne tests?
Back in June last year the Chancellor George Osborne, set out these rules about departmental spending:
Is the activity essential to meet Government priorities? Does the Government need to fund this activity? Does the activity provide substantial economic value? Can the activity be targeted to those most in need? How can the activity be provided at lower cost? How can the activity be provided more effectively? Can the activity be provided by a non-state provider or by citizens, wholly, or in partnership? Can non-state providers be paid to carry out the activity according to the results they achieve? Can local bodies, as opposed to central Government, provide the activity?
Without going through these tests one by one it is not clear that any change in the status quo would deliver great advances in effectiveness or reductions in cost. For example, those SPAs and SACs mean that the UK Government is responsible for what happens whoever owns it - and therefore would be expected to monitor and police activities - or take the rap. If the RSPB thought that we could step in and make the New Forest a better place for wildlife and people then we'd say so - but we don't, and have no intention of pushing ourselves forward in that way. We work in the New Forest now, in partnership with others, as we do in the Forest of Dean too, and we'd like to carry on working there with local people. We might do more in future - but we aren't daft - we know when something is too big to swallow.
But we are interested in how such heritage forests are managed. Are they managed for people and wildlife or as state tree production units. To be fair to the FC they walk the tightrope quite well for most of the time, occasionally toppling off on one side or the other but a Forest and Wildlife Service could manage the heritage aspects of these forests, and others, and non-forest land of equal public value in a more effective way on behalf of us all. The idea of a merger between a heritage FC and Natural England keeps popping back into my head.
This blog first wrote about this awful Bill back on 31 October when I wrote as follows:
Quango bonfire: In order to carry out some of its plans for the Forestry Commission, but also for a host of other 'Arms Length Bodies', government has announced the legislative route for changing the structure and role of a large number of agencies. Legislation will start in the House of Lords where it is likely that the new measures will get a rough ride and careful scrutiny. Their Lord- (and Lady-) ships are likely to want to examine closely a piece of legislation that has such far-reaching impacts. The Public Bodies Bill is a classic enabling bill framed along the lines of 'We're going to change lots of things, some of which we know now, some of which we'll work out soon and some of which we can't tell you anything about because we haven't thought of them at all yet, but please give us the power to do all this' which may not go down too well in the Upper House.
That looks pretty accurate still.
The Public Bodies Bill is the enabling Godfather of the Cameron reform programme. Already under fire from a Commons Select Committee and enduring a bumpy ride in the Lords, it is seen by many as anti-democratic. Indeed, in its current form it could make it possible for any “anti-green” government to ride roughshod over existing environmental safeguards.
On forestry, Caroline Spelman at Defra has been at pains to point out that reform is needed to ensure that our trees and woodlands are properly protected. As it stands, the Public Bodies Bill could signal the end of independent state conservation bodies capable of holding government to account.
The Schedules which accompany the Bill are as long as the Bill itself. And, of course, this Bill is about changes to all aspects of Public Life, not just the natural environment.
In Schedule 1 (bodies to be abolished) you will find all the Regional Development Agencies, the Football Licensing Authority (I have no idea), the Library Advisory Council as well as the Commission for Rural Communities.
Schedule 2 lists some mergers.
Schedule 3 lists bodies whose constitutional arrangements will be modified and includes National Park authorities, Internal Drainage Boards as well as The English Tourism Board and the Hallmarking Council.
Schedule 4 has a few bodies, including Natural England, whose funding arrangements will be modified.
Schedule 5 lists bodies from whom some functions will be transferred and includes the Environment Agency and National Park authorities as well as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Horserace Betting Levy Board.
Schedule 6 (are you still with me?) has only National Park authorities and the Broads Authority in it where power may be delegated.
And then we come to Schedule 7. Schedule 7 is now being referred to sarcastically as the 'Pending tray' and includes bodies which are subject to add to other schedules - for example Schedule 1. Surely Schedule 7 is just a few odds and sods? Go have a look. Schedule 7 contains well over 100 bodies where this government doesn't yet know, or won't yet say, what it wants to do but wants the power to do it. Schedule 7 does include Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, National Park authorities, the Broads Authority and the Forestry Commissioners but also the Health and Safety Executive, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the Parole Board, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Office of Fair Trading. All human life is here.
The Bill provides for public functions to be transferred to others: just about anyone - charities, private companies, community groups, with the minimum of safeguards. There is a clear risk that functions that should be delivered in the general public interest will in future be delivered through those with a much narrower interest. To take an extreme example: there is nothing we can see in the Bill that would stop the Environment Agency's pollution control function being delivered by the Confederation of British Industries or Friends of the Earth! And many of the balancing duties that apply to public bodies to conserve biodiversity and so on, would not apply once the function had been transferred out of the public sector.
So this is a Bill which is short on saying what it will do and long on grabbing the power to do something unspecified later - perhaps by another government in the distant future.
The RSPB has been briefing Peers about the implications of this Bill and we will continue to track its progress and seek to have it altered through its Parliamentary passage.
Pasted below is a blog I wrote on 4 November 2009 (not 2010) but you can go back to the original to check I haven't changed a word. I am relieved to see that what I wrote then still seems pretty true well over a year later, after a couple of autumns and a general election.
The blog below highlights the likely cuts to environmental spending and changes to organisational structure that would follow a change of government and it sets out clearly how good and how not so good is the Forestry Commission.
The autumn colours this year are lovely - last weekend's winds put a lot of leaves on the ground but there are still many leaves on the trees near where I live and I'm looking forward to more weeks of greens, golds, reds and browns.
Before next autumn's colours delight us, a general election will have taken place and we will certainly see cuts in government spending and perhaps a reorganisation of government departments and agencies.
So what about the Forestry Commission if we are thinking autumn colours? Set up in 1919 to ensure a strategic reserve of pit props for the mining industry the Forestry Commission is now a non-Ministerial government department whose aims are to protect, expand and promote the sustainable management of woodland and increase its value to society and the environment.
My experience of FC staff is that they are a very enthusiastic bunch, and good on delivering on the ground, but their enthusiasm is sometimes greater for expanding and promoting the management of woodland than for delivering the wider public benefits which could come from the land under FC's management. There are many, many exceptions to that generalisation but, if anything, the wider vision of what Forestry Commission England can deliver has narrowed in recent years.
I found this description of what the Dutch Forest Service, Staats bos beheer, does very interesting. At least in words, this seems a more rounded and progressive definition for what a state forest service should do. There are real questions about whether the state has a part to play in growing commercial timber crops - since we don't have a state fishing fleet, or state farms, and we no longer need that strategic reserve of timber for the mines, isn't growing trees just a business like growing wheat, oil seed rape or potatoes?
The Dutch model seems pretty relevant to the English situation. Both are crowded countries with high population densities and have suffered great losses of biodiversity-rich habitats in recent decades. Staats bos beheer manages 250,000ha with c1000 staff and Forestry Commission England manages about 260,000ha with about 800 staff.
FCE already has a large area (c60,000ha) of non-forest land under its management (including a large heathland estate - but FCE has been a bit slow in contributing fully to the government heathland recreation targets) and is converting another large area (c50,000ha) back to restore native woodland on ancient woodland sites where conifers were planted in the past. So we are already getting on for about half of the land area being committed to wider wildlife, landscape and other public goods rather than hard-nosed traditional forestry. This is good - that's probably what a state forest service should do although the Dutch model is far clearer about the direction of travel and, I guess, the direction leads to a much closer fit between what the Forestry Commission does and what Natural England does.
Whatever comes out of the next twelve months before we see the autumn colours again, we should seek to ensure that the really special areas of land currently managed by FCE remain protected for their wildlife and landscape value. A time of financial cuts and government reorganisation is always a dangerous time for the natural world (which is why we'd like you to sign the RSPB's Letter to the Future please!) but a secure future for the wildlife that has been protected by the Forestry Commission for so many years needs to be part of that future.
Signs of winter...
I've seen a few reports on Northants birding sites of sightings of white stoats - stoats in ermine. And a report of one in Norfolk from Twitter. I'm envious, I've never seen a white stoat (but they still have black tail tips). Except this Sunday, when out for my normal walk, a stoat ran across the path and it was half white - a half ermine! I wish I'd seen it for longer and closer and better. But I'm half way to seeing an ermine.
Presumably, in some complicated way, all that cold and/or all that snow before Christmas has 'persuaded' our stoats (some of them) to go white this year - or partly white.
If white fur gives you camouflage advantage then you don't want to be brown when the ground is covered in snow but neither do you want to be white when the snow and ice have gone. Can anyone tell me the mechanism behind the switch in coat colour - I am now fascinated and need to know? Here is some information from the Mammal Society.
Signs of spring...
If ermines are signs of winter then the good showing of hazel catkins around our way is a sign of spring. And the snowdrops and winter aconites are showing well too. I've heard it said that the snowdrops are all a bit smaller this year because of the cold weather. Is there anything in that, I wonder?
When will I hear my first chiffchaff and see my first sand martin? There were robins, great tits, and Cetti's warblers singing at the weekend.
Damian Carrington writes well on the joint issue - as they are very similar - of NNRs and heritage forests.
And I don't just say that because he likes our vague idea of a merged FC and NE being a wildlife-friendly, public-friendly organisation to run state land - although, of course, that doesn't reduce my high opinion of him.