Cast your minds back, dear reader, Ten Years. I have deliberately capitalised these words so please don’t send me any grammatical correction comments. Ten years seems like an incomprehensibly long time ago, considering what we have been through in the last month, six months, a year, two years and five years. But it was ten years ago that the Government – remember that Tory-LibDem coalition? – suffered its first major setback when it abandoned plans to privatise the Forestry Commission. The plan was to sell off the commercial forests to the private forestry industry and hand over the special bits where there was still some wildlife clinging on, to the conservation NGOs. I understand there was enthusiasm on the part of some NGOs at the prospect of being handed juicy large chunks of wildlife-rich land. There was a similar plan to sell of Natural England’s National Nature Reserves, but that’s another story.
Looking back at the Grasslands Trust blog (which preceded this one and where I cut my blogging teeth) there are three entries in February 2011 about the FC sell-off and I reproduce them here. An earlier longer post in January 2011 spelt out the plans and some facts about the FC.
The Governments claims that regulations will protect wildlife on privatised FC land are undermined by their own rhetoric
The Government claims that they will use regulations to protect wildlife and archaeology on land sold by the Forestry Commission as a result of the proposed privatisation. As I mentioned in my previous blog on this subject these regulations include felling licences, which control where trees may be felled, and what should be replanted after they are felled. Fines for contravening felling licences can be huge, running into ten of thousands of pounds. Felling licences tend to be about the scale of tree-felling and the requirement to replant following felling. They have generated controversy where former heathland sites, some even in Special Protection Areas are replanted with conifers.
But the regulations that are supposed to protect open habitats such as grassland, heathlands and moors are much, much weaker, and rarely enforced. These regulations stem from the EIA Directive enacted in 1985, and in particular projects where there is a significant environmental impact on uncultivated or semi natural areas as a result of intensive agriculture of forestry. Successive governments attempted to avoid implementing EIA for agriculture and forestry in the UK, until they were forced to, under pain of large fines from the EC, in 1999.
EIA for agriculture is weak, ineffective and rarely enforced. There have been more successful appeals against enforcement action than there have been successful cases – and as we have found, plenty of cases where semi-natural grasslands have been destroyed regardless of the regulations. It’s about as weak a piece of legislation as it is possible to have, apart from those old laws that sit around on the statute books for centuries, like witchcraft or setting fire to her majesties dockyards.
These EIA-derived regulations are what the Government in its consultation document states will be used to protect the biodiversity interests on FC land that has been sold into the private sector. For a start EIA for agriculture doesn’t even apply until a patch of top priority habitat exceeds 2ha. In forestry sites many open areas are small, well below 2ha, but together they create incredibly important networks of open spaces, where flowers provide nectar sources for insects like woodland butterflies. Butterfly Conservation has been working with FC to transform conifer plantations to restore these small open habitat to create conditions for threatened woodland butterflies like heath fritillary, to great effect.
EIA for forestry, which is supposed to protect open habitats from being planted with trees, only starts to apply after a huge 5ha threshold unless the site is in an AONB or National Park in which case it’s 2ha. habitats such as semi-natural grasslands mostly occur in small patches, especially outside protected areas. So there is even less chance of this regulation applying, to require an environmental assessment of a tree planting proposal on open ground. And sadly there are plenty of cases where tree planting has taken place on important grassland sites, not just in the past, but here and now.
Which takes us back to the Felling Licences. If the privatisation is pushed through, what will become of the FC staff who process felling licences? These are the last line of defence against damaging tree planting. Will they be able to spend the time looking at each proposal for felling and replanting – especially if there is a flood of applications from new owners of former FC sites?
But there’s a deeper problem, which is that this Government is enthusiastic in its rhetoric of de-regulation, that is removing what little regulation there is currently in place to protect the environment. A de-regulation taskforce was set up by Minister Paice charged with identifying those regulations which were stifling economic growth and innovation. I was part of a group from Wildlife Link’s agriculture group who met with the chair of the taskforce Richard MacDonald, before christmas. I was amazed to discover that the group were not even aware of the existence of the regulations on agriculture stemming from the EIA directive. That is how high profile they are! I was re-assured that the taskforce would now look into this issue and I await their findings with excitement, if not a little trepidation.
So that is the question I leave you with – how can a government on the one hand lead a crusade against red-tape on the grounds that it is preventing people from building new businesses, innovating and kick-starting the economic revival; and on the other hand claim that regulation will be strong enough to protect the important environmental and historical features on 250000ha of state land they are about to sell off – some of which will be bought by private individuals, companies, farmers, with plans to use it (even if that use is just commercial forestry or agriculture) to develop new businessess, innovate and contribute to the economic revival?