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Saving nature or saving money?

The government avoids more questions than it answers on England's woodlands.

Over the past month, opposition to the government's proposal to sell off up to 15,000 hectares of English forest and woodland has been gradually mounting. A few days ago, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman responded to her critics in the Guardian, claiming to be "setting the record straight on the sale of England's woodlands". However, she avoids more questions than she answers.

She addresses the more sensationalist suggestions - namely that woodlands could be sold off in a "free-for-all of golf courses, holiday parks or housing developments" - but ignores the central issues: access to the countryside, tree planting, and how, if at all, her plans will actually help biodiversity.

Spelman says that a major motivation for the plans is the "need to enhance biodiversity", including planting more trees and of the right sort. However, she makes no mention of how exactly selling off the Forestry Commission's forests would help with this goal, and how new, private forest owners would do a better job.

She points out that "[a]round 70 per cent of England's woodland is already under private ownership - some of them already participating in woodland schemes that actively preserve the environmental and public benefits our woodlands deliver", but this in itself does not justify her proposals.

Moreover, while the new owners would still be subject to planning and forestry regulations, it is not at all clear how new forms of management would differ from that of the Forestry Commission. In particular, our Environment Secretary avoids mentioning how, if at all, public access to the woodlands would be altered. There is also no mention of how the sale would work: would conservation and other environmentally-conscious organisations be treated preferentially?

Earlier this year, a government economic study estimated that the Forestry Commission provides £2100 per hectare in value if benefits such as carbon sequestration, protection from erosion, and absorbing pollution are accounted for. The government needs to show that its reforms will not damage the natural capital behind these environmental services, and ideally that they will enhance it. So far they have done neither.

There is also the question of where the money for acceptable private management of England's forests is going to come from. Charities' incomes face heavy cuts over the next few years as a result of the coalition's austerity measures. Philanthropy cannot realistically be expected to take up all the slack left by the roll-back of the state.

Depending on who is willing and able to purchase the forests, there is no guarantee that the same levels of resources would be available to spend on conservation as the Forestry Commission lose their most profitable land.

Similarly, Spelman makes no mention of how, if at all, the taxpayer can expect to benefit. Before this year's spending review, the Forestry Commission received a £30m annual subsidy, but generated £63m income a year. If the organisation were stripped of its most profitable assets and its income fell, the taxpayer would have to step in to meet any funding gaps.

Indeed, she seems more interested in Cameron's ideological pursuit of a small state for its own sake than in pragmatic cost savings, saying that the plans are "no fire sale by a cash-strapped state". Instead, she suggests that, "frankly, those who live closest are most likely to protect it".

However, like much of the Big Society project, the benefits of her plans seem poorly specified, and based more on wishful thinking than anything else. It's not at all clear that those nearest to forests are the most likely to buy them. And, even if this were the case, it is something of a simplification to conflate geographical proximity with an affinity for conservation.

Spelman says that "[p]ublic is not always good, nor non-public bad.". Quite. But, by the same token, public is not always bad, nor non-public good. She and her ministerial colleagues need to make the case that selling off our forests is not pure ideology and will provide tangible benefits.