Private site owners hope for woodland funding boost

Forestry panel finds support for opening up public funding to landowners to establish wider access and amenity use.

80% of English forestland lies in private ownership - image: HW
80% of English forestland lies in private ownership - image: HW

Private owners of woodland and heritage sites are hoping to benefit from financial support after consultation on the future of the Forestry Commission and Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) suggested amenity woodland and gardens should be given help to open to the public in the same way as state-owned assets.

The Independent Panel on Forestry progress report, released last week, said: "We recognise the importance of woodlands that are owned by private, charitable, local authority and community organisations in maximising the potential benefits of English forests."

The panel, set up after Defra backed down on selling off Forestry Commission woodlands, said diverse ownership, their fragmented nature and a lack of skills needed to manage small woods were bars to opening them up for amenity use. "We will take these issues into account when developing future business models."

A Country Landowners Association representative said: "We are particularly pleased the panel recognises there is a funding problem for private sector woodlands and is looking at ways to address this issue.

"For the private sector to deliver similar non-market benefits (as the Forestry Commission) from the 80 per cent of woodland it owns, it is reasonable to expect a public payment of £80m, rather than the current £30m estate grant that also funds woodland creation.

"Moreover, we are glad the panel is looking at how to achieve proper management and has come out against imposing greater rights of public access in favour of voluntary arrangements."

Woodland Trust policy director Hilary Allison said: "The panel is looking for cleverer ways for private owners to generate income through planning or carbon funding. It could make a recommendation for greater funding but I don't think the Government would take it up."

Meanwhile, 87 per cent of respondents to the consultation on HLF's "Shaping the future" strategy said it should support the full breadth of the UK's heritage.

The interim report said it would "explore whether there are models that would allow limited funding of capital and conservation work to privately-owned heritage, where the benefits from tourism outweigh private gain".

An HLF representative said the views would help shape its spending from 2013.

The Heritage Alliance responded: "Sustaining the quality of place is at the discretion of many private owners, who derive no direct financial return. It may be timely to review the fund's eligibility criteria."

But parks consultant Dr Stewart Harding said: "I don't think the HLF should fund private landowners when money is so needed in the public sector."

Independent Panel of Forestry Progress report findings

The panel plans to help owners of small woodlands to manage their sites, access markets and design grant and certification schemes that appeal more broadly.

Forest Enterprise England turnover is £70m with £50m projected to come from trading and £20m from Defra. "This funding of the public forest estate appears to represent very good value for money," it said.

The Government put on hold a sale of 15 per cent of the forest estate in February. The panel had 42,000 responses to a call for views.

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