The Government spending review, published in June, included a 9.6% cut to Defra, which is on top of previously announced cuts. That is certain to mean further cuts for the countryside agencies, including the Forestry Commission and Natural England. That’s likely to mean less staff, again, but no news yet on how it will affect the Woodland Grant Scheme available to woodland owners.
Any changes will be implemented in the New Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) combining the Environmental Stewardship, Catchment Sensitive Farming and the England Woodland Grants Schemes, due to be introduced in 2014 or 2015. There is some hope that woodlands will attract subsidy for basic good environmental management, equivalent to the current £30 per hectare available from the Entry Level Environmental Stewardship Scheme. However, the overall finance for the new scheme will not increase, and such a move would be likely to see corresponding cuts in other payments. We are currently in a period of transition, and Woodland Management Grants for access have recently closed. Other elements have short timescales, for example Woodfuel WIGs, which can include substantial grants for track improvements, must be applied for by the end of the year.
Meanwhile a lot of time and energy continues to be devoted to possible restructuring. A possible merger between the Environment Agency and Natural England was rejected in favour of greater co-operation and efficiency savings. Now a consultation document has been published concerning how our public forests should be owned and governed. This follows on from the recommendations of the Independent Forestry Panel, set up after the abandment of plans to sell off much of the public forests. The proposal is for a Public Forest Management Organisation (somewhat like Forest Enterprise – part of the Forestry Commission), managed by a Board appointed by Defra (somewhat like the Forestry Commissioners). Rearranging the deckchairs comes to mind. However, the Board would have a further advisory panel of guardians, drawn from estate users, to advise it, but crucially with no management responsibilities.
Defra have accepted keeping the public forest estate in public ownership, and have accepted the principle of an independent body. But what is independent, and when does independent become unaccountable? Defra seem to want to solve that by appointing the Board and making the guardians toothless, at least in powers, if not influence. Perhaps those guardians should actually be on the Board, but in an overall minority? And how about seeking more continuity by extending the terms of appointment beyond three years? Three years is rather less than a general election cycle, and therefore still very prone to political expediency.
A charity has trustees, usually elected by members, and a company’s shareholders can vote out the Board of Directors. So how can the taxpayer safeguard their interests in an independent organisation? If we are not to elect commissioners for everything, then perhaps we do have to accept accountability through Parliament. But beefing up the role of guardians seems a good supplement. Which begs the question of who chooses the guardians?!