I was delighted when I was asked to take on ministerial responsibility for our forests. If I had any doubt about what forests offer, and I didn’t, I would have been even more convinced as I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the country. Our woodlands are places where people can get out in the fresh air and enjoy walking, bike riding and picnicking. But they’re also important for public health, preserving wildlife, storing carbon dioxide, and have huge potential to provide sustainable employment in some of our most rural areas.
That’s why I have worked hard over recent months to talk to and listen to those with a real interest in the future of our forests. Today I have published the results of that work, the new forestry policy which responds to the Independent Panel on Forestry’s report on the future of forestry. And I’m very pleased to say we have been able to embrace the vision and aspirations they set out so clearly.
The public have shown overwhelming support for our public forests and I pay tribute to the many thousands of people who have taken the time over the past two years to write to their MPs about what forests mean to them. People really came together to defend their woodlands against proposals that they were concerned would restrict public access and lose them from public ownership.
So the document I’ve published today makes it clear that the public forest estate will stay in public ownership. The previous decision to sell off 15% of the estate is rescinded, and I’ve been able to restore the budget that was cut as a result, and put a little more money in to ensure we take forward our proposals.
But it goes much further than that. It recognises that keeping the public forest intact and free from political interference is essential to ensuring that free public access to woodlands can be guaranteed for generations to come. So I am proposing that ownership will be transferred to put our forests in trust for the nation, with clear objectives to protect its use. Learning from the depradations of Ash Die-Back, I want to see greatly enhanced protection against disease. I want to improve the management of woodland across the country and encourage its use, both to boost the local economy but provide opportunities for recreation, for community involvement and for education.. And I want us to continue to expand tree cover. I think it’s possible to see 12% of the country covered in woodland by 2060; that’s as much as was the case in the year 1300, so it’s no mean aspiration!
People rightly care passionately about the future of our woods and forests. I hope they will feel confident that Liberal Democrats in Government are not only restoring woodlands to their former glory, but protecting them for generations to come.
* David Heath is MP for Somerton and Frome and Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.