HC Deb 16 April 1991 vol 189 cc165-6 3.37 pm
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the Forestry Commission from transferring any land without guaranteeing continuing public access to that land. The Bill will guarantee the continuation of public accessibility to the land that is sold by the Forestry Commission.

Of the more than 2 million hectares of woodlands and forests in Britain, nearly half are owned by the Forestry Commission. It is my belief that the majority of the public wants the land owned by the nation and managed by the Forestry Commission on behalf of the nation to remain accessible so that this generation and future generations can enjoy all the environmental benefits that forests, woodlands and moorlands can offer.

Regrettably, in 1981, the Conservative Government instructed the Forestry Commission to sell off large areas of its woodlands, forests and open lands to the private sector. That was a stupid and irresponsible policy, as the Forestry Commission land belongs to the nation and not to the private sector.

By March 1989, a total of 140,000 hectares had been sold off—an area bigger than the whole of Berkshire or of Fife. In June 1989, the Government announced a continuation of their policy and the commission was instructed to sell off another 100,000 hectares by the year 2000. Yet it was quite clear by 1989 that the warning given by the Ramblers Association about the problems resulting from selling the land was justified and the problems had arrived.

When the Forestry Commission sells land to the private buyer, it does nothing to ensure that the access hitherto enjoyed by the public is protected. By and large, private woodland owners are not keen to give the public the same freedom of access in their woods as the Forestry Commission. There no rational reason for that.

At no time has the commission said that public access is incompatible with efficient management of its woods and forest and the private woodland owners' association, the Timber Growers United Kingdom, appears to agree with that as it said recently: One of the principal advantages of forestry is that it is a land use where access and recreation can be combined, often with little loss of timber production. In one respect—fire prevention—the Commission has said that it is a positive benefit to have people walking in its forests, because when there is an outbreak of fire, it is more likely to be spotted, reported and extinguished before any really extensive damage occurs than it would be if it happened in a forest where walking is not allowed.

Nevertheless, private woodland owners are generally not access-friendly. As a result, access to land sold by the Forestry Commission has often been lost. Examples were given in a BBC "Country File" television programme on 10 March 1991 and others were quoted in the Observer.

In June 1989, the Secretary of State for Scotland stated that the Government were concerned and that careful consideration would be given to the problem so that the public could continue to enjoy access. That careful consideration was not speedy. A further statement was not made until 17 months later, in November 1990. The Secretary of State for Scotland stated that the Forestry Commission would offer to enter into legal agreements with local authorities to provide for continuing public access to woodlands after sale. However, those legal agreements are to be subject to guidelines that have yet to be drawn up, and until they appear no agreements safeguarding access can be entered into.

It is noteworthy and depressing that a Forestry Commission spokesman was quoted in the Observer as saying that consultation on access agreement guidelines was likely to continue for several months. Meanwhile, land continues to be sold and public access continues to be lost.

To make matters even worse, the Forestry Commission is no longer supplying the Ornance Survey with information about its land. That decision, unannounced previously and taken without any consultation with organisations representing map users, was set out in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) from the director general of the Ornance Survey. Its effect is that members of the public will be deprived of an important source of information about where they can freely walk in the countryside.

The Government should follow the example set by the United States of America, Denmark and other countries. However, I fear that they will not.

There are two solutions to the problem. First, the sale of forests, woodlands and open land should stop immediately, or the Government should instruct the Forestry Commission to include a clause in the sales agreement that guarantees the right of accessibility to the general public. Secondly, the Government should support this Bill and ensure that parliamentary time is allocated for it to become part of our legislation, thereby giving the public what they desire.

Therefore, I challenge the Government to get off their backsides and to do one or the other—to do nothing is criminal.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Martin Redmond, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Michael Welsh, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett. Mr. Peter Hardy, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Bob Cryer, Mr. Allen McKay, Mr. Tom Cox, Mr. Chris Smith and Mr. George J. Buckley.