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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Why nationalise trees?

Britain's Forestry Commission is a walking conflict of interest

I have an op-ed in today's Times about nationalised forestry in the UK:

Since its plans to sell off much of the Forestry Commission's land were leaked the press last October, the government has found itself subject to a sustained lobbying campaign. The commission has wheeled out its friends to tell the press what an irreplaceable paragon of environmental virtue it is, and specifically how much access to the countryside will be lost if its land is sold.

I have learned that when the government's proposals are put to public consultation next week, this particular charge will be found to be simply wrong. All sales of land will be subject to the same access provisions as now. So the hyperventilating lobbyists, from ramblers to baronesses, can calm down: the Forest of Dean will not suddenly be closed. It was the Labour government that was quietly selling Forestry Commission land in recent years with no such public-access requirement.

The access row is a smokescreen to cover old-fashioned bureaucratic self-preservation. The Forestry Commission is keen to remain a cosy nationalised monopoly. With more than two million acres (600,000 in England) and over 50% of timber production, plus 100% untrammelled power to set the rules of the industry it competes in and dominates, the Forestry Commission is a walking conflict of interest. It is like the Bank of England running a huge high-street bank, or the BBC owning Ofcom.

The Forestry Commission is also an anachronism. Founded in 1919 - before even the BBC - to avert a shortage of pit props in future wars should submarines intercept imports from Canada, it has long since outlived any justification for its existence. That timber is a `strategic' product too important to be left to the market is a risible argument - food, water, oil and memory chips are just as strategic, yet nobody sensible wants them nationalised. As Adam Smith would point out, Britain's trade deficit in timber no more justifies a policy of state-supported forestry than a trade deficit in bananas justifies a policy of state-supported hothouses.

Though it has plenty of good people, like all nationalised industries the Forestry Commission has shown itself to be deaf to its customers' preferences. Staggeringly, it has nearly always run at a loss. Even last year, with buoyant timber prices thanks to subsidised biofuel boondoggles, its loss on your behalf - or `net operating cost' as its accounts call it - was £75m. To own nearly ten times as much land as a top duke and yet lose money is quite a feat. When New Zealand privatised its forest industry in the 1990s, the result was a painful readjustment followed by a surge into profitability and export markets.

The Forestry Commission is also -like all near-monopolies - sluggish at innovation. New markets for wood, new ways of managing land, new research into pests and new recreational and environmental practices seep in slowly, mostly from abroad and preceded by much meeting of committees and writing of reports. Monopoly is no more excusable in the public than the private sector.

A few years ago the commissioners quietly ditched the commercial arguments for their continuing existence under a banner called `multipurpose forestry' - whose single purpose was to re-invent the Forestry Commission as an environmental champion that therefore did not need to be profitable. For the body that submerged vast tracts of heather moorland in the hills under blankets of closed-canopy sitka spruce and useless lodgepole pine, and also tore the heart of out of many ancient semi-natural woods in the lowlands to put in straight rows of alien conifers, this took some cheek. It is a stark fact that in the twentieth century semi-natural woodland had a far better chance of staying that way in private hands than if it belonged to the Forestry Commission.

True, in recent years the commission has been planting more hardwoods, clear-felling less brutally and putting in nature trails. But the countryside is now full of people called millionaires prepared to manage woods to encourage biodiversity for free, without charging taxpayers.

The idea put about by the lobbying celebrities that land sold by the Forestry Commission will be `destroyed' is nonsense. As a regulator, the Forestry Commission already bosses private woodland owners too, micro-managing every felling and planting decision. Far from being pro-biodiversity, it is often determined to make the private owner plant unsuitable species in straight lines. When I wanted to encourage the abundant natural regeneration of birch after felling some futile sitka spruce, it took years of begging and appeals to the top brass before the bureaucracy would bend its rules. I now have a lovely birch wood thick with cowslips and willow warblers.

When privatisation was threatened in the early 1990s the Commission mobilised many Tory landowners, from dukes downwards, to help fend off the threat. I suspect that will not happen this time: landowners see the Forestry Commission as a remote, centralised, officious, one-size-fits-all policeman, that only enters their life with a clipboard in hand and a homily about carbon dioxide on his lips.

What's this? Hardly had I finished the above sentence than there dropped on the mat yesterday a letter from the Forestry Commission informing (not asking) me that they would be sending somebody to my wood to survey it in order `to help the United Kingdom meet international commitments, such as reporting for the Global Forest Resources Assessment and the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCPFE)' while `estimating how much carbon is stored in Britain's forests'. Thus do bureaucracies spend our money reporting to each other in times of austerity.

If the government really believes in localism and the big society, it will break the Forestry estate into fragments, selling some like Kielder (the largest man-made forest in Europe) to private commercial timber producers, others to private investors such as pension funds and still others like the `heritage forests' of the New Forest and the Forest of Dean to local authorities, trusts and voluntary bodies to manage. Diverse entrepreneurial energy will then get to work to make some forests profitable, some beautiful and some a mixture of the two. Let a thousand woods bloom, as Mao would say.