The new Government is attempting to rebalance the relationship between citizens and the State. Naturally, there is opposition brewing among those who have a vested interest in things remaining much as they are. And this has become evident when it comes to land.
In practice, land is managed by farmers, foresters, gamekeepers and so on. But who pays for this management? In a large part, it is the State, via agricultural subsidies and various agri-environment and woodland grant schemes. A substantial proportion is also contributed by the private sector, in the form of agricultural produce, timber, development and sporting activities such as shooting. Above all, we must remember that most land in the UK is privately owned. The fact that it is a valued investment is shown by the fact that land prices ? unlike house prices ? have continued to hold or even increase, regardless of the recession.
Despite being mostly privately owned, land is important to the nation and society as a whole. There is a raft of legislation and official designations that are imposed on private land in order to protect the environment and the landscape. The previous government imposed a public right to wander over certain types of private land, without compensation or payment to the owners, and the current head of Natural England once proclaimed that ?all land, even private land, is a public good?. More recently, there have been orchestrated campaigns to ?save our woods?, based on reports that the Government is thinking of selling off Forestry Commission woodland in England, and fears that national parks in England and Wales might be privatised and therefore lost to the nation.
I believe that these campaigns are being instigated and stoked by certain groups of people who fear having to justify their State-funded lifestyles and hobbies. And for this purpose, they are engaging in scaremongering. Take national parks as an example. The authorities that administer them are facing severe cuts. When it comes to privatising national parks, the fact is that the vast majority of land within them is already privately owned. In Scotland, the authorities made a considered decision that they would not own any land at all.
I don?t mean to downplay the good work of national park authorities when I point out that the landscapes that they protect were there long before anybody had dreamed up the concept of a national park. In a similar vein, most of the North Pennine grouse moors are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because the sensitive way in which they have been managed by private owners has made them worth protecting. The SSSI designation is a tribute to the gamekeepers who manage those moors, not the bureaucrats who monitor them.
When I hear people bemoaning the potential loss of Forestry Commission land, I am sceptical about their real motives. The Forestry Commission has done some good conservation work in recent decades, but, in a large part, this is undoing the damage it had already done. This State-owned body has also been responsible for desecrating many fine landscapes with alien species, such as the notorious Sitka spruce.
Claims that public access will be denied if woodlands are sold are red herrings. Public rights of way are protected, no matter who owns that land, and a more general right of access can be dedicated if necessary before any sale. The same sort of scaremongering has it that former Forestry Commission woodland will be exploited for commercial development. Yet, as matters stand, the Forestry Commission currently enjoys a far easier ride for planning matters than any private landowner. There is a lot of evidence to show that State ownership is not necessarily the best way of protecting the public interest in land.
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