So, is DEFRA correct? Are we on the brink of a bright new era for the PFE? We think the signs are encouraging although there continues to be challenges ahead particularly around sustainable levels of funding. The Forestry Commission (FC) will remain as the manager of the 250,000 hectares of England's public forests and will retain the services of world-renowned Forest Research. Crucially, this means that forest expertise will not become diluted and fragmented among various Government agencies.
From April 2019, a new Board of Commissioners will be established. This is a significant development as the new Commissioners will include people with 'strong experience in commercial, community and environmental backgrounds'. Whilst it remains to be seen how balanced the new board will be, it is the first-time communities have formally been a core part of the Commissioners' brief.
Friends of Thetford Forest will seek to ensure that that representation has equal status with the other demands and that the voices of communities such as Thetford Forest are indeed heard.
Friends' recently attended a national forestry consultation event where one of the main themes was the 25 Year Environment Plan. Although it is largely aspirational, it provides a framework for some positive, long-term environmental benefits. We are particularly pleased that there now seems to be a recognition that public funds demand public benefits in return - something that we have consistently advocated since the dark days of the PFE sell-off threat in 2010. The PFE showcases the very best of the principle of providing public benefits in return for public funding, yet its level of monetary support from the government remains a cause of concern, especially as some private landowners can be given woodland grants without having to provide access.
Friends' is also encouraged by the growing acceptance of the social benefits that access to woodlands provides and continued Government support for the PFE. The Environment Plan states that 'We will maintain our Public Forest Estate, keeping it in trust for the nation, reflecting the value of the social and environmental benefits it provides so that future generations continue to enjoy them.' These are welcome developments and vindicate the campaigning role that Friends has pursued over the last few years with the magnificent support of its members. But we remain alert to anything that we perceive as a threat to the ethos of the PFE —Hence the inclusion of the next article , which is a message from your Committee arrived at after a lot of thought on the matter.
Many of you will be aware that the Forestry Commission has decided to introduce car park charging at St. Helen's picnic site following consultation process over the last few months.
The Friends of Thetford Forest strongly disagree with this development and the whole idea of charging for general access to our forests. There is a principle at stake. When hundreds of thousands of people across the country stand up to support you and defend their rights to access the countryside, don't you think they deserve something back? Especially when it's their taxes that underwrite your organisation? In 2010. the Forestry Commission faced oblivion. The Government had decided that it was going to sell-off the Public Forest Estate and that FC had had its day. A formality. Except something exceptional happened. A spontaneous outcry from all sections of society that said, 'No! they're our forests and woods, we like what the Forestry Commission does with them and we're not going to let them go.' The Government backed down and now FC, rather than being consigned to the history books, will celebrate its Centenary with a bright and exciting future ahead of it.
So, in our opinion, charging the public to visit St. Helen's goes against the ethos of the PFE and betrays all those who fought to keep it. Friends is not blind to the financial pressures facing the PFE and we support sensible cost-cutting measures and ethical means of earning additional income. We were told that the main driver for introducing charges at St. Helen's was to limit numbers visiting the site. The toilet block was no longer capable of handling the use it got, the river bank was being eroded and the historic monument (there are earthworks of a moated manor house and abandoned village on the site) was in danger of being damaged.
However, since then we have heard that some picnic benches and possible canoe hire are being considered on site. Are these the actions that will reduce the impact of the public at St. Helen's or attractions to maximise the income from car park charging? We feel that we have been misled over St. Helen's and the intention all along was to treat the site as a source of revenue.
Friends remains a strong supporter of the Forestry Commission and recognises the good work it does across Thetford Forest. But we are fearful of an ever increasing need to monetise its assets and destroy all those intangible benefits that make it a unique organisation.
We call upon them to remember those who fund it, those who fought for it and those to whom the social benefit of Thetford Forest is immeasurable. In short, all of us. There is still time to drop this scheme — please do so!