The row over the proposed development of 68 holiday cabins in the Mortimer Forest shows no sign of going away. A planning application was expected in June but we have yet to see it.
I wasn’t planning to write on this again until that application was submitted. But the intervention yesterday of our MP, Philip Dunne, is worth sharing. In response a question, from Philip, Thérèse Coffey, minister for woods and trees, said the government wasn’t at all happy with the cosy commercial arrangement between commercial cabin builder Forest Holidays and the publicly owned Forestry Commission.
I doubt this will kill the scheme but I hope it will.
Thérèse Coffey’s brief is to look after the natural environment, including woodland and the Forestry Commission. Returning to the Commons after a short period of illness, she took questions on tree planting. During this session, Philip Dunne said
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister back to her place. On the proper stewardship of trees, is she satisfied that the existing arrangements between the Forest Holidays group and the Forestry Commission fully accord with the commission’s statutory objectives?
Thérèse Coffey responded:
We are not happy about the arrangement that the Forestry Commission has entered into with Forest Holidays, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked Colin Day—the Department’s non-executive director and chair of its audit and risk committee—to undertake a review. He will be investigating the matter carefully.
It is good news that the cosy relationship between the Forestry Commission and venture capitalists will be put under the microscope. But if the non-executive director at Defra fudges the matter, the environment, food and rural affair select committee should launch an independent investigation. Failing that, the National Audit Office should look at whether this cosy relationship is appropriate for a public body, particularly when it gives such a low rate of return at a very high price.
The Forestry Commission has sold its public ethos to a commercial company on the worst possible terms. It has a 10% stake in Forest Holidays, which is mostly owned by Phoenix Equity, a venture capital company. That’s only one toe in the water for the public not all ten.
The Forestry Commission will receive just £200,000 a year for the Mortimer Forest development. That around one third of one per cent of the Forestry Commission’s budget.
For this paltry sum, the Commission will give a Forest Holidays and its venture capital owners a 125 year lease on public woodland. That is far longer than the cabins will last. But once a use for a site is established, it is very difficult to turn down subsequent applications for development of any sort.
The planning system works independently of parliament and government ministers. I am sure that the planning application from Forest Holidays will carry on regardless because the venture capitalists need a return on their investment.
Philip Dunne’s question in the House yesterday has exposed the government’s unhappiness with the poor deal that the Forestry Commission is getting for its privatisation of public assets. I congratulate him for that.
The big question is this. Will this review kill these unacceptable plans for cabins in the Mortimer Forest?
I hope so. I fear not.