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Public woodland: beyond the barter economy

Mark Walton

“Informal agreements and ‘a barter economy’ is where we are. Formal long term agreements and leases is where we want to be”.

This was the clear take-home message from a recent meeting of local authority woodland officers discussing the role of community and social enterprises in managing council owned woodland. The meeting also agreed that strong leadership from both community organisations and local authorities is needed to get us there.

In the extraordinary surroundings of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in East London, representatives from local authorities, community woodland groups and the Forestry Commission reviewed the recent Shared Assets report, commissioned by Forest Research, surveying the current state of local authority woodland management.

Three key issues emerged from the morning session:

  • There are barriers to active woodland management
    Many local authority woodlands are not actively managed. Both the general public and the local media can be hostile to active management practices such as clearing rhododendrons or the felling or coppicing of trees. Local authorities that do not wish to risk a public backlash may shy away from doing any more than the bare minimum to maintain the safety of their public access woodlands. Such reactive management practices risk a decline in the quality and biodiversity of the woodland.
  • What do we mean by social enterprise woodland management?
    In many cases recreation, education and health projects take place in woodlands. Whilst these may be social enterprise activities themselves they are often delivered entirely independently of any woodland management activities. Sometimes however they are integrated into the active management of the woodland. It is important to be clear of these distinctions when discussing the potential for social enterprise woodland management.
  • Management or governance?
    In many cases, communities may want more say over how local woodlands are managed but may not have the desire or skills to physically undertake the work themselves. Instead they may wish to bring in a sole trader or private company to undertake work that they specify.

This community involvement in governance provides a degree of local control but should be distinguished from the active management of the woodland as a social or community enterprise activity.

The case studies highlighted the informality and insecurity of existing social enterprise management of local authority woodland.

  • Blackbark is a worker’s co-operative working on woodlands owned by Calderdale Council to produce firewood and charcoal. Together with the council, they spoke about their experience of building a partnership, and some of the challenges of bringing woods back into active management.
  • The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park are an established group that have developed from being entirely voluntary to employing staff to manage and improve the woodland. They work in partnership with other charities to carry out educational activities. They currently have a three year Service Level Agreement with the local authority but little security to allow them to make long term plans.

Looking to the future in the afternoon discussion it was clear that those present wanted to see more social enterprise engagement in the management of their woodlands – delivering better woodland habitats, sustainable livelihoods, improved access and a wider range of public benefits.

There was desire to move beyond the informal short term nature of many current arrangements, and to facilitate more sharing of tools, equipment, and facilities such as depots. However, the low priority placed on woodlands by most local authorities means that there is little leadership on this issue.  Risk averse procurement and legal teams were seen as preventing more entrepreneurial approaches. As ever time and financial resources were also a limiting factor.

There was also recognition that those involved in the emerging woodland social enterprise sector need to demonstrate the value of actively managing public woodlands for social benefit. They also need to develop, or have access to a wide range of skills and knowledge in order to negotiate better deals, longer leases and contracts that recognise and reward the multiple benefits they are delivering.

Social and community enterprise can help deliver jobs, local regeneration, stronger local economies and a healthier, happier population. Inspirational leadership is needed in both authorities and communities to make the case that our woodlands should be actively managed in order to provide much needed renewable resources and build sustainable local communities.

Working together we can change the perception that management of woodland is a negative or damaging thing. We should be aiming to revive a woodland culture that sees more people working in woodlands and treats trees as a resource to be nurtured, managed and used to meet some of our basic needs for fuel, building materials, furniture and food.

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