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Volume 181: debated on Wednesday 21 November 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what plans the Government have with regard to continued public access to forests being disposed of by the Forestry Commission.

The Forestry Commission welcomes the public on foot to all its woodlands, provided that this does not conflict with forestry operations and that there is no legal or other constraint on public access.In answer to a question from my hon. Friend on 16 June 1989,

Official Report, columns 544–45, I made a

statement on the Forestry Commission's disposals programme. In this I expressed the Government's concern that the general public should continue to enjoy access to those forests to be disposed of by the Commission in a way which is compatible with management for forestry and other purposes.

My right hon. Friends and I have given careful consideration to ways of achieving this objective. In doing so, we have had regard to the nature of access enjoyed by the public at present and the need to ensure that any measures which we adopt are effective, avoid needless bureaucracy and achieve a proper balance between public enjoyment and the ability of the new owner to manage his woodland.

We have concluded that it would not be appropriate to proceed by way of new legislation, since this could not be framed in a sufficiently flexible way to cover the widely differing circumstances affecting woodlands throughout Great Britain. The option of imposing access conditions on sale has also had to be ruled out on the basis of legal advice that these would be of doubtful effect against subsequent owners.

Instead, we have decided that the best way forward will be for the Government to ask the Forestry Commission to give advance notice to local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales of intended disposals of woodlands under its management, and to offer to enter into legal agreements with them which will provide for continued public access to the woodlands after sale. Such agreements will be compatible with the management of the woodlands for forestry and other purposes and will be binding on subsequent owners. These arrangements will apply to those woodlands where there are no existing legal or other constraints on public access to the land, and it will, of course, be up to individual local authorities to decide whether they wish to enter into an agreement with the Forestry Commission for any particular woodland prior to sale.

We see a number of advantages in these procedures. They can be introduced quickly. They will be tailored to suit local circumstances. Most importantly, the elected representatives of local people will be fully involved in the process, so reflecting the value that we attach to continued public use of the woodlands concerned.

The Forestry Commission, with the co-operation of the Countryside Commission and the Countryside Commission for Scotland, will publish Guidelines setting out the details of these arrangements, after consulting with appropriate public and private bodies concerned with public access to the countryside, forestry and land management.

We intend that the new arrangements will be introduced as soon as possible. In the meantime, the Forestry Commission will defer the sale of woodlands which are particularly sensitive in relation to public access.

By taking this initiative, we are demonstrating the Government's firm commitment to maintaining and improving public access to the countryside.