So, despite almost 50,000 objections to its land sell-off programme, Somerset County Council has gone ahead with the sale of the 1,500 acre Great Wood, one of the most popular spots for visitors in the Quantock Hills. The Forestry Commission, which already held the land on a long lease, paid £250,000 for the forest. While the Forestry Commission is a respected organisation with a record of good land stewardship, I remain concerned that this move may just turn out to be an interim step between public and private ownership. Let’s not forget that it’s only a little over a year since the Government attempted to abolish the Forestry Commission and sell-off all of its land. While that move was halted by huge public protest, the Government did not abandon the idea entirely, merely kicking the decision into the long grass with a review into what the future should hold for the public forest estate. I wouldn’t bet a large sum of money that the Government won’t have another go at privatising the Forestry Commission.
One particularly baffling element to the sale is the sum being paid by the Forestry Commission. The lease, under which they held the land set the rent at £231 with no provision for uplift. Why then would they pay over 1,000 years rent up-front rather than just continuing to pay £231 per year? Sense can only be made of this if the Forestry Commission intends to exploit the land asset through some form of development or through selling off the land at the incresed value achievable through re-uniting the lease and freeholds. Neither of which bodes well. I will be asking the Forestry Commission, who claim in their press release on this acquisition to be operating with limited resources, how they can justify paying this sum.
The Conservative administration at County Hall has achieved the very difficult feat of uniting opposition across the political spectrum. Councillor Huxtable has shown himself to be even more out of touch than previously thought in labelling the objectorts as ‘the usual suspects’. Far from it. Objectors straddle all schools of political allegiance with a huge number of Conservative voters complaining that the sale of public land was not what they voted for when they returned the Conservatives to County Hall in 2009. I think it’s very likely that Huxtable and his cronies will be booted out in 2013.