English local authorities own over 60,000 hectares of woodland, almost all of it publicly accessible: a great and valuable local resource. Woodland management is not a high priority in many areas, and budgets and staff are being cut. Local authorities are keen to explore community management of woodlands but often don’t have the information or the time to support sustainable new management models.
In a study carried out by Shared Assets on behalf of Forest Research and published today, we find that many local authorities are willing to consider community and social enterprise management of their woodlands, but that few have formal agreements in place. There are a number of factors that restrict the development of community or social enterprise partnerships in woodland management, with lack of time and money high up the list. But a real barrier for some authorities is the lack of information on their woodlands, which leads to a reactive approach to management – or no management at all.
We carried out a survey of local authority officers across England to find out what information they have on their woodlands, on their management plans, and on the public availability of this information. The response rate – 109 responses from the 364 English local authorities – was really encouraging, but does not provide a comprehensive picture. The report is illustrated with some case studies, and further depth was provided by some phone interviews with officers.
We also wanted to understand officers’ views on existing and potential community management and social enterprises involvement. While the principle of community management is one that we found most officers to be supportive of, seeing woodlands as potentially productive is far less common. Groups providing educational initiatives, volunteering opportunities, and carrying out directed maintenance work were more prevalent than groups with lease agreements, or organisations making economic use of the wood resource.
Local authority officers were keenly aware of the time and resources needed to develop skilled, strong and lasting partnerships. Many did not feel that complete devolution of management was a realistic option for publicly owned woodland.
Overall, we found there to be significant gaps in the quality and depth of information about what types of woodland local authorities own, how it is managed, and the level of demand within the community to take on more active management roles. We’ve made a number of recommendations for potential further work and study.
This study has essentially been a scoping exercise. It gives a snapshot of availability of information and some of the issues facing community management of English local authority woodlands – and indeed English local authority woodland management in general.It will appear on the Forest Research website shortly and we hope it will be a useful resource. We would like to thank everyone who gave their time to talk to us and fill in the survey.
As Shared Assets, we would now love to hear more from community groups and social enterprises that are involved in woodlands, and particularly local authority woodlands. Does the report ring true for you? Do let us know!