Forestry sell-off flawed

Defra (the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is consulting on its plans to sell off 40,000 hectares of forestry land in England from 2011 to 2014.  Meanwhile, the Forestry Commission (which manages the land for Defra) has announced its sales criteria for the first tranche of land to be sold in 2011/12.  On the face of it, these criteria seem to favour ‘preferred purchasers’ as far as ‘higher quality’ sales are concerned.  ‘Higher quality’ woods would include Exceptional Quality Ancient Woodlands for example, and sites in this category will only be sold to preferred purchasers or others with suitable knowledge, expertise and experience on the proviso that they must be willing to enter management schemes with the Commission via the England Woodland Grant Scheme.  The Sales Criteria say that buyers for such sites must be public bodies, NGOs or established private woodland owners.

But here’s the flaw.  The criteria set out a timetable.  ‘Preferred purchasers’ have 28 days from the announcement that a particular site is for sale  to ask for ‘preferred status’.  So far, so good.  But in seeking this status, the prospective buyer must confirm that funding is available for a purchase at open market value.  Not long to seek commitment of the necessary funds.  It gets worse.

Once the Commission has accepted a potential buyer as a preferred purchaser, the potential new owner will be offered the chance to buy at the Commission’s own (independent) valuation.  The procedure makes no mention of the scope for negotiation at this stage, so it seems to be a case of ‘Take it or Leave it’.  So we have a public body or NGO – cash-strapped at the best of times – having 28 days to raise the necessary funding against its own valuation, then potentially faced with a non-negotiable purchase price by the Commission based on another valuation.  In theory, the two valuations should be at very similar levels but it seems extremely unlikely that they will be exactly the same given the challenges of valuing unusual blocks of woodland and all within a very tight timetable for the resolution of any differences.  The modern rural valuation profession is reasonably well up to the task, but it will nevertheless be a challenge in a market which can be thin on hard evidence.

Watch this space for more on the general Defra consultation.

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