The transfer of local authority woodlands will provide new opportunities for social enterprises, including co-operatives, says the Woodland Social Enterprise Network.
The network says there are around 100 woods run by communities and social enterprises in the UK, and the number is growing.
Mike Perry of the Plunkett Foundation, which provides its secretariat, says: “Some are communities near local authority woodlands who are exploring taking on woods that local authorities wish to transfer to them.
“Others are transition groups looking to access woodland for a wide range of environmental and social benefits.”
He added: “Some want to manage or own woodland so they can derive more benefits from them, such as greater public access, improved biodiversity, and the creation of jobs.
“While we believe there’s a clear need for the public forest estate to remain in public ownership, we also believe communities and social enterprises can play a role in managing elements of the public forest estate for community benefit.
“Local authorities own 6% of England’s woodlands and woodland management is often low on their priorities. There is realistic assessment of the liability that land ownership can bring, and also some opposition to outright transfer from local authority ownership in certain cases.”
In some areas this shift in management is already underway. In North Yorkshire, Scarborough Borough Council is transferring the 640-acre Raincliffe Wood to a community interest company. In West Yorkshire, Blackbark LLP, a workers co-op, manages woodland at North Dean, Greetland, on behalf of Calderdale Council.
Mr Perry says access to woodland can also enable economic activity. “What we’re talking about here are those approaches which are embedded within local communities and based around a productive approach to managing woodlands, whether in regards to woodland products, services or experiences,” he says.
“This may be by having a structure where members of local communities can become owner-members. It may be by opening up greater access to the public and helping people feel able to use woodlands and benefit from them. Viable enterprise and effective woodland management go hand in hand, it’s not a case of one or another.”
Mr Perry believes the community and volunteer effort that social enterprises can often muster can make the initial difference between profit and loss.
“People care passionately about woodlands and forests,” he says. “The government forestry and woodlands policy statement, published in 2013, clearly identified the need to reconnect people and communities with their woodlands and woodland culture. It recognised that community involvement in woodland management, supported by social enterprise, is a key way to help achieve this goal.
“There are challenges with managing small and isolated woodlands for any return. There’s also great interest in investing in community assets. The Woodlands Social Enterprise Network is committed to taking these opportunities and making them a reality.”
The network, established in December 2012, brings together people and organisations that promote a social, entrepreneurial approach to woodland. Members include the Plunkett Foundation, the Forestry Commission, Locality, Co-operatives UK and the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
It provides a voice to government, is represented on the National Forestry Forum, and promotes and supports communities involved in woodland management.