Oh Christmas tree, why must the state grow thee?

Article by John Blundell in the Wall Street Journal

For 11 months of the year the British are largely oblivious to the UK's largest landowner. Yet in December we all develop an urge to buy one of its little fir trees and decorate it with lights and tinsel. The Forestry Commission is one nationalized industry no reforming politician so far seems able to touch.

It is a curious historical anomaly. It was set up as an emergency measure in World War I to ensure that enough lumber for coal-mine tunnels and railroad tracks were supplied to defeat the Kaiser. Nobody has since had the nerve to instruct it to desist from such patriotic efforts.

Like many rural enterprises, the state's forestry venture invokes all the assumptions of mercantilism. It is anxious that the UK be as "self-sufficient" in timber as possible. Imports are thought to represent defeat - though tropical timbers are grudgingly accepted. Yet Britain has no comparative advantage in timber. If we can import timber and timber products, such as newsprint, more cheaply than produce them ourselves, it is a misdirection of resources to keep a subsidy-driven domestic forestry estate.

The sums involved are modest: the government expenditure is no more than £200 million a year, even if we have been burning through these sums for more than 90 years. The land area, however, is vast. Only the military can begin to match the Forestry Commission's 2.8 million hectares.

This inefficient corner of the U.K. state is extraordinarily artful at defending its special status. The political responsibility is thoroughly confused. It reports to the Scottish and Welsh regional parliaments, but also to the UK Parliament and the Treasury, which preserves its subsidies. I have to salute its skill at purporting to be the defender of red squirrels, rare lichens and butterflies. Who can criticize such virtues? But does Nature know if it is subsidized or not? The bureaucracy also claims to be a generous supplier of picnic sites and rambling walks. Does the government really need to be in the picnic-table business? Would ramblers not ramble on still if the ownership were private?

Ninety-five percent of the Commission's estate consists of bleak regimented acres of Sitka spruce - alien to the British flora, and hostile to the birds, the bees and even humans. Daylight cannot reach these "forest" floors. They are dead.

Margaret Thatcher was preparing to sell off the Forestry Commission when she fell from power in 1990. Since then it has hidden deep in the tangled undergrowth of British politics, immune from criticism or balance-sheet disciplines.

I have a better idea than a conventional privatization, an auction that would chiefly enrich the bankers, brokers and other professionals. My suggestion is that the much-loved National Lottery be altered for one Saturday. Instead of the owners of winning tickets getting a few chunky checks, some astonished families would win a few hundred thousand acres. What joy if one lucky person won, say, most of the Scottish county of Caithness, or the Welsh county of Cardigan? The winners could retain their prizes or sell them on to private foresters.

Although the UK once led the world in liberating nationalized industries, some relics escaped. The Royal Mail stumbles on unhappy, loss-making and ever less competent (Mrs. Thatcher feared the Queen would be upset at not having her likeness on every stamp). The BBC, despite its massive lobbying operation, has forfeited its venerable monopoly. But it retains its singular tax of £140 on every household with a TV set.

The Royal Mail and the BBC are doomed in the long run as we witness their ineptitude and arrogance daily. But the Forestry Commission, with its low profile 11 months a year, will need more deliberate reform.

John Blundell is Director General and Ralph Harris Fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London.

Invest in the IEA. We are the catalyst for changing consensus and influencing public debate.

Donate now

Thank you for
your support

Subscribe to
publications

Subscribe