The thwarting of Forest Holidays at Fineshade
We didn't know it at the time, but in September 2012 Fineshade Wood was placed on a secret list.
A Framework Agreement was drawn up between the Forestry Commission (FC) and Forest Holidays (FH) and that included a list of 19 sites where the company would have exclusive rights to develop holiday accommodation on the Public Forest Estate. It only came to light much later that Fineshade had been placed on that so-called Exclusivity List, but the decision made in an office far away was to have a huge impact on the lives of many people who lived in or near Fineshade Wood.
2013-15. Planning applications
Late in 2013 news suddenly leaked out that Forest Holidays (FH) would be building a large holiday village in Fineshade Wood. Bristling with confidence and supported by the Forestry Commission (FC), they led us to believe that the council would rubber stamp the application and the 70+ cabins would be making money for them within a year. They had already converted FC camp sites into cabins, they knew that they could seamlessly fit their luxury cabins, almost unnoticed, into Fineshade Wood. It would all be so easy.
They were wrong. It was 14 months before their application finally came to East Northants Council's planning committee and then it was unanimously rejected. Councillors listened to the hundreds of objectors, most of them local but supported by national conservation organisations and individuals across the country who realised that what was happening was backdoor privatisation of the Public Forest Estate and desecration of an important wildlife site.
In September 2015 their opportunity to appeal expired. Read much more detail about the previous defeat here.
Why did the application fail?
It was the Forestry Commission who in 2012 had secretly offered Fineshade up to the venture capitalists who control Forest Holidays, but the FC made an extremely poor choice of site.
The FC did not realise the part of the wood they chose first was actually Ancient Woodland ... whoops!
It took FH's own wildlife surveyors to discover that there were so many protected species here... whoops!
The FC did not realise that their own Ancient Woodland Project was proving such a success .... whoops!
The FC misjudged totally the level of local and national opposition there would be to their plan ... whoops!
What effect did this have on the Forestry Commission's reputation?
2015 Another threat
In March 2015 Forest Holidays came back, still trailing the FC along. Rumours reached us one month after the rejection of the their previous attempt, that Forest Holidays intended to try a new application and would be carrying out more ecological surveys. During that summer we were aware of a new team of contracted ecologists working to record birds, reptiles, bats and badgers and we were very critical of incompetence and flawed methodology - please see the orange buttons on the right.
In July 2015 a paper was presented to the FC's England National Commitee which included the following statement:
FEE (Forest Enterprise England) is currently supporting Forest Holidays Planning teams to progress proposals, which are already in the public domain:
Delamere, Cheshire (Recently turned down by High Court on Green Belt policy grounds but now going to Court of Appeal)
Houghton. Sussex (In preparation)
Fineshade. Northants (Under review)
In Wales FH are looking at sites in Snowdonia, Brecon Beacons and Pembrokeshire. In Scotland, a new review of opportunities is being undertaken but site selections have not yet been brought forward.
In August 2015, Helen Harrison, our new East Northants Councillor was invited to a meeting at which the FH/FC intention to re-apply was made clear. The likely timing was said to be before the end of 2015 but that date came and went.
In September 2015 a further paper came before the FC's England National Commitee (paper 23/15)
We obtained a copy of this paper which confirmed, in section 17, FH's intention to submit a new application in Fineshade. However, some relevant parts of the paper had been redacted. Section 21 highlighted what was seen as "an increasing reputational risk for FC/FEE particularly with new developments".
Also in September 2015 FH commissioned a noise survey in Fineshade and in October/November a traffic survey of the access route. We were very critical of the timing of latter which was carried out during the winter opening hours rather than at peak times.
Then in January 2016 a pre-application meeting took place at which East Northants Council were informed that a "full and extensive community consultation will be carried out" by Curtin&Co, a company with experience of helping housing developers obtain planning permission. It was estimated that, because of this, the next planning application would be at least six months away i.e. in the second half of 2016. In the meantime we carried out research on Curtin&Co's methods and philosophy.
During the spring and summer of 2016 everything went very quiet, although Forest Holidays' bird surveyor continued to record some of Fineshade's birds. The Curtin&Co consultation came and went like a damp squid.
Summer 2016. FC statement
In June 2016 our MP, Tom Pursglove, wrote to the Chief Executive of Forest Enterprise, requesting a meeting. In his reply, Simon Hodgson said the following:
I note your opposition to development at Fineshade and my understanding of the current situation is that Forest Holidays have no immediate plans to submit a planning application for a cabin site. Following various consultation activities they are reconsidering how they approach Fineshade and it is unclear when any firm proposal for the area will be forthcoming soon, if at all.
So perhaps an immediate threat no longer existed but Mr Hodgson's letter also made it clear that he thought it could come back - why else would he invite the MP to visit an existing FH site in order to "appreciate how little impact it has", etc?
The first sentence in the letter gave an interesting insight into the nature of the FH/FC relationship ("my understanding is ...") - the Chief Exec of FC was clearly leaving the decision about what and when applications were made to the private company. This is no way for the FC to manage the Public Forest Estate.
The "various consultation activities" must be a reference to Curtin&Co who had had pretty negative responses to each of their known consultation activities so far.
Late 2016. Non-disclosure of survey results
In late 2016, the Friends exerted as much pressure as possible for Forest Holidays to hand over the results of their ecological surveys of threatened species to their partners the Forestry Commission. The results would then enable the Commission to get on with managing Fineshade in a way commensurate with their Section 40 biodiversity duty. (Read more here)
Eventually in December a non-reply was elicited from FH's Richard Palmer assuring us that they would release the information but only once they were in a position to confidently release it. One had to assume that they thought they might still be able to use it for commercial purposes at some stage in the future.
It was clear that Forest Holidays were still a threat to Fineshade Wood, a threat that the Forestry Commission seemed content to allow to continue.
Early 2017: another FC statement
Throughout the early part of the year we continued to press the Forestry Commission to take Fineshade off the Exclusivity List, pointing out the effect the threat was having on FC relations with the Fineshade community as well as to the Commission's own reputation.
At a meeting exploring ways of improving the relationship between FC and the Fineshade community, Jo Atkinson (District Head of Recreation and Public Affairs, Forestry Commission, Central England) provided the following statement.
The Forestry Commission national team are currently developing the programme for Forest Holidays sites within each Forest District, and as such Fineshade is incorporated within this work as part of a wider Central Forest District strategy.
Potential opportunities for Forest Holidays sites within each of the Districts are currently being assessed as part of a national scoping exercise, and it is hoped that we can complete the Central District exercise by late summer 2017.
Once this exercise has been completed, a clear programme will be developed and communicated to staff and stakeholders.
What's the "Exclusivity List"?
Freedom of Information requests have revealed that in 2012 a list of 19 sites was drawn up by the Forestry Commission. These sites were deemed suitable for development by Forest Holidays. Apparently each FC district was charged with providing two new sites and the Central England District chose Fineshade and Delamere Forest in Cheshire. (There was already a FH site in the central region at Sherwood Pines.)
There was no external consultation on those choices and it seems that even FC's own staff were not consulted, or their opinions ignored. But both choices have proved to be extremely ill-advised and the resulting failures of Planning Applications have shown just how out of touch FC were with their local communities. The results have been really damaging to FC's reputation: Delamere lies in the Green Belt, Fineshade is partly Ancient Woodland and is worthy of SSSI status because of its rich wildlife.
This statement was welcome news in that it seemed there was now a chance for Fineshade to be removed from the Exclusivity List. Surely it was inconceivable that the Central District team would repeat their previous mistake? The Commission has acknowledged the importance of Fineshade's wildlife by committing to the Back from the Brink Project, so it couldn't possibly support a holiday camp development on the same site.... or could it?
Late 2017: still no decision from FC
Throughout the summer and early autumn, Friends of Fineshade used social media and this website to draw the attention of the Central District's team to reasons to remove the threat to Fineshade once and for all. (See here and particularly here.)
However, in September, we heard that Forest Holidays had been put up for sale by its private equity owners. Center Parcs were said to be interested and it was thought that FC's small holding of shares and place on the FH board were unlikely to survive. This explained the national scoping exercise being carried out by FC and would no doubt make the whole future relationship between FC and FH less certain. (More details here.)
At the end of the summer we wrote to Jo Atkinson, Central District FC, asking if she had completed the Central District scoping exercise and could now make clear the FC position on the suitability of Fineshade as a potential Forest Holidays location. We received a reply, not from Jo but from David Williamson who works at the National FC Office in Bristol. David's title is Business Development Lead and it was he who spoke supporting the first application in December 2015 (as reported here.)
David's letter indicated that national FC had rowed back form their former statement. It now seemed that the scoping of the Public Forest Estate would be a continuous process, not a one-off exercise. They would certainly not be communicating anything to staff and stakeholders. Furthermore he stated categorically that no decision had been taken about Fineshade's future.
A change of mind
"We are constantly learning and refining the way we think about the future and therefore the way we express ourselves also develops over time. It has become obvious that the initial information that we provided through Jo did not make clear the need for ongoing review."
David Williamson. November 2017
2018: more pressure on FC for clarity about their intentions
Public bodies like the Forestry Commission are supposed to be open to public scrutiny and so in early 2018 Friends of Fineshade made a Freedom of Information request asking for details of the Scoping Study that Central District staff had carried out last summer. Specifically we requested copies of:
1) Communications received by Central District staff from FC national team relating to the national and district scoping exercise.
2) Documents (emails, reports, minutes or notes of meetings) between Central District staff relating to the Central District exercise.
3) Final report outlining the conclusion of the Central District exercise.
FC claimed this was a "complex request" so gave themselves 40 working days to respond, rather than the 20 that they are normally allowed. When the reply eventually arrived they provided heavily redacted copies of emails that told us absolutely nothing, such as that shown on the right. One further email from the same person did say on 17th October 2017 that he/she had "been giving quite a lot of thought to how we manage expectations at Fineshade."
We also got the agenda of a meeting held in the Sherwood Office on 27th November 2017 at which the anonymous Commercial Development Manager and the Senior Central Forest District team were due to discuss "Fineshade and options to move forward". But minutes or notes of the meeting were withheld along with most of what we had requested. This was despite there being an un-doubted public interest, but....
"we have had to take into account the possible harm that disclosing potential Forest Holidays sites prematurely could do to the commercial interests of the Forestry Commission".
March 2018. Another local community and Public Forest became threatened near Ludlow. Details here.
Elsewhere FH/FC won their appeal at Delamere Forest, Cheshire, despite the site being within the Green Belt, despite unanimous opposition from the local council and despite it being refused previously by the Communities Secretary.
March 2018. Scottish Borders Council's planning committee unanimously approved a FH development of more than 50 cabins at Glentress near Peebles
May 2018. Following a wave of national publicity (in the Times, the Guardian, Private Eye, the Mail and even on Mark Avery's blog) a new petition to Environment Secretary Michael Gove was launched and quickly gained over 127,000 signatures.
July 2018. In response to a question by Philip Dunne MP, Forestries Minister Therese Coffey confirmed on the floor of the House of Commons that DEFRA is not satisfied about the relationship between FC and FH and has asked Colin Day to undertake an investigation.
September 2018. For the first time Forest Holidays announce that they will not be taking an application forward. Mortimer Forest near Ludlow is saved. FH statement here
October 2018. Our local MP Tom Pursglove raises a question about Fineshade Wood in parliament. Michael Gove, the Secretary for the Environment, responds positively and offers to meet Friends of Fineshade to ensure that Forest Holidays’ long-standing interest Fineshade finally comes to an end.
November 2018. FH and FC issue press releases saying there are no plans to develop in Fineshade but, pointedly, they make no mention of their future intentions.
Forestries Minister, Therese Coffey confirmed on the floor of the House of Commons that DEFRA is not satisfied about the relationship between FC and FH, and they have set up an internal investigation.
December 2018: the end
December 2018. A meeting is arranged with our MP and the junior DEFRA minister, David Rutley. In advance of that Paddy Harrop, the new Forest Management Director for Central England, comes to Fineshade and says he has received an absolute assurance from the Forestry Commission national office that they now have no intentions to invite or allow Forest Holidays to resubmit a planning application here. This is later confirmed in writing by a letter from the Minister to our MP.
Fineshade has been taken off the so called “Exclusivity List”.
5 years of uncertainty and threat that has hung over this part of the Public Forest Estate are over.
Fineshade is finally removed from the Exclusivity List
Letter from the Minister
August 2020: postcript
The investigation by Government auditors of the relationship between FH and FC, had been announced in July 2018 and finally becomes public. Their report had initially been kept secret but was revealed after a protracted series of Freedom of Information requests by solicitor Guy Linley-Adams, a campaigner opposed to a similar FH/FC development in Mortimer Forest. His previous attempts to obtain information from the firm was rejected by the Information Commissioner’s Office as being outside the scope of the Environmental Information Regulations, as it is not a public body. However, Linley-Adams successfully appealed claiming “it is useful in that it confirms that Forest Holidays is inadequately controlled by the Forestry Commission". (Details of the FOI battle can be found here)
The report concluded that FC went beyond its lawful powers by entering into an arrangement to develop publicly-owned woodland into a series of private holiday parks without ministerial approval. It recommended that Treasury approval be sought and obtained for transactions which may potentially be novel, contentious or repercussive. "As the landlord of the forest estate, the Defra Secretary of State has the power to approve the leases forming part of the transaction." (The report may now be read here).
As a result of the damning report, a new fiscal clause has now been inserted into FC's framework agreement requiring that it must obtain written approval from DEFRA ministers, the Investment Committee and HM Treasury, before making any investments considered "potentially contentious”. Furthermore, "investments ... in bodies corporate operating on the Public Forest Estate should be presumed potentially contentious”.
This should mean that any proposed development schemes for areas of publicly-owned forest such as Fineshade could not simply be hatched by Forest Holidays and FC managers, but would need approval at a much higher level. (Compare this to the situation in 2013 described at the top of this page.)
Friends of Fineshade believe that this is the final nail in the coffin of any remaining aspirations that Forest Holidays may have to build a holiday camp here. It also makes it less likely that other communities will face similar threats to their local publicly owned woods and forests.