PUBLISHED: 11:45 25 September 2008 | UPDATED: 13:37 06 May 2010
SIR, — The September 30 deadline is fast approaching for the Woodland Trust to complete its purchase of 858 acres arable land in Sandridge for re-planting as a new forest. The word most often used by supporters to describe this project is exciting . Some
SIR, - The September 30 deadline is fast approaching for the Woodland Trust to complete its purchase of 858 acres arable land in Sandridge for re-planting as a new forest. The word most often used by supporters to describe this project is "exciting". Some may prefer "secretive".
Despite four public meetings and a great deal of tree-hugging media coverage, there has been a distinct absence of useful information. At no stage has the identity of the owner of the land been disclosed, although this was hardly a state secret. Nor have the Trust's representatives been eager to disclose the purchase price, although this slipped out during some robust cross-examination at the Wheathampstead meeting on 21 August when they conceded that about £7,500 an acre was at the top of the range for grade 3 arable land. It's a lot more than that; in the current economic climate a purchase price of £6.435 million could be up to £2 million over the odds. And this is for a slab of land with no buildings and no established right of access. Even if the deal agreed six months ago was anywhere close to fair and reasonable, there is strong evidence now available to the Trust to renegotiate. But that's not the way respectable charities do things, is it? After all, it's other people's money, and the trustees would have much egg on face if the deal were to fall through at this late stage.
The Trust has been less than open about some of the detail surrounding the proposal, such as impact on the local infrastructure, car and coach parking arrangements, merchandising opportunities, refreshments and toilets, and the projected visitor numbers quoted in the publicity sound suspiciously low, especially school trips. Where is the Environmental Impact Statement? How - if at all - do the Trust's experts think the new forest will affect its immediate neighbour Nomansland Common? How misleading is the statement that there will not be a visitor centre? In response to a question at the Wheathampstead meeting their representative showed a slide of one of their projects in Thetford Forest, Norfolk, with an attractive timber-frame visitor centre and said the Trust doesn't get involved in visitor centres, "other people run them for us".
Even the detail about funding has been obscure. Who really thinks a charity the size of the Woodland Trust would launch a campaign to raise £8.5 million inside 10 weeks unless it knew it could lay its hands on a substantial war-chest? There was never any doubt that the Sandridge Forest would go ahead and the local fundraising activity has been community consultation in disguise.
East Common, Harpenden