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Community forest rescue move fails.

Byline: Tony Henderson Environment Editor

A COMMUNITY forest which has planted six million trees in the North East has gone bust.

The North East Community Forest (NECF) was a merger four years ago between the Great North Forest and the Tees Community Forest.

The charity has been placed in the hands of administrators with the loss of 20 full time and nine part time jobs at the organisation's bases in Annfield Plain in County Durham and Stockton.

The Great North Forest (GNF) covered 96 square miles in areas including Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland, and also north east County Durham.

The GNF was the first community forest in the country when it was launched in 1990, with the aims of improving recreational opportunities, health and quality of life for a million people living within six miles of its boundaries, while also greening areas to attract inward investment and companies.

The GNF secured around pounds 20m in funding for environmental regeneration schemes. But the NECF hit financial problems and turned to environmental organisation Groundwork West Durham and Darlington for help.

Groundwork worked on a rescue plan but after discovering the situation was worse than first thought, had no option but to call in the administrators.

Kate Culverhouse, Groundwork executive director, said: "We took on a community forest that was in serious financial trouble and tried to rescue it.

"We did it because we endorsed everything it represented and had good reason to believe we could trade the forest out of its difficulties.

"However, new liabilities have come to light. We uncovered some deeply embedded fiscal problems not declared at the point of takeover. In light of these newly identified liabilities, to continue with the project would expose Groundwork West Durham and Darlington to an unacceptable level of risk."

It was only two years ago that then Environment Minister David Miliband and Forestry Commission chairman Lord Clark - former South Shields MP David Clark - planted the GNF's two millionth tree at Herrington Country Park in Sunderland.

Eleven local authorities were involved in the NECF partnership. The forests had received national funding through the Countryside Agency, later absorbed into the new Natural England body.

The Government decided to phase out national funding between 2003-2005 and councils, also facing financial squeezes, also cut back.

The two forests merged and decided to go forward as one independent body, which would seek funds from other sources and also set up a trading arm to earn income from projects such as a tree nursery, environmental training, working with the Probation Service to involve offenders in green works, and running a green exercise programme to improve people's health.

The NECF team also played an important role in co-ordinating activities and projects across a wide spread of partner areas.

Brendan Callaghan, regional director of the Forestry Commission, said: "It is a very sad loss. The NECF was very important for the region in helping to deliver environmental regeneration projects.

Groundwork made a very valiant rescue effort but were not able to save it."

Mr Callaghan said that NECF had transformed parts of the region and had achieved around one third of the original vision of wooding large areas and creating "gateway" forest sites.

He said: "When the forests started, there was very little in the way of green spaces and woodland accessible to the public. The community forests have left a very creditable legacy."

A number of projects were on local authority land which are now being maintained by councils, while it is hoped that other green bodies like Groundwork, the Woodland Trust and wildlife trusts may be able to take on other sites.

"We are hoping to work with other partners to rekindle and keep working towards the dream of the original forest plans," said Mr Callaghan.

Kate Culverhouse said: " We are committed to continue the work of community forestry . I think that when people recognise that community forests are a good thing they will want to continue to support it."

ACHIEVEMENTS

THE achievements of the Great North Forest included:

Creating 2,200 acres of woodland and assuring the long-term future of another 3,200 acres.

Reclaiming 500 acres of derelict land and improving wildlife habitats on a further 1,250 acres.

Creating or upgrading 200 miles of recreational routes, four major gateway sites and increasing tree cover from 8% to 13%.

Partner GNF locals authorities included Sunderland, South Tyneside, Gateshead, Derwentside, Chester-le-Street and Durham county councils.

A site at Hedley Hall, near Sunniside on the edge of Gateshead was the first site to be planted by the GNF in 1991.

It is now a site of nature conservation interest.

There were hopes that the community forest concept could be expanded to north of the Tyne.

Earlier this year the North East Community Forest decided to expand its interest into helping create green spaces which could serve a variety of uses within new building developments.

This would include areas for exercise for new householders, wildlife habitats, trees which would be carbon dioxide absorbers and cool areas as climate change occurred and which would also soak up rainfall and prevent flooding.

The then NECF chief executive Clive Davies said: "Unless we plan for a greener future, we will all pay the penalty sooner or later."

"It is a very sad loss. Groundwork made a very valiant rescue effort but were not able to save it.

CAPTION(S):

FIRST PLANTING Andrew Cutler from Low Fell walks Zara and Bonnie in Hedley Hall Wood near Sunniside.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 16, 2008
Words:914
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