The Future of Our Forests – What’s happened DEFRA?

11/07/2013

in News

by Hen Anderson, Save Our Woods

Last week I attended the National Forestry Stakeholder Forum where DEFRA and the Forestry Commission outlined their plans for our Public Forests and their new management organisation, that will be evolved from Forest Enterprise, the part of the Forestry Commission that manages our public forests.

They also shared the results of a review of the functions of the Forestry Commission that aren’t a part of managing the public forest. You can read all about it from the horses mouth by clicking the links below. (Links will open pdfs):

Government Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement, Implementation Plan

New Public Forest Estate Management Organisation: Governance Premises Summary

Review of forestry functions and organisational arrangements for their delivery in England

 

There’s plenty to be happy about, the Forestry Commission and the DEFRA forestry team have been heroic and groundbreaking in their engagement with grassroots forest campaigners in this process. I’ve found it inspiring and have witnessed the growth of DEFRA’s public engagement, particularly through social media. That’s a great thing, as long as it has integrity.

Despite this however, there seems to have been a fundamental failure by Government to listen to the people that enabled this once in a century reform to occur.

Half a million people said that they wanted our forests to remain in public ownership and to be safe from the short term political whims of Ministers. Everyone agreed, forestry policy needs to reflect the lifetime of a tree not the short term lifetime of a Government. Sadly, after it was all going so well, it looks like there’s been a last minute power grab by Government.

The proposed governance structure of our public forest’s new management organisation will see a Board of Directors, whose Chair is appointed by and answerable to the Secretary of State. The ownership of our public forests will be in the hands of this Chair. Is this really what ‘placed in trust for the nation’ means? How does this match up to the recommendations of the Bishop of Liverpool’s Forestry Panel? Well, not at all actually. I wonder how the members of the Forestry Panel feel about that? Hopefully we’ll hear from them soon.

Arms length from Government? It’s pinky length at most. How is this protecting our public forests from the pressures of politics? Won’t this make our forests even more vulnerable to politics, asset squeezing and privatisation in the future?  Our public forests provide hundreds of millions of pounds worth of public benefit, will this governance structure, full of DEFRA appointed Directors, be able to get Government to pay it’s due?

It’s desperately frustrating to have to be so negative about these most recent proposals. We have appreciated DEFRA trying to adopt a bottom-up approach in the working out of this new forestry policy and yet, out of nowhere we’ve got this. Where’s the vision? What happened DEFRA?

Is this political pressure from Ministers based on the current Government’s ideology? Is this just another example of why hundreds of thousands of us said we want our forests free from political interference?  DEFRA, you might be there to do best by the Ministers, but the Ministers are there to do best by us.

We told you, in our tens of thousands, in our hundreds of thousands, what we wanted over, and over.. and over again.  From October 2010 when the campaign’s journey began with the Public Bodies Bill where we forced you to throw out the forestry clauses in favour of a properly researched reform of forestry, through the sham consultation that we forced you to withdraw, through your plans to sell off our public forests that ended in Government’s first embarassing u-turn, through the Forestry Panel’s consultations, through independent research by forestry charities, academics and business’s and of course through our direct engagement with you. We have told you what we want. The Forestry Panel agreed with us.

What happened DEFRA?

 

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

wildelycreative July 11, 2013 at 14:31

Sickening that after everything that’s happened since December 2010 Owen Paterson and Defra are still trying to undermine public ownership of our public forest estate. This latest “review” is still aimed at the first step to selling forests.
Shameful, Paterson, shameful.

Reply

Roderick Leslie July 15, 2013 at 08:13

Is it not ironic that the Forestry Commission’s power is based precisely and completely on the fact that it willingly gave up much of its power, to work with the people who actually own the forests – local communities visitors, people who work in and around the forests ?

And that the Government/Defra looks like getting back into the mess it created for precisely the reason that it seems unable to surrender any power at all: The response to Reccomendation 25 of the Panel report completely undermines all the ‘We Agree’ throughout the report – instead of the Guardians the Panel reccomend, Defra propose setting up their own Board with a Chair appointed by the Minister and members appointed through usual Defra/Quango routes – even more the servant of the Minister than the present day Forestry Commissioners. The Guardians will b ea second, ‘advisory’ ie powerless, body.

Under this scenario its doesn’t really matter what legislation, charters etc say – there will be no blue water to explore between the Minister and the forest estate management and we must rely on trust (non-existent) and Defra’s traditional transparency (not so much opaque as a brick wall).

But what I can’t work out is what the benefit to government, especially the Conservatives, is in all this. Do they really (and some of the wording suggests they do) think this is going to open the flood gates to massive, lucrative sales of our forests ? Or is it simply that this most centralist of Government’s can’t conceive of giving up any power whatsoever even when that power will only bring them yet more grief ?

It’s been suggested that objection to the proposals will mean the opportunity for primary legislation will be lost. Who would want it on these terms ? And, of course, as the Government drags its feet and the prospect of a resolution before the next election recedes the one thing it does mean is that forestry will without doubt be an election issue – and with it we’ll all be reminded of every U turn and broken promise that followed that first debacle. Is it really so, so difficult to respond to what such a wide cross section of people made clear they want and value and put this issue to bed forever by producing governance everyone can support and real, long term protection for the forests we love ?

Reply

Gary Battell July 15, 2013 at 13:13

With regards to the PFE, the Government should act as the gatekeeper, to make sure the PFE functions and delivers economic, environmental and social benefits.

We are very lucky to have Simon Hodgson as the CEO, he is leading the change in an exemplary manner, but he will require support and guidance from an elected chair and board of directors. The chair and board of directors should support and represent the interests of the PFE and its staff. The chair should be chosen by a panel consisting of the Minister, the CEO and the directors. Each should have one vote.

I want to see a vibrant, happy, achieving, high quality, innovative, dynamic PFE that leads by example on the economic, environmental and social delivery of its assets. Owen Paterson and David Heath, please have faith in creating and structuring a PFE so that it is the people’s forest.

Together we will create a PFE that we all want.

Reply

Sue Baillie, New Forest July 16, 2013 at 09:28

Sadly, I think we are heading back towards the original proposals – but through the back door this time!

I have many issues with Defra, not least that they insult the intelligence of the public and campaign groups alike. Just one of those issues I have is that the IFP recommented the following:

“We propose that the Public Forest Estate should remain in public ownership…..” (p.51 IFP Report).

Defra say “The PFEMO would take ownership of the Estate….” (Governance Premises Summary).

So, Defra, what part of the IFPs recommendations do you not understand? Some of it – or all of it?

Reply

Terrence Beaumont August 7, 2013 at 09:42

I think this is another case that proves the government advisers do not have the basic ground roots knowledge to advise on environmental matters. The leaves of this “green” government are turning a dark brown.

When an organisation such as the Forestry Commission can, despite a reduction of 25% of its staff, still returns a £350,000,000 profit from a £22.000,000 Tax payers investment it needs to be cherished and supported unchanged.The Forestry Commission also plays other important roles to the benefit of this Country.

As a member of the Conservative Party it’s saddens me how it can not be trusted with the management of our environment.

Reply

Terrence Beaumont August 7, 2013 at 10:15

When an organisation such as the Forestry Commission can, despite a reduction of 25% of its staff, still returns a £350,000,000 profit from a £22.000,000 Tax payers investment it needs to be cherished and supported unchanged.The Forestry Commission also plays other important roles to the benefit of this Country.

Reply

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