If you’ve not heard there’s been some great news for the Save Our Forests campaign. The WWF weighed in with their statement earlier today saying about the Public Bodies Bill “we believe the Forestry Commission element should be deleted from the bill.”
We were over the moon! The first major NGO coming out in support of the Save Our Forests campaign and calling into question the government’s latest “reason” for sale – protection:
We don’t like the proposals as they stand in the bill. We know the government has already shown its support for sustainable forestry, through EU illegal logging legislation and its international development work, but we believe it’s yet to make a satisfactory case that the proposed sale and leasing of land would protect existing access and good land management.
But the rumblings go deeper than that. From the Save Our Woods Forum it seems the government may not know their reasons for wanting to sell.
They have promised to table amendments setting out what they intend to do about the main heritage forests which include the FoD and New Forest (which is some kind of charity or trust for each one, details not yet clear).
The Minister responsible for the bill is Jim Paice who told a meeting of peers that the forests would be transferred to the trusts (I assume without charge?) “We would ensure they have continued funding”. There would be statutory access – but any further access (“higher rights”) “would be in the hands of the Trust”.
To be honest I am not sure how much they are making it up as they go along.
And the response from another of our regular forum posters:
The Government’s position on the consultation is becoming more confused; Caroline Spelman’s position in increasingly based on the need to reform FC accountability as regulator & manager. But that leaves us with the 2 Bills before Parliament (Public Bodies Bill in the Lords & Localism Bill in the Commons).
I too wonder the degree to which this has been thought through but I would have hoped that Lord Greaves, as a working coalition peer with the DEFRA/Communities portfolio would have better briefing than us.
But, if there is no briefing, then I think that this indicates that Clauses 17 & 18 of the Public Bodies Bill should be withdrawn (and the Public Forest Estate excluded from potential Assets of Community Value in the Localism Bill) pending a coherent explanation of what the Government wants to achieve. If there is a proposal; of merit then legislative time can be found to enact it and it can make amendments to other Acts as necessary.
And we’ve got to say, we agree.
We share many of the same concerns about the government’s motives behind the proposed sell-off and, quite frankly, sham consultation. The actual notion of transparency by going to the public in consultation is demolished by the fact the Clauses are in the Public Bodies Bill in the first place.
Jim Paice’s comments also point to the fact that the WWF are right – protection is not uppermost in the government’s mind – they would only transfer the land with “statutory access”. This is the same access afforded land sold by the last government that Caroline Spelman has been so keen to point out was sold “without adequate protection”.
Then, and if true something that could blow this thing wide open, there is in another part of the forum information that states the map of forests to go along with the consultation “was not produced by FC”:
It may well be that the underlying dataset is an analysis by FC of potentially saleable woodland weighted by amenity value. A dataset produced by FC to help them prioritise woodland for sale to meet the CSR challenge to close the FC funding gap.
As such it has more in common with the current offering for sale of 40K hectares to which the ‘sale criteria’ document refers which appears on the DEFRA consultation site but not the FC one because it has nothing to do with the consultations.
The BIG message is that if others (and journalists in particular) pick away at the dataset underpinning the map it could all unravel to show the ineptness of the consultations and that they are built on sand.
We take the same stance – we’re not sure how much of this the government are making up as they go along. They quite clearly haven’t been doing their homework or briefing the House of Lords as well as they could given the drastic changes the Public Bodies Bill will bring on our land.
The government’s lack of briefing in the House of Lords is worrying, and the map “despite it’s badging with the FC logo as part of the FC/DEFRA joint consultations” not being produced by the Forestry Commission themselves is more frightening. If the government don’t know what they’re doing about the forests, how can any of their Big Society decisions be given any serious consideration?
A forest sell off through the Public Bodies Bill will not economically benefit the country, despite the initial sales pitch of helping to pay the deficit. It’s not about protection as they quite clearly aren’t thinking of that if “statutory access” Mrs Spelman has been so quick to damn as “inadequate protection” is the only protection they will afford transferred land. And it’s quite clearly not about a “conflict of interest” within the Forestry Commission.
But there is a clear conflict of interest – that between what the government want and what the majority of England wants, publicly owned forest land remaining publicly owned.
If the government aren’t going to brief the House of Lords well on their reasons for the clauses in the Public Bodies Bill maybe we can remind how much we love our trees and want to keep them.
If there’s no reason for a sale, let’s give them reasons to keep our forests and Forestry Commission. Send a Lord a Love Trees Valentine and help Save Our Woods!