Consultation day dawns in the woods


in Opinion

It’s consultation day and if the questions are anything like Gabriel Hemery’s “leak” then the first part of Question 2 suggests the decision has already been made:

What suggestions do you have for ways in which public benefits could be enhanced under the new management and ownership models proposed?

Whatever happens, remember –

This land is already our land. We already own it. It is our past, our present, our future. We know we hold it in trust for future generations. Would private business striving for profit do the same?

This land – the Public Forest Estate managed by the Forestry Commission – costs us £15 million each year and while the FC’s monoculture plantations aren’t historically known for having a great biodiversity track record, they are a commercial crop and, like agricultural cropping, could be managed more sustainably in the future. The SSSI sites the FC manage are achieving greater improvements than any other significant SSSI manager in England, whether public, private or charitable trust.

I agree more improvements could be made. Movements towards replanting monoculture plantations with native broadleaf woodland and a generational management plan for deriving an income from sustainably managed plantation/coppice. In a radical change of practice the use of more traditional coppicing techniques could mean less large machinery, reducing carbon emissions and making a step towards rebalancing our relationship with the forests.

The FC could take a leaf out of the National Trust’s book and run Working Holidays, paid vacations for volunteers and the FC gets some more free labour on top of their current volunteer scheme.

But there’s no point discussing anything to do with public forest management if the Public Bodies Bill goes through as it currently stands. This is the piece of legislation currently in the House of Lords of which Clauses 17, 18 and 19 will give the Secretary of State sole decision, without debate, over the sale of the PFE, freeing the way for a “significant disposal” of the PFE to private investors. That “significant disposal” is up to 100%.  A cross-bench committee of eminent lawyers described the bill as nothing short of a violation of the constitution.

It’s not Caroline Spelman’s fault. I doubt she wanted this after seeing her on Newsnight. I don’t think she realised how much of a hoohaa it would turn out to be. And where is Jim Paice? After all it was Jim who informed the government:

In order to have substantial disposal, we need to change the law. Our lawyers advise us that up to about 15% of the forest could be sold without risk of transgression of current legislation, which requires the Commission to own and manage the public estate. To get beyond that, we would need to change the law.

It looks to me as if Caroline is being set up as Jim’s fall guy.

Recent amendments to the Bill have given breathing space to a few groups now requiring consent for sale. But when coming budget cuts kick in how tempting will a sale of public land be to these groups then?

The FC is already facing a 25% cut in its budget, which in real terms is just £3.75 million per year. How is this saving helpful to the taxpayer when what’s at stake is so important?

Is our natural environment worth so little that we’d consider putting any price tag on it?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this land is already our land. It is our intrinsic link to our natural past, it sustains us right now and we must remember we only hold this land in trust for future generations.

Remember that as you answer your consultation.

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Sarah Lawlor January 27, 2011 at 21:19

The Public Bodies Bill mustn’t go through. I just pray that there is some sense out there.

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