Yes, things are tough but does forestry sell-off make sense?

02/02/2011

in Opinion

If you’ve read any of the press coverage over the past few days you’ll know it’s been generally critical of the government’s position. With good reason. The government have consistently failed to provide any real answers to people’s concerns.

Caroline Spelman says she understands our concerns but we’ve been terribly misled by wildly inaccurate reporting. That’s about the extent of the explanation – no real answers about the things that are worrying people. If there are some fantastic benefits in selling off England’s public forest estate shouldn’t she be telling us about it? She doesn’t seem to be. Of course the truth is we’ve been misled by a government who haven’t really thought this through but have thought about it enough to think they can rush this in without anyone being too bothered.

She now seems to have fallen back on a regulatory argument calling into question the Forestry Commission’s ability to regulate as well as provide a sizeable percentage of our home grown timber. Poacher turned gamekeeper and all that. Is this a huge issue Mrs. Spelman? Is it really? Separate divisions of the Forestry Commission exists just for this reason and are strictly regulated and audited.

As a sweetener we’ve been sold the prospect of charities owning and managing “heritage” woodland. Maybe this is a good idea, maybe it isn’t. In the rush I doubt we’d find out until it’s happened. The Forestry Commission offset the work they do on restoration and conservation with the money made from selling timber. This income stream wouldn’t be available to a charity managing our “heritage” woodlands. So how will they fund it? Is the tax payer likely to end up subsidising this to some extent?

We’ve been promised that access for the public will be exactly the same as now. As we’ve seen, this isn’t a watertight statement and may be very difficult to turn into reality. People are concerned about losing access. The Forestry Commission, despite holding around 18% of English woodland, actually have 50% of the accessible woodland in England. Will we have to start paying for access? Some will argue that the Forestry Commission already charges us to access in the form of car parking fees etc. Yes, it does but on a relatively small scale. For example we’re only charged in 56 of its 413 car parks.

Other issues surrounding biodiversity and our place centre stage of the international struggle to drive forward environmental debate haven’t really been touched on yet. It should be more than just a matter of saying “heritage” woodland should be treated differently.

It would be an absolute travesty if our hard won place as an authority and leader for sustainable forestry best practice is jeopardised; if our environment is jeopardised; if you and me, the tax payer, the people,end up footing a larger bill than we do now for something no better or worse.

Yes, times are hard in the current economic climate but it seems we may end up paying a very hefty price if the government doesn’t stop and think.

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