On the 17th February, the government announced that it was to perform a
u-turn when it abandoned plans to sell 258,000 hectares of state-owned woodland in England. This would have been a total of 85% on top of the 15% they are already allowed to sell off, when in the public need. This announcement came from Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman in the House of Commons, a speech in which she admitted to being wrong and apologised. A good many walkers and outdoor enthusiasts were then able to breathe a huge sigh of relief! So, are we out of the woods yet?
Following on from our recent interview about the British woodlands with Arlene McCarthy MEP, we have been lucky enough to talk to Shadow Secretary for Environment Mary Creagh. We asked Ms Creagh whether the campaign is continuing, what the prospects are for our forests from this point on, and also about other issues that matter to outdoor enthusiasts, including the Big Society and CRoW act.
Where do we go from here to ensure that DEFRA and the government recognize the importance and necessity of the Forestry Commission and the vital work it does?
This is not the end of the campaign. There was a Westminster Hall debate on 1 March on the future of the Forestry Commission where we reminded the government of the vital work that the FC does. You can watch the debate here:
The government are still committed to selling the 15% of the PFE they are allowed to under current legislation. They have already cut the FC budget by 25%, putting hundreds of jobs at risk. There are key questions the government must answer:
Who will sit on the new panel of experts being set up to examine forestry policy in England?
How will the government guarantee the independence of the panel?
Will the panel meet in public?
How can the Government deliver better woodland access and biodiversity when the Forestry Commission is cutting its staff by a quarter over the next three months?
In January the Government announced a new regulation taskforce to look at promoting competition in the forestry sector. Ministers have not said how the taskforce will relate to their new independent panel, particularly when it will look at improving protections for our forests. What role will this taskforce play alongside the independent panel?
Is it possible that this section of the bill could return in another form after the “independent panel” has given its feedback?
No. Any legislation which gives ministers carte blanche to sell off our forests would be unacceptable to Labour and to the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who have been part of the save our forests campaign.
Do we know how this panel will be made-up, will it include research experts on the areas and volunteers of the forest, those who ran campaigns etc?
The government have yet to make an announcement on who will be on the panel. In the House of Commons Caroline Spelman said “The Panel will advise me on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England, on the role of the Forestry Commission, and on the role of the Public Forest Estate. The Panel will include representatives of key environmental and access organisations alongside representatives of the forestry industry. I will shortly publish its membership and terms of reference.”
It is essential that it is truly independent and made up of experts. I would also want to see representatives of friends of forests groups and community activists involved. I would also want to see senior staff in the Forestry Commission allowed to give their views openly and honestly without having to seek approval from the Secretary of State.
Lots of people have already taken part in the consultation, will their views be considered by the panel?
The consultation received over 10,000 responses calling on the government to think again. The u-turn by the government, in which they withdrew the forestry elements from the Public Bodies Bill and halted the consultation, was a victory for people power. These views are strongly held and must be taken into consideration by the panel. Labour is pushing for the consultation responses to be made available to the panel. A non aligned “people’s champion” sitting on the panel may also be a way to ensure that respondents’ views are taken into account.
Can the public do anything to ensure that this part of the public bodies bill does not return in another form? Will the public be able to continue giving feedback and have it heard by the panel?
The campaign is continuing. I would urge people to visit our campaign website www.thislandisourland.org.uk and my website www.marycreagh.co.uk which will continue to be updated on the campaign to save our forests. I’m sure that campaign groups will continue to be active in opposing any measures which would compromise access rights or biodiversity in England’s woodland. I hope people will use World Forestry Day on 20 March to show their support for the save our forests campaign. I will be asking the Secretary of State to give an assurance that the end of the consultation does not mean that the public will not be listened to on the forestry issue.
It is vital that the public remain vigilant about what this government wants to do. It’s not just the forests. I am deeply concerned about the 28% cut to our National Park Authorities (NPA). NPAs are already being forced to consider closing visitor centres, restricting public access and increasing parking charges to make up the shortfall. We could easily see more restrictions on public access and a decline in biodiversity in our National Parks as a result of this attack by the Tory led government. I hope the public will join me in calling on Caroline Spelman to rethink her policy on National Park funding.
Can you provide any advice to help walkers, climbers and outdoor enthusiasts to benefit from David Cameron’s Big Society?
I recently visited Chopwell Woods in Gateshead and attended a public meeting against the forest sell off in York. I met with Forestry Commission and National Park Authority staff who are the Big Society in action. They work in our communities every day to protect and maintain our countryside. Defra’s 30% cut in the CSR, the abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission, cuts to National Parks and the debacle on forests send worrying signals that this government does not value nature, and does not understand the needs of rural communities or people who enjoy our countryside.
Is there any information to suggest that the Countryside Rights of Way act (CRoW) has been effective in improving the general public’s access to the countryside?
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act brought in the long-awaited Right to Roam, opening up about 1 million hectares of some of the finest landscapes in England and Wales. I think it has been a massive success and is testament to groups such as the Ramblers Association who campaigned so effectively to open up access to the countryside to the general public.
Over the coming months we will of course be keeping a keen eye on any developments around our forests or access to our land, and if anything happens we will update you where possible. We won’t be reporting everything, but a good source for outdoor enthusiasts to get the latest news is OneVoice.
Just before we close-up this article, I would like to thank every one who took part in the recent consultation and also campaign group 38 degrees who were at the forefront of the public action. Without such a mass movement to the consultation and the petitions around the country, these sales could have continued with an enormous loss for British wildlife and the outdoor loving public. So on behalf of both CheapTents and our other readers (yes, we are sure they want to thank you too) Thank You.
And finally, I would like to thank Mary Creagh for giving up her time to talk to CheapTents, and her team for helping to organise the recent campaigns. With Mary and the Labour Party fighting the #SaveOurForest campaigns into the future we can be assured that our rights as British public to access our lands are safe.