Government pushes through new powers to sell off our forests

The government has opened its consultation today on plans to sell-off the national forests, writes David Babbs, executive director of 38 Degrees.

David Babbs is the executive director of 38 Degrees

The government opened its consultation yesterday on plans to sell-off the national forests. Over the last week, plans to put forests up for sale have been widely rejected by the public, with a quarter of a million signatures demanding to keep them safe in public ownership and a YouGov poll revealing that 84 per cent of the British public support the idea to keep forests in public ownership for future generations.

The Public Bodies Bill, put forward by Tory Minister Jim Paice, would allow for the sale of up to 100% of England’s forests, after similar proposals were blocked by the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. Clauses in the Bill, currently being debated in the Lords, give power to government ministers to put national treasures such as Sherwood Forest and the Forest of Dean under the hammer, and also to sell off local woodland used by walkers, horse-riders and cyclists.

When questioned in the Lords last year, Jim Paice had said,

“Part of our policy is clearly established: we wish to proceed with… very substantial disposal of the public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it. In order to have substantial disposal, we need to change the law.”

Public opposition to the auction of national forests has stopped similar plans before. The Labour government’s forestry consultation in 2008 was overwhelmingly in favour of keeping land in public hands. Proposals put forward to save money in a recession in 1992 by John Major’s Conservative government also planned to put forests into private ownership. Those plans crumbled in the face of widespread public opposition.

Secretary of State Caroline Spelman defended the sell-off plans on Newsnight on Wednesday, arguing that the Forestry Commission could not act as both a land manager and regulator of publicly-owned forests. These arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny, as the UK imports more than 80% of its timber, and the prices at which they are bought reflect the global timber market.

In fact, having the Forestry Commission as a producer of sustainable timber allows local sawmills around the country to stay in business. The Forestry Commission has a duty to maintain supply, a lifeline for small businesses who would otherwise suffer from the irregularities of a global community market. And unlike only 24% of privately owned woodland, 100% of public forests achieve the Forest Stewardship Council standards for responsible management.

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