Forest of protests
Government plans to privatise our forests have ignited protests across the UK. In the Forest of Dean, Mark Harper the Conservative MP asks that we ignore the clear statements of intent by ministers to sell-off the forest estate and to trust that it will be all right in the end!
The Forest of Dean is a unique place. A community live and work in a forest. It has few statutory protections or even designated public footpaths. Its ancient customs and rights are largely unwritten and protected only by the remit of its public ownership and stewardship of the Forestry Commission.
The Forestry Commission looks after a million hectares of land, and sustainably harvests 5 million tonnes of wood every year from Britain’s public forests (just under half of domestic production). The income from timber helps offset the costs of managing the forests in our care. No wonder it’s seen as ripe for privatisation. The 38 degrees website has produced a list of them on Google Maps.
Forest privatisation is the Coalition’s intention in the Public Bodies Bill going through Parliament now. We are asked to trust in a White Paper that will set out a range of options for the future of the forests. None of them will adequately safeguard the Forest of Dean as it is now. All of them signal the end of publicly owned and managed forests.
It will be 50 ways to leave your lover when we haven’t even fallen out! ‘None of the above’ will not be on the list and such an option will only be achieved by amending the Public Bodies Bill now.
The Government’s approach is based upon the premise that public ownership of our woodlands is bad – despite all the evidence to the contrary.
It remains unclear how the government will determine which options for which forests will be applied. The break-up of the national estate will mean that the more profitable forests will be sold leaving the rest even more dependent upon subsidy or even more at risk from measures to cut costs.
Even Mark Harper realises that talking about privatising the Forest is political suicide so instead we are presented with the option of a transfer to a community interest body or a ‘not-for-profit’ business. But these will still have to cover their costs. Not-for-profit is also Not-for-loss. The only way to balance the books will be more commercial activities, big hikes in fees and charges alongside cuts in woodland management.
Unions at the Forestry Commission (Unite, PCS, Prospect and the GMB), representing its 3,240 employees in all grades, are fundamentally opposed to the Government’s plans. Under this Government, there has been a cynical distortion of social enterprise and co-operative values to privatise public services. Once transferred out of public ownership there is no way back. As we are witnessing in the NHS, many of these bodies seem set-up to fail. When they do, the next inevitable step is into corporate ownership.
In the Forest of Dean we have witnessed Conservative statements that would make George Orwell proud. Tory Council leader, Peter Amos said: “It doesn’t matter who owns it as long as it stays in public ownership.” The MP says that the Government has no plans to sell-off the forest but simply change its ownership!
The people of the Forest of Dean want to keep it that way.