“Public opinion may have chopped down the coalition government’s plans to sell off 250,000 hectares of English woodland forest but that’s only going to be temporary unless we keep campaigning” said Robert Beaney.
Because whilst the man who chairs both the Unite Forestry Workers’ Committee and Forestry Commission Joint Trade Unions was “delighted’ to hear Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman make an embarrassing u-turn in February, with the appointment of a panel of experts to examine England’s future forestry policy, he’s seeing the Government pushing ahead with plans to make 400 workers redundant. Not forgetting the disposal of 40,000 hectares.
The latter figure is roughly 60% of what, following the 1981 Forestry Act; Tory Premier Margaret Thatcher got rid of in three years. Even though the Forestry Commission costs everyone just 30p a year it was clear that Spelman, and her coalition colleagues, intended finishing what Thatcher began three decades ago.
Doing so would mean ignoring a consultation document little more than two years old indicating people value their public forests so much that they want more, not less, of them! A point not lost in Scotland and Wales where the devolved government’s are holding onto them.
Breaking Britain, by destroying public bodies and wrecking the services they provide, isn’t though all that popular - contact Nick Clegg on that one.
So when over half a million put their signatures to the 38degrees.org.uk petition, demonstrations were held outside Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs surgeries and it became clear that some were threatened with the loss of their Parliamentary seats it was time for an urgent re-think.
After admitting there had been a “clear message that people cherish their forests and woodlands” Spelman asked a panel of 12 experts to investigate the future of state-owned woodland. Their report is expected in the autumn.
Trade unions representing the Forestry Commission’s 3,300 staff had hoped to be on the panel. Their expertise believes Beaney would have been “invaluable.” He’s slightly concerned that bodies represented such as the RSPB may, after just taking over the Eastern Moors just outside Sheffield, be interested in increasing the amount of land they manage.
Nevertheless he’s confident in the ability of the chairs panel, the Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool: “to ensure no organisation can drive through their own agenda as we understand he is an open, fair and intelligent man.”
Jones has a reputation for being nobodies fool and as chair of the independent panel established under Labour in 2009 to enquire into events at Hillsborough twenty years previously has recently said he is committed to the revealing "the full truth" about the disaster in which 96 football fans were killed.
Beaney expects the Bishop will agree to the contents of a letter sent by Forestry Commission trade unions asking to meet them. He is keen to let panel members know that management at the organisation have been told by DEFRA “to continue with plans to cut 15% of the organisation’s jobs and sell off land” even whilst they are investigating.
He’d like to see the panel ask the government to wait for their report before making any plans. He suspects if members of the public realised what is going on `’they’d feel the same” and he’s worried that losing so many jobs would reduce the Forestry Commission’s future effectiveness even if “by working with the great British public we can ensure that this government sees sense and keeps the organisation and the land it manages within public ownership.”
Beaney thanked members of the public for their support and urged those who want to keep the forests public to get involved in the numerous local groups that have been established right across England: “We can win this one, but only if we ensure the government listens to reason.”