The Forestry Commission has provided Great Britain with a lush rich tapestry of woods and forests that have been enjoyed by the public since 1919. Now, the Forestry Commission (FC) Trades Unions (FCTU) have launched a campaign to see the organisation go beyond 100 years and to secure its future.
Public pressure in 2010/11 stopped the planned disposal of England’s public forest estate. (PFE) However, it has not prevented the coalition government continuing to deny the FC the resources and staff they require to maintain a much valued public service. It’s one that for just 38 pence per person per year provides harvest timber, access to spectacular landscapes, recreational, educational and welfare facilities.
The government has slashed hundreds of jobs and closed seven regional offices since 2010. Now following recommendations, made by the panel it established following its climbdown, it is moving forward with its plans to break up the current FC, which comprises FC England, FC Scotland, Forestry Research and Corporate and Shared Services.
The UK Government is working to replace - before the next election - the PFE with a PFE Management Organisation (PFEMO), a statutorily-based Public Corporation operating at arm’s length from government but managed by their appointees. It’s a move condemned by the campaign group Save Our Woods: “Won’t this make our forests even more vulnerable to politics, asset squeezing and privatisation in the future?”
FC staff that are transferred to the PFEMO will lose their civil service status, terms and conditions, rates of pay and other benefits. It seems almost inevitable that experience and expertise will be lost and as a result the high costs of this restructuring will only result in a poorer service being offered to the public.
The functions of the Forest Services Directorate also face being limited following a separate Government review – announced in July - that concluded this was necessary. FCTU’s fear the tiny organisation that would remain would be vulnerable to a takeover or future government bonfire. Unions are also concerned that the potential loss of valuable research facilities may lead to future problems in the health of many forests. There are further concerns that cross-border functions under any future plans may not be strong enough to prevent disease.
The FCTU are lobbying DEFRA and Ministers to get them to explain why the current FC structure needs to be broken. They have issued a statement saying: “We need your assistance in this endeavour. Show your support for all the FC staff and campaign alongside us in securing the long term future of this much respected organisation.” They have launched an e-petition at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/53057 with the aim of securing the future of the FC beyond a century.
One of those backing them is Labour MP Dave Anderson, whose Blaydon constituency includes a number of FC sites and staff there. The former miner believes the decision by the government to send their original decision for review has strong parallels with 1992 when following a massive public outcry over planned pit closures the Major government did just the same. Thirteen weeks later they came back and closed 31 pits.
“Whilst the panel sat the FC was losing staff and its structure. As it isn’t broke then why try and fix it? I believe a future Labour Government should commit to a publicly owned arm of the forest estate. I’m convinced this would be very welcomed by thousands of ordinary folk who forced the government to backtrack in the first place. I’d urge people to sign the petition,” said Anderson.