The Unite lead rep at the Forestry Commission, Neil Grieve, has expressed his fears after it was confirmed that the organisation will be split up in 2019.
Four years ago the FC in Wales was transferred to a new body - Natural Resource Wales. (NRW) This marked the end of the Commission’s 94 years as a GB organisation.
The Forestry Commission (FC) was established in September 1919 after Britain struggled to meet wartime demands for timber, because the nation’s woodland resources had fallen to an all-time low of just five per cent. The figures today is 12 per cent.
The FC is Britain’s biggest land manager and costs each of us a whopping 40 pence a year! All this for looking after some of our most spectacular landscapes, providing outdoor recreational facilities for millions, harvesting timber to supply domestic industry and regenerating brownfield sites.
No wonder that when the ConDem government sought to sell off much of England’s forests they were forced by public opinion into a humiliating climbdown in February 2011. But as a result of the government’s unnecessary austerity programme the champagne has remained on ice as many FC jobs have since been lost.
The jobs include, according to Tony, (not his real name) a NRW employee, “many experienced expert staff, which is going to be a problem in the future.” In 2016, NRW planted no new trees, which is not a great success story.
Now the FC, which at present is a cross-border public authority overseen by the Forestry Commissioners, will be cut in two in two years’ time when FC Scotland (FCS) will be separated from its English counterpart. Following which the Scottish Government will assume responsibilities for managing the organisation.
Galloway’s Neil Grieve, who since becoming Unite FC lead rep in 2014 has persuaded more Unite members to become workplace reps, wants to ensure that the new arrangements will not lead to a reduction in FCS direct staff or a poorer service to the public.
The FC Trade Unions have met with the SNP’s Fergus Ewing MSP, the rural economy and connectivity cabinet secretary at the Scottish Parliament. Neil wanted to discover what the future might hold for FC Unite members in Scotland. Especially as in 2009 it was the SNP who planned to lease off 25 per cent of forestry land to private companies for 75 years.
It was a Unite led campaign, which enjoyed massive public support that forced the proposals, which would have endangered forestry workers’ jobs and restricted access to the forests, to be abandoned.
“We came out of the meeting with Fergus Ewing re-assured about retaining our status as public servants along with our negotiated terms and conditions and pensions.
“The minister also assured us that there would be no less jobs. But the majority of the Scottish government’s funding comes in the form of a block grant from Westminster. This to continue falling in the immediate future. Unless monies are found from another budget then retaining the same number of jobs may be difficult,” states Neil, a wildlife ranger with 30 years experience.
Meanwhile, according to Tony “Wales has been trialling block contracts to private forestry companies.”
This is now happening in Scotland. “Private companies are doing some of the harvesting, road repairs and replanting. This could reduce the direct workplace and we are aware that, just like in Wales, the employees are not enjoying decent terms and conditions. Some come from areas in Ireland where unemployment levels are high. They are being exploited by being employed on zero-hours contracts. For the first time in my 30 year career I have seen planting contractors who are living in tents in the forests,” explains Neil.
Further south, English FC staff have been under attack. There were reports late last year that the FC were asking forestry workers living in the New Forest in Hampshire to pay between £650 and £900 a month, instead of £500 a month previously.
George Whitcher, Unite’s rep in the New Forest, criticised the increases. “You can’t keep forest life going if you can’t stay in the forest. It would totally change - there would be no forest life.”
Unite organised a public meeting with staff past and present who live in FC houses. But some staff are still being asked to pay substantially more - in some cases more than they earn! Unite wants to get management to justify these unacceptable increases and bring the issue to the negotiating table.
English rural workers have, of course, suffered when they have found themselves divided from their counterparts across Britain. In 2013 the ConDem government scrapped the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), which not even Margaret Thatcher had considered doing during her term of office.
Thanks to the Welsh Assembly a successful supreme court challenge was mounted that helped establish a Welsh AWB leading to improvements in pay and conditions. In comparison, the English agricultural worker’s lack of union representation, means they have not obtained a wage increase.
“I’m worried,” states Neil, “as the Tories are in power in England. If they harbour desires to sell off the forests they may use the fact that most - around 70 per cent - of the FC’s current income comes from the sale of wood from trees in Scotland.
“England is more about conservation and recreational parks. Some Tories may try and persuade the electoral that the FC is uneconomic, which was the grounds used by the Thatcher government to sell off forests in the 80s.”