Monday, 30 July 2012

Champagne on ice in battle to save public forest estate

Unite forestry workers’ committee chair, Robert Beaney has welcomed the Independent Panel on Forestry final report recommending that the public forest estate in England remain in public ownership. 
Robert Beaney and Alan McKenzie of
PCS union. 
The champagne remains on ice however because the government is slashing 400 jobs, around a quarter of those employed. Meantime, the report also proposes structural changes, without outlining how forestry research would be accommodated within them, which concern Beaney.
The Forestry Commission was established in 1919, when Britain had 5% of its original forest cover left. Now it’s about 12%, and if the figure was raised to the European average of 30% this, experts estimate, would lock up half the nation’s predicted carbon emissions by 2050. 
The countries biggest land manager costs the public 38p a year each, with which it manages some of Britain’s most spectacular landscapes, provides outdoor recreation facilities for millions and also harvests timber to supply domestic industry. Add in regenerating Brownfield sites then it’s no wonder that when the then newly elected coalition government announced they intended selling it off there was public outrage.
A petition – Save our Forests – organised by 30 degrees, and supported by Forestry Commission unions received over half-a-million signatures. Rural Tory MPs had their surgeries taken over by angry constituents. An embarrassing climbdown saw the Government establish an Independent panel of experts, headed by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Reverend James Jones, to examine future policy. 
Massive benefits 
In January Beaney met the panel. Now “he’s pleased they have undertaken the first estimate of the benefits the public forests bring to the economy, people and nature, showing £400 million is recouped from spending just £20 million.” 
The remit for the panel did not extend to commenting on the government’s decision to slash jobs. Beaney believes “the public may be faced with parking charges and the closure of paths where due to a lack of front-line staff there is no maintenance. “ Public confidence could be undermined.
Beaney is also concerned that the recent plans put forward by the Welsh Assembly to take greater control of woodlands in the country will reduce the Forestry Commission’s overall effectiveness. Separate commissions for England, Wales and Scotland were established in 2003. 
“I think this will lead to England and Scotland going their own ways, making it difficult to co-ordinate research at a time when there is a rise in diseases and pests in forests” says Beaney.
It’s a fear left unresolved by the panel, who have not commented on how research would be organised in the future, but who have raised the possibility - which Environment Minister Caroline Spelman appears to support by telling Parliament “we need a new model that will draw in private investment” - of splitting the Forestry Commission into two with a new Trustee management structure that cuts the directly accountable link to the Government. 
“We still have a major struggle ahead if we are going to ensure that the Forestry Commission can continue to provide services and facilities that the public clearly enjoy and want to retain,” said Beaney.

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