Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Woodland workers' future still unsure

From the Landworker magazine of Unite 

They have dropped plans to sell them off. Yet the final outcome of what will happen to England’s publicly owned forests remains uncertain after the government moved to cut its connection to the Forestry Commission. (FC) It’s the latest blow to staff at the organisation, which since the coalition came to power has seen seven regional offices closed and hundreds of redundancies.

As a result the FC is struggling to maintain its high-quality services to the public, half a million of who signed an online petition when the government announced in 2010 it intended disposing of 1,000 publicly owned forests covering an estimated 258,000 hectares.

Forced into a humiliating climbdown the government established the Independent Panel on Forestry (IPF), which in July last year issued its report.  In January the government backed its proposals not to sell off England’s public forest estate. (PFE) 

But, environment secretary Owen Paterson also confirmed that: “a new body will be created to hold the Estate in trust for the nation. It will have greater independence from Government and greater freedom to manage its resources and maximise its income.”

Paterson gave few further details on the proposed body. Edwin Rowlands, Unite workplace and safety rep for the Forest of Dean branch, has worked for the FC for over 50 years. He believes there is no need to change, “a structure that has served the public and staff so well. As the IPF report made clear we are highly efficient and the public benefits far exceed the costs to the taxpayer. Tourism is also boosted by our work. “

For an annual cost of 38 pence per person the FC provides harvest timber for domestic industry, the regeneration of Brownfield sites, access to some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes and the provision of recreational, educational and welfare facilities. And whereas only 18 percent of England’s woods are publicly owned they account for 44 per cent of those that are accessible.

“I believe the Forest Campaigns Network (FCN) alliance of grass-roots campaigns and forest user groups are therefore right to join Unite in being disappointed at the news the government intends setting up a new body to run the PFE.  

My fear is that the motive for a new body could be profit driven and lead to reduced terms and conditions for employees, fewer services to the public and some forests being sold,” said Edwin, who after starting work as a forestry craftsman in 1962 is now employed as a tree safety officer. 

The FCN has also expressed its disappointment that the government has reduced the IPF’s recommendation to increase England’s woodland cover to 15 per cent to 12 per cent by 2060. This is a long way behind the European average of 30%. 

FCN is additionally concerned that: ‘The money the Government has committed falls a long way short of the £22 million a year recommended by the IPF to run the PFE. The cuts and their impact on the ground in our public forests are evident across the country. We see very little in the government statement to reassure us that the public forest will not deteriorate further.’ 

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