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Unless you’ve had your head in the sand over the past few weeks we have all heard about the changes to the Public Bodies Bill which will mean that the government can sell off up to 85% of our forests, without protection for access or biodiversity. This as many of us agree cannot be allowed to happen, these woodlands are part of our national heritage and are loved by the British public.

Cycling in the Forest of Dean - Save Our Forest

Cycling in the Forest of Dean - Source: GeoGraph

As an update and to clear the fog somewhat, last week Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, announced that there would be a halt to a section of the bill relating to the criteria for sale of some forestry. This however, is a little dull on details, what Mrs Spelman neglected to say was this was for the 15% of forestry under sale in another section of the bill previously announced, and nothing to do with the 85% sell off which we are all up in arms about! The means that the consultation on the sale of 85% of our forests is still going ahead as planned, details of how to get involved in the consultation process are at the bottom of this post.

To help us to understand just why these sales mean so much to British people, over the next few week’s we will be publishing a series of articles about the forests, from facts and figures to interviews with lots of people we’ll have it covered.

Last week we talked to Arlene McCarthy, North West MEP for Labour, and here’s what she said.

Where do you personally stand on the forestry sales (public bodies) bill?

As a regular walker I believe our forests and woodlands are an important part of England’s national heritage. At a cost of 30p per person a year to maintain, I think it’s a price worth paying. We need to keep our public forests open for everyone and ensure that they remain in place for future generations to enjoy.

Where does the labour party itself stand on this bill?

1. Labour is opposed to the large-scale sell-off of Forestry Commission land in England and will vote against the forestry components of the Public Bodies Bill.
2. The Public Forest Estate (PFE) is an important part of our national heritage from our iconic ancient forests, such as the Forest of Dean and New Forest, through to local woodlands around England.
3. The 1997 Labour manifesto said that it favoured: ‘a moratorium of large-scale sales of Forestry Commission land.’ In Government, Labour only allowed the Forestry Commission to sell off small parcels of the Public Forestry Estate AND to buy new land to increase public access.
4. The Forestry Commission made land sales of 9,500 ha and purchase of 5,400 ha whilst Labour was in government.
5. We are not opposed to selling off land. But we are opposed to large-sale proposals which contain no certainty over which land can be sold, to whom and without guarantees on how it will be managed.

How will the bill effect the North West and it’s economy?

It is very hard to put an economic value on our forests. Forestry Commission land in the North West amounts to about 28,000 hectares.

The commercial value of Forestry Commission land in the whole of England is currently £528 million. However, the Government is looking at ways to capture the ‘eco-systems services’ provided by forests such as carbon storage, biodiversity and the benefits of public access. All things that are very difficult to put a price on.

The Public Forestry Estate could play an important role in developing carbon markets and generating renewable energy sources – none of this value is factored into the sale price for land so we could in effect be selling of an incredibly valuable future asset.

The Public Forest Estate currently receives funding from government to make up the net difference between its expenditure and the amount it can raise from its own resources.

For the current financial year, that extra operating cost from government is expected to be £10 million.

Labour ministers accepted the need to reform the forestry estate both to reduce the cost to government and ensure a sustainable future BUT not at the cost of selling off the whole estate.

Labour wants to see more innovative management of the forestry estate, with more diverse income stream development around leisure businesses, renewable energy and new partnership arrangements.

What actions are you taking as a Member of the EU Parliament to help the Save Our Forest Campaign?

The EU has substantial forest resources as a whole, having the 6th largest forest area in the world.  There is, however, a lack of an appropriate legal basis under the Treaty of Rome for a European forestry policy. The European forestry strategy, which has developed despite the absence of its own legal basis, emphasises sustainable management and calls upon various instruments which are part of other community policies such as rural development, environmental protection, development cooperation, the harmonisation of legislation, research, statistics and so on.

The European Parliament has tried to remedy this situation on several occasions, perhaps most notably in 1993 with the creation of EUROFOR and the publication of the study ‘Europe and the Forest.’ This lead to the adoption of the Resolution on a forest strategy for the European Union in 1998.

The Forestry Action Plan was adopted on 15 June 2006. Over a period of five years (2007-2011). The Action Plan focuses on four main objectives:
1. to improve long-term competitiveness
2. to improve and protect the environment
3. to contribute to the quality of life; and
4. to foster coordination and communication.

You can get more details about the Action Plan and its progress here: http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/fore/action_plan/index_en.htm

Labour Euro MPs will of course be supporting the Save Our Forest campaign in the UK.

Neither the Conservatives nor Liberals mentioned this bill during the election campaigns, do they have a mandate for this bill?

It’s clear there has not been proper consultation on this Bill and its already being rushed through the House of Lords.

The Liberal Democrats have found themselves once again caught in hypocrisy, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander’s Comprehensive Spending Review announced plans to sell off Forestry Commission land despite the fact he previously campaigned against such proposals.

Speaking of the SNP’s sell off plans, Danny Alexander said: “Private companies buying 75-year rights to woodland would naturally seek to maximise returns from timber extraction. There is no sign that the consequences for conservation, recreation and tourism have been properly weighed up in these plans. The Government is using ‘slash and burn’ tactics when some of the Highlands’ most iconic and well-used outdoor attractions are at stake.”

Do you believe this is privatisation of the forests?

Yes I do.

The plan to sell off England’s forests is an act of environmental vandalism. The proposals will destroy the funding system which has protected England’s forests for nearly a 100 years. Private companies will cherry pick sites for commercial development and voluntary groups will be left to look after ancient woodlands without a budget. The true value of England’s forests will never be reflected in the price the Tory-led government gets from selling them.

What actions can we take as a country to voice our concerns?

More than 360,000 people have signed a petition against the Tory-led Government’s plans, the largest such campaign since the general election.

Labour has launched a new website http://www.campaignengineroom.org.uk/ to keep people updated on the campaign to protect England’s forests.

One of my local Labour Party’s is organising a protest walk to one of the Forestry Commission forests to help raise awareness. The public need to make sure their voice is heard for their sake and our future generations.

In addition to the above link we’ve also found several other websites to keep you up to date with the latest happenings with this bill and also allow you to sign the “big” petition. 38Degrees currently have 525,668 signatures at this current time, however with your help we can get this up! Click here to sign the 38Degrees Save Our Forest petition.

Another good resource is OneVoice, lots of news updates here all of which can be fed to your e-mail inbox.

Before we close up this post I would like to take a moment to ask you to all please go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/pfe-englandconsultation this is consultation questionnaire, you don’t have to post or email anything just click a few buttons. And further more I would like to encourage you once you have completed the consultation to send the link to your friends and family.

And finally, I would like to thank Arlene McCarthy for talking to us about this bill. It is great to know that herself and her party are behind the Save Our Forest campaign. If you have any questions about the bill or for Arlene please leave a comment below and we will send them to her and let you know of the responses.

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