I’ve just subjected myself to watching two and a half hours of the forest debate in the House of Commons. I didn’t watch all of it because I had to eat dinner, but I watched most of it. Firstly, the opposition motion was defeated (260 to 310) and the Prime Minister’s amendment carried (310 to 253).
Encouragingly, there was a high turnout and a number of government MPs expressed serious concerns about the proposed sale and safeguards. Hopefully, this will mean that the consultation process will have some meaning. I wonder who will be consulted and how.
There was a very strong focus on access rights. Assurances were given that all existing access rights will be protected and possibly enhanced (don’t hold your breath on that one). It was recognised that cyclists and horse riders need to be included.
Numerous pledges were given on maintaining biodiversity.
Incredulity was expressed over the idea that charities or trusts might be able to buy forest. Charities, trusts or local people are supposed to be given preferential treatment, but no details were given. If forest is sold at market value, there’s no way that private bidders can be outbid.
Even some government MPs expressed grave doubts about the financial wisdom of any sales.
Concern was expressed about the degradation of expertise within the Forestry Commission as it was downsized. Its three divisions are interdependent and the public benefit works are subsidised by the commercial operations. Indeed the FC makes a loss overall, so how can private companies make a profit out of the forests sold? It suggests cherry picking. Also Forestry land is a valuable tax dodge for private investors (again how can charities etc compete in an auction?).
There was some debate on democratic accountability. Obviously if forests are sold privately, that will go out of the window. It is also an issue in charities and trusts. I would suggest that the FC ought to be more democratically accountable as well.
A thorny issue of what is a “heritage forest” is emerging with no hard and fast definitions. The Forest of Dean and the New Forest appear to be designated but Cannock Chase? Even the minister didn’t know. I can see a rush to get forests designated as heritage. This would prevent a sell-off to commercial interests and should provide other protections.
That was a flavour of the debate. It is clear that MPs have had a lot of emails on this, so it’s worth keeping up the pressure.
It’s clear the legislation is a bit of a dog’s dinner and hasn’t really been thought through. Let’s hope the government has the courage to acknowledge people’s concerns. Unfortunately, this government has continued the practise of the previous government of trying to slip through far-reaching changes in the small print of bills. This time they’ve been caught out.
What with Iraq, Afghanistan, the Lockerbie bomber’s release and various other subterfuges from the previous administration, it’s not surprising that people are losing all faith in governments of whatever political party.