Gale`s View – 23 February 2011
 
Those of us that had asked for the removal of the Forestry Commission from the provisions of the Public Bodies Bill pending the outcome of public consultation should, I suppose, take some comfort from the fact that the Coalition`s proposals to transfer ownership of pine forests has been put on hold.
 
This change in approach has been described as “A triumph for people power”. It is, in fact, no such thing and if we are not to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater then the issue is still going to have to be addressed.  Personally, I would sooner have seen decisions taken following public consultation rather than by a “committee” of interested parties, but that is clearly not to be.  However, after the push-button hysteria it is, perhaps, worth re-visiting the actual facts.
 
As things stand there is nothing to stop any Government from selling off, each year, a percentage of what is known as “public forestry estate”. The last, Labour, Government sold of 25,000 acres of such woods without any real safeguards whatsoever and had plans, had it been re-elected, to sell off still more. No guarantees of access for walkers, cyclists and riders, no conditions with regard to biodiversity and wildlife protection, nothing.
 
The Government`s now -shelved proposals not only embraced all of these issues but would also have created the opportunity, while retaining our Ancient Forests in national ownership, for local organisations to acquire, through charitable trusts, community groups and other organisations, those other parcels of local broadleaf woodland that are not already in the joint ownership of, for example, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust.  I do not recall much, or any, of that contained in a campaign that has in my view grossly miss-represented both the true current position and the consequent need for change. How, for example, have the internet campaigners addressed the need to recognise the vital part that woodlands play in climate change mitigation?  What proposals do the “leave it as it is” brigade have for the preservation of nationally important landscapes?  And why do they believe that it is right or efficient that the regulator (The Forestry Commission) should also be the country`s major vendor of home-grown timber?
 
There is probably no greater defender of our national woodland treasures than my colleague Desmond Swayne, the Member of Parliament for the New Forest.  In his own submission to the Department, Desmond has made clear his view that it should be, in that case, the Verderers and not the Forestry Commission that holds sway over that ancient and historic woodland. He says so because he passionately believes that the Government`s proposals offered, potentially, huge benefits for the terrain that he represents. Are even hundreds of electronically orchestrated e-mails worth more than his informed opinion as an elected representative of the people of The Forest?
 
I want to see our broadleaf woodlands not only protected but enhanced and I want the rights of people to have access to them, in perpetuity, enshrined in law. I want our heritage preserved for my own grandchildren and for future generations and I find nothing in the negative campaign that will secure this.  I  have to hope and believe that the gathering of the Great and the Good that will now be charged with the duty of bringing forward fresh proposals will be able to distinguish between wood and trees and will ensure that sensible and considered policy prevails.

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