I feel a bit for Defra over the subject of flogging off the family trees - the nation is up in arms over it. But it's not clear what 'it' is yet.
Every now and then Caroline Spelman produces reassurances in the media or parliament which actually look quite reassuring - see here, here and here. and yet the subject does not go away (see here, here, here and here). Let's wait and see what the consultation says - and then look to fix anything that is wrong with it. Or maybe I'm getting soft?
Back in October this blog set out the RSPB's view that there may be some sense in the state selling off some purely commercial, intensive forest plantations and yet we would be worried if forests of high nature conservation value are not protected. That remains our overall take on the subject.
I can understand why the residents of the Forest of Dean do not want their forest destroyed - but as I understand it, the Forest of Dean is Crown land and can't be sold. Am I wrong?
What we may see is that some forest land is sold - let's make sure they are the right areas. It isn't unreasonable for government to look at selling off some assets or to look at different methods to get those forests managed. But let's see what government proposes. Maybe we in the RSPB will hate the proposals - and if so then we'll say so, and be as bolshy as everyone else!
And I have just noticed that the article in the Independent over the Christmas break about NGOs and NNRs prompted a very nice letter from a Mr Crocker from Gloucestershire and a slightly blustering letter from Defra Minister James Paice. Mr Crocker - nice letter though it was - is wrong to say that the RSPB is rich and wrong to say that we don't know much about all those species that are not birds - but all the nice things he says are completely true. And Mr Paice seems to say that the Independent article is wrong and then confirms much of what it said! That's clear then.
I think the RSPB's stance is just about right Mark. Let's see the proposals before anyone gets too excited. If we want the Government to listen to the conservation organisations, we must be prepared to listen to what they have to say before shouting the odds too much. As you mention, if the proposals are "off the rails" them a certain amount of "bolshivism" may be needed, but let's hope that's not the case. (By the way it might be quite interesting to see the RSPB full of bolshies the mind boggles a bit!!!).
Most FC woodlands are conifer plantations, with timber being harvested where it is economic. It is not large scale felling of these woodlands which is the threat to biodiversity, it is the LACK of management. Much of this sale will end up with wealthy landowners who already receive millions in Government grant and subsidy, buying up forestry land as a tax break. It is unlikely to result in replenishment of forests with native trees or scrub, or conversion to high value wildlife habitats. Much of the investment that should be put into managing and sustainably harvesting woodlands will likely be scuttled away into an off-shore account. Good intentions need to be backed up with hard cash and it is hard to see where the money to manage these woodlands is going to come from.
At a time when UK should be expanding its woodland a sell off is the last thing this country needs. How can a government claim that it is keen to 'capture carbon' when a sell off will result in clear fell and wind farms resulting in no money saved by the government. The only thing the RSPB should be doing is getting every member to sign the 'save our forests' campaign not sitting on the fence as if it was a Hen Harrier. Apparently there is only 3 weeks left to stop the sale. As for National Nature reserves the government have not got a clue!! Only sites like the Farnes or Minsmere where some one can make a quick buck would interest the rich man but there are no NNRs worth buying!!
Sometimes it's best to get excited as early as possible. It's perhaps the only way to get the best outcome. If you don't make a fuss, and even exaggerate and stress the worst downside, the Government, who we can be sure are largely clueless, will try to get away with much more than would otherwise be the case.
Contrary to Minister Paice's suggestions, Natural England is working to dispose of the NNR's they own or lease - though the knotty issue of TUPE, ie the legal requirements around transferring the remaining NNR staff from NE to whoever takes over the NNRs, may well hinder progress, however enthusiastic Defra ministers are. And who gave them the idea in the first place?
A transfer of NNRs from Natural England to "Civil Society" will save the treasury money (as they are currently funded entirely from treasury sources - just like the HLS access payment options which have already been axed) but will then require substantial HLS (increasingly funded from EC funds) funding of Civil Society bodies to fund their management. Since anyone managing an NNR will be practically guaranteed HLS funding, this means some farmers applying for HLS, which is a competitve scheme, will fail to get in. That will not go down well with the farming community.
Also, NNRs being managed by Civil Society organisations would stand a pretty good chance of getting funding from the Lottery, which is also a competitive funding pot - so other worthy causes will go without. A classic example of shifting funding from Treasury to Europe and non-exchequer sources.
The FC is a different matter. It's an accident of history that the FC estate has so much land important for biodiversity, archaeology, history and community importance. While the FC has been transformed over the past 15 years into an organisation that does take its environmental responsibilities more seriously (look at how many of its SSSIs are now in better condition), there are still an awful lot of FC sites where tree production is the over-riding priority, and conservation doesnt get much of a look in.
It would be possible through the use of restrictive covenants to protect public access rights. Private woodland/forestry owners can apply for woodland grant scheme to fund positive conservation work (though the point about transferring funding from purely treasury to a European-funded scheme also applies here) for biodiversity archaeology etc. The real problem is that there is little to stop new owners of FC land from damaging those interest features, if they so wish to do. This is because the regulations that should be effective (both as a deterrent and for punitive purposes) at preventing damage are weak and not implemented effectively. Environmental Impact Assessments for forestry and agriculture should both operate to protect biodiversity, landscape features and archaeology from damage by tree planting, scrub clearance or cultivation of open habitat features. But they don't: and somehow, with this Government's stated approach to regulation, it seems unlikely that they will be improved, unless pressure is brought to bear on them.
A true Big Society approach would be a move to Community woodlands http://bit.ly/fMmsNg. Let's hope that if the Government Estate is to be sold off, it goes in this direction rather than as a tax break to wealthy landowners who are disinterested in the proper management of the woodlands. Without local communities actually having the power to manage woodlands and with both the UK government and the EU skint, it is the only way we will see something positive. (This approach probably applies to most other wildlife habitats)
The Public Bodies Bill aims to make it easier for Government to sell forests and nature reserves without any reference back to parliament or us - so, yes, take action now or regret it later. And far from there being any guarantee the Dean won't be sold the local MP, Mark Harper, is leading the campaign to do just that - in the (very democratic) knowledge that he won't be around at the next election because he is to be given the safe seat of Guildford. the one thing that is quite clear is that the Government doesn't have a clue what it is doing other than a dogmatic desire to sell - its not even about money as where the money is is the smaller woods that have no special public benefit. It is up to government to prove it can preserve the FC's wefacilities etc - which is quite different from mimimum legal access on foot. I can't see how they are going to do it. Yes, English law will protect forests from destruction - but with 500,000 out of 1.1m ha currently unmanaged is protection the problem for our wildlife ?
And what about those mindless conifer forests ? 42% of the land is designated or in designated areas. of the 50,000 ha that are not forest over half is lowland heath - the largest surviving area in NW Europe. 50,000 ha of the 200,000 ha of woodland is being restored to ancient woodland - and the Woodland Trust who Jim Paice rightly listens to has persuaded him not to sell that until its restored. Another 50,000 ha could be restored to heathland - a campaign led by RSPB - but will now be the focus of sales - most of it is conifer. 18 out of 20,000 ha of Thetford, a real conifer forest, is SPA for Nightjar and Woodlark. There are now as many Nightjar - 200 pairs - in the forests of the North Yorks Moors whilst conifer Whinlatter has passed its millionth visitor to the joint RSPB/FC viewing of England's first breeding wild Ospreys - and with the joint porject for Peregrines at Symopnds Yat these are the two most visited 'Aren't Birds Brilliant' projects in the UK.
There's lots more - but if you haven't got bored, you've probably got the picture by now !
All - I need add nothing. Great, well informed and interesting comments.
There are clear principles here. This was not mentioned in either Tory or Liberal Manifesto or the election. It is convention for consultation to run prior to legislation not in parallel and after it. Here we are sitting around waiting to find out what the government is proposing re FC and NNR's and its virtually law. If its not in the manifesto and is not debated at election time nor consulted on prior to legislation receiving 2nd Readings then how can we know what we are talking about. RSPB has failed to fulfilling its job of scrutiny properly; it can't , it does nt know the details yet after the 2nd Reading in the Lords.
This is not right and there is a duty of clarity here. There has been a deficit of proper scrutiny at the appropriate points in the legislative timetable on this Bad Bill. That this has occurred is a democratic failure and an alarming precedent..
The FC is bound by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill and has a clear duty to environmental stewardship and that this is not the case for any private timber body. It would seem therefore that within this Act there is a potential clear environmental deficit in the quality of husbandry; never mind the steady dissillution of centres of expertise and practice along with the research programmes and all the rest of scientific know how that is surely best managed within a bulk timber producing outfit. Tragic.
The all round performance of the environmental movement has been disappointing;not enough simple commitment on principles.
Also lets all be clear now also that the Labour Government bailed out the banks ie private debt and principally mortgages. That in 8 out of 11 years Labour government spending was lower as a proportion of GDP's than Mrs Thatcher and government spending still is lower than in the recession of 1981/82; private debt is 450% of GDP and public debt is 65% of GDP. So lets not get this recession out of perspective or the role of the state but all fall prey to right wing ideological arguments that merely seek to shrink the proper role and responsibilities of the state as a force for good.
I just really want to reiterate my last key; it was private debt that got us in this mess and not the public sector which is being scapegoated for the "private" failure" of the banks; chiefly the relaxation of credit, demutualisation of the Building Socs and failed regulation by the Bank of England of the banking sector. It was housing speculation and mortgage debt ratios to assets NOT the public sector that derailed the economy.
Let us not be distracted by Conservative dogmas on the role of the state which they desire to cut to 30% of GDP.
The posting by Miles above makes clear that NNR's also should remain in public management; if savings are to be found let it be from other areas of the CAP not the prime environmental sites of national and international importance and their integrated and national management. This is most important in principle.
I am saying that the FC and NNR campaigns should be linked together in a defence of principle. Certainly that the FC principle broadleaved and recreation sites and NNR's should beincluded together as "public commons"; the integrity of management of large sites such as The New Forest or Forest of Dean should also be maintained. Landscape management is nt that the objective; this privatisation and fragmentation of management seriously affects that key aspiration?
On so many levels these sections of this Bill re FC and NNR's must be defeated; not least that in a democracy aspirations of government are included in manifestos, debated at election, consulted on prior to legislation whether it be environmental matters or the NHS.
petercrispin can put whatever slant he likes on it but Gordon Brown spent above what the country could afford.
We need to wait and see the proposals before making our minds up.
He seems in a awful hurry to condemn something not approved by a long way.
Someone or rather 60 million of us have to pay for last governments spend,spend,spend and as the note left on the desk before they left said there is no money left(very funny i don't think)
Think history will show GordonBrown to be worst P M ever.
I have slept on the various remarks and just find myself astonished at the constitutional complacency displayed. let us be clear that these NNR and FC proposals should have been put before the House of Commons and debated on the floor of the House. It is totally unacceptable that proposals on the management our finest wildlife and forest sites should be unclear after the 2nd Reading in the House of Lords. RSPB seems to be content to wait further while these proposals are hammered out.
I am calling on the environmental movement to ensure that the Lords return these proposals to the floor of the House of Commons where they be debated by the elected members of the House of Commons.
I reiterate that this proposal was not in either Conservative or Liberal manifesto; it was not in the Coalition agreement, it was not consulted on at the appropriate point in the legislative sequence. Therefore let it return to the floor of the House of Commons where it may be debated by our elected Members.
I assert that it is likely that the estates of the Conservative landed Lords who sit in their by hereditary right may be in receipt of more state subsidy than either the Forestry Commission or the National Nature Reserves and thereby should have the integrity to diqualify themselves from any future vote on this matter.
Sooty;petercrispin can put whatever slant he likes on it but Gordon Brown spent above what the country could afford.
Facts not opinions are important Sooty; Price Waterhouse Cooper is my source on private and public debt re GNP. The fact that an entire generation is Priced Out of the housing market should say something to you about our overpriced and unaffordable housing sector that has distorted our economy post 1980. Please remind me Sooty how many trillions our housing debt is; this was the cause of the Bank Bail out. That was Brown's failure but also the failure of Monetary Policy Committee of the Independent Bank of England who set interest rates and supervise banks.
The cost of the Forestry Commission and NNR management is probably less than 20 million; money well spent to conserve our key nature conservation and forestry sites both as recreational green lungs and wells of strategic biodiversity vital to our international commitments. I reiterate to you that this should be debated on the floor of the House of Commons and nowhere else. It has not and therefore the Lords should return it to the lower House for a view.
petercrispin - welcome. Excellent comments. Plenty for me to think about in what you say - thank you.
petercrispin---we are all in the same sinking boat together and you seem no different to anyone else ref do not cut what I want leaving alone,the reality is that cuts have to be made everywhere.I suspect you are the relatively younger generation and I am not knocking you for that but my point would be that houses have always been more or less a certain X salary and the difference now is that whereas the pre 1960 generation put their salary into house buying present day generation priority is all technical stuff and cars etc etc,that is their choice but you can be sure it was always difficult to buy a house and my guess is that in actual fact with interest rates at all time low it would be easier now than at any time if the same effort was put in and of course that generation worked 10 hours more a week so if present generation did that their salary would of course be quite a lot greater.Another point would be they started work at 15 instead of somewhere between 20 and 25 so this twaddle about unaffordable housing is a lot of rubbish.anyone determined to get on housing ladder is quite capable of getting on it today as at any time in history.