More resources needed to protect our public forests

29 January 2013

More resources are needed to protect our forests, the union says on the eve of an expected announcement from ministers.

The government is due to respond this week to the report by the independent panel set up in the wake of mass anger to plans to privatise woodlands in England.

As well as listening to the panel about the need to maintain funding, we believe ministers should commit to keeping the Forestry Commission in its present form as a public body.

We represent 900 Forestry Commission staff and fear ministers still want to hive off the organisation from government - this could pave the way for less profitable areas of woodland to be sold off in future.

We welcomed much of the panel's report when it was published in July 2012. It stated the public forest estate "should remain in public ownership and be defined in statute as land held in trust for the nation".

It also said £22 million a year was needed to sustain the benefits our public forests bring to our economy - currently estimated at £400 million annually.

The government plans to cut funding for public forests from £20 million to less than £13 million by 2015.

Cuts already biting

Already around 500 Forestry Commission staff have lost their jobs and those that remain, as well as forest user groups, are reporting the damaging impact of cuts, including:

  • An end to educational activities and school visits no longer led by rangers
  • Closure of visitor centres and lack of maintenance for facilities and footpaths
  • Increases in illegal felling and vandalism
  • A decrease in volunteering because there are not enough qualified staff to train and lead them

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "The country united in opposition to the government's initial plans to privatise our public forests that were clearly politically motivated.

"As well as listening to the experts it appointed, and reversing the planned budget cuts, we hope ministers will recognise the need to keep the commission in public hands to ensure our forests can be protected and developed for generations to come."

Future still uncertain

The government's response to the panel has now been published (pdf), and includes: a commitment that publicly owned forests will stay in public hands; and outline plans to establish a new independent body to manage our public forests and hold them "in trust for the nation".

While the commitment to public ownership is welcome, the response raises serious questions about the staffing, funding, structure and functions of the new body.

The model suggested would leave accountability to parliament intact, but the future status of staff is not made clear. We will be studying this in more detail in the coming weeks and months.

The future shape and powers of the Forestry Commission will be "considered by Defra and the Forestry Commission", the reports says, as part of a wider three-yearly review of the Environment Agency and Natural England.

The Forestry Commission unions, which includes PCS, will be holding members' meetings in February to discuss the government's response and our next steps.

Note: This was updated on Thursday 31 January following publication by the government of its response to the independent panel on forestry's final report.


 

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