The future of the Public Forest Estate in England was debated for three hours in the House of Commons on 2nd February 2011. The record of the debate was published recently by Hansard.
The debate was opened by Mary Creagh, Shadow environment secretary, in front of a packed House. She said that the Government’s plans could result in a “sale of the century”. She began:
I beg to move, That this House believes that the Government’s intention in the Public Bodies Bill to sell off up to 100 per cent. of England’s public forestry estate is fundamentally unsound; notes that over 225,000 people have signed a petition against such a sell-off; recognises the valuable role that the Forestry Commission and England’s forests have made to increasing woodland biodiversity and public access, with 40 million visits a year; further recognises that the total subsidy to the Forestry Commission has reduced from 35 per cent. of income in 2003-04 to 14 per cent. of income in 2010-11; further notes that the value of the ecosystems services provided by England’s public forest estate is estimated to be £680 million a year; notes that the value of such services could increase substantially in the future through the transition to a low carbon economy as a carbon market emerges; notes that the public forest estate has been retained in Scotland,Wales and Northern Ireland; and calls on the Government to rethink its decision on the sale of England’s public forest estate in order to protect it for future generations.
Caroline Spelman, Environment Secretary, accused Labour of “hypocrisy” and of peddling “myths”. She explained “We are consulting on proposals to create a new heritage forest status whereby our most precious national assets are given over to charitable trusts, giving them far greater levels of protection, financial security than they have ever had. We are proposing to upgrade protections for public access and other public benefits massively by replacing the freehold sales which took place under the last government and instead moving to leaseholds, providing better protection for access and other public benefits.”
The debate closed with the Opposition’s motion being rejected by 50 votes (310 to 260). An alternative statement (Question) tabled by the Government was then voted on and carried by 48 votes (301 to 253). The Speaker declared that the main Question, as amended,was to be resolved:
That this House deplores the actions of the previous administration in selling off 25,000 acres of public forestry estate with wholly inadequate protections; notes that the previous administration sought to go even further in finding ways to exploit the forestry estate for commercial gain as recently as 2009; welcomes the consultation proposals to guarantee the future protection of heritage forests by offering them charitable trust status; supports the consultation proposals for robust access and public benefit conditions that will be put in place through lease conditions, including access rights for cyclists and horse-riders; believes the leasehold conditions regarding biodiversity and wildlife conservation will safeguard significant important environmental benefits; sees these proposals as important in resolving the conflict of interest whereby the Forestry Commission is the regulator of the timber sector whilst being the largest operator in the England timber market; considers that debate on the future of the forest estate ought to be conducted on the basis of the facts of the Government’s proposals; and believes that under these proposals people will continue to enjoy the access and benefits they currently have from the woodlands of England.