Stars campaign to stop forest sell-offs

Dame Judi DenchFilm and stage star Dame Judi Dench (right), singer Annie Lennox and artists Anthony Gormley, Tracey Emin, and Gavin Turk, have joined a campaign to stop the privatisation of Britain's forests. They have signed a letter from the Save England's Forests campaign. An opinion poll shows three quarters of the population agrees.
The letter is unequivocal: "We believe the Government's decision to pursue legislation to allow the disposal of all England's public forest estate is wrong," it says.

Can't see the wood for the trees

Ministers are trying to hide their plans. They are said to have snuck in three short clauses to the Public Bodies Bill in the House of Lords to give the government the power sell all England's forests – mainly run by the Forestry Commission, created in 1919.

Jim Paice MP, minister for agriculture and food, was grilled in the Lords on why he was seeking such powers in an unrelated bill.

"That is perfectly fair comment, but the real political situation, as you will appreciate, is that opportunities for legislation do not come very often. This vehicle is important in order to create that opportunity," he said.

Barking up the wrong tree

It is clearly a sneaky and deceitful way of trying to rush through a sell-off. I suspect the government knows that any open and honest bill designed to sell off woodlands would be thrown out, so it is sneaking it on an unrelated piece of legislation.

Save England's Forests says: "Although the government requires a change in the law to sell the entirety of the English public forests, it is already planning a sale of 15% of the estate, for which it believes no permission is required. This amounts to 40,000 hectares of land – an area larger than the Isle of Wight."

Root and branch opposition

In a separate move, campaign group 38 Degrees commissioned a YouGov poll of 2,253 adults. It found that 75% rejected government plans for the forest sell-off.

When asked "To what extent do you support or oppose the government's plans to sell publicly owned woodlands and forests in England?"
  • 6% supported the sale
  • 75% opposed it
  • 10% neither opposed nor supported
  • 7% didn't know

Acorns to Oak trees

Opposition to the proposals comes heavily from Coalition parties supporters. 82% of Conservative voters and 87% of Lib Dem voters in 2010 agree that publicly owned forests and woodlands should be kept in public ownership for future generations

The largest age group, with 89% wanting forests to stay in public ownership for future generations to enjoy, are the over-60s.

38 Degrees executive director David Babbs said: "The government consultation looks like it's asking the wrong question. They are asking us how the forests should be privatised. But most of us don't want our forests privatised at all.

"Our campaign will keep growing until the government listens and protects our woodlands for future generations".

Turn over a new leaf

The government needs to rethink its plans fast. I'd stop the proposed sell-off at once and abandon the idea. But if it does want to try, it should at least do it openly and honestLy with a separate and explicit bill making clear what it wants to do. It can then measure the public opposition.

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