After my previous post on the forest sell-off proposals, where I challenged him (a Lib Dem MP of an urban constituency), he has responded. I print his reply in full below. Lengthy, but I promised to print it, and I think it’s useful to record the attitudes of a government MP. Accountability is essential.
Dear [ourmaninthenorth],Thank you for taking the trouble to contact me in relation to the future of the Public Estate. I apologise for the delay in my response, this is due to the large volume of emails I received on the subject. I am sure you will know of the recent announcements by Caroline Spelman, regarding the consultation regarding the future of the public estate. Due to the public response, plans for the sale of woodland have now been put on hold. There has certainly been a strong response from the constituency and I have taken on board the views of everyone that has contacted me. I was able to attend the vote on the 2nd February and was pleased to have a chance to speak in the House. I have attached a transcript of my speech in that debate to this email below. You are probably aware this was not actually a vote to implement any of the proposals set out by Defra, but a vote of opposition brought forward by the Labour party. They simply chose to try to score some cheap political points by bringing forward an opposition day motion to grab the headlines, rather than take part in the consultation constructively. I believe they have purposely promoted many of the myths surrounding this issue which I think is too important to manipulate. This is why I did not vote with them. But this does not mean that I fully supported the measures included in the consultation document. This issue is far too important to fall victim to misinformation that all the woodland will be sold off, lost and developed on. This was not the case. However I do want to see much more detail in the regulation safeguarding this land. In terms of logging companies, only areas already used for timber production would have been made available to them, but with strict rules regarding the rights of access. Personally I would never support the sell off or leasing of woodland if it would be detrimental to the long term sustainability of the woodland, its biodiversity and would threaten the access that people have enjoyed over a long period of time. I think the debate should not be solely about who owns the land, but what is best for each individual forest decided on a case by case basis. If it is clear in any instance that it would be safer under public ownership then it should remain that way. That said, I think there are many different examples of private ownership being beneficial. This includes the local example I referred to in my speech, but also the many community groups and conservation charities throughout the country. These would all be considered private owners but have done enormous amounts of good work for us as well as the natural environment. As you can see, I asked what measures would have been in place to protect our woodland so no biodiversity or access is lost. Furthermore I wanted to know what pro-active measures would be put in place. These are necessary so that whoever owns the land is compelled to improve access and habitat. I also asked about the proposed lifetime of any safeguards put in place. I also shared your concerns that there is not a solid financial case for this. The Forestry Commission would quite rightly be there to help new owners, but this will be an ongoing financial burden for the Commission after it has sold its lucrative property. I think any new scheme should be economically sustainable. Thank you again for contacting me on this subject. I will certainly continue to stress my view to my colleagues. The response has certainly been strong and is an issue I feel passionately about and will fight for. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any more thoughts on this issue, or any other. Yours sincerely, JL My speech:
(For the Hansard transcript including all interventions please go to: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110202/debtext/110202-0003.htm) I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in the debate. Although my constituency may not be the most directly affected by the proposals to sell off or lease woodland currently owned by the state, the issue has attracted considerable interest among hundreds of my constituents who are rightly concerned about the impact that such a sale might have. There is little doubt that there has been much speculation, and even scaremongering, about what may or may not happen to public forests. I have received hundreds of e-mails from constituents, some of whom have been led to believe that whole swathes of woodland will be razed to the ground to make way for housing developments, golf courses and leisure clubs. Other constituents have sent e-mails suggesting that forests are going to be closed off to the public and surrounded by 10-foot fences, but that is clearly not the case. Unfortunately, the Labour party has been complicit in this misinformation and shameless in its attempts to scare people into believing that the future of our forests is under threat. Instead of participating constructively in the consultation on the future of our woodland, Labour Members simply choose to try to score cheap political points by tabling an Opposition day motion to grab the headlines. That is why I certainly will not be voting for Labour’s motion and why I will support the Government’s amendment, which exposes the disgraceful sell-off of thousands of acres of public woodland by the previous Labour Government without any of the protection being put in place and promised under the coalition Government’s consultation. However, I wish to go on record as welcoming the measured comments made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about staff at the Forestry Commission, which should be added to the consultation process. I will never support the sell-off or leasing of woodland if I think that it will be detrimental to the long-term sustainability of the woodland and its biodiversity, and will threaten the access that people have enjoyed over a long period. What better safeguards will Minister’s introduce to protect the land and access to it compared with those that we already have? These forests will outlive all of us in this Chamber today and the public want to know how long these safeguards will be in place. Can I be assured that, whichever organisation might take on the running of a public forest, these safeguards will remain in place for not only our lifetime, but centuries to come? Guaranteeing the future of the woodland is important, but so, too, is the guardianship of that land in the meantime. There is a real fear that the trend to improve the forests will fade over time. What assurances can the Minister give that the woodland will not just be maintained as it is and that the new owners will be compelled to improve both access and the natural habitat? The public estate enjoys 40 million visits a year, a quarter of it is dedicated as a site of special scientific interest and it hosts a wealth of biodiversity. None of those things should be under threat, and they must flourish under this coalition Government. One of the big unanswered questions is whether or not the private ownership or leasing of forest land will make the savings that the Government anticipate. I am not convinced that these proposals will save any money; they may end up leaving the Government with a bigger bill to maintain the forests, because the sale or lease of commercially attractive forests will mean that their revenue is no longer available to subsidise the running of heritage and other loss-making forests. That was the only sensible point made by the shadow Secretary of State. I do not think we should be too precious about the model of ownership of our forests. The previous Government could not be trusted to safeguard the future of the public forests that have been sold off in the past 13 years. It is certainly not the case that the forests would be safer in Labour hands. Many might argue that the future of the forests would be more certain if they were run and managed by organisations such as the Woodland Trust or the National Trust. It is not the model of ownership that we should be precious about but the people, including the staff, and the organisations that might run the forests. In my constituency, after the previous Labour Government closed my local hospital, Withington hospital, Paupers wood on that site was put up for sale. Like many others, I expressed grave concerns about what that might mean for the future of that relatively small piece of woodland. However, the sale of that land to one of my constituents, Mary, resulted in enormous benefit for the community. That area of woodland, which had not been maintained for years and had been inaccessible to local people, is now available for local community groups to enjoy and for schools to use for outdoor classrooms. The woodland is well managed and is now sustainable for the future. That would not have happened without that sale. It is not simply a case of public ownership being good and private ownership being bad. This debate should be about what is best for individual woodlands and communities and about securing the future of our forests for generations to come.