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Morecambe MP backs woodland sell off

John Freeman
Art: Smuzz
(Updated 27th January 2011) Morecambe and Lunesdale MP David Morris is backing the government on its plans to sell off England's public woodlands for some £250 million, despite an opinion poll published this week, suggesting some three quarters of the public are opposed to the plans and Liberal Democrat MPs threat to rebel against any vote.

In a letter to the Sunday Telegraph, 100 public figures wrote to oppose the plans, which could result in the biggest sale of public land in England since World War II, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, author Bill Bryson, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and actress Dame Judi Dench.

The sell off could have a big impact locally: Lancashire County Council says over 60 per cent of Lancashire's woodland is found in the districts of the Ribble Valley and the Lancaster area - and the Forestry Commission owns just 2000 hectares of the 14,000 ha total for the county.

Some 80 per cent of England's woodland is already in private hands and campaigners such as the Woodland Trust are urging government to ensure 20,000 hectares of ancient woodland currently owned by the Forestry Commission is not lost.

The Department for the Environment is due to publish a consultation this week setting out plans to privatise forest, although in a letter sent to several constituents Mr Morris appeared to think it had already taken place. (Update - it hadn't. The consultation in fact launched on 27th January)

Art: SmuzzUnder the proposals, responsibility for managing huge swathes of woodland and forest pass from the state into private hands. The Government has already said it will sell off 15 per cent of the estate and is expected to increase this number, and also reduce the the of the Forestry Commission as part of its cost-saving measures.

"I am 100% committed to protecting the wooded areas of Morecambe and Lunesdale and beyond," Mr Morris says in a letter sent to one campaigner protesting at the plans. "That said, I am not convinced that the only way to preserve these historic areas is to keep them in public ownership.

"The Government are committed to shifting the balance of power from ‘Big Government’ to ‘Big Society’ by giving individuals, businesses, civil society organisations and local authorities a much bigger role in protecting and enhancing the natural environment and a much bigger say about our priorities for it," he argues. "As such this bill proposes to alter reform (sic) the status of the 18% of UK Forests that our governed by the Forestry Commission: the ownership of the rest is by private individuals, companies and trusts.

"By including enabling powers in the Bill we will be in a position to make reforms to managing the estate," he claims. "The Government has consulted the public on its proposals and has invited views from a wide range of potential private and civil society partners on a number of new ownership options and the means to secure public benefits.  The Government envisages a managed programme of reform to further develop a competitive, thriving and resilient forestry sector that includes many sustainably managed woods operating as parts of viable land-based businesses."

The main concerns of campaigners are that once privately owned, woodlands will no longer be accessible to the public. Mr Morris disagrees.

"The Government will not compromise the protection of our most valuable and biodiverse forests," he insists. "Full measures will remain in place to preserve the public benefits of woods and forests under any new ownership arrangements.  Tree felling is controlled through the licensing system managed by the Forestry Commission, public rights of way and access will be unaffected, statutory protection for wildlife will remain in force and there will be grant incentives for new planting that can be applied for.

"When publishing our proposals we will explore further the options for securing and increasing the wide range of public benefits currently delivered by Government ownership and how they might be achieved at lower cost.

"This will be a new approach to ownership and management of woodlands and forests, with a reducing role for the State and a growing role for the private sector and civil society," Mr Morris argues. "At the same time, it reflects the Government’s firm commitment to the continued conservation of the biodiversity and other public benefits which forests and woodland provide. It is important to understand that these changes will not lead to the destruction of the woodlands, nor will it stop people being able to enjoy them."

Challenged on his declaration that consultation had already taken place, Mr Morris would not be drawn on indicating who had been consulted, preferring instead to focus on his support for private ownership.

"My point is that we need to protect the woodland, not the agency that happens to run them at the moment. The letters I have received on this equate private ownership with destruction, and I just don't accept this is the case.

"Experience has proved that we can put in place protections that ensure the owners of historic sites preserve them for future generations without significant cost to the taxpayer."

Scotland and Wales have already ruled out privatisation of their woodland.

Save our Forests: 38 Degrees Petition

DEFRA Consultation: Future of the public forest estate
This consultation is about the future ownership and management of the public forest estate in England – land managed by the Forestry Commission on behalf of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Woodland Trust

A Landscape Strategy for Lancashire (available as a PDF download from the Lancashire County Council web site)

Related News Stories on the Web

The Guardian, 27/1/11: Forests sell-off: Government outlines plans
Environment secretary launches three-month consultation on intended £250m sale of England's forests and woodlands

The Independent, 27/1/11: Lib Dem MPs threaten rebellion over forests sale Liberal Democrat MPs are threatening to rebel against controversial plans by the Government to sell off part of England's forests

Daily Mail, 27/1/11: Anger as government announces sell-off of England's public forests to raise £250m
Plans for a £250 million sell-off of England's public forests were announced today - sparking anger from Liberal Democrat MPs who are threatening to rebel.

Daily Telegraph - Forest sell-off: some questions answered

Press Association, 27/1/11: £250m forest sell-off plan outlined
Plans for a £250 million sell-off of England's public forests have been announced, but the Government insisted it would allow communities continued access and greater involvement in their woodlands.