The Bishop of Liverpool says we should keep our forests in public ownership. PETER FROST says Amen to that.

Do the Tories hate anything in Public ownership? You might as well ask if bears defecate in forest glades.

No wonder then that they – the Tories, not the bears – have had long held the ambition to sell of Britain’s beautiful public woodlands and forests.

Privatisation gives Tory politicians a chance to put profits in their big business supporter’s pockets and line up lucrative non-executive boardroom salaries for when they retire from office.

If that means working people no longer can enjoy a walk in the woods, if it means kids can no longer climb trees and ride bikes away from the traffic who cares? Not them.

So it must have come as a terrible shock when in this week the Government appointed Independent Panel on Forestry (IPoF) led by the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, came down firmly in favour of keeping our forests in public ownership.

Not only that but they recommended planting another fifty per cent of public forests too. “Trees are for Life” said the bishop and far too important to be sold off at a quick profit.

It was eighteen months ago in February 2011 that over half a million signatures on on-line petitions and campaigns in newspapers from the Morning Star to the Daily Telegraph stopped the Government in its tracks with its plans to sell off our nation’s forests.

This was one of the first and certainly one of the most spectacular of more than thirty coalition U-turns that have graced the sorry record of our present Government.

Defra Minister Caroline Spelman had one of the most humiliating defeats on the forest sell-off although as with George Osborne’s many reversals she retained the confidence of Cameron and Clegg.

This defeat certainly didn’t stop Mrs. Spelman’s privatisation plans. To distract the critical public and perhaps to play for time she had set up an expert panel on the future of the forests.

She gave the job to the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones. He was to report on what should be done with the Forestry Commission’s 258,000 hectares of English woods and forests.

Despite weighting the panel with some business interests and commercial forest people the bishop and his panel has in fact come down firmly on the side of public opinion and has rejected Mrs. Spelman’s attempt to outdo her heroine Maggie Thatcher in the privatisation stakes.

In fact they have stressed the value of keeping forests in public hands and even recommended ways of making it harder for future ministers to try yet another U-turn and another attempt to sell off these gems of our countryside at some time in the future.

The bishop’s panel discovered that public forests produce more timber and more leisure opportunities than privately owned woods – and do both for less money. They want to see more public forests and in locations nearer to large conurbations.

However don’t think our forests are out of the woods. The coalition mandarins in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury won’t give up that easily particularly with encouragement from Spelman, Cameron, Osborne and their Lib Dem hangers on.

Strangely the Government’s own figures suggest that forest privatisation would actually lose money – but like most coalition cuts this isn’t about really saving money but hammering home the old Tory hatred of state ownership.

Francis Maude, now he has cleared his garage of jerry cans is leading the charge in the Cabinet Office. Perhaps all that petrol was for his chain saw.

I’ll finish with a quote; this one is from that well known old bolshie and Morning Star reader Harold McMillan. In 1985 this fellow traveller was 91.

He was telling the Tory Reform Group what he thought about Maggie Thatcher’s privatisation sell off. He described it as selling the family silver.

“First of all the Georgian silver goes. And then all that nice furniture that used to be in the salon. Then the Canaletto’s go.”

Now it seems Spelman, Cameron and Clegg want to sell the garden!

Poor Harold must be slowly revolving in his grave. Good job he wasn’t buried in a woodland plot. They would probably want to sell that too.

This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012


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