Forestry Commission announces 450 job losses

David Cameron said the government's plans would improve access to forests

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The Forestry Commission has announced plans to cut around 450 jobs in England and Scotland.

Some 350 staff are set to go in England and 100 at the commission's headquarters in Edinburgh.

Meanwhile ministers have faced cross-party criticism over plans to privatise much of England's woodland.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman attempted to reassure dozens of MPs that the sell-off would not restrict access for the public.

Ministers want to transfer power from the government-run Forestry Commission, which owns and runs 18% of England's woods, arguing that this will boost effective public control.

Proposals include a £250m sale of leaseholds for commercially valuable forests to timber companies, plans to allow communities and charities to buy or lease woods, and to transfer well-known "heritage" woods such as the New Forest into the hands of charities.

A public consultation has begun and a bill to enable the sale is due to go before the House of Lords.

Start Quote

Why is his government trying to return to that kind of activity by taking away the forests and woods of our country from ordinary people?”

End Quote Barry Sheerman Labour MP

Officials at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have stressed that no commission-owned land will be sold off if appropriate guarantees over public access cannot be reached.

Sources have also declined to put any figure on the possible savings to be achieved by any sale.

Trade unions were informed of the commission's job loss plans on Wednesday morning.

Amid noisy scenes at Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Cameron was pressed on the future of woodlands.

Labour MP Barry Sheerman said: "Two hundred years ago the privileged people in this country managed to steal the English common land from the English common people.

"Why is his government trying to return to that kind of activity by taking away the forests and woods of our country from ordinary people?"

'Better job'

Mr Cameron replied: "This government is taking a completely different approach to the last government. The last government sold off forestry with no guarantees of access, no guarantees that it was free and no guarantees about habitat.

"Of course I'm listening to all of the arguments that are being put on this issue. But I would ask is it the case that there are organisations like the Woodland Trust, like the National Trust, who could do a better job than the Forestry Commission? I believe there are."

Start Quote

I would urge most strongly the minister to look closely at these proposals, consider the many, many representations that I have received from my own constituents who share my own scepticism”

End Quote Guy Opperman Tory MP for Hexham

He added: "Is there a problem with the Forestry Commission that is both responsible for regulating forestry but is also a massive owner of forestry?

"We don't accept that with the Bank of England or with other organisations, so this is worth looking at to see if we can produce a system that's actually better for access, better for habitat and better for the countryside that we love."

Later Labour held an opposition debate on the proposals, which shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh has labelled "environmental vandalism".

She said any forest sale would be at open market value and as forests sell for between £3,000 and £6,000 per hectare, most communities could not afford to buy thousands of hectares of woodland.

Ms Spelman accused Labour of "sewing misinformation and fear" and told MPs: "If there is no suitable buyer then the woodland will remain in public ownership."

But among dozens of MPs to raise concerns were the Conservatives Julian Lewis - MP for New Forest East - and Guy Opperman, MP for Hexham in Northumberland, which includes Kielder Forest.

Mr Lewis questioned the practicalities of asking charitable trusts to run so-called "heritage forests" and said there was "huge concern" in his constituency about the plan, which he said had been a "nasty surprise".

Mr Opperman told MPs he was not yet satisfied there was a good economic case for the plans: "I would urge most strongly the minister to look closely at these proposals, consider the many, many representations that I have received from my own constituents who share my own scepticism, and to reflect on the effect they would have on this special place at the heart of my constituency."

And Liberal Democrat party president Tim Farron said the coalition should "think very, very carefully about how we protect public access to our forests, whether they are publicly owned or otherwise".

A Labour motion, calling on the government to rethink its plans was defeated by 310 votes to 260, a majority of 50. A government amendment backing the consultation was passed by 301 votes to 253, a majority of 48.

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