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Forests

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 3rd February 2011.

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Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North 10:30 am, 3rd February 2011

What recent representations she has received on the sale of land managed by the Forestry Commission in England.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Since the beginning of October, we have received 4,200 representations on the sale of the public forest estate, but most of those were in response to press coverage, not to the real consultation document, which was published on 27 January.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

Should it not be clear even to this Government that selling off our forests is a bad idea that has no public support? Will the Minister abandon the policy before she is forced to do so because of public pressure?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman was perhaps not in the House last night, so allow me just to remind him that, in the last few months before the general election, the party of which he is a member published when in government an operational efficiency programme setting out the case for long-term leases of the public forest estate and for getting

"greater commercial benefit from the public forest estate".

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

I have had more representations on this issue than on any other since I was elected-probably about 500 so far. If I send them on to the consultation with a covering letter, can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that they will all be counted as individual submissions?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. All hon. Members should actively encourage their constituents to read the genuine consultation document. There has been an awful lot of mythology in the press, and we would welcome responses to the genuine consultation.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Leader of the Green Party

Given that 60% of private English forests outside the public forest estate are under-managed, and that only 16% of them meet Forestry Stewardship Council standards, compared with 100% of Forestry Commission woodland, are not the public absolutely right to oppose this sell-off, which puts high levels of access and biodiversity at risk?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not accept that it puts biodiversity at risk. That is something that I am particularly committed to enhancing and improving, as is set out in the proposals. The hon. Lady's point will remind everybody that the public forest estate covers only 18% of woodland. Under the reforms that we propose, the Forestry Commission would continue in a regulatory role, and I would expect it to help us to achieve even higher standards of maintenance in both the public and the private forest.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

Bearing in mind the Secretary of State's concerns about public perception of the consultation proposals, does she agree that now may be the time to provide greater clarity about the conditions governing how the 40,000 hectares announced in the comprehensive spending review will be disposed of?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am happy to provide clarity. The criteria for the continuing sales of land as part of the CSR planned release are published and in the public domain on the Forestry Commission website. They look principally for sites that are less accessible and have a large requirement for expenditure. The criteria are set out in the public domain, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can help to point people to the right place.

Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

I have read the consultation paper. I have also read the impact assessment, which shows that the selling of our forests and dismantling of the Forestry Commission has nothing to do with the costs or the benefits. We know that the Government are not listening to the big society or the community, because community groups are desperately worried about having to take on responsibility for their woods and forests. I note that today, as yesterday, the Secretary of State has not even mentioned her phoney argument about regulation, because it is so weak. At the heart of this, one question remains: just why is the Secretary of State determined to sell off our precious woods and forests?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That was part of last night's debate. It is clear that the Opposition do not want community groups and charities to be able to take ownership and management. That is clearly a divide between our parties. This is not primarily about cost and benefit. The point about regulation still stands. The Forestry Commission is both the regulator and the largest seller of timber in the market that it regulates. In this day and age, that kind of conflict of interest cannot continue.