Suffolk: Fresh fears over county’s forests
FRESH fears are being voiced over the future of Suffolk’s woodlands after doubts emerged about a Government U-turn on cuts to the Forestry Commission.
Campaigners battling to save Rendlesham, Dunwich, Tunstall and Thetford forests have had their concerns re-ignited by a statement in Parliament.
James Paice, minister of state for the Department for Enivronment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told the Commons that proposals to sell-off 15% of forests had been “suspended not cancelled.”
Woodland supporters had welcomed a perceived Government U-turn over the plans in February when ministers admitted they had “got this one wrong.”
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman halted a consultation about selling off 15% of forests and instead set up a panel of experts to advise ministers on the future direction of forestry policy.
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But Mr Paice said the Government’s financial position was such that a decision on the Forestry Commission’s future would have to be made before the panel reported its findings.
Clive Coles, one of the founders of Save Sandlings Forests, said: “As far as I can see they are using the panel as a very clever cover for getting on behind the scenes with what they wanted to do anyway. I think it is still likely that they are going to try to sell the forests to private commercial undertakings or one of the national charitable trusts.”
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Mr Paice revealed the Government wants to slash the Forestry Commission’s annual budget by 25%, which Mr Coles fears will hit the organisation’s workforce. A consultation on restructuring has just closed and the extent of any job losses are expected to be announced at the end of May.
Mr Coles added: “If you’re going to slim down the budget by 25 per cent you can only really do that by slimming down staff. But they need to sell-off the 15% of the country’s forests so that they can manage with a reduced staff.
“The fear is we will lose the on-site presence of the Forestry Commission staff, we will lose parts of our forests to the private sector and parts will be enclosed and we will not have the 24/7 access like we currently have.”
Mr Paice, addressing the Commons, said: “There is the separate issue of the planned disposal of 15% of the public forest estate, which we had planned to do during the spending period from this financial year to 2014-15. I stress that that has been suspended, not cancelled.
“The Forestry Commission in England will need to undertake significant restructuring and the downsizing of its programmes, at the same time as taking on a number of new challenges.”
“Unfortunately, as we all know, the financial position in which we find ourselves means that Forestry Commissioners cannot delay starting the changes until after the panel advising on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England has reported.”
Elizabeth Barrett, of Camino Riders horse riding group, said she feared downsizing could mean losing Sandlings Forest on the Suffolk Coast, but she felt if any forest would be kept Thetford may be the one as it was the largest lowland pine forest in the country.