#oneaday 22: Our democratic right to a reply?

I have just received a letter and Papers  from my local MP , Mr James Gray, in response to my letter to register my disapproval against the proposed sell off of our forests to private owners.

Here it is. Talk about using disingenuous pieces of information…..dear oh dear. It will be interesting to see what reply I get next time round. Hopefully one that actually addresses my questions rather than ‘here’s a load of information, pick the bones out of that’, which appears to be the norm. Transparency  is the word!

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Dear Mr Gray,

Thank you for your letter of 28th January 2011 and for enclosing the recently published papers by Rt Hon. Caroline Spelman MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. I have posed a number of questions which I would like to put to you for consideration.

In the press notice, I question why it is stated that the ‘new direction for England’s public forest estate will protect for future generations’? Can I ask if the current status quo puts these forests under threat? Indeed, the paper goes on to state that ‘the transfer of heritage forests such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean to charitable trusts will mean walkers, riders and cyclists will still be able to enjoy them as they do at the moment’. Again, are we to suppose that the current ownership model, by the us the people, will threaten our access in the future?

The paper goes on to state. ‘The proposals would remedy the situation where the Commisson is the largest commercial operator in the sector it also regulates’. Can I ask who exactly has made complaints that this is the case? Is it commercial competitors or is it the state, or indeed the people? Indeed, why has the Government already committed to taking 15% of the public forest estate out of state control over the course of this Parliament? You say you will generate £100m income, but what of the cost longer term? Is this a decision driven by the need to unlock money for assets or is it some other principle? £100m in the grand scheme of things, when we waste money on a daily basis in Afghanistan, is frankly pushing irony to its limit. Indeed, do we know how much this nation has spent on Afghanistan under this Government and the previous Government’s administration? Are these figures agreed, audited and known?

I note also the statement that ‘state control of forests dates back to the First World War. when needs were very different. There is now no need for Government to be in the business of timber production and forest management.’ This statement suggests that the concept of state ownership of forests is wrong, and by referencing the First World War, we are somehow living in an outdated manner. Given that we are still involved in t least one futile conflict, maybe your Government would consider rolling this principle out a little further and re-examining exactly what value we are getting from Her Majesty’s Forces being in Afghanistan?

Pam Warhurst, Chair of the Forestry Commission said, ‘Ministers have set out a new vision for forestry in England that will require a fundamental shift in our thinking and how we work. The proposals provide an opportunity to think about ownership and and sustainable land management in a new way and to engage in a wider cross section of society. The consultation will allow people to have their say and we encourage everyone with an interest to give us their views’.  Can I ask did Ms Warhust make this statement, as a public servant, before or after  Ms Spelman had issued her ideas? Does Ms Warhurst believe this is the righh thing to do, or is she just toeing the line? What was the process in Scotland and Wales, and did their Forestry Commissions decide to reject this policy?

I also refer to the letter to all Coalition MPs dated 27th January from Ms Spelman – headed ‘useful points to be aware of’. Frankly this looks like the work of an over eager undergraduate advisor!

1) Only 18% of England’s woodlands is managed by the Forestry Commission. The remainder being owned by various types of organisation. Is this some sort of statement to mitigate the process. Is she saying  ‘please don’t worry, there is nothing new here, it is quite normal, please move on’?
2) ‘Between 1997 – 2010 over 25,000 acres sold with significantly less access and benefit protections that would be the case now’. This somehow suggests, in that awfuly immature party political way that ‘what we are doing is so much better than the previous lot’. Just because Labour, new or otherwise, made a cock up and sold land off to private ownership does not mean it is OK to do the same, as long as you do it ‘better’. Why did we, the people, not know about this? Maybe, just maybe it was down  the appalling lack of transparency that abounded in our public life 5 years or so back.
3) Continuing along the line of argument that ‘Labour were doing this anyway so we are not sure what the problem is’, she states ‘reform of the public forestry estate has been under consideration for some time under the previous Government, with the 2009 ‘Operational Efficiency Programme’ detailing ‘alternatives to public ownership’ and ‘new commercial opportunities’ for the estate. Does this really make the case that this policy is right??

I have checked and noted that in the Commons vote on selling off our woodlands you have voted to support  this policy.  Over 400,000 people and counting have expressed their dismay by petition and yet MPs seem to take little notice. Many of these MPs are the very same Labour and Conservative MPs that refused to acknowledge 1 million ordinary people in the streets of London who marched against the war in Iraq.

Could you also explain to me why you believe that it’s us – the voters – who have got this wrong and not the government? I hope that as my representative in Parliament you will reconsider your position.

Finally, can you enlighten me on a question of Freedom of Information. If these proposals are made law, will the private companies who buy these forests be subject to FOI requests in the same way that the Forestry Commission are now? We are in an age of transparency after long last, and the Coalition Government pride themselves in a new ‘transparent’ approach.

I look forward to hearing from you,

With kind regards,

Andrew Payne

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