NEW year, new fight - that’s the message from determined campaigners who are using the start of 2014 to signal their latest bid to keep the Forest of Dean public.
Hands Off Our Forest (HOOF) is drawing battle lines once more, three years to the day more than 3,000 people gathered at Speech House to send the message to Government that the Dean “belongs to all of us”.
Twists and turns have come and gone since then, including a u-turn by Whitehall on initial plans to transfer the forestry estate to private ownership, and the formation of and subsequent recommendations from an independent panel briefed to find the best way forward.
One thing that has never changed though, is the willingness of HOOF to campaign every step of the way to protect forests for the public.
Chairman Rich Daniels has issued a rallying cry ahead of a key Parliamentary debate this spring, which will see the Government attempt to introduce a new Bill allowing the formation of a new management organisation to oversee the nation’s forestry estate.
Rich said: “The time has come again for everyone to engage with the fight to save our Forest from predators, and battle a new piece of legislation which, if passed by Parliament, has the potential of leaving our Forest of Dean open to exploitation. HOOF doesn’t think there are anywhere near enough safeguards to protect the Forest from being taken over by private leisure and industrial concerns, and we fear that transferring the ownership and management to a public corporation could be a halfway house to full-scale privatisation.
“The Independent Panel for Forestry which the Government appointed did listen to us and take heed at the universal message they received when they visited the Forest of Dean. This was reflected in the panel’s final report of 2012.
“However, in its proposals the Government has turned many panel recommendations on their head to allow a potential free-for-all of commercial interests, to form a new management organisation which will be a public corporation just as British Rail, British Telecom and Royal Mail were … before they were privatised, became accountable to their shareholders and unaccountable to the public, to whom they previously belonged. And it won’t only be the management of the Forest transferred to this public corporation, but our Forest land as well.
“There will be no White Paper, and we will only get to see the draft Bill on January 29, a mere month or six weeks before it is due to be introduced to Parliament. This, combined with the resurfacing of the idea of a “community right to bid” for land that already belongs to us, gives a distinct sense of déjà vu from the 2010/11 battle which HOOF formed to fight. Few, if any, of our demands have been heeded and we feel as if we’re back at square one.”
“Foresters, and all those who love our Forest and others across England must speak up NOW and demand with one voice: ‘Hands off our Forest’.”
A spokesman for Government department Defra said: “There are no plans to sell or privatise our forests.
“This new organisation will secure the long term future of public forests across England so they benefit future generations, nature and the economy.
“We will continue to work closely with a range of interested groups, including Hands off our Forest, as we design the new body.”