Stanley Johnson is an environmentalist and author who is a former Conservative MEP and parliamentary candidate. He is also a founding supporter of Save England's Forests.
It is hard to imagine how the Coalition government could have dug itself so deep into the mire over the proposed forest sell-off. I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Caroline Spelman. She will, no doubt, be made to carry the can but I am sure many hands helped craft the disaster which is now plainly in the making for the government.
The most egregious error, it seems to me, was the insouciance, one might almost say, the arrogance, with which the proposals were made. Though the former Labour Government undoubtedly sold off forests, the acreage involved was a small fraction of what is now proposed. The Coalition, par contre, intends to put up a first tranche of forests for sale covering no less than 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) or some 15% of the forest estate in England. (The authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have shown no enthusiasm for such measures). Ministers would have put up more if they could.
Jim Paice, MP, the lead Defra minister, told a House of Lords Committee last November:
“We wish to proceed with… very substantial disposal of the public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.”
But there was a snag. Mr Paice was quite open about the problem:
“In order to have substantial disposal, we need to change the law. Our lawyers advise us that up to about 15% of the forest could be sold without risk of transgression of current legislation, which requires the Commission to own and manage the public estate. To get beyond that, we would need to change the law. That is the reason for it."
“We need to change the law”! If a change in the law was needed so as to permit the disposal of the remainder of England’s public forest estate one might have supposed, naively, that a measure to that effect might have featured in the election manifestos of the Coalition parties or in the Coalition programme agreed shortly thereafter. Not a bit of it.