One of my favourite films is Groundhog Day, a poignant comedy in which a cynical TV reporter (played by Bill Murray) arrives in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on Phil the groundhog’s predictions for the arrival of spring or continuation of a longer winter. He wakes up the following day only to discover he is locked into repeating the same day of his life with minor changes – his choices about those changes eventually lead to a happy outcome.
To be honest, there have been times over the past two years when I have had my Groundhog Day moments on the public forest estate. We have had the forests sell-off fiasco, followed by the Independent Panel consultation, the final IPF report, the Government’s conversation about the report, the Government’s publication of the new Forestry and Woodland Policy Statement which formed its response to the report, the consultation over the review of the government’s forestry functions, the paper on the new Public Forest Estate management body and lastly, the formal request for feedback under the Woodland Policy Enabling Programme about the future of Forest Services and Forest Enterprise.
Let’s be clear – I don’t want to wake up and find it is January 20th 2011, the day before the Government published its proposals to dispose of the public forest estate, again and again That is the Groundhog Day nightmare scenario – nothing changes. The Trust has been keen to see change in the Forestry Commission for a long while, not because we have been inherently dissatisfied with it (although there are some things it should do better) but because we have always wanted it to be more than it currently can be – an eloquent, high profile leader and champion of the unique role of forests in delivering public policy, and the steward of a public forest estate focused on public benefit with a modern mandate for modern times.
Now we are moving towards a critical phase. Key decisions which will determine whether change will happen will be made soon by Government. Bids for Parliamentary time for a Forestry Bill are being prepared. Without a Bill there will be no real change. But time is precious in Parliament and there are sensitivities about yet more public debate on the future of public forests.
And plenty of debate there still is - the DEFRA/FC Stakeholder meeting I attended last Wednesday clearly showed that there is a lot that local campaign groups, NGOs and the forest sector have to say about the proposals (for example Wildlife and Countryside Link). The proposals for the future of Forest Services are opaque at best and the proposed objectives, funding arrangements and governance of the new public forest estate body are far from perfect but this has to be the time to say so even at the risk of rocking the boat. I just hope the Government has broad enough shoulders to accept that its proposals still need refining and that feisty public debate is a necessary part of getting things right, rather than a reason to back away from reform because it’s too difficult.
After September 25th the window of opportunity to comment on the new Public Forest Estate Management Organisation will become much narrower, so to make our submission as powerful as possible please fill out our quick three-point poll if you haven’t already done so!
Hilary Allison, Policy Director