How dramatic!  The Prime Minister kills off his own policy in a brutal and public manner (BBC, Guardian, Independent). 

The RSPB is quoted as follows in the Independent: "If the Government abandons the policy, that is fine by us. This whole debate has shown the public care about forests and how we are going to have better ones in the future.".

The consultation on the future of forests will be scrapped (does that mean government is not interested in our views on the subject any more?), some of the clauses from the Public Bodies Bill will be removed (but it remains an awful Bill) and a panel of experts will be set up to look at access and biodiversity issues within publicly owned woodland (and presumably non-woodland areas owned or managed by the Forestry Commission).

This story has a long way to go.  After such a public outcry the status quo is no longer an option, but government no longer wants to know what you think on the subject.  Hmmm.

This is a defeat for Big Society as an idea - isn't that the Prime Minister's big idea?  If a forest sell-off is no longer going to happen then the State is going to remain as a major player in the business of growing commercial timber crops.  What happened to Small Government and what are the implications for all other aspects of the Government's Small Government/Big Society programme?

The Public Bodies Bill will be amended - but remains a fundamentally awful Bill which would allow any future government huge powers to abolish, merge or amend public bodies, many of them Defra bodies, into the future.  At least Defra was consulting on its radical Big Society plans for forests - the Public Bodies Bill would allow many equally dramatic and controversial measures to be made without public consultation.

Are forestry sales now halted?  I'm not sure we know. Will those sales that were put on-hold be allowed to proceed now?  They were put on hold because it was thought foolish to go ahead with sales when government was consulting on the added safeguards that were thought to be needed to protect their wildlife, and access to those woods.  Government is no longer consulting on that issue.  So...?

And what does this mean for Defra's budget?  Were the projected income figures from forest sales built into Defra's CSR settlement with the Treasury?  I suspect they were.  So is there now a hole in Defra's budget?  I suspect there is.  What will be the knock-on environmental impacts of that budgetary shift?

And the status quo is rarely good enough.  The mixing up of making a buck and delivering a public service that is the current Forestry Commission is too peculiar to last.  We welcome the setting up of an expert panel, and the RSPB would be keen to play a part in its work, but we will have to see what is its remit.  It should be allowed to look at the role of the Forestry Commission and see whether its current remit is well-suited to the delivery of public access and a richer wildlife in our publicly owned forests, heaths and grasslands.

And what does this mean for National Nature Reserves?  What is their future now?

As I say, this issue has a long way to go.  How many people will stick with it for the long run?  The RSPB will.


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