There is an evenly-balanced argument over the Forestry Commission sell-off which has been drowned out by the chorus of dismay over Caroline Spelman’s proposals. (It’s becoming reminiscent of drugs legalisation, an issue which has become almost taboo for politicians). After all the plans could raise up to £350m upfront, albeit in return for annual subsidies for the upkeep of “heritage” woodland.
As I wrote last week:
There is a short-term financial incentive for the environment secretary to press ahead with the plans. The huge sums raised upfront could be used for more pressing demands such as reversing cuts to the vital flood defences budget.
Yet over the long term there is no obvious fiscal benefit. Selling off the woods is an emotive subject and going ahead is already proving politically costly.
Spelman still insists – as she always has – that the government “very early stage” of a “genuinely open” consultation. What may prove the final nail in the coffin, however, is the groundswell of dissent among her own backbenchers.
Only three voted against the government last week. But all have been deluged with letters criticising the sell-off, with some receiving over a thousand in email or paper form. One MP moaned today that he had received 50 letters just over the weekend. Even Mark Field, MP for City and Westminster – hardly a forest-heavy constituency – has received 130 letters.
Of course many of these messages may have been co-ordinated via the 38 Degrees website, which is hosting a petition opposing the sell-off – currently with 468,764 signatures. Yet they are still sparking the intended reaction among Tory and Lib Dem MPs, who now increasingly just want the issue to go away. (For Lib Dems it’s particularly embarrassing because the Scottish ones, including Danny Alexander, fought hard against a similar process north of the border two years ago). With 10 weeks of consultation, however, that prospect doesn’t look likely right now.