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Sunday, 6 February 2011

Forestry Commission sell-off - a Tactical Defeat?

I may be wrong about this, but I have a feeling we may be watching an interesting tactical move by the Coalition government in which they purposely float a policy for consultation that they know will be rejected in order to show they are prepared to listen and change course.

The aim according to the consulation is to transfer ownership of the 18% of land owned by the Forestry Commission to the private sector in order that they are "run more efficiently".

Many opponents fear that some of the most beautiful pieces of British heritage are to be lost to commercial developers who will make money from the change of those forests into, say, residential property. The Government argue that if the consultation is read properly people would realise that ownership would be transferred not to commercial developers but to 'community groups' and the Woodland Trust or the National Trust.

Where almost everyone is baffled (including a clearly unconvinced Damian Green (immigration minister) on Question Time this weeek) is why it is necessary. Announcing the policy, DEFRA argued it was about a 'new approach to ownership and management'. Green repeated this (from his notes) but, despite his responsibility as a Government Minister to support Government policies, he struggled to do so.

It has nothing to do with cutting the deficit.In fact, it could quite possibly cost money to do it. So there seems to be little reason to risk popularity over it.

Which has led me to think that this is an attempt at a minor tactical self-immolation on the part of the Government. Show the population you ARE prepared to listen. Show them a consultation is exactly that. Say that you have listened to the people and you are now prepared not to go ahead with this policy and you can look quite reasonable and decent for a little bit. Doing away with this plan to transfer ownership of 18% of our forests to into private hands won't harm deficit reduction so nobody loses.

Once that's done, full steam ahead with the next controversial policy. If the public or the opposition then say that the Government isn't listening to the will of the British people, the Coalition can point to this meaningless climb-down and say that's not true.


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