I feel compelled to respond as the Government is claiming statements made in my last blog raising the alarm about the potential of the Infrastructure Bill are “wholly untrue” and “wholly unfounded speculation”.

The Government’s Minister of Transport, beginning and ending the first debate in the House of Lords on the Bill on Wednesday (June 18), was eager to stress that sell-off of public land did not affect National Parks and land managed by the Forestry Commission (notice I wrote ‘managed’, it’s our land yet far too frequently, the FC is wrongly described as the “landlord” of our public woodlands… caretakers, yes, landlord, no).

The Minister of State, the Lib Dem Baroness Kramer, referred initially to “recent, wholly unfounded, speculation”, and at the end to the “issue that has been floating through the media and mentioned today: concern that land transfers could affect the Forestry Commission and the national parks”. This followed a Government statement released a few hours earlier, which referred to the text of a petition (approaching 25,000 names as I write this) as “completely untrue and has no basis in fact”.

The petition was set up on the 38 Degrees by a concerned person who received my email which turned into the ‘Mayday Mayday’ blog. My blog and emails were also picked up by the Western Daily Press newspaper, based in Bristol, and long-standing activist newsletter Schnews, reblogged by many others, and the Schnews story was in turn taken up by the popular news blog Scriptonite Daily. So all incorporated my source material, hence my riposte here.

Without getting too bogged down in detail, I don’t accept the Government’s rebuttals. While I appreciate the assurances that only “surplus” and “brownfield” public land (most of the Forest of Dean is brownfield) will be affected, and not that within the Public Forest Estate or National Parks, all the assurances and good intentions of a Government don’t really count for anything when the proposed law makes no distinctions within the statutory instrument, the Bill itself – unless it has the exemptions and limitations written within the statute. In its current form the Bill enables the sale or disposal of all public land.

I did rush out the original email/ blog before I had received legal advice because I believed it was a matter of extreme importance that a Bill with such enormous enabling powers was in Parliament with very little prior warning, and has had no coverage in the media. I invited any legal experts to tell me I was over-reacting and had misinterpreted the law within the email/blog. “You were absolutely right to raise the alarm,” is the response I’ve had from one legal expert I hold in high esteem from previous experience.

My only error, another legal eagle pointed out, was to cite Schedule 3 of the Bill in the original blog/email which allows any restrictions to be overriden. After talking with legal experts, I now realise Schedule 3 deals with highways infrastructure, rather than housing. However, the housing element that most concerns us here in the Forest and relates to public land to be transferred to developers via the Homes & Communities Agency (a briefing to Lords Whips says that from 2015 the HCA will become “the land disposal agency for the Government”) is an amendment of Schedule 6 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 1998.

Schedule 6 has exactly the same wording as the already cited Schedule 3: “A scheme may provide for the transfer of property, rights or liabilities that would not otherwise be capable of being transferred or assigned.” I wasn’t aware that the powers to be given to the HCA to override easements and planning restrictions already exist for local authorities and certain other public bodies. It’s nice to know… not that it reassures me one iota!

The only reassurance we at Hands Off Our Forest and other forest campaigners will have is when there is a clear exemption for the Public Forest Estate written into the Bill, as land belonging to the Royal family already is, and when that exemption is enshrined in the final Act, after it has been given Royal Assent. It seems the Government is listening to us – let’s hope they do the right thing.

Presumably, though I can’t speak for others, others will seek exemptions for the public land that they treasure?

And just quickly, it emerges that the fracking elements of this Bill haven’t been published yet – apparently they will in August, following “public consultation”.

So, to conclude, when I said all public land is at risk, including public forests, that is not speculation when there is a Bill that, if passed unamended, would allow for all public land to be privatised either now or at some time in the future – that is not untrue, that is not unfounded, and that is not speculation.

Wrangling over who gets to decide which of our public land is designated as “surplus” and ripe for privatisation, as well as other technicalities of the law, I will leave for a later time and blog. I just needed to answer and refute these allegations of untruths.

But let me end with an observation. Baroness Susan Kramer, charged with taking this Infrastructure Bill through the House of Lords, was until 2010 Lib Dem MP for Richmond Park in London (and campaigned against expansion of Heathrow, plus was critical of the HS1 railway line). She remains patron of Friends of Richmond Park, officially a royal park, transferred to the Government in the 19th century. (In comparison, the Forest of Dean was a royal forest, its ownership transferred to the State in the 1920s by the Crown.)

From the 1991 edition of E.P. Thompson’s Customs In Common (p111):

King Charles also set in motion one of the most politically-sensitive contests around common rights, when he enclosed and threw a high wall around Richmond Park. Several parishes were shut out from rights of common, and (Clarendon wrote) ‘the murmur and noise of the people… was too near London not to be the common discourse’. The murmur continued in the eighteenth century and was at its loudest during the rangership of Sir Robert Walpole (through his son), when gates were locked, ladders over the wall were removed, and passengers or carriages were admitted only by ticket… Parishioners pulled down the park wall two or three times on their peramubulations of parish bounds…

I’m unclear whether Richmond Park is still counted as a ‘Royal possession’ now it is managed by the Government. If it isn’t, and is indeed public property, if the Infrastructure Bill is passed into law unchanged, it is not speculation to say that it could at some time in the future be sold off for development.

Just as the Forest of Dean could be. Fact.

 

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