UK - The £3bn (€3.4bn) local government pension scheme for Essex plans to invest £60m in timberland.

The Essex County Council pension fund, which reported 35% growth in its most recent financial year, currently invests in assets common for most local council schemes, including bonds, property and infrastructure.

Essex said it would allow applications from segmented investment solutions, pooled funds, listed funds, funds of funds and multi-manager funds. Applications are due by 4 March.

Interested parties should contact Hymans Robertson's Glasgow office for further information.

Meanwhile, Towers Watson has warned that changes to contracting-out rebate levels will strike another blow against final salary schemes in the UK.

The Department for Work and Pensions has announced a reduction in the level of contracting out, effective next April, a method that applies when workers enter an occupational pension scheme in place of paying into the state second pension.

As a result, employer and employee contributions to the National Insurance will only be reduced by 4.8%, rather than the current rate of 5.3%.

John Ball, head of UK pensions at the consultancy, said employers had already been saddled with the complex procedure of contracting back in and that the government was taking advantage of this acceptance.

"However, if employers believe they are being taken for a ride, it will be another reason to move existing employees out of final salary schemes, as defined contribution schemes are typically not contracted-out and must be contracted-in from 2012," Ball warned.

Joanne Segars, chief executive of the National Association of Pension Funds, also criticised the move, branding it a "stealth tax" that disadvantaged both members and scheme sponsors.

She said: "Cutting the value of the rebate will raise the operating costs of final salary schemes and is likely to spur more employers to close these pensions to staff.

"The government should be supporting workplace pension schemes, not saddling them with extra costs."