Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

THE FOREST OF DEAN: Not for sale!

In A.Graham on December 17, 2010 at 10:56 am

THE campaign to save our Forest from being sold off is now gathering momentum. It has been taken on board by a range of local organisations, and by the Dean’s two weekly papers. The message should by now be clear: It’s OUR forest, and it’s not for sale!

Briefly, the threat to the Forest emerged with an announcement earlier this Autumn that the Government had plans to make the Forestry Commission sell off half its woodland holdings.

It’s not just the Dean that’s likely to be affected. The Forestry Commission has custody of some two and a half million acres of woodland throughout the country, with a total of 1.4 billion trees. It plants more than 17 million trees every year, and provides almost five million tonnes of timber annually, as well as a range of leisure amenities. Half this estate would amount to one and a quarter million acres lost to the public. This isn’t chicken feed!

HISTORIC:

Of course we regard our own Forest as something special. It has its own history, a special character, and its own rights for many of those who have worked here for centuries. The right to dig for coal, enjoyed by freeminers, and the rights of “sheep badgers” to allow their sheep to roam freely for example. There have, of course, been conflicts over these rights (during the enclosures, for example), but today they are enshrined in tradition, if not law. As is the right to roam freely in the local woodlands.

There were threats to the Forest back in the 1990s, when the last Tory Government came up with plans to sell off our woodlands. Opposition locally was so great, that the government of the day was forced to back off.

The threat today is just as real as it was then. So, the question arises, why? Why is another Tory (in effect) Government trying to sell off our woodland assets?

No doubt those on the Government benches would claim that circumstances are different. Ostensibly its to do with cutting costs in the public sector, costs which Ministers claim are “no longer sustainable.” Effectively the proposed sale is all part of sweeping changes imposed by a coalition government, in how we relate to our public services, and what public provision should be provided.

Under the pretext of cutting the deficit in public spending, all sorts of dubious practices are being slipped through under the radar – and proposals for the enforced sale of Forestry Commission land and resources surely comes under this heading.

A former Tory Prime Minister (Harold MacMillan) once likened Thatcher’s policy of privatisation to “selling off the family silver”. In the case of selling off the Forest, it runs far deeper than that. It threatens the rights and practices of our communities – and, indeed, the way of life of some. It puts precious public assets at risk, not to mention the environment, including the diverse wildlife to be found in our woodlands.

COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP?

Some local Tories – those who’ve been prepared to raise their heads above the parapet – have tried to reassure those who live in the Forest that the disposal of our woodland heritage will be good for us all. For example, our MP Mark Harper has written in the Review that “everything people value about the Forest of Dean is protected.”

“Full measures will remain in place to preserve the public benefits of woods and forests… and public rights of way and access will be unaffected..”

Harper goes on to say that the Government wants to “open up the exciting opportunity for community ownership of forest and woodlands.”

Already, he claims, the Forest is well protected by legal safeguards covering the felling of trees, development and the protection of wildlife, making it impossible for business interests to exploit our forest resources.

It’s all part of Cameron’s idea of a “big society”, to take over the role of “big government”, in which we’re told we can all get involved and run things for ourselves under the benevolent eye of the administration.

THE BIG CON:

In this case it’s likely to be less of the “big society” and more of a big con. In the honeyed words of our MP there are no concrete proposals on what shape this community ownership will take, what the structure will be, or how decisions regarding the future of the Forest will be taken. The concept of “the community” is very real – but it’s also very disparate. And it’s often kept in place by a number of checks and balances.

As for the legal safeguards, the Forest of Dean has no special status to protect it from unscrupulous developers wanting to make a swift buck. Legal safeguards can be, and often are, swept aside when powerful interests want them out of the way. It’s all too easy for a government to decide that such safeguards are merely “bureaucratic restrictions” that stand in the way of “progress” or “innovation”. Already a number of public bodies (those the Government has chosen to label as “Quangos”) set up to protect the countryside or the environment are under threat.

Indeed, the way many Tory MPs think was put quite succinctly in an article by Ian Liddell-Grainger (MP for Bridgwater) in the Western Daily Press. It was headlined, “Why I’m pleased countryside groups are being cut back.”

“…I welcome the Government’s decision to take a strong pair of shears to the Environment Agency and Natural England as part of its wide-ranging review of arm’s-length organisations,” he wrote.

After a lengthy (and somewhat unbalanced ) diatribe, he finished: “With luck farmers should be relieved of much of their onerous burden of form-filling, compliance, inspection and compulsory negotiation of excessive numbers of hoops and hurdles.”

So which is real voice of the present Government – the soothing words of Mark Harper or the vitriol of Ian Liddell-Grainger?

The campaign to save the Forest will go on, whatever. And those who are concerned about its future can make their voices heard. They can write to Mark Harper. They can sign petitions, or write to the local press. There is an on-line petition that all who are opposed to the sale of Forestry Commission land can sign.

And we should remember that however much we value the Forest of Dean and see it as a special case, there are other communities throughout the country who see their woodlands under similar threat. We are not alone in this fight to save our forest heritage.

For those who wish to register their opposition on line to the sell-off of our forests, go to:

www.38degrees.org.uk/save-our-forests

THE CUTS: FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS – AND PREPARE TO FIGHT BACK!

In Editorial on December 16, 2010 at 11:06 am

An iconic image of the hungry ‘thirties was of the unemployed slumped in public libraries – reading the newspapers, studying the bookshelves, or merely seeking somewhere to go out of the cold.

Now, it seems, even that refuge is to be denied the current generation of those who are likely to lose their jobs as a result of the coalition’s cuts. In Gloucestershire it seems the library service has been targeted for swingeing cuts. Some are to be closed, others will have their opening hours severely curtailed – and some, including those in Cinderford, Mitcheldean, Bream and Newnham, will be offered to “the community” to be run on a part-time basis. As if! In all, eleven libraries are facing closure across the county.

And in nearby Somerset, the County Council’s arts budget is to be axed completely. The same pattern, with minor variations, is being repeated throughout the country.

The slump years of the 1930s were grim indeed – but at least local councils were able, to a limited degree, to compensate for the savage cuts imposed by central government at the time. Now, with local authority spending controlled from the centre, even this is denied.

For those who rely on local government services, the future looks bleak. There will be less to spend on maintaining our roads. The provision of care for the elderly and infirm is likely to be cut back. In some areas, rubbish collection will be cut as well. And youth services in the county are having £3.6 million slashed from their £10 million budget – over a third. As we warned in a recent issue of the Clarion, “It will be a case of ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’. When a library is closed down, or a facility for old folk, it is unlikely ever to be replaced or re-opened.” (the Clarion, August/September).

Apart from the local picture we now have some idea of how the cuts nationally are going to affect us. These “economies”, to be imposed by a cut-crazed Chancellor, have been well publicised in the media, and apart from the rich, few of us will escape unscathed. As befits a Tory-led coalition government, the poorer you are, the more disadvantaged, the greater the impact will be. The Chancellor, George Osborne has so far sliced the welfare budget by £18 billion. It’s no wonder that The Observer newspaper headlined its article on Osborne’s cuts, “No Country for Poor People?”

The protests, of course, have already begun. It was the students who took to the streets first, protesting at the threatened hike in student fees that will result in them remaining in debt until well into middle age (unless maybe they can land a well-paid job in the banking sector?). The media of course focused on the direct action taken by a small number at Tory HQ in Millbank, London – but whether we like it or not, this may be a foretaste of what’s to come elsewhere. Incidentally, it’s ironic that a government so obsessed with debt seems so intent on piling it on to students!

As cuts really begin to bite we can expect a rise in the number of protests and demonstrations mounted by trade unions as thousands of jobs in the public sector and elsewhere are threatened. Some may well become unruly, and we can expect pious denunciationsfrom newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Telegraph. But in the circumstances, what do they expect? Indeed, what does the Tory Government with its rag-tag collection of Lib-Dem supporters expect?

THOSE WITH NO VOICE:

Many who face the brunt of the Tory cuts have unions or other bodies to allow them a collective voice. And they deserve the backing of the wider community. But those who will be hit by the callous cut in housing benefit have no such voice. Families may well lose homes, or have to move from their communities, as a result. Already, accusations of “social cleansing” have been made, as the poor and workless are faced with being shunted out of parts of London – and perhaps face a new, bleak future on the streets.

We cannot afford to be selective in our opposition to the cuts. It’s a threat that affects a wide range of people and services across the board in communities throughout the country. What we are seeing is a concerted attack on the public sector, on which to some degree we all rely. But we can’t cherry pick when it comes to deciding which services or whose jobs we want to support. We’re all in this together, and we should act together to fight this Government attack on the community as a whole…

A cold deadly longing

In C.Spiby, Reviews on December 16, 2010 at 10:48 am

‘A Nuclear Family Vacation (Travels in the World of Nuclear Weaponry)’

By N. Hodge & S. Weinberger

There were tests on living creatures as well. Because pigskin is remarkably similar to human flesh, the U.S. government experimented on live pigs. Tests in 1957 exposed some twelve hundred pigs to atomic detonation.

This is a strange book. Much like the Missile Defence Programme itself, it is presented as one thing but is, in fact, something else. Whereas Missile Defence was sold to the world as a defensive measure, in reality it was an offensive means of getting one’s enemy to believe you could withstand a first strike and thus break the M.A.D. doctrine which guaranteed mutual destruction to your advantage. And therein lay the end of deterrence.

Here, I detect the heavy hand of the Bloomsbury marketing office: ‘A Nuclear Family Vacation’ has no family about it and as such is a rather lazy play on words, and it is hardly a travelogue as the sub-title and ironic cover of my edition would have you believe. Instead what we get is an extended journalistic foray into the development of the United States nuclear defence programme. And it reads like the kind of article one might expect in the Sunday supplements, albeit stretched over some 285 fairly laborious pages.

The most despicable line these Cold War enthusiasts reveal is the deadly lamenting of the end of the Cold War itself. Engineers, scientists and contractors seem to openly regret the end of so-called hostilities between the US and the Soviet regime. With funding removed there was, before 9/11, no role for development in a world where mutually-assured destruction guaranteed jobs for what seem like unashamedly candid hotheads who believe in the myth of the great American dream.

Initially, nuclear weapons were delivered by bombers lumbering through the skies and, like any aircraft, could be shot down. The advent of the ballistic missile changed the entire calculus: A nuclear attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles was nearly unstoppable. The ABM Treaty, adopted in 1972, helped preserve the Cold War’s nuclear balance of terror by ensuring that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would (with certain exceptions) deploy active defences against ICBM’s, thus guaranteeing mutual assured destruction. The treaty was seen as a landmark of arms control, limiting the need for new offensive nuclear weapons and reinforcing a key point of nuclear deterrence: the only defence against nuclear attack was massive retaliation.

Following 9/11 the Bush Presidency quit Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty and the military got the renewed funding it had been searching for since the end of the Cold War. Now missile defence had a new role with Iran and North Korea. Though, as the authors point out in a rare moment of rightful scepticism, not a single missile has been halted by Missile Defence Programme in realistic test conditions – the above passage suggests an acceptance of M.A.D. as a legitimate tool for peace (as opposed to eradication of nuclear weapons, which simply isn’t entertained throughout the book).

Look at the anger Bush’s policy has awoken in Russia. Even if, as the book claims, Russia missiles wouldn’t be the target of the Missile Defence in Poland and the Czech republic (as they are convinced their missiles would fly north across the Pole as the shortest route to the USA), the political message cannot be ignored. In kind, long-range Russian nuclear bombers have re-started their run-up against UK airspace (as – let’s face it – with Fylingdales, we’re little more than a radar outpost for the US military and it’s NORAD).

Hodge writes for Jane’s Defence Weekly and has also featured in the FT and Foreign Policy magazine. His wife, Weinberger, writes for Wired’s national security blog ‘Danger Room’ and has also appeared in the Washington Post. But their journalistic qualities need to be held into account. These people are definitely nuclear tourists and while they clearly know their subjects well and write on the history with authority, they seem to portray an ugly fascination with their topic and, like the military hotheads they interview, metaphorically rubs their hands with glee at the thought of a new generation of nuclear R&D. Not quite the un-biased, scientific view they should have presented. Perhaps Bloomsbury’s editorial team have themselves been nuked. To be fair, they rightly raise an eyebrow at the survivability argument of the US side and also point out that post-‘duck and cover’ the general consensus appears to be that protecting the civil population wasn’t really on their agenda. But these points paradoxically run counter to their implied view that the presence and continuity of nuclear weapons is not to be questioned, whereas the jobs of its committed servants re-appears in almost every chapter. If only they cared so much about humankind.

But I have to ask myself why did I buy and read this book? And why did I continue to read it when the repulsive lamenting of the good old days of Reagan and Star Wars became clear? What then is the appeal of nuclear weapons? The answer is simple: war fascinates. Its history and its depiction of the worst of human kind. From All Quiet on the Western Front and the poetry of Sassoon or Owen to movies like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. From the War Game to Threads. Only by recognising the worst in human nature can we hope to change. This book is a despicable reminder that, despite what the history books tell us about a period of time we’ve called ‘the Cold War’, US military staff sit round-the-clock, trigger-ready and morally bereft in their underground missile silos with 10,000 warheads at their disposal (with 400 more in Europe, many in the UK). Or humming around the oceans, waiting for politicians to fail, British sailors maintain Trident and its capability to leash death unto millions of innocent civilians.

The authors end by stating that ‘It took a trip around the world for us to question the rationale behind the nuclear arsenal,’ – frankly they appear to be lacking in imagination. They sleep-walked around the world just as many people sleep-walked out of the Cold War not realising the nightmare was still a reality.

What’s missing here and in the wider Trident debate is the child’s question – ‘Why?’ to which the response could be left to Albert Einstein when already too late he commented on the destructive power of the atom: ‘If only I had known, I would have been a watch-maker.’

Modern Times- the Dinosaur column

In Dinosaur on December 16, 2010 at 10:37 am

Woodman, spare that tree!

I almost feel sorry for Mark Harper. Almost, but not quite. Here he is, caught on the horns of a dilemma. He’s a junior minister in a government that’s decided to cut the Forestry Commission down to size, and force it to sell off half its estate. And here’s our Mark, representing a Forest constituency in which the vast majority of voters are up in arms against the threat to their woodlands.

What can our MP do about it? As part of the Government he can’t speak out or vote against its proposals. He could of course resign his position – but can we really see our Mark letting go of the greasy pole that he’s clinging to? I don’t think so!

So all he can do is try to justify the Government’s plans for the Forest. It won’t mean cutting down thousands of trees, he assures us. Neither will it involve making vast swathes of our woodland reserves into “no go” areas for Forest folk. Indeed, he tries to tell us, it will open up new opportunities, in which we can all participate. So far he’s been a bit vague about the details. he prefers to talk of “a number of new ownership options and the means to secure public benefits.” Oh, yeah? Maybe we could all “adopt a tree”, and go out to give it a big hug when we feel the need.

The other week, I took a Dinosaur-style amble up into the Forest, to enjoy the last of the Autumn colours. Up at Mallards Pike there were families, with dogs and children, doing much the same – though most of them were moving rather more quickly than I was. The banks of mature trees and the hidden paths that led into the quiet places in the depths of the Forest, are there for all of us to enjoy, young and old. Courting couples gained their “fern licence” out there in the woodland undergrowth. Age-old traditions linger on in the Dean – and the Government interferes with them at its peril.

Creaming off the charities:

With Cameron’s “big society” kicking in, how do our charities fit in to the general scheme of things? They don’t seem to be doing too well, I’m afraid. I’ve had a number of phone calls recently from charitable bodies, asking for donations. But with money in short supply, there’s only so much one can do.

All these cold callers are glib and persuasive – and I suspect from private telemarketing companies hired by charities to raise money for their good causes. The fly in the ointment is, of course, that much of what we donate doesn’t go to the cause we support, but into the pockets of these fund-raising companies.

A recent survey conducted by CBC in Canada found that the marketing companies were creaming off 70 to 75 per cent of the money raised through telephone canvassing. Indeed, one charity (helping those suffering from alzheimers) actually made a loss as a result.

Now I don’t know how far these kind of figures are reflected over on this side of the pond. And neither am I suggesting that we shouldn’t donate to causes that desperately need our money. But perhaps some questions should be asked about where our money actually goes.

Zombies against the cuts?

A correspondent recently sent us a short item from Brighton. It seems that organisers of a march and rally against the cuts at the end of October found that their protest was likely to clash with the town’s annual “Zombie parade”.

This little local difficulty was soon resolved by making sure that the two events took place at different times – allowing those Zombies who were against the cuts to go on both! As our correspondent said – “only in Brighton…!”

Quote, unquote…

Under the headline, “A royal wedding – it’s exactly what we need”, a Citizen reporter gushed:

“Royal fever is gripping Gloucestershire with the news Prince William will wed long-term love Kate Middleton.”

“Thoughts of the gloomy economic climate disappeared as spirits across the county soared at the prospect of a royal wedding.”

(page 2 of the Citizen, November 17th).

Gosh! I’m feeling better already!