Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

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

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