Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Hands Off Our Forest!

In Editorial, Guest Feature on February 21, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Hands Off Our Forest” (or “HOOF” for short) is the campaign that unites all those who oppose Government plans to sell off Forestry Commission woodland in the Forest of Dean.

It hit the ground running in December, with a packed meeting at the Miners’ Welfare Hall in Cinderford addressed by Baroness Jan Royall. The hundreds who crammed into the meeting were united in their opposition to the planned sell-off.

On New Year’s Day, despite the midwinter weather, over three thousand protesters turned up to an open air rally at Speech House to re-affirm the message: the Forest of Dean is ours, and as far as we’re concerned it’s not for sale!

Speakers at the meeting included Labour peer Baroness Jan Royall, Jonathon Porritt, the Bishop of Guildford and a trade union representative speaking on behalf of the Forestry Commission workers who are likely to lose their jobs if the sale goes ahead (Ed. with hundreds of redundancies since announced!). The meeting was preceded by a short march around the perimeter of the Cyril Hart arboretum, and closed, as dusk fell, with the burning of a symbolic wooden replica of the Houses of Parliament – where the Government is intent on pushing through its legislation to sell our forests.

The Parliamentary process moved into its final stages in February, with a so-called “consultation” process. The campaign to save our forests had, of course, been nationwide – but it was more intense in the Forest of Dean than elsewhere. Maybe, with the Forest all around us, and our ancient rights and customs, we had more to lose than most.

In its piecemeal disposal of Forestry Commission woodland, the Government attempted to dampen down local opposition, by announcing that the Dean was to be designated a “heritage” forest, to be administered by a “charitable trust”.

Who these new custodians of our trees were to be remained to be seen. According to one report, the Woodland Trust, which already has experience in administering forest land, was a preferred option. But this Trust made it clear that it did not have the money to take on the Forest of Dean, “unless long-term funding was guaranteed” (Independent. January 28). The same reaction could well apply to any other bodies with experience in running what are now termed as “heritage” forests.

Meanwhile, the respected ex-deputy surveyor of the Forest of Dean, Rob Guest, warned that running the Forest as a charitable trust would be far more difficult than keeping the status quo – that being the only option not mentioned in the Consultation paper.

How, he asked, would any trust find the way to cover the deficit incurred in running the forest adequately? On top of that, the management of the Forest, he said, relies on specialist technology and expertise.

Basically, running a forest the size and sheer diversity of the Dean, with all its differing needs would make any existing trust reluctant to take on the responsibility. Which might leave the Government having to cobble together a so-called Big Society-style charitable body (with some kind of token local representation) – and leave those living in the Forest to take their chances.

But it might well be that we in the Dean could have been somewhat better off than those living in or near to what have been designated “commercial” forests. Kielder, in the north west of England for example, will be handed over to commercial operators who will want to make as much money out of timber production as possible. But Kielder is also home to some 70 per cent of Britain’s remaining red squirrels, and otters, ospreys and goshawks are also to be found there. Who will look after their interests?

The “consultation process” on the Government’s proposals were scheduled to end on April 21st. When Mark Harper held his public meeting on the plans, he was given a stormy, though mainly good natured, reception from campaigners who turned up at Coleford on a cold, wet Friday night. Despite only being given one day’s notice, hundreds turned up, with some 300 denied access to the meeting. They made their presence felt from outside the “Main Place” centre, whilst Harper struggled to deal with hostile questions inside the packed meeting room before being smuggled out of the back exit under police escort.


Ed. since going to press in our paper edition, the Government has had to back-down on these proposals and has cancelled the Consultation entirely. People power has won!

But most Tories put their failure down to mis-communicating their benign intentions and are seeking to set-up a new body of specialists to look into how the public forests can be better managed.

The Forestry elements of the Public Bodies Bill have been removed. Secretary for the Department of the Environment, Caroline Spelman, was forced to apologise in the Commons, admitting they had got it ‘Wrong.’ But not wrong enough to have another look at the end of the year.

HOOF, while victorious, is watching.

And while ‘Forest of Dean Not For Sale’ signs finally come down, we’re poised to stand-up again and support our heritage, and our future.

PS. take part in the National Planning Policy Framework Consultation via the Woodland Trust TODAY – find out more.


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MODERN TIMES: THE DINOSAUR COLUMN

In Dinosaur on February 21, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Someone there to take care of us:

It seems like the National Health Service has always been there for us. Some of us may feel we don’t need it – well, not just yet, anyway – but are glad we have it , just in case we do. It deals with our illnesses, with accidents, and with a host of bodily problems that often happen when we least expect them.

As I grow older, I find I’ve become a more frequent visitor to our local health centre – for check-ups, or occasional treatment when I find something isn’t functioning as well as it used to. In a way, we’ve come to take it for granted. We pity those poor Americans who have for so long been denied a proper health service, and where the system’s all about profit. And we’ve come to respect those who work in the NHS – the nurses, doctors, and all the rest who do their best to patch us up or keep us ticking over.

So, perhaps, Cameron’s “shake up” of the system should be a wakeup call for all of us. Our health is important to us all – and so is the NHS. We don’t want it handed over to the private sector. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to sleep walk into a situation where we suddenly discover that American rules apply, and everything we valued about our health service has faded away.

* * * * * * *

Whilst I’m sort of on the subject, I wonder how those TV hospital soaps we love to watch will tackle Cameron’s plans for health care? In particular I’ve been thinking about the BBC’s stablemates, Casualty and Holby City.

I still watch Casualty, and admire the dedication of those who work in the A & E department – and I appreciate the various shenanigans that take place each week. Though with all that blood around, I’d rather not have to be admitted!

Casualty has in the past touched on changes in the NHS structure – such as the conflicts caused by the imposition of new management structures. But if, heaven forbid, Cameron’s new deal for the health service is implemented, surely Holby will never be the same again. I wonder how that veteran, Charlie Fairhead, who’s been in more instalments of Casualty than some of us have had hot dinners, would react?

Regrets? What me?

Well, the bankers’ bonus culture is still with us, it seems. Any notion that they may have learned their lesson must by now have dissipated like dew in the morning. They still believe they can give themselves fat pay-outs from our money which they have wantonly gambled with.

All this became clear when Bob Diamond, the new boss at Barclays, appeared before MPs on the Treasury Select Committee. It seems he’s likely to receive £8.5 million for his services this year – and when asked by MPs whether David Cameron or George Osborne had asked him to show restraint over any bonus he may get, he said “no”.

The time for remorse is now over, said Mr Diamond. Now, by implication, it’s back to the old “loadsa money” world for bankers. It’s almost as though the crash of 2008 never happened for them. Never mind the toxic debts – that’s all in the past. Let’s get back to the party.

But times have changed. Under our Con-Dem government we’re all going to have to pay for the bankers’ extravagance. Meanwhile, I wonder what top bankers do with all those millions that they receive each year? What can they spend it on? And with that sort of money, why on earth should they want so much more?

Recalling Harper?

An interesting notion was put forward in a recent issue of Private Eye. In a column devoted to the Government’s plans to sell off our forests, the magazine turned its attention to the “HOOF”campaign in the Dean.

It noted that Mark Harper believes that the forest sale is “an example of Dave’s Big Society in action as it would allow local people to buy and manage things as they see fit.” But as has been pointed out, folk in the Dean see the forest as theirs anyway. Why should we buy it if we see it as ours already?

The article concludes: “If Harper disappoints his constituents, he could become the first victim of another coalition brainwave: the “right of recall” which enables voters to recall an MP if they lose faith in him or her. This would be ironic. When Harper isn’t calling for the sale of his constituents’ natural environment, he is the minister for constitutional reform responsible for… the right-to recall policy!”

Dinosaur

SELLING OFF THE NHS

In Editorial on February 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Britain pioneered the idea of a national health service, free at the point of need, which would be open to all who required treatment in hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and dentists throughout the country.

It was launched in the summer of 1948, as part of the sweeping welfare reforms introduced by the Labour Government to look after the wellbeing of us all, in sickness and in health from the cradle to the grave. It was denounced at the time by many Tories as a “scroungers’ charter”. Many doctors also opposed it. Indeed, eight of them signed a letter to the Sunday Express complaining that it would “undermine the priestly quality which is inherent in medicine”. And so, quite rightly, it did.

But despite a threat by many doctors to boycott the new NHS, it was launched – complete with free prescriptions, and free dental and eye care. Doctors soon fell in line – and so, too, did the Tories. Indeed, by the mid-1950s they were claiming it as their own.

By the time Thatcher came to power, the NHS seemed unassailable. But she did her best to undermine it. She cut funding, she closed hospitals, and encouraged patients to opt out and go private. The cost of the NHS she claimed was escalating “out of control”. Her notion was to reduce the Service to a “safety net” for those who couldn’t afford private treatment. Private insurance schemes boomed, NHS hospitals were closed and waiting lists for treatment soared. In the first eight years of Thatcher’s rule, 250 hospitals were closed whilst only 35 new ones were built – with the loss of 36,000 hospital beds.

When “New” Labour was returned in 1997, new hospitals were built, and funding for the NHS was increased. But Blair continued and indeed extended the iniquitous practice of “private finance initiative” funding for new hospital builds and the “rationalisation” of services and structure carried out by the previous regime.

THE CAMERON THREAT:

Now, under David Cameron, the principles and practices of the NHS face their biggest threat since the birth of the Health Service. His plans were outlined last Autumn in the Clarion (“Don’t let the free market take over the NHS” – our October/November issue). Now they have reached the stage of parliamentary debate.

He is trying to sell it to us with all the fervour of a patent medicine salesman. His main thrust is that his reforms will allow GPs a greater say in controlling budgets and running the service. Of course many doctors don’t want the extra burden of administration on top of their present duties. It wasn’t what they were trained to do – and many of them have a heavy enough workload already. Yet 80 per cent of the healthcare budget will be handed over to GPs, who will be able to form themselves into consortia to decide how their share will be spent.

But that, of course, is merely the sales pitch – the extremely dubious icing on the cake. The main thrust of Cameron’s proposed legislation is about handing over the NHS to the free market.

Hospitals will be “freed” from Whitehall control, and those in the NHS will find themselves in competition with private hospitals to provide care for patients. If they are deemed to be inefficient they may be taken over by the private sector.

What kind of overall planning or co-ordination this allows isn’t made clear from the Bill. “Competition” however will be promoted, and the weakest will be driven to the wall.

From where we’re standing, this is akin to lunacy. The whole idea is driven by right-wing Tory ideology (with a secondary consideration that it will “save money”). Despite what the Government says, it won’t be the GPs in the driving seat – it will be private capital and the drug industry who will increasingly be able to call the shots .

How this will affect the pattern of health care within the Forest is difficult to say at the moment (across the border in Wales, the new legislation won’t apply). All we know at present is that care services in the County will be transferred to a new “social enterprise trust”. Unison, the union representing health workers, make the point that they were not consulted on the new structure, and under the new set up, “staff will no longer be NHS employees,” according to a Unison official. “…it means profit taking priority over the patients’ health”.

The changes will of course have a greater impact on larger hospitals such as those in Gloucester or Bristol.

All this could have an effect on patient care. For those seeking treatment at present their main concerns are that they can be treated as close to home as possible in a clean, friendly, reassuring environment. But what if the nearest hospital is closed down? What if the treatment is no longer available?

There are many who work in healthcare who are, naturally enough, deeply concerned about Cameron’s reforms. They regard them as deeply flawed. As we see it, it marks the end of a National Health Service that most of us grew up with, and came to regard, quite literally, as a lifeline.

Recent opinion polls suggest that the reforms are deeply unpopular with the public and, indeed even amongst doctors and NHS staff. Already campaigns are being formed to save the NHS. The least we can do is give them our support. If we don’t we are in danger of ending up with a semi-Americanised system in which the vision of those who founded the service in 1948 will be lost for good.

MOBILISING THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE CUTS

In A.Graham, C.Spiby on February 21, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Report by CARL SPIBY (with additional notes by Alistair Graham)

A meeting of the Monmouth and Forest of Dean SOS (“Save Our Services”) anti-cuts campaign has won the endorsement of comedian, broadcaster and Independent columnist, Mark Steel.

The campaign seeks to confront the myths promoted by the coalition Government to justify raising VAT whilst cutting public services and jobs. Mark Steel will be sending tickets to his show in Hereford to help with the campaign’s fund-raising.

The meeting, at Monmouth’s Queen’s Hotel, saw the former Labour Party candidate, Hamish Sanderson, raising his own concerns over the deep public sector cuts. Also present were local activists, members of the Forest & Wye Clarion editorial committee, pensioners’ groups and the public.

Unison‘s Peter Short presented a compelling picture of how the scale of the UK’s debt was actually lower now than it was at the end of the war, when the NHS was created. The scale of our deficit had been deliberately distorted by the right-wing press and politicians.

WOMEN AND THE POOR TO SUFFER:

He was followed by Jeremy Gass (from Abergavenny SOS), who gave a description of what the cuts really meant for those at the poorest end of the income scale. As well as job losses in the public sector, there are forecasts of increasing child poverty, cuts in housing benefits, welfare benefits, local government services, and legal aid (in other words, access to justice). And the cuts will fall disproportionately on women.

AN ALTERNATIVE:

Finally, Dominic McAskill, a co-ordinator for UNISON in Wales, presented the case for an alternative policy to that of the Tory-led coalition Government. Two years ago, he reminded us, we had faced a crisis in capitalism, resulting in the debt crisis, and the bailing out of the banks.

The cry had gone out that we had to ensure that it did not happen again. Banks had to be regulated and dodgy practices curtailed. But today such calls have largely disappeared. Under the present Government, it’s not the bankers who are being threatened – it’s the very structure of the welfare state.

Amongst alternative policies put forward by Dominic McAskill was for a new tax on the rich and super-rich (a so-called “Robin Hood Tax“). After all, it had been their crisis that had led to the bail-out in the first place. Now we face a new round of super-bonuses for bankers (£7 billion this year alone). All this Government has done is “nationalise” the debt, placing the burden on ordinary people.

“If we do nothing, we’re not only selling out ourselves but selling out generations to come. Our whole welfare state is under threat,” he concluded.

BUILDING THE CAMPAIGN:

The campaign in Monmouth and the Forest of Dean is aiming to build support for those campaigning against the cuts, including those who who are working to save the library service in the Forest. Hopefully this will include coaches for those who want to attend the “Anti-Cuts” march and rally in London on March 26.

“NATION SHALL SPEAK PEACE UNTO NATION”…?

In A.Graham, Guest Feature on February 21, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Slashing the BBC world service: a Clarion report.

There was a time when the BBC’s world service was the flagship of the Corporation. It was the face of Britain throughout the world – and for millions it projected the way we were perceived by viewers and listeners.

The world service will continue – but it’s facing cuts, thanks to a reduction in the budget it receives from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. And, from 2014, it will have to be funded solely by the BBC itself.

The immediate impact is the closure of five services, beamed out by the Beeb. They include those to Macedonia, Serbia and Albania, as well as English to the Caribbean and the Portuguese language service to Africa. Also facing the axe is the Russian language radio service (which currently has 1.2 million listeners). And an estimated 1.5 million tune in to the BBC’s Portuguese for Africa service.

According to the BBC’s figures, these cutbacks will lose them an audience of some 30 million in the countries affected – and 650 jobs will go.

ORIGINS:

The BBC world service was first launched in 1932, at a time when Britain had a sprawling empire. It was, of course, limited to radio transmission – and by the technology available at the time.

But it came into its own during the Second World War, when millions listened in to the BBC throughout occupied Europe and beyond. The BBC gained a reputation for “impartiality” and objectivity at a time when propaganda ruled the air-waves. Whether it deserved this level of prestige is a moot point – but the BBC emerged from the conflict with an untarnished reputation.

During the period of the Cold War, the BBC played its part – and as technology progressed, the Corporation was able to provide its rolling news service to the world on TV – though in many countries radio continued to play an important role.

WHY THE CUTS?

The cuts, basically, are being imposed by the Government. We all have to share in the economies that have to be made, they argue. But another argument that’s been put forward is that in this day and age of computer driven communication (via websites, “twitter”, facebook, etc.), the role of TV and radio is no longer as important as it was.

This is a debatable point. But meanwhile, the BBC is effectively pulling the plug on the Balkans, the Caribbean, Russia and Portuguese speaking Africa. Hundreds of dedicated staff are losing their jobs – and the role of the BBC on the world stage will be diminished.

And it’s likely that this role will continue to dwindle, as the Corporation devotes less of its resources to its world services. This could be the beginning of a general retreat.

HEALING A FRACTURED LIFE: “Refugee Boy”

In R.Richardson, Reviews on February 21, 2011 at 1:40 pm

by Benjamin Zephaniah
Reviewed by RUTH RICHARDSON

(Pub. Bloomsbury £5.99p ISBN 0-7475-5086-7)

Most people, if they have heard of Benjamin Zephaniah, think of him as a poet. And, indeed, he has had many of his collections of poems published since 1980. He has also, however, written five novels and it was one of these, Refugee Boy, that I came across recently.

It is the moving story of a 14-year-old boy of a mixed Ethiopean/Eritrean family, caught up in the war that broke out between those two countries in May 1998. The boy, Alem, is brought to England by his father, who then returns home believing that his action will secure the safety of his son.

PROCEDURES:

We follow Alem through the complicated procedures of social workers, a children’s home, foster parents and, crucially, the application to be allowed to stay in the UK. Alem is a thoughtful and stoical boy, and the story is told simply and directly. But we feel his pain when he is subjected to bullying and racism as he tries to fit in with his new life. Fortunately his foster parents are patient and understanding as they tread the difficult path between guiding him and giving him his own space.

Eventually Alem’s father arrives back in England, with the news that his mother has been killed. Father and son submit a joint application to stay in this country. It is rejected, prompt

ing a swelling of support for them from the local community. Sadly, before their appeal is heard, Alem’s father is shot dead – probably by an Ethiopean or Eritrean group. Subsequently Alem is given leave to remain in the UK and the book ends on a positive note.

“If good can come from bad, I’ll make it,” says Alem.

FROM THE HEART:

It’s a sentiment that no doubt comes from the heart for the author. Benjamin Zephaniah, I discovered, had a difficult childhood. His family was from Jamaica and he was born in Handsworth, where he spent some time in an approved school and was barely literate when he left. Coming to London at the age of 20, he joined a workers’ co-operative in Stratford and embarked on his career as a poet. He is a left wing activist and regards Tony Benn as his mentor. Much of Zephaniah’s work is with disadvantaged youngsters, and to them he can speak with an authoritative voice.

Although Refugee Boy turns out well for our protagonist, Alem, it reminds us of the many whose cases are rejected and who are sent back to face an uncertain future in their country of origin. Although the Ethiopian/Eritrean war officially ended in 2000, there are still tensions, and border disputes rumble on.

WHO NEEDS LIBRARIES?

In John Wilmot on February 21, 2011 at 1:36 pm

All of us!

The cutback in the library service throughout the country has provoked a massive campaign against the closure of what had become familiar and reassuring literary centres in communities throughout the country. Public libraries have long been used by folk from across the age and social range. They have encouraged youngsters to read – and ensured that the habit remained with them throughout their lives. They have become centres of research – and even just places to meet.

We can thank the Victorians for the first libraries as we know them today. It was they who passed the Public Libraries Act of 1850, at a time when the spread of literacy was regarded as vital in a civilised society.

County libraries, however, only came into being after 1888 – the year when county councils were set up as units of local government. This allowed the spread of libraries from the bigger urban centres into the rural communities. And mobile libraries came into use to spread the practice of reading even more widely, to scattered homes and amongst those unable to travel.

Many of those who have joined the campaign against library closures are those who, early in their lives, learned the value of reading and went on to treasure books as they grew older. They’ve learned how important libraries can be.

Now, it seems, the barbarians are in our midst, and the library network built up over a century or more is being dismembered and  fragmented.

JOHN WILMOT

Nuclear time bomb on our doorstep:

In A.Graham on February 21, 2011 at 1:33 pm

The Oldbury nuclear power station, situated down river from Lydney docks, is now on its last legs. But rather than merely decommissioning it, the Government has been backing plans to replace it with a new nuclear energy site that will be some seven times the size of the present one!

Because of its the size, it will be the only nuclear installation in Britain that will need cooling towers. These would either be 200-foot “short” ones, or 600-foot edifices that would dwarf the Severn Bridge. How that would affect the natural beauty and habitats of the Severn Vale remains to be seen! Inhabitants of communities around Thornbury have been campaigning against this monster on their doorstep for some time. All the inherent dangers in a nuclear power station will be multiplied by the sheer size of the project. And in a leaflet issued last month, the campaigners add the point: “did you know that you’ve been volunteered for high level radioactive waste to be stored there for 160 years, the ‘interim’ solution for nuclear waste storage?”

We can assume that a decision on whether to go ahead with this hazardous development is imminent. The “consultation” period closed on January 24 – and no doubt an announcement will emerge fairly soon.

Oldbury on fire in 2007, from the Dean side

It will follow a long and sustained campaign by local communities who are concerned not only about the disruption to the locality but also, for many, the presence of what could be a ticking time bomb on their doorstep. So far there is no such thing as completely “safe” nuclear energy.

The possibilities range from low-level leakage of radiation (which has occurred in many cases) to the kind of full scale disaster that happened in Chernobyl, and nearly took place at Three Mile Island in the USA. That, of course, is a “worst case scenario”!

But add the problems of security at such sites, the pollution caused by mining for uranium, and the mounting problems of nuclear waste storage and disposal, and one is left wondering why it’s considered worth it.

Review: ‘All Quiet on the Orient Express’

In C.Spiby, Reviews on February 15, 2011 at 4:46 pm

by Magnus Mills

This remarkable novel deals with the love of labour. And it does so uniquely. Imagine William Morris writing Emmerdale, all wrapped up in with a Wickerman touch of paranoia.

All Quiet on the Orient Express takes as its main theme the efforts of one man seeking to employ himself creatively in spite his newly borne freedom. In this sense it is an existential work but in an incredibly banal yet paradoxically readable way. Apparently on his way to travel to India, our protagonist is diverted by one and then another job for Mr. Parker, owner of the campsite he happened to be staying on come end of season. The endlessness of the chores recall Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, but this is a thoroughly English book and it is as interested in the value of work as it is in the absurdist, Kafkaesque situation.

In some senses the novel is a frank piece of rather old-fashioned social realism – imagine kitchen sink transposed to the twisty lanes and farmyard fronts of the Lake District a la Postman Pat or Whistle Down the Wind. But there’s a twist to this texture where on the surface of things nothing much happens at all. For example, one of the most dramatic moments is when our quiet antihero is painting a gate and a visiting milkman accidently knocks it over spilling its contents all over the roadway. He makes the best he can of a bad job by turning the splodge spillage into a green square and that’s just what this book is about: the struggle to be creative in one’s work despite the attempts (deliberate or otherwise) to disrupt the quiet peace of crafting an end-product. And, from a narrative perspective, the incident is an important one.

The mystery of local folk, especially Bryan in his cardboard crown and the various sidelines of Mr. Parker are both captivating, and the characterisation excellent.

The feel of its setting – the Lake District and, most notably its pubs – and of local, rural Britain is pervasive and, I’m sure for any British socialist, the book is contagious in its depiction of the leisure found in creative labour or being at rest while at work, as well as being at true rest (boat-rowing on the lakes or evenings at a warm pub playing darts with plenty of Topham’s Ex on tap).

On the other hand, the noise of interpersonal relationships and common misunderstandings disrupt this pleasure. Indeed, the coy politeness of our protagonist is the reason why he takes on so many tasks of which hold scant personal gain and it is this that often sees him exploited. These are things that spoil the beauty of the realm of physical, creative work. It is the labour itself that rewards the worker with a reduction of his world, personality and anxieties, no its capital value. It’s like gardening – the people’s art; a love of life through labour.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Marx, Morris nor Engels but a Cistercian Abbot (Andre Louf) who once wrote ‘We must work with some material substance that resists us, and against which we have to pit ourselves to reshape it.’ [1] Just as Magnus Mills has crafted a book of deceptively simple words and slender paragraphs, our protagonist labours before us fashioning a work of brilliant social realism, deadpan humour and life-enriching fiction. Indeed, I immediately sought out more Mills, which is as a reader has to be the best kind of recommendation.

[1 cited in Tobias Jones’ ‘Utopian Dreams’ (Faber & Faber, 2007)]