Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

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.

  1. The Rise of the Tesci Empire – the April/May edition of The Clarion (one of the best yet?) carries news of Tesco’s return to the battle for a Coleford site. What many readers may not know is that plans are now emerging for the building of a Tesco store in Newent on the northern edge of the Forest. Plans are in hand for its erection on the Newent Business Park on the edge of the town. Newent is a compact small town with almost all the services that it needs and the High Street area makes provision for quite a sophisticated range of trade and services. Like most small businesses they have struggled hard to reach this position and the present recession already gives rise to problems. The arrival of a Tesco supermarket would be a death sentence for many of the businesses in the town. Let’s hope that the people of Newent can organise themselves as efficiently as the folk in Coleford in order to defeat the onward march of unbridled consumerism and the unnecessary duplication of services.

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