Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

The campaign to save the Forest: how HOOF won the day

In A.Graham on May 25, 2011 at 9:44 am
Mobilising opposition to the planned sell-off of Forestry Commission woodland was not going to be easy. The opposition was there – the vast majority of Forest folk were outraged by the plans – but building a concerted, and successful campaign required organisation and determination.

The news that the Government was moving in on our forests came last Autumn, with the announcement that Forestry Commission woodlands were to be sold off. Caroline Spelman, the Minister responsible, presented the move as cutting down on bureaucracy, and freeing up our assets. Other Tories were eager to claim that the Forestry Commission was a “Quango” – which it isn’t and never has been. Incidentally, the sale of forest land was not in the Tory election manifesto, and for many the announcement came out of the blue.

“HOOF” (Hands Off Our Forest) came into being to organise and sustain the campaign against the sell-off. First, there was a need for maximum publicity. Posters were soon appearing throughout the Forest, and yellow ribbons were appearing on trees along the roadside (the idea of one supporter, Sally Albrow). The campaign gained the support of the Forest’s two weekly papers, the Review and the Forester. Meanwhile, the Citizen remained firmly and uncomfortably on the fence.

The first test of support for HOOF came with a meeting in December at the Miners’ Hall in Cinderford. It was packed to the doors. If there were any in the audience who backed the Government’s plans, they kept their mouths shut.

SPEECH HOUSE RALLY:

On New Year’s Day, in cold, grey weather, HOOF attracted over three thousand people to an open-air rally in the Speech House grounds. They stayed to listen to speeches from Jan Royall, Jonathon Porritt, the Bishop of Guildford and a representative of the union that organises the Forestry workers. Braving the snow that started to fall half way through the rally, the crowd stayed to watch the symbolic burning of the House of Commons – the “Mother of Parliament” where the sale (or as many saw it, the theft) of our forests was being considered.

A “CHARITABLE TRUST”?

Then came the announcement that the Forest was not “for sale” after all. Instead, it would be taken over by a “charitable trust” which would ensure that all our rights would be safeguarded. But neither HOOF nor its supporters were taken in by this move. Indeed, backing from the public continued to mount.

On February 4, Mark Harper finally held his “consultation meeting”. However, he had given the public (those with whom he was meant to be consulting) little more than 24 hours notice, and the room in Coleford where the meeting took place was woefully inadequate for the numbers who turned up. But turn up they did, surrounding the “Main Place” building in Coleford, making their opposition clear. Inside, Harper faced a barrage of critical questions and at the end of the meeting was smuggled out by the back door, braving a couple of eggs that were thrown at him before he made his escape.

VICTORY:

The “consultation” period was meant to continue until April 21 – but on February 16, the Government abruptly and ignominiously announced that it was withdrawing its plans. The wholesale disposal of our forests would be abandoned, and instead a panel would be set up to conssider their future. Who would be on this panel, and how it would be constituted was not then known. But Mark Harper, who had found himself defending the Government, must have felt that the rug had been pulled from under his feet. All he could do was assure constituents that the Government had listened to their views and acted accordingly.

But it was a victory for “people power” – mobilised and organised by HOOF. Incidentally, the organisation remains in being. After all no-one knows yet what this panel may pull out of its bag of tricks!

As a footnote (or should that be HOOFnote?), campaigners throughout the country gathered on Sunday, March 20 for a day of activity in the woodlands that they had worked so hard to save.

In the Forest, HOOF chose Wenchford for the occasion. There were no speeches, just a gathering of like minded folk using the occasion to meet, compare notes and enjoy the sunshine. Some came with their families – and their dogs. Children splashed around in the brook, others walked up the valley beneath the trees, or arrived on bicycle with yellow ribbons tied round handlebars.

It seemed a perfect spot for such an occasion.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

SNUBBED:

Hot on the heels of the Wenchford celebrations came the news that the Government had chosen the members of its panel to consider the future of our woodlands. There are no members of HOOF, or indeed other groups in the Forest Campaigns Network on the new panel, which will be headed by the Bishop of Liverpool. He has promised to consult the public – but Ian Standing of HOOF described it as “a snub”.

We will see.

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  1. A good round-up, but everyone should be aware of recent developments. First of all, the shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh met with HOOF at her request last month. She said there was a case for a legal challenge regarding the 15% of public woodlands the Government still intends on selling (following the panel’s review in spring 2012) – there is nothing in current law that states an amount of the public forest estate that can be sold. The Forestry Act 1981 protects the statutory Forest of Dean and some woods from sell-off, but outlying woods – such as Tidenham Chase, Bearse and a number of others are vulnerable to be sold.

    The panel also unanimously decided it would make its first of a number of visits to the Forest of Dean, because we kicked up such a fuss. It will come on June 13, but the venue and the format of the visit has yet to be announced.

    The panel is also asking people everywhere to answer five questions – even if you have said what you think (ie our Forest must remain ours) till you are blue in the face, it’s imperative that you get your say in. See http://archive.defra.gov.uk/rural/forestry/documents/forestry-panel-callforviews-110519.pdf for how to go about it, you have until July 31.

    A number of people on the panel, and charities that might have gained from the Govt proposals to hand our woods over to a trust – ie the Woodland Trust – are doing all they can to steer the argument away from public ownership to saving native species and what they see as the ABCs of forestry (access, biodiversity and conservation). Though these three are important, to HOOF and the numerous other groups within the Forest Campaigns’ Network, the absolute priority is our Forest stays in public ownership and publicly managed by a properly resourced Forestry Commission.

    The FC is being cut to shreds, both in staffing and services it provides – many of its current remit is on its way to the private sector, it will have to rely on the ‘Big Society’ volunteers to carry out conservation and other work. This process will be well underway by the time the panel completes its review.

    Even if, as we hope, the panel delivers the message to the Government that the vast majority of us want our Forest to remain in public hands, we have no guarantee the Government will follow that advice. But we still need to jump through the hoops.

    Finally, on Saturday July 9, a HOOF Day is being planned as a finale to the Coleford Festival of Words. There will be films, talks, artworks, photos etc (a call will go out soon for everyone to bring their banners and other artefacts to be displayed) and also a chance for everyone to take part in evaluating what the campaign has achieved so far, the current situation and what we do in the future.

    So please please, all who read this, answer the panel’s questions by email or post and put Monday June 13 and Saturday July 9 in your diaries, and try to get to both events…

    Over n out, Owen Adams (HOOF press officer, but writing this as an individual – we will issue group info once the steering group has met and agreed on strategy)…

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