Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

The last time they tried to sell the Forest

In A.Graham on May 25, 2011 at 9:25 am

What goes around comes around, so they say. And the attempt by David Cameron’s Government to mount a bargain sale of Britain’s woodlands certainly wasn’t the first time it had been tried. In the Autumn of 1993, John Major’s Tory Government announced that it was to sell all of the Forestry Commission’s woodland – including of course, the Forest of Dean. A campaign of of opposition was soon mobilised, kicking off with a rally at the New Fancy site organised by the Ramblers’ Association. By the end of the year the campaign to save our Forest was mounting, and on January 20 1994, the BBC TV programme Close Up West organised a debate at Speech House on why the Dean was so special to those who lived here.

Robert Rickman, described as a “commercial forest consultant” drew the short straw. He had the task of putting the case for selling off the Forest to a packed, and largely hostile, house. Looking somewhat uncomfortable, he admitted that much of the Dean was managed as a “heritage Forest” but adjacent woodland not only could¬†but should be exploited by commercial operators. Forests, he declared, are part of our natural resources, producing timber, and they weren’t being operated on a commercial basis.

Ian Standing, then curator at the Dean Heritage Centre, made the point that the Forestry Commission has the responsibility of managing and protecting the entire landscape. They weren’t merely responsible for the trees that grow on it. Private companies would be interested solely in increasing income from the woodlands. For those who lived there or visited them, forests were valuable open spaces.

Ralph Anstis took a historical view of his beloved forest, evoking memories of the enclosures and Warren James. And he made the important distinction between the “right of access” and the right to roam, which people enjoy in the Forest of Dean. He had organised a poll of local people, which indicated that 96 per cent of the 2,000 questioned wanted the Forestry Commission to stay.

There were also contributions from freeminers and sheep badgers, outlining their rights and privileges, and how these could be threatened by any sell-off. And Paul Marland, then Tory MP for the Dean, was interviewed. He declared that he didn’t believe there should be any change in the status of the Forest of Dean. “It’s a special case,” he said, and continued that if there was any threat to it, he would “lead a rebellion” in the Commons.

Finally, Robert Rickman conceded defeat. “I can’t see any government trying to change things in the Forest of Dean,” he said ruefully.

So, what’s changed since 1994? Well, we’ve had a change of MP since then. And here it’s perhaps a pity that Mark Harper hadn’t been prepared to learn from past experiences!

Incidentally, as a footnote, although our Forest was saved, the Government continued the piecemeal sale of Forestry Commission assets, until 1998 (after the defeat of Major’s Government). That year the Forestry Commission had been ordered to sell over ¬£40 million’s worth of woodlands – described as “a massive privatisation and loss of public access” by the Ramblers’ Association. That particular sale was halted.

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