Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

REPORT:Going forth into the Wilderness – to occupy *UPDATED*

In A.Graham, Editorial on March 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm

The Wilderness Centre, up in the Forest near Plump Hill is known and loved by many folk in the Forest, and by the schools and other groups who have visited.

It has been administered, on behalf of the community by the Gloucestershire County Council – until the decision was taken to close it as part of the ongoing cuts.

But in January a group have occupied the centre, with the intention of running this community asset as it should be run. And Mark Hawthorn, leader of the County Council was not happy at this development..

According to a statement issued by those in occupation at the centre, the volunteers “have moved in to serve as caretakers and run it on a voluntary basis.

“We wish to work with the Friends of the Wilderness Centre and Gloucestershire councils to keep the centre open for the benefit of the local community and involve them in the process of deciding what the future of the centre should be.

“We believe there is an urgent need now more than ever to keep community hubs and educational spaces open so people can come together to learn skills and share ideas. These spaces empower and enable communities collectively to forge a truly sustainable economy and local resilience for for the times ahead.

“This closure is an especially big blow to local young people as it is depriving them of a means to learn about their ecological environment, learn skills to provide employment, and is taking away their heritage.

“We follow in the footsteps of the HOOF campaign whose efforts led to the protection of the forest for future generations. ”

HOSTILE:

The response from Councillor Mark Hawthorne was hostile. He declared that the centre’s occupants were trespassing. He threatened legal action to evict them – and complained of the cost to the County of enforcing such action and introducing security measures.

“…Council Tax payers will have to foot the bill for any additional security that is needed and for hefty legal costs if we have to go through the courts to get them to leave the site,” he said.

We have news for Mark Hawthorne. His Council are the custodians of a community asset which it is supposed to administer on behalf of the people of the Forest and others who may care to use it. By closing down the centre in the first place, the County Council are in abuse of their role as custodians.

If Hawthorne is concerned about the costs involved in taking action against those occupying the centre, the answer is simple. Don’t take action. Work with those at the centre, and let them know that the Council is on their side.

Or does he have other plans for this very special site?

Ironically, Hawthorne seems to be out of step with his party leader here. The occupation of the Wilderness Centre is surely in tune with Cameron’s espousal of the “big society” – or have we got it all wrong?

As we go to press, the situation at the centre remains fluid. The threat of eviction remains, whilst those occupying the centre press ahead with ideas to involve the community in the future of the Wilderness. This could be an opportunity – if it’s not strangled by the intransigence of the County Council.

SPECIAL SUPPLEMENT: MARCH 2012

SAVING THE WILDERNESS

The Wilderness Centre at Plump Hill near Mitcheldean is special. It’s special to our environment, and to the thousands who’ve visited it over the years and used its services.

Formerly the grounds of a country estate, the Wilderness was opened under the auspices of the Gloucestershire Youth Service back in 1969, to operate as a field studies centre. And for over forty years it was open to visiting school parties, community groups and exchange visits by those from abroad.

It was an ideal spot – and not just for the scenery alone! It includes woodland and meadow land and buildings for study and teaching. For those concerned with our environment, and the interaction of nature with our own footfall on the land we inhabit, it is indeed special.

COUNTY COUNCIL:

The Gloucestershire County Council has been the custodian of this very important site. Maybe it’s been important to us – but to those in County Hall it has been merely a site, with no appreciation of its special significance.

In August last year, following the Council’s round of swingeing budget cuts which affected both the library service and county youth service in particular, the Wilderness Centre was closed down.

That, it seemed, was that. The County Council had achieved a fait accompli. But then, in January 2012, the Wilderness was once more in the news. A group calling themselves “Occupy the Wilderness” moved into the

The aim was to restore the Wilderness, through direct action, to its original purpose – that of providing a centre for the benefit of the community and those who appreciated our natural surroundings, and who could learn from them.

“ILLEGAL”:

The response by Council chiefs was immediate. They declared that the action was “illegal”. Security guards were called in to patrol the perimeter, and Mark Hawthorne (leader of the County Council) bemoaned the “cost to Council Tax payers” of this security and of taking legal action.

On Monday, March 5th, those who had taken part in the occupation appeared in Gloucester County Court on charges of trespass. The hearing lasted two days, and the defendants were found guilty.

But the occupation has continued, and those occupying the Wilderness Centre have continued to try to put their ideals into action.

A BUY-OUT?

What the County Council initially wanted to do with the Wilderness is not known. But it has now agreed to talk to the “Friends of the Wilderness” about selling the site, who aim to restore it as a field study centre. But they have been set a target of raising one million pounds, to cover the purchase of the site from the County Council and the start-up costs to get the centre up and running again.

INTERVENTION;

The latest development in the Wilderness saga has been an intervention by a group of academics, who have put their names to a letter given front page coverage in the Review on March 14th. To quote the Review, those who signed up to the letter “slammed Gloucestershire County Council’s closure of the Wilderness Centre outdoor learning centre…”

The letter pointed out that it was twenty years ago this year that the Rio Earth Summit took place, calling for us “to think global, act local” to sustain our environment.

The signatories to the letter asked the question, “Does an environmental/outdoor education centre have a role to play…?” Their answer was “We think so. And we write to you from different parts of the world to express our concern and opposition to the decision to close down and sell the Wilderness Centre at Mitcheldean.”

Judging by his response, Councillor Mark Hawthorne simply doesn’t get it. But we do. And the fight to save the Wilderness continues.

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  1. I was there for a visit to the RtF gathering accompanied by a Friend of the Wilderness Centre, incognito.

    What we understand from the protesters is that they’ll vacate provided the council agrees to sell to Friends of the Wilderness Centre or similar environmental education group. FotWC plans are to extend into the development of local sustainable activities and the role you describe.

    Those present at the Miners’ Hall meeting were in general agreement that a cooperative form should adopted for the new organisation. Perhaps the ideal would be a Bencom or Community Benefit Society which some within to coop movement describe as a “cooperative for the greater good”

    We understand that Gloucestershire CC is a corporate body and perhaps as such, cannot be considered sufficient responsible to be custodians of such a community resource.

    Many would argue that the community should not have to purchase what is already theirs. A reasonable stance, but unlikely to prevent the council from selling to the highest bidder, without regard for environmental education needs.

    “Big Society” has already been demonstrated to be a sham. The usual suspects taking on a new identity, but still keeping others away from the table.

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