Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

HOOF AND THE ELECTION

In O. Adams on March 26, 2015 at 1:46 pm

un-edited preview from the next edition of the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion
Guest feature by Owen Adams

AT the time of writing I have so far received two pieces of election propaganda – from the Conservatives and UKIP. Both pledge they will prevent the Forest of Dean from being privatised.

Both parties know this is a vote-winner, as I’m sure all other candidates standing will know as well. But it’s all very well saying it – how will they do it?

As regular Clarion readers will know, I have my own political views – I agree fully with the Clarion principles and my aspiration is for full communism (not the Leninist kind, but the sort advocated by Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Bakunin etc). Realistically though I doubt whether this is around the corner! I am also the secretary of the Hands Off Our Forest campaign, which aims to represent everyone regardless of their political views or voting intentions.

HOOF has resolutely avoided being aligned with any political party and we will continue to remain independent, yet lobbying all parties. We have an unwavering champion in the House of Lords – Jan Royall, who helped found HOOF back in October 2010 – and our Green MEP, Molly Scott-Cato is also working with us in Brussels. What we really need though is a champion in the House of Commons and a district council also on our side.

To this end, we are writing to every council and parliamentary candidate asking if they will back three pledges: to back us when we call for adequate resources for the English Public Forest Estate; to support us in our bid to secure community representation in the future management of our Forest (and others); and for a special status for the Forest of Dean to protect its unique customs.

We are also staging a hustings event at the Forest Theatre, Five Acres, from 6.30pm on April 22 – a Question Time-style event titled Our Forest My Vote, to which we are inviting every parliamentary candidate to take part on a panel alongside HOOF chairman Rich Daniels and chaired by the retired Bishop of Liverpool, who also headed the Independent Panel on Forestry which recommended community overseers, or guardians, to be given seats at the top table of management.

Our call for guardians is at odds, however, with the Forestry Commission Trade Unions (perhaps the only difference of opinion we really have), who want things kept as they are, with civil servants and politicians alone able to call the shots. It has also been called into question by both our sitting MP, Mark Harper, and by the Shadow Forestry Minister, Barry Gardiner – who visited us in February. They ask “who will guard the guardians?” We respond: “A parliamentary charter.” Neither the Conservatives or Labour want any power over the future of our Forests relinquished by politicians or senior civil servants.

Also of concern is both parties’ refusal to commit to properly funding the ongoing management of our Forest by the Forestry Commission. Establishing a new economic model based on “natural capital” (as both parties seem intent on doing) is all very well, but in the meantime our Forest is falling to rack and ruin, or being over-harvested, and staffing is at a skeleton level while private contractors ride roughshod over public access and fail to clean up after themselves. As for training a new generation of forestry workers, this is scarcely happening.

Yet the need for a community voice which can have a veto is vividly illustrated by the case of Forest Holidays. In 2012, behind closed doors and without any consultation or even competitive tendering, 80 per cent of the campsites operation was handed over to venture capitalists from Lloyds Banking Group. This, granted, has less repercussions in our own Forest – the sites at Christchurch and adjoining Woodlands have long been used by holiday-makers rather than residents, so swapping hundreds of camping and caravanning pitches with exclusive £800-a-weekend log cabins had little effect on our public access to the woods. But in other public woods, such as Fineshade in Northamptonshire, Houghton in Sussex and Delamere in Cheshire, people faced losing their access to woods entirely. So far councillors in these areas have thrown out these plans; in the Dean, the only councillor (Bill Evans) to raise concerns about the exclusivity of the Christchurch site at planning last year was ignored and the application sailed through without comment.

Jan Royall was contacted by forest campaigners in East Anglia and Sussex and on March 17, she raised the issue in the Lords (this went unreported, sadly) and the Government confirmed that, yes, the venture capitalists could sell on the sites – which have been granted 125-year leases by the Forestry Commission – to anyone. And so, nibble by nibble, the backdoor privatisation of our Forests is continuing regardless of public opinion. Indeed, even the Lib Dem Lord Greaves, who sits on the Defra committee, was unaware of what had transpired, as it seems a single Forestry Commissioner (conveniently retired in late February) was privy to this privatisation. This underlines the need for community representation at the top level of management.

It should also be noted that, while 12 out of 14 parish and town councils visited by HOOF last year gave their full and unequivocal backing to HOOF, Forest of Dean district councillors – acting as if they one big homogenous corporate board of directors – refused to even discuss whether they would back us against proposals to transfer land to the Homes & Communities Agency in the Infrastructure Bill. No thanks to these councillors (but thanks to Jan Royall) we managed to get an exemption for the Public Forest Estate.

To use another example, Mr Cameron has stressed time and time again the Tories are not privatising the NHS – the institution as a whole may remain public, but the components of it are going into private hands. The same, I fear, is what is and will happen to our forests, unless we get a say in it.

Mr Harper and all other candidates will be given the opportunity to explain how they intend to fulfil their promises to protect our Forest from privatisation at the event Our Forest My Vote, Forest Theatre, Five Acres, from 6.30pm. At the time of writing, Labour, Lib Dem, Green and UKIP candidates have confirmed their attendance – we are still waiting on the Conservative candidate. Also as I write we have yet to email all council and parliamentary candidates with the HOOF pledges document.

I hope we get more response than we did when we called on councillors to support HOOF against the Infrastructure Bill last November. The collective near-silence of councillors (you could count on one hand those who responded) was appalling and shameful. Now the sitting councillors standing for re-election have a chance to redeem themselves and commit to supporting the aims of HOOF, a campaign which enjoys – as our extensive consultations have confirmed – massive and widespread support from the Forest population. Unless they sign up to be HOOF champions, and keep their pledges (we will hold them to it), their election promises will be treated with the cynicism they deserve.

And so in conclusion, politicians can say whatever they like about saving the Forest – unless they give communities a right of veto on the sales, leasings and disposals of land and facilities and an overseeing role, and ensure the Forestry Commission can do its job properly without hiving facilities and land to the private sector to balance the books, their promises mean nothing.

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