Yippee! Our forests are safe, for now

Looking back at the Save Our Forests campaign

Across the Middle East grassroots movements are toppling governments one after another like dominoes. Tunisia and Egypt are already down, and Libya and Yemen are next in line. Somewhat less momentously, but just as effectively, a home-grown movement of our own back here in the UK has caused the government to back down on a controversial policy to sell our publicly-owned forests to help plug the budget deficit to the tune of £350 million.

Timber stacks in the Forest of Dean
Timber stacks in the Forest of Dean

Three weeks ago I lamented the fact that after years of indifference to politics I had decided to join a mass movement against government policy, little imagining that it would have any effect at all, let alone force a dramatic u-turn so quickly. For the Save Our Forests campaign, spearheaded by online campaigning collectives such as 38 Degrees, Save Our Woods and Save Our Forests, and supported by a great many local groups around the country, of which Save Lakeland’s Forests and HOOF were among the most vocal, was very much a grassroots movement, with members of the public combining and uniting to protect the forests against commercial interests, maintain public access and the right to roam through woodlands, and preserve the woodland landscape for wildlife.

The campaign began with a petition which received over half a million signatures. Members of the public responded in their thousands to a consultation launched on 27 January on how the forests should be sold, and a great many of us wrote to our MPs to vote against the government in a debate in parliament on 2 February. On 30 January a large public rally took place at Grizedale in Cumbria, and there were many smaller rallies throughout the country.

Ultimately, larger environmental bodies waded into the debate and lobbied the government behind the scenes, but not before the scale of the public reaction had embarrassed them into action. On 5 February the environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt reported in his blog that the large environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, and the RSPB – organisations you would expect to unite behind a cause so close to their values – had been conspicuous by their absence throughout the campaign. There were even suggestions of vested interests. The government had hinted at some of the more historic ‘heritage’ woods being given away to organisations with the right credentials, and some people were likening the NGOs to vultures gathering round a kill.

Woodland Trust bluebell woods on Offa's Dyke Path
Woodland Trust bluebell woods on Offa’s Dyke Path

The first of these sleeping giants to be spurred into action was the WWF, who announced their stance on 7 February, and with their international focus could not be accused of having vested interests. The other NGOs, including the National Trust, followed suit later that week, and ultimately their opposition and lobbying behind the scenes contributed to the government’s decision to backtrack, for the proposals to sell our forests would not have worked without their cooperation. Popular protest in an established democracy like ours requires the big guns to join in sooner or later to have an effect on policy, but it was very much grassroots action that spearheaded the campaign to get to that point, and it is we the public who can take the lion’s share of the credit.

So where do we go from here?

I began this post by saying our forests are safe, for now. The government has backed down, but this does not mean that all threats to our forests have now vanished. The Woodland Trust has pointed out that ancient woodlands have been threatened by development for years, and this remains the case. While clauses have now been removed from the Public Bodies Bill which would have enabled the government to sell off the entire forest estate, they are still entitled by law to sell 15%, which they may well try to do quietly at a later date. The Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who has displayed a lack of understanding of the public mood throughout the campaign, has announced a review of the forests to report back in the autumn. The threat remains.

And what of the main political parties? For me the two issues which motivated me to join the campaign were public access to land, and environmental responsibility for the benefit of wildlife. The Labour Party have remained opposed to the sell off throughout. This is consistent with their policies in office, when they introduced the Right to Roam in the form of the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which opened up millions of hectares of privately owned land to the public. They introduced incentives to farmers for maintaining their land in a way that encouraged wildlife. It is also consistent with their ideology of investing in the state and expanding public ownership.

Beech woods near Henley-on-Thames
Beech woods near Henley-on-Thames

The Conservatives have shown that their ideology of a smaller state, with fewer public assets and encouraging private ownership of public services, remains their driving force. The flagship of this ideology is the concept of the Big Society, which encourages individuals to be charitable and look after one another, rather than relying on the state to do it for them. This suggests to me that public access is not a priority for them. I am more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt over their environmental credentials, and for now will accept that the forest sell-off proposals were simply a cock-up, as one Downing Street official was reported as saying last week.

As for the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ partner in coalition, I’m none the wiser. The overwhelming majority of their MPs toed the party line and voted in favour of the sell off during the 2 February debate. It’s possible that their ministers lobbied behind the scenes – many of their MPs have constituencies with forests earmarked for sale – but if this is the case then they’re keeping tight-lipped about it, which may not help them in the long run.

But for me this episode has restored my faith in democracy and reignited a tiny flame of interest in politics. A friend said to me earlier this week, when we were talking about the forest sell off, that she was annoyed when Gordon Brown sold the country’s gold reserves. This is the sort of statement that, when announced by a journalist or politician, makes me apathetic to politics. I couldn’t care less about the country’s gold reserves – they’re an abstract, meaningless concept to me. While I’m sure an economist might tell me otherwise, my natural inclination would be to say if you keep something in a cellar and never bring it out then you might as well sell it for all the good it’s doing. Our forests, however, are a different matter altogether. As a keen walker, the Right to Roam legislation has made a great deal of difference to my quality of life, and I have taken advantage of it on many occasions since. I’m reminded of it every time I open an Ordnance Survey map and see large patches of yellow indicating access land I can ramble across.

It’s a comfort to see that a bad idea can have a positive effect. I hope that more people will be encouraged by the Save Our Forests campaign into exercising their democratic right to peaceful protest. I hope that more MPs will behave like Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP for New Forest East, who put the wishes of the people who had voted for him above the wishes of his party, and courageously stood up in parliament and spoke out against the proposals. Equally courageous was Robert Beaney, the Chairman of the Forestry Commission, guardians of our public forest estate, who stood up for his employees and spoke out against the government in an open letter to the Prime Minister. I hope he keeps his job and is now allowed to get on with what he does best: managing our forests.

But credit where credit’s due. It was a bad idea, but thank you Mr Cameron for listening to us and abandoning it. Please don’t be tempted to sneak it back onto the agenda again.

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