Who owns the public woods and forests in England? We do, that is the public do. Who says they should not be sold? We do, that is the public do.
This therefore begs the question: Why are these woods and forests up for sale?
Why is the government not listening? It is not only in the Middle East that there is a lack of democracy, there is a lack in our own back yard, or at least in our woods and forests. A YouGov poll last month found 84% of the British public wanted to see woods and forests kept in public ownership for future generations, ie they did not support the sell-off.
The government is fast backpeddling. They are now saying not all will be sold, that some will be leased. But none of this is good enough. Leased, sold, these woods and forest should be taken off the market.
The amount of money that will be raised is trivial. It may even turn into a loss!
You do not engage in ‘consultation’ when legislation is part-way through Parliament, and yet that is what is happening.
A red herring, if not an outright lie, is now being peddled by the government. Look, we are told, at the decades of mismangement by the Forestry Commission, look at the serried rows of dank conifer plantations, look at the destruction of our native decidous woodlands.
All of which is true, or was true. Much of which was driven by tax breaks in the private sector. None has fought harder than I against such a policy. But the Forestry Commission has learnt over the last couple of decades, forestry is no longer seen as the extraction of timber from a conifer monoculture. Forestry is now seen as woodland and forest management, the importance of the wood and forest as habitat, the importance of biodiversity, the importance of recreation. And now the importance as a carbon sink.
The other argument peddled is that the forests and woods will be more efficiently managed in the private sector. What does this word ‘efficiency’ mean? It means profit, it means maximising short-term profit. This means serried rows of conifers, it means chip and burn, it means exclusion of the public, or restricted to defined routes not free to wander. If no money to be made from the trees, it means leisure parks, holiday camps, it means golf courses, it means car rallies, it means housing and warehouses.
From a biodiversity perspective, efficency means maximisng the biodiversity, but there is no profit in that.
We even have the Orwellian straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four we are selling the woods and forests to ‘protect’ them!
The opposition is not coming from the mainsteam environmental groups, whose deafening silence or worse tacit support has been a disgrace, but has at least exposed their lack of genuine concern for the environment. This is a grassroots campaign. It has upset the public the thought of their favourite haunt being sold to some private corporation whose only interest will be what profit can be wrung out of the wood.
There is no surprise in this. The big groups are businesses, their business is campaigning. Campaigns are PR stunts to raise money. Many simply see the sell-off as an opportunity to expand their real estate, empire building.
I stuck two fingers up to the Woodland Trust years ago. They used to push out leaflets showing their rapidly expanding forestry estate. But that was all it showed. It did not mean these woods had been ‘saved’ as unless they were under threat, what were they being saved from? All that had happend was that the ownership had changed as the Woodland Trust lacked the resources then and I doubt it has the resources now to manage their woodland estate.
Similarly the National Trust. It owns large tracts of the English Countryside. But what in practice does this mean? I used to walk along the south west coast, the Welsh Borders, the Shropshire Hills. The despoilt parts I came across were those owned by the National Trust. I would see signs saying beauty spot, hoardes of grockles, ugly footpaths, car parks, litter, toilet blocks, tea shops. I recall the one valley in the Shropshire Hills the NT owned, the burbling stream was full of coke cans. I remember when Maggie Thatcher wanted to build a nuclear bunker in a woodland, the NT rolled over and gave in. More recently they have sold off land from an estate for housing.
This is not the first time the public has been roused to protect its forests. Around 150 years ago there was a big campaign to save Epping Forest. It was saved by being bought by the City of London and brought into public ownership.
Many of our forests are Royal hunting grounds. The New Forest was established by William the Conquerer.
Our woods and forests are part of our cultural heritage.
We must stop this crass policy dead in its tracks!