Andy Howell: Political Futures

A leftish, greenish and localist kind of blog

Holding Our Land in Trust for Us, the People

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I write two blog. Must be This Way is by far the more popular and prolific and is a blog for hill walkers and hikers/backpackers. Political Futures is, as it suggests, a blog on politics. Sometimes common themes roll across the two of these blogs, but this is the first time that I’ve ever cross posted to both with the same entry.

My topic is, of course, the coalition government’s plans to sell off a great chunk of our woodland and forest that is currently owned by the Forestry Commission. Many political commentators seem a little surprised that this issue has aroused such passion from all sections of our community. But this is an issue that goes to the very core of our identity as a nation and of our values of public realm and public access.

Forests and woodland have a place deep in the psyche of all Europeans and the English Wood is something that has a special place in the nation’s consciousness. We might not think about forests and woodlands that often but as Simon Schama argued in his classic ‘Landscape and Memory’ our forests and woodlands have shaped out culture and our imaginations and he points out how our response to these has shaped our landscape.

So, our woodlands and forests are dear to our hearts. Some of us use them more than other. For me the great conifer forests of our nation are quite frightening places, not least because these are the only places that I get really lost. More natural woodlands and forests, on the other hand, are magical places. Us hillwalkers climb through them on the way to the uplands. Day ramblers use them as a the focus of a day’s walk. And I know this seems a bit crass, but for many inner city young people the trip to the wood or a forest is an experience that stays with them for the rest of their lives.

The government’s long awaited consultation document has today being called “madcap” a “confidence trick” and “a betrayal of our great assets” and it seems to me that all of these claims are right.

We will get into a real argument about what this will do and what can be done. Can voluntary agencies play a bigger role in the management and the diversification of our forests and woodlands? Well, perhaps they can except the current ones don’t seem confident. This looks to me just another scheme that hands over assets to the private sector for them to be stripped, exploited and devastated.

But forget the technical arguments for a while because this move tells us much, much more about this government’s approach to our world.

I haven’t yet met a single person that doesn’t think this is a mad idea. They don’t talk about technical arguments, the just think that it is wrong. Great natural assets such as these should be in the hands of the state and not private industry.

In objecting to this extreme policy people are effectively endorsing the view that the government does not so much own these assets but is a trustee of them on behalf of the British public. There are, of course, many other great environmental and cultural assets that government also holds in trust for the nation.

It is this notion of trusteeship that should make government politicians stop and think. Are they wanting just to save money or are they just divesting themselves of their responsibilities?

Protestations of increased efficiency are likely to cut no ice with a public that just knows this is wrong. And on a more political note, we can look across the public sector and see no clear benefit for whole range of policies that have ended up shoving public assets into the private sector. Personally I have no problems with the notion of a mixed economy of public services — our public services have grown up in such a way. But I am very suspicious as even Parliamentary Select Committee can see no real financial or efficiency advantage in massive PFI schemes. At the heart of the issue is the profit motive, the need to get not just a return on investment but to screw as much financial return as is possible from a contract against other social need.

Some on the right — slightly bewildered by the response — seem happy to bash on with the confidence that this kind of alignment and pubic coalition only comes along once in a generation. True, this policy may unite Telegraph readers and Guardian readers, inner city people and rural squires, those who just know the woodland is there and those who use it regularly, but they comfort themselves with the view that this is a one off.

My suspicion is that this is not a one off. This is not an issue of right or left. It is a reflection of a wide spread pubic view that this is unfair and plane wrong.

Our notions of landscape may be as deeply routed in our imagination as Schama suggests. Our understanding of the need for government to hold assets and to run services on trust for us the people is more deeply rooted than the cynical minds of this government realise.

The government would be wise to give themselves to stop and take stock. These are not assets for them to dispose of as they fit. We the public understand that government has a real duty of care to our environmental assets. The government will really take a pounding if it doesn’t begin to consider this notion of trusteeship properly. They will be in deep shit as we hillwalkers would put it.

You might like to read the Woodland Trust take on all of this, which is here — Save England’s Ancient Forests. They also have a petition for you to sign.

The Forestry Commission Consultation is here.

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January 27th, 2011 at 6:05 pm

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