05. 01. 2011

Stirrings in the Forest of Dean

HOOF (as in Hands Off Our Forest – the Forest in question being the Forest of Dean) organised a Rally on Monday to drum up support for its campaign against the possible sale of the Forest. It was an inspiring occasion – around 3000 people from within and beyond the Forest, single-mindedly intent on doing everything in their power to de-rail the Government’s privatisation proposals.

Watching them march onto the Speech House Meadow, before the Rally, I was reminded of the Duke of Wellington’s words on reviewing a new consignment of troops during the Spanish campaign in 1809:

“I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they terrify me”.

You have indeed got to be a brave man to take on the Foresters, and though they’ve lost a few battles over the years, they’ve won many more.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mark Harper (the local Tory MP) chose not to attend. He would certainly have had a robust welcome. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Mark Harper has chosen to antagonise his constituents from the very start. He’s attempted to characterise them either as lacking the intellectual wherewithal to understanding the essence of the Government’s proposals, or as a ramshackle bunch of ranting lefties.

Even more foolishly, he set out to persuade them that this is all about giving them the opportunity to buy and manage what are now State assets. From ‘Big Government/State’ to ‘Big Society’.

But people in the Forest of Dean already see ‘the Dean’ as their forest. Many speakers on Monday referred eloquently to the historical rights and entitlements fought for seriously over the centuries. Legally, it may be a State asset, managed on behalf of the State by the Forestry Commission, but that’s just a technicality as far as the local community is concerned. The excellent relations that exist between the Foresters and the Forestry Commission rely in large part on an implicit understanding about ‘ownership’ - in all its different meanings.

So Mark Harper gets little credit for offering to sell off something to people who already think they own it!

What encouraged me most about the Rally was the understanding of just how urgently we are going to have to move on this one. The Public Bodies Bill (which will give the Government all the powers it needs to sell off the whole of the Public Forest Estate) is already in the House of Lords – even though there’s been no Green Paper, no consultation of any kind, and no White Paper. It’s quite clear what the Government’s agenda is here: to get far-reaching enabling legislation in place before people wake up to the scale and impact of what they are planning.

The message from the Forest of Dean on Monday – to local communities all across England – was crystal clear: wake up to what’s happening, don’t be seduced by the Government’s honied words about local ownership, get mobilised and prepare for the fiercest of fights.

That’s the only way we are going to win this one.

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Comments

05. 01. 2011
Siamak Alimi

Well said Jonathon. I couldn't believe my ears when back in Nov Mark Harper told me, on my doorstep, that we are all being hysterical. He had never seen me before and had no idea whether I was a conservative supporter or not. I put his out of place comment down to him being shaken by the strength of the opposition. He seemed visibly rattled too having talked in person to a few local residents of Coalway. He never came back knocking on doors in Coalway or anywhere else in his constituency as far as I am aware!

He couldn't tell me what was exactly in the Whitepaper but was expecting me to accept his assurances blindly. What does he take us for?!!

06. 01. 2011
Gabriel Hemery

I wish I had been there Jonathon as it sounds like an amazing turn out. It is interesting that even when you provide a wealth of independent information to the public (see www.GabrielHemery.com) that at the end of the day, however much the Government hope to persuade the public that this is a chance for them to have 'ownership' of the nation's forests, that emotions run as deep as the trees in the forests. As you say so eloquently, the people in the Dean already see the Forest as theirs and hold the Forestry Commission in very high regard. It will be an interesting battle.

06. 01. 2011
Paul Beevers

What is no less alarming is the model of new woodland creation and management that the government it seems to me is espousing through its approach. I can only envisage tree farms like the wheat and barley prairies we have now or the willow and miscanthus fields that are being grown in the same way and with massive public subsidies that cost all of us while profiting the few once again. Big investors will be attracted, possibly from overseas, and once in they will demand that government reduces restrictions increases incentives and allows them greater freedom to develop land with tacky cash generating projects to enrich their profits. Sustainable productive woodland, biodiversity and public access will be a dream.

07. 01. 2011
Mike Edwards

Well said Jonathan. I was at the rally on Monday (in fact I sang 3 songs at it - the protest song is alive again!) and was moved and impressed, not only by the speakers, but by the broad church of people that turned out to support the campaign. Young, old, all layers of society - it was as varied a crowd as you would see anywhere (emphasising the human rather than political nature of HOOF).

How can we scale up this protest and take it to the heart of Government? What worries me is that, although nationally, there will be a feeling of support for this issue, there seems to be no co-ordintaed point to organise a civilised national protest - and the media so far has failed to raise the issue to the level it deserves. There's no National Union for Trees & Boars, no United Front for the Oak and the Cuckoo - yet ask any person in any street in the UK what they think and I'm sure the majority would be for conservation of our green and pleasant land.

08. 01. 2011
Christie Arno

I believe it is essential to question the way in which this Act has been steamrollered through.
It is one step further away from parliamentary democracy....I am still unbelieving of the passive unprotesting stance of both houses over this .
There are, no doubt, those with vested interests but surely there are still some true parliamentarians out there. Everybody please write to MPs , yes, but at the moment to all Peers on the cross benches , libs /dems and tories....we really need their support to stop this bill, this juggernaut of dictatorial opportunism that is setting an awesome precedent constitutionally as well as asset stripping our small precious fragments of "wilderness".

08. 01. 2011
Christie Arno

I believe it is essential to question the way in which this Act has been steamrollered through.
It is one step further away from parliamentary democracy....I am still unbelieving of the passive unprotesting stance of both houses over this .
There are, no doubt, those with vested interests but surely there are still some true parliamentarians out there. Everybody please write to MPs , yes, but at the moment to all Peers on the cross benches , libs /dems and tories....we really need their support to stop this bill, this juggernaut of dictatorial opportunism that is setting an awesome precedent constitutionally as well as asset stripping our small precious fragments of "wilderness".

10. 01. 2011
Elizabeth

What you say is very alarming : "The Public Bodies Bill" already in the House of Lords, which will allow the Coalition to sell off any State-owned asset. Since "we" already own these, we should be consulted, surely?

15. 01. 2011
Carl Zacharia

A clear commitment from the Labour Party, Green Party and Trades Unions to re-nationalise all forests is needed. I wouldn't necessarily trust any of them to actually go through with it, but the phrasemongary could harm sales and perhaps derail the project.

27. 01. 2011
James

The bill passing through the House of Lords
(who are of course the landed gentry)will fight this bill tooth and nail, in a pigs ear.

30. 01. 2011
John Thurston

A question please. How do you see the latest comments by Caroline Spelman that the Forest of Dean will be exempted from the the Public Bodies Bill and thus never able to be sold off without an Act of Parliament?
Thanks

06. 02. 2011
Jill

And a question from me. Is tehre any accurate infomation to be found on the future of the ew Forest in Hampshire. Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) is giving this his whole-heartened endorsement. Julian Lewis, New Forest East is totally oppposed as was seen in Commons last week. Is the East more vulnerable - near the urbanised Southampton Water? I can find no specific information

14. 01. 2011
Peter Taylor

You mentioned in the second to last paragraph 'no consultation of any kind' is to be taken prior to the sell off.
There was a public consultation run by the Labour Government in Autumn 2009 about the future of the Forestry Commission (FC). It seems that the Coalition is just choosing to ignore the findings, preffering to spend Public money to 'rig' a new one?

The Public were asked if they felt that Public Forests should be managed using a different organisation. The findings concluded that many people feel that FC woodlands contribute across a wide range of agendas & people are concerned what happens in the future. Additionally, many place a particular value on the size of the FC estate as there is the space for a huge range of activities to be held.

The consultation paper holds a lot of interesting facts about the FC and can be found at:-

http:www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-7jchmjm

24. 01. 2011
Jane Colvin

There is a petition being co-ordinated by 38degrees: www.38degrees.org.uk

Personally I see the plans to sell off the nationally owned woodlands as a short term fix to the country's funding crisis with no consideration for the long term problems which we face and which will only be exacerbated by further depletion of woodland habitat. We need to increase our woodland cover and protect the paltry bits of ancient woodland we still have if we are to stand a chance at slowing species loss, at making some attempt to tackle global warming, of protecting our woodland carbon sinks, and of protecting one of our few renewable resources. How can we complain about deforestation in other countries if we just stand back and let our government wash it's hands of the responsibility to maintain the woodland which is currently still ours.

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