It was meant to be a three-month public consultation on the disposal of England's Public Forest Estate (PFE), laying out "a new direction for England's forests", but on 17 February, after only three weeks, environment secretary Caroline Spelman was forced to abandon the entire project in what was the Coalition Government's first major U-turn.
Her humiliating climb-down was heralded in the Prime Minister's terse response the previous day to Ed Miliband's question as to whether he was "happy" with his Government's "flagship policy on forests": "The short answer to that is, no." David Cameron was in tune, for once, with over half a million people who signed 38 Degrees' online petition to "Save Our Forests!" and the 84 percent of the public polled the week before the consultation was launched, who were "strongly" against the disposal plans. These demonstrations ofpublic opposition were reflected in rallies and marches at the grassroots - from Alice Holt in Surrey, and the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, to Thetford in Norfolk. But what probably convinced Cameron to order a halt to the disposals were protests closer to home in the House of Commons from his own backbenchers. "That is where I fear my front bench has lost its way," warned Dr Julian Lewis, Conservative MP for the New Forest, pointing out that while not perfect, the Forestry Commission was far from being a monolithic, statist body insensitive to local concerns.
The Government presented the plan to dispose of the PFE as the first manifestation of the Prime Minister's personal project, the "Big Society." DEFRA's press release launching the proposal trumpeted this new Tory take on "people power":
"We want to move from a "Big Government" approach to a "Big Society" one, so that we can give different groups - individuals, businesses and civil society organisations - the opportunity to be involved in managing the natural environment. And we will make sure that public access is maintained and biodiversity protected."
Using a phrase revealing his PR background, Cameron blamed the U-turn on insufficient "pitch-rolling", meaning that ministers should have spent more time nuancing the "messaging" and "engaging stakeholders" to pre-empt any bumps or googlies of dissent. But no amount of pitch-rolling could disguise the fact that the disposal had little or anything to do with enhancing local people's involvement in the running of their woods; but stemmed instead from a historic prejudice against what was seen as one of the last of the nationalised industries, allied to the Treasury's demands for departmental cost savings. Disposing of distant woods run by an inefficient quango would resolve unfinished business and help cut the deficit. Yet official estimates of the book value of selling off all the public woods and forests were, at most, a mere £500 million. On the other hand, an independent economic assessment carried out for the previous government (and therefore ignored) calculated that the PFE delivers goods and services from public access to "ecosystem services" (carbon capture, flood protection and water-catchment management) worth nearly £2 billion annually. Sustaining those public benefits outside public ownership and management by the FC was calculated by government economists to require up to £22 million in grant payments as "It is assumed private owners will only produce the level of public benefits that they are paid to provide."
Robbing Peter to Pay Paul
With the disposal plans halted, public protest and media interest died down, exactly as the PM's intervention intended. Having extinguished the conflagrations threatening several Coalition MPs' constituencies, Government followed up with the classic strategy for smothering any remaining sparks: setting up a "panel of experts" to review the issues and report back with recommendations. The Independent Panel on Forestry came into being a month to the day after the disposal plans were dumped. Since then the panel has been busy visiting some keysites, indicative of the variety and scale of the PFE - for example, Kielder Forest, at 60,000 hectares the largest plantation forest in Northern Europe and also the main refuge for one of our rarest native mammals, the red squirrel; and the former royal hunting forests of Dean and the New Forest, with their own indigenous and fiercely independent inhabitants.
With a dedicated secretariat and Forestry Commission staff on-call for background research, the Panel is scheduled to make its final recommendations in spring 2012. However meaningful these may be - and the Panel has had the sense to canvass views from the public, receiving over 40,000 individual responses - there is real concern over the capacity and resources to implement them. The disposal of the PFE may have been halted, but the Government is rushing ahead with a 25 percent cut to the Forestry Commission's operating budget, forcing a loss of 300-350 jobs from the 1,400 staffwho manage the PFE's 1,500 woods and forests. This pre-emptive strike is blinkered, if not spiteful. Far from being a bloated quango, the Forestry Commission covers over 70 per cent of its running costs from timber sales and other revenue-generating activities. The remaining £ 14-15 million shortfall has been met by public subsidy and selling off small areas of woodland not considered ofsignificant benefit to the public. The latter is not sustainable, but has minimised the burden on taxpayers; as recognised in this comment from a respondent during the 2009 consultation:
"Do you know how much it is per person, per year, for each person in England, the government spends? Thirty pence, 30p, that's the £14m divided up.. .It's such a trivial amount, yet governments for years have agonised over it and said the Forestry Commission doesn't make a profit - but 30p for free access to Alice Holt, and your cycling and so on ... "
The Government assumed "Big Society" would support its plans, trumpeting the notion of national charities, local communities and other civil society organisations taking on their local woods, and out of the hands of "Big Government". It made less noise about touting sites like Kielder, categorised as "Timberland", to Big Business in the form of "an international institutional investor" or Thetford Forest, the largest area of lowland pine in Britain, as ripe for development into a major "Timber & Tourism" theme park. These crude categorisations indicate a total failure to recognise that the public forest estate
is the largest body of land upon which any form of sustainable development is consistently and coherently practised. It is a strategic national resource meriting a national body with oversight and resources to maintain and extend it - one with the intelligence and flexibility to accommodate a range and diversity of local views and arrangements.
During the height of the outcry over the disposal proposals, the Prime Minister mooted in Parliament that perhaps groups like the National Trust or woodland Trust, "could do a better job than the Forestry Commission". That was not the view of many communities across England, for example the 35,000 people who live within the Forest of Dean and understand that, as a public body, the Forestry Commission has a duty to take into account and balance all interests. In contrast, a charitable organisation answers to its Board of Trustees, and to some degree to its members, and will almost always be focussed on a narrower set of interests and concerns. The Forest of Dean has over 30 different user groups; pursuers of diverse hobbies from caving and canoeing to llama trekking and deer stalking, as well as local people making their living in the forest from small-scale free-mining and quarrying, or as smallholders turning out pigs to feed on fallen acorns, or sheep for rough grazing. Balancing these historic rights alongside modern recreational uses and management for commercial timber is a complex and costly business -leaving the Forestry Commission with a deficit for running the Forest of Dean of some £500,000 annually. What charity or community group could take on that cost? Yet over 1.5 million day visitors are drawn to the Dean each year, with another quarter of a million staying longer - precisely because of the range of resources such balanced forest management provides. They bring £110 million into the local economy. At over £200 generated for every £1 of taxpayer support, that's a pretty good return for sustaining a regional economy and local jobs.
Forest Enterprise, the part of the Commission responsible for the public forest estate, is already defined as a public corporation, because it raises more than 50 per cent of its running costs from the sale of goods and services generated from the woods and forests (timber, recreation, joint ventures for leisure
facilities, cafes, car-parking etc.). As a public corporation, the Forestry Commission could follow the path taken by British Waterways, which has moved further away from government to become "a National Trust for the waterways". By spring 2012, it will have separated itself completely to become the "Canal & River Trust". The current website for British Waterways states that it and the new body will set up "Local Partnership Boards" to "give local people more say in the running of the charity". But as in the Forest of Dean, local people may not be keen on a National Trust or Woodland Trust type of body taking charge of what they regard as already theirs, and which is managed to meet a broad range of interests. Nor might the National Trust or Woodland Trust be keen on the FC becoming a charitable trust, because it would be competing with them for public grants. The Government's own economic assessment concluded that there would be little or no saving to the taxpayer, as any new body or bodies would seek grants to pay for the public goods and services previously provided under the FC's management. Alternatively, this could represent £20 million of government money no longer available to other grant seeking organisations.
These financial challenges undermine the Government's claims to want to provide "Big Society" with greater control and ownership of the PFE or to "simply give them away to charities." If not via the taxpayer, who else would fork out the cost of providing public goods and services, for which currently no alternative market mechanism exists? What organisation could take on the £500,000 annual deficit for managing the Forest of Dean, let alone the £2.9 million deficit for the New Forest? Of course, there are many smaller woods with much lower, overall operating budgets - but then even these have high overheads, like the new community woods created on former industrial wasteland which cost over £500 per hectare to maintain.
Will the Real Big Society Please Stand Up?
The Government's disposal plans did indeed bring the Big Society into being - not as envisaged, but in the form of mass opposition to the machinations of Big Government. The Tories' intended statist target, the FC, was embraced as part of Big Society; and the taxpayer subsidy, rather than being resented, was seen as a fair price for all that the PFE provides. Grassroots campaigners protesting against the proposed sale of Kielder as a mere "timber factory" spelt this out by sending Caroline Spelman thousands of individual donations of 30p.
There is an ongoing role for a body such as the Forestry Commission, but a renewed remit and "licence to operate" is required that meets the aspirations and expectations of the half a million-plus people who signed up to the "Save Our Forests!"online pledge, the thousands of people in communities within and around existing public forest estate woods, and millions who might not regularly visit, use or directly benefit from our public woods and forests but still passionately want them to exist. Greater separation is needed from the malign influence of "Big Government", short-term party political prejudice or whim. For most local bodies who want to become more engaged in actively managing their public woods and forests, taxpayer support is needed. Publicly supported local woods and forests will deliver national as well as local benefits.
The outpouring of support for retaining the public forest estate in public ownership from people across alleged political, class and ethnic divides has confirmed that our woods and forests provide something beyond their economic value for producing timber, woodfuel, and as stores of carbon; or for providing wildlife habitat, or even physical access and recreation for millions of people - they provide an elusive sense of shared ownership and cultural connection for which no market mechanism exists, nor should it. In the face of a more benign investigation under the previous government, of the status and
funding of the Forest of Dean, local campaigners carried out a poll of over 1,000 local people to ask them what they most valued about living in the Forest. The overriding answer was "a sense of place and its community". Rather than hiving off places like the Forest of Dean as "unique" and "rarities", we
should be replicating the factors that create that sense of place and community, until they become commonplace.
Robin Maynard is coordinator and a founding member of Our Forests. He has worked for the Forestry Commission, the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth. Our Forests is a ginger group set up to ensure that the Governmentappointed Independent Panel focusses on key issues, considers crucial evidence and grassroots views, in particular those arising from the 38 Degrees petition. They are producing a Forward Vision document, available for public comment and input. http://saveourwoods.co.uk/category/our-forests/