Monday, February 7, 2011

English woodlands under Tory threat


Plans by Britain’s Conservative Party government to sell off all of England’s public forests have sparked a rural revolt and mass public outrage across the country.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tory government has announced that it plans to sell off 15 per cent of all English land managed by the
government-owned Forestry Commission by 2015 – the largest sell-off the Government can authorise without an act of parliament – for around £100 million.

There are also plans to sell the remaining 85 percent, and a clause in a new Public Bodies Bill would give the Environment Secretary the power to do so – the biggest change in land ownership in England since the Second World War.

The Forestry Commission manages over 250,000 hectares – almost 20 percent of the total woodland in England – comprising approximately 1,500 forests, including the New Forest, the ancient and beautiful Forest of Dean, and parts of the famous Sherwood Forest.

The public forest estates in Wales (126,000 hectares) and Scotland (660,000 hectares) – also managed by the Forestry Commission – remain under the control of the devolved assemblies in those countries (rather than the UK government). There are no plans to sell off the Scottish forests, and the Welsh Assembly has said it will keep forests in public ownership.


While Britain’s 4.5 percent tree cover is pitiful compared to Germany (25%), France (26%), and Italy (24%), these areas remain a vital element of Britain’s biodiversity.

In Sherwood Forest alone, nearly a thousand trees are over 600 years old and the forest houses 1500 species of beetle and 200 types of spiders. More than 25 percent of the English forestry estate is not even woodland at all, but bog or heath, with their own unique species of plants and animals.

In addition, the forestry commission also owns 3,500 hectares of farmland, stone and gravel quarries, "holiday" and "recreation" land and 580 assorted buildings ranging of various sizes.

The forest industry in Britain has been run by the state since 1919. The Forestry Commission regulates the way woods are managed through a combination of rules and grants, and forests provide around 167,000 jobs across Britain.

They also see over 40 million visitors – more than travel to the English seaside – who walk, run, bike, picnic and or otherwise freely access publicly owned English woods and forests every year.

Understandably, then, access remains an important point of contention. The Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000, ensures that almost all commission-owned land has at least walking access.

Of the 200,000 or so hectares held in freehold by the forestry commission, 92% is either dedicated under CRoW for access on foot or for access guaranteed in perpetuity.

If this land is sold, the new owners will by law have to respect these access rights, but there are fears that owners will not be obliged to maintain footpaths or keep down bracken, and that thousands of kilometres of what are now publicly maintained paths and tracks will just disappear.

The privatisation is being touted by the goverment and its apologists as an example of Cameron’s “Big Society” taking over from “Big Government”.

"People have not woken up yet to the implications of this bill," Jonathon Porritt, former sustainable development commission chair, told The Guardian on January 3. “This could be a turning point as people realise that all this rhetoric about the 'big society' is just another way of describing an ideological-led privatisation campaign."

Porritt also suggested that Forestry Commission land may not be up for sale simply for its trees, but for the coal and other resources beneath it, as well as for use as windfarms, holiday villages, roads and so on.

Porritt – also a former head of Friends of the Earth – has accused the major environmental groups of a "massive failure of collective leadership" in the campaign, adding that they “look foolish and irrelevant as one of the largest grassroots protests this country has seen for a long time grows and grows without them – indeed, despite them."

With the exception of Greens MP Caroline Lucas, British politicians have also been slow on the uptake. It took Labour leader Ed Miliband until January 30 to decide that “free market ideology has no place in our ancient forests”.

It may not be coincidence, however, that political interest in the firesale only really took off when suggestions were floated that the privatisation of forests could be used as a tax dodge for the filthy rich. In England, forests avoid capital gains tax, income tax and – perhaps most importantly – inheritance tax.

Another concern is that that energy companies will buy up the forests to burn as a biofuel, enabling them to claim subsidies for the “green energy” produced.

The public revolt against the privatisation is beginning to shake the government. In addition to widespread protests, tens of thousands of emails have been sent to local MPs (particularly Tories in marginal electorates), and local groups are springing up from one end of the country to the other.

According to a recent YouGov poll, around 85 percent of Britons oppose the sell-off, with only 2 percent in support.

A petition against the sale has already gathered half a million signatories, and 100 high profile individuals – including the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, actress Dame Judy Dench, musician Annie Lennox and author Bill Bryson – have published a letter in The Sunday Telegraph newspaper opposing the move.

There is building talk of a Tory and Lib-Dem backbench rebellion over the sale, as conservative and rural constituents let their MPs know what they think. Forest of Dean Tory MP Mark Harper was pelted with eggs by demonstrators after leaving a public meeting in Coleford, Gloucestershire.

Even the staunchly conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph has joined the opposition, featuring a front page cartoon of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet locked out of a privatised Hundred Acre Woods.

This isn't the first time forest privatisation has cause political unrest in Britain, or Europe. In 1993, John Major’s Conservative government was forced to abandon plans to privatise forests after huge protests erupted across the country.

More historically, one of Karl Marx’s very first pieces of political journalism – and a spur to his study of political economy – was the privatisation and enclosure of the Prussian woods. The laws prevented peasants from collecting fallen wood in the forests as they had always done traditionally, criminalising them by classing their activity as theft.

The struggle for England’s forests is a continuation of this same battle to defend the commons, to achieve social and environmental justice, and to overcome the ravages of neoliberalism that threaten to destroy our planet.

To sign the online petition go to:
http://www.38degrees.org.uk
For more information, visit: http://saveourwoods.co.uk/facts-figures/

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