Robbing our nation of its woodlands

ForestBy Luke Pollard / @lukepollard

Let’s stay up front that Labour must be careful in how it opposes Tory cuts. Certainly, there are some cuts we would have delivered ourselves if we had won the last election. There are others, though, that we would not have contemplated – where the cost would have been too high and impact too great. Selling our nation’s forests is one such cut too far – but that is precisely what the Tories are doing slowly and quietly.

Robbing our nation of its woodlands is a cause Labour can connect with the whole nation on. It is not a subjective cut where the left will squeal and the right will cheer – selling our woodlands creates a national outcry and a national opportunity for Labour.

The vast majority of the public oppose Tory-led plans to privatise the nation’s forests as confirmed in the latest YouGov poll this weekend. 84% of the public represents Labour voters, Green voters, Tories and Liberal Democrats – a rainbow canopy of support. 84% of the nation is not just an affected minority, it is a national movement waiting to be mobilised.

The campaign by 38 Degrees is welcome and the petition to save our forests is already attracting tens of thousands of names. Will people power work? What we do know is that this government is blinkered and all but blind to the pain and plight it is causing in every sector of the economy via petitions – why should trees be any different to schools, the NHS, prisons or the military they argue.

What we need to avoid is the simple binary choice that the ‘Labour’s to blame for everything’ school of Tory logic points every argument towards. ‘If we don’t privatise forests we need to cut schools harder’, so this perverse and odd logic goes. Tosh. Selling our woodlands, just like slashing school spending, is a choice and one that the Tories are zealously pursuing. Forests, just like schools and benefits, are the victims of an ideological drive by the Tories (and their Lib Dem chums) to fundamentally reshape the state. Forests are easy targets for selling off because the national forestry estate is one of the most saleable assets a government can flog off – land.

But for a party who asked the nation to ‘go green by voting blue’ and who has a tree as its logo, their plan to sell the nation’s woodlands to the highest bidder seems a little at odds with the promised rhetoric. Vote blue, sell green might be a better way of expressing this rigid adherence to Thatcherite economic doctrine that puts profit and the private sector ahead of the public good.

Labour’s Sahdow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh has rightly called this plan “an act of environmental vandalism.” She’s right but it goes beyond this. Caroline Spellman’s plans represent ‘a generational theft’ that we must stop. The government is reviewing public ownership of not just a percentage of the forest estate but potentially every single tree and sapling currently managed by the Forestry Commission. Being free to stroll in open woodland free from charges, restricted access or corporate pillage of forests may no longer be possible if the sale is pushed through. Our generation may be the last to enjoy open, public forests.

Labour and Mary Creagh in particular have an opportunity here to capture the public mood with a campaign against privatisation of our national forests. Mary is aided in this regard as she isn’t bogged down with too much media luggage from the last administration and could (and I believe will) present a fresh face to this campaign – and will be backed by the parliamentary party, activists and swathes of the population too.

We also need an alternative to simply stopping the sale of our woodlands that will protect them for generations to come. This Tory-led administration has shown that ‘government’ ownership of our forests makes them an all too appealing asset to flog off to the highest bidder. Even if we succeed in saving them from sale this time, the risk is that the Tories (or anyone else in the future) will return to the forest estate time and time again until the deal is done and the woods are privatised.

Labour needs to show it understands how important forests are to our national identity, sense of community and ability to carefully manage our natural environment. Protection of forests is a national priority and keeping them open, protected, carefully managed and preserved for future generations is not just good politics but good governance and responsible opposition. We also need to avoid the same binary logic I’ve just attacked in saying that public is good, private woodlands are bad. Private forests can be well-maintained, open, genuinely beautiful and in the public interest. But there is also a place for woodlands owned by the people for the people without caveats on access or questions about their future. The treasury needs to remember the state does not own the forests, the people do – and the people want them back.

In this case, perhaps, David Cameron might be right and a ‘Big Society’ alternative solution might work here. Not because the state has failed fundamentally to manage our national woodlands, or that there is a woodland structural deficit to pay off but because the state under the Tories has shown itself unable or unwilling to protect our woodlands as it ought to. I forward here that this government has shown they cannot be trusted to look after our national heritage and we, collectively, must act to ensure the preservation of our forests for future generations.

I would like to see, and believe we need, a new type of national trust for forests to protect them and safeguard them for the future. Be it a national co-operative, a benign trust with a protective covenant, a not for profit or some other cleverly established vehicle, existing or otherwise, we need to ensure that our woodlands are saved from the Treasury axe and safeguarded from future Tory cuts. There are those better positioned than I to forward the precise method of protection, but we must first stop the sale in its tracks. This means not swallowing vague promises over future access rights under private ownership nor diluting our opposition to 100% protection of our woodlands, nor following the Tory agenda when the cuts move on and this issue is forgotten by the media.

There is another reason, one more political, why this is a good issue to fight on too. It is because the Tory leadership has departed from its grassroots in forwarding the sell off of our woodlands. Grassroot conservatives do not support this sale. They appreciate the national duty to protect and preserve our natural habitats and that means protecting forests that embody that principle. If we can defeat this sale, and drive a wedge between the Tory leadership and the nation, then there’s a chance that the momentum will grow against cuts to schools, hospitals and defence too. Forests could help truly turn the public against ideological cuts.

Our national forest reserves, some 200,000 hectares, have literally taken hundreds of years to grow. With one axe, it will fall. Unless, we stop it – not just as a Labour Party but as a national grassroots movement. Save our forests, back the campaign today and let’s give Mary Creagh and her Defra team all the support she needs to push through this victory.

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