The governments’s announcement that they are postponing the sale of 15% of the Forestry Commission estate so as to review the site-by-site criteria for disposal is a first victory in the massive grass roots anti-privatisation campaign. We have a country-wide wave of anger that has brought levels of support for the public forest estate of the same order as that for the NHS or free education. We’ve seen activist groups forming from top to bottom of the country, with (polite) anger so raw that Mark Harper, the Forest of Dean Tory MP, scuttled fearfully out of the back door of a meeting venue, rather than address the shivering crowd outside. We’ve seen an on-line petition approaching half a million signatures and rising.
And yet ALL of the rich conservation organisations – the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts Partnership, and even Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - who have the resources and clout to lead this campaign to a rapid victory have been horribly absent from the field.
At a recent ornithologists conference in Sussex I asked the RSPB’s Conservation Director what kind of a campaign they had, and suggested that his organization and its sisters had the ability to make or break the campaign.
His answer was chilling. He made no mention of a campaign, and started off by telling us that the RSPB was not a rich organization (though their regional office in Brighton has 60 salaried staff, and they have recently acquired several new tracts of Sussex land) and rounded up by saying that “the state had no business growing trees”.
Yet it does. Though the Forestry Commission controls only 18% of English woodland the Commission produces 60% of home grown timber, and harvests 92% of its softwood increment, as opposed to just 37% in the private sector. The public forest estate counters the business cycle by a steady timber harvest irrespective of market conditions. They maintain their network of staff and contractors, their forest infrastructure and year-on-year thinning and planting operations, irrespective of market conditions because they know that, if they don’t, their long term forest plans are jeopardized. By contrast, only 60% of all private woodlands are in management schemes, and commercial pheasant shooting represents the only real management many of the woods in Sussex receive. This county is tarnished with privately owned semi-derelict forestry plantings, ancient woodlands strangled by invasive rhododendron, giant veteran trees strangled by encroaching conifers, and gill woodlands dating back to the ‘wildwood’ now flooded for commercial duck shooting ponds.
But the Commission doesn’t just grow trees. They are a major player in the restoration of ancient woodland, as well as endangered heath, mire, fell, and other open habitats. About 26% of Forestry Commission land has SSSI status and 96% of this is in favourable condition. The Forestry Commission today bears no resemblance to the Commission of a generation ago, with its narrow remit to grow conifers, conifers, and conifers, irrespective of landscape and wildlife. Their recent dedication of their entire freehold estate as statutory access land, and their energetic creation of Community Forests and multi-purpose urban fringe and brown field woodlands, exemplify a major progressive turn.
Here in Brighton we have some previous experience of the bureaucratic inertia of the conservation NGOs. Fifteen years ago the Labour Council proposed privatizing our 13,000 acre farmed downland estate. Every one of the rich local conservation organisations accepted that the privatisation could not be stopped, and contented themselves with seeking tokenistic measures of amelioration. A hastily cobbled together coalition of community and wildlife activists – ‘Keep Our Downs Public’ – refused to accept this sell-out, campaigned furiously, and won. This victory set the scene for four more successful local anti-privatisation struggles, including a 77% tenants’ vote against council housing stock transfer, and a recent success against the privatisation of council–owned downland at nearby Worthing.
The lesson is clear. We need a two-pronged battle. First, the widest possible independent mobilization against this privatization, on a clear demand for the protection and expansion of the public forest estate as an exemplar for a people’s countryside, and, secondly, a hard challenge to the rich NGOs to adopt a common position of refusal to take over any privatized fragments of the Forestry Commission estate. Such a boycott will blow out of the water the government’s smokescreen proposals for an increased role for the ‘third sector’, social enterprises, and community control.
If we do not succeed in this the ramifications of failure will spread far beyond the decline and commercialization of ex-Forestry Commission land, for the fire-fighting role of the NGOs will be even further compromised. We will be faced with a huge diversion of the energy of countryside NGOs and activists to the effort to absorb chunks of privatised forest and preserve their public values, without the commercial cross-funding and professional resources of the Commission.
Here in Sussex we have painful recent experience of this, for Keep our Downs Public’s fight against privatisation came too late to keep one important landscape, at the Devil’s Dyke, in municipal control. The National Trust took it over, and launched a big fund raising appeal. Whilst they were doing so a further stretch of gorgeous downland came onto the market – downland with ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ status and traversed by a stretch of the South Downs Way. The National Trust refused to bid for it - too expensive, in the light of their new commitment. The result was that this downland was lost to an agri-business investor who wished to convert its woodlands to intensive game rearing. The old conservation projects were abandoned, and when I inspected the site last year the landowner had herbicided over an acre of ancient flowery chalk grassland to secure his fence lines.
Thus, the National Trust wasted its energies on purchasing land that was already in public ownership, and abandoned the fight for a site that was at real threat.
But the struggle for the public forest estate is one that we CAN win, and in so doing we can make further gains. We can use this campaign to re-connect people with the wider countryside and its problems. Here in the south east many of our Forestry Commission estates are scattered and relatively remote. Our campaign will make sure that the public get to know better what they are at risk of losing.
We can, too, gain traction for the case for greater democracy and local initiative in the management of public forests, without fragmenting ownership and strategic control amongst a rag tag of third sector organizations, private forestry companies and landowners.
State ownership’s major advantage is that it subtracts a resource, at least partially, from the irrationality and greed of the market. The answer for our public forests is the same as the answer for our economy. We need more democratic public ownership and economy-wide planning – enough to break the dominance of the market – not some porridge of private businesses and ‘social enterprises’ struggling for market share.
‘Keep Our Forests Public’ is a new coalition formed with the intention of galvanising campaigning activity across the Forestry Commission’s South East Region.