Regular readers of this blog please forgive me for using so many posts to discuss the government’s forest sell-off plan. I know I’m particularly ‘exercised’ by this issue – but so I believe are the majority of people in the UK – 38 degrees is moving towards the half a million mark for signatures to its petition, and I’ll be interviewing its spokesman David Babbs in the next few days for our Druidcast podcast – which now has a regular audience of over 16,000.
I’ll also invite Caroline Spelman on to the programme to explain the government’s position. Spelman, I have discovered, is well known for her support of genetic modification after spending 15 years in the agricultural industry and having set up a biotechnology lobbying firm with her husband. Doesn’t look good does it? Not a good profile for a Secretary for the Environment: liking GM and wanting to sell off our forests.
I do hope she, or a spokesperson from DEFRA, agrees to talk to us. It’s important to hear all sides of an argument and to try to make this issue yield some real benefits for our woodlands. My local MP has reminded me that the government has initiated a programme to plant a million trees over the next four years. This is wonderful and to be applauded. Before you open the champagne, though, you might want to look at the webpages on this project: is the government going to plant a million trees? No – you are! The government is encouraging us to get out there and plant trees and it hopes we’ll get to work and plant a million. Their ‘Big Tree Plant’ website offers advice on how to plant a tree, encourages you to form a tree-planting group, and tells you how to look after the tree they’ve encouraged you to plant. To be fair, they’ve allocated 4 million pounds in grant aid, but to apply for your grant of £100-£700 you must be a community group or school, and applications for funding close the end of March (try again in September if you miss this).
I have just spent several hours studying the Public Consultation document – eager to participate in this initiative so that I could explore the issues and options and make my views heard. To my dismay it turns out to be modeled on the old chestnut of a forced-choice question: answer either Yes or No to the following question: ‘Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife’?
From the very first question you realize what you’re up against:
Do you agree or disagree with each of these key principles which Government proposes to abide by when making decisions on new owners for the public forest estate? Please tick whether you agree or disagree:
1. Protect and enhance biodiversity to contribute to a network of wildlife corridors across England.
2. Maintain public access for recreation and leisure.
3. Ensure the continuing role of the woodland in climate change mitigation and adaptation
4. Protect nationally important landscapes.
Even so – please respond to the consultation document. Each question also has a section for you to add comments – albeit cunningly guided. So for this first question the ‘open’ one asks ‘What changes would you recommend to this list of principles?’
The problem with the whole document is this – it starts with the premise that the disposal is going to happen, and it asks whether you agree with the way they plan to do it, and whether you have any suggestions for improvements. Nowhere does it ask you whether you actually agree with the idea of selling and leasing the public forest in the first place.
If, like David Bellamy, you believe ‘the green heart of Britain is not for sale’ you will have to write that in the additional comments box at the end.
As Jonathon Porritt says in his blog, ‘The basic intent is… privatise one of the country’s most cherished public assets. Which means that people shouldn’t get too diverted by the consultation. The focus should instead be on the Public Bodies Bill, currently going through Parliament. If this goes through unamended, it will allow the Government to do what it really wants to do whenever it’s most convenient for them.’
All rather depressing. But news of a new Druid initiative coming soon! Meanwhile here’s a photo of some new chestnuts to cheer us up: