The proposed sale of UK forests has been the unexpected headline-grabber as inevitable discontent with government spending cuts takes grip. If the student protests were entirely predictable, the growing and much publicised anger about the forests sell-off was not. What’s been interesting is that it reveals much about the overall dynamics of the environmental debate in Britain. Here’s how the landscape seems to be panning out:
- Government: A fairly classic tale here. A not very well thought out idea rushed through in the mistaken belief that the sale would save lots of money (it won’t – the sums are tiny compared with expenditure such as Trident and the cost of administering the sale and its aftermath probably outweighs the saving to government anyway). The strategy – bury this idea deep in some obscure Parliamentary Bill in the hope no-one will notice. When they do, backtrack like crazy, launch a ‘consultation’, water everything down, making the original purpose of the legislation even more pointless. Oh, and shift your ground – what started as a money making exercise is now actually just a sensible policy instrument to separate commercial and regulatory interests. It was never about money, says DEFRA. Yes, just like Iraq was meant to be about WMDs only, but everyone now accepts that was nonsense. Likely outcome – the proposals will probably die quietly in the not too distant future.
- Middle class rage: Much indignation here. Almost none of it conservation driven. The middle classes don’t like anything that interferes with their pleasure – and thus their argument has focussed on rights of access – the English way of life, trotting unimpeded through the bluebells with the dog etc. A slightly tricky one, as included in the middle classes (albeit at the upper end) are some of those who stand to gain commercially from the proposals – the timber industry and landowners.
- Commercial interest – normally scornful of government interference, this one has been a bit tricky for businessmen and landowners with an interest in the sale. ‘Wait and see, we should study these proposals carefully’, they caution. There is not just profit to be made here – there will be government grants available too. This lot won’t be signing any petitions against the idea.
- NGOs – all over the place. Some diligently pointing out the conservation issues, reduced ability to control woodland diseases and so on. Others slow off the mark (perhaps because in the case of heritage forests they may have something to gain themselves, taking over the management of woodlands themselves). Jonathon Porritt has just blasted them all on his blog and accused them of betraying England (see http://tiny.cc/xxz47) . For clear direction on this, don’t look to the NGO sector on this one.
- Local campaigners. The people with the greatest stake in all this – those who already feel they own the forest and it isn’t the government’s to give away, to NGOs, private commercial interests or anyone else. They are the champions here – and I think they will win the day.
- Biodiversity – as is so often the case – almost none of the argument has centred on what is ultimately the most important issue: the interrelation between these precious forests and their relationship to the wider landscape, species conservation and its importance to agriculture. Biodiversity is as usual the poor cousin of this growing family of discontent.
It’s a fairly interesting snapshot of the way so many environmental debates go in this green and pleasant land. I suspect in the end the sale will be abandoned. But few of the protagonists involved will have emerged with much credit.