Why did the Government drop its proposals for the Forestry Commission (FC) and the forests and woodlands it manages? I thought it would happen but I was astonished by the speed of it. It comes down to three things. An ill-considered and foolish policy. Incompetent presentation. And a stupendously successful and largely under the radar campaign which burst through with stunning effect.
The Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) included a target of £100million from selling around 15% of the national forestry estate in England. This is the most that can be sold under existing legislation. But over the summer DEFRA Ministers decided to sell off all or most of the estate and included powers in the Public Bodies Bill (PBB) which started in the Lords at the end of October.
Throughout the autumn Ministers were saying different things. They hadn’t worked it out properly and by the end were making it up by the day. Someone should have told them what any local campaigners know, often to their cost: be very careful if you want to mess around with trees!
If some of the opposition was over the top or “didn’t understand what we were proposing”, they have themselves to blame. It wasn’t clear if their motives were financial or ideological. Money was a strong reason at first but fell away as they made more and more concessions to the causes of access, biodiversity and community and the facts were scrutinised. I think ideology was a strong factor but mostly kept under wraps. In the end they fell back on the evidently feeble case of the FC being both managers and regulators of woodland.
They counted on imposing a wall of silence on FC officials and staff and buying off the established charities such as the Woodland Trust, National Trust and RSPB with slightly vague offers that they could take over “heritage” and “community” woodlands. This worked at first though the Woodland Trust very soon launched a campaign over ancient woodlands and all the access organisations (from ramblers and mountaineers to horseriders and cyclists) soon mounted a strong challenge. In the Lords I immediately put down amendments to remove the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill. Plus a barrage of questions to the government to tease out their intentions. At the end of January the Government launched their consultation in the face of massively mounting protests.
Meanwhile the real grassroots campaign was under way, fed by activity on Facebook and Twitter and new bespoke websites. The instant campaigns website 38degrees had launched an online petition which was already well into six figures but the real impetus came from a new group called Save England’s Forests set up by Rachel Johnson (sister of Boris and editor of The Lady) and green campaigner Tamsin Omond. Their letter to the Sunday Telegraph, signed by nearly 90 notables ranging from the Astronomer Royal, Poet Laureate and Archbishop of Canterbury to Bill Bryson, Tracey Emin and Anne Robinson, got massive publicity at a crucial time. Another new group and website became the vital anchor of the grassroots campaign with its series of factual articles and a discussion forum, linking to all the others and all the Twittering.
“All the others” now included lots of vociferous local campaigns, led by the Forest of Dean and other larger areas such as the Lake District and New Forest but with many “save our local woodland” groups, often in the constituencies of Tory MPs. An opposition day debate in the Commons saw several Tories and 15 Liberal Democrat MPs rebelling. A letter to the Times from 15 Liberal Democrat peers was only pre-empted by the Government climb-down last week!
I convened a meeting of the grassroots internet groups and a couple of access groups with half a dozen of the most involved peers (Liberal Democrat and Labour). The purpose was to bring them into the information loop (including how the parliamentary process operates) and to start to plan for the PBB. Meanwhile the big petition was climbing to the half-million mark and over 100,000 people had written to their MPs. Some of the new ones were in a state of shock! Some established NGOs had come on board (WWF, National Trust) under pressure of their members. It was by now clear that the forestry clauses would be summarily (but politely) booted out by the House of Lords.
When Caroline Spelman made her statement in the Commons the Labour spokesperson Mary Creagh badly misjudged her hostile response. This was not a victory for the Labour Party or any other party, let alone the established NGOs who for months were left flat-footed. I was pleased to play a small role in helping to link the campaigners into the legislative process. But this was a victory for the spontaneous grass-roots campaigners. Partly it was old-fashioned local campaigning as people responded to a local challenge. Partly it was the same kind of campaigning that brought people into Tahrir Square – low-level, internet-based, pervasive, linking together, as “the gathering swallows twittered” in the trees.
It’s the new kind of people power. Bringing down governments and saving the trees.
Tony Greaves is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. A longer discussion of the issues and the campaign appears in the current issue of Liberator and there is also a thread to discuss this in our private members’ forum.