Tony Greaves writes: seeing the wood for the trees

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.

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11 Comments

  • Let’s hope it works with this silly, ill thought-out idea of privatising the NHS as well.

  • First, I would like to say a big ‘thank you’ to Tony Greaves and all other Lib Dems who had the insight and courage to oppose the plan to sell off or lease off publicly owned woodland. From the beginning I opposed this crackpot policy and, as a consequence, Twittered and emailed profusely!

    I was disgusted by those Liberal Democrats who voted in Parliament in favour of the forest sell off, and that includes my local Lib Dem MP who is a member of the coalition government. When I voted for him at the General Election I did not do so in order that he could support idiotic anti-green policies such as this one. I wrote to him before the parliamentary vote outlining my considerable objections and asking him to vote against the sell off. In his reply all he did was regurgitate the same old platitudes, false promises and weasel words that I had heard dozens of time previously from Caroline Spelman and her cronies.

    Apparently I had nothing to worry about since the protection of public access and biodiversity would be watertight and legally binding on the new owners – utter rubbish! A few days later the government themselves admitted that the conditions of sale were inadequate and said they would be tightened (despite the previous assurances that they were already as tight as possible and that opponents of the sale were scaremongering), and then a few days later the plans were dropped altogether!

    The only way to guarantee that public access and biodiversity will be respected is to keep the forests in public ownership and, in general, public management (although some charities, such as the National Trust, Woodland Trust, RSPB or Wildlife Trusts could probably be trusted).

    England is one of the least wooded countries in Europe, so, if anything, the government should be increasing, not decreasing, the amount of publicly owned forests and creating new forests and ‘wilderness’ areas for public enjoyment and wildlife.

    Now that we have defeated this crackpot idea from Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman and her particularly appalling Farming Minister Jim Paice, I hope that we can stop their equally crackpot ideas to slaughter large numbers of badgers and to re-legalise the hunting of foxes, deer and hares (in all cases, policies that run counter to both public opinion and scientific evidence).

  • Louise Shaw 25th Feb '11 - 4:10pm

    Good article Tony – really a “how to” of people power – like it a lot.

    Participatory democracy – hell yeah!

  • If some of the opposition was over the top or “didn’t understand what we were proposing”, they have themselves to blame.

    In other words, it was over the top and ignorant, but you have nothing against that as long as the ignorant extremists are on your side.

    Doubtless we can look forward to many more ignorant extremist campaigns in the future.

  • Old Codger Chris 25th Feb '11 - 6:07pm

    Silly of the Government to pick a fight with articulate folk who are into stately homes, heritage etc. After all, I would still qualify for a Bus Pass and winter heating allowance if I were as rich as Cameron.

    Educational Maintenance Allowance, Connexions, Higher Education etc are fair game. The country’s future……. but Cameron and Clegg will be enjoying the subsidised port and stilton in the Home for the Comfortably Early Retired (House of Lords) when the chickens come home to roost.

  • Every single person who took part, every person they told, every single click to the 38degrees petition, every group big or small, all added to the sum total of the campaign. Every single little part will be needed for its continuation till the forests are totally safe – and that is yet to come! Together they ALL CREATED THE IMPETUS!!!!!!!

  • No opportunity to improve our forests has been lost. That opportunity will always be there as long as we have a planet. All we have lost for a moment is the imminent possibility that the opportunity COULD BE lost if we the public let this government dispose of OUR FORESTS.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Nov '19 - 10:50am

    Geavsie: Good work.
    The other shibboleth for an incoming council group is Do Not Close The Public Toilets.
    Those who want to plant trees in streets should be advised to choose varieties which bend rather than break. There is an analogy for politicians.
    Campaigners should not go over the top in statements such as ‘ancient woodlands cannot be replaced’. They can, but it takes 400 years.
    Foresters know that fallen wood should be allowed to recycle naturally.
    Forests can arise naturally. In west London there is a triangle of land enclosed by three railway lines. In “leafy Tunbridge Wells” there is a derelict site opposite the Tory controlled tall hall, currently covered in broken bricks, which does not stop natural regeneration. Flowering shrubs such as buddleia arrive naturally. Given even more time (a few more decades) there will be an oak forest.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddleja
    Lord Heseltine is a tree lover, owns an arboretum and has made tv programmes about trees. Did he speak in the debate and if he did, did the Tory benches take any notice of what he said?

  • Richard Underhill 26th Nov '19 - 10:53am

    the Tory controlled tall hall,
    Typo, sorry Town Hall

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