Chiltern Society & Forestry Commission
The Economist article
Lost in the woods
What a furore over forests says about David Cameron's vision of Britain
Bagehot. Feb 3rd 2011. From print edition
As critics of government policy go, Robert Emberson and Giles Knowles are not very ferocious. Mr Emberson, a retired solicitor from the Chilterns – a pretty slice of commuterland to the north of London – says he "can't see the point" of a government proposal to privatise his local woodland, Wendover Woods. Mr Knowles, a retired teacher, volunteers alongside Mr Emberson at the woods, clearing scrub and brambles twice a month. Mr Knowles is "not very keen" on a sell-off.
Their mild dismay might seem insignificant, beside the nationwide rage provoked by the government's proposals to sell or lease large tracts of English woodland managed by the Forestry Commission, a public body. A YouGov poll found 75% of respondents opposed the sale of English forests. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed an online petition organised by a leftish campaign group, 38 Degrees, opposing what it claims are plans that could see "our national forests" fenced off, logged or turned into holiday villages. Right-wing commentators have condemned the plans as un-conservative vandalism. Grandees including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Astronomer Royal and the Poet Laureate signed an open letter denouncing forest sales as "unconscionable". Still more ominously, seismic rumblings of discontent have been heard from the National Trust, a charitable titan with 3.7m members.
For all that – and though this might sound odd – David Cameron's coalition government should be just as worried about the quiet anxiety of folk like Mr Emberson and Mr Knowles. They are precisely the sort of people he needs to fulfil his vision of a British society built around voluntarism and civic pride.
The noisiest protesters are a lost cause. At its roots, the forestry plan is a privatisation. In the words of the cabinet minister in charge, Caroline Spelman: "the Forestry Commission sells Christmas trees, for goodness sake. What is the state doing selling Christmas trees?" Privatisations are often unpopular in Britain at first; they prove their worth later, when (with luck) it can be shown they have left the country better off. Most British woodlands are already private and are covered by tough planning rules and strict regulations on tree-cutting. Whatever protesters say, owners cannot build golf courses on a whim. Public footpaths are protected by law (though the rules are weaker when it comes to horse and bicycle access, or maintaining car parks).
But the forestry sell-off also represents something more ambitious: it is supposed to be a flagship example of Mr Cameron's "Big Society" at work. A government consultation paper on the forestry plans explicitly talks of "shifting the balance of power from 'Big Government' to 'Big Society'", as the state gives way to a locally responsive patchwork of "civil society, businesses and individuals." It is here that the real problems start.
Mrs Spelman, who is secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, admits that the government is feeling political pain over forests, but says the "principal reason" is "wild speculation" by the media, such as scare stories suggesting ancient forests are about to become golf courses. She is right, but she needs to stop whining: the government bears much of the blame. Some bright spark has dreamed up an absurdly complex talking point for ministers – that the Forestry Commission has a conflict of interest as a regulator that also sells 70% of timber entering the British market. The rest of the time, they talk about how "heritage" forests such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean will be given to charities, with public money to cover operating costs. Surely bodies such as the National Trust can do a better job running forests than the Forestry Commission, Mr Cameron told the House of Commons on February 2nd? But this line is a cop-out: the National Trust cannot run every wood in the public estate.
Colin is not the Leviathan
To be blunt, the government is failing wretchedly to sell the Big Society. For help, the prime minister might like to visit Wendover Woods, a 325-hectare slice of greenery near Aylesbury. For a Big Society fan, the woods come all but gift-wrapped with a bow. This close to London, their relative tranquillity is prized by locals. Some 350,000 visitors are drawn each year by foot, cycle and horse trails, a rustic café and "Go Ape!", a commercial aerial playground. Between car park fees and rents, the woods deliver a small surplus to the Forestry Commission's coffers. It could be a case study for localism: under local management, all that revenue would stay in Wendover Woods. Since April 2009 volunteers from the Chiltern Society, a local charity, have worked to clear scrub and brambles there, saving a crumbling Iron Age fort.
Yet, on a drizzly morning this week, those same volunteers are wary of a local charity taking over, and actively reject the idea of a commercial buyer. "The Forestry Commission manages this very well," says Mr Emberson, hacking at a larch sapling. Isn't the Forestry Commission an impersonal state bureaucracy, Bagehot ventures? "The Forestry Commission is not impersonal, it's Colin," says a volunteer, pointing out a young ranger down the slope. Above all, they dislike any idea of a commercial owner. It would be "all about money", says one. If the woods were run for a profit, "I don't think we'd be so keen to volunteer," adds another. Bank bail-outs are mentioned, with a grimace. Mr Knowles likes the Big Society philosophy, but worries it will be exploited by "the people with money".
Such views should alarm the government. Their vision for a flourishing society blends localism with the charity sector and business. Alas, just now Britons seem reluctant to accept that the profit motive can co-exist with altruism. That is the real lesson of the row over forests: if the coalition is serious about building a less statist Britain, it cannot dodge that crisis of trust forever.
from PRINT EDITION | Britain