Forest sell-off: the questions we still need answering

| 20th February 2011

The government recently abandoned its plans to privatise England's public forests after strong public opposition

The Government’s 'U-turn' on selling off our public forests is a victory for activists who now need to push for better protection and improvement says Gavin Thomson, a volunteer with the campaign group 38 Degrees

Half a million of us who joined the campaign to save our forests breathed a sigh of relief when the government backed down and kept our forests safe in public hands. This campaign victory was achieved by working alongside local groups, national organisations and some famous faces. It’s a great example of that all-important truth: people power works.

When the government’s plans to privatise our woodlands were first revealed last year, thousands of 38 Degrees members discussed the plans on our website and Facebook page, and quickly voted to launch a campaign. The petition was started in October and eventually grew to be 530,000 strong. But, while it was widely discussed in Parliament and in the media, in many ways the petition was just the beginning.

To move the campaign forward, and prove the size of the opposition to the Government’s plans, 38 Degrees members clubbed together to pay for an opinion poll. The polling discovered that 84 per cent of the general public wants our forests to stay in public hands for future generations.

38 Degrees members went on to raise a further £60,000 to place adverts in national newspapers, publicising the poll result on the morning of an important vote in Parliament. Over 100,000 of us wrote to our MPs before the vote and, from the moment the vote was over, wrote to them again to challenge or congratulate them, depending on how they voted. In this campaign, there was huge support and tireless work from countless community groups and local woodland associations, while hundreds of thousands of us got involved from our desks or in our own front rooms. Meanwhile, on a national level, we worked with large organisations - Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and plenty of other household names. The reason why it worked, and why we succeeded, is because so many of us, in whatever way we could, got together and made our voice heard.

Yes, we’re celebrating, but we’ll continue to watch this issue. There are still questions that need to be answered. A week before our big victory, we had persuaded Caroline Spelman to postpone a sale of 15 per cent of our forests pending the consultation - which is now cancelled. Is this sale of 15 per cent been scrapped along with the consultation? It’s not yet clear. The cuts currently being imposed on the Forestry Commission – how will that impact our woodland? Will they have a negative impact? Are they justified? Further, how will levels of protection for our ancient woodlands be enhanced, in the way that others, such as The Woodland Trust, argue they should be?

Our public rights to the national forests go back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and have come to form an important aspect of our national identity. When 38 Degrees members commissioned a YouGov poll, we found that support for publicly-owned woodland was unified across town and country, north and south, and supporters of all, or no, political parties.

It is impossible for the price of the forests, as determined by auctioneers, to reflect their value to our society - present and future. These areas are visited by millions of us, and the benefit our society in a myriad of ways. They provide a free day out to those on stretched incomes living in cities. In addition, it’s been proven that woodland offers relief from stress and is beneficial for mental health problems.

Perhaps the most important benefit of our public forests is on our wildlife. Currently, our forests are a large body of land that’s managed to high conservation standards and provides critical habitats. Clearly, this is only going to get more important in times of ecological stress caused by climate change.

When announcing the decision to scrap the consultation process, Caroline Spelman also announced a proposal for a forestry panel, looking at the future of our forests. Hundreds of thousands of us will be watching that panel with a keen interest. We want to see the details, not only of who’ll be on the panel, but also how we can get involved and help shape the future of our woods. An important lesson from this campaign is just how important our woodlands are to the British public - a lesson that this panel of experts won't be allowed to forget.

People power works. We’ve always known this, and our recent success is a fantastic example of what we can accomplish. It’s exciting to think about what we can do next.

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