In principle there were some good ideas in what the Government sought to achieve by reviewing the ownership of England’s forests. The Forestry Commission are a great public organisation and achieve fantastic results for a relatively small cost to the taxpayer, although we should recognise that there is also room for the private sector, in all its guises, to play a greater role in managing some forests in England. I applaud the Government’s decision to halt the public consultation, in the face of overwhelming public pressure, which was announced earlier today.
So what went wrong? I think there are 10 key reasons:
- There was no manifesto for the public forest sell-off
It was in neither the Conservative’s or Liberal’s manifesto, and appeared from nowhere.
- The motives for the sell-off were not clear and changed through time
Initially it was about money until it became apparent that it was not a cheap option, with the sell-off possibly costing more than the revenue earned. The Government tried to suggest that the FC could not act as both regulator and commercial operator but this was a flawed and unattractive argument to the public.
- Big Society confusion
Government suggested that ideologically the forests should not be owned by the state. The public responded “we already own it, and we want the FC to carry on managing it”. The public questioned “What is Big Society anyway?”.
Suggestions that woodlands may be taken on by NGOs such as the Woodland Trust, RSPB or the National Trust fell down when these and others said “we can’t afford to take these on and we are not sure we want to.“ Perhaps they were not consulted fully?
- Confusion and embarrassment over the 40,000 hectare sell-off
The public were always confused by the five year commitment to dispose of 15% of state-owned forests, as this was allowed by existing law, and that this was a different matter to the sale of the remaining 85% of forests. The fact that this was going on at the same time muddied the waters. Ministers made the mistake of criticising the former Government for selling forests without adequate protective measures until it became clear that the 15% disposals were being made on the same basis.
- Lack of support within Government
Members of Parliament across the country were angry at the lack of communication and support from Defra, seemingly being as surprised as the public about the proposals, and faced with an unprecedented public mailbag.
- Failure to learn from recent history and evidence
Twice in living memory former Government’s have attempted to make major changes to forest ownership; both times without success. A public consultation undertaken at the end of the last Government showed very strong support for the Forestry Commission.
- Public Bodies Bill
The bill’s clauses relating to forestry were to give Government power to act without future consultation with parliament. Conducting a public consultation concurrently with this major proposed reform only added to the distrust of Government’s future motives.
The proposals clashed fundamentally with (1) the unfortunate timing of the proposals with the status of 2011 as United Nation’s Year of the Forest, (2) the connotations of the Conservative’s use of a tree as an emblem, and (3) the Government’s self-pronouncement as the greenest government.
- The socially-networked society
Campaigners were able to organise reaction, keep each other informed and influence debate as never before thanks to the internet including campaigning websites, Facebook and Twitter.
Looking forward I hope that lessons are learnt and the positive opportunities taken forward. If nothing else I have welcomed the spotlight on forestry as an opportunity to raise public understanding and consciousness about the importance of trees and forests in modern society.