Selling Off Our Green Heritage

WHEN UK Premier Margaret Thatcher’s government privatised various public utilities in the 1980s she was criticised for ‘selling off the family silver’.
Now the ‘children of Thatcher’ want to sell off the family’s ‘green heritage’.

WHEN UK Premier Margaret Thatcher privatised various public utilities in the 1980s she was criticised for ‘selling off the family silver’.

Now the ‘children of Thatcher’ want to sell off the family’s ‘green heritage’.

As the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government proposes to ‘flog off the forests’ and dispose of 85 per cent of England’s public forest estate, they are receiving increasing opposition from cyclists, horse riders, ramblers to dog walkers and Oscar winning celebrities.

But will a government that wants to empower local people and communities, listen to what they have got to say?

The Forestry Commission currently manages 18 per cent of England’s woodlands. This includes a number of the most sensitive and protected wildlife habitats that form some of our greenest and most pleasant landscapes. The rest are privately owned and cover 931,000 hectares.

The Coalition government believes that other sectors of society might be better placed to own and manage the estate than the Forestry Commission, which has been in operation since 1919.

The public estate currently produces 70 per cent of England’s home grown softwood timber from its holding of 40 per cent of England’s conifer forests.

However, the Environment Minister, Caroline Spelman, argues that the Forestry Commission must be reformed to avoid conflict of interest as it is both a regulator and participant in the market.

By selling off its holdings the Forestry Commission can focus on its regulatory role by providing expertise on a range of tree-related matters.

On 27 January 2011 the Coalition government published a consultation document on the future of the forest estate in England.

In which it proposes a mix-model approach where charitable organisations, community groups and commercial operators buy or lease forests they would like to manage.

The government has divided English woodland into four categories based on their economic value and their social and environmental benefits. These range from ‘large’ and ‘small’ commercially viable forests and woodlands to ‘multi-purpose’ and ‘heritage’ forests.

The heritage forests such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest will only be sold to charitable trusts.

The Head of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds, has described the government’s proposal to withdraw from the management and of England’s forests and ancient woodlands as a ‘watershed moment in the history of the nation’.

Another ‘watershed moment’ occurred with the enclosure of common land that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

This involved enclosing a field with a fence or hedge to prevent others from using it. The process allowed the supply of natural raw materials that was essential for the industrial revolution. Peasants were dislodged from their lands and forced to migrate to cities and work in factories.

This resulted in a fundamental shift in the economic relationship between people and their natural environment that dispossessed many while enriching a few, replacing collective rights with private property.

Forests are a large publicly owned asset. And some critics see the Coalition government’s decision to sell them off as being ideologically driven. Those who put their faith in the role of markets to bring social and environmental benefits endorse the selling off of nature.

They see that nature needs to be privately owned and turned into a commodity if its potential is to be realised and the common good is to be served. Yet this brings with it potential risks.

Campaigners against the Coalition government’s plans fear that those woodlands that are sold will not have the same guarantees of access as they have today.

They are concerned that the privatised forests will follow the fate of Rigg Wood – a 16 hectare wood in the Lake District which was sold in October last year. To the local residents dismay the new owner reduced access for visitors by shutting down the car park and dismantling the picnic area.

The forest sell off is part of David Cameron’s Big Society initiative to shift the balance of power from government to society. This will mean that financially strapped charities and communities groups will have to compete with commercial companies and wealthy inheritance tax dodgers, if they want to buy particular woodlands and forests to protect.

There is also no guarantee that a community-owned forest will have sufficient resources to maintain ownership over the long-term.

A Big Society requires politicians big enough to listen and respond when people tell them they have got it wrong. In the International Year of the Forests that celebrates ‘forests for people’ the Coalition government is in danger of preventing many from enjoying England’s most precious natural assets.

Nearly 500,000 people have signed the 38 Degree Save Our Forests petition. However, leading UK Environmentalist, Jonathon Porritt, has criticised Britain’s ten most powerful green groups for betraying the public and making themselves look irrelvant by not supporting the campaign to halt the sale of the England’s forests.

More recently, the Government has announced it would postpone the sell off of 15 per cent of forestland because of concerns over access rights.

However, the government claims that this will not affect its broader proposal to sell nationally owned woods, which is still the subject of public consultation.

Forests offer a vital connection with nature in an increasingly urbanised world. Even those who rarely venture into the woods take comfort in the fact that they exist and are accessible to all.

To sell of our green heritage is to deny future generations the freedom to roam in our woodlands and discover the wonders of nature.


In a statement to the Commons on 17 February 2011, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who oversaw the controversial proposals, announced the u-turn, saying: “I am sorry, we got this one wrong.”

She said she took “full responsibility” for the climb-down, which was required after it became clear “the public and many MPs are not happy with the proposals”.

“If there is one clear message it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benefits that they bring,” she told the House.

Lets see what happens next …

© Gary Haq 2011

Photo credits: Shutterstock