The government published its response to the report of the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry last week.
You will remember that 38 Degrees launched a campaign to Save our Forests and more than half a million people signed the petition worded as follows:
The government is planning a massive sell off of our national forests. They could be auctioned and fenced off, run down, logged or turned into golf courses and holiday villages.
We can’t let that happen. We need to stop these plans. National treasures like the The Forest of Dean, Alice Holt, Kielder, Thetford, Grizedale, Bedgebury, Sherwood Forest and The New Forest could be sold off. Once they are gone, they will be lost forever.
A huge petition will force the government to rethink its plans. If we can prove how strongly the public are against this, they will have to back down. Please sign the petition now.
Half a million of us signed that – including me – and it was nonsense. The ‘national treasure’ of Kielder Forest? The New Forest sold off – when did the Government say they were going to do that? Weren’t many of these forests planted just so that they can be logged (and then replanted)?
38 degrees has now moved on but is still claiming on its website: We Won! More than half a million of us got involved in the campaign to Save Our Forests, and the government agreed to drop the planned sell-off.
Now let me be clear, even though much of it was nonsense, I signed the 38 Degrees petition (I was still working for the RSPB at the time) as it seemed an excellent way to make the government stop, think and think better about what it was doing. As of last week do we have a clearer idea, two years after all the public hooha, of what the government intends to do? What does it intend to do, and what should we think of it?
On forestry sales it is clear that the previous policy to dispose of 15% of the forest estate has been scrapped – although I cannot see with what it has been replaced. I see no clear statement that no forests will be sold (and I think it would be a bit mad if such a commitment were to be made). So I think we are in a ‘wait and see’ position on that one.
There is a clear commitment to set up a new public body to look after our public forests with a much clearer role in looking at social and environmental aspects of forestry as well as economic aspects. This is good – provided the implementation of this policy is done well.
If you read the policy statement section on what will be done to deliver more wildlife it is a rather uninspiring packet of words but does include the important statement to publish an open habitats policy. This is good – provided, when it comes, it contains the right words, and has been something that wildlife conservationists, most notably the RSPB, has been fighting for for years. This is because some of our forests were planted in serried rows and ranks on open ground which had much higher wildlife value than the plantation of Scots pine could possibly ever have. We’ll have to see what eventually emerges.
There is lots of other stuff here too: a bit more money, an enthusiasm for more trees, Big Society stuff, ecosystem services stuff, lots of stuff. It hardly feels like a clear and definitive way forward but it isn’t that bad. However, it is not an inspirational or even a clear statement of the future of forestry. It is absolutely typical civil-service-speak; there is something here for everyone and little to upset anyone.
And, lots of tree disease and health mentions sneak into the government response showing that government blows with the prevailing winds just like the rest of us.
So is everyone happy?
38 Degrees is very happy and claim victory. But then their take on this matter was always simplistic and only reached one dimension. Interestingly, the squirrel they portray on their website looks rather like a grey squirrel doesn’t it?
Save our woods has nothing on its website about the government response.
The CLA praises government for its report and picks out the bits about reducing red-tape, encouraging woodland management and obviously has an eye on making money from carbon stored in trees.
The NFU says nothing – if only that were more often true.
The Woodland Trust is ‘very pleased’. I was pleased to see the Woodland Trust say that they would have liked more clarity on aspects of the government response. Here is a large chunk of what the Woodland Trust statement said:
“Woodland protection, improvement and expansion, cited by Government as priority areas today, carry equal weight and cannot be taken in isolation. To ensure we achieve truly resilient landscapes able to withstand threats not only from disease but also increasingly from development, the Woodland Trust will continue to champion a strategy that includes all three approaches.
We are pleased to see Government’s recognition of the need to deliver an increase in woodland cover up to 12%, which must ensure planting the right trees in the right places to protect, link and extend what little remains of our existing ancient woodland, as well as identifying appropriate areas to plant new woods and individual trees in towns and cities too.
We welcome Government’s reaffirmation that the public forest estate will be overseen by a publically accountable body but urgently need clarification on plans for the future of Forest Services as we are concerned that this remains uncertain.”
The National Trust has said quite a few very sensible things about forestry recently and do so again: “It’s really good to have the Government agreeing to most of the other recommendations of the Panel. The policy statement is light on detail for some key areas, and we look forward to hearing more about how these aspirations can be turned into reality. There are no big surprises, and given the big vision from the Panel it would have been nice to see a few more fresh commitments and new initiatives.”
The RSPB is encouraged by the report but also points out that the report leaves many questions, including funding, unanswered. I liked this part of the RSPB statement, particularly the penultimate sentence and the last one too: “Whilst these proposals are encouraging, they won’t help if our woodlands are starved of funding and effective management in the long term. Healthy and well-managed woodlands are one of our greatest natural assets. England’s public forests cost £20m a year to fund, but the benefits they bring in terms of the environment and people’s health and wellbeing are worth £350m. Today’s announcement signals Government is starting to understand this wider value. If money-saving decisions affecting our natural environment are made in a piecemeal way, we risk squandering our natural assets.”
The Wildlife Trusts warmly welcome the government response but also are waiting for the real meat of the decisions: “Defra’s statement demonstrates that it has listened to the thousands of people who want to see a better future for our woodlands and public forests. Actions speak louder than words, however, and so we await clear signs that the right action is being taken.”
Do you see a theme emerging? Everyone thinks that there are good things in this government response but no-one is confident that the final outcome will be quite what they want. Indeed, no-one seems entirely clear about what the outcome will be – or even what it is intended to be. After two years of talk we are a little clearer about the future of our forests but not clear enough. We now know that the very worst is not going to happen to them (although the very worst never was going to happen to them) but we cannot be sure that the future for our forests is much better than the past.
Government seems incapable of making decisions clearly and quickly on environmental issues. There is precious little political leadership here and that has allowed, and encouraged, the civil servants to write a government response which keeps everyone happy-ish but does not commit anyone to too much.
When this coalition government came into ‘power’ it started removing any independent voices on environmental issues; Natural England was muzzled and neutered (and kept indoors) so that it said nothing and its budgets were slashed so it could do less too; the RCEP was abolished; the SDC was abolished. The idea, if there was an idea behind it, was to bring back policy making into government where it belongs. If this government statement is an example of policy making then it’s a pretty poor outcome. It’s a holding statement par excellence.
This government is stumbling towards a policy on forestry and has somehow lost its way in a thicket. It lost its way over badgers and TB too – we don’t have a clue where it’s going with that one except that instead of everyone feeling somewhat reassured as they do with forestry everyone feels let down and angry instead (and we are no closer to solving the huge problem of bovine TB). The government has lost its way over marine nature conservation too – Richard Benyon praises those who clean seabirds but can’t promise those seabirds much in the way of marine protected areas despite years of Big Society public engagement.
What has this government done for the natural world – it is close to two thirds of its way through its term of office? No, really – what has it done?