The debate over the sell-off of our forests I think has become a lightning rod for the biggest issue facing our political system and our politicians: trust. No matter what assurances are given over access rights and biodiversity, people don’t trust the government to deliver. Rightly, people feel that once the forests are gone, they will be out of our reach and at the mercy and whims of private interests, be they commercial or charitable. At least under public ownership, they are under some kind of democratic control, however tenuous. If bad decisions are made over their management, there is some recourse through the political system. In private hands, it will be impossible to control what happens to them.
In a densely populated country like England, access to open land is vital to the mental health of the country. The feeling of being hemmed in and restricted can produce very negative psychological reactions. In a different context, this led to the Second World War with Hitler’s drive for Lebensraum. On a smaller scale it can lead to antisocial behaviour. Regular access to the outdoors has been proven to be psychologically beneficial.
No matter what guarantees are given on access, people are suspicious of how “cast iron” they will be. MPs have to recognise that they are the authors of this mistrust. The legacy of the deception over the Iraq war and the MPs’ expenses scandal is toxic. MPs have to earn our trust again. What better way than to listen to the deep feelings of many people and leaving our forests (actually only 18% of the total) under public ownership. What’s so wrong with admitting that you might have made a mistake?
Please don’t patronise us with woolly ideas of new ownership models and the opportunity for local communities to buy the forests. We all know that this is complete eyewash. Commercial concerns will always be able to out bid communities and charities, not least because the tax concessions that go with the ownership of forests have more economic value to companies and private individuals than to trusts.
I am not particularly in favour of state ownership, which I think brings with it dangers (viz. the communist model). However, I am in favour of certain assets being in state hands. Where there are natural monopolies or where the commercial imperative doesn’t have primacy are good candidates for state ownership. It strikes me that forests are an appropriate asset. Forests are not just a commercial asset for exploitation. The fact that the Forestry Commission makes a loss tells you that. Wise stewardship for future generations and leisure access is equally as important.
It seems to me that the state holding these assets in trust for the nation is an appropriate model. It’s not as though all forest in the country is held by the Forestry Commission, either. That’s something I would be against. We have a reasonable mix between public and private ownership. I also think it is invidious that it is just English forests that are being sold, especially as England is the most densely populated country in the UK.
I have yet to hear back from my MP on this matter despite sending two emails. I will be writing to her further, perhaps by snail mail as that may have more effect. If you feel the same as me, please contact your MP. We now have three months to change their minds. BTW, I can’t see much in today’s press on the debate, although there’s a good article in the Independent.