A question of trust

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.

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6 thoughts on “A question of trust”

  1. Nicely thought through piece, Robin.

    I shall write to my MP, who has one of the safest seats in Britain. It will be interesting to see if he replies as he should not be too concerned about courting popularity as MPs in marginal constituencies.

    1. The government could clutch victory from the jaws of defeat by gracefully accepting people’s misgivings. I fear that they will want to appear “resolute”. What’s the point of the “Big Society” if politicians don’t listen to the people. It is in danger of being just another slogan.

  2. well said Robin, I’ve just been writing about trust and ownership. My own view is that our group have to be careful about boxing ourselves in discussing psychological and access benefits only. As important as they are, this is not only about people in my view, its also about conservation, protection of habitat and land stewardship. These issues are connected – we are part of the wider environment.

    1. Spot on, it’s not just about access, it’s how the land is managed for the common good. If the land is managed for biodiversity and sustainability, by definition, it is not maximised for its commercial potential. The grants and concessions to do this undermine the economic logic of the sell-off. A joint Defra/Forestry Commission study suggests that the benefits would be £655m but the cost £679m http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/forests/20110127-forestry-ia.pdf . There’s no financial logic in selling them off. If the real reason is a change in corporate governenance (i.e. the confict of intertest beteween the FC owning and regulating forests) then let’s have a debate about it. Why shouldn’t the forests be spun out into a trust owned by the people. The more you look at it, the more ill-judged the whole thing looks.

  3. I agree with the overall gist of your piece but I must point out that vast swathes of land are not almost off-limits in Alladale. Bar a few small enclosures the whole area has open access. And it is extremely unlikely that that will change. The estate isn’t even pursuing the idea of fencing off a huge area at present. Scottish access legislation does work! If you had something similar down south there would be no concerns about forest access.

    Andy Wightman’s writings on land ownership are worth reading. He’s proposing a third option – genuine community ownership. http://www.andywightman.com/wordpress/?p=116

    1. Thanks for the clarification Chris. When I saw the programme on Alladale it looked as though they were putting up a lot of fencing. As you say there are greater dangers in England over access, particularly where it is permissive rather than statutory. I’ll delete that bit.

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