Twelve months after a spectacular halt to the public consultation around the future of the public forests in England.
It was late October 2010 when the first emails arrived from supporters, worried about a newspaper article which had revealed plans for a mass sale of the public forest estate. Our response initially was wary; at that point a large scale disposal of the forests appeared to be one option of several options on Defra’s table. We wanted as clear a picture as possible before launching a public campaign; things were changing almost daily and, as we said in our December campaigning statement, we continued to ask questions and lobby in Parliament wanting to know exactly what was happening so any actions our supporters took would be truly effective. In the meantime we highlighted other opposition groups which were running petitions, like 38 Degrees and Save our Woods, although our main concern about these was that a flat ‘no sales’ just wasn’t a realistic outcome. Government did seem determined to change the shape of public ownership of the forest estate.
In January 2011, Defra opened a public consultation in which at least one thing looked clear: the questions were about how, not should the forests be sold. Our petition launched the same day as Defra’s consultation, with a more detailed call around closing the serious loopholes in woodland protection; guarantees that public benefits like access would be retained and restoration commitments progressed, before any sales were even considered. It gathered over 125,000 signatures, rising to over 165,000 in what seemed like a flash, and elsewhere other petition signatures also kept on rising – over 500,000 people signed the 38 Degrees petition! We were elated by the passion demonstrated for our magical, rich, necessary forests. And yes, shaken at the time by the immediacy of social media, and the way some challenged and misunderstood the stance the Trust was taking (coinciding with some serious IT problems which didn’t help either!). Daily, the public feeling that this land wasn’t the Government’s to sell, but ours, the peoples’, grew and grew. It was hard for our specific calls to be properly heard – the trees’ voice which we were trying to raise became a whisper next to the war cry that sounded out for forests.
Thank goodness it was. The huge outcry from all quarters could not be ignored. Within days the public consultation was abandoned, an apology made in Parliament (and a hasty stop put on our full membership mailout which was just heading out the door!). A few weeks later an independent review of forestry in England including the public forest estate was started by an Independent Panel on Forestry. The threat was over (for now…?)
I’ve written some of this before in emails or articles, and while I’m reflecting on those intense 21 days they still resonate. Our campaign isn’t over and our lobbying work around protection, restoration and woodland creation continues while we help communities and landowners plant more trees around the UK. Groups have more space to look into those wider concerns about the issues around protection, public benefit and restoration. The media will be waiting for the Panel’s report – due in June – before looking into the forest debate again, so I’d expect to read more in the papers then. But in the meantime, what has the Government actually done for the environment – and specifically trees and woods – since its spectacular u-turn last February? So far the answer is, many promises - these need to be turned into practice. Will they? And when?