If the collective and virtually unanimous welcome for the Independent Panel on Forestry’s report at its final event in Central Hall Westminster yesterday afternoon is a barometer of hope, England’s woods and forests are long overdue a renaissance.
The hall was packed with over 140 of us from local campaign groups, businesses, the forestry world and national organisations, eager to hear what happens next after last week’s publication of the report.
So what did we learn?
Secretary of State Caroline Spelman told us that she had ‘got the message’ about the passion people feel for forests. She shares the Panel’s vision for a new woodland culture and she now wants to listen to everyone’s reactions, ideas and solutions over the next six months before the Government formally responds in January 2013. She wants the outgoing Panel members to form the core of a new National Forestry Stakeholder Forum (were they asked?!) and she wants lots of conversations through meetings and social media, especially with those who haven’t yet engaged with the Panel process. Interestingly she carefully avoided using the word ‘consultation.’
Listening and leadership
Now I had thought that the Panel had been consulting extensively for the past 15 months, effectively doing the government’s work for them albeit at arm’s length. I have seen many consultations on forestry issues over the past 25 years and this was certainly the most comprehensive and inclusive process I have experienced.
But Lord Taylor made the point that Panel has been diligent in its work and so the Government must be diligent too in reading and considering the report thoroughly. You can see why government doesn’t want to rush into a hasty response and risk further public outcry but there is a fine line between measured consideration and another long grass exercise in the run-up to the next election. Leadership is what we now need from government, adopting this report wholesale as the basis for a refreshed approach to what one Panel member called ‘England’s best kept secret, our trees woods and forests.’
I do feel Caroline Spelman genuinely gets the message about trees and woods – she gets it in every way from the economics, the community angle, the environment and nature, and also the spiritual and cultural angle. She spoke passionately about her responsibilities as the Secretary of State for stewardship of what is not hers.
But she is not entirely in command of her destiny within government; she spoke of fiscal restraints, and in adopting the language of natural capital she is trying to find a lifeline to get the value of forests understood far more by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. She’s in a tough place, that’s certain.
So, with an almost universal welcome for the report from the floor and through statements from stakeholders, there was a strong sense that this was not just about seeing off the threat of privatisation but about confirming that all forests must have a future where they are valued, and that we need more of them. Many spoke about accepting the report as a whole, rather than picking off single issues within it; you could almost touch the collective mood of putting the past behind us and moving forward in a rare but perhaps defining moment of unity.
So what can we all do?
At the end I was about to ask a question about what does the panel think is the one thing we should all do to ensure its hard work doesn’t fade from our memories. In fact Bishop James asked that very question of the panel by way of summing up and got some great answers which are worth sharing.
- Do something personal – tell your friends, family, children and people where you live the great story around the value of trees and woods,
- Promote the report and use it as a conduit for conversation with professional colleagues and your political representatives
- Make decisions in your daily professional life which reflect the value of woods whether you are a planner, a conservationist, a land manager or campaigner
- Get a woodland culture going through using wood and woods, such as spending leisure time in the forest and buying wooden products not plastic ones
They say the longest journey starts with the smallest step; the government has some big ones to take but it will be easier if, as in the children’s game ‘grandmother’s footsteps’, we are breathing over their shoulders, urging them forward.