Is it just the British who to love to mark centenaries and anniversaries? That thought was triggered in my head when I caught sight of the new postage stamps celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Football Association, complete with a grinning Kevin Keegan, carefully drawn by the artist in his soft-perm stage. Sadly, I must confess to recognising most of the players depicted on the full set – and they do go back in time a bit…
It raised the prospect of whether or not the design brief for the Forestry Commission centenary postage stamps was already in somebody’s forward work plan? And begs the question as to what they might consider depicting on them that could really tell the story of the organisation’s achievements since it was set up in 1919.
The Forestry Commission is almost unique in its longevity as an organisation, having seen so many others come and go. It can pride itself on having been able to combine a genuine understanding of the long term nature of the whole business of trees, woods and forests, with the flexibility and responsiveness to keep itself more or less relevant to the changing needs of society.
Is it just me, or are forests and woods enjoying their highest ever public and political profile? The opportunities and benefits that our woods can deliver seem more relevant than ever, so we must not waste the knowledge and expertise that resides in all the constituent parts that make up the trees, woods and forests sector – there will be enough for us all to do.
The Government response to the Independent Panel on Forestry has received a qualified welcome in most quarters, but may have become entangled with the coincidental timing of the Triennial Review of the Environment Agency and Natural England – could this provide a convenient ‘smoke screen’ for a bit of dismantling and merging? Could forestry bodies get caught up in the Government search for hapless victims – mere targets in their sights to increase the Quango body-count?
Of course, nothing stays the same, everything must change (cue the soulful lyrics of Paul Young), but too much change, too quickly surely rings alarm bells? The Forestry Commission Director General has now retired (the last of the line), the Forestry Commission Chair left at the end of her contract in December, unusually after only one term. The Forestry Commission in England gets a new Director, but he is unlikely to get his feet under the desk until sometime in March (hopefully not the Ides of) when much of the Triennial Review wheeling and dealing may well be all over, bar the shouting. Colleagues in the Woodland Trust have already made our views known via the Review consultation that we want the Forest Services function to remain a clear and distinctive voice for trees, woods and forests and be kept well clear of any kind of merger or risk of being subsumed into some labyrinthine environmental mega-department.
So, where are the senior and experienced voices speaking up for forests and woods inside government in these turbulent times? Not voices of self-interest or special pleading, but voices that carry the knowledge, experience and understanding built up from decades of serving the public. The old triumvirate that made up the Forestry Commission – previously labelled as Forest Enterprise, the Forestry Authority and Forest Research – delivered a valuable balance. It provided the kind of flexible organisation that could draw on the specialist knowledge of colleagues in other areas as and when required – and perhaps more importantly it provided the career pathways and experience that meant most staff, whether hands-on managers of the public estate, members of partnership and stakeholder teams, or working on grants, regulations and advice were equally valued by the public, and credible to landowners and policy makers.
The Woodland Trust is one of many voices that will continue to speak up for trees, woods and forests from outside the ‘corridors of power’, working with others to push against the ‘open doors’ that the Government response to the Panel Report seems to represent – hopefully once inside we will find some genuine and effective stakeholder engagement. But, as the cheers subside from the celebrations that the public forest estate is ‘not for sale’, many other matters remain unresolved. A real Government commitment to follow through on all of these ‘once in a generation’ opportunities and open doors, means that now is not the time to dispose of the very people we will all need to work with, who have the knowledge and skills to guide, facilitate and deliver on those promises.
Over the years, I’m not alone in having been streamlined, downsized, rationalised, had my efficiency increased, been empowered to work smarter not harder, exhorted to deliver more for less, to embrace leaner systems, and not forgetting being ‘invested in’, amongst other things. Some organisations can remain robust in the face of such a catalogue of ‘improvement’ and short term turbulence, especially if they have that distinctive combination of knowledge, experience, credibility and trust – that’s the kind of stuff that’s in the Forestry Commission’s organisational DNA. What a waste it would be to kill off that lineage now.
Austin Brady, Head of Conservation
*Keep the debate alive and catch up with more posts in our ‘Forests Report’ series: https://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/category/forests-report-2/