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England Puts Off Selling Public Woodlands

Quite simply, the people rebelled

A huge argument over the future of forestry in the UK came to a dramatic end last week when the Prime Minister, David Cameron, publically backed down and admitted he was unhappy with his government’s policy.

But what was the fuss about in the first place and why was a government with a clear parliamentary majority forced into such a humiliating retreat?

photo of a deep woodTony HammondA little oasis of woodland set among
a residential area in Sussex, UK, and regarded
as a valuable treasure by local residents.

The UK has embarked upon a round of severe public service cuts to try and reduce the country’s debts as quickly as possible. The government did its sums and discovered it could make up to $8 billion from selling publically owned forests.

These represent 44 percent of the forests to which the public has free access in England (Scotland and Wales are not involved).

In addition, and unlike many privately owned monoculture forests, they are managed in a sustainable manner where timber production sits alongside long term biodiversity planning and the preservation of ancient woodlands.

Furthermore, not all of the land is given over to forestry. Over 15 percent is open land, including heaths, bogs and grasslands.

This makes the publically owned forests invaluable, interlocking pockets of habitat, tucked into the landscape and forming an unparalleled network through which biodiversity can move and thrive.

England has the greatest population density in Europe and in the US only the State of New Jersey is more densely populated. This places exceptional pressure upon land use and the preservation of natural habitats often comes off second best.

The government’s plans included allowing ministers to sell the public forests without further consultation. There were promises to protect habitats and public access, but as the forests were to be sold as commercial ventures few believed this protection would be robust or long lasting.

So, quite simply, the people rebelled. It wasn’t as spectacular as Egypt, nor was it what David Cameron meant when he called for greater social engagement in the running of public services.

But it was effective and shows that the English understand some things are more important than just turning a quick profit.

Publically owned forests are still seriously threatened by simplified planning rules and the continuing deep cuts in public services. However the UK government now knows it will need to tread more carefully in the future.

Chris Milton, ContributorChris Milton photo
Chris Milton is a UK based freelance journalist specialising in all things sustainable. His work regularly appears in The Ecologist and other notable scalps include The Washington Post (Foreign Policy) and republication by Scientific American. He was Society and Business Editor of Sideways News before “that money thing” happened and is currently working on a project about reducing the working week. In between times he blogs in a number of places on the Guardian’s Environment and Sustainable Business networks and spends far too much time on twitter.
Feel free to have a look at his (usually out of date) portfolio and investigate the truth of the twitter jibe.

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