Forest Chumps

The sale of England’s state forests is a chance to do something interesting. It’s being squandered.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 1st February 2011

It took the previous Conservative government 13 years to propose a sell-off as unpopular as this one. The privatisation of the railways was opposed by 85% of British voters(1), and helped to derail John Major’s administration in 1997. Cameron’s plan to flog the public forest estate, presented to the nation after eight months in office, is opposed by 84% of the public(2). So much for his brilliant political instincts. And yet, stupid and destructive as this sell-off promises to be, it’s just a stone’s throw from something really interesting.

The one good thing about this rotten government is that it recognises – in theory, though apparently not in practice – that there are more than two options for the ownership of common resources. Previous governments – both Conservative and Labour – have presented our choices in crude terms: an asset of benefit to the public can either be owned by the state or sold to businesses and private citizens. Both parties have asserted absolute ownership of resources in which we all have an interest. In order to privatise something, you must first claim that the government and the government alone owns it and has the right to decide who gets it and how it will be used. In this respect the Conservatives have championed state power just as fervently as Labour has.

State and corporate power have more in common than their partisans suggest. In both cases a small elite uses our common treasury to further its own interests. Sometimes these interests coincide with the interests of the public, sometimes they don’t. There’s a role for state power and there’s a role for private enterprise, but there are dozens of models of ownership in between, which are neglected by both governments and their critics.

In the past, Labour nationalised businesses which could have become either workers’ or customers’ co-ops. The Tories then privatised them without exploring the alternatives. Their shareholder democracy could have meant something: a bond-owning public, which retained a permanent and distributed stake in the utilities. Instead, it meant that a small proportion of the stock resided briefly in the hands of the middle classes before being sold on, while the management nicked many of the major assets. The public is not the same as the state. Nor is it simply the collective noun for atomised private citizens.

This false choice makes even less sense when applied to the ownership of land. Absolute ownership by either the state or private interests is, in most parts of the world, a recent invention. Even after the Norman Conquest, when William I asserted a narrower concept of property than any previous English king had done, the common people retained rights over land which others owned. Their rights of usufruct, of grazing, pannage, estovers, turbary and piscary survived for many centuries before being terminated: first informally, later in wholesale acts of enclosure. Even today – as you can see from the pressure which forced the last government to recognise our rights to roam in the countryside, and the outcry with which its deregulation of the planning laws was met – we retain the sense that land is not like other property. Though it might be privately owned, the public retains an interest in it and certain rights over it.

The government claims to be aware that there’s more to public life than either the state or business. In practice, its transition to the Big Society means little more than dumping state functions onto the voluntary sector, without the money required to discharge them. If some of the wealth and power now claimed by government were transferred to society, I would support the shrinking of the state. Instead, they’re being transferred to another elite: the corporate class that funds the Tory party.

The creation of the public forest estate was as brutal as any other nationalisation. In the sitka spruce plantations which cover much of the Cambrian Desert in mid-Wales, I’m told that you can find entire farmsteads – houses, barns, pens and yards – compulsorily purchased by the state and now buried in darkness and sepulchral silence. The disposal of the English estate is likely to be as destructive as its creation, as forests managed by a radically-reformed commission are flogged to the highest bidder. But it needn’t be like this.

As Andy Wightman pointed out in the Observer, the state ownership of forests is not a concept we should rush to defend(3). He contrasted the choice between state and private forestry in England with the community forests of France and Scandanavia, and the National Forest Land Scheme in Scotland, which is transferring thousands of acres to local groups. Though the Forestry Commission’s stewardship of the environment has improved beyond recognition, there is no reason in principle to preserve the property of government ministers. While their ownership of forests today is mostly benign; in the past, as ancient woodlands were replaced by sunless wastes of parade-ground conifers, it was terrible. In either case, they own it; we don’t. The state is not us.

The government maintains that it wants to encourage “new ownership models”(4), and open up “new opportunities for public participation”(5). It suggests that “community and civil society groups” should buy or lease woods now owned by the Forestry Commission(6). There’s just one catch: “any sale would be at the open market value”(7). We’ll have to pay for something which we are deemed to own already, at a rate (between £3,500 and £7,000 a hectare(8)) that few communities can afford. If we can’t find the money, the woods will be purchased by business instead. The government expects only 8% of the forests it sells to be bought by community groups. Forestry Commission documents suggest that the real proportion will be much smaller(9).

Without money, the Big Society is all guff. If the government meant what it says about encouraging public participation, it would give the woodlands to community groups, and use the money it made from selling sitka plantations to commercial foresters to support the new public owners. Instead, the money will disappear into the Treasury, to be spent on empty aircraft carriers and corporate tax breaks. (If, that is, there is any money. When the commercial foresters are compensated for conservation and public access, this sell-off could cost more than it makes).

Like every privatisation and every nationalisation, this is a squandered opportunity. If the government believed its own rhetoric, the disposal of the forest estate would help to restore a genuine public ownership of the land, lost through centuries of dispossession and enclosure. Instead it looks like just another squalid little fire-sale, liquidating our common treasury to release some emergency cash.





4. DEFRA, January 2011. The Future of the Public Forest Estate in England, page 5.

5. As above.

6. As above, page 24.

7. As above, page 33.