SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 219 June 2018

Root and branch sell-off

Britain’s forests are under threat from a virulent disease. Affected areas are quickly quarantined, out of bounds to members of the public. The disease, known as neoliberalism, is taking hold of woodland run by the Forestry Commission and is being spread by Tory government privatisation. It is particularly prevalent in England – Wales Forestry Commission became a separate entity in 2013 and Scotland is due to follow suit next year. It would be wrong to be complacent, however. It is very contagious.

It is not a new phenomenon. Selling off woodland has been pursued by the political establishment over the last 40 years. It is connected to the privatisation of state-owned industry, utilities, services and infrastructure under a succession of Tory, New Labour and Con-Dem governments. Those policies have only been boosted by the austerity offensive since the financial crisis of 2007/08.

What’s known as the Public Forest Estate (PFE) in Britain is run by the Forestry Commission on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). England’s PFE comprises over 1,000 woods and 258,000 hectares. Although that is only 18% of England’s woodland, it is 44% of the woodland directly accessible to the public. It is an invaluable resource, offering affordable access (transport notwithstanding) to nature, exercise and recreation.

Selling off the forests has never been popular but that has not stopped governments trying. The current Tory administration is going about it in a particularly underhand way. The most recent example is a 50-hectare area of Mortimer forest on the Hereford-Shropshire county border overlooking Wales. (1 hectare = 100 metres x 100 metres, so 50 hectares = 5km x 5km.) The plan is to build 68 luxury chalets with an on-site shop, takeaway food outlets and restaurant, bar, car parking, access roads and utilities/amenities, all run by a company called Forest Holidays.

Forest Holidays was set up by the Forestry Commission in the 1960s but was taken over by venture capitalists, Lloyds Development Capital, in September 2012. Last December, LDC sold a major 42% stake to Phoenix Equity for £110 million. The Forestry Commission retains a small but significant 14% holding. Phoenix Equity has a 125-year lease on the Mortimer forest land. The company will pay the Forestry Commission an annual rent of £200,000 and charge a whole lot more. There is no stipulation that the rent has to be ploughed back into the forest or local area. (Shropshire Live, 21 March 2018)

Another example is in the Forest of Dean, where campsites were replaced by Forest Holidays chalets in 2014. The following year, the company built 70 luxury cabins in Fineshade wood, Northamptonshire, along with new roads and a sewage treatment plant. There are ten similar sites across England.

The government says this is not privatisation because Forest Holidays does not own the sites, it leases them. That is a moot point. The reality is that the Forestry Commission is leasing the land to a private equity company on extremely favourable terms, enabling the company (in which the commission has shares) to rake in huge profits. It is camouflaged privatisation. In addition, the relaxation of planning laws means that its planning applications cannot be opposed unless they are in a protected area. These same rules also allow property developers to scour the country for prime sites with little scrutiny. Moreover, this is just the start. Under a ‘framework agreement’ struck in 2012, Forest Holdings can develop up to 30 sites at any one time.

There are striking similarities with the private finance initiative introduced by John Major’s Tory government in the early 1990s – then enthusiastically taken up by Tony Blair’s regime. PFI enabled private companies to build hospitals and other public buildings and lease them back to the public sector at exorbitant rates. The private forest initiative does it the other way round, giving privatisation another devious twist.

Selling off public assets is a lucrative route to profits for big business. It is particularly attractive at times of economic paralysis and slow growth, as at present. It also represents a huge transfer of wealth (and wellbeing) from the working class to the capitalists.

Margaret Thatcher’s first government passed the Forestry Act 1981, selling off thousands of hectares. By the mid-1980s, many in her rabid administration were baying for full PFE privatisation but, such was the unpopularity of the proposal, not even they could pull it off. Under Major’s weaker government, subsequent attempts were again repelled by protest campaigns.

New Labour’s 1997 manifesto said it was for "a moratorium on large-scale sales of Forestry Commission land". In government, however, it allowed the sale of land deemed ‘surplus to requirements’. According to Forestry Commission figures, New Labour’s ‘land disposals policy’ saw approximately 11,252 hectares of PFE woodland sold off, 1997-2009.

The baton then passed to the Con-Dem coalition headed by David Cameron, who boasted he would lead "the greenest government ever". In October 2010, within five months of taking office, it outlined "its intention to fundamentally reform the public forestry estate, with diminishing public ownership and a greater role for private and civil society partners". This was part of Cameron’s ‘big society’ idea, a cynical ploy to hide brutal austerity.

Defra secretary of state Caroline Spelman tried (too hard) to convince us that the sale of public forests was not a "fire sale by a cash-strapped state", insisting it was "the start of a new approach to making their protection more local and less central". James Paice, Defra minister, also piled in: "All this nonsense we have read about golf courses and holiday camps on the forest is all complete and utter bunkum. It just will not happen". (Oliver Bennett, David Hirst, The Forestry Commission and the Sale of Public Forests in England, House of Commons Library, 28 November 2014)

An outcry ensued. An online petition opposing the sale received more than 500,000 signatories. The pressure, including on Tory and Liberal MPs in leafy shires, forced the government to abandon the plan. It was the coalition’s first major u-turn, the first defeat for Cameron’s big society.

However, these people are nothing if not determined representatives of the interests of the capitalist class – or sections of that elite, at least. They are used to getting their way. They are used to ruling. Delivering a statement to parliament in July 2012 confirming the climb-down, Spelman spelled out that nothing had really changed: "We need a new model that is able to draw in private finance, make best use of government funding and a means to facilitate wider and more comprehensive community support". (Bennett/Hirst, HoC Library, 28 November 2014)

Under a new Defra secretary of state – climate change denier Owen Paterson – the government announced it would establish an ‘operationally-independent’ PFE management body. This is a kind of arms-length management, which really means putting control of public land further out of reach of the people who pay for it (us) and who ostensibly own it.

The Queen’s speech outlining government policy in June 2014 made no mention of our forests. It did, however, include the Infrastructure bill, which environmental groups warned could be used to sell off PFE land – it relaxed the planning and land use rules being exploited by the Phoenix Equity and Forestry Commission partnership. Paterson oversaw the axing of a quarter of commission jobs, with its 2015 budget slashed from £22 million to £16.5 million.

Following another huge outcry, on 6 November 2014 the government again promised not to sell off public forests. Yet here we are. The forests are being leased instead. They are still (nominally) public, but access is even further restricted – in some places for 125 years.

Access to the countryside is a class issue. It has been the basis for movements in the past – famously, the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 demanding the right to roam. The fact is that neoliberal attempts to make working-class people pay for the capitalist economic crisis threaten all the gains won through organised resistance.

Radical policies are needed to drive out the profiteers and take back into public ownership this common land. Ultimately, however, there is only one known cure to this rapacious disease: a democratically-run, socialist plan which can ensure that land and natural resources are used sustainably for the benefit of all.

Manny Thain

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