If you go down to the woods today you’ll see that the traditionally blue shires are beginning to see red.
We might be about to see the reincarnation of swampy and his pals, but on a much bigger scale. A recent poll found that 75% of respondents were opposed to the sell-off of vast tracts of England’s cherished woodlands. The anti road protesters of the nineties did pretty well in gaining the support and momentum of Middle Englanders, people just like my mum and dad, my aunts and uncles.
This time around it appears as though the support has well and truly arrived almost by magic – no need to round the troops, they’re all over this like bees to honey. The nation has always had a strong connection with its green and pleasant land and many rural MP’s must be pondering just how wise the Government’s approach is, given the relatively modest financial return it will gain.
Whilst we’re (kind of) accepting the narrative about tough times and difficult decisions, the public is right to be concerned about what these proposals could lead to. Our rights to access, biodiversity and the loss (potentially forever) of many things that help define our country: carpets of bluebells and daffodils in spring, shockingly blue woodpeckers darting, dragons and damsels whizzing around. Will privatisation and a pure profit obligation ever be able to protect that which is priceless?
I understand that it is envisaged by DEFRA that up to 7% of our ancient woodlands may be bought by NGOs and just 2% by local communities, leaving a mighty 91% of current holdings in private hands. Either way, this is a battle I don’t see going away quietly. It could well become the modern day political equivalent to the 1980′s school milk debacle.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Public delivery or private ownership is an outdated argument. If public ownership of our woodlands is too costly, why not harness the concepts of localism, new economic growth, of rural opportunity and social entrepreneurship to deliver what our society needs? Enterprising solutions that achieve a long list of positive outcomes!
Many will be familiar with the wonderful work of Hill Holt Wood in Lincolnshire. Nigel and Karen took a piece of woodland and developed an inspiring, beautiful, accessible, community space that has expanded biodiversity, as well as providing jobs and training for people that need skills and routes into real work.
Hill Holt Wood is a viable business turning over more than £1m a year and has generated a profit every year since its starting. It kicks out more social outcomes than an English oak has acorns, and should be seen as the very essence of a new and sustainable economy, a credible solution for the renaissance of our rural economies. It shows that our woodlands can be used for so much more than simply harvesting and selling trees.
The potential here is huge. It’s not easy (but ecosystems do tend to be rather complex) and of course there will be cynics (“that’ll never work” is something I’ve heard in every enterprise I’ve ever been involved in) but the answer is, I believe, staring the Government in the face.
Let’s create investment bonds and other financial instruments so that communities and individuals can begin to replicate the Hill Holt Wood model. Allow communities to repay bonds through enterprising activities over 10 or 20 year periods. Ensure that genuine public access is safeguarded, that biodiversity and good forest management is expanded, and that our natural assets are locked in for public and environmental benefit, forever.
The potential social, environmental and financial returns of thinking differently could make the £100m revenue raising target look as modest as it actually is.