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Archive for January, 2011

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 Public delivery or private ownership is an outdated argument.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.

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Well blog followers, I’m back.

You may or may not be aware that I’ve had an interesting few weeks. After the first bout of snow at the end of November, SEC held its winter Council Meeting, its AGM and then hosted the reception to announce the winner of the Triodos-SEC Social Vision photo competition. It was one of those busy, busy days. So busy in fact that I forgot to eat. Heading home I stopped off for a take away in an unknown neighbourhood. Unfortunately I got more than I bargained for and ended up with a bout of what I know now to be e-coli that had been hiding in some rotten rice.

Well, without going into too much grisly detail, this episode led to some horrific internal gastric bleeding. Within a couple of days I was admitted to Whipps Cross hospital for treatment and emergency surgery. (I shall avoid making the obvious observations here about whether as a foundation trust hospital, Whipps Cross hospital is at all socially enterprising.)

Anyhow, if that wasn’t enough whilst the docs were at work they discovered a couple of complications which led to me being out of action for a few weeks.

After a couple of weeks’ superb aftercare from my two sets of parents in Kent and London, and another rushed return to Whipps Cross A&E, I decided with the encouragement of my GP to resurrect my cancelled plans to visit New Zealand and Australia; a family celebration that been over a year in the planning.

I arrived to a warm climate, a spectacular landscape and the natural thermal pools of Hanmer Springs in New Zealand. An incredible place that no doubt quickened my recovery. New Zealand is one of the most laid back places on earth; it is the inspiring mountains, beaches and southern skies that dictate this pace of life. Then an earthquake struck and I found myself huddled intimately under the dining table with ten relatives and four dogs. Well this Christmas was certainly all about getting close to one’s family.

I later found myself in Melbourne. I was recovering enough to want to experience Melbourne’s socially-enterprising side. I found that Fifteen Melbourne had, without explanation, morphed to become the Kitchen Cat and wasn’t open until after my departure date, but I did find an excellent alternative new venture called Streat Cafe. Mobile coffee stands retailing delicious fair-trade, organic coffee. They train people without homes as coffee baristas and are also offering delicious street food by newly-trained ex-homeless chefs. All profits supporting Melbourne’s attempts to rid itself of a growing homelessness problem. A great social enterprise, excellently executed. Nice work indeed.

I also bought some fab underwear courtesy of Pants to Poverty and the Friends of Earth shop on Smith Street, a wonderfully boho neighbourhood outside of Melbourne’s central district. I’ll of course be wearing my new pants to VOICE 11 but don’t expect a picture.

And so I return to London in torrential rain this weekend (after flying home and sharing drinks, thoughts and goodwill with little Frankie Detori and leading Aussie social entrepreneur, Lachlan Bunn, Aussie founder of World Challenge). I’m kind of recovered and raring to go… and a bit excited by the news that has passed me by whilst over in the southern hemisphere; Steve Wyler gets a much deserved and overdue OBE and Steve Bubb gets a knighthood. Congratulations to both.

I’ll be seeing you around very soon but my fantastic team are intending to keep me office-bound in the short term (following strict medical advice apparently). They have been an inspiration since my forced and unexpected removal from work and have done the social enterprise community proud. Voice tickets are selling fast, the programme is developing at a pace, entries to the Social Enterprise Awards are coming thick and fast (you have just over 24 hours left – get moving!) and contributors are lining up to make the programme innovative, exciting, and refreshing. Voice 11 will be a huge marketplace for the best our movement has to offer. Our Chair and board have also done a great job in covering my unplanned absence. It’s great to be back. Thanks twitter friends for all your kind words and wishes and for the messages of support from the wider SE non-tweeting community.

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