The writer Peter Ackroyd – whose own name means ‘dweller in the oak forest’ – located the origin of the English imagination in the forest glades: ‘The mark or symbol of the hawthorn tree is to be found in the runic alphabet of the ancient British tribes, as if the landscape propelled them into speech’, he wrote in Albion.
This is probably factually wide of the mark, but it is highly suggestive nonetheless. The English are now an urban people, but their attachment to the land, and particularly to its forests and woodlands, is deep. It is a sentiment that is embodied, not just in the literature and popular culture of the English, but also in our ways of life, institutions, social rituals and practices (including, it has to be said, those of the heritage industry, which now packages up the great forests of England and their myths for tourist consumption).
That is one reason why the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs’ consultation on selling off the Forestry Commission estate has become so politically potent. It goes right to the heart of English national identity and its cultural symbols. It has met fierce resistance from local campaigners in places like the Forest of Dean and from campaigning groups and celebrities. The resistance is about eco-conservation and biodiversity – but what really motivates people to campaign on this issue is their own connectedness to the forests and, in particular, the idea that these lands are held in common and can be accessed freely, without hindrance.
DEFRA points out that disposals of forest land have taken place repeatedly down the years, and that the Forestry Commission is conflicted by its dual role as owner/producer and regulator of the timber industry. It is right on both counts. Free market voices in this debate, such as Matt Ridley, have made much of the Forestry Commission’s sometimes lamentable track record in preserving ancient woodland and endogenous diversity, as well as its conflict of interests.
But that doesn’t mean privatisation of the forest estate – even to a mixed bag of Big Society and Big Business owners – is the only way forward. One option might be to strip the Forestry Commission of its regulatory functions and mutualise it, rather as the government is doing with British Waterways. That way it would have no regulatory conflict of interest and could embrace much deeper public engagement in its stewardship of the forest estate. Membership could be opened up to the public on a National Trust model or, in a more localist way, through the issuance of stakes to different communities. Public ownership would be preserved but in a mutualist form, which might produce more imaginative revenue-raising ideas than simply flogging the logging to the private sector. Indeed, the government has already indicated that it wants charitable trusts to take over the ancient woodlands. But the mutual principle could be extended much further, while preserving some of the benefits of national expertise.
There are doubtless other ways forward as well, and it is encumbent on campaigners to think about this issue against the backdrop of DEFRA’s budget cuts. Whoever won power last May would have cut DEFRA’s funding, even if not as far or as fast, so fiscal credibility is vital for opponents of the sell-off.
A coda: as Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford pointed out recently in Progress this issue presents an open goal to the new left conservatives of Blue Labour.