By Andy Mayer
This will not happen…
Around 18% of English woodland is state-owned. The rest is private and used for a range of commercial, agricultural, and other purposes.
After the government’s DEFRA consultation on the future of the Forestry Commission it is likely the public share will fall, in favour of the third sector and some commercial interests. There will be a range of regulatory changes to protect the minority of heritage forests that are principally used for tourism or are sites of special scientific interest.
Predictably a range of anti-market national and local campaigns have been set up, or upped a gear, to oppose what the National Trust are calling “exciting new opportunities” for communities, charities and business… and they are calling selling off “an important national treasure”.
This seems to echo the language of “selling off the family silver” that characterised Labour attacks on privatisations in the 1980s. This was not a successful campaign.
Most people instinctively will think of forests as like national parks, whether or not they’re really just mono-cultures of limited value to wildlife, let alone humans without a logging company. Access campaigns are as old as the hills they set out to liberate. Land matters tend to excite liberal passions.
Tediously then many local Liberal Democrat campaigners will join the hysteria. The chance to dust off Focus leaflet templates, swapping the word Post Office for Forest, and predicting dire consequences for squirrels should one state-owned acorn fall prey to a marauding developer, will prove irresistible.
It is unlikely further that the party leadership will want to rock this boat, given an already delicate entente following the tuition fees reversal and control orders compromise. Forest campaigns may well keep people cheerful who might otherwise be writing stiff letters about defending the jobs of BBC web developers.
This is a pity. This sell off is quite a good opportunity for Nick Clegg to articulate a case to focus the state on less. Outside national parks why on earth does the state own any trees?
Making the ‘private is not scary’ case though is something he and Cameron don’t do nearly enough.
Instead, by playing the ‘with regret’ line on cuts, or treating every sell off as a sad consequence of the national debt, the Coalition is not preparing the ground for lasting change. It reminds me a little of the Britain in Europe campaign that tried and failed to win the Euro debate without talking about the Euro.
We saw this last week on Question Time where questioner after questioner attacked the government for opening up the NHS to, horror of horrors, “private companies”, with the responses being far from a robust defence of their record.
We see it in the bank regulation debate where the government is torn between playing along with public anger, some need for regulatory reform, and worrying the banks might leave.
It’s as though the government wants the private sector to do more and keep up the good work, recognises this will be largely a good thing, but isn’t prepared to say nice things about the private sector, just in case it upsets people who don’t agree.
This is in part a consequence of Cameron’s triangulation strategy to detoxify the Tory brand. For Nick Clegg, the party ditched sterile monomania about public versus private ownership in services after the 2003 Huhne Commission. It just didn’t do very much about implementing it after that.
It is then very hard for Minsters to make their case.
Some logging of public sector myths is in order first.
If not, the Coalition may find they can’t sell the woods for the trees.