Anyone taking half an interest in the Government’s plans to dispose of publicly owned forests will have noticed the sharp contrast between the public reaction and that of the environmental NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations, in case you were wondering). Lots of people have been very angry that folks like the National Trust and RSPB haven’t been shouting loudly alongside the rest of us for the Government to Stop Being So Bloody Stupid and Leave the Forestry Commission Alone.
As I speak, most of the NGOs are still to publish their official response to the consultation, and until they do we are left to speculate somewhat as to their intentions and motives. But their lack of zeal and failure to speak with a common voice has frustrated grassroots campaigners. What’s going on? Here are some thoughts from me.
What’s been happening?
On 27 January 2011 the Government launched it’s consultation the Future of the Public Forest Estate in England. This was after much speculation from the media and campaigners, fuelled by the junior environment minister Jim Paice’s comment last November: “we wish to proceed with very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it”. The campaign group 38 Degrees mobilised a preemptive petition against any forest sell off and the #SaveOurForests twitter campaign was also launched ahead of the consultation.
Between the first noises about a sell off and the consultation actually being released, defra appears to have revised its tactics, saying they wish to: “invit[e] new or existing charitable organisations to take on ownership or management of the heritage forests in order to secure their public benefits for the long-term future” and that they will not sell but lease commercial forests to ensure the public good is protected. These compromises have only added fuel to the campaigning fire. I’ve previously blogged about what I think of the consultation.
Meanwhile, some of the NGOs, notably the National Trust and RSPB, have made warm noises towards the Government plans. David Riddle from the National Trust said: “We’re pleased the Government has listened to the huge public concern over the future of the nation’s forests and has committed to safeguarding their public access and conservation value”. This response has sent grassroots campaigners into a fury. ‘We must stand united or we will lose!’ They shout.
My question is, why aren’t the NGOs jumping up and down in fury with the rest of us?
It’s a hard life being an NGO
There are two reasons why all NGOs need to be cautious: they want to be able to influence Government, and they have to stick to their mandates to keep their membership on side. The exception is where a campaign group is focused solely on whipping up public reaction: they don’t need to keep anyone sweet in Government, and organisations like 38 Degrees have a very broad remit within which they campaign.
Let’s take a look at the RSPB. Their remit has broadened over the years. While they’re mainly about birds, their interest has extended to incorporate all things natural, as well as our relationship with wildlife and the Great Outdoors (hence the RSPB’s twitter name @Natures_Voice). But they are not interested particularly in who owns our forests, they don’t campaign on access issues, and (like me) they hate conifer plantations.
So they have an interest in the quality of our wooded areas (though with half an eye on any plantations they can rip up and replace with heathland or some such), they care about the British people having a relationship with and experience of nature, but they’re not that fussed about who holds the reins. They also have another concern. Like many NGOs, they’ve nurtured relationships with ‘the powers that be’ in order to influence from the inside. I don’t know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet they’re very good at this. Which means that direct and vocal criticism needs to be kept as a last resort and used only when nothing else is working. That’s hard for a grassroots campaigner to take, especially when everything happens behind the scenes.
Out of all the NGOs, the National Trust has probably upset people the most. I remember people tweeting that they felt the National Trust had effectively gone to bed with the Government, doing some back room deal to secure management of English treasures like the New Forest and Forest of Dean. I think these accusations have hurt the National Trust, who are currently running their own ‘consultation’, gauging the opinion of their members via their website and twitter. Their Director General Fiona Reynolds said on 9 February: “At the Trust we were not at all surprised by the level of public concern that’s been generated over the future of these priceless assets; indeed we share many of those concerns, having had no prior warning of what would be in the consultation paper.”
Next we have the Woodland Trust. They’ve taken a bit of flak from some quarters, which I think is unfair. The Woodland Trust are interested primarily in preserving and reclaiming ancient woodland, but they are also active in getting new woodlands planted. Like the RSPB, they’d quite like to see our conifer plantations restored to their former glory. Other than that, they are mainly concerned with ancient woodland. As they should be. They have started their own petition, which focuses on ancient woodland. I think this is fair enough, but they’ve also paid for a google advert so that any search relating to the forest disposal brings their site up first. This feels like blatant self promotion, and may hurt the Woodland Trust in the long term.
Who else is getting involved? The Ramblers have issued a very short statement listing their concerns, which are (predictably): access, access, access. But come on, what did you expect? But on the other hand, in 1993 they were influential in persuading a previous Government to leave the Forestry Commission alone. I wonder what’s changed to make them so cautious this time? I don’t think they’re a big enough player to need to worry about losing influence, so why keep a low profile this time?
The Wildlife Trusts are a collective of regional charities. Each Trust is making it’s own response to the consultation, but the collective line is that on the one hand public disposal could be bad, but on the other hand state management hasn’t been great either. Take of that what you will. Having said that, the Wildlife Trusts are in a position to champion local woods that are under threat. So maybe not a strong national player, but potentially very powerful at the local level. And I don’t think they’d be that keen in raising the thousands of pounds needed to buy community woodlands.
Finally, we have two surprise entries. WWF has come out against the Government plans, and singles out the Public Bodies Bill as being a major problem. They make an interesting comparison between what our Government is proposing and what happens in countries with much more impressive, and vulnerable, forests. Hurrah we say. Then Greenpeace launches yet another petition and makes a broad statement along the lines of ‘Government wrong. Public right’. While WWF is focused on influencing politicians behind the scene, Greenpeace is making all the right noises to appease the campaigners baying for NGO blood.
So what can we learn from this?
Firstly, we need to remember that some of these NGOs are working hard behind the scenes, and are not in a position to criticise the Government openly. However, the tide of public opinion is clear, with 84% of the public against and 2% for forest disposal. So caution from the NGOs will quite rightly alienate the public – who are all members or potential members. I suspect that some of our NGOs will shift position towards public opinion over the coming weeks. Maybe they’re waiting for the Government to make the first move.
Secondly, the consultation focused very specifically on how the disposal should take place, not if. The real issue at the moment is the Public Bodies Bill, which needs to be passed before the Government can do anything to our public forests. Some of our NGOs have expressed concern at this, most recently Mark Avery for the RSPB. I’m surprised at the lack of shouty noises from the NGOs on this, because as Mark points out, it is an ‘enabling bill’, giving future Governments the power to do things they haven’t even thought of yet.
Whatever happens with the Public Bodies Bill, I don’t think many of our NGOs feel they have a mandate to campaign about whether the forests should be sold off, only on how they are managed for the public good, both now and for future generations. Perhaps this is why they are being quiet? Maybe they feel they can influence the ‘how’, but shouldn’t influence the ‘if’?
Finally, each NGO has a fairly specific platform from which they can influence. It would be crazy if the RSPB started campaigning on public access, or if the National Trust started demanding that conifer plantations be restored. No one NGO (barring the pure campaign groups) can make a solid case for leaving the Forestry Commission well alone. In order to unite with public opinion, the situation would need to be very dire indeed. Or maybe they trust that the 38 Degrees campaign will win through? Or they know something we don’t?
So the NGOs can’t help, but we can
The forests sell off is about much more than just forests. It’s about how our society functions, the relation between State and Citizen, the difference between public and private. While the NGO hands are somewhat tied, citizens’ hands are not. This is why the 38 Degrees campaign has been so spectacularly successful, today surpassing its half a million signature target. This is why the Government has been backtracking on the forest proposals. It’s why the Public Bodies Bill will change from something that was going to slip under the net, to something that will be BIG NEWS when it is debated next in the House of Lords. It’s something we can win, with or without the NGOs.