Environmental NGOs betray England's forests

Not one of the major environmental NGOs has so much as lifted a finger in support of the campaign to save England's forests from the Government's proposed sell-off. Why not? Is it vested interests?
Jonathon Porritt
8 February 2011

The campaign to put an end to the Government’s proposed sell-off of the Public Forest Estate is building nicely. A combination of growing public concern (evidenced by the 450,000 people who have now signed the 38 degrees petition), more and more local action groups, and a sudden realisation on the part of the Lib Dems and even some Tories that they are on a hiding to nothing with this one, tells me that this campaign is eminently winnable.

Especially if you bear in mind that not one of the major environmental NGOs has so much as lifted a finger in support of the campaign. A few cautious ‘words of warning’ when pressed, but nothing that anyone else would recognise as a campaign. 

Why not? Is it vested interests? Some of them do after all stand to gain from the very small percentage of deals that will involve either community groups or NGOs. Is it inertia, simply not understanding the significance of the Public Bodies Bill? Is it ‘political sensitivities’, not wanting to put the boot in on the ‘greenest government ever’ before they’ve had a chance to show their mettle in this regard? 

Whatever the reason may be, it represents a massive failure of collective leadership. It demonstrates to me how completely out of touch our environmental NGOs have become with the people that they purport to speak on behalf of. 

And they’ve made themselves look foolish and irrelevant as one of the largest grassroots protests this country has seen for a long time grows and grows without them – indeed, despite them.

So here’s my synopsis of where the NGOs stand:


Very little on the website. Namby-pamby press release on Jan 25th:

“We are waiting to see the content of the consultation, but we recognise and value the grassroots campaigns to save our forests”.

Ohh, how very gracious of you!

So what is the RSPB hoping to pick up in the great sell-off? Some heathland areas, perhaps currently or formerly under forestry? Who knows, but it’s difficult to disentangle this interest of theirs from the overall campaigning stance.

(It would be good, for instance, if the RSPB could at least acknowledge that the Forestry Commission manages its woodlands more cost-effectively than the RSPB does, and that a higher percentage of the Forestry Commission’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest are in ‘good condition’ than is the case with the RSPB. Why not tell it as is, to counter some of Caroline Spelman’s crass misrepresentations of the Forestry Commission’s work and value for money?).

2. The Woodland Trust

The Woodland Trust is into some very deep stuff, and is being effectively manipulated by Defra to put some flesh on its ‘Big Society’ bones. I suspect that means that the Woodland Trust will want its pound of flesh in return. 

It’s hard to imagine a clearer case of an NGO running with the fox and hunting with the hounds. It set up its own petition last year, which is ostensibly about ‘protecting our forests’, but it is actually just a front for its own (perfectly legitimate) campaign to persuade the Forestry Commission to do much more to restore remnant ancient woodlands that were submerged in earlier days by the ‘coniferisation’ of the public forest estate. I’ve no problem with the petition, but one can’t help but think that it was also there to take the sting out of the much bigger and much punchier petition organised by 38 Degrees.

The Woodland Trust will probably claim to be ‘neutral’ on ownership issues – but the question is a simple one. Do they actually care for any woodlands beyond their own 22,700 hectares? Little sign of it at the moment in anything they’ve said.

3. WWF

WWF is currently working hard with the Forestry Commission to find imaginative ways of celebrating the UN’s ‘Year of Forests’. ‘LoveForest’ is the strapline. 

But there’s zero sign of any ‘love’ from WWF in the UK for England’s forests. No statements, no mobilisation of its massive membership, no recognition that this is an absolutely critical issue for the future wellbeing of conservation in the UK. Nothing.

4. Friends of the Earth


“Not our issue these days” is probably what you’ll get from FoE. As if our precious NGOs get to choose every fight that they need to get involved in. Needs must and all that. 

The briefing they’ve produced for their local groups is about as anodyne as a briefing could be, although they do generously authorise their local groups ‘to take part in other organisations’ campaigns on this matter’ – subject only to having ‘satisfied themselves as to the accuracy of campaign information’. That’s telling them!

5. National Trust

I’m not sure what’s going on here. There’s a wonderful headline to its press release last week: “National Trust rallies nation for joint action to save forests”. But unfortunately, that simply isn’t true. 

What it’s doing is rallying the nation ‘to enter a dialogue with all who care for our forests’. It’s listening, discussing, mediating – anything to avoid some real campaigning.

Fiona Reynolds, National Trust’s Executive Director, gave Mrs Spelman a hard time on Radio 4 the other day – but so what? That’s not difficult. But she does seem to be playing a very dangerous game:

“If the Government is determined to pursue the course of action it has outlined, and the public wishes to, we are ready to play our part in giving them (the forests) a secure future. We are ready to step in”.

Dare one mention the bigger picture here? It’s fine for the National Trust to cherry pick a few ‘precious places’, but what is the Trust’s overall position on the sell-off, and on the Public Bodies Bill in particular?

6. Wildlife Link

Wildlife Link is an umbrella body for 34 of the UK’s main conservation/environment NGOs. It has a wonderful record on forestry issues, having lead the campaign to stop afforestation in Scotland’s Flow Country, and very effectively opposing the Tories’ earlier privatisation initiatives in 1993.

But this time around, there is nothing directly relevant on its website, and nothing going on behind the scenes as far as one can see. Perhaps they were indeed waiting for the consultation, even though it was blindingly obvious to every one of their 34 members that the consultation was going to be nothing more than a smokescreen to cover up the Government’s real intentions in the Public Bodies Bill. 

To be fair, it has produced some very eloquent Principles for ‘disposal of public land’ – all nine of which are being systematically disregarded by Defra, week after week. But no commentary to that effect from Wildlife Link.

Wildlife Link is just celebrating its 30th Anniversary. It’s difficult to imagine it lasting another 30 years if this is how it interprets its current responsibilities. 

7. Wildlife Trusts

The Wildlife Trusts just seem to have accepted fatalistically that the proposals will go ahead, and that there’s nothing they can do about it – or, at least, not without jeopardising the somewhat cosy relationship they have with Defra. This is particularly the case as they are clearly hoping to pick up some of the National Nature Reserves that will be ‘disposed of’ once the Government has finished eviscerating Natural England. 

8. The Ramblers

Who? Oh, you mean that organisation that so dynamically led the campaign to scupper John Major’s privatisation proposals back in the 1990s? Yes, that’s the one. So where are they 20 years on?

Very belatedly, reminding themselves of their honourable record on forests, they are at last starting to stir the Ramblers beast. Better late than never. 

9. Campaign for the Protection of Rural England

Bill Bryson, CPRE’s President, did sign the recent ‘celebrities' letter’ attacking Government policy, but his organisation has as yet demonstrated no awareness that protecting rural England might actually include protecting England’s forests.

By all accounts, they have just had their first meeting with DEFRA Ministers, making full use, no doubt, of its much-vaunted ‘inside track’. But inside tracks only ever have any value if you can point the army of people you’re about to mobilise on the ‘outside track’ if the inside track isn’t working.

10. Greenpeace

We probably have to exempt Greenpeace as this has never been their bag. But even so, John Sauven’s press comment on 27th Jan was pretty pathetic:

“The Government must now guarantee not only the complete right of access to all our forests, but also the budget for their protection and restoration”.

I think Greenpeace has at last realised that their members might be expecting rather more of them than that kind of rubbish, and on Friday Greenpeace launched its own petition in opposition to the forest sell-off. Again, better late than never – but it would have been good to have had that out there weeks ago. 

So there we are. And the implications of this for the Green Movement – such as it is these days – are highly significant. If they have all decided to give the Coalition Government an easy time of it while they get the hang of being in government, then they’re mad.

This is a Government that has already made its intentions very clear: apart from the sterling efforts of Chris Huhne in DECC, and some eloquent whimsy from Oliver Letwin, there’s not a green bone in their collective body. 

So might it not make sense for our NGOs to get used to the idea of another four years in the trenches, rather than repeat the errors of their predecessors back in 1997 when the whole lot of them (with the honourable exception of Friends of the Earth) were into deep, fawning sycophancy in the court of King Tony.

So put it right, guys, while there’s still time. Commit your organisations, uncompromisingly, to campaigning for the complete withdrawal of this sell-off including the withdrawal of the relevant clauses in the Public Bodies Bill.

And if the Government then wants to think again about intelligent ways of extending ownership and getting local communities more involved (real Big Society stuff), then let it start again, untainted by this ideologically-driven proposal that has absolutely nothing to do with the sound management of our forests and the wellbeing of those who are served by those forests. 

And if you then get it right, just think of all the glory that will come your way for having shown the ‘greenest government ever’ an early signal of what that claim might really mean.

This piece was originally published on Jonathon Porritt's blog. 

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