Expand public woodland with “big society”

13/02/2011

in Opinion

“Big Society” is already working

David Cameron is adamant about pressing the “big society” agenda on every area of our lives. As he says “Have no doubt, the big society is on its way” the point David Cameron seems to be missing is the “big society” already exists and already works.

“Big Society” already in action in Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire has 457 hectares of public forest estate. Recently local residents in Shipton-under-Wychwood raised £70,000 to buy and re-open to the public the 12.5 acre Wild Garden and Wood opposite Shipton Court. A great example of David Camerons “big society” getting together to take privately owned land back into public hands.

But there’s a problem – the £70,000 repaired the gates, did the necessary tree surgery and opened the garden, the new Shipton-under-Wychwood Wild Garden and Wood Company need more money to continue the renovation works and ongoing maintenance.

The company has around 200 members paying a minimum of £20 but need more. That’s for 12.5 acres – £20 a year, every year, in perpetuity – while the Forestry Commission for the 285,000 hectare PFE costs just 30p a year.

And what of the expertise needed? (From the Wychwood Wild Garden and Wood Company website):

Conservation of the woodlands will be assisted by an inventory of specimen shrubs and trees and, with advice from the Woodland Trust and the Oxfordshire Garden Trust, specific management plans for these will be established.

That’s where the Woodland Trust come in brilliantly; working with a “big society” group buying back privately owned land into public hands and offering expert advice as to how best conserve, protect, restore, establish and maintain this newly public land.

Until the 1840’s Oxfordshire was one of the most wooded counties. Now only 7% of its area is woodland. From the Witney Gazette (David Cameron’s constituency local paper) a report on seven oxfordshire woodlands under threat of sale:

As for why only fragments of the huge Oxfordshire forests of Shotover and Wychwood have all but disappeared: they were privatised. Some say the plan to sell the nation’s woodland resembles the old acts of enclosure that led to the demise of these old forests.

At present the Forestry Commission…provides and maintains public access for people in all its Oxfordshire woods to enjoy daily dog walking, jogging orienteering, cycling and family leisure time. Let’s hope things stay that way.

Is David Cameron’s “Big Government” ear listening to his “big society” constituents?

See also further comment about Penn Wood, Buckinghamshire bought from a private owner by the Woodland Trust in 1999 for £1.2million after a hard fought campaign by locals, the Woodland Trust and using Forestry Commission grants. This effectively stopped the wood from being developed into a golf course with 79-space car park and opened up this beautiful woodland for public access. (Page 8 of this Woodland Trust report uses Penn Wood as a case study)

“Big Society” already in action in the Forestry Commission

The Forestry Commission already have an active volunteer scheme. Volunteers at Forestry Commission owned and managed Wendover Woods have already said they’d not be “so keen to volunteer” if the woods had to be run for profit by a private owner.

From The Economist

volunteers are wary of a local charity taking over, and actively reject the idea of a commercial buyer. “The Forestry Commission manages this very well,” says Mr Emberson, hacking at a larch sapling.

Isn’t the Forestry Commission an impersonal state bureaucracy, Bagehot ventures? “The Forestry Commission is not impersonal, it’s Colin,” says a volunteer, pointing out a young ranger down the slope. Above all, they dislike any idea of a commercial owner. It would be “all about money”, says one. If the woods were run for a profit, “I don’t think we’d be so keen to volunteer,” adds another.

The “big society” is alive and kicking in our woodlands Mr Cameron. Why change it?

Why not expand the PFE using the “big society” agenda instead of shrinking it? Expanding publicly owned land in the way Shipton-under-Wychwood works for small areas. Shrinking publicly owned land using the same mechanism is doomed to failure without significant funding.

If it costs an annual subscription of £20 for over 200 members to just start a project of 12.5 acres why is it in “big society’s” interest to pay more than 30p annual subscription to the Forestry Commission through the “consultation” proposals on offer?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

alex February 14, 2011 at 08:55

fantastic piece. I’ve just emailed this link to my MP (NIck Brown) and my local Lib Dem councillors. This is exactly what decision-makers need to be reading.

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