National Forestry Stakeholder Forum – erm.. where is it?

30/09/2012

in National Forestry Stakeholder Forum, Opinion

It was all looking so promising. Caroline Spelman’s ministerial response promised that our public forest estate would remain in public ownership. To rapturous applause she announced she would re-instate the National Forestry Stakeholder Forum, so as many people as possible could help Government respond to the Forestry Panel’s recommendations. The government had heard us and now we needed to pull together for the future of our forests! There was even the promise of a summer of ministerial visits and meetings. Hundreds of stakeholders, engaged in the process up to this point were elated and bursting with the potential of it all.

Admittedly, to date some representatives of DEFRA have visited Thetford and the Forest of Dean. Oh and let’s not forget that Lord Taylor had representatives of the Forest Campaigns Network to his office in early summer, where he suggested that a further meeting would be necessary in autumn.

Campaign groups have also met with representatives of the government’s ‘working group’. This working group is made up of Forestry Commission experts and DEFRA policy writers. The group will advise the ministers on their response to the Forestry Panel’s report. The government will be publishing their response to the report in January 2013. It’s now the 30th of September. If the ministers are genuine in their initial stated intention to engage stakeholders in forming their response, then where is the National Forestry Stakeholder forum? If the working group is ¾ of the way through it’s work on the Governments response already, then exactly what is the welcome but minimal stakeholder engagement achieving?  Not only that, with respect to the forest campaign groups unique, broad and cross sector understanding of the PFE, inviting us only to comment with any depth on the community engagement/accountability and transparency aspect of the working groups work shows that, yet again, the public voice is being underestimated. Instead of a forum we have a tightly controlled and pinpointed set of meetings that are not transparent and are not giving all interested parties the opportunity to engage in the process fully.

First of all we had summer, “don’t expect much to be happening over the summer because of holidays”

Then we had the re-shuffle, “don’t expect much to be happening during the re-shuffle because of… erm, the reshuffle”

Then we had weeks of delay before any of the ministers were given forestry on their portfolio “don’t expect much to be happening until we know which minister is in charge of forestry”

Then we had… not much at all, really.

The campaign groups have sent a message to the new forestry ministers, David Heath MP and Rt. Hon. Owen Paterson MP. Welcoming them to their new roles, wishing them well in their work and requesting a meeting with them. That was well over 10 days ago now and we’ve not even had a courtesy response. What are we to take from this? Maybe Mr Heath & Mr Paterson are just busy, there’s CONFOR & RSPB seminars to talk at and Countryside and Wildlife Link meetings to visit,  I can respect that, of course I can.

However, with no word on the National Forestry Stakeholder forum, with the working group beavering away and doing their best to engage us within the limited time that they have, with only a few more weeks for any of us to have a real impact on the governments response to the Forestry Panel report and with the new ministers not even saying hello…

Something doesn’t feel right, not right at all.

 

 

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Baillie, New Forest October 1, 2012 at 08:36

Well said! Something does NOT feel right about any of this. Defra should open up those closed doors and let the public voice be heard.
Well done SoW – keep up the good work.

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Hen- Save Our Woods October 1, 2012 at 08:41

Thanks Sue, and likewise, WELL DONE for all your hard work!

:)

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Roderick Leslie October 1, 2012 at 08:56

It would be easy to see a conspiracy in all this – and I suspect there is one to the extent that I’d be surprised if Defra isn’t trying hard to cut resources to the FC and forestry – but my real concern is that its a cockup, and one the politicians will lose from every bit as much as the forests and their supporters. Its clear the Government desperately wants to prevent forestry being an election issue but, on the other side, both Defra and their Minister’s reaction to attack is to clam up and go secret – its not just on forestry that Defra has effectively abandoned FOI.

It is ironic that the exemplar of how to do it is right under their nose (and maybe they’ll be starting to realise and start listening): when the Forestry Commission got into deep trouble in the late 1980s it did exactly the opposite to what Defra is doing: it opened up and started talking, especially to its ‘enemies’: even while the Flow Country was in full swing it had set up research contracts with RSPB almost certainly saved the Black Grouse as a Welsh breeding bird and led to the 18,000 hectare Thetford Forest EU Special Protection Area for birds. From that start FC became more and more open, rebuilt trust and led probably the most ambitious rural consultation ever with New Forest-New Future. And the rest is history, culminating in the events of February 2011 which took the establishment completely by surprise.

There’s a very clear choice in front of us. Tell me another opportunity where Government can increase wildlife, create new jobs and green the economy without spending any more money (because the mian funding is already allocated through the renewable heat incentive) ? That is the opportunity in English Forestry today. Which way will they jump ? My guess is towards some small, mean and damaging cuts to forestry funding and an inadequate nod to the ‘Big Society’ aspirations of the people who live around the forests. And, if that isn’t the case, if they really want to take people with them, why not tell us and engage now ? If Ministers really want this issue to go away they need supportive voices at the point they announce what they are going to do because the sort of Government announcement that comes out of the blue always ends up with commentators focussing on the negatives.

And, when you stop and think about it, just as the forest protests reflected the public’s view on this Government’s broader policies, so too now forestry is a reflection of the future of the economy: Can the Government raise itself to go for growth, for jobs and business sitting there waiting to happen or will it go for cuts that probably end up costing far more than they save ?

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Hilary Allison October 1, 2012 at 10:52

Hello all at SoW – you took the words right out of my mouth! We (the Woodland Trust) were giving the government until the end of last month to make a move, though to be fair the FC are consulting widely within the sector as they work up the more technical parts of the response. The damp squib of a consultation http://www.defra.gov.uk/rural/forestry/survey
launched on a Friday afternoon before the August Bank Holiday with no publicity has so far not asked “more questions in the coming weeks and months” as promised. Like you we have members and supporters eagerly waiting to give their views, but with no obvious or credible route to do so.

It’s pretty clear that any comments received after the end of this month won’t get fed into the government’s panel, so why hasn’t the National Forestry Stakeholder Forum met yet, or the consultation been updated with a new group of questions each week? We were told that this issue was in the Secretary of State’s to-do list for his first week; he seems to have taken a different view, despite the statement on Defra’s consultation page “we will use your answers to inform a National Forestry Forum of organisations with an interest in how forests are managed”.

So in the meantime, we have decided to initiate some of our own conversations on our blog in conjunction with guest blog contributions from the Forestry Commission over the next few days so keep an eye on http://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/ – we’ll include all the posts in our feedback to the government.

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Sue Baillie, New Forest October 1, 2012 at 11:33

Dear Hilary,
I have looked on your blog and cannot find a way to respond (probably one of my more senior moments!). However, I would just like to say that the Woodland Trust (we are members) should not take on the responsibility of canvassing opinion and views/comments from the general public – this is the responsibility of the government department – Defra. Yes, it is very sad to see that they are not performing their duty to inform and engage with the public, but any views you collate will be those of your members and not the wider population. The same can be said for the Forestry Commission’s latest round of consultations. This could: –

a) allow Defra to relinquish its responsibility to continue ‘the conversation’ or at the very least accept your collated ‘public views’ as the main part of their consultation
b) give the Woodland Trust yet another opportunity to influence government on matters which have already been discussed by NGO’s within various forestry committees, forums and, of course, the Independent Forestry Panel.

Don’t you think it is now time for proper mechanisms to be put into place, which will gather the opinion and view of more than the numbers of your membership?

I really do share the frustrations in Defra’s apparent lack of communication with the public but it must be their responsibility to have the ‘conversation’. If this does not happen then it would prove to me personally that the woeful and inept online survey(s) are just (another) box-ticking exercise.

Yes, the National Forestry Stakeholder Forum should already be sitting and I am surprised that the Woodland Trust has not to date been invited. Do please update us on this thread if you hear to the contrary – we would all like to know who is representing whom and what Defra’s definition of ‘stakeholder’ really means!

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Hilary Allison October 1, 2012 at 12:01

Hi Sue

I absolutely agree that it is DEFRA’s responsbility not ours to initiate the conversation about the report – after all they have been saying since July that they wish to have such a conversation. But we have got so many supporters willing to help make this final push on getting a decisive and comprehensive government response to the panel report.

We hope that the think pieces from the FC on our blog (starting soon but not yet up on the site) will stimulate some thoughts generally anongst the sector in the absence of any structured debate from Defra. Of course there is nothing to prevent others from contacting Defra directly.

We’ve not had any contact yet over the Stakeholder Forum – and its already October but will let you know.

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Roderick Leslie October 1, 2012 at 16:31

Personally, I really would like to see people at the local, forest level saying clearly what they want – and expect – for the future, and even if FC aren’t allowed to talk about new arrangements yet, telling FC what you are looking for. This isn’t just up to Defra – and is it really just their responsibility ? Accepting decisions are largely in their power gets us back to somewhere near where we started – it was this Government that suggested they wanted less Government, more localism. That that has tended to manifest itself as Government retaining power whilst shedding responsibility simply isn’t the way it should be – and its in our hands to do something about it.

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Lesley Jones October 3, 2012 at 11:19

For many many years a considerable amount of community based groups HAVE been saying very clearly what they want. The lack of a decent local democratic system, the continued belief by both governmental agencies & NGOs that simply sending a ‘speaker’ suffices and the persistent meddling without genuine reason other than to be implementing something, anything for the sake of justifying an existence for politicians on the central stage means NO-ONE IS LISTENING! If a representative be they wearing a Defra, FC, NGO badge turned up at a village society / WI or any other community meeting and simply sat there and listened then we will start to see the bottom up approach develop naturally and I can bet that as the results start coming in it will match what SOW have been saying all along that the solutions cannot and should not be made centrally, the science and research just simply doesn’t exist to do so. I personally feel that Christopher Neilan’s ‘Soft Power Approach’, as per his article on this site was the model to kickstart this approach, lets celebrate trees first and create a hum. People are far too cautious in this age of spin to get involved in survey or consultation which is far too broad in its questions (as the post forest panel report survey by Defra was).

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Roderick leslie October 4, 2012 at 11:38

Couldn’t agree with you more, Lesley. I think the establishment are still reeling from the shock of ordinary people having a view ! They are clearly not sure whether they are allowed one or not.

Whilst I don’t know your area, certainly over much of the FC estate in England I believe FC has actually done what you are talking about – which makes it pretty unique ! It was something I worked incredibly hard for along with hundreds of my FC colleagues – to take away the foresters mystique and actually engage on a level playing field with the people who loved the forests. Certainly a lot of the feedback around the sales fiasco proved it was working – I’ve talked to lots of local campaigners who really do feel they are part of the management of their forests and that FC’s approach really does allow them to have real opinions which are listened to.

I fear, however, that its so incredibly rare not just in Government but with a lot of our NGOs as well, that a lot of the people who should be looking and learning don’t even have the faintest clue what FC has achieved – added to which its scary opening up – I know I was more than nervous when we opened up FC management in the New Forest through New Forest-New Future – it was the sort of risk civil servants aren’t meant to take but, despite the many contentious issues in the Forest, what Fc did was taken how it was meant and everyone who cared about the forest came together to create a spectacularly powerful movement for the restoration and future of the Forest.

I agree totally with you, Lesley, that we are all far too cautious – why wait for the decisions of people who probably still don’t get it ? – especially when FC who do get it still need our noisy support.

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