PUBLIC OWNERSHIP: The elephant in the room


in Local Campaigns, Opinion

Owen Adams has played a leading role in Forest of Dean campaign Hands Off Our Forest and the Forest Campaigns’ Network but he writes here for SoW in a personal capacity …


IT’S become like a mantra: we want the status quo! Not the denim-clad rock band (please no) but for our public forests to remain in public ownership and publicly run by a properly resourced Forestry Commission, as they have been for 90 years.

We – Hands Off Our Forest, Save Our Woods, 38 Degrees, the Forest Campaigns’ Network and all the many groups that have sprung up to look after their local public forests – have been united in calling for the quo. And we still are. And with the launch of the ‘ginger group’ Our Forests this week, our case is bolstered by eminent environmentalists and silvologists such as Jonathon Porritt, Tony Juniper, Robin Maynard and Dr Gabriel Hemery.

Before our campaign was properly off the blocks, concerned members of the community hastily called a ramshackle public meeting on Bonfire Night last year. One woman who wandered into the marquee asked: “But who actually owns the Forest?” Almost all present growled as one: “US – we all do!”

However, when Forest of Dean MP, cabinet minister Mark Harper, called his own public meeting in February, his response to a question – “excuse me, I don’t understand… how can you sell (or give away to a charity) what belongs to us?” – was “the gentleman makes a philosophical point…” Cue gasps of indignation.

Many campaigners were disappointed during the most heated part of the campaign, from December to February this year, when charities such as the RSPB, Ramblers Association, the National Trust and Woodland Trust – which we might have considered would be natural allies – veered away from opposing a sell-off. If their specific conditions were met, why not sell (or give away to charity)?

Some NGOs, such as the Ramblers, have changed their tune since the Government climbed down on February 17 – the walkers’ charity has called for Forestry Commission cuts to be halted and has suggested the public forest estate is enlarged, rather than reduced; others (the NT and RSPB) have kept quiet, while just weeks ago, Woodland Trust chief executive Sue Holden told the Ramblers’ Walk Magazine: “We don’t want to get involved in the political debate about ownership.”

But the WT’s latest manifesto on woods states that as long as ancient woods are restored, sales can go ahead. Isn’t that an example of taking sides on the ownership debate?

The status quo we call for is the opposite of radical: it’s conservative with a small ‘c’ – if anything, it’s anti-revolutionary. I can’t speak for elsewhere in England, but in the Forest of Dean to call for what we consider ours to remain ours is a natural reaction when a threat appears to transfer it to a third party. I think many of us realise change in the way our woods are managed is necessary, for the sake of combating climate change, biodiversity and economic factors. The Forestry Commission is already on the case, we have faith in them – if only Whitehall would stop shoving spanners in the works, and give them what they need to do the job. As if anyone is going to say that paying 30p per year (as we have done before the planned cuts) is not value for money! To be told, as we have been repeatedly, that the status quo isn’t an option – well, ditching the status quo isn’t an option for us. It’s unconscionable that our woods are taken away from us, or are run by anyone else. Those reviewing the future direction of forestry can – and must – find a way of achieving their goals by keeping the current public framework in place.

HOOF, since its inception, has been avowedly non-political – or, to put it another way, a broad church representing all shades of the political spectrum and none. Our MP’s early claim that HOOF was a means for his political opponents to take a pot-shot was undermined when a fair few supporters declared they were lifelong Tory voters. Labour, Conservatives, Independents, and LibDem candidates all claimed to have helped save the Forest in their propaganda before May’s local council elections.

That said, there’s no getting away from the notion that public ownership is inherently a left-wing concept. In 1649, the Diggers – a radical, proto-communist group – declared “the Earth a common treasury for all” and that “by theft and murder, they took the land, and the walls spring up at their command”.


That much is true: the private woods to the north of my house once belonged to everyone and no one – I don’t know precisely when they were appropriated by private landlords, but intrinsically once upon a time all land was common before being seized by feudal lords, gentry and the Crown and eventually turned into market commodities.

The Forest of Dean was claimed by King Edward The Confessor in about 1016 and made an official Royal Forest by William the Conqueror 50 years later. Parts of it – at certain times the whole of it – was sold or given to court favourites, until it was eventually transferred from the Crown to the State soon after the First World War. Until the mid-19th century, Foresters faced a continual struggle to be recognised as legal citizens. Almost all the existing towns and villages began as squatters’ settlements, the ramshackle huts regularly torn down by order of the Crown.

The Forest of Dean, photo by Helen Sandford

The rights to common – to freely graze animals and gather firewood were and still are moot points, not enshrined in statute, in the Dean. These ancient customs have been privileges granted by successive guardians of the woods. And any attempt to thwart them has been met with concerted resistance in the past. And it’s not just been a gaggle of radicals embroiled in uprisings, such as the Western Risings of the 17th century (which occurred in many Forests in the south of England). The whole of the Forest joined in, yeomen, peasants and outlaws (often refugees taking refuge among the trees) – protectionist petty capitalists to wage labourers.

Following the Dean Forest Riots of 1831, a three-day fence-wrecking spree involving thousands of people, a lengthy Government inquiry resulted in Foresters no longer being regarded as encroachers on Royal land. With the industrial revolution in full swing and the coal seams being exploited by big business, it was illogical to ban people from existing near their place of work.

Since 1965, after the last deep mine closed, the Dean has become not so much of a working forest (although it still is) and more of a playground – 50 years before, Foresters spent more time below ground than enjoying the splendours of nature. Now most people have to commute out of the Forest to cities for work. Many others have moved in from the cities to retire or take second homes. But it doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire hedge fund manager or unemployed, we all share and delight in our Forest – the woods are the great leveller, for visitors and locals.

Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t the Morning Star, Socialist Worker or even Guardian that positioned itself as the chief cheerleader of our campaigns and alerted us initially to the Government’s plans, it was the Telegraph – oft-nicknamed the Torygraph. Among those playing leading roles were the father and sister of Boris Johnson, hardly lefties. The Conservative New Forest MP Julian Lewis helped lead the charge against privatisation of our forests (sadly, the same can’t be said of the Dean’s MP Mark Harper).

No one from any of the grassroots campaigns was given a seat on the Government-appointed Independent Panel. However, we made such a clamour here in the Dean and our history in resisting buccaneers and fighting for our own existence as free Foresters meant the Panel chose to visit us first.

Yet, for those tasked with reviewing the future of forestry, public ownership seems to be the elephant in the room. All the aforementioned charities have representatives on the panel. I didn’t get a chance to speak to the NGO reps when they visited, but I did chat to both Stuart Goodall from the Confederation of Forest Industries and Forestry Commissioner Sir Harry Studholme. Both told me that almost everyone they’d met on their visit had clearly called for public ownership to remain and there was strong support for the Forestry Commission.

The Bishop of Liverpool, quoted in The Times recently saying the panel might suggest the Government buys more woods rather than sells them, avoided any mention of public ownership when he spoke to the media. I did press him though, and all he would say was that he’d met “certain groups” that support public ownership. The supposedly neutral MPs’ briefing produced by Parliament has no mention whatsoever of the public ownership issue. Yet according to a YouGov survey only 2% oppose public ownership of our forests, and 84% want it maintained.

The Government claims it has the right to sell 15% of the public forest estate (sales have been suspended until the panel reports back in April 2012), but no figure can be found in any legal paper, and I hope someone challenges it.

As for challenging the Government’s assertion that it can do what it wishes with our forests, here we are on trickier ground. No sooner had New Labour ditched its Party Manifesto’s Clause IV, which stated that it stood for common ownership, it passed the Land Registration Act 2002. The law ensured no common land (ie owned by no one) existed, and the entire public forest estate passed from the State to the DEFRA Secretary of State (currently Caroline Spelman). HOOF’s position is that the minister holds the estate in trust for the nation.

Forest of Dean path by Helen Sandford

Whatever our Forest’s official status, very nearly everyone contends it belongs to everyone and no one. One 80-year-old man told me: “When I was in the Second World War, I was fighting for the Forest more than my country. It’s our birthright.” I hope the panel has taken this commonly held passion for fighting to keep what is common to all of us on board when it reviews the visit to the Dean. We – more than half a million of us, at least – have been shouting since last autumn, we’re now getting hoarse, and yet our united call is quite simple to understand.

If the panel waives public ownership in its final report, or the Government ignores good recommendations from the panel and proceeds regardless with its big forests sale or giveaway – they will face much tumult. As history has repeatedly shown, that’s not a threat, it’s a promise.


Owen Adams…
Freelance writer who once wrote about music for the Guardian and lots of irrelevant things such as weird monuments, until he got sidetracked when thieves tried to steal his beloved forest…


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Dave June 12, 2013 at 07:41

I am a relative new comer to the forest of dean, just 15yrs, I have seen in that time many changes, some for good and too many for bad,
I think it is a disgrace that the council can do as they please with others property, as many say the forest is owned by the people, not the government, I have allot more to say but it would not be for your ears, a bit foul to say the least, but I do think it is time to stop the powers to be doing as they wish.

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