'A walk in the forest? That'll be £25 please. Yes, this forest is co-owned by Santander and Lord Ashcroft now. Sorry, what did you say? Can't afford a family ticket for £80? Well, sod off and walk round the sodding streets instead then.'
Crazy as it sounds, a version of this conversation could be just around the corner for every one of us who likes to spend any time at all hanging out in some of Britain's most glorious green spaces. The government, in possibly their most woefully misguided attempt yet to claw back some more of that missing cash, is planning a huge sell-off of our national forests to private firms.
What the coalition probably didn't bank on, however, was a national outcry over these 258,000 hectares (638,000 acres) of Forestry Commission land that is now reaching epidemic proportions. 370,000 people have already signed the online petition from the excellent campaign pressure group 38 Degrees, protests have taken place all over the country and a crunch vote will take place in parliament this afternoon. This is the first time the environment has been properly debated in the house in the last eight months and Right is joining with Left, young with old and town with country over this issue. Indeed, as campaigner and designer Katherine Hamnett has put it on her newest slogan T-shirt: '84 of Britain's woodlands including heritage sites such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean and has been in force since 1919, to the private sector which they say will aid public control. Late on Friday their plans started to seriously backfire as the big society found its biggest voice. Dame Fiona Reynolds, head of the 3 million-strong National Trust, joined the increasing euphony warning that the future of our great forests and woodlands is under threat and said: 'The government's proposal to withdraw from the management of England's forests and ancient woodlands is a watershed moment in the history of the nation. The future of these important national assets will now be decided in a matter of weeks. It is therefore essential and urgent that everyone who cares for these special places now make their voices heard over what should happen to them.'
I was lucky enough to grow up in the New Forest and spent a magical childhood riding, walking and cycling there with impunity and – crucially – FOR FREE. I spent whole school holidays, every day for months on end, messing about on ponies, running around with the dogs, camping, climbing trees and playing with my friends in the fresh forest air and I loved every second of it. The incredible mental and physical benefits of spending time outside in the natural world are so well documented they hardly need stating here. I live in London now but I go back to see my mum and dad all the time and can't begin to imagine the horror my family and friends would feel if we couldn't go for a wander in our beloved forests whenever we damn well want to. The thought that my children and my children's children might not be able to enjoy the same free and easy access to nature and the environment as I did makes me want to actually vomit. I imagine that wherever you come from, you feel the same strong way about your own local woodland and green spaces.
Horse-riders, dog walkers, farmers, sports people, cyclists, climbers, twitchers, nature lovers and families are up in arms at these proposals. Green groups, trade unions and pretty much every free-thinking, sentient, autonomous human being fears this land being sold to developers with the public losing access rights and wildlife being decimated. 'They took all the trees / Put em in a tree museum / And they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see em,' sang Joni Mitchell in Big Yellow Taxi, her 1970 paean to the environment and the necessity of keeping it free for everyone to enjoy. All sorts of people from all over the country are now singing from the same hymn sheet, rightly uniting to express their grave concerns over these disgraceful plans and their determination that the future of the forests must be preserved for future generations.
Historically of course, other publically owned services or utilities that have gone into the private sector have ended up more expensive for the end user. This is because the demands of the shareholder take precedence over the user as investors, quite rightly, require a return on their investment. It's really not hard to see how this thing would roll. Dedicated workforces that have been built up for generations – such as the Verderers of the New Forest who oversee commoning and regulate development – would be firstly disillusioned by the inevitable push for profit or 'efficiency' and then eventually replaced by cheaper outsourced workforces.
Caroline Spelman, environment secretary, is already backpedalling like mad in the face of our mass outrage and recently outlined new plans to hand 'heritage' woodlands such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest to a charitable trust to manage in the national interest but the damage has been done. She still proposes that tens of thousands of hectares of land be sold to communities or environment groups which they would run themselves. Under these plans, large areas of woodland would also be sold on 150-year leases to companies. This, obviously, has done nothing to allay our fears. Who would buy a forest after all, if not to make money out of it or at the very least put a fence round it?
And it's not even as if the figures are especially wow. The government claims the sale of around 1500 woodlands owned by the Forestry Commission in England (both Wales and Scotland have rejected any notion of selling publicly-owned forests) is an economic necessity for the cash-strapped DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and will raise between £150m and £250m over ten years. This is really not all that when you consider that the level of our national debt recently passed one trillion pounds or that Fernando Torres' move to Chelsea from Liverpool the day before yesterday cost The Blues a mere £50m.
Indeed, Labour leader Ed Miliband wrote in the Sunday Times last week that the Forestry Commission land costs each tax payer just 30p a year. Can our woodlands really be worth less to each of us than a packet of crisps? He said: 'What sort of cheapskate nation are we now, that we cannot agree to spend 30p a year for every person in this country to preserve its ancient oaks, ash and beech?'
If we let this happen, then what's next on the big sell-off agenda? Will every pebble on every beach soon be privatised? If they really need to raise this sort of cash then might I suggest that the government starts actually living in their so-called big society and relocates to Bradford or Tower Hamlets. I'm sure Rupert Murdoch or Charles Saatchi or a Quatari pension fund would stump up far more than £250m for the Houses of Parliament.
Mitchell's lyrics also contain the lines: 'Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got / Till it's gone,' but in this instance, thank God, her words have been proved wrong. There is a righteous ripple of rage spreading across Britain at the moment and if you haven't already signed the 38 Degrees petition or written to your MP then make sure you do so today. We do know exactly what we've got thank you very much – even if the ConDems don't – and we have zero intention of allowing them to pave over our paradise and put up a parking lot.
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