In the first major u-turn from the Coalition Government, the Prime Minister yesterday shocked his Environment Department by personally ditching one of their flagship policies (apparently without having told them he was doing so beforehand). It was probably no coincidence that David Cameron made this decision in “Big Society Week”, when he was attempting to re-launch the difficult idea that lies at the heart of his political philosophy.
After all, what better example of The Big Society can you think of, than the public’s resounding and dynamic opposition to the proposals to sell off 600,000 acres of public land to the private (and charitable) sector.
This, like the student protests before Christmas, or the twitter activism against corporate tax evasion, may not be quite the Big Society actions that the PM was thinking of when he espoused this particular approach to shrinking the state. But it was certainly politically astute of him to realise that he had to make a quick decision to reposition (ie distance himself) from his Environment Ministers, when the Big Society had spoken, and it had said “we don’t want your idea of The Big Society imposed on us”.
In a sense, what the last few weeks of move and counter-move on the FC sell-off has exposed, is the false opposition that some are seeking to set up, between The Big Society and The State. The argument goes that the State is too big, too powerful, and is leaving people in a position of powerlessness. The answer, the same argument goes, is therefore to shrink the state, thereby giving power back to the people.
But the world of environmental action is surely a classic example of the two working in concert to achieve more than either could individually. As well as the UK’s private landowners, who have the primary role in environmental management, UK has a well developed voluntary environmental sector, with a history spanning well over a century, and new players joining all the time (we at the Grasslands Trust are not even 10 years old). The state environmental apparatus is perhaps even more important, from National Parks and AONBs, to Natural England, Environment Agency and The Forestry Commission; the incredibly important role other Government Departments and their agencies make, or could make towards environmental action; and Local Authorities, who own much land important for wildlife and the wider environment. It is only by these three sectors working together that our wildlife has a future.Unfortunately other drivers of change (especially agricultural policy) have overcome the good intentions of charities, successive governments, and sympathetic landowners, and we find ourselves in a time where wildlife, especially grasslands, are under incredible pressure; some are literally on their last legs.
Recognsing this, the last Government commissioned a panel, chaired by Professor John Lawton, a renowned academic, to investigate whether England’s wildlife was adequately protected, and if not, what should be done to address the situation.Their report “Making Space for Nature” emphasised that in order for wildlife and their habitats, such as grasslands, to have any future, the whole country needed to change its approach to conservation, and develop Landscape-Scale approaches. These would need to happen at a far greater scale than a 50 or 100 acre nature reserve – the report proposes Ecological Restoration Zones at a much larger scale, large enough to allow wildlife to move in response to climate change, and large enough for areas to support sustainable populations of wildlife.
Recommendation 8 seems topical; “Public bodies owning land which includes components of England’s current or future ecological network should do more to realise its potential, in line with their biodiversity duty. Further, before disposal of any public land, the impact on the ecological network should be fully evaluated. Where such land is identified as having high wildlife value (existing or potential) it should not be disposed of unless its wildlife value is secured for the future.”
As I have pointed out previously the FC land holding includes large areas of best quality open habitats like semi-natural grasslands, lowland heathlands and blanket bogs, which the FC have been restoring. FC land also has enormous potential for more habitat restoration of grassland, heathland and moorland, as well as the ancient replanted woodlands. Most of the land that could be restored to prime wildlife habitat is in what are euphemistically called commercial forests. Most european or north american foresters would laugh at the thought of these forests being truly commercial, apart from the really large plantations in Scotland, because of their relatively small size.
The recommendations from “Making Space for Nature” have been sent to the current Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, and we are likely to hear her response around the same time as the Natural Environment White Paper is launch, currently timetabled for May. Apparently the Prime Minister will be launching it, presumably under the Greenest Government Ever banner, which, truthfully, is starting to look a bit tatty now. It would have looked a bit odd, I suppose, if the Government had already sold off the FC, which would have signposted the Government’s response to Recommendation 8, at the least.
The climb-down over the proposed sell-off may actually provide the opportunity for the Government to look again, and more seriously, at Professor Lawton’s recommendations. The State owns a large amount of land – just add together the 600,000 acres owned by the FC, to the 600,000 acres owned by the Ministry of Defence through what was until now the Defences Estates agency! That is a vast area in itself, but it also contains some of the nation’s finest and largest wildlife areas. These are already operating at the landscape-scale.
The FC own areas such as the New Forest, the largest surviving area of mixed lowland habitat in the UK and probably in Western Europe. They own large tracts of Breckland in Thetford Forest, the Forest of Dean, and large upland estates in Cumbria and Northumberland. Many are internationally important for their wildlife and they provide a wide range of other benefits as spaces for recration, to helping to purify drinking water, to storing carbon in peat soils. Why? because although many sites have been damaged by conifer tree planting, the damage is not irreparable, and they have escaped the intense agricultural management that now dominates lowland (and some upland) Britain.
Defences Estates (now also under threat of massive cuts and potential sell-offs – note no mention of the importance of the estate for wildlife in the MoD press release) own places like Salisbury Plain Training Area, the largest area of lowland grassland habitat in western Europe. They own Stanford Training Area in the Brecks, Bovington and Povington ranges in Dorset, Castlemartin range in Carmarthenshire, the have half of Dartmoor, and the large areas of upland around Catterick n Yorkshire or Spadeadam in Cumbria. These are all so important for their wildlife that they have the highest protection available, through the European Birds and Habitats Directives. These places are as good as we have for wildlife in the UK. Why? Because they have escaped the intense land management now carried out in the vast majority of lowland (and parts of upland) Britain.
So, if we want to see Britain with healthy landscapes full of wildlife, providing the other environmental benefits we need to live (clean water, carbon-rich soils, but as importantly, places of joy, meditation and inspiration), we need large areas of land where management for wildlife is a prime consideration.
Is it reasonable to ask private landowners, who need to make a living, to step up to the mark, if the state-owned land is not already being managed for this purpose. Isn’t this a good example of what the State is for? To do things that the market cannot do, like place a value on the intangible benefits of the environment and wildlife, absorbing costs such as those incurred by protecting nature because it is the right thing to do, not because it generates a profit.
Landscape-scale conservation can happen, and the state-owned land rich in wildlife, owned by FC, Defence Estates and all the other state bodies owning land, can lead the way: the New Forest’s and the Stanford Training Area/Thetford Forest’s, the Salisbury Plain’s and the Kielder’s can act as the first nodes on a network of landscape-scale action. They are the refuges for wildlife, wildlife which can move back into the surrounding landscapes by reducing the intensity to which those landscapes are managed.
I agree with Mark Avery at RSPB and his idea of a national forestry and wildlife service, up to a point. But I would go further. Why does the state bother with growing conifers? leave that to the private sector.
The Big Society has spoken – we want the State to own land – not to grow conifers to make cardboard boxes, but to provide places where people can enjoy nature, help nature thrive, and reconnect with the rest of Britain’s landscapes.