A favourite nursery song gives topical Labour advice to Ministers:
“If you go out in the woods today,
You’re sure of a big surprise.
If you go out in the woods today
You’d better go in disguise”
I am a tree hugger. I like trees. I love looking out at a wooded vista. I think trees planted in towns and cities take some of the severity off the urban landscape. I favour keeping woods and trees where possible.
I also understand the strong feeling we share, that some of the great woods are part of our common inheritance. They date back to times when commonland offered poorer citizens the chance of augmenting their incomes. As a boy I picked bluebells and primroses from commonland woods in the spring, and took home blackberries for a pie in the autumn. In our new regulated world I would not dare do those things today.
I do not have that same strong sense of national ownership and enjoyment with some Forestry Commission Plantations. The Forestry Commission was the body which in various places cut down old deciduous mixed woods, and replaced them with carefully farmed conifer plantations. If I ever venture onto Forestry Commission land I keep to the authorised footpath or bridleway. I would expect some official to pop out of a concealed hut somewhere and fine me if I stooped to pick a wild flower or wandered off the approved track. I might end up being accused of crushing underfoot some protected beetle or fungus which an expensive consultancy study had revealed.
I am a convinced tree saver, but I am also an economic realist. There are occasions when Planning authorities need to grant development permissions which entail cutting down some trees to make space for new homes or factories. In such cases it is good if the Council requires the developer to place at least an equal number of new trees in appropriate places in the development to replace those lost. Such development should not take place in heritage forests, which are already protected by planning law and other special designations in many cases.
Listening to the wild debate in the Commons on Wednesday I despaired of any rational approach to this problem. So many seem to think private sector trees are not as beautiful or useful as public sector trees. Others wrongly think every private owner of trees harbours the desire to cut them all down and build, or intends to block all rights of way and close all car parks in and near the woods. Thinking the worst of all such people, they also think the law is not strong enough to enforce the clear public wish that all rights of access should be preserved where Forestry Commission woods are transferred on lease to private managers.
I think we need our heritage and amenity woods, and should expand them as this government says it wishes to do. We also need more commercial woods, run with profit and growth in mind. We import far too much of our timber. The Forestry Commission has left us very reliant on imports for most of our needs. Harnessing more private capital and management might help bring about a larger and more successful timber industry in the UK.
Adapting the old song
“If you go out in the woods today
You’re sure of a big surprise
If you go out in the woods today
You’ll find them full of lies”