This daft plan was always heading for the chop

What could cause such a fuss, you might wonder, that would result in 400,000 people, including the likes of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the National Trust and Dame Judi Dench to campaign so vociferously?  What would lead The Daily Telegraph to say they’re a national treasure that must be saved and the BBC to question why we’re a nation of tree-huggers?

You’ve guessed it: the government’s plans to consult with us on selling off large swathes of our nation’s forestry. Forgive me, but it didn’t take very long for this heated debate to turn into a full-blown forest fire.

Defra said the plans to transfer ownership of huge swathes of our woodlands are part of a move from Big Government to Big Society, to allow those who are most involved in England’s woodlands to play a much greater role in their management. The campaigning public disagreed. A YouGov poll indicated that three-quarters of the 2,000 people polled online opposed the plans, while 84% agreed with the principle that forests should stay in public ownership.

The great and good lined up against this – as well as a good deal of we ordinary folk, too. Then, just three weeks to the day since the public consultation into the whole idea was announced, David Cameron cried: ‘Timber’. And so it was felled.

Now, hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but I’m pretty certain when Bing Crosby suggested we go down to the woods today, he never once imagined the teddy bears would be picnicking in (or even trespassing upon) privately-owned woodland. The strength of public opinion against these plans illustrates perfectly something we’ve always known at Groundwork: people care passionately about green spaces. These spaces – right down to the smallest pocket of a park in a housing estate – are inexpensive places where people, particularly the most disadvantaged, can meet friends, exercise, stay healthy and enjoy a sense of wellbeing.

As I’ve said previously in recent New Start columns, our patches of nature are coming under increasing threat from all angles and now more than ever we need to find new ways of securing their future.  Groundwork has been passionate about creating and improving great outdoor places for community benefit for three decades. We’re not alone – many of our friends working for local authorities, voluntary and community organisations or corporates feel exactly the same.

Through our Urban Oasis campaign over the coming months, we’ll be highlighting the crucial role they play in building stronger communities. We know that communities want to grasp opportunities to create, improve and maintain their local green spaces, and that this can be a powerful catalyst for local action – but in areas where there’s a lack of skills or confidence we also know that support will be invaluable if we are to make sure these opportunities are available to everyone, not just for the better connected.

We’re working to make sure that this support is there wherever it’s needed. The Ashington Community Woodland, a reclaimed colliery in south-east Northumberland, helps to give the local community opportunities to explore and enjoy woodland in an area of high deprivation that used to be highly dependent on coal mining. In partnership with the local authority, Groundwork has been working with the Friends of Ashington Community Woodland to establish community ownership of the site to increase access to nature and tackle health inequalities. The group has been successful in securing ongoing funding for the project, and is now instrumental to its future development.

This is the type of project that helps communities play an active role in shaping the future of our green space that the government is clearly keen to see. I guess there might be occasions where there’s a case for selling off the family silver – but not this time. Our forests are a national asset and our affection for them is deeply rooted.


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