(Save) Our Forests
Our Forests and 38 Degrees
Soon after coming into power in May 2010, the Coalition Government made it plain that they wanted to sell off 100% of the UK’s publicly owned woods and forests.
Passionately opposed to this proposal, I quit my job as Head of Comms at the Forestry Commission to help mount a widely popular public campaign – one which resulted in the first policy U-turn of the Coalition Government.
I played an instrumental role in creating the campaign, and worked with grassroots campaigners, leading environmentalists and online activists to galvanise opposition to the sell-off. Two of my key contributions were enlisting the huge outreach capacity of 38 Degrees, and co-founding the Our Forests ginger group with Jonathon Porritt – through which I helped create and promote an alternative vision for the future of England’s woodlands.
By rousing support, teaming up with 38 Degrees, and creating the political space to put forward an alternative vision, I helped to secure:
- The first policy U-turn of the Coalition Government
- Lasting protection for England’s woods and forests under public ownership
- A refreshed policy for improving the sustainable management of England’s woodlands
- A government commitment to restore woodland cover in England to 10%
- Campaign catalyser and coordinator
- Strategic and ‘forest issue’ consultant for 38 Degrees
- Co-founder of Our Forests
- Devised and delivered campaign actions
- Researched and wrote key campaign documents, using expertise of Our Forests colleagues
Full project details
England’s 1,500 public woods and forests, otherwise known as the Public Forestry Estate (PFE), are managed sustainably by the Forestry Commission. They are one of our nation’s greatest assets – a renewable resource providing a wide range of ecosystem services, and offering huge benefits for conservation, as well as for public recreation, wellbeing and health.
The plan to sell off all 258,000 hectares of the PFE would have broken up the consistent management of the estate, jeopardised free public access and removed any guarantee that our woods and forests would remain nurtured and protected.
I and my fellow forest campaigners shared an unshakable belief that our public land should remain in public ownership – and be managed for the benefit of all.
How I took action
When rumours of the Government’s disposal plans first surfaced, I was an employee of the Forestry Commission – ironically tasked with promoting the public benefits of the PFE! The Government’s disposal proposal made my job meaningless and unable, as a civil servant, to challenge this destructive act from within, I resigned from my post in protest. From here I devoted my energies to raising awareness of the sell-off plans and their threat to conservation and the common good.
One of my first actions was to take up an invitation to brief the board of online activist community 38 Degrees on the proposal and its impacts – and to pitch for a full-blooded campaign against the sell-off. To 38 Degrees’ great credit, they ‘got’ the issue and understood its potential to build to a major political row – which no other mainstream NGO did (or at least chose to do). Getting 38 Degrees on board, and harnessing their immense scope for outreach to the activities of local campaigners, was key to building the critical mass needed for the campaign to succeed.
Simultaneously, I contacted and set up meetings with some of those grassroots campaigners who were making admirable efforts to oppose the sell-off. These included Hen Anderson of Save Our Woods and Rich Daniels of Hands off our Forest (HOOF). I also made contact with leading environmentalists Jonathon Porritt and Tony Juniper, as well as key forestry experts. This body of independent-minded individuals would later be formalised as the Our Forests ginger group.
38 Degrees were persuaded by my pitch to commit to a major online public campaign and petition – hiring me as their freelance campaign consultant and information source on the forests issue. Working with 38 Degrees, I:
- Helped shape a winning strategy for the Save our Forests campaign
- Organised an independent YouGov poll to evidence the depth of public feeling (84% of all British adults wanted the forests to remain in public hands)
- Provided the data to facilitate targeted lobbying – enabling individual 38 Degrees supporters to be linked to their MPs, and the public forests/woods in their constituency
Those contributions added to the success of the biggest and fastest-growing petition 38 Degrees had run to date – with over 530,000 signatures against the sell-off collected.
The success of the petition and wider campaign forced a debate on the forests sell-off in Parliament, in which several Tory and Lib Dem MPs questioned and voted against their own government. Within days the Prime Minister had ordered the disposal plans to be abandoned, and set up the Independent Panel on Forestry to review the future of the PFE.
To make sure that the people’s vision for the protection of our woods was heard loud and clear by the Independent Panel, I helped organise regional grassroots meetings of 38 Degrees supporters – to gather their views on what should be done to protect forests. (This was done through Our Forests – see below.) The public’s views were later passed on to the Panel.
Our Forests was formally founded on the 31st March 2011 – the same day of the Independent Panel’s first meeting. As well as ensuring that the Panel took the people’s strongly expressed views on board, we wanted to end the silence of the UK’s major conservation NGOs, which had appeared reluctant to take part in the forests debate or respond to the huge public outcry.
To this end, I:
- Encouraged the leading conservation NGOs to take a more robust, public-interest stance on the sell-off
- Initiated independent economic studies to prove the value for money delivered by the PFE, and unpick the Government’s claimed economic case for their disposal
- Researched and wrote, using input from Our Forests colleagues, the Our Forests vision document – which influenced the Independent Panel into incorporating our views, and those of grassroots groups, into a more robust and visionary final report
- Several prominent UK NGOs came off the fence and out in opposition to the sell-off.
- Our Forests’ vision document was widely circulated, and referenced in both the Independent Panel’s final report and the Government’s Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement of January 2013.
- The Government adopted the vision document’s recommendation to increase forested areas in England, committing to increase tree cover to 10% of total land area.
- The campaign ultimately achieved full and lasting protection for the PFE under public ownership, as the Government confirmed that it would not try to sell off the forests again.*
*(Not that I trust any government to keep its promises…)
The positive outcome of all the furore over the forest sell-off has been a heightened public and political interest in and support for woodland management and sustainable forestry generally – and I feel a good deal of that is down to Robin’s dogged efforts throughout.
Zac Goldsmith MP, environmentalist and former editor of The Ecologist
Working with Robin on the Our Forests campaign was inspiring. It is Robin’s integrity; ability to coordinate disparate campaigners to make them more effective; extensive knowledge and experience of environmental issues; and his powerful writing style that makes him stand out as an exceptional campaigner.
Hen Anderson, co-founder of Save Our Woods and Forest Communications