Archive for January, 2011

31 Jan 2011

Keep them Free, Keep them Open, Keep our Forests out of Private Hands

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 We may have just about struggled to the end of mid-winter, but if you were fortunate enough to have been down to the woods this weekend and gently moved some of the fallen leaves on the ground, you may well have spotted the first tentative shoots of the wood anemones and bluebells that will carpet our woodlands  come the spring.

subtle shades in winter woods

Our glorious woodlands and forests, with their amazing biodiversity, are sensitive barometers of the changing seasons; just one reason why, down the ages, they have been the cherished destinations of families, walkers, cyclists and equestrians. But now, our traditional right of access to forests and woodlands – an integral element of our heritage –  is under threat; a threat sufficiently serious to jeopardise  our historic relationship with these mystical places.

 

What is happening?

On Wednesday, Parliament will debate a proposal that could change the face of our countryside and our enjoyment of it.  A quarter of a million people have already signed a petition opposing the government’s  proposal to sell off the  260,000 hectares of land that comprise the public forest estate in England (powers in Wales and Scotland are devolved), and which the Forestry Commission (FC) currently manages. This accounts for 18% of England’s woodland. 

 

Why is the government doing this?

Well, certainly not for the revenue it will raise: it’s estimated the sale will bring in £100m, a proverbial drop in the ocean. Furthermore, campaigners say the sale will not save money because the FC carries out its regulatory and conservation work for £10m a year and its work is subsidised by the timber it supplies to the market. “Subsidies to private forestry operators already amount to £36m,” says Eric Robson, Chairman of Gardeners’ Question Time and a high-profile opponent of the plan.  “And that could go as high as £60m-£80m if more forests go to private ownership.”

So, the cynical amongst us may wonder if it is yet another depressing example of dogma: perfectly fitting the prevailing government view that if it moves, privatise it; that anything in the public sector is fundamentally bad and would be much better off in the hands of private shareholders.

woodland walks

Perhaps, but in this particular case there may be another ulterior motive. Investing in forests brings some juicy tax breaks for those who can afford it, like exemption from inheritance tax (after two years of ownership), no capital gains tax on any rise in value of the trees, no income tax on timber sale:  a few little sweeteners to compensate for the continuance of the 50 per cent tax rate?         

 

Why should we oppose it?

1.The FC already does a great job in managing our woodlands, why change something that works?

2.There are big holes in the government’s promises: 

  • They say they want to encourage community groups and charitable trusts to buy, but as even the Woodland Trust cannot afford it, what chance is there for any other group?
  • Plausible government ministers appear in the media to re-assure us that current access rights will be guaranteed, but many experts challenge this and believe this only applies to those on foot, not so-called higher access rights for cyclists, wheelchair users, equestrians and orienteers.
  • And the portents are not hopeful: forestry sold into private ownership at Riggwood in the Lake District has already sparked anger among locals about the reduction of access, with the car park now fenced off and entry restricted to those on foot.
  • In any case, if full access rights are retained, this reduces the commercial attraction for any future purchaser, so defeating the entire objective in the first place

 

What should we do?

  • Write to our MPs: http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/speakout/MP-forests
  • Sign the petition: http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/save-our-forests#petition, or http://www.savelakelandsforests.org.uk/ 
  • If you can, contribute to the fund to place adverts opposing the plans throughout the national media: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/contribute/sponsor-a-forest-ad 

 Numerous “celebrities” – Dr Rowan Williams, Melvyn Bragg, Carol Ann Duffy, Dame Judi Dench,  Bill Bryson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall –   organisations, like the Woodland Trust, the Ramblers and other walking groups, cycling organisations like the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), as well as the National Trust, have been vocal in their opposition. Please join them, make your voice heard and help keep our forests out of the hands of developers and tax avoiders. 

And this is a battle we can win.  Although Cameron and Spelman may be motivated by an obsession with privatisation  and a desire to reward their city friends with more tax avoidance schemes, opposition to the sell-off has enraged many traditional Tory supporters, including the British Horse Society, the New Forest Association and even the UK Forest Products Association: a rather different, but potentially explosive, Countryside Alliance.

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26 Jan 2011

Seize the Moment and Set up your own Walking/Cycling Group

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 Want to walk/cycle, but can’t find a local group that fits your interests or capabilities?  Well, why not start your own?

winter silhouette

Despite the efforts of the Ramblers, Cyclists’  Touring Club (CTC) and others, many who would like to get more active in the countryside often find it rather daunting to join an already established group, however inclusive, and may well be nervous about their own levels of fitness and experience, or worried they don’t have the right equipment.

 Sometimes, you might want to follow a particular interest – history, nature, literature – and can use this as a good excuse to ring round compatible mates to get some fresh air and exercise, while parents often see a theme, or specific activity, as some of the best ways to introduce their children to the delights of the great outdoors.

 Although it is always a good idea, where possible, to try out local walking and cycling clubs and  take advantage of their knowledge and expertise, forming your own group can be fun, a good way of getting likeminded buddies together and of meeting new friends, while also providing the ideal excuse to coax everyone out of mid-winter hibernation.

It’s also a great way to stay local: it doesn’t matter where you’re based, there’s something interesting in every locality – historic churches, industrial archaeology, literature, conservation, winter wildlife – and you don’t even need to be in an area of accepted beauty. So, save on fuel and cut your carbon emissions by not driving to the start of a ride or walk. 

One really big advantage of forming your own group is that you can set your own agenda and design walks and rides around your own interests:  this has the added asset of attracting others who may not be interested in walking and cycling per se. 

lost again

 Walking and cycling are relatively inexpensive, have few, if any, age, gender or racial barriers and are the truest, cleanest and most rewarding ways to travel. So, put those New Year’s resolutions into practice, improve your fitness without going anywhere near the gym, save money and the planet, de-stress, learn something (or share your expertise) and help protect our forests and open spaces from impending environmental and political threats.

With your own group you can go where you want, when you want: just don’t forget to include a pub or cafe stop where you can recoup your calories and help local businesses at the same time.

Coming soon: Boot and Bike’s very own walking/cycling group based at The Book Barge, Barton Marina.  Details to follow. Watch this space!

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