15 May 2011

Look North: The Green Way Forward

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Scotland has been in the news rather a lot recently – what with the growing possibility of outright independence, the shameful Neil Lennon saga and the final(?) demise of Taggart – although it’s interesting to speculate if the drastically-reduced Scottish influence on this Westminster government (compare Fox and Gove to Brown, Darling, Reid, Cook, Dewar, Smith et al of old)  is, perhaps, an interesting pointer to the divergent path now being taken, on many key issues, by the Holyrood administration.

Tuition fees, prescription and hospital parking charges immediately come to mind, but for those of us intent on preserving the environment and enjoying the great outdoors, the contrasting ideology in Scotland is just as clear. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 allowed virtually unrestricted access to the outdoors. To date, with a few exceptions, it has been a success and, along with the Scottish tradition of wild camping, provides far more positive opportunities for more people to enjoy the outdoors.

South of Hadrian’s Wall, we may have stopped the government from privatising Forestry  Commission (FC) land, but this was only round one of the fight for greater access, given that the FC owns only a fraction of our forests and woodlands and that proportion falls still further in lowland areas.  We have to increase the pressure to gain access to the 60%  (figures from Woods for People, the Woodland Trust’s dataset of accessible woodlands) of forests and woodlands currently barred to walkers, cyclists, horse riders, wheelchairs users and others.

In view of this, the formation of the new Forest Access User Group, composed of organisations ranging from the Ramblers to the Kennel Club and British Horse Society, is cheering news, particularly as the raison d’être of this rather diverse alliance is to campaign to put public access at the heart of the government’s policy on forests.

February’s climbdown on the forests was caused by outrage from an astonishingly eclectic range of organisations and individuals – many of whom were traditional Tory supporters.  It is vital that we sustain this pressure on the Independent Panel for Forestry, set up after the U turn, to show that access to our forests and countryside is an issue that unites vast numbers of people, from whatever walk of life, or political persuasion.

From a purely political angle, Cameron desperately needs to score positively on some kind of green issue if he is not to become more of an environmental joke. From hugging huskies and promising the “greenest-ever government” when in opposition, to classifying almost every piece of environmental legislation as “red tape”, within his first year of government, the metamorphosis has been as swift as it has been shocking: indeed, if it wasn’t so potentially tragic, it would be hilarious.

So far, the blue and yellow mix certainly hasn’t equalled  green and some of  Cameron’s Lib Dem allies have proved to be equally environmentally reprehensible.  Justifying its decision to include virtually every piece of environmental legislation on the bonfire of the bureaucracy, the Department for Business headed by the saintly Vince Cable, believes: “it takes a lot to grow a business.” Clearly it doesn’t take nearly as much to destroy the environment.

David Cameron is not a stupid politician. He knows environmental issues galvanise a wide range of individuals and groups, many of whom are Conservative-leaning and whom he cannot afford to alienate. Everyone who cares about green issues, whether access to the countryside, protection of wildlife, reduction of carbon emissions, sustainability or preservation of  public transport, needs to work together to keep the environment at the top of the agenda. By definition, this will be a broad church, with some not normally-compatible bedfellows. But the preservation of our planet and our responsible access to it are sufficiently important to rise above traditional political and social differences.

Cameron could set an example by, for once, looking beyond the Home Counties and, instead focusing on a green path up the A1 to Edinburgh. By overlooking his political differences with Alex Salmond, he could learn about how unrestricted access to the outdoors has proved to be so effective in Scotland.

If the news on carbon targets is correct, it’s a welcome first step and an impressive victory for the energy secretary, Chris Huhne. We now have to build on this and work together to preserve our environment and ensure as many people as possible can enjoy responsible access to it.

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