Saving nature or saving money?

The government avoids more questions than it answers on England's woodlands.

Over the past month, opposition to the government's proposal to sell off up to 15,000 hectares of English forest and woodland has been gradually mounting. A few days ago, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman responded to her critics in the Guardian, claiming to be "setting the record straight on the sale of England's woodlands". However, she avoids more questions than she answers.

She addresses the more sensationalist suggestions - namely that woodlands could be sold off in a "free-for-all of golf courses, holiday parks or housing developments" - but ignores the central issues: access to the countryside, tree planting, and how, if at all, her plans will actually help biodiversity.

Spelman says that a major motivation for the plans is the "need to enhance biodiversity", including planting more trees and of the right sort. However, she makes no mention of how exactly selling off the Forestry Commission's forests would help with this goal, and how new, private forest owners would do a better job.

She points out that "[a]round 70 per cent of England's woodland is already under private ownership - some of them already participating in woodland schemes that actively preserve the environmental and public benefits our woodlands deliver", but this in itself does not justify her proposals.

Moreover, while the new owners would still be subject to planning and forestry regulations, it is not at all clear how new forms of management would differ from that of the Forestry Commission. In particular, our Environment Secretary avoids mentioning how, if at all, public access to the woodlands would be altered. There is also no mention of how the sale would work: would conservation and other environmentally-conscious organisations be treated preferentially?

Earlier this year, a government economic study estimated that the Forestry Commission provides £2100 per hectare in value if benefits such as carbon sequestration, protection from erosion, and absorbing pollution are accounted for. The government needs to show that its reforms will not damage the natural capital behind these environmental services, and ideally that they will enhance it. So far they have done neither.

There is also the question of where the money for acceptable private management of England's forests is going to come from. Charities' incomes face heavy cuts over the next few years as a result of the coalition's austerity measures. Philanthropy cannot realistically be expected to take up all the slack left by the roll-back of the state.

Depending on who is willing and able to purchase the forests, there is no guarantee that the same levels of resources would be available to spend on conservation as the Forestry Commission lose their most profitable land.

Similarly, Spelman makes no mention of how, if at all, the taxpayer can expect to benefit. Before this year's spending review, the Forestry Commission received a £30m annual subsidy, but generated £63m income a year. If the organisation were stripped of its most profitable assets and its income fell, the taxpayer would have to step in to meet any funding gaps.

Indeed, she seems more interested in Cameron's ideological pursuit of a small state for its own sake than in pragmatic cost savings, saying that the plans are "no fire sale by a cash-strapped state". Instead, she suggests that, "frankly, those who live closest are most likely to protect it".

However, like much of the Big Society project, the benefits of her plans seem poorly specified, and based more on wishful thinking than anything else. It's not at all clear that those nearest to forests are the most likely to buy them. And, even if this were the case, it is something of a simplification to conflate geographical proximity with an affinity for conservation.

Spelman says that "[p]ublic is not always good, nor non-public bad.". Quite. But, by the same token, public is not always bad, nor non-public good. She and her ministerial colleagues need to make the case that selling off our forests is not pure ideology and will provide tangible benefits.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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