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.

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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem