We're all going on a state holiday

Observations on public ownership

Most of us thought that neoliberals, after 25 years at the helm in British politics, had run out of things to privatise. But miraculously, after public utilities, railways and air traffic control have all gone under the hammer, Forest Holidays remains in public ownership. This strange relic is the Forestry Commission's tourist arm and it operates three self-catering log cabin sites and more than 20 caravan and camping sites.

Tony Caplin, a member of the Tories' spending review committee under David James (the former Millennium Dome chief), says that its survival makes Britain one of the last countries in the world, along with Cuba, that still run "Soviet-style state holidays". If the Tories win the next election, Forest Holidays would go the way of BT, British Rail and Sealink - and the eradication of Castroism in Britain would be complete.

But the scandal is not that the state is subsidising us to take holidays in log cabins. The scandal is that it is not subsidising us enough. The average Briton works 1,673 hours a year, more than anyone else in the pre-enlargement EU and over 200 hours more than the average German. Britons also suffer from some of the most chronic ill-health in Europe, both physical and mental: 63 per cent of us are overweight, 22 per are obese, and two million are on antidepressants. If ever a people needed to be encouraged to head for the outdoors and go walking in pine forests, it is we British.

Yet the cost of renting an eight-berth cabin in Keldy is £775 a week in the high season. Forest Holidays may have made a £3.7m loss last year, when it was modernising its sites, but the year before it posted a profit of £1m. Given the enormous benefits of fresh air, walking and proximity to nature, might the Treasury not save money from the health budget by making such holidays affordable?

Alas, the government responded to the Tories by announcing the involvement of the private sector in "modernising the current touring caravan and campsite network". We were told that "PPP funding is required to take the business forward". But, as we have seen before, PPP saves taxpayers' money in the short term only to waste it in the long.

Until quite recently, every German citizen was entitled to free health spa treatment for four weeks every three years. Overworked and overstressed Britons, by contrast, have never benefited from such inspired state benevolence. For some, state-subsidised holidays in log cabins might smack of Soviet-style socialism. For others, looking at the bigger picture, it smacks of sound common sense.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Why terrorists love Britain