Students mock Nick Clegg. Photo: Getty/Peter Macdiarmid
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Sheffield's students could depose Nick Clegg – they are alert to the danger of losing their votes

Because of the new system, there is a risk that students will turn up to vote on 7 May, but won't be registered.

It will be harder for young people to vote in this general election than the last. The switch to Individual Electoral Registration threatens to result in a deeply unedifying spectacle: thousands of students going to polling stations, only to be told that they are not registered to vote.

It is often said that young people do not deserve sympathy if they cannot be bothered to vote. But that is no reason to put up a further obstacle to voting. However inadvertently, that is what IES, which prevents students from being registered in blocks or automatically by their institutions, has become.

The upshot is depressing. In 2010, 22 per cent of students were not registered to vote; that number threatens to be significantly greater at this election. That means that the political generation gap – over 65s were 23 per cent more likely to vote than those aged 18-24 at the last election – could increase at the next election. Add in an ageing population too, and it means that young people will be even easier to ignore.

One university is quietly challenging such fatalism. While most universities have been lamentably slow in responding to the change in the voter registration system, Sheffield University has been a welcome exception. Last September, when students were enrolling online for a new year or the start of their degrees, they were given the opportunity to be included on the electoral register. 65 per cent of Sheffield University students opted in: a powerful antidote to the notion that young people do not care about politics.

Still, a problem remained. To register to vote, Sheffield University students needed to enter their national insurance numbers. Almost two-thirds did not know or could not find theirs. As of November, just 24 per cent of students were registered to vote.

Belatedly the government has reacted to the derisory rates of voter registration among young people. It has committed an additional £10m to help local authorities and national organisations boost the number of people registering to vote. In December, the Cabinet Office announced a relaxation of guidelines for Electoral Registration Offices, making it easier for them to verify applications. Officials in Sheffield can now verify students’ registrations even without their national insurance numbers.

The effect has been dramatic. In December and January, 7,000 students at Sheffield University, who had tried to register last October but had not entered their national insurance details, were added to the electoral roll. Around two-thirds of students today are on the electoral roll. In Broomhill, a student-heavy ward in Sheffield Central constituency, the number of registered voters has swelled by around 400 from a year ago, when Household Electoral Registration was still being used. If managed properly the switch in the voter registration system need not reduce student turnout.

Unfortunately no other universities have followed Sheffield’s lead in making it as easy for students to register. All Sheffield Hallam have done, for example, is provide the Electoral Registration Office with a list of students enrolled to the university. The difference in approach will result in many Hallam students feeling disenfranchised come May. A student at Sheffield Hallam is less than half as likely to be registered to vote as one at Sheffield University.

While Sheffield University offers a model for other institutions to follow it is too late for them to do so before the next election. The best that most other universities can do now is work with local authorities to mitigate the damage in student registration numbers. But Sheffield University offers a glimpse of what the political power of students could be. In Sheffield Hallam 17.3 per cent of the electorate are students, the vast majority from Sheffield University. A higher student turnout there could yet mean a P45 for Nick Clegg.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.