It is not often perhaps that as eclectic a bunch as the Sunday Telegraph, the Archbishop of Canterbury and such miscellaneous luminaries as Tracey Emin and Ranulf Fiennes make common cause against a government proposal.
But, as highlighted in the media over the weekend, a head of steam has built up, and is now being released, challenging the Government's proposals for selling off the Forestry Commission's English woodlands. Why just England? Because the devolved administrations have responsibility for the Forestry Commission in Scotland and Wales and, having no ideological problems with the principle of state ownership (if anything, quite the reverse), have no similar plans.
Defra issued its outline plans last October (see here) and has elaborated on them little since (which itself is part of the problem). A consultation paper is due out on Thursday. Then, in the next few weeks, clauses 17 to 19 of the Public Bodies Bill, which would give the Government enabling powers to implement a sell off and transfer by order, will be reached in the on-going committee stage on the bill in the Lords. Hence the current political and media activity. Those clauses are the subject already of numerous proposed amendments tabled in the names of Lord Greaves, Baroness Smith of Basildon, Baroness Benjamin, and Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, including both amendments to introduce new safeguards and amendments requiring the provisions to be deleted from the bill.
What is all the fuss about, particularly given the general unpopularity of quangos? The Forestry Commission, at least to date, does not seem to have the aura of a much-loved institution and its track record looks to be a bit mixed. Surely it could do, at the very least, with a degree of judicious pruning if not more more widespread re-shaping?
If it were just a question of people being committed to the principle of government ownership, one might also wonder why they are not also having a go at the National Trust and the RSPB (reported by Country Life last year as England's 2nd and 7th largest landowners respectively). Neither are government owned as such but, also of course, unlike the Forestry Commission, the Government is not proposing to do anything to them. Such landownings, as the government will no doubt argue, would seem to demonstrate that public protection does not necessarily demand public ownership, at least in the sense of government ownership, though maybe in the future, landholdings by such charities will be viewed much more as part of the public estate and will more routinely attract vehement criticism (remember the debate about the National Trust and fox hunting not so long ago).
No-one may greatly love the Forestry Commission but fear of change, particularly in the form of privatisation, is readily engendered, not least when issues about ensuring conservation and preserving public access are, or appear to be, at stake. Combine these ingredients with a widespread popular distrust of government in all its forms, deep-seated community attachment to particular local woods and forests and stir in allegations about selling off community assets to the highest bidder and it is easy to see how the campaign has taken off.
As it happens, the issue has also been picked up by that new phenomenon in our political firmament, the mobilised social network. "38 Degrees" in particular , a small web-based lobby group whose executive director, David Babbs, was fomerly head of activism at Friends of the Earth and which it is reported was also responsible earlier this month for the "Is George Osborne the most artful dodger" campaign, has produced an online petition which has attracted over 180,000 signatures (see here). Its own membership, it claims, is over 300,000 so very possibly the petition will attract many more signatures.
Now, we have the Save England's Forests campaign (see here) though, possibly for some, the celebrity status of some of its signatories may be something of a turn-off.
At the root of the matter is the difficulty which is at the heart of the Public Bodies Bill generally, namely that proposals are being brought forward and which require Parliament endorsement in principle without any of the important fine details being available for examination, modification or endorsement.
Will the Governmernt change its proposed stance or stand firm? We have yet to see what its detailed stance in relation to the Forestry Commission is but various reports (see eg Matt Ridley in the Times today) suggest that the sell-off in any event will favour community groups and bodies that guarantee public access and biodiversity, rather than just being a a sale to the highest bidder. If so, much of the current disquiet may melt away and groups such as the Woodlands Trust , arguably, will have little to worry about and much to gain. Then again, the Defra consultation will no doubt contain a number of things that cause further disquiet and also leave quite a lot still up in the air. And for those who really don't like the Public Bodies Bill, it certainly looks as good as any option to stand up and fight against the conferment of "Henry VIII" style order-making powers.
To view an informative House of Commons Library Information Note on the subject of the proposed sale, dated 6 January 2011, see here