The Land is Whose?

The Forestry Commission is a big player in Wessex. Within our borders we have two of the great royal hunting forests, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and the New Forest in Hampshire, both still regulated by their mediæval Verderers’ Courts. Treasured parts of our heritage. Except that for Cameron, Clegg & Co they are just treasure. The Coalition aims to sell off much of the forestry estate in England and won’t rule out selling everything.

Locals are incensed. In the Forest of Dean a mass protest is underway, organised by HOOF – Hands Off Our Forest – which the local Tory MP, Mark Harper is pointedly snubbing. His chances of retaining his seat may now be receding faster than you can say ‘timber’.

A thousand years of tradition are there to be sneered at by today’s Tories, whose promises that there’s nothing to worry about are worth precisely nothing. When the Thatcher/Major regime sold off some parts of the forestry estate, almost all of it went without any binding commitment on public access.

This time will be different, of course. The ‘Pig Society’ is all about local control. That’s if locals are willing to buy what they already own, and there are plenty of Guardian-reading muppets now running around trying to raise the money to do just that, with the wretched Woodland Trust playing the pied piper. There is a case for community ownership of forest land, but ownership by the Crown in trust for the community is not incompatible with local control, in place of centralised direction. The problem lies with breach of that trust, when politicians treat common property as a piggybank to be smashed when they run short of cash to fund a vicious foreign policy and the never-ending bankers’ banquet.

State forestry is not part of some dependency culture sprung up in the wake of an over-generous welfarism. In Wessex as in the rest of Europe it is the product of centuries of evolution. Today the forests are managed for leisure as well as commercial timber production. In the past they grew oaks for the Navy and before that housed game for the king. But ultimately, where there is no proof of purchase, they are land owned by the Crown in default of any private owner, a public resource, not simply a commercial asset.

The public estate in Wessex remains considerable, despite recent sell-offs. In 2001, Kevin Cahill published Who Owns Britain. Although errors of fact and a dubious political agenda run right through that book, it has no rival as a guide to the modern pattern of landownership in Great Britain and Ireland. Using its figures, we can work out that the Crown Estate Commissioners own 57,556 acres of land in Wessex, plus most of the foreshore and the seabed, the Duchy of Cornwall 89,380 acres, the Ministry of Defence owns or leases 153,879 acres, the Forestry Commission 131,985 acres, local authorities at least 49,239 acres. The total comes to 7% of the land area of Wessex, the equivalent of Berkshire or Oxfordshire but still far below the figures for some countries, including the supposedly ‘free enterprise’ USA, where the public domain covers an area larger than India. Little of our public estate is managed by those accountable locally. The main exception has been the smallholdings owned by county councils but they have been busy cashing those in. Bristol City Council is doing its best to catch up with the counties, recently publishing plans to sell off some of the city’s parks.

Land reform is off even the Labour Party’s agenda, along with all kinds of public ownership. One more reason not to vote for a party that has no idea why it exists. The result is that the land is managed not in accordance with any democratic vision but often single-mindedly for profit, with any benefits for wildlife or the landscape or the community squeezed out at needless expense by specific public subsidies instead of happening because they’re the things that ought to be happening. Psychologically, the need for public land is overwhelming. No-one, out in the country for the day, should be made to feel like a feudal vassal, welcome only as a source of revenue and deference.

In 1925, C.S. Orwin and W.R. Peel published The Tenure of Agricultural Land. They presented the case for nationalising rural land, upon the basis of a scheme which they worked out to be as decentralised as possible. “Anything”, they said, “in the nature of ‘management from Whitehall’ would be fatal”. They proposed to organise most matters on a county basis, sub-divided into districts of approximately 30,000 acres each, supplemented by a county forestry team. The figure is necessarily an average, as the need for management varies with the intensity of the agriculture in each county. But it is worth noting that in Wessex 20-30,000 acres is about the average size of a hundred, the Anglo-Saxon sub-division of a shire, and so represents some natural wisdom about the scale of economic organisation in the countryside. Other reformers have sought to take things further still, Thomas Spence’s scheme of 1775 being for inalienable parochial ownership of all land in each parish.

As we move over the course of this century ever closer to conditions of ecological emergency, so we face a choice. We can allow our land to be bought and sold, fenced off and exploited for private gain, often by those with no roots in our communities and no intention of putting down any. Or we can insist that the ‘common treasury for all’ is respected as such, managed and used accordingly.