Sunday, January 30, 2011

Selling-off Britain

‘Reading week’ is one of those mixed-blessings of British higher education. It combines the temptation to enjoyment with the guilt that would come with it. I knew that at the end of my first reading week in London I was responsible for handing an essay on the origins of Indian nationalism to Dr Andrew Dilley. But as splendid as London is, it was also grating on me, and so one early morning I threw caution to the four winds, went up to Euston Station, and took the train northward for a week in the Lake District. The train stopped at Oxenholme, and then carried on north, perhaps to Edinburgh.

I caught the branch line to Windermere, and stepped out into fresher air than I’d breathed in many a month. On my way to the hostel at Troutbeck, I picked up some canned food for the coming week, and poked through a bookshop where, wonder of wonders, I discovered a dog-eared copy of Judith Brown’s Modern India (though by far the best find of the week was the ratty copy of The Good Soldier Schweik that I found coming back through the YHA at Troutbeck).

So fortified, and further invigorated by an evening stroll across the hills, I set out for Keswick the following morning and from there made my way, aided by a bus, to the foot of Honister Pass. I spent the next two days exploring the terrain, crossing farmland, open moor, clambering up fells, watching Great Gable come in and out of the mist, an elusive quarry.

On the day I walked back across the hills to Keswick, the sun came out, and spilled with reckless abandon down either side of the hoary ridges, down into bucolic valleys and shimmering waters. From Dale Head I crossed High Spy and Maiden Moor before making my way down Catbells to the shores of Derwent Water. Neither Skiddaw nor Castlerigg nor the walk back to Troutbeck rivalled the sheer beauty of that November day. The Lake District remains my favourite place in Britain.

But it is worth remembering today that the kind of access walkers enjoy today is comparatively novel. Established footpaths, gates that lead along fields, the right to cross open moorland—all of these were highly contested for many years. Seventy-nine years ago in April, some ten thousand walkers, angry at being denied the Right to Roam by aristocratic landlords and their gamekeepers, marched on Kinder Scout to trespass en masse.

England won its first National Park in 1951 (Scotland’s did not come until 2002), and the Right to Roam (still not fully implemented) was not passed until 2000. National Parks in England are, moreover, a very different beast from those in many other countries. Comparatively little of the park land is publicly owned, and contemporary access remains contentious.

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Why worry about public access to land in Britain today and the state of the nation’s countryside? The Coalition Government has given the public some good reasons to look over their shoulders, because one component of the coalition’s economic agenda involves the selling off of the majority of publicly-owned forests in England. The government’s sell-off gives some forests to the National Trust, asks communities to lease others, and does not make clear what will happen to the remainder. Tory Environment Secretary, Caroline Spellman claims that the sell-off is being made in the name of the economising being undertaken by the government (a nice word for cuts) as well as in the name of efficiency, that other watch-word of a government that is taking a set of chain-saws to Britain’s social services and public agencies.

Spellman is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “State control of forests dates back to the first world war, when needs were very different. There's now no reason for the government to be in the business of timber production and forest management. It's time for the government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England's woodlands to play a much greater role in their future”.

These remarks are calculated to push all the right buttons. By referencing “state control” rather than “public ownership”, the Conservatives are trying to make their process sound decentralised and democratic. There is, of course, the implication that government management of forest is comparatively inefficient (when in fact the “business” of timber production is probably not why so many people are irate at the government’s plans).

And finally, there is the appeal to localist sensibilities. Surely it makes good sense to let ‘local people’ (“those who are most involved with England’s woodlands”) to step up and take responsibility. After all, they’d surely know best anyway.

But of course it’s not clear how many community groups (a la Big Society) would get grants to make purchases. It is conceivable that many forests could end up in the hands of industry or other private interests, and though the government is stipulating that whomever purchases the forests mustn’t deny rights of access, part of access is maintenance, and neither community groups nor private interests are bound to spend any money in maintaining conditions that allow for public access.

Nor is it clear that community groups would have the financial ability to manage forests in the long-term. So what this comes down to is another instance of the Tory-led government abdicating responsibility and foisting the burden of providing for the public good onto communities that are potentially very ill-equipped and –prepared to manage what was once thought to be a public trust.

And it is not necessarily fair that in the Lake District for example (where upwards of 30 forests are to be sold off), a local community bears responsibility for the maintenance of what would have been considered land made public in the interests of the whole nation. That is a financial burden that should be collectively carried in recognition of the shared rewards.

The signs are promising at this point. Land is still a touchy issue in a nation in which as late as the 1960s the titled nobility alone (just a few hundred families) owned as much as 30% of the countryside. It was reported just last year that .6 per-cent of the population owns 50% of rural Britain. Writers Bill Bryson and Melvyn Bragg are leading the charge against the sell-off—particularly fitting given that some of the latter’s novels, including the The Soldier’s Return and its sequels, are set in some of the craggy lakelands that David Cameron and his thoroughly destructive government are trying to sell off.

Lakeland Laureate Alfred Wainwright, the Kinder Scout ramblers who bravely trespassed in 1932, generations of country-dwellers who got the short end of the stick they were thrashed with by an undemocratic landed aristocracy, and the British public will all be done a dreadful disservice if the sell-off is allowed to go through. There are many ways in which Britain remains a frighteningly feudal kind of society, and the privatisation of the precious little public land that exists would be a step in the wrong direction.

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It's now, incidentally, been shown that the sell-off wouldn't even work as a cost-saving measure. It's likely to be made at a loss, which demonstrates that it is an ideologically-driven move that the Tory government should be honest about.

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