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Chris Rundle: Paterson realises what Spelman did not: public won't tolerate assets sales

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 06, 2013

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More sound commonsense from Owen Paterson, rapidly acquiring a reputation for being the best Defra overseer ever appointed – not that the competition was that brilliant.

Latest example: no sell-off for publicly-owned forests, a cash-raising panic measure clutched at desperately by predecessor Caroline Spelman in one of the many moments when her brain was not fully engaged – and hastily retracted when, within hours, the public revolt began.

What Spelman didn't realise was that people saw enough of national assets being sold off, often at stupidly low prices, often with the ready involvement of cronies, to raise ready cash during the Thatcher and Major years. The forests would have been a step too far. Fair enough, a huge proportion of the populace may never set foot in a woodland from one year to the next. That's not the point; should they feel like so doing the forests are there, and open to them. The proposal to transfer them into private hands aroused bitter, long-submerged folk memories of the enclosures. Neither were fears and misgivings allayed by ministerial assurances about continuing rights of access. Unfortunately people now attribute as much weight to them as they do to the word "value" when applied to a pack of supermarket burgers.

The Government's change of heart and its decision to transfer the arboreal assets to (yet another) public body probably comes just in time. The youngest band in the forestry users' spectrum appears to be composed of the 30-somethings with a couple of sprogs in tow and in all likelihood they will be the last to care seriously about the fate of the woodlands. Fast coming up is a generation whose members have only experienced virtual adventure in virtual forests thanks to computer games; who find this a far preferable state of affairs than actually having to walk, drive or cycle to a real wood and then get cold or wet or both, and who in all honesty – and despite the Independent Panel on Forestry's call for every child to "have an element of woodland-based learning" don't and won't give a toss what becomes of a priceless national asset.

Chris Rundle is an agricultural journalist from Somerset

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