Giles Fraser: Woods: it’s all about the scale

26 January 2011

I ADMIT it: I am a townie. I find the countryside a puzzling and some­times rather frightening place. But one would have to be aesthetically dead not to appreciate the beauty of the English countryside, with its gently rolling slopes and hedgerows.

In his fascinating book, England: An elegy (Continuum, 2006), Roger Scruton makes much of the sig­nificance of the hedge, and the extent to which the establishment of private-property rights was at the heart of the look of the English pastoral ideal. “That the English countryside should be so intricately bounded, and so self-evidently owned, is in part a consequence of law and the freedoms which grew from it,” he argues. Private-property rights enabled the English countryside to look the way it does.

Why, then, has there been so much fuss about the Government’s plans to privatise forests and woodlands? Why has the Archbishop of Canter­bury — with a host of celebrities (Tracey Emin, Julian Barnes, and so on) — reacted so strongly against the idea that our trees might be managed privately?

“Our forests nurture countless species of native plants and wildlife. We have relied on them since time immemorial, yet we are only a heartbeat in their history. We, the undersigned, believe it unconscion­able that future generations will no longer enjoy the guarantee of a public forest estate,” they argue.

At the heart of this is a problem of trust in the Government’s idea of the Big Society and its emphasis on localism. Why ought we to think of central government as the best way of sustaining the look of the country­side? Surely, as Professor Scruton points out, it is the pri­vatisa­tion of our landscape which has preserved its identity for hundreds of years.

But it is one thing for forests to be sold off to small-scale groups that have strong connections to the local community. It is quite another for them to be bought by big inter­national businesses that are inter­ested only in profit. The problem is not public/private: it is the problem of scale.

After the Second World War, the Government subsidised the uproot­ing of hedges in order to produce bigger and more efficient fields, thus creating what Professor Scruton calls “the desolate prairies of East Anglia and the Midlands”. The problem was not that these were in private owner­ship, but that they were all about big business, with the emphasis on the “big”.

If the Government is to press ahead with the privatisation of forestry, it has to find a way to ensure that control is rooted in the lives of the people who live in that area. The state currently owns some 18 per cent of our woods. Turning all this into some international agri-business would be a huge mistake.

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