I have read the piece printed in our local newspaper written by my local MP about the proposed selling off of our forests. It also seems that I am one of 400 (out of 68,600) who has written to him on the subject. On the surface that seems like a very small proportion of the voters, and perhaps it is, however it does assume a 100% of voters are always considered in these statistical arguments. But we don’t live in a true democracy, ie one that actually values and takes account of all those who bother to vote. Rather we use an arcane system that has been with us for about 200 years, the so called ‘first past the post system’. This is a system which typically allows under 40% of the population who do vote to command a majority government.
Under 40% and majority, in the same sentence, not exactly logical is it? Well in May, there may or may not be a referendum (the unelected House of Lords are currently voting on this , to make the whole thing even more bizarre) where the population eligible to vote, including prisoners no doubt, will be asked if they want to see the introduction of the ‘Alternative Vote’ or ‘AV’ system or not. A simple ‘Yes’ (for the AV) or ‘No’ (against any change to the exsiting system). The ‘No’ campaign will point to this change allowing small, minority parties effectively holding the balance of power. Fair point, if the current system was actually giving us a majority of voters voting for the winning party, but it doesn’t. The ‘No’ campaign will also point to the fact that the AV system is only used by Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia as if these are 3rd world democracies. They won’t tell you that most of Europe actually has a proportional representation system or ‘single transferable vote’. Put simply, in those democracies every vote ultimately counts and the government is elected in proportion to the votes cast by all those who vote. That seems fairer in my book. But that is my book!
In reality, the AV system is a change, but because the Liberal Democrats (who are in favour of full proportional representation) could only negotiate a small change with the Conservatives within their Coalition deal, it is a compromise. But that is what evolutionary and progressive government should be, negotiated compromise, which is often derided as ‘weal governement’. Well it represents a step towards reform and change and besides, ‘Yes’ is a better word than ‘No’ so I for one will want to hear more from both sides, before I make my vote for this important first past the post vote.
Back to my MP, incidentally a man who occupies an uber safe seat, which under the current system will never see any other party get a look in. He has decided that the sell off of the forestry policy is clearly worth sticking with. A pity then that today saw the policy effectively booted beyond the long grass and into the copse yonder by The Prime Minister, who clearly feels that it may be worth listening to over 500,000 people who have signed a petition opposing the proposed legislation. It’s not democracy, but it is a step in the right direction.
Here, for the record is the piece my MP wrote for our local paper. Time will judge his stance on this subject. Wish him well if we ever get a change to the voting system. He will need more votes than he normally gets! Also, see if you can see the funny side of this. I certainly can.
What do you think has been the biggest single issue in my mailbag this week? ? Afghanistan? Egypt
and the Middle East? The economy? Lynehham? Planning and development? Health and education?
None of them. I have received something like 400 letters on the question of whether or not the 15%
or so of our national forests which are still owned and managed by civil servants would or would not
be better off joining the other 85 % which has been in private hands for many generations.
Now I well accept that there are passionately held views on both sidees of the argument. In an area like
this, but perhaps even more so if we lived in an urban environmennt, we love our forests. Walking,
cycling, and riding through them. Looking out of the car window at them, knowing that they are there
providing biodiversity and a haven for our wildlife, and helping eat up the carbon we all pump out.
Locally we are naturally concerrned about the ancient King’s huntinng grounds in Bradon Forest and
the superb Arboretum at Westonbirt. (Aboout both of which I had a quiet word with Minister Jim
Paice in the lobbies.) But where the verywell-orchestrated campaign against privatisation is
misleading is in the suggestion that that would somehow or another lead to an end to our forests, or at
least an end to access to them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Much privately owned forestry is bettter managed and has
much better public access than very much of the Forestry Commission land. It will be sold on a long
lease with carefully worded access, maintenance and biodiversity clauses written in. And anyhow,
what mad entrepreneur is going to buy a huge Forestry Commission wood, knock it down and then
forlornly try to get planning permission to develop it? It would be a commercially absurd thing to do.
I think I am right in saying that only one planning application in the country has succeeded in
woodland in the paast 40 years. Those who own and manage forests grow them and harvest them
sustainably, in precisely the same way as a farmer grows and harvests his wheat.
And as to the ‘heritaage forests’ – and I will be seeking to ensure that Bradon Forest is one of them –
they will be made over to a charitable or local trust to look after for perpetuity. I am very glad that
much off our heritage forestry was long ago handed over or sold to the Woodland Trust, and that our
historic houses are run so very well by the National Trust. Trusts will allow acceess to volunteer help.
The highly successful Friends of Oakfrith Wood at Urchfont, purchased by a local Trust and managed
and run by locals for locals is a good example. Charitable trusts do a very good job maintaining
heritage that governments might well be more careless about!
So I fear that I am not one of those who believe that being ‘nationally owned’ and run by civil
servants is necessarily a good thing. After all, I well remember similar arguments being advanced
when we privatised British Airways for example. I am as determined as any to preserve and enhance
our forests, but simply believe that that is more likely to be achieved by a properly regulated private
sector than by rather a creaking old public sector body like the Forestry Commission which was
established in the first place to supply pit props and railway sleepers ! So I am sorry to disapppoint the
400 or so constituents who have made it plain that they disagree with me on this issue, but I hope that
at least most of the other 68,6000 voters may think I have done the right thing by supporting the
Coalition Government on the matter. Would it be too corny to suggest that those who are so militantly
opposed to it frankly can’t see the wood for the trees?