Saturday 22 January 2011

Could selling off the forests be the government's least popular policy of all?

Back in 2005, David Cameron rather seemed to be setting out to be an "all things to all people" kind of politician. Yet there has always been an unresolved question as to whether he is primarily a political pragmatist recognisably in the High Tory school of the pre-Thatcher party elite - as he appears by background, personal style and disposition - and how this fits with the weight of policy evidence that he leads a much more ideological government.

If Cameron has made any strategic decision, it has probably been to deliberately keep these ambiguities open. He deliberately floated above resolving the strategic arguments between the very different worldviews of Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson. So he's an austerity Conservative who wants to challenge Labour for not spending enough on the NHS. He's a Eurosceptic who wears EU flag cufflinks. He's pro-Scandinavian equality and proud to be a Thatcherite. The right is constantly grumbling that Cameron lacks an instinct for what makes true blue hearts beat and yet, in the country, Tory voters are very satisfied with the government, while floating voters become more sceptical.

Cameron's government is more ideological than the Prime Minister himself may realise. Indeed, his perceived moderation may well be what makes this possible.

No doubt there are separate arguments to be made both for and against all of the government's big policy and political calls: the scale and speed of cuts to eliminate a structural deficit in one Parliament; the decision to front-load cuts to local government so that the pain hits earlier; the scale and speed of a massive NHS restructuring, so that £80 billion a year of public money will be spent within two years by bodies that don't yet exist; what is billed as the biggest welfare overhaul since Beveridge; the unprecedented withdrawal of state funding for university teaching necessitating the hike in graduate contributions; the bonfire of quangos through a single Bill scrapping or reshaping 481 public bodies, ofren by giving Ministers wide-ranging Henry VIII powers to determine what happens to 150 other public bodies without needing Parliamentary approval.

But what is surely most striking of all is what Vince Cable called the government's Maoist insistence on proceeding with its foot on the accelerator on every front at once, despite the governing parties not seeking a mandate for several of these policies, and indeed explicitly disavowed a number of them. Indeed, it is the uber-moderniser Steve Hilton who leads this Maoist revolution - having said "everything must have changed by 2015. Everything".

The evidence for an ideologically-driven administration is the willingness to spend political capital and court unpopularity in order to change the social and political reality. The government may be fairly comfortable picking fights over spending cuts in general or, for example housing benefit in particular. But each separate issue may have its own coalitions of support and opposition. The government might well worry most about issues which generate opposition as much from its friends.

Despite the range of possible competition from this policy hyperactivity, the sell-off of England's forestry may well now be emerging as the least popular of all of the government's policies, both with the general public and with many of its own supporters.

The campaign group 38 Degrees have commissioned a YouGov poll which finds 75% opposition and just 6% support for the proposals.

‘Currently, publicly owned forests and woodlands are managed by the Forestry Commission. The government is considering plans to sell off some, or all, of the publicly owned woodlands and forests in England, claiming that forests will be better run if the they are owned by private companies, charities or individuals rather than a public sector organisation. Others however argue that the selloff is short-sighted and fear that woodland areas will be bought by developers and timber companies who could exploit the forests they own by limiting access to the public and endangering woodland wildlife.’

When asked ‘To what extent do you support or oppose the government's plans to sell publicly owned woodlands and forests in England?’, 6% supported the sale, 75% opposed it, 10% neither opposed nor supported, and 7% didn’t know.

Clearly, the poll has been commissioned by a campaigning group on one side of the question but the difficulty the government has in making a case for the change seems clear.

"There's really not much room for ambiguity here. There really is, among the general public, no desire for change", a YouGov analyst told the Today programme this morning.

38 Degrees note the strength of opposition across the political spectrum, with 82% of Conservatives and 87% of those who voted LibDem last May supporting publicly owned forests and woodlands being kept in public ownership, an argument most popular among the over 60s, where it has 89% support.

The 38 degrees campaign has gathered over 150,000 signatures against the policy even before there has been much political or media attention.

The government would like to present its proposals as a 'big society' approach, enabling voluntary and community groups to be involved. But this depends on overcoming a deep-rooted public distrust of the potential impact of commercial interests.

There are also questions about the loss of tax revenues, because of generous tax-breaks for forestry owners.

As the issue gains prominence, it will create particular difficulties for the Liberal Democrats who have very vigorously campaigned to "save our forests" in Scotland, where they "condemned the SNP’s move to privatise 25% of Scottish forests as their latest money making scam" in collusion with the Scottish Tories.

Unsurprisingly when this privatisation by the back door approach was debated the SNP were backed by the Tories, the SNP’s unlikely but ever loyal bedfellows.

Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander had been a vigorous campaigner for the Scottish government to scrap its plans. It will surely be difficult to him to credibly resist similar calls in England.

For Labour, the issue of the forestry sell-off may well be a good example of new peer Maurice Glasman's call for the party to advance the common good "in the name of ancient as well as modern values".

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