This land is our land: fighting privatisation, robbery and ecocide

Foresters have a long, long history of fighting people, corporations, governments and royalty which enclosed the Forest of Dean, and on a great many occasions they won their battles. The latest battle has been rumbling on for well over a decade, and now we’re at the eleventh hour in a bid to save a swathe of OUR land, 200 acres north of Cinderford, from being buried in concrete. The plans have been rubber-stamped, and all that stands in the way of the road-builder and bulldozers is a wildlife licence, a High Court decision… and direct action.

The Forest of Dean was first claimed by the crown decades before the Normans arrived, as their exclusive royal hunting ground. But freeminers managed to successfully win the right to dig their own iron (and later coal) and commoners to graze animals and gather wood, while down the centuries, squatters built cabins within the woods. Fences were torn down repeatedly from at least the 17th century onwards, culminating in the Dean Forest Riots of 1831, led by my own ancestor Warren James. Warren may have been transported to Tasmania, where he spent his last days, but the Foresters eventually won the rights to public land and the right to live legally within the forest. In 1919, the crown formally handed over the entire Forest to the state to hold in trust for the people.

In 1981, 1993 and again in 2010, Foresters had to do battle with successive Tory governments against attempts to privatise the woodlands. On the first two occasions, the local Tory MP, Paul Marland, took the side of the people against his own party’s government, while on the third, the current immigration minister, the dastardly Mark Harper, refused to support his constituents and he and his beleaguered local party stood alone, in favour of the attempted sell-off.

From 1997 to 2007, the Forest had a Labour MP and council, but when New Labour tried to shut down the local hospitals, the people rose up en masse, and the Tories jumped on the bandwagon and took over the political scene as a result.

Labour did get involved in the Hands Off Our Forest campaign, though, and gained a few councillors as a result… one rebel Tory meant that the district council narrowly voted to support the HOOF campaign too, along with just about every other organisation and association – political and non-political – in the Dean. HOOF recognised that to win, it needed to be as inclusive and single-minded as possible, so there were strenuous efforts made to prevent politicians from hijacking it, to maintain unity between groups that previously were at each other’s throats. There were also a fair few anarchists involved in the HOOF campaign (which included thousands of people)… some might argue that the direct action engaged in by autonomous people outside the steering group helped to achieve victory, finally confirmed in January this year with a government guarantee (whatever that’s worth) that no woods would be sold and that they would continue to be publicly managed. For one thing, there were yellow ribbons and freeform banners galore, murals, a giant sculpture of Big Ben burnt on a great bonfire, and Mark Harper achieved the nickname of ‘Scarper’ for his habit of running away from his constituents… Below is some video evidence:

1. Harper is obliged on camera to commit to holding his own public meeting after refusing to attend one arranged by campaigners (at 8mins 20secs)

2. About 3,000 people (police estimate) attend a rally in a blizzard and burn an effigy of Big Ben

3. Harper flees from his own public meeting… within a fortnight, the government did a “yew-turn” and suspended its “consultation” and scrapped the Public Bodies Bill (which would have permitted a wholesale sell-off)

So… hurrah for us all for standing united against the government, and hurrah for HOOF… BUT… after the battle, all the local politicians went back to their old tricks of betraying the people to please their corporate chums. HOOF remains committed to its original aim, of saving the forest in its entirity, and is keeping a watching brief, ensuring the people get represented in future management plans, and enough public funding comes through to do the management. It will not – and, in my opinion, should not – be diverted to other campaigns, especially ones which are not supported by all those groups which signed up to the vast umbrella group. But, then again, we can’t help but consider the piecemeal theft of public resources and land amounts to the same thing as the Forest sell-off, albeit on a smaller scale.

Using the excuse of austerity cuts (despite the centre covering almost all of its costs) Gloucestershire County Council put a vital public resource up for sale, the Wilderness Centre, a residential centre which for decades had taught groups of city children about the environment. A softly-softly “trust” was formed by concerned people formerly associated with the centre, Friends of the Wilderness Centre. They succeeded in raising pledges of over one million pounds to buy the centre, courtesy of a local entrepreneur (and developer) multi-millionaire, Brian Bennett… despite jumping through all the hoops of the Tory-run council, they have yet to secure the Wilderness Centre for future use as an environmental centre. For six months, a direct action group, Protect The Wilderness managed to keep the plight of the centre in the public eye, until they were forcibly evicted in a massive police operation. The taxpayer continues to pay thousands of pounds each week for security preventing the public having access to what is lawfully theirs… Rumours persist that the council is intent, despite the Friends doing all they can to buy what is already ours, on selling to a housing or hotel developer…
Protect The Wilderness recently revisited to do some gardening work. Here’s what happened…

That fight isn’t over yet, and nor is the fight to save the Forest’s last intact deep mine, Northern United, and a large area of woodland, lake and open ground between the old pit (including a monument to miners who died there), and the hamlet of Steam Mills. The so-called Cinderford Regeneration Board – a partnership fronted by a Labour councillor (who, ironically, played a prominent role in the HOOF campaign) of Forest of Dean District Council and the governmental Homes And Communities Agency… while more than enough land is available on the edge of the town on derelict industrial (brownfield) land, the ‘regeneration’ team insists it has to demolish all traces of a mine recognised by English Heritage as an important site to build a ‘spine road’ cutting through woodland and grassland; destroying habitats for rare bats, newts and other wildlife, a key biodiversity site as recognised by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.

It will build ‘business units’ on the wildlife/heritage site of Northern United – which will, according to the council propaganda machine, create 300 jobs (we presume this estimate relies on all the units being occupied by businesses). There will also be a new housing estate (no idea how many of the houses will be ‘social housing’ for those that need it most, or dream second homes for the rich escapees of the urban rat race), a hotel adorning the side of a currently unspoilt lake, and a new college, although the existing college down the road at Five Acres is an excellent facility, with its own theatre, leisure centre and playing fields… an inquiry is under way to decide whether to demolish the Five Acres college and flog the land including its playing fields off to housing developers.

For more than a decade, environmentalist groups such as Forest of Dean Friends of the Earth and Friends of the Forest, as well as cultural campaigners such as Dean Forest Voice and the Local History Society have been using all legal means to fight this land-theft proposal, formerly known as Northern Arc but reborn as the Northern Quarter after the almost identical Arc proposal was condemned by a government inspector. Untold amounts of taxpayers money have already been spent on consultants giving the people non-choices on near-identical schemes, and security to guard the Northern United site 24/7.

Plans for the demolition of Northern United were passed on November 6 2012, held up by Natural England who need to grant a wildlife licence (so we’ve been told) before the destruction of this invaluable heritage site can take place. So far the fact the decision was made six days after the expiry date for the planning application, and that there appears to be no public record of councillors making a decision, has gone unchallenged by campaigners.

So at the moment there is petition to Downing Street, a form letter for the government’s Eric Pickles to call-in the decision on this and other plans for the road and associated works which were passed this February by all councillors bar one rebel (Jackie Fraser, we salute you), ignoring representations at the meeting and hundreds of letters of objection.

There have been growing calls for direct action, which Forest of Dean Anarchists support. An autonomous group of people took a walk down to the site, accompanied by the police, to the partially destroyed (by the over-eager road contractors) and fenced off public monument to the miners who lost their lives in pit disasters last century.

Some very knowledgeable mining engineers and experts fear that the entire bowl-shaped landscape could be flooded as a result of construction works and tampering with the water levels… yet the corporate land-grabbers, given free rein by both Labour and Tory politicians, are pushing on regardless in their plan to concrete over what was until very recently the public’s land until stolen and handed to the government’s Homes & Communities Agency. 1,200 jobs are promised but whether they will last more than a few months or go to local people isn’t known…

Plans are afoot to set up info camps at the entrance, and to build momentum to stop this corporate land-grab. Watch out for updates here and on this new campaign site, Save Northern United:

http://savenorthernunited.wordpress.com/

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