Chopwell Wood has been managed by the Forestry Commission for over 85 years. The Con-Dems plan to sell it off along with all our forests – but protests show they will meet serious opposition.

Chopwell protestA wrong turn on the road to Chopwell Woods, for a protest to begin at 1pm against the Coalition government’s plans to sell off 100% of England’s Public Forestry Estate, took me through the village of Chopwell.

It’s an old mining community, whose colliery closed in 1966. As with most villages in this part of the country, there are richer and poorer parts. But something new has brought the community together‚Äîand you can see it on the door handles, gate stands and lampposts all through town. It’s a yellow ribbon, and it’s the new symbol of public resistance to David Cameron’s vision of a privatised Britain.

Back on track and making my way to the Chopwell Woods car park, I joined hundreds of people on foot, bike and horseback gathered to protest against the Coalition government’s plans – and nearly every person (and dog, and horse) was sporting their own yellow ribbon too.

Filmed by the BBC for news broadcast, the organising spokesperson had to postpone the rally’s beginning as so many people were still trying to get to the clearing. When everyone was in, he began by telling the gathering that it was in response to Thatcher’s plans to try and sell off the forests 20-years-ago that the Friends of Chopwell Woods originally formed.

Chopwell Wood has been managed by the Forestry Commission for over 85 years. “Looking after a forest is a full-time job,” he said. “So why is the government trying to get rid of the Forestry Commission, which does that job‚Äîand does it well‚Äîfor less than 30p each per person per year?”

Chopwell bannerThe Friends of Chopwell Woods organised a fantastic event, with music, clear and friendly stewarding, and tables for people to sign up to the 38 Degrees petition. He made the point that so much work had been done in the Woods by volunteers, alongside the Forestry Commission’s expertise. And he asked: “Would those volunteers want to work for a private owner? Let me tell you: no, they wouldn’t.”

He also made it clear that the focus must be on the Public Bodies Bill, that would give the government the right to sell 100% of the Forestry Commission owned land – without consultation. Both Lib Dems and Conservative representatives were invited to speak – and to hear what people thought. Both declined.

A number of speakers addressed the crowd. Andy Redfearn from the Green Party suggested we should take a lesson from the Egyptians, and take to the streets against not just these cuts, but all the planned cuts (that got a huge roar from the crowd).

Ian Everard from the Forestry Commission Union and Gateshead Councillor Michael McNestry both spoke. McNestry was a local who had grown up next to Chopwell. “These woods were my playground, my education,” he told the crowd, many of them locals. “I’m old enough to remember Thatcher, and I can’t believe the current government are stooping ever lower than what she did.”

“It’s not a public consultation, it’s a public confirmation,” David Turnbull from the Ramblers told the crowd. “They’re not asking whether we want to sell forests or not. It’s like asking a condemned man where he wants to get shot, but he’s still going to get shot.”

chopwell ribbonTurnbull repeated the point that the Friends of Chopwell Wood speaker made: that private owners won’t work to care or support the forests. And even if they do, they will have to change people for access to pay for it.

But the biggest cheer was saved for local Labour MP for Blaydon David Anderson. He wanted to express his deep anger with the plans to sell off Chopwell, and all England’s forests, and he made his point clearly: “Our forests must stay in public hands.”

No-one disagreed.