Lessons for the Government to learn from the forests fiasco as the sell-off is put on hold
By Jonathan Isaby
I regularly ask Conservative MPs what issues are preoccupying them as they go about their business. And over the last few weeks the answer which has come back almost to a man and woman has been: "Forests".
Most MPs have each been receiving literally hundreds of emails and letters each week protesting against the possible sell-off of state owned-forests, with a very well organised campaign against changing their status having help create that deluge of mail.
And this morning Caroline Spelman has signalled at least a partial retreat on the plans, issuing a statement indicating that she is putting the proposed sale of 15% of England's publicly-owned forests announced in last year's Spending Review on hold. This will allow for the criteria for selling them to be re-examined, incluing a review that will "significantly" strengthen the protections given to the woodlands:
"In light of the Government commitment to increase protection for access and public benefit in our woodlands, the criteria for these sales will be reviewed so that protections are significantly strengthened following the inadequate measures that were applied to sales under the previous administration. Pending this review, no individual woodland site will be put on the market."
There have been differences of opinion on the Tory benches on the issue: some agree that there is a perfectly good case to be made for much of what Defra has been wanting to do; whilst others believe that the status quo should be maintained.
But whatever their view on the substance of the matter, they are united on one thing: that the whole issue has been monumentally badly handled by the Government.
So what lessons ought to be learnt for the future from what I would term the "forests fiasco"?
Here are some thoughts as to how similar questions might be handled better in the future, based on a large number of conversations with Tory MPs over the last few days.
Ministers and advisers need to be asking themselves more thoroughly whether a move is politically wise and worth making. This is an area where David Cameron's reduction in the number of special advisers is widely felt to have backfired. In terms of this current row, the question being asked by many backbenchers is: Is it really worth all the political hassle and potential loss of support from usually friendly quarters for a saving which over a decade may be equivalent to paying for a couple of days' interest payments? The backbenchers point out that much is being demanded of them and that the Government should be picking its most difficult moves carefully.
Make the case that there is a problem needing to be addressed before talking about solutions
If the decision is made to proceed with an idea, the wider public needs to be persuaded that there is something at fault or an unreliable system in place etc before there is talk of introducing new ways of doing things. People need to be persuaded that something is broke before they can be convinced that a fix is required. This simply did not happen over forests.
Work to get interest groups on board before the debate goes public
If there is something broke and in need of being fixed, then there will surely be some relevant interest groups who can be persuaded to support the fix from the off. For example, the National Trust struck me as an obvious potential beneficiary if some forest land was to be sold, since the Trust is already supported by millions of people and is already trusted to successfully manage 254,000 hectares of countryside. Yet, as this statement put out a few days ago shows, the Trust had been given no warning of what was on the cards and as a result came out fighting to "save the forests".
Anticipate your opposition; prebut their accusations; then rebut them
It is vital to develop a narrative for your case to get out into the media before your opposition does the same and again, this simply did not happen over forests. I gather that Defra ministers were sensitive to the potential accusation of making announcements through the media rather than to Parliament - but when wild accusations are being thrown around the media about your intentions, they simply have to be rebutted. I hear that there have been times on the forests issue when the media have been told that old chestnut that "a minister was unavailable for comment." How badly does that weaken your cause? Again, there ought to be much activity on the part of ministers and their aides in putting the case behind the scenes to the media and other interested groups.
Ministers must not take out their frustration on powerless backbenchers
One of the biggest negatives reported to me about the Defra ministerial team over forests has been the way in which they handled backbenchers who had been deluged by constituents with concerns. Rather than admitting in private that mistakes might have been made and dealing sensitively with colleagues seeing their small majorities vanishing before their eyes, some new MPs were left to feel that they were somehow in the wrong for raising the issue, let alone expressing the concerns of hundreds of constituents.
In short, it's about being good at politics, persuasion and communication.