Why the European Landscape Convention should be included in the debate re the future of UK forestry.

Following on from the comments thread on Gabriel Hemery’s blog and also in answer to others’ asking similar questions as to why I and many others feel the European Landscape Convention (ELC) is such an important issue for UK forestry, asides from the more general examples of its implementation, I hope to be able to explain how ELC ideals and also how land management policies from a French / European angle would allow for a giant leap forward for UK forestry but the material to convey is simply far too much for a ‘blog’ such as this. But the ELC is perhaps the answer to the future of all UK forestry policy making in terms of assuring Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) and it can be argued that the ELC, whilst recognised, is a long way from implementation of the ideals and thus far in the UK has been little more than a tool to place further value on ‘beautiful rural landscapes’ rather than the English Landscape as a whole.

Whilst the Forestry Commission have already published their ELC strategy: http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/Images/Forestry-Commission-elc-action-plan_tcm6-23574.pdf , there is no evidence at all that the forestry panel are to contemplate let alone promote the ELC.

Landscape can and should be used as the all embracing definition for the full integration of every single element of land management, natural / cultural heritage and rural / urban social sciences in an external setting.

But there is a problem; the acronym loving UK system, in play in all terms of landscape management and issues contains some who struggle to relinquish power they have gained to what I have heard referred as the lowest common denominator – the public and the practitioners. The ongoing fear that finances will be at risk has created protectionist mentalities within many organisations and many individuals, from Central & Local Government, Quango’s, NGOs and Large Businesses.

The European Landscape Convention, ratified by the UK government in 2006 can be read here: http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/en/Treaties/Html/176.htm

The ideals of the ELC match those of ‘big society’, they fit all modern thinking re governance as well as Teeb ideals, they allow for the integration of all sciences involved as well as all stakeholders including the most important of all – everyone.

There are many variables to consider, although the psyche of the average member of public / practitioner in different countries is often stated as the biggest block to following case study from abroad is I believe irrelevant and any statements by profiteering stakeholders (including the NGOs) referring to the psyche of the English in terms of connections with their landscape and elements contained within it should be ignored.

The ELC approach starts at the bottom, as any policy making or management planning needs to commence with those to whom the landscape belongs – everyone.

The habitual whining from many media sources and their readership in England when anything is published let alone ratified born from a European source continues to wrongly influence many. Any criticism from such sources with regards to the ELC can be duly ignored based on the following:

The European Landscape Convention is based on the fact that the European continent is in regards all earth and social sciences on a parallel, what happens in one country effects all. Europe is small, with many small countries and fragmented populations, we simply cannot ignore the fact that the boundaries are too difficult to police against natural threats, let alone climate change particularly when all landscape issues remain at the ‘bottom of funding concerns’, whilst at the same time the very rich cultural heritage of Europe resulting from the myriad of languages and cultures is a source of huge financial concern, if not more than via the tourists’ wallet.

Secondly, for any Briton believing that the ELC is text drawn up by a gravy train passenger based abroad, it is important to remember that the principles of the ELC had a very strong UK voice and input throughout its conception.

The so called ‘antiquarian’ planning system in England in fact held many ideals of the ELC within it. Additions and tinkering with planning has resulted in red tape which hide these ideals but recent moves to ‘simplify’ the UK planning system have tended to concentrate on breaking the original ideals rather than the additions installed by a desire to control the system to a particular advantage – which has been for a long time the development sector and will clearly remain so for a while.

Consultation which begins with the public within the immediate landscape and then proceeds to explore each independent variable within a landscape is the only way forward. There will be many in the UK, working for Central and Local Government, Quangos, NGOs and industry who will claim this to be the case in the UK at present, the current call for input from all to the forestry panel is a classic example. But the truth is that this is nothing more than a token gesture, an easily manipulated exercise, which can do little more than highlight axioms which are no longer needed due to the fact the ELC has been ratified and has already absorbed all historical and recent commentary about peoples’ connection with their landscape into its text. Therefore the forestry panel is nothing more than a stalling instrument, enabling repositioning for good or evil to further profiteering.

This is therefore where the UK falls down and seems unable to proceed alongside its European neighbours in terms of implementation of the ELC. In France and most other European countries the landscape simply belongs to people, all stakeholders take this fact on board.

The paradox of the existence of the forestry panel is difficult to explain abroad – why with a government who so desire ‘big society’ should the future of an element of the landscape be decided in closed door meetings, with only large land owning or national NGO stakeholders stating what they want from a landscape that does not belong to them? Why when social media, which helped so effectively in displaying the dissent at the possible sales of public forests then be virtually ignored and not embraced in trying to find a solution suitable for all? Why and indeed how have landscape issues been pigeonholed to an extent where they are now seen as a separate new ‘wing’ within land management, leading to more designations and more organisations (as well as the obligatory muscling in by incumbent NGOs seeking to expand their power, sorry resource, base)?

The most bizarre paradox of all is that with necessary cuts, the decision to further fragment (by increasing the coverage of representatives, centralising and moving offices) the government are culpable of damaging the already fragile links for big society engagement with civil service. If anyone, as many do, need professional help, that help should be found within their community contained within their landscape. Empower the practitioners further and there becomes a safety net to ensure the safe and complete transition into full sustainable land and forest management.

This of course how it is played out in many European countries. Taking the threats from this years drought as an example: There were fears that it would be as bad as 2003, innovation by locals during 2003 saw many systems of water management introduced, from Heath Robinson contraptions through to the most simplistic of solutions.  Academic study was added to the melange and subsequently associations and organisations did little more than promote these ideas beyond the local community and the result was that all could benefit from a host of local / peripheral knowledge, thus this year the old sage on his allotment plot was one of the true heros in enabling France to cope relatively well with what could well have been the worst drought it had ever experienced. Furthermore in terms of French woodland management the hunt is a key player. It helps to conserve and protect the woodland. In the UK the hunts face harsh opposition and the population are one that shirk from eating squirrels, rabbits and even deer. The solution is easy – the growing leisure pursuit of ‘bushcraft’ should be supported further and embraced by private landowners, a new generation of wannabe Ray Mears, will happily munch their way through the ever growing population of mammals posing a threat to new trees as well as conserving and re establishing traditional crafts and knowledge.

We need to see full and transparent policy making, thus leading to locally interested people to come forward and represent their interests rather than their objections, the latter always leading to financial waste.

We need to see all organisations, (and there are so many good examples to choose from), representing members interests being used alongside local people at all ‘events’ concerning a landscape.

We need to see systems in place to halt the current ‘head above the parapet’ situation when a practitioner or private landowner seeks to further sustainable management on their land. The current situation simply leads to a mistrust of all Quangos’ and NGOs’ who seem unable to agree with each other and for someone like myself, a private practitioner, it is impossible to justify to a client the need to play host to a series of representatives in their various logo emblazened vehicles and fleeces assuming rights many do not have over other peoples property.

Above all professionals need to accept the fact that those who attended ‘the university of life’ (a term to raise the hackles of many in the industry) have a relevant voice and further, many solutions. It is after all as much, or more so, their landscape than those deemed worthy to manage it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Trees and Woodlands

One response to “Why the European Landscape Convention should be included in the debate re the future of UK forestry.

  1. The UK Government and devolved governments confirmed their continued commitment to the European Landscape Convention in January 2011. This was in response to an open letter sent by an alliance of over 60 organisations and individuals to the UK Government, Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly Government and Northern Ireland Assembly urging them all to reaffirm the nation’s commitment to the European Landscape Convention.

    You can download the open letters and responses from this page:
    http://countryscape.org/elc/letter

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