A hit, a very palpable hit – To The North… (Hit the North review)

It was that time again. Indeed, it seemed to come round a whole lot sooner than it ought to have done. And, there it was. The North staring me right in the eyes and egging me on.

Yet again, The North was to be found in the depths of an unsanitised mess of filth and foliage in Prestwich – http://www.hitthenorth.net

I’d managed to avoid incurring the wrath of The North by diverting my gaze and pretending I wasn’t going to be that bothered about where I finished, so long as this time I finished. There has always been a draw about a race, an event, no, a neo-insitution so close to home, and yet my experiences have been, at best, varied. And mainly unpleasant and unpleasureable. 

This time was going to be different. Obviously, or why would I have decided to enlist a 30 year old road bike badly converted into a singlespeed cross bike with a 54 inch gear? Somehow, the inevitable and simultaneous collapse of legs and lungs would excuse the sort of achievement I secretly dream of. The reason, in many ways, why I don’t race more – I hate to be disappointed with my mediocrity.

The foil to success:

Project SS CX

But this was not enough to encourage me to stay away, to stand clear of The North’s filthy temper and phlegm of flowing, slurried death-stinking mud. Sign on duly completed, it seemed perverse to bother with a warm up and, when presented with The Field and The Hill, it seemed only sensible to return to the comfort of a swift zip on some tarmac and a chat with long lost comrades. 

There is little worth saying about the detail of the race itself. One gear was no use on the flat, hard uphill and unrequired on the downhills, where the brakes only enhanced the speed and terror of the mud-slide descents. A chat here and there with marshalls, and self surprise at what could be ridden faster than billion-geared stormtroopers with their backpacks, lightsabres and invivible-ink head to toe black. 

Not every climb could be ridden, so onto foot and the seizure of long abused back muscles. What the hell.  But lots was ridden and occasionally I looked like I knew what I was doing. The camera knows how to lie:


A quid a shot to Moutain Rescue please

But, the proof, as always, in whether you’d eat that that restaurant again. And, in spite of the surefire risk of dystentry from mud so thick and stagnant, and a near universal unwillingness to avoid any of it. Yeah, I’ll be back. Probably on the same unsuitable iron, with the same shit-eating grin from having a wholelottafun in a filthy park in north Manchester. 

You better watch out, The North. Stand still too long and I might just hit you back. 

Hit the north 2011 - Tom F


A good night’s sleep (that’s what I dream of)

I sleep terribly. That’s not to say I spend long, dark hours alone and staring at nothing. Instead, I go to bed shattered (especially after some days commuting by bike) and fall asleep quickly and heavily. 

The duvet feels like a dead weight. It bunches between me and her, forcing a divide and solitude. The mattress feels hard, too soft, lumpen and pan flat. The pillows bunch and tip my head forward or sideways or not sideways enough or too far back. 

I wake regularly and sharply, dragged from sleep by terrifying dreams and the most vividly unpleasant sights behind my eyelids. Turning over does nothing to bring calm. And then I notice the back of my head and neck are numb.

Morning arrives before the alarm clock, but the weight of deep sleep drags my eyes closed and makes me fear rising. Eventiually, I concede to the incessant shrieking of the alarm and lie there wishing it were night again. 

I rise, exhausted, and often late. Dressing to ride or showering before the irregular drive, I feel the pressure of time. The clock is ticking and I can’t dawdle. 

I spend all my time daydreaming of sleep peacuful and calm.

A (belated) response from my MP – the forest sell off

After my previous post on the forest sell-off proposals, where I challenged him (a Lib Dem MP of an urban constituency), he has responded. I print his reply in full below. Lengthy, but I promised to print it, and I think it’s useful to record the attitudes of a government MP. Accountability is essential.

Dear [ourmaninthenorth],

Thank you for taking the trouble to contact me in relation to the future of the Public Estate. I apologise for the delay in my response, this is due to the large volume of emails I received on the subject.

I am sure you will know  of the recent announcements by Caroline Spelman, regarding the consultation regarding the future of the public estate. Due to the public response, plans for the sale of woodland have now been put on hold. There has certainly been a strong response from the constituency and I have taken on board the views of everyone that has contacted me.

I was able to attend the vote on the 2nd February and was pleased to have a chance to speak in the House. I have attached a transcript of my speech in that debate to this email below.

You are probably aware this was not actually a vote to implement any of the proposals set out by Defra, but a vote of opposition brought forward by the Labour party. They simply chose to try to score some cheap political points by bringing forward an opposition day motion to grab the headlines, rather than take part in the consultation constructively. I believe they have purposely promoted many of the myths surrounding this issue which I think is too important to manipulate. This is why I did not vote with them.

But this does not mean that I fully supported the measures included in the consultation document. This issue is far too important to fall victim to misinformation that all the woodland will be sold off, lost and developed on. This was not the case. However I do want to see much more detail in the regulation safeguarding this land. In terms of logging companies, only areas already used for timber production would have been made available to them, but with strict rules regarding the rights of access.

Personally I would never support the sell off or leasing of woodland if it would be detrimental to the long term sustainability of the woodland, its biodiversity and would threaten the access that people have enjoyed over a long period of time.

I think the debate should not be solely about who owns the land, but what is best for each individual forest decided on a case by case basis. If it is clear in any instance that it would be safer under public ownership then it should remain that way.

That said, I think there are many different examples of private ownership being beneficial. This includes the local example I referred to in my speech, but also the many community groups and conservation charities throughout the country. These would all be considered private owners but have done enormous amounts of good work for us as well as the natural environment.

As you can see, I asked what measures would have been in place to protect our woodland so no biodiversity or access is lost. Furthermore I wanted to know what pro-active measures would be put in place. These are necessary so that whoever owns the land is compelled to improve access and habitat. I also asked about the proposed lifetime of any safeguards put in place.

I also shared your concerns that there is not a solid financial case for this. The Forestry Commission would quite rightly be there to help new owners, but this will be an ongoing financial burden for the Commission after it has sold its lucrative property. I think any new scheme should be economically sustainable.

Thank you again for contacting me on this subject. I will certainly continue to stress my view to my colleagues. The response has certainly been strong and is an issue I feel passionately about and will fight for. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any more thoughts on this issue, or any other.

Yours sincerely,


My speech:
(For the Hansard transcript including all interventions please go to: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110202/debtext/110202-0003.htm)

I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in the debate. Although my constituency may not be the most directly affected by the proposals to sell off or lease woodland currently owned by the state, the issue has attracted considerable interest among hundreds of my constituents who are rightly concerned about the impact that such a sale might have. There is little doubt that there has been much speculation, and even scaremongering, about what may or may not happen to public forests. I have received hundreds of e-mails from constituents, some of whom have been led to believe that whole swathes of woodland will be razed to the ground to make way for housing developments, golf courses and leisure clubs.

Other constituents have sent e-mails suggesting that forests are going to be closed off to the public and surrounded by 10-foot fences, but that is clearly not the case. Unfortunately, the Labour party has been complicit in this misinformation and shameless in its attempts to scare people into believing that the future of our forests is under threat. Instead of participating constructively in the consultation on the future of our woodland, Labour Members simply choose to try to score cheap political points by tabling an Opposition day motion to grab the headlines. That is why I certainly will not be voting for Labour’s motion and why I will support the Government’s amendment, which exposes the disgraceful sell-off of thousands of acres of public woodland by the previous Labour Government without any of the protection being put in place and promised under the coalition Government’s consultation. However, I wish to go on record as welcoming the measured comments made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about staff at the Forestry Commission, which should be added to the consultation process.

I will never support the sell-off or leasing of woodland if I think that it will be detrimental to the long-term sustainability of the woodland and its biodiversity, and will threaten the access that people have enjoyed over a long period. What better safeguards will Minister’s introduce to protect the land and access to it compared with those that we already have? These forests will outlive all of us in this Chamber today and the public want to know how long these safeguards will be in place. Can I be assured that, whichever organisation might take on the running of a public forest, these safeguards will remain in place for not only our lifetime, but centuries to come?

Guaranteeing the future of the woodland is important, but so, too, is the guardianship of that land in the meantime. There is a real fear that the trend to improve the forests will fade over time. What assurances can the Minister give that the woodland will not just be maintained as it is and that the new owners will be compelled to improve both access and the natural habitat? The public estate enjoys 40 million visits a year, a quarter of it is dedicated as a site of special scientific interest and it hosts a wealth of biodiversity. None of those things should be under threat, and they must flourish under this coalition Government.

One of the big unanswered questions is whether or not the private ownership or leasing of forest land will make the savings that the Government anticipate. I am not convinced that these proposals will save any money; they may end up leaving the Government with a bigger bill to maintain the forests, because the sale or lease of commercially attractive forests will mean that their revenue is no longer available to subsidise the running of heritage and other loss-making forests. That was the only sensible point made by the shadow Secretary of State.

I do not think we should be too precious about the model of ownership of our forests. The previous Government could not be trusted to safeguard the future of the public forests that have been sold off in the past 13 years. It is certainly not the case that the forests would be safer in Labour hands. Many might argue that the future of the forests would be more certain if they were run and managed by organisations such as the Woodland Trust or the National Trust. It is not the model of ownership that we should be precious about but the people, including the staff, and the organisations that might run the forests.

In my constituency, after the previous Labour Government closed my local hospital, Withington hospital, Paupers wood on that site was put up for sale. Like many others, I expressed grave concerns about what that might mean for the future of that relatively small piece of woodland. However, the sale of that land to one of my constituents, Mary, resulted in enormous benefit for the community. That area of woodland, which had not been maintained for years and had been inaccessible to local people, is now available for local community groups to enjoy and for schools to use for outdoor classrooms. The woodland is well managed and is now sustainable for the future. That would not have happened without that sale. It is not simply a case of public ownership being good and private ownership being bad. This debate should be about what is best for individual woodlands and communities and about securing the future of our forests for generations to come.

A letter to my MP – why I don’t want him to vote for the forest sell-off

Set out below is the text of an email I have just sent to my MP, a Liberal Democrat in one of the country’s most marginal constituencies, asking why he voted in favour of the forest sell-off and requesting he reconsider. Any response will be published here. 

Dear Mr L

I am writing to you to ask why you voted against the motion calling on the government to rethink its plan to privatise our woodlands.

I’m sure you’re aware of the huge campaign across the country to stop these proposals. I saw a poll that said 84% of the British people want to keep our woodlands in public ownership.

As city dwellers, we are all too aware of the restricted access we have to green spaces, and the proposals by the current Government to dispose – at no cost advantage to the nation – on long leases (the legal equivalent of a full disposal of title) of England’s woodlands and forests is a dangerous and undemocratic move. Nowhere in either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat General Election manifestos was there any mention of such an activity, and neither is this a part of the Coalition Agreement. And, as there is no cost advantage, it is evident that this is unconnected with the Government’s desire to reduce the UK’s budget deficit.

The only persons who will benefit will be logging companies, whose sole interests will be profit and not the protection of our arboreal spaces. Further, the permissive access enjoyed by so many seems to be under direct threat. The proposals suggesting that community groups may buy woodlands at an open market price is laughable – a government that has at its heart the wholesale destruction of the livelihoods of so many of its ordinary people (those whom make up a significant proportion of your constituency) surely cannot consider this to be a realistic proposal; it is evident that it will only benefit the already wealthy and those immune from the draconian measures of the Coalition Government.

Given the Liberal Democrats’ usual stance of protection of the environment and the advantageous position your party finds itself in as the clear check and balance of a minority Conservative government, this seems to be a particularly regressive step.

I hope that you will not be swayed by whip-lead voting, and will reconsider your position. You have (from a separate organisation) been previously recognised as Parliamentarian of the year. Please do not forget this accolade when voting on an issue so close to the heart of so many people in England: the protection of our national assets. 

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,