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Outcry in the east over forest sell-off plan

Deborah McGurran | 23:27 UK time, Thursday, 27 January 2011

Thetford Forest

The consultation is only a few hours old but already a lot of people in the eastern counties appear unhappy about the proposal for the government to take a step back from managing our forests.

Campaign groups are being formed, MPs are being lobbied and marches planned.

Out of 350 text messages sent to a Radio Norfolk phone-in on the issue, all but four were against the idea of putting forests into private hands.

MPs from the region say the issue has dominated their emails and postbags for the last week and they've been taken aback at the strength of public outrage.

"We didn't see this one coming," said one. "People are genuinely angry."

"This reminds me of the row over NATS," said another, referring to the plans by the National Air Traffic Service to redraw the approach routes to Stansted and Luton airports, which provoked enormous anger. The plans were eventually dropped.

"Every once in a while an issue comes along that really takes politicians by surprise," says Ian Waddell, the rural officer of the Unite union. "It's a touchstone issue for people. They feel very passionate about their forests and I think politicians would be really stupid to ignore the level of protests."

Forests feature heavily in the landscape of the east. There are 70,000 acres of Forestry Commission land in the region. By far the largest is Thetford Forest in Norfolk (40,000 acres), the other large areas of woodland are Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire (6,750 acres) and Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk (3,750 acres).

The government has been stressing that this is only a consultation and that even if land is handed over to the private sector it would only be on a lease, and public access, biodiversity and protection from development would be safeguarded.

"I live near Thetford Forest and I know what it's like and how popular it is with the public," said Environment Minister James Paice, the Cambridgeshire MP.

"We will protect all rights of access, public benefits, biodiversity through whatever form of transfer or terms of lease that we commit ourselves to."

But many people don't seem to be reassured.

"The government has guaranteed access on foot but we've had no guarantees about access for other users like horseriders, people who orienteer, husky racers," says Anne Mason from Friends of Thetford Forest. "The Forestry Commission also provided for disabled access, we have no guarantees that any other owner would do that."

"Ancient woodland is the UK's equivalent of the rainforest. New, tougher safeguards must be in place for our oldest and most iconic woods before any 'For Sale' signs are erected," says Sue Holden, chief executive of the Woodland Trust.

Labour is also joining in. Richard Howitt, an MEP for the East, is urging people to take part in the consultation declaring that there are "12 weeks to save Thetford Forest".

"A short-term dash for cash threatens public access to the forest, an end to high standards of environmental stewardship and European-level protected habitats for rare birds," he says. "We have to force the government to accept keeping Forestry Commission ownership means keeping public forests in public control."

MPs we've spoken to seem convinced by Mr Paice's assurances. But it seems a lot of the public still need to be won over.

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