Ministers halt some forest sales after public outcry

Plans to sell-off state-owned forests have provoked a backlash

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The government has put on hold plans to sell off some English forests - but the main scheme could still go ahead.

Proposals to offload 258,000 hectares run by the Forestry Commission have attracted cross-party criticism and a public outcry.

The planned sale of 15% of state-owned forests will be put on hold, ministers said, as they "re-examine the criteria" for disposing of them.

Labour said it was a "panic measure" and would not silence the protests.

The government is allowed to sell off 15% of England's woodlands in each four year public spending period - and that is what the announcement relates to.

Public access

Ministers say the 15% sale - which will raise an estimated £100m - will still go ahead over the next four years but they wanted to ensure "the necessary protection for all public benefits of the public forest estate are in place".

This feels like a exercise in public reassurance by ministers who know that their proposals to transfer the 1,000 square miles of Forestry Commission land in England to the private and charitable sectors are hugely controversial.

The government is considering privatising all of the Forestry Commission land in England.

There's an on-going public consultation.

There's also legislation before Parliament which would make such a large scale transfer of land possible.

But today's statement refers only to the on-going, smaller scale sell off of Forestry land which began many years ago.

None of this has any immediate impact on the bigger picture.

But it is clearly a message to the public from the government saying: "Your forests are safe in our hands".

It has no impact has on the ongoing consultation on the remaining 85% of the public forest estate, the Department of the Environment stressed.

In a written statement to Parliament, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said the "revised timetable" for the partial sale would give time to consider public concerns about the stewardship of the land concerned and ensure proper safeguards were in place.

"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," she said.

"Pending this review, no individual woodland site will be put on the market."

'Biodiversity'

The BBC's environment correspondent Jeremy Cooke said: "This small-scale sell-off has been going on for many years.

"What the government is saying is that they will not go ahead and sell off this season's 15% of Forestry Commission land until they have brought in legal safeguards to make sure that any land sold is fully protected both for biodiversity and public access."

Start Quote

This is a panic measure by a government which has been spooked by the huge public outcry”

End Quote Mary Creagh Shadow environment secretary

He said the government appeared to be sending out a "political message" that they are serious that legal protections will apply even after sale or lease of Forestry Commission land in the larger privatisation programme, if it goes ahead.

Ministers say they want to "move away" from the state owning and managing large areas of woodland and encourage a "mixed model" of ownership in which a range of groups will have responsibility for forests on a leasehold basis.

But plans announced last month to give the private sector, community and charitable groups greater involvement have caused a fierce backlash, with critics saying it could threaten public access and results in forests being used for unsuitable purposes.

Labour, who have accused ministers of "environmental vandalism", urged ministers to go further and rethink its entire approach to the future of English woodlands.

"This is a panic measure by a government which has been spooked by the huge public outcry," Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh said.

"This partial U-turn will not be enough to silence the protests."

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