UK government surrenders over sale of forests

The Government has been forced into a humiliating U-turn as it scrapped controversial plans to privatise England’s public forests.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told MPs “I am sorry, we got this one wrong” as she abandoned plans to offload England’s public forest estate to companies, communities and charities.

The Commons was told she was halting the public consultation into the future of the 258,000-hectare estate, just 24 hours after David Cameron admitted he was unhappy with the plans at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Downing Street insisted Mr Cameron had full confidence in Ms Spelman, and she had not offered to resign over the issue. She told MPs she and the Prime Minister had made the decision together to abandon the plans.

Ms Spelman said she took full responsibility for the situation over the proposals, which prompted an outcry when they were published at the end of January.

She said she was removing powers that would have allowed the measures to go ahead from the Public Bodies Bill currently going through Parliament, and setting up an independent expert panel to look into future forestry policy.

The U-turn on the plans to dispose of England’s public forest estate, which is currently managed by the Forestry Commission, was hailed as a victory for “people power”, but campaigners warned the battle to protect England’s woodlands is not over.

The plans included a £250 million sale of leaseholds for commercially valuable forests to timber companies, measures to allow communities, charities and even local authorities to buy or lease woods and plans to transfer well-known “heritage” woods such as the New Forest into the hands of charities.

Protests were held in well-loved forests around the country, and campaign group 38 Degrees started a Save Our Forests petition which attracted more than 532,000 signatures, with organisers hailing the about turn as a result for “people power”.

But despite jubilation from campaigners, there were warnings that the fight to save England’s woods was not over. Campaigners in the Forest of Dean said they would still be seeking cast iron guarantees their woods would remain publicly owned and managed and the Forestry Commission would be strengthened – not weakened by job losses – to continue its role looking after the forest.
Source: Press Association

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