Coalition plans for a £250m sell-off of England's public forests have survived a Parliamentary challenge as Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman insisted that ancient woodland would be protected and access to forestry areas safeguarded
Under proposals now out for consultation, commercially-valuable forests would be sold under 150-year leases, allowing the Government to impose conditions on timber companies to protect public access and maintain management standards.
A Labour motion urging a rethink of the proposals was defeated by 50 votes in the Commons on 2 February. Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh had described the Government’s scheme “environmental vandalism".
Spelman accused Labour of scaremongering and told Parliament: “we will make sure that public access is maintained and biodiversity protected…If there is no suitable buyer then the woodland will remain in public ownership."
Ministers expect the leasehold sales of up to half the public estate could raise between £140m and £250m.
The administration’s plans for the future of the 18 per cent of England's woodlands currently in public ownership also include moves to give communities, civil society and even local authorities the right to buy or lease forests. The National Trust has already signalled it is keen to be involved in moves to provide public forests with a secure future.
Under the proposals heritage woodlands, such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest, would be transferred into the ownership of a new charity or existing charities, which would receive funding from the Government. These areas would continue to be managed “in the interests of the nation”, the Government has stressed.
Officials from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have emphasised that the plan to sell commercial woodland to timber firms on a leasehold rather than freehold basis would allow them to impose conditions, including ensuring continued access for the public on bikes and horses.
The Government has said that its plans aim to end the "conflict of interests" in which the Forestry Commission is both regulator of the timber industry and the sector's biggest player.
The commission in England will keep its position as regulator and maintain research and advisory roles, as well as focusing on improving and expanding woodland resources, planting trees and protecting forests against climate change.
3 February 2011