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Environment Secretary under fire over forest sale

The Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman came under fire from MPs in all parties yesterday as she defended her controversial plans to sell off England's public forests. Ministers admitted privately that they had not explained it properly and were being inundated with protest letters and emails. More than 360,000 people have signed a "save our forests" petition.

David Cameron promised during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, to listen to critics of the proposal.

Desmond Swayne, Mr Cameron's parliamentary aide and MP for New Forest West, who backs the sell-off, said that it had "unleashed a torrent of hostile emails". He added: "It is as if the Government was planning to sell and fell every tree in the land in order to adulterate the people's strawberry jam with wooden pips."

Ms Spelman came out fighting in a Commons debate called by Labour. She blamed the public outcry on "ludicrous speculation" in the media and "scaremongering" by Labour, accusing the Opposition of "synthetic rage," "self-righteous indignation" and "hypocrisy" because the previous Government had similar proposals for a sell-off of Forestry Commission land. Labour insisted the idea had been dropped because of public hostility and the cost.

The Environment Secretary insisted that only 18 per cent of England's woodlands would be affected. She promised that ministers would approve sell-offs only if public access and biodiversity were safeguarded. "We are not going to accept second best," she said.

But doubts were expressed by Tory MPs with woodland in their constituencies. Julian Lewis, who represents New Forest East, queried plans to hand "heritage forests" such as the New Forest and Forest of Dean to charitable groups, saying charities would not be able to shoulder the cost.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president, said there was a "lack of clarity" in the Government's plans. He asked Ms Spelman to rule out selling forests in national parks.

Mary Creagh, the shadow Environment Secretary, attacked what she called the "sale of the century," saying: "People are furious at the environmental vandalism. The Government's impact assessment shows us that it is economic madness too. If you sell the commercial timberlands, you starve the ancient woodlands. The true value of England's forests can never be measured in the price the Government gets from selling them."

Mr Cameron suggested the proposals could be changed after a consultation exercise but aides denied he was signalling a U-turn. He told MPs at Prime Minister's Questions: "Is it the case that there are organisations like the Woodland Trust, like the National Trust that could do a better job than the Forestry Commission? I believe yes there are."