Lib Dem MPs threaten rebellion over forests sale

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The Independent Online

Liberal Democrat MPs are threatening to rebel against controversial plans by the Government to sell off part of England's forests, which will be announced today.

On the day that Nick Clegg defused a potential Liberal Democrat revolt over control orders for terrorist suspects, some of his MPs revealed they will not support proposals to sell up to three-quarters of the land owned by the Forestry Commission.

Caroline Spelman, Environment Secretary, will try to reassure them when she publishes a consultation paper outlining the Government's options. She will insist that "heritage" land such as the New Forest and Forest of Dean, which accounts for about a quarter of the estate, would not be privatised, restricting any sell-offs to "commercial" land.

Ms Spelman will also promise to include safeguards in any sales so that public access to the land, wildlife and biodiversity are all protected. State-owned forests may be leased rather than sold freehold so that strict conditions can be attached.

Tim Farron, president of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale in Cumbria, warns in a Commons motion about the sale: "The value the Exchequer would gain from the sale of these forests would be outweighed by the long-term environmental, landscape and economic costs."

He acknowledged that Ms Spelman's options were limited as she sought budget cuts in her department of 25 per cent over four years, but urged her to consider other ideas – such as transferring ownership to groups such as the Wildlife Trust and the RSPCA.

He said: "There must be ways that the Government can save money during these desperate times as well as saving our forests. It is vital that we avoid making short-term decisions... We must not throw away a national asset."