Caroline Spelman issued an extraordinary apology yesterday as she scrapped plans to sell off England's forests, telling MPs: "I'm sorry, we got this one wrong." The Environment Secretary's act of public contrition helped to calm the political storm the Government provoked with its controversial scheme to offload 637,000 acres of woodlands from public ownership. Tory MPs, who had joined a national protest campaign that united countryside groups and all shades of political opinion, rallied around the embattled minister as she confirmed the policy U-turn.
Just 24 hours after David Cameron condemned the sell-off plans, she said she was halting the public consultation into the scheme, which had been due to run for another nine weeks, and was setting up an expert panel to look into forestry policy. She told the Commons: "I am doing so because it is clear from the early responses to the consultation that the public and many MPs are not happy with the proposals we set out."
Ms Spelman, who said she took full responsibility for the bungled scheme, received Mr Cameron's backing yesterday as Downing Street said he had full confidence in her and that she had not offered to resign. She was supported on the Government front bench by several senior ministers, including the Chancellor, George Osborne. Ms Spelman said the retreat, and her Commons appearance to announce it, was "not a question of humiliation – it is my choice". She added: "Humility is a good quality in a politician."
Mr Cameron, speaking yesterday as he launched the Government's welfare reform plans, said: "If you launch a policy consultation and you get a very strong and clear response, it is the right thing to do to be a listening government and respond to that."
But in a strongly worded onslaught on the Government, Mary Creagh, the shadow Environment Secretary, said: "The air is filled with the sound of chickens coming home to roost. The Secretary of State has discovered that her first priority – delivering the 30 per cent cut which she inflicted on her department – has a hefty political price attached to it.
"Half a million people have marched, mountain-biked and petitioned against her sale of the century. They objected to the once-in-a-lifetime offer to buy something that they already collectively own."
Under the plans, up to £250m would have been raised by selling the leaseholds for commercially valuable forests to timber companies, while charities and local authorities would have been allowed to take over woodland. Well-known "heritage" woods, such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, would have been transferred into the hands of charities.
There were warnings last night, though, that the fight to save England's woodlands was not over. Campaigners in the Forest of Dean said they would still be seeking guarantees that their woods would remain publicly owned and managed. The union Prospect said that even with the U-turn, the Forestry Commission's role was compromised by more than 400 job losses announced earlier this month.
The Woodland Trust warned better protection was needed for ancient woodlands, which are already under threat from development and planning reform, and the RSPB urged the Government to restore habitats damaged by conifer plantations.
Essay competition details
The future of our forests is a more relevant question than ever now, and we remind readers of our £5,000 essay competition announced yesterday.
How to enter Write an essay of between 1,500 and 2,000 words on the subject of "The Future of England's Forests". Email your entry to email@example.com by midnight on 25 March 2011.
The prize A prize of £5,000 will be awarded to the writer of the essay which the judging panel considers the best.
The judges The judging panel will comprise Michael McCarthy, The Independent's environment editor; Oliver Rackham, academic and author of such works as The History of the Countryside and Woodlands; and Tony Juniper, former director of Friends of the Earth and senior executive at the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership. The judges' decision is final on all matters. No correspondence will be entered into.
Notification and publication The winner will be notified by email before 18 April. The winning entry will be published in The Independent (subject to meeting editorial standards).
Terms and conditions For general terms and conditions see www.independent.co.uk/legal