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This green and private land: 637,000 acres of woodland up for sale

Government unveils controversial plan to raise £250m

England's public forests are to be sold off to the private sector for up to £250m, the Government announced yesterday in one of its most contentious policy decisions.

In a move squarely driven by the ideology of the Conservative "Big Society" agenda, most of the 637,000 acres of state-owned woodland in England, owned and maintained by the Forestry Commission, is to be sold off over the next decade, despite an angry campaign of opposition and a recent poll showing 84 per cent of the public are firmly against the idea.

However, the announcement, made by the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, showed signs of alarm in Whitehall at the antagonism which has been aroused. The Government appeared to be bending over backwards to appease its critics by stressing that a series of safeguards would be built into the process, to ensure continued free public access, good management and wildlife protection in woodlands that were privatised.

Under proposals put out for public consultation, commercially valuable forests would not be sold freehold, but would be leased under 150-year contracts, which would allow the Government to impose stricter conditions on timber companies taking them over. Communities, civil society and even local authorities would also be given the right to buy or lease forests.

In the biggest olive branch of all, a new category of "heritage forests" – specifically, the New Forest in Hampshire and the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire – would not be sold off, but would be handed to a conservation charity, if one can be found to take them, or a new charity set up for the purpose, which the Government would fund, if no existing body is willing to step in.

The charity the Government would like to take them over is The Woodland Trust, a 230,000-member conservation body which looks after more than 1,000 woodland sites. However, the trust's chief executive, Sue Holden, stressed yesterday that the charity would not be prepared to take on the New Forest and the Forest of Dean unless long-term funding was guaranteed, and ministers addressed the separate issue of preserving ancient woodland, the remnants of England's "greenwood", which are still wildlife-rich. Ancient woodland is not dealt with separately in the consultation.

Announcing the sell-off plan yesterday, which is expected to raise between £140m and £250m and take 10 years to carry out, Mrs Spelman said she hoped that details of the consultation would prove many people's fears unfounded.

"State control of forests dates back to the First World War, when needs were very different," she said. "There's no reason for the Government to be in the business of timber production and forest management. It's time for the Government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England's woodlands to play a much greater role in their future. We want to move from a Big Government approach to a Big Society one."

Asked about the storm of criticism the proposals have aroused, she said: "Well, it hasn't been easy, because a lot of it has been wildly inaccurate, and that has caused a great deal of public consternation." Mrs Spelman said ministers would "make sure that public access is maintained and biodiversity protected" in woodlands which were sold, and to this end, the Public Bodies Bill going through Parliament would be amended to give the Government extra powers over their sale, lease and management.

However, her reassurances met with a mixed reception yesterday. "We are pleased that ministers have stated that our forests will not be chopped down for housing development or conversion into golf courses," said Ben Stafford, of The Campaign to Protect Rural England. "But the public will need much stronger assurances about the future of England's forests, and cast-iron guarantees that future generations will be able to enjoy and have access to the same wooded landscapes and wildlife that we know today."

RSPB conservation director Mark Avery said: "We remain open-minded about these proposals – but we need to be reassured that whoever manages former state-run forests, whether private individuals, companies, leaseholders or trusts and charities, will protect our native wildlife. The Forestry Commission needs to regulate and oversee this management by providing the right support and advice, otherwise this looks like Government offloading its responsibilities to nature."

The Forestry Commission will remain in existence as a research and advisory body, and as a regulator.

What will be sold?

Two very different forests show the varied categories the Government is using in addressing the sell-off, writes Josephine Forster. The New Forest in Hampshire is regarded as a "heritage" forest. It dates back to 1079, when William the Conqueror made it his personal hunting ground. The 145 square miles of ancient woodland, pasture and open heath are unique in southern England for their pristine condition.

The forest's ancient oaks are a national symbol; they were used to build Nelson's Trafalgar fleet and are still sustainably harvested today. The forest is also home to some 3,000 ponies.

By contrast, Kielder Forest in Northumberland is a "commercial" forest, its principal purpose being to produce wood. At 250 square miles, it is England's largest forest and timber producer, providing 25 per cent of our domestic timber, mainly from imported Sitka spruce and Norway spruce, which account for 84 per cent of the forest's trees.

While Kielder may seem appropriate for commercial categorisation, it will require painstaking management, as it is home to 70 per cent of the UK's endangered red squirrels, driven to extinction in most of southern England, and shelters recovering populations of otters, ospreys and goshawks.