Controversial plans to sell off England's public forests were finally abandoned by the Government yesterday after an expert panel called for the 637,000 acres of woodland owned by the Forestry Commission to remain in public ownership.
The panel was set up hastily last year after the initial plan to dispose of the forests and raise £250m brought down an barrage of criticism on the Government. It forced the first major U-turn by the Coalition, with the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, shelving the scheme and publicly apologising for putting it forward in the first place.
Yesterday, minutes after the report was published online, Mrs Spelman said she accepted its main recommendation and that the idea of a forestry sale, one of the first of the Tories' "Big Society" policies, had been given up for good. "Our forests will stay in public hands," she added. "We will not sell the public forest estate. We will be talking to all those who are passionate about our forests to decide how we will manage our forests for the future."
It remains to be seen whether ministers will accept several other major recommendations made by the panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones, which include setting up two new bodies to look after woodlands and increasing the amount of forest cover in Britain.
The panel's report was widely welcomed last night. Hilary Allison, policy director of the Woodland Trust, said the charity was delighted that the Government had confirmed the public forests were safe.
Currently 10 per cent of Britain's land surface is covered by forest. This is one of the lowest percentages of forested land in Europe, where the average is 37 per cent.
The sale of 637,000 acres of Forestry Commission land would have raised about £250m