The Government announced two years ago that it would not privatise the Forestry Commission. Yet 2,680 woods, 46 per cent of the total once owned by the Commission, have been sold off, and many more are due for privatisation over the next four years. Pressure for privatisation from ministers has been largely responsible.
Only 48 woods have been sold with official "access agreements". Almost invariably the new private owners put an end to the Commission's decades- long policy of allowing "freedom to roam" - which 50 million visitors enjoy each year.
The figures, which have never been made public before, are at variance with official statements that only 10 per cent of the area of Commission woodland has been privatised. The reason is that the Commission has kept big forests and concentrated sales on smaller woods - precisely those which are generally most precious to the public.
The shadow environment minister, Joan Ruddock, said yesterday: "The Independent on Sunday has done a great service. You have revealed the scale of the operation and the sheer hypocrisy of the Government. This is privatisation by the back door." A Labour government would halt the sales, she said.
David Beskine, Deputy Director of the Ramblers' Association, said: "We were completely taken by surprise by the sheer scale of the change. The Government has not been open with the public about what has been going on."
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