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UK Politics

Forest sales put on hold

The Government put the sale of 40,000 hectares of publicly owned forests on hold today amid growing anger over plans to dispose of all of England's public forests.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said sales of 15% of public forests announced in last year's spending review will not go ahead until a review aimed at "significantly" strengthening the protections given to the woodlands is completed.

The announcement follows widespread criticism of proposals by ministers to offload the remaining 85% of England's public forests to timber companies, charities and local communities.

The Government's consultation, which provoked a storm of protest when it was published last month, outlines plans to dispose of England's 258,000-hectare public forest estate, currently managed by the Forestry Commission, over the next 10 years.

The proposals include a £250 million sale of leaseholds for commercially valuable forests to timber companies, measures to allow communities, charities and even local authorities to buy or lease woods, and plans to transfer well-known "heritage" woods such as the New Forest into the hands of charities.

It has raised fears of loss of public access, development and damage to wildlife.

The already-announced sale of 15% of the estate - the maximum the Government can sell under current legislation - aimed to raise £100 million towards the Environment Department's budget.

But Ms Spelman said the Government was committed to increasing protection for access and public benefit in woodlands, and that the "inadequate measures" applied to sales under the previous administration would be reviewed.

However she said the review would not affect the commitment to sell 15% of the forest estate over the next four years, and had no impact on the continuing consultation into the remaining 85% of the public forests.

The announcement was met with a cautious welcome from groups campaigning against the plans to remove forests from public ownership, but there were warnings that nothing short of a complete U-turn on the policy would suffice.

Up to half the public estate is commercially valuable forest, which - under the plans put out for consultation - would be sold on 150-year leaseholds rather than a freehold basis, allowing the Government to impose conditions on timber companies to protect public access and ensure environmental standards.

The previously announced sales of 40,000 hectares of land or 15% of the estate, which the Government said will target woods that provide limited added benefits for people, did not have protections for public access or wildlife and the review aims to ensure those safeguards are in place.

Conservation charities such as the Woodland Trust said they had been concerned that the sales would have allowed damaged heathland and ancient woodland which had been planted with conifers to be sold rather than being restored.

And the National Trust said it seemed the messages from the public about the importance of protecting access, wildlife and benefits of forests was getting through to the Government.

Almost half a million people have signed an online "Save our Forests" petition opposing the Government plans, while more than 100,000 have signed up to a Woodland Trust petition calling for special treatment of ancient woodland and better protection for all woods - whoever they are owned by.

But opposition MPs warned today's announcement did not mean the Government was scrapping its plans for public forests, which make up 18% of woodlands in England.

Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary, said the "partial U-turn" would not be enough to silence the protests against the plans to sell off public woods.

And Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: "It's clear that the Government is now on the back foot as a result of the public campaign against their ill-judged proposals.

"But we still have a fight on our hands to resist the legislative changes that would make the forest sell-off a reality - which is why I will be seeking to amend the Public Bodies Bill in the Commons."

Unions also warned that the Public Bodies Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, would enable the Government to amend the Forestry Commission's statutory and wider functions at will and pave the way for a sell-off.

And they called for job losses at the Forestry Commission to be called off.

Earlier this month, it was announced that around 300 jobs in the Forestry Commission in England would go, along with between 100 and 150 roles in Scotland, as a result of cuts to the commission's budget of 26% between now and 2015.