Protesters celebrate forests U-turn

Charities across the UK have welcomed the decision, announced today by Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, to abandon controversial plans to privatise England's public forests.

Chris Reid, senior policy officer at the Campaign for National Parks, paid tribute to the people who had campaigned so fervently against the plan. He said: "This really shows that people power can make a difference to Government policy and decisions.

"As one-third of the public forest estate lies within National Park boundaries, the Campaign for National Parks was especially concerned to ensure that important wildlife and access benefits provided by the forest estate were protected."

Ms Spelman told the House of Commons: "I am sorry, we got this one wrong...

"I have taken a decision to end the consultation on the future of the Public Forest Estate and I take full responsibility for that.

"I am doing so because it is quite clear from the early responses to the consultation that the public and many MPs are not happy with the proposals we set out."

The Government has also committed itself to removing the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill, which is currently in committee stage in the House of Lords. An independent panel will now be established to consider forestry policy in England. This will report its findings to the Secretary of State in the autumn.

Mr Reid added: "The independent panel should take evidence from National Park groups in order to gain a proper understanding of the importance of the estate to our finest landscapes and how its future management might be improved."

Ben Stafford, head of campaigns at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: "We welcome Caroline Spelman's statement today, and also David Cameron's words in the Commons yesterday when he said he wants to increase access to our forests and biodiversity within them.

"The Government now has the opportunity to do this through its establishment of an independent panel, including environmentalists, to reach consensus on the way forward.

"This panel needs to include representation of the strong public voice that spoke against the Government's plans, and also of environmental groups that do not own land, but speak for the broad public interest in our countryside."

In Gloucestershire, a protest by Hands off our Forest (Hoof) planned at Coleford, Forest of Dean for Saturday, will now be a victory celebration.

Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon, a Hoof supporter and Labour leader in the House of Lords, said: "We knew the vast majority of the public was behind us in opposing this disgraceful plan to sell off our ancient forests.

"We were determined to defend our ancient privileges and traditions - and we have succeeded. The Forest belongs to the community and we hold it in trust for our children and our children's children."

Rich Daniels, Hoof chairman said: "This was a campaign that cut across political and social boundaries and united us all in a shared love of our forests and, in particular, the Forest of Dean.

"I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported Hands off our Forest and other campaigns, written to the minister, written to the Lords, written to your MP, written to the papers, emailed, signed petitions, put up posters, tied a yellow ribbon around a tree, walked, cycled and sung at rallies, attended MP Mark Harper's meeting or left comments on our website."

Nigel Costley, regional secretary of the South West Trades Union Congress, which supported the campaign, said: "This is a victory for people power. This was the Big Society opposing a policy that was wrong, short-sighted and would have caused lasting damage for generations to come.

"Now it is time for the Government to start listening to us on other issues."