The sale of nearly 100,000 acres of publicly-owned woodlands was put on hold yesterday amid growing public anger over moves to privatise much of England's forest estate.
Ministers are alarmed by the backlash over plans to offload most of the 637,000 acres owned by the Forestry Commission to timber companies, charities and local communities.
Several Conservative MPs have condemned the proposed sale and a recent survey showed more than 80 per cent of people wanted the woodlands to stay in public hands. Public opponents of the sale include the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, yesterday announced that the initial sale of 100,000 acres, about 15 per cent of the publicly-owned forests, was being put off. The Government had hoped that the sale, expected to raise £100m, could begin this month.
Ms Spelman explained it was being delayed to allow protections in the sale conditions – such as guarantees of public access – to be "significantly strengthened", but Labour derided it as a "panic measure" by rattled ministers.
Under the plans, between £140m and £250m would be raised over 10 years from the sale of leaseholds for commercially valuable forests to timber firms, as well as allowing communities, charities and local authorities to buy or lease woods. There are also proposals to transfer well-known "heritage" woods, such as the New Forest or the Forest of Dean, to charities.
Ms Spelman said yesterday's move did not affect the commitment, inherited from the last government, to sell 15 per cent of the forest estate over the next four years. Nor would it have an impact on consultation into proposed sell-off of the remaining 85 per cent of forests, she said.
Ms Spelman said: "The revision of the timetable for this sales programme will ensure that the necessary protection for all public benefits of the public forest estate are in place."
But Mary Creagh, shadow Environment Secretary, said it was "a panic measure by a Government which has been spooked by the public outcry". She said: "This partial U-turn will not be enough to silence the protests. This Government has not scrapped its plans to sell off the public woodlands."
Malcolm Currie, of the Prospect union, which represents Forestry Commission workers, said: "We welcome the fact the Government is thinking again, in the light of the near-universal chorus of opposition to the plans from all sectors of the community." David Babbs, executive director of campaign group 38 Degrees, leading a "Save Our Forests" fight, said: "If David Cameron hopes the fuss will now die down, he's going to be disappointed. We will keep up the pressure as long as the Government is still pushing through a law that allows them to sell off up to 100 per cent of our forests."