Widespread concern over £250 million forest sell-off plan

The row over England's publicly-owned forests continued tonight after the Government unveiled plans for a £250 million sell-off - but insisted the future of the country's woodlands would be protected.

The proposals put out for consultation detail measures to dispose of up to 100% of England's 258,000 hectare public forest estate, which is currently managed by the Forestry Commission, over the next 10 years.

They include the 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.

News of the plans for the 18% of England's forests that are publicly-owned had caused widespread consternation, with fears rife that well-loved woodlands would come under threat from golf courses and holiday parks or be cut down for timber, and that the public would lose access to forests.

Today, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said she hoped the publication of the public consultation would prove many people's concerns unfounded.

The Government has already announced plans to sell 15% of the public estate, with the hope that the sales will raise £100 million to help balance Defra's books, and today's proposals deal with the remaining 85% of public woods in England.

Mrs Spelman said there was no reason for the Government to be in the business of timber production and forest management.

"It's time for the Government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England's woodlands to play a much greater role in their future," she said.

And Downing Street moved to quell fears over the fate of woods in public ownership, insisting heritage forests would not be sold to the highest bidder or public access removed.

But the details of the public consultation appeared to sow more concerns, criticism and confusion in some quarters.

Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said the consultation was little more than warm words and window dressing on an act of "environmental vandalism".

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

It is expected leasehold sales could raise between £140 and £250 million.

Another 26,000 hectares, or up to 10% of the estate, could be sold or leased to communities, charities or even local authorities.

Organisations would be given the first option to buy or lease woodlands, in which they could then run community enterprises such as woodfuel businesses or recreation schemes.

But if the option was not taken up by communities the forest would be put up for leasehold sale in the same way as commercial woods.

And heritage woodlands, such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest, would be transferred into the ownership of a new charity or existing charities to be managed in the interests of the nation.

The transfer would not cost the new owner anything, and Government grants would be available for the organisation to manage the woodlands - but the public purse would not pay for the setting up of a new charity, and it would be expected to become less reliant on Government funding over time.

The Government believes organisations such as the Woodland Trust can draw in volunteers who want to help improve the wildlife and the environment in woods.

But Sue Holden, chief executive of the Woodland Trust, warned ministers their plans were unrealistic as it took more than "passing on a little bit of funding and using a few volunteers" to manage some of England's best-loved forest.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said questions remained unanswered about important woodlands other than the high-profile forests named in the consultation, and the strength of guarantees on ensuring rights of access.

Conservation groups said they wanted to see the restoration of heathland, which makes up a significant proportion of Forestry Commission land, and native woodlands which have been damaged by the planting and replanting of conifers for commercial timber.

The consultation also deals with the future of the Forestry Commission in England, and aims to end the "conflict of interests" in which it is both regulator of the timber industry and the sector's biggest player.

Under the plans, the commission, which operates at a net cost to the taxpayer of around £20 million a year, will cease to produce timber and manage the estate but will continue with advisory and regulatory roles - at a likely cost of £18 million a year.

The Environment Department (Defra) said it was too early to tell what the impact on the 1,200 jobs at the commission would be, but more than 80% of staff are currently employed in managing the estate.

Union organisation TUC warned that volunteer foresters or private companies would not do as good a job as the professional staff at the Forestry Commission, and the "careful balance between timber, public amenity, biodiversity and conservation will be lost".