Lib Dems call for forest sale re-think

Thursday 03 February 2011 15:25

Senior Liberal Democrats called on the Government today to "reconsider" plans to sell off parts of England's public forests.

Party president Tim Farron has put his name to a Commons motion tabled by former Lib Dem frontbencher Greg Mulholland which claims the Government has "failed to convince people" of the merits of the plan.

Former Conservative frontbencher Julian Lewis, who represents New Forest East, has also added his name to the motion.

Mr Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) and Mr Lewis rebelled in a Commons vote on the issue last night, backing a Labour call for a "rethink" on the plans.

In the motion published today, Mr Mulholland (Leeds NW) said the MPs recognise public concerns "about access, continuing biodiversity and the length of leases" that would be sold under the scheme.

The motion "particularly notes suggestions that the proposals are unclear that the amount of revenue generated would exceed the projected costs of such changes" and "feels therefore that the rationale of proposed sales is not clear to people".

The Government "has not communicated its proposals well and has failed to convince people and many relevant organisations that these proposals are in the long-term interests of the UK's forestry," the motion added.

The motion "calls on the Government to reconsider its position and to ensure that public consultation is genuine".

The Government's consultation includes plans to offload up to 100% 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.

After a heated Commons debate on the issue, Labour's attempt to force the Government to back down was defeated by 310 votes to 260, majority 50.

The Forestry Commission announced plans yesterday to shed at least 400 jobs over the next four years due to budget cuts.

During last night's debate, Mr Farron said the Labour government had made mistakes in selling off some woodland in the past - but warned the current Government they should "learn lessons" from this.

Ministers should "think very, very carefully about how we protect public access to our forests, whether they are publicly-owned or otherwise", he said.

Mr Lewis said the New Forest was in a "state of deep shock" at the proposals.

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