English forest sell-off put on hold
Government postpones sale of 40,000 hectares of public forest to allow for a review of woodland protection
Fiona Harvey & Damin Carrington
Friday 11th February 2011
The government has taken 40,000 hectares of public forest off the market, in the latest twist in the furore over the proposed sell-off of England's woodland.
About 15% of England's public forests had been slated for sale, with the aim of raising £100m for government coffers, but on Friday morning the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it would hold on to the forest until the fate of the rest of the Forestry Commission's land had been decided.
Defra said the sale was being postponed because of concerns over access rights, and will not affect its broader proposal to sell nationally owned woods, which is still the subject of public consultation.
Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary, blamed the last Labour government – which had allowed for a sale of up to 15% – for the halt.
She said in a written statement: "In light of the government commitment to increase protection for access and public benefit in our woodlands, the criteria for these sales will be reviewed so that protections are significantly strengthened following the inadequate measures that were applied to sales under the previous administration. Pending this review, no individual woodland site will be put on the market."
Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary, said: "[Calling off the 40,000 hectare sale] is a panic measure by a government which has been spooked by the huge public outcry. 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."
But many organisations welcomed the move, such as the RSPB, whose conservation director Mark Averysaid: "This is a good thing. Lots of forests were going to be sold off without enough protection [for public access rights and wildlife]."
The postponement will mean that, after the consultation ends on 21 April, the 15% may come back on to the market for sale outright, and if the government's current plans go ahead, the rest of the Forestry Commission's land will be sold on long-term leases.
Avery said the government was "clearly taking a deep breath" over the forestry proposals. "They always seem like they are trying to catch up with the last thing someone has told them," he said. "We don't object to the state getting out of the business of growing timber, but we need to see if the right forests are being sold in the right way."
Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, also welcomed the decision. "This is not a U-turn but the start of a three-point turn. We look forward to hearing that the Forestry Commission job losses will now also be called off and that the whole forestry disposal debacle will be scrapped," he said.