Opponents of forests sale set to mount lobby of MPs

CAMPAIGNERS fighting the sell-off of some of England's public forest will lobby MPs at Westminster next week as the Government struggles to win over sceptical coalition backbenchers.

Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron has signed a motion tabled by Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland saying that Ministers have "failed to convince many people" over the plans.

Nearly 440,000 people have now signed a petition opposing the Government's plans, which will see "heritage" woodland like the New Forest and Forest of Dean handed over to charities while leases on other woodland will be offered for sale to communities and charities first before timber companies are able to snap up any which are not wanted.

On Wednesday, several unions are planning a rally and lobby of parliament over the cuts to the Forestry Commission and other agencies in the Public Bodies Bill currently being considered by the House of Lords.

In his motion, Mr Mulholland highlighted concerns from the public about access rights, biodiversity and the length of leases and questioned whether it would save any money.

"There is huge public concern about the Government's proposals regarding the future of public forestry and the Government has to accept that it hasn't convinced the public.

"I am pleased that the Government has said it is still listening but we have to be clear that the consultation is a genuine one and that its findings will help determine the final decision.

"The Government needs to be prepared to have another look at this issue and ensure it comes back with plans that not only guarantee public access to our forests and woodlands but also have the public's backing. I will be working with Government backbenchers with both sides to press them to do this."

The plans currently being consulted on would offload up to 100 per cent of England's 258,000-hectare public forest estate, currently managed by the Forestry Commission, over the next 10 years. Ministers hope to make 250m from selling leaseholds.

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

City of York Labour MP Hugh Bayley, who is holding a public meeting next weekend, said: "Hundreds of my constituents have written to me urging Parliament to stop the sale of public forests.

"They don't like the Government's plans because they don't believe that private owners would be as good as the Forestry Commission at protecting biodiversity and promoting public access. I share their anger and strongly support the 'Save Our Forests' campaign."

Campaign group 38 degrees said its petition had 437,299 signatures by yesterday afternoon and vowed to keep up the pressure.