CAMPAIGNERS have claimed a first victory in their fight to save public forests after the Government halted the first wave of a sell-off.
Plans were already under way to sell off 15 per cent of the country’s forest estate to raise £100m before a furious outcry last month when the Government revealed plans to lease out the remainder of publicly-owned woodland and give sites like the Forest of Dean and New Forest to charities.
But Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced yesterday she was halting the first sell-off to allow the Government to introduce better protection for access rights for the public.
She blamed the previous Labour government for applying “inadequate measures” to forest sales and insisted the land would still be sold off over the next four years once the rights are enforced.
The move leaves question marks hanging over North Yorkshire forests like Dalby, Stilton, Cropton and Boltby. The decision was welcomed by campaigners and hailed by Labour as a “partial U-turn”, although they insisted the fight to save the rest of the public woodland would continue.
Ms Spelman said: “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. 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.
“This will not affect the commitment to sell 15 per cent of the public forest estate over the next four years and has no impact on the ongoing consultation on the remaining 85 per cent of the public forest estate.”
Under existing legislation the Government can only sell 15 per cent of the England’s 258,000-hectare public forest estate, managed by the Forestry Commission.
But a Government consultation launched last month provoked a storm of protest by outlining plans to sell leases for the remainder over the next 10 years.
Proposals include a £250m sale of leaseholds for commercially valuable forests to timber companies, measures to allow communities, charities and even local authorities to buy or lease woods - although they would be given only 28 days to put together a viable bid or the lease could be sold to commercial operators and plans to transfer well-known “heritage” woods such as the New Forest into the hands of charities.
By selling leases rather than the freehold for the land, Ministers argue that they will be able to enshrine public rights of access while not having to meet the costs for their upkeep.
But they have failed to convince much of the public, with MPs deluged by complaints and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs coming in for criticism over its handling of the announcement.
Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh, MP for Wakefield, labelled the move to put the planned first wave of sales on hold as “a panic measure by a Government which has been spooked by the huge 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.”
David Babbs, executive director of campaign group 38 Degrees, which is leading a “Save Our Forests” fight, said: “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.”