The row over England’s publicly owned forests has continued after the Government unveiled plans for a £250 million sell-off – but insisted the future of the country’s woodlands will 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 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.
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said she hopes the publication of the public consultation will 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 Thursday’s proposals deal with the remaining 85% of public woods in England.
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, butt 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, while another 26,000 hectares, or up to 10% of the estate, could be sold or leased to communities, charities or even local authorities.
Sue Holden, chief executive of the Woodland Trust, warned ministers their plans are unrealistic, while the Campaign to Protect Rural England said questions remain unanswered about important woodlands other than the high-profile forests named in the consultation, and the strength of guarantees on ensuring rights of access.