Campaigners have hailed the “people power” which has forced the Government to abandon plans to privatise England’s public forests.
News that Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman is to announce a halt to the consultation into proposals to sell thousands of hectares of woodland has been welcomed by grassroots campaigners and conservation charities.
The proposals put out for consultation last month 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 included 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.
But the proposals attracted cross-party opposition and sparked a public outcry, with critics arguing they threatened public access and wildlife, and campaign group 38 Degrees started a Save Our Forests petition which attracted more than 532,000 signatures.
Executive director David Babbs said: “Some people say signing petitions and emailing MPs never changes anything, but it did this time. This is what people power looks like, and over half a million of us are feeling very proud of what we’ve achieved together.”
The Woodland Trust welcomed the U-turn but warned that the campaign to protect and restore England’s ancient forests must go on.
Sue Holden, chief executive of the trust, said: “Whilst we welcome the removal of threats to public access… ministers have made strong commitments over the past few weeks to increase protection for ancient woods, and we will be holding them to these commitments.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband, who had urged the Government to drop the “ludicrous” policy and pointed out the “irony” that the Conservative Party’s symbol is a tree, said the U-turn was a chaotic and incompetent way to run Government.
Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust, one of the charities potentially in line to take on the heritage forests, said the change of heart was the “right decision”.