The Government is set to unveil plans for a sell-off of England’s publicly-owned forests.
News of the proposals have already caused widespread consternation, with fears rife that woodlands will come under threat from developers or be cut down for timber and that the public will lose access to forests.
Famous names ranging from Annie Lennox and Dame Judi Dench to the Archbishop of Canterbury have implored the Government not to sell off publicly-owned forests, warning it would be “misjudged and short-sighted”.
The Ramblers has raised concerns about public access to woodlands that are sold, while the National Trust warned that unless sales safeguarded access and cultural and conservation value, important sites should stay in public care.
Labour has called for a parliamentary debate on the plans, labelling them “environmental vandalism”.
Ministers have already announced plans to sell off 15% of the forest estate, in a bid to reap around £100 million from the disposal of the public asset, and legislation currently going through Parliament will allow them to sell more.
But the announcement is expected to say that historic woodland such as the New Forest and Forest of Dean will not be sold to private developers, and instead could end up in the hands of charitable trusts.
When news of the proposed sale first broke, the Government was forced to defend the plans against suggestions it would open up some of England’s best-loved forests to golf courses and new holiday parks.
Despite the assurances, the Woodland Trust has warned the Government it must improve protection of all of England’s woodlands as current rules are failing to stop them being destroyed. The Trust said that – regardless of who owns woods – the existing mechanisms for protecting them do not work and while no politician will give the go-ahead to development in well-known historic forests, plenty of other ancient woodland is under threat.
The Trust also wants to see 20,000 hectares of damaged ancient woodland that is managed by the Forestry Commission and is currently planted with conifers restored to its former glory.