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17 February 2011, 11:03
Campaigners today hailed the "people power" which has forced the Government to abandon plans to privatise England's public forests.
The news that Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman would announce a halt to the consultation into proposals to sell thousands of hectares of woodland was welcomed by grassroots campaigners and conservation charities.
David Cameron heralded the about-turn at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, when he stated bluntly that he was unhappy with the policy.
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.
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 today.
"We will keep watching David Cameron to make sure he keeps his word. But right now it looks like fantastic news for all of us who want to keep our forests safe in public hands for future generations."
The Woodland Trust welcomed the U-turn but warned 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, there is still an acute need for better protection of ancient woodland, our equivalent of the rainforests, and restoration of ancient woods planted with conifers."
And she said: "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.
"We must not let public passion and support for our woods and forests die down and now that ownership is no longer an issue, we must not lose sight of the need to increase protection for ancient forests and restore those planted with conifers, a once in a lifetime opportunity for woodland conservation."
Labour leader Ed Miliband, who yesterday urged the Government to drop the "ludicrous" policy and pointed out the "irony" that the Conservative Party's symbol was a tree, said the U-turn was a chaotic and incompetent way to run Government.
"Virtually every person in the country could see selling off our forests was a foolish and short-sighted policy but they went ahead regardless.
"Now they are panicked into a retreat hours after Mr Cameron said they would carry on with their consultation.
"But the very idea of the forest sell-off shows something else. This Government doesn't seem to understand the things we value, which we hold in common.
"Just as people are angry about the threat to the forests, so too the threat to local libraries, children's centres, other common institutions.
"The decisions they are making suggest a Government which understands the price of everything and the value of nothing."
The New Forest National Park Authority has welcomed the news that the Government’s consultation on the future management of the Forest estate has been halted.
Julian Johnson, Chairman of the New Forest National Park Authority, had written to Ministers inviting them to the New Forest to learn more about the special nature of the area and hear local views on the consultation. Mr Johnson today said he hoped that meeting would still go ahead.
He said: ‘There has been a huge groundswell of concern from our residents and partners in the National Park and Authority members were clear that we had to engage Ministers directly in understanding the views of local people about the consultation. Today the voice of local people appears to have been heard.
"I wrote to Ministers asking for close engagement in the New Forest and to highlight the strong local views and the importance of the Crown Lands. It is evident that the consultation focussed minds at the highest level on protecting the importance of the New Forest Crown Lands as an internationally important landscape, and we will play a full part in continuing these important discussions for the benefit of the Forest.
"In my letter to Ministers I emphasised that Authority members are unanimous in their support of the long-standing New Forest Acts – which underpin the ancient commoning system that shapes the unique Forest landscape - and that we are firm in our view that they should not be undermined or overridden.
"Managing the New Forest estate is an incredibly complex operation that requires funding from government and significant local knowledge and professional expertise; state ownership and management of Crown Lands of the New Forest is the model that has delivered these. Members are looking for these skills, local expertise and resources that underpin this complex management system to be secured for the future."