New Forest 'Won't Be Sold Off'

The Government's confirmed that England's forests - including the New Forest - aren't going to be sold off.

The Government bid to offload more than 250,000 hectares of publicly-owned forest met with a furious backlash last year, forcing ministers to U-turn on the plans.

Proposals to sell off 15% of the woodlands currently managed by the Forestry Commission - the most the Government can dispose of under current legislation - to raise #100 million had already been announced.

But when news emerged of plans to privatise the remaining 85% of the forest estate, which makes up 18% of England's woodland, it provoked an outcry.

The proposals included the sale of leaseholds for commercially valuable forests to timber companies in a bid to raise up to £250 million, as well as measures to allow communities, charities and even local authorities to buy or lease woods.

And there were plans to transfer well-known 'heritage' woods such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean into the hands of charities.

The reaction to the plans was swift, widespread and almost wholly negative.

A widespread grassroots campaign sprung up, with protests in local woods perceived to be at risk and more than half a million people signing an online petition to save the forests.

The issue of public access became a huge one, with fears that while footpaths for walkers were protected by legislation, any greater access currently granted by the Forestry Commission - including for bicycles and horse riding - would go if the land went to private companies.

And the opportunity to restore thousands of hectares of conifer forests to the ancient woodland or heathland sites they were planted over would be lost if the woods ended up in private hands, wildlife groups warned.

The Government said its proposals to sell the forests on a leasehold basis, which meant they could stipulate conditions, would ensure access and wildlife were protected - but it failed to reassure critics.

The idea that communities could have first right to buy their local woodland also fell on deaf ears, with criticism of the notion that people should have to buy forests that were already theirs.

There were also fears the proposals could end up costing more money than they saved, and conservation groups in the frame to take over heritage woods raised concerns as to where the money to maintain them would come from.

The public forest estate costs just #20 million a year to the taxpayer and delivers many times that value through a range of benefits such as recreation, carbon storage, woodfuel and flood prevention.

The outcry prompted a rapid u-turn by the Government, which has reversed a range of policies in the last two years, with just 21 days between Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman's announcement of the proposals and news they were being ditched.

A consultation into the proposals was dropped and the Independent Panel on Forestry was set up, chaired by Bishop of Liverpool the Right Rev James Jones and made up of heads of conservation and countryside charities and forestry and rural business interests.

The panel was charged with advising the Government on woodland and forestry policy in England.