Government scraps forestry sell-off plans

17 Feb 11
The government has confirmed it is to back down on plans for a 'Big Society' sell-off of England’s forests, following a public outcry

By David Williams

18 February 2011

The government has confirmed it is to back down on plans for a ‘Big Society’ sell-off of England’s forests, following a public outcry.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told the House of Commons yesterday that she would end consultation on proposals to sell or lease forests to private companies and not-for-profit organisations.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had proposed transferring woodland currently run by the Forestry Commission to outside organisations.

Spelman had argued that the changes would signal a shift from a ‘Big Government approach to a Big Society one”, promising to create new opportunities for community groups and businesses while protecting public access and biodiversity.

The consultation began in January and was set to run until April, but the idea proved unpopular across the country, with 500,000 people signing a petition against the proposal.

Spelman said she took ‘full responsibility’ for the situation, saying: ‘I am sorry, we got this one wrong… it is quite clear from the early responses to the consultation that the public and many MPs are not happy with the proposals we set out.’

She repeated her assertion that her priority was to secure a ‘sustainable future’ for England’s forests, and added: ‘If there is one clear message from this experience, it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benefits they bring.’

Spelman announced that she would establish an independent panel to consider forestry policy in England, which would issue its recommendations in the autumn.

The U-turn was welcomed by the Unite union. National officer Ian Waddell said: ‘We are glad to see the back of such a hare-brained scheme.’

But, he added, the public had voiced their support for a ‘properly resourced’ Forestry Commission. The quango is set to lose 25% of its funding, and Unite say 400 staff could lose their jobs.

‘This loss of expertise will cripple the commission, fundamentally undermining all the things the public value,’ Waddell said.

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