UK Forest Sell-Off: 'People Power' Forced U-Turn, say Campaigners
Plans to sell England's forests attracted cross-party opposition and sparked a public outcry
Campaigners have hailed the "people power" which has forced the government to abandon plans to privatise England's public forests.
The news that Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary, 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 £250m 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.
David Babbs, executive director, 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: "While 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.
"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."
The 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.
He said: "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 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."
Spelman will make a statement to MPs in the Commons on Thursday about the decision to abandon the proposals.
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".
She said: "The consultation paper triggered huge public concern and we weren't surprised at all because forests are so important to people.
"What this does is take the heat out of the debate and allows us to have a proper discussion about why people value woodlands so much, what's special about them and how make sure they deliver the fantastic public benefits of access and conservation in a calm environment and that's what we need."