The coalition Government today confirmed reports that large tranches of publicly owned forestry will be sold off.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it intended to fundamentally reform the public forestry estate, with private owners and ‘civil society partners’ taking over much of the Forestry Commission’s land.
The confirmation of the widely leaked plans came in a letter sent by Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman to MPs.
In the letter, she said: “We are committed to shifting the balance of power from ‘Big Government’ to ‘Big Society’ by giving individuals, businesses, civil society organisations and local authorities a much bigger role in protecting and enhancing the natural environment and a much bigger say about our priorities for it.
“We envisage a managed programme of reform to further develop a competitive, thriving and resilient forestry sector that includes many sustainably managed woods operating as parts of viable land-based businesses.”
The Public Bodies Bill, which was published by the Cabinet Office today, contains sweeping powers to abolish or reform public bodies beyond those detailed earlier this month in the Government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’, will clear the way for the privatisation of much of the Forestry Commission’s land in England.
The Cabinet Office said: “Where proposed changes have implications for the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Government will continue to work closely with them to develop and implement changes.”
Defra’s plans have caused consternation among walkers, mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, who fear recreational access will be curtailed by private owners of woodland and forest. An online petition by pressure group 38 Degrees had, at the time of writing, attracted almost 27,000 signatures against the sell-off.
However, Ms Spelman said: “Full measures will remain in place to preserve the public benefits of woods and forests under any new ownership arrangements. Tree felling is controlled through the licensing system managed by the Forestry Commission; public rights of way and access will be unaffected; statutory protection for wildlife will remain in force and there will be grant incentives for new planting that can be applied for.”
When the plans were first revealed, Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “If Government plans mean vast areas of valuable forest being sold to private developers, it will be unforgiveable act of environmental vandalism.”
And Allan MacKenzie, secretary of the Forestry Commission Trade Unions, said: “We will oppose any land sale. Once we’ve sold it, it never comes back.
“Once it is sold restrictions are placed on the land which means the public don’t get the same access to the land and facilities that are provided by the public forest estate.”