The Public Bodies Bill would give Government 'draconian' powers to sell off forests, according to the OSS

The Public Bodies Bill would give Government 'draconian' powers to sell off forests, according to the OSS

The coalition Government was accused of taking on draconian powers in a move that could see access to England’s forests curtailed.

The Open Spaces Society expressed its suspicion about the Public Bodies Bill, which has its second reading in the Lords today, saying it gives the Government the right to alter how the Forestry Commission disposes of land, manages it, and uses it.

The Secretary of State can use this power for ‘any purpose and unconditionally’ under the proposed legislation.

In a briefing sent to members of the House of Lords, the OSS general secretary Kate Ashbrook said: “It is hard to conceive why ministers want such draconian powers unless they intend to dispose of much or all of the Forestry Commission’s estate.

“At present, the public has a right to roam on 90 per cent of the 200,000ha of freehold Forestry Commission land in England – an area the size of West Sussex.

“The access is provided by a dedication under section 16 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.  This land provides immense pleasure to people, for recreation and relaxation. The recreational opportunities are as varied as the forests themselves.

“The minister must guarantee that those public rights of access will continue forever, regardless of land ownership.  He must also guarantee that the quality of those rights will be maintained, with good access points, clearly waymarked trails, picnic sites, interpretation and education opportunities.

“The Forestry Commission has a fine record for excellent-quality access.”

Ms Ashbrook pointed out that if the land is used for another purpose the access to it may be lost, because it could become ‘excepted land’ to which the Countryside and Rights of Way Act does not apply.

“We fear that the effect of this bill will be the wholesale loss of public access and enjoyment, not only in the famous woods and forests like the New Forest, Kielder, Bedgebury and Westonbirt arboreta, Cannock Chase and the Forest of Dean, but in numerous smaller woods close to people’s home – their local breathing spaces,” she continued.

“There has been no consultation about this measure, which could have a damaging effect on people’s lives.  We hope that the Government will rethink these devastating proposals.”

The Open Spaces Society call echoes that of the Ramblers last week. Their chief executive Tom Franklin said:  “We are seeking assurances from government that guaranteed public access will be a prerequisite of any sale so that we can all continue to enjoy a woodland walk, and that the right to access British forests will be protected for future generations.”

More than 58,000 people have so far signed a 38 Degrees petition against the sell-off of Forestry Commission land in England. In Scotland and Wales, the devolved issue will be dealt with by the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government.

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