Coalition Government cuts risk the introduction of access restrictions in privately owned forests

Coalition Government cuts risk the introduction of access restrictions in privately owned forests

Two Everest summiteers, the Poet Laureate and the Archbishop of Canterbury are among leading public figures who have condemned the Government’s proposed sell-off of large tracts of English forests.

In an open letter, 87 people from across the political spectrum, ranging from actors and artists to academics, business leaders and religious leaders, say the decision to dispose of all England’s nationally owned forest is wrong.

In November last year, the coalition Government announced it would sell half of England’s Forestry Commission land. But provisions in the Public Bodies Bill currently passing through Parliament would allow the whole estate to be sold without further parliamentary scrutiny.

The letter says: “We believe the Government’s decision to pursue legislation to allow the disposal of all England’s public forest estate is wrong.

“Without asking our permission Government has already allowed the sale of 15 per cent of our public woodlands.  Similar plans have been rejected by the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

“We, who love, use and share the English forests believe that such a sale would be misjudged and shortsighted.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams has signed the letter, as has Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Everest mountaineers Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Annabelle Bond.

Other heavy hitters from the celebrity world who signed the letter include Dame Judi Dench, Annie Lennox, Anthony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, X-Files actress Gillian Anderson, actor Richard E Grant and Blur bassist Alex James.

Stanley Johnson, father of London mayor Boris, adventurer Ben Fogle and Bill Bryson, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England are also among the signatories.

The letter continues: “We who know the value of the forests fear that over time, the public’s access to them will be limited and their protection, eroded. Indeed the recently privatised Rigg Wood now has no visitor services and a bolted gate.

“The Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, Jim Paice, has offered only vague assurances, admitting: ‘It would be a brave politician who guaranteed anything’.

“We believe it unconscionable, that future generations will no longer enjoy the guarantee of a public forest estate.”

Although the Government has said that access provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act would continue for any privatised forests, these could be challenged by new owners and, in any case, do not give any rights to cyclists, many of whom use the existing Forestry Commission land for their mountain biking activities.

The letter calls on the ministers to remove three ill conceived clauses from the Public Bodies Bill, and suspend any significant sales until the public has been fully consulted.

It adds: “We expect our leaders to engage in real dialogue with communities throughout the country to create a sustainable future for our public woods and forests.”

Further details can be seen on the Save England’s Forests website.

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