Public access to England's forests is more important than who owns them, say the Ramblers

Public access to England's forests is more important than who owns them, say the Ramblers

Campaigners against the sale of England’s public forests and woodland should look beyond ownership of the land and concentrate on maintaining access.

That’s the view of the Ramblers’ boss Tom Franklin who said the outcry at coalition Government plans to hive off Forestry Commission land is an indicator of the public’s affinity for a quintessential British pastime – the walk in the woods.

Mr Franklin, the chief executive of the charity that represents more than 120,000 walkers, said the Government should not be allowed to sell any of the land without a guarantee of continued access. “Put simply: if you can’t promise it, don’t sell it. Public access to our woodland must be a guaranteed prerequisite of any Forestry Commission sale,” he said.

The proposals, which go to public consultation tomorrow, have attracted widespread condemnation, including an open letter from 87 public luminaries including Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dame Judi Dench. Almost a quarter of a million people have signed a 38 Degrees online petition against the sell-off.

A major worry for campaigners is the Public Bodies Bill currently passing through the House of Lords, which would allow the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Caroline Spelman, and her successors, to sell off all Forestry Commission land without further parliamentary approval.

However, the Ramblers pointed out that only 18 per cent of British woodland is owned by the FC, and of that, only 17 per cent has full official public access.

A spokesperson said: “What is vital is not just who owns the land but that good quality access is secured so that everyone across the country can enjoy our woodland heritage.”

The Ramblers have previously put forward five key tests which they say must be put in place to protect access before any sale of Forestry Commission land goes ahead, including the dedication of all such land to ensure full public access.

But the charity argues that the current debate must move beyond the discussion of public versus private ownership, to the real issue of access and enjoyment of all woodland.

Tom Franklin: 'If you can’t promise it, don’t sell it'

Tom Franklin: 'If you can’t promise it, don’t sell it'

“The British public have an affinity for our native woodland and our access to this enjoyment must be both enhanced and protected, including the safeguarding of deciduous and ancient woodland, so that future generations don’t miss out on this quintessential British experience,” the spokesperson said.

Mr Franklin added: “The outrage at this issue has highlighted the public’s love of a woodland walk, and we must work together to ensure that, whoever owns the land, the public’s access to our woodland is enhanced and protected.

“We don’t yet know the full scale of the Government’s plans but we look forward to playing an active part in the consultation and urge everyone to tell the Government how important it is to be able to access and enjoy your local woods.”

Forestry and woodland in England designated open access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act can be used by walkers subject to the restrictions of the act. But cyclists, mountain bikers and horse riders do not enjoy the same rights.

The Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Government have control of their Forestry Commission land under devolved powers and have said there are no plans to sell off land in their nations.

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