David Cameron: 'We should increase forest access'. Photo Conservative Middle East Council CC-BY-SA-3.0

David Cameron: 'We should increase forest access'. Photo Conservative Middle East Council CC-BY-SA-3.0

David Cameron has admitted he is not happy with the coalition Government’s policy on forests.

Quizzed by Labour leader Ed Miliband at Prime Minister’s Questions today in the Commons, he said access to England’s forests should be increased.

Mr Miliband asked whether the Prime Minister was happy with his flagship policy on forestry. Mr Cameron replied: “The short answer to that is no.

“As I have said before in this house, it is a consultation that has been put forward, and we have had a range of interesting responses to it, but what is important is that we should be making sure that, whatever happens, we increase access to our forests, we increase biodiversity and we do not make the mistake that was made under the last Government, where they sold forests with no access rights at all.”

It was the clearest sign so far that the coalition is wobbling on its plans to sell off Forestry Commission land in the face of huge cross-party opposition.

The Labour leader claimed the consultation at present underway was on how to ‘flog off the forests, not on whether to flog off the forests’. He pressed the Prime Minister on whether he might drop the plans.

He pointed out that half a million people have signed a petition against the plans, and challenged Mr Cameron to drop the plans – an invitation the premier declined, saying the Government would listen to the arguments raised during the consultation before coming to a decision.

Figures as diverse as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Annie Lennox have publicly opposed the Government’s plans, and outdoor groups have voiced their concerns at the possible loss of access for walkers, mountain bikers, climbers and horse riders if the land is privatised or leased to private companies.

Last week, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced the suspension of the sale of 38,000ha (93,900 acres) of Forestry Commission land – the 15 per cent the Government is allowed to sell without further legislation – while access provisions were reviewed.

But opponents of the plans point out the Public Bodies Bill currently passing through Parliament would allow the Secretary of State to sell the whole estate without further legislation.

Meanwhile, mountain bikers and volunteers from the Lake District’s Osprey Project will gather with members of the public at a forest rally this weekend to continue the protests.

Whinlatter Forest, England's 'only mountain forest'

Whinlatter Forest, England's 'only mountain forest'

Volunteers who help to protect the Lake District’s famous ospreys are planning to turn out in force for Saturday’s rally at Whinlatter Forest.  The volunteers help guard the osprey nest at Dodd Wood near Keswick and also provide information at a public viewing point and at Whinlatter Visitor Centre, where live pictures of the birds can be seen on a big screen.

Keith Fitton is one of the contingent of volunteers heading to Saturday’s rally.  He was seen by millions of people challenging a Government minister to justify the sale of public forests on the BBC’s Question Time when the programme was broadcast from Workington earlier this month.

Mr Fitton, who will speak at the rally, says: “It’s completely inspiring to be part of the Lake District Osprey Project, but seeing these iconic birds back in Cumbria hasn’t happened by accident.  It’s the result of the hard work, dedication and commitment of the volunteers and staff of the project, working together with the Forestry Commission and other partners.

“The Forestry Commission’s role has been absolutely crucial to the success of the project.  It must continue in order to provide the stewardship which is vital not just to ospreys but other endangered wildlife”.

The Lake District Osprey Project was responsible for the return of ospreys to the Lake District after a gap of more than 150 years.

Mountain bikers are also being encouraged to take part in a Ride to Save Our Forests as part of the rally in England’s only mountain forest on 19 February, which is being organised by Save Lakeland’s Forests and Friends of the Lake District.

The organisers are suggesting that riders start off from about 11am and either do the 19km (11¾-mile) red-grade Altura Trail or the 7.5km (4⅔-mile) blue-grade Quercus Trail from the visitor centre. The rally will then take place next to the main car park at 1pm.

Organisers say mountain biking is one of the activities most threatened by the Government’s plans.

Alex Kemp, a mountain biker from Brampton who will be helping at the event on Saturday, says: “The trails in the Lakes are definitely among the best in the country. I ride at Whinlatter or Grizedale at least once a week and always meet people who have come from all over the country, and even the world to ride there. These trails contribute a lot to the area both socially and economically.

“If the forestry land got sold, it would be unlikely we would see trails of this calibre in England again. Private firms would have no reason to develop or even keep these trails open.

“And the worst thing about it for me is that if clauses 17 and 18 of the Public Bodies Bill go through, the people of England could lose these amazing places for ever due to the decision of one person.”

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