A dogged campaign by a broad political spectrum looks to have paid off

A dogged campaign by a broad political spectrum looks to have paid off

The coalition Government is expected to announce on Friday an astonishing u-turn on its plans to sell off England’s public forests.

Such a move would signal a humiliating about-turn for Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman after David Cameron admitted at Prime Minister’s Questions he was not happy with his own Government’s plans to sell off the country’s woodlands.

Outdoors campaigners were tonight cautiously celebrating news leaking out of Westminster that, not only would the coalition administration abandon the ongoing consultation on the sell-off, but may also amend controversial clauses in the Public Bodies Bill that would allow the Secretary of State to sell Forestry Commission land without further legislation.

Sources said an independent panel with environmentalists would be set up to reach consensus on reforms to improve access and biodiversity in forests.

The climbdown will be a remarkable victory for people power in the wake of huge public opposition from all political sides and a half-million-strong online petition on the 38 Degrees site calling for the abandonment of the proposals.

A planned rally in the Whinlatter Forest in the Lake District on Saturday could turn into a victory celebration if the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs makes the expected announcement in advance of the meeting.

A broad spectrum of opinion, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Sir Chris Bonington, from leading Conservatives to the Socialist Workers’ Party, opposed the controversial plans, which would see England’s forests and woodland sold or leased to private companies.

Outdoor bodies such as the British Mountaineering Council, the Ramblers, the Open Spaces Society, the Long Distance Walkers’ Association, Disabled Ramblers and the Campaign for National Parks all spoke out against the coalition Government plans and Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs tore up copies of the Public Bodies Bill at a rally in Grizedale Forest, in the Lake District.

Commentators likened the proposals to the Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, which spurned huge protests in the late 1980s.

Tonight on Twitter, Tom Franklin, chief executive of the Ramblers Tweeted: “Looks like the forests sell-off is to be abandoned. Hurrah!” Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society said: “Hurray 4 back-down on forests, but must get Public Bodies Bill amended so Forestry Commission safe,” and Ruth Chambers of the Campaign for National Parks added: “Forest u-turn looks on the cards – good news for national parks given one-third of the public forest estate is within their boundaries.”

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