England's public forests 'under threat' as government plans sell-off

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Campaigners who won a battle to prevent the Government from selling off England's public forests are warning that they could be under threat again. Source: Press Association

Outcry over the proposals to dispose of publicly-owned woodlands to businesses, communities and charities forced the Government into an embarrassing U-turn on the plans three years ago.

The Independent Panel on Forestry was then set up to consider the future of England's woodlands and following the publication of its report in 2012 the environment secretary at the time, Caroline Spelman, pledged not to sell the public forest estate.

Campaign group Hands Off Our Forest (Hoof), which fought to protect the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, said the forests faced a new threat in 2014.

It said that in the spring the Government plans to introduce a new bill to Parliament to form a new management organisation to "own and manage the Public Forest Estate".

However, the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs said there were no plans to sell or privatise England's forests following the establishment of the new arrangements.

Rich Daniels, chairman of Hoof, said: "It will increase the risk of our forest being sold or disposed of in the future.

"The time has come again for everyone to engage again with the fight to save the Forest of Dean from predators and battle a new piece of legislation which, if passed by Parliament, has the potential of leaving our Forest of Dean open to exploitation from 'a range of commercial freedoms... [including] mineral extraction, agriculture and industrial lettings of land and premises'.

"Hoof doesn't think there are anywhere near enough safeguards to protect the Forest of Dean from being taken over by private leisure and industrial concerns and we fear that transferring the ownership and management to a public corporation could be a halfway house to full-scale privatisation."

Hoof said there would not be a White Paper and the draft bill will be published on January 29 - a few weeks before it is due to be introduced to Parliament.

"This, combined with the resurfacing of the idea of a 'community right to bid' for land that already belongs to us, gives a distinct sense of deja vu from the 2010/11 battle which Hoof formed to fight," Mr Daniels said.

"Few, if any, of our demands have been heeded and we feel as if we're back at square one.

"In whatever language and jargon the Government dresses its proposals, they amount to the same thing: permitting the removal of our forest from our hands and put into others' hands.

"Do we want our entire forest to be opened up to corporations, turned into a playground only accessible for some, by this or any future Government?

"Foresters, and all those who love our forest and others across England must speak up now and demand with one voice: Hands off our forest."

A Defra spokesman said: "There are no plans to sell or privatise our forests.

"This new organisation will secure the long-term future of public forests across England so they benefit future generations, nature and the economy.

"We will continue to work closely with our partners, including Hands Off Our Forest, as we design the new body."

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