Page last updated at 19:33 GMT, Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Forest estates sell-off debate

The government has been accused of "environmental vandalism" as it prepares to privatise much of England's publicly owned woodland.

Ministers are consulting on plans to sell off or lease England's 258,000-hectare public forest estate, which is currently managed by the Forestry Commission, to community groups, charities, and private companies.

The government-run organisation currently owns and runs 18% of England's woods.

Opening an opposition-led debate in a packed Commons chamber on 2 February 2011, shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said the plans could result in the "sale of the century".

Describing it as the biggest change in England's land ownership since the Second World War, Ms Creagh said: "The countryside is on the move against this Tory-led government's plans to privatise England's forests.

"The government is carrying out a hatchet job which destroys the funding model which has protected England's forests for nearly 100 years.

"If you sell the commercial timberlands, you starve the ancient woodlands. The true value of England's forests can never be measured in the price the government gets from selling them."

But Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman accused Labour of "hypocrisy" and peddling "myths".

"We are consulting on proposals to create a new heritage forest status whereby our most precious national assets are given over to charitable trusts, giving them far greater levels of protection, financial security than they have ever had.

"We are proposing to upgrade protections for public access and other public benefits massively by replacing the freehold sales which took place under the last government and instead moving to leaseholds, providing better protection for access and other public benefits."

The commercial functions of the Forestry Commission would be opened up to other operators on a leasehold basis "so that their commercial potential is realised along with the need to protect other benefits".

The Labour motion, calling on the government to "rethink its decision on the sale of England's public forest estate" was defeated by 310 votes to 260, a majority of 50.

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