Page last updated at 13:23 GMT, Thursday, 3 February 2011

Government urged to rethink forest sell off plan

The government has come under further criticism over its plans to sell much of England's publicly owned woodland.

At Commons question time on 3 February 2011, MPs from all sides of the House pressed ministers to guarantee that the public would still be able to access England's national forests after the land had been sold or leased.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said ministers had repeatedly given assurances to MPs that access and public benefits would be protected.

But Labour, who tabled an opposition day debate on the proposed sell off on 2 February, called on the minister to "stop and think again" about pushing ahead with the plans.

The government launched a consultation on plans to sell off or lease England's 258,000-hectare public forest estate - currently managed by the Forestry Commission on behalf of the environment, food and rural affairs department - to the private sector or to not for profit organisations, last week.

Opponents of the move fear it could compromise nature protection and restrict public access to national woodland.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told MPs: "We need to make it absolutely clear that this is a genuine consultation, unlike a lot of consultations that I experienced under the last government.

"We want as many people [as possible] to take part. It is a statutory three-month period. Ministers will reflect on those considerations and bring to the House our considered view in timely fashion."

But Mary Creagh, Labour's shadow environment secretary, said the government planned to sell off 10,000 hectares of public forest before the consultation was over.

This was more than was sold in Labour's entire period in office, she said.

"Isn't it the case with the public forests that the honourable lady does not know what she is doing or why she is doing it and nobody wants her to do it. Is it not time to stop and think again?" she asked.

Ms Spelman said it was under Labour that public forest estate was sold without any guarantee that public access rights would be protected.

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