Let’s secure future of Thetford Forest, campaigners say
Calls were growing last night for the nation's forests and woodland to be fully protected to prevent their future being thrown into doubt again and their natural environment put at risk.
It followed an embarrassing U-turn by the coalition government over controversial plans to privatise England's forests, which caused a public outcry, with environment secretary Caroline Spelman telling the Commons: 'I am sorry. We got this one wrong.'
Ms Spelman, saying she took full responsibility for the climbdown just 24 hours after David Cameron himself voiced concerns about how the plans were progressing, said she was removing powers to push forward legislation to open up the way to a sell-off and announced that an independent panel was being established to review forestry policy.
Last night South West Norfolk Tory MP Elizabeth Truss admitted the proposals had highlighted the fact there were not enough safeguards for England's woodlands. She said: 'I want to see something as valuable as Thetford Forest more secure in the future.'
Ministers' climbdown over proposals to privatise England's woodland was welcomed last night by many who use Thetford Forest, including cyclists, ramblers, families and horse riders.
As calls grew for the nation's forests and woodland to be fully protected to prevent their future being thrown into doubt again, South West Norfolk Tory MP Elizabeth Truss admitted the proposals had highlighted the fact there were not enough safeguards for England's woodlands.
She said: 'I want to see something as valuable as Thetford Forest more secure in the future.
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'I think the decision is very sensible because the feedback was not getting any better. I think there's an argument for the government to have done some of the research beforehand and I think its something we should learn from.'
Leader of Norfolk County Council Derrick corMurphy, who invited views on the sell-off earlier this month, said he would also like to see public access and biodiversity protected.
'I think because of the massive public reaction governments, whatever their political shade, will think twice before doing something like this again,' he said. 'I think it may well put things to bed completely but given the way this has come out and the fact condemnation was so swift, that in itself may well be enough to deter anybody from playing with the forests again.
'I do think it's a good idea to have some sort of legislation protecting public access as it is and biodiversity. The last thing we want to see is them going into private hands and those people exploiting them to the detriment of the public.'
Anne Mason, chairman of the Friends of Thetford Forest Park, said she was 'delighted' with the news but added she would like to see the Forestry Commission ratified as owners of the public forest estate by the government.
She said: 'We're particularly delighted because it's democracy in action. It's showing the government has listened and has responded to overwhelming public concern. We've been amazed at the level of support we've had campaigning for Thetford Forest as well as the national campaign for the forest estate.
'We are cautiously optimistic, though, because we're still entirely focused on having the public forest estate in the hands of the Forestry Commission. I think they are the best people to secure access and biodiversity and their record shows they're the expert managers of the forestry estate. '
Nicki Gilbert has been breeding endurance horses in her spare time for the past five years and had been in limbo over whether she could carry on her business if access to the forest was sacrificed.
Miss Gilbert, 39, who runs Akala Arabians at Ash Farm in Shipdham, said: 'It's just amazing for us. I don't think they really realised how strong public opinion was or looked at the policy properly because it didn't make any provision for how things were going to be done.
'For us it wasn't so much about who owned it but protecting the fabric of the forest and the access.'
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman's announcement included the setting-up of an independent panel of experts with representatives of key environmental and access organisations and the forestry industry to examine forestry policy in England and report back to her in the autumn. She said: 'If there is one clear message from this experience, it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benefits they bring. My first priority throughout this period of debate has been securing a sustainable future for our woodlands and forests.'