Norfolk forests could be sold off

A major consultation on the future of England's publicly owned forests was announced today - and woodlands such as Thetford could be sold to raise up to �250m.

The government has insisted it would allow communities continued access and greater involvement in their woodlands, but the proposals have been met with concern from local campaigners.

Under proposals put out for consultation, commercially-valuable forests would be leased under 150-year leases, allowing the government to impose conditions on timber companies to protect public access and maintain management standards.

The proposals for the future of the 18pc of England's woodlands currently in public ownership also include plans to give communities, civil society and even local authorities the right to buy or lease forests.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman said she hoped the publication of the details of the public consultation today would prove many people's fears unfounded.

'State control of forests dates back to the First World War, when needs were

very different.

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'There's no reason for the Government to be in the business of timber

production and forest management.

'It's time for the Government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England's woodlands to play a much greater role in their future,' she said.

But Labour Richard Howitt Euro MP has joined with the Friends of Thetford Forest to campaign against the proposals, joining a nationwide campaign alongside Dame Judi Dench, Bill Bryson and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Mr Howitt said: 'Thetford Forest has been here for the last 100 years and we want it for the next 100. A short-term dash for cash threatens public access to the forest, an end to high standards of environmental stewardship and European-level protected habitats for rare birds.

'It isn't just Thetford Forest which is threatened but Forestry Commission sites at Bacton Woods too, and a total of more than 13,225 hectares of land across Norfolk as a whole.

'We have to force the government to accept keeping Forestry Commission ownership means keeping public forests in public control.

'There are 12 weeks to save our forests, some of which have been there since ancient times, so my message to local people is please don't leave it to someone else.'

The consultation outlines four different types of forest in the Forestry Commission's 258,000 hectare estate, ranging from commercially valuable large and small forests to multipurpose woods and forests and heritage and community woods.

The proposals would see the estate divided up between commercial operators, communities, charities and even local authorities.

Defra officials said the plan to sell commercial woodland to timber firms on a leasehold rather than freehold basis would allow them to impose conditions, including ensuring continued access for the public on bikes and horses.'

The conditions of the lease could also require companies to restore planted ancient woodlands, where traditional trees were cleared and conifers planted, to their former glory.

The Government has already announced plans to sell 15% of the public estate, with the hope that the sales will raise #100 million to help balance Defra's books - but has pledged to tighten the conditions of the sale, including preventing the selling of woods where more than 10% could be converted back to

ancient woodland.

Today's proposals deal with the remaining 85% of public woods in England, and Defra believes as much as 26,000 hectares, or up to 10% of the estate, could be sold or leased to local communities, charities or even town councils.

Local organisations would be given the first option to buy or lease woodlands, in which they could then run community enterprises such as woodfuel businesses or recreation schemes, but if the option was not taken up by communities the forest would be put up for leasehold sale in the same way as commercial woods.

Ms Spelman said: 'People care about their woodlands and forests. That's one of the motives behind this - opening the opportunities for local groups and charities being involved in looking after the woods they love.'

*The public consultation on the future of the public forest estate in England runs for 12 weeks until April 21.

*You can see the consultation document on the website www.forestry.gov.uk/england-pfeconsultation or www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/forests/index.htm.

Or you can request a hard copy by ringing 0845 3673787 or writing to Public Forest Estate Consultation Co-ordinator, Forestry Commission England, 620 Bristol Business Park, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol, BS16 1EJ.

*To sign the petition visit www.38degrees.org.uk/forests.