Thetford Forest could be sold

The government has announced plans for a fundamental reform of the way the public forestry estate is managed, which could see parts of the country's woodland sold off.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published a letter to MPs outlining its intention to reform the forestry estate, which includes Thetford Forest, with diminishing public ownership and a greater role for private and civil society partners.

The letter states that the inclusion of powers for modernisation of the forestry legislation in the Public Bodies Bill, which has just been introduced into parliament, is part of shifting the emphasis from 'big government' to 'big society'.

It hopes to give individuals, businesses, civil society organisations and local authorities a much bigger role in protecting and enhancing the natural environment and a much bigger say about priorities for it.

It said: 'By including enabling powers in the Bill, we will be in a position to make reforms to managing the estate. We will consult the public on our proposals later this year and will invite views from a wide range of potential private and civil society partners on a number of new ownership options and the means to secure public benefits. We envisage a managed programme of reform to further develop a competitive, thriving and resilient forestry sector that includes many sustainably managed woods operating as parts of viable land-based businesses.'

But Defra said it would not compromise the protection of our most valuable and biodiverse forests, and has given assurances that full measures will remain in place to preserve the public benefits of woods and forests under any new ownership arrangements.

The announcement has been greeted with mixed views from campaigners in the county, who have an interest in the region's woodland.

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Chris Allhusen, Norfolk branch chairman of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: 'The sale is something we have asked for for a number of years. We believe that the private sector can manage it better and more efficiently.'

He added: 'A lot of the forests owned by the state are large commercial estates. We're very mindful that Thetford Forest is very much used by the public. I don't think anyone in the private sector would wish to see the public enjoyment of the forests reduced. We would very much anticipate that the government would put sufficient safeguards in for public access. We very much see it as a positive step forward.'

But the Woodland Trust, the UK's leading woodland conservation charity, has concerns over the likelihood of an accelerated disposal programme of public forest land.

The Trust is of the view that not all of existing forest estate needs to be held in public ownership, but says that a way must be found to secure the future of ancient woodland sites planted up with conifers over the last 60-70 years.

Sue Holden, chief executive, said there were no mechanisms in place to guarantee that if sold to commercial or private interests, restoration will take place.

She said: 'Ancient Woodland is our richest and most fragile habitat; our equivalent of the rainforest. Restoring 20,000ha of ancient woodland would be the one of most significant contributions the UK could make to worldwide nature conservation; the proposed sell off must not become a barrier to this significant achievement.'