Sunday, 20 February 2011 12:23

Forest U-turn 'won't mean other cuts'

Written by  Ruralcity Media
Forest U-turn 'won't mean other cuts'

DEFRA insists it will not cut spending in other areas after reversing plans to sell off England's public forests.

The government department issued a statement following media speculation that the U-turn would force savings to be made elsewhere.

"The decision to end the forestry consultation will not lead to any further cuts to the Defra budget for flood defences, animal health or any other area," the statement said.

"As this was a consultation, no potential sales were factored into the savings required to meet our Spending Review settlement," it added.

"Therefore there will be no impact on Defra's spending plans in other areas."

The "myth busting" statement was posted on Defra's website on Sunday (20 February).

It came three days after Defra secretary Caroline Spelman ditched the controversial forest sell-off on Thursday (17 February).

"I'm sorry, we got this one wrong," Mrs Spelman told MPs in the House of Commons.

The consultation on the management of the Public Forest Estate had been halted and all forestry clauses in the Public Bodies Bill would be removed, she said.

Mrs Spelman also announced that an independent panel of experts would examine forestry policy in England and report back to her in the autumn.

"I would first like to say that I take full responsibility for the situation that brings me before the House today," she told MPs.

"Let me make it clear that we have always placed the highest priority on preserving access and protecting our forests.

"But the forestry clauses in the Public Bodies Bill, published well before we launched the consultation, gave the wrong impression as to the Government's intentions."

Mrs Spelman announced three steps she said would allow for more measured and rational debate about the future direction of forestry policy.

"First, I have taken a decision to end the consultation on the future of the Public Forest Estate and I take full responsibility for that.

I am doing so because it is quite clear from the early responses to the consultation that the public and many MPs are not happy with the proposals we set out.

"Second, the Government will support the removal of the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill, currently at committee stage in the House of Lords.

"And thirdly I would like to announce that I am establishing an independent Panel to consider forestry policy in England."

The panel will advise on the direction of forestry and woodland policy in England, on the role of the Forestry Commission, and on the role of the Public Forest Estate.

It will include representatives of key environmental and access organisations alongside representatives of the forestry industry. I will shortly publish its membership and terms of reference.

"If there is one clear message from this experience, it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benefits they bring," Mrs Spelman said.

She added: "Finally, I am sorry, we got this one wrong, but we have listened to people's concerns."

"I would like to thank colleagues for their support through what has been a difficult time. I now want to move forward in step with the public.

"I hope that the measures I have announced today, signalling a fresh approach, demonstrate my intention to do the right thing for our forests and woodlands."

The decision to abandon the sell-off has split rural interest groups.

The Country Land and Business Association said it was said it was "disappointed" but it welcomed the public debate on the issue.

CLA President William Worsley said: "We are instinctively in favour of private rather than public ownership and we know that private owners can manage woodlands just as well as the state.

"We are certain there are some areas of the public forest estate that could be better managed by the private sector while still delivering a wide range of public benefits."

But the Campaign to Protect Rural England said it was celebrating.

CPRE head of campaigns Ben Stafford said the government has listened to the overwhelming opposition to its proposals to sell public forests and woods.

In doing so, it had made the right decision to scrap the consultation.

"This will be welcomed by people up and down the country, including CPRE's members and supporters who were involved in local campaigns."

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