The controversial forest sell-off policy so widely opposed in recent months is to be abandoned, following an unusually frank and to-the-point exchange at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. When asked whether he was happy with the plans David Cameron simply admitted that he wasn't.
The consultation on the future of the public forest estate suggested selling 258,000 hectares of state owned English woodland currently run by the Forestry Commission, a plan that attracted criticism from conservation and outdoor groups, local communities, newspapers, celebrities, Opposition MPs and even some Coalition rebels. A petition opposing the idea on the 38 Degrees site attracted over half a million signatures.
The intention was to encourage a 'mixed model' of ownership under the auspices of the Big Society, but critics pointed out that the hope of allowing communities and charitable groups to bid for woodland was fatally undermined by the current spending environment, in which funds for such buyouts are thin on the ground. Instead the proposed sell off prompted fears that greater private ownership would favour developers and loggers, threatening biodiversity and public access, undermining the Forestry Commission's long term role and leading to woodlands being used unsuitably. It was also widely observed that hoped-for expenditure savings would be minimal at best.
In place of the sell-off a panel of experts will be asked to look into ways to improve biodiversity and public access within the existing state-owned forest regime. The government U-turn has been cautiously celebrated by campaigners.
Ben Stafford, Head of Campaigns at the Campaign to Protect Rural England said 'The Prime Minister has indicated that he is not happy with his flagship policy on forestry, and hundreds of thousands of members of the public ...would agree with him. We are pleased that Mr Cameron has said that he wants to increase access to our forests and biodiversity within them. We hope that, following his comments, the Government will now develop policies that will achieve this.'
'Apology accepted' announced walker's organisation The Ramblers.
Chief Executive Tom Franklin went on 'We welcome today's announcement to drop the current forest sell-off plans and start afresh in thinking about the future of our woodland. The Ramblers called for the consultation to be changed and for the clauses relating to the Forestry Commission to the [sic] removed from the Public Bodies Bill and we are pleased that our requests were listened to. We call on government to protect, maintain and increase access to all our nation's woodlands and our campaign to save the woodland walk will continue. ...We are looking forward to engaging with the government to ensure that access to our forests is protected now and always.'
But some opponents of the sell-off remain convinced that the Forestry Commission is not yet out of the woods. Rules already permit the government to sell 15% of England's publicly owned forests in each four-year spending period, and while these additional sales are temporarily on hold the intention remains to sell off the maximum permitted area over the next four years. Restructuring at the Forestry Commission may still see it shed 400 jobs, a quarter of its workforce. Many of these will be front line staff, forestry workers who might make a difference in the implementation on the ground of any future recommendations on improving biodiversity and public access.
Though welcoming recent developments, the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) are still concerned about access long term, and are in the process of compiling a list of crags on Forestry Commission land in England.
'There are a lot!' says Access and Conservation Officer Cath Flitcroft. 'Once this is complete we can ensure that every MP is aware of the number of crags in his / her constituency on FC land and ensure that the panel are aware of the exact number of crags to be found on the Estate. We need your help however, in ensuring that this list is as comprehensive as possible. If you know of crags that are situated on FC land in England, please contact me at the BMC.'
Can you help the BMC?
If you know of any crags that are on Forestry Commission land, please email Cath Flitcroft at the BMC with details: firstname.lastname@example.org