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Greenwise: No sell-off of forests, promises Caroline Spelman

England's publicly owned forests and woodlands will not be sold off, the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, said on Wednesday, after the independent panel she appointed recommended it stay in public ownership.
The move completes the U-turn forced by public anger against the Government's original proposal to sell-off all state-owned woodlands. The panel said the sell-off had "greatly undervalued" the benefits woodlands provide for people, nature and the economy. It called for the forests to be held in trust for the nation and for public investment to manage and expand the woods.

James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool and who chaired the panel, said: "Our woodlands, managed sustainably, can offer solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing society today. There is untapped potential within England's woodlands to create jobs, to sustain skills and livelihoods, to improve the health and wellbeing of people and to provide better and more connected places for nature. Government investment is now needed to kick start these changes which will repay itself many times over in terms of public benefit."

Responding to the report, Spelman said: "Our forests will stay in public hands. We will not sell the public forest estate." The 15 per cent of the public forests, whose sale was suspended when Spelman abandoned the planned sell-off of every forest, will also now remain in public ownership.

The panel's report calls for much greater planting of new trees in England, where rates have declined in recent years. Woodland cover should be expanded from current levels of 10 per cent of England's land area to 15 per cent by 2060, the panel said. Changes to the Forestry Commission were called for to protect it from political interference. These changes envisage a BBC-style organisation, with a 10-year charter governed by trustees.

The independent panel included the heads of the National Trust, Confederation of Forest Industries, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, Woodland Trust and others. The panel said it was struck by the "heartfelt connections" between people and woodlands and received 42,000 communications from the public and interested parties. Campaign group 38 Degrees amassed 538,000 signatures on its petition.

The panel's report found the benefits of England's publicly owned forests were "greatly undervalued" by the planned sell-off, finding that the £20 million cost to the state of maintaining the forests and woodlands is "very modest and delivers benefits far in excess of this". Spelman's department suffered the greatest budget cut in Whitehall in the 2010 comprehensive spending review.

The social benefits of the natural environment – estimated at £1 billion - £2 billion for woodlands alone – were highlighted by the Government's own landmark assessment in June 2011, but the report made clear these benefits were overlooked in the sell-off proposals.

Some of the NGOs represented on the independent panel had been criticised by other green groups for expressing an interest in acquiring woodland that would have been sold under the Government's original plans. The Government had invited private "expressions of interest" via the Forestry Commission, and the National Trust and Wildlife Trusts both submitted lists.

Jonathan Porritt, a member of Our Forests, said in January: "I believe they betrayed their members. The NGOs have to hold the Government to account, rather than roll over and have their tummies tickled. I don't think we would have got into this mess if the NGOs had sat down at the start and said to Government: 'You are barking mad'."

Data published this week shows that just 13 per cent more trees were planted in England in 2012 than in 2010, contrasting with Scotland and Wales which have expanded their wooded areas by increasing planting by 233 per cent and 250 per cent respectively over the same period. England has no target for tree planting, unlike Scotland and Wales.

The panel also called for greater public access to the 82 per cent of England's woods which are privately owned. England contains about 1.3 million hectares of woods and forests – an area about twice the size of Devon – and 18 per cent is public forest. However, this 18 per cent includes almost half of all the forests accessible to the public.