UK forest sale plan scrapped after outcry

LONDON Thu Feb 17, 2011 9:58am EST

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LONDON (Reuters) - The British government on Thursday scrapped its controversial plans to sell the bulk of England's publicly owned forests after intense public opposition.

"I am sorry, we got this one wrong. But we have listened to peoples' concerns," farming and environment minister Caroline Spelman told parliament, to jeers from opponents.

A consultation into the proposed sale of large swathes of historic woodland was met with hostility by countryside and environment groups who feared a sale would damage nature and restrict public access.

The Forestry Commission currently owns 258,000 hectares of land -- about 18 percent of total English woodland -- and the government had been taking soundings on selling 85 percent. Thursday's announcement means that plan has been scrapped.

A separate commitment to sell the remaining 15 percent is on hold while ministers review criteria of the sale.

The government had planned to sell woodland on 150-year leases to the private sector to help it tackle a record budget deficit, now at about 10 percent of national output.

Opponents of the sale hailed the cancellation as a victory while Labour accused the coalition of the biggest U-turn since it was formed after last May's general election.

To gleeful shouts of "timber!" from the opposition benches in parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron admitted on Wednesday that he was not happy with the planned privatization.

David Babbs, of campaign group 38 Degrees, said: "Some say signing petitions and emailing (MPs) never changes anything. But it did this time. This is what people-power looks like, and over half a million of us are feeling very proud."

(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Steve Addison)

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