Much-loved Westcountry woodlands will not be sold after an independent panel called for state-owned forests to remain in public ownership.
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman yesterday pledged that “our forests will stay in public hands”, including around 200 sites that could have been off-loaded in Cornwall, Devon and West Somerset.
The Government made the commitment more than a year after it was forced into an embarrassing U-turn on a bid to sell or hand over England’s forests following public outrage.
The Independent Panel on Forestry, set up in the aftermath of the furore, said yesterday the estate should remain in public ownership as land held in trust for the nation.
The “public forest” makes up 18% of the entire woodland area in England, meaning the vast majority is privately owned already.
Some 258,000 hectares remain in the hands of the state-run Forestry Commission – including around 10,100 hectares in the Westcountry.
The report called for the Government to set up a social enterprise-style organisation to run the estate, with the power to buy and sell land so long as it did not undermine the “public value of the estate”.
It also wants woodland cover to be expanded from current levels of 10% of England’s land area to 15%.
Defra said it would respond fully to the report at a later date. But the department confirmed that the planned sale of 15 per cent of the public forest estate would not go ahead.
And Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said: “Our forests will stay in public hands. We will not sell the public forest estate.
“We’ll be talking to all those who are passionate about our forests to decide how we will manage our forests for the future.”
The Government had previously argued that the state has “no business” in running commercial timber yards and managing forests.
Haldon Forest near Exeter, Cann Woods on the edge of Plymouth and most of Cardinham near Bodmin, are among Forestry Commission woodlands in the region.
Dan Rogerson, Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall, who sits on the Environment Select Committee and whose constituency includes Cardinham, welcomed the move.
He said: “The one thing people were most concerned about was being locked out from forests. But it is clear now that the policy is for woodlands to remain in public ownership, which should guarantee access for everybody.”
John Varley, estates director of Devon landowner Clinton Devon Estates, which manages 1,900 hectares of woodland, was a member of the panel.
He said: “The value of our woodlands in terms of the quality of life they offer to people and to nature is immeasurable.”
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