Ministers announce partial halt of forest sales

Proposed sale of 15 per cent of England's state-owned forests has been postponed by coalition.

The government has today announced that it has put on hold plans to sell off 15 per cent of England's state-owned forests, after widespread protests against the scheme.

Ministers said that they would "re-examine the criteria" for the proposed sales.

The 15 per cent sale is still likely to go ahead, but only after ministers have ensured "the necessary protection for all public benefits of the public forest estate are in place". Labour called the stall a "panic measure" triggered by popular opposition to the plans. The announcement does not mean the end of proposals to offload the 258,000 hectares of forests controlled by the Forestry Commission.

The opposition to this proposal has been vociferous. Writing exclusively in this week's New Statesman, the former MEP Stanley Johnson - and father of London Mayor Boris Johnson - criticised the plans:

"The threat to England's woods and forests lies not only in ill-advised measures the government may take under existing legislation, but in what may happen in the future under the powers that will be handed to the Environment Secretary, and her successors for ever after, if the bill is passed in its present form."

If the sale is abandoned, argued Johnson, the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman might have a "respite from the mounting clamour that must be making her life a misery. The future prospects of the coalition will also, I suspect, be considerably improved."

Announcing the halt today, Caroline Spelman said: "In light of the government commitment to increase protection for access and public benefit in our woodlands, the criteria for these sales will be reviewed so that protections are significantly strengthened following the inadequate measures that were applied to sales under the previous administration. Pending this review, no individual woodland site will be put on the market."

Shadow Environment Secretary, Mary Creagh, said: "This is a panic measure by a government which has been spooked by the huge public outcry. This partial U-turn will not be enough to silence the protests."