16 Feb 2011

Cameron ‘unhappy’ with forest sell-off plans

David Cameron has conceded that he is dissatisfied with Government plans to sell off England’s public forests, in a surprise admission at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Forest (Reuters)

The Government has already put on hold the sale of 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of forests amid growing anger from campaigners.

And during question time, Labour leader Ed Miliband asked the Prime Minister: “Can you tell us whether you are happy with your flagship policy on forestry?”

Mr Cameron replied: “The short answer to that is no.”

Mr Miliband urged the Government to drop the “ludicrous” policy and pointed out the “irony” that the Conservative Party’s symbol was a tree.

But Mr Cameron said Ministers would listen to responses from a consultation outlining plans to dispose of England’s 258,000-hectare (637,500 acre) public forest estate over the next 10 years.

It was announced last week that sales of 15 per cent of public forests announced in last year’s spending review will not go ahead until a review aimed at “significantly” strengthening woodland protections is completed.

This follows widespread criticism of proposals to offload the remaining 85 per cent of England’s public forests to timber companies, charities and local communities.

Mr Cameron told MPs: “As I’ve said before in this House, it is a consultation that is put forward.

“We’ve had a range of interesting responses to this consultation but I think what is important is that we should be making sure that whatever happens, we increase access to our forests, we increase biodiversity and we don’t make the mistake that was made under the last government where they sold forests with no access rights at all.”

Mr Miliband accused the Government of consulting on “how to flog off the forests, not whether to flog off the forests”.

“Are you now saying that you might drop the policy completely?” he asked.

Mr Cameron replied: “I would have thought the whole point about a consultation is that you put forward some proposals, you listen to the answer and then you make a decision.

Mr Miliband said: “Everybody knows that you’re going to have to drop this ludicrous policy.

“Let me give you the chance to do this. Nobody voted for this policy, 500,000 people have signed a petition against the policy. Why don’t you – when you get up at the despatch box – not say you’re postponing the sale, but say you’re cancelling it?”

But the PM accused his Labour opponent of not listening to his replies: “I think the bandwagon has just hit a bit of a tree.”

The Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh said: “Half a million people have signed a petition against the privatisation of England’s forests and today even the Prime Minister came out against the plans.

“The Tories are on the ropes and Labour MPs will keep up the pressure until they withdraw England’s woodlands from sale. The Government must now call time on this policy for good.”