Campaigners in victory over Forest private sell-off fears
THE Forest of Dean will be protected from the vultures of private ownership, the Government has vowed.
But whilst pledging to protect the ancient woodlands, a consultation document has revealed it will be handed over to a charity and expected to become "self funding".
It means the owners would have to find ways to generate cash from it.
Officials said funds could be raised through recreational activities such as installing adventure park-style "high-wires", or selling off excess wood for fuel.
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Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman insists the proposals unveiled yesterday will protect the historic woodland, which covers 35 square miles, for future generations.
The cabinet minister said transferring the premier oak forest and other "heritage woodland" to charitable trusts, such as the National Trust, would mean they would continue to be run in the national interest.
The woodland would be transferred at no cost to the new owners.
But while there would be initial government funding, the consultation document outlining proposals states it "would be expected to become less reliant on government support over time."
It adds: "The charity could pursue income generating activities in the forest, consistent with the delivery of public benefits."
Announcing the proposals on the future management and ownership of the woodland run by the Forestry Commission, the Secretary of State said: "A lot of people's fears will prove to be unfounded."
She added: "All those who want to own and manage forests will continue to be regulated by the Forestry Commission."
Ms Spelman was optimistic charities would want to run the forest.
"Trusts will come forward because people care deeply about their woodlands and forests.
"I think we can be reasonably confident there will be trusts interested in those heritage forests," she said.
There would be no upfront investment and grants would also be available to help towards running costs.
Ms Spelman said there was existing legislation to protect rights of access and changes would be made to the Public Bodies Bill currently going through Parliament to "strengthen those protections to all types of forest".
She said: "The government is absolutely committed to the ongoing provision and protection of the public benefits provided by the public forest estate.
"We will bring forward amendments to the Public Bodies Bill to create a strengthened framework to safeguard the natural and social capital our forests provide now and for future generations.
"We will make sure that public access is maintained and biodiversity protected."
Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean Mark Harper said the consultation confirmed the Forest is not for sale to private or commercial owners.
He believes the document will be welcomed by residents.
For several weeks Mr Harper has been a vociferous backer of the legislation, telling people it would help protest the woodlands rather than place it at risk.
Campaigners in the district have staged public rallies urging the bill to be scrapped, despite his stance.
Mr Harper said: "I have been consistently telling my constituents that the Government had no plans to sell the Forest of Dean to private or commercial owners and that all that was being considered was a proposal to transfer the ownership or management of the Forest to a charitable trust in order to involve local people more closely in its care."
He urged constituents to take part in the consultation and make their views known.
On the Government commitment that the Forest of Dean could only be transferred to a charitable trust or remain in public hands, Mr Harper said: "Many of my constituents want to ensure that the protection provided by the existing exemption for the Forest of Dean in the Forestry Act 1967, as amended, continues.
"I am very pleased that the Secretary of State has confirmed that the Government will amend the Public Bodies Bill so that the Forest of Dean could only be transferred to a charitable organisation or remain in public ownership, in line with the policy as set out in the consultation."
Labour has secured an opposition debate in the Commons next Wednesday on the future of the nation's woodland.
It will be the first time MPs have been able to have a full debate on the issue, as the legislation is currently making its way through the House of Lords.
Many MPs have been critical of the issue and believe the status quo should remain in place.
A major public consultation has now kicked off and will run until April 21.
Members of the public are being encouraged to have their say on the proposed legislation before it is too late.
The Government say the views will be taken into account when it comes before the house.
The consultation document can be found at www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/forests/index.htm.
Comments can be submitted by following the link.