Caroline Spelman: We will do our best for the Forest
Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on why the Government will protect the Forest:
I KNOW how passionately people feel about the Forest of Dean, not least because it is a conversation I regularly have with my colleague Mark Harper MP, and I can totally understand why.
I grew up a stone's throw from Hatfield Forest and brought my own children up on the outer reaches of the Arden Forest, so I get why people feel so protective over the many benefits woodlands like this one offer.
So let me take this opportunity to categorically assure readers of The Citizen that the Forest of Dean will continue to enjoy the strongest levels of protections for access rights and biodiversity.
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We can guarantee this, because in the consultation we make explicitly clear that heritage forests, such as the Forest of Dean, will not be sold off.
Instead we will consider the benefits of moving the ownership or management of heritage forests into a charitable trust so that they can continue to have the protection and support they require.
There has been speculation that the scope of powers in the Public Bodies Bill would still leave the door open at a later date for sale by any subsequent government. So to give 'belt and braces' protection, to make sure the Forest of Dean is protected in perpetuity, we will also be moving amendments to the Public Bodies Bill so that these assurances are backed up by force of law.
Not only that, the significant range of protections that are already in place, such as those in the Countryside Right of Way Act and wildlife legislation, will continue to safeguard the Forest.
On that basis, visitors and residents of the Forest of Dean will be able to continue enjoying the full access rights and benefits of the Forest. Any moves to a charitable trust model would be taken slowly in order to make sure we get it right. Forests like the Forest of Dean are, of course, expensive to maintain, but as they are a national asset it is right that they are adequately funded and I recognise this will have to be a consideration in any changes we make to how it is managed.
This consultation isn't about solely conserving our woodlands, it is about improving them by putting specific measures in the consultation which aim to restore Plantation Ancient Woodlands and by putting greater environmental safeguards in place.
As a veteran of trying to keep three children occupied in the summer holidays, I know that access and recreation opportunities in our forests are essential to letting people experience the unique atmosphere of England's forests.
By finding ways of improving the financial position of England's forestry estate we get a better outcome for forests like the Forest of Dean in the long term – putting it, and others, on a more sustainable financial and environmental footing.
We propose to lease the commercial forests out so that they can continue supplying the UK timber trade, but by retaining the freehold we will be able to apply stringent conditions which will conserve access rights.