Government set for another major U-turn over plans to dispose of Forestry Commission land
David Cameron is to back away from plans to change the ownership of 258,000 hectares of state-owned woodland in England after admitting to MPs he is unhappy with the policy.
The prime minister indicated that the government would embark on another major U-turn after Ed Miliband asked him in the Commons whether he was happy with his flagship policy to sell off the forests.
To laughter, the prime minister replied: “The short answer to that is, no.”
The government will clarify its plans in the next few days, but Cameron will argue the coalition is not being forced into a policy about-turn because the forest plans are no more than a consultation.
“It is a consultation that was put forward,” Cameron said. “We’ve had a range of interesting responses to this consultation. 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.”
The government has been under intense pressure since the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, unveiled plans last year to dispose of about half of the 748,000 hectares of woodland run by the Forestry Commission by 2020. Spelman has faced intense criticism from Conservative MPs who have been confronted by angry protests from constituents who believe the government is showing a lack of sensitivity to a key fabric of the nation.
The government, which hoped the sale would generate as much as £100m, had earmarked the Forestry Commission for substantial reform in its review of quangos.
The government indicated over the weekend that it was shying away from the sale when it took 40,000 hectares of public forest off the market. The last Labour government had allowed about 15% of England’s public forests to be sold.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it would refrain from selling the forests until the government had decided what to do with the rest of the Forestry Commission’s land.
Miliband mocked Cameron during prime minister’s questions over the plans. The Labour leader said: “Even he must appreciate the irony. The guy who made the tree the symbol of the Conservative party flogging them off round this country. He says they are consulting on this policy. They are actually consulting on how to flog off the forests, not whether to sell off the forests. Is the prime minister now saying that he might drop the policy completely?”
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. I know it is a totally alien concept but what is so complicated about that?”
Miliband said: “Everybody knows you have to drop this ludicrous policy. Let me give him the chance to do it. Nobody voted for this policy; 500,000 people have signed a petition against the policy. Why doesn’t he, when he gets up at the dispatch box, say not say he is postponing the sale but say he is cancelling it?”
Cameron replied: “Once again, he read the question before he listened to the answer. I think the bandwagon has just hit a bit of a tree.”
The government embarked on U-turns last year over school playing fields and the provision of books to schools.