FORESTRY campaigners in the North East yesterday claimed a victory for people power as the Government confirmed that public ownership of woodlands would remain.
Thousands of protestors mounted demonstrations two years ago in forests in County Durham, Gateshead, Northumberland and the Lake District to fight Government plans to sell off nationally-owned woodlands.
But yesterday Environment Secretary Owen Paterson confirmed that the forest estate would remain in public ownership with an independent body set up to hold the nation’s woodlands in trust.
The Forestry Commission, which manages the public forest estate but which has suffered from spending cuts, will be given an extra £3.5m this year.
Mr Paterson’s predecessor Caroline Spelman sparked fury over proposals to dispose of publicly-owned woodlands to businesses, communities and charities, with the outcry forcing the Government into an embarrassing U-turn.
In response she set up an independent panel on forestry to examine the future of England’s woodlands, which then published a report urging the Government to adopt a new approach to woodlands which valued and rewarded their management, improvement and expansion for the benefits they provided to people’s health, recreation, wildlife and a sustainable economy.
The panel said the public forest estate cost the taxpayer around £20m a year – around 90p per household in England – but paid back an estimated £400m in benefits to people, nature and the economy.
Although they welcomed the Government’s admission of the importance of publicly-owned woodlands, regional campaigners called for better funding for the cuts-hit Forestry Commission and voiced concerns over the nature of the proposed new independent body.
Jan Ashdown, for the Save Kielder group, said: “The Government announcement is recognition of the importance woodlands for our culture and economy and exposes the notion that they can take decisions like selling off woodlands and think nobody is watching.
“What has happened shows that if you hit at the core of what people value you won’t get away with it. But cuts have meant the Forestry Commission has its hands tied and needs a better budget.”
Liz Searle, for the Friends of Chopwell Wood in Gateshead, said: “The cuts have meant that whereas Chopwell once had a squad of forestry workers we now have no forestry staff based in the wood and this leads things like illegal felling and fly-tipping.
“But the Government has admitted it was wrong and that campaigners’ points about the value of woodlands and the huge loss of sell-offs were correct.”
Mike Pratt, chief executive of Northumberland Wildlife Trust said: “The public forest estate is exceptionally good value for money but despite the relatively limited resources required, the Government has so far failed to commit to the funding needed. The Forestry Commission and other government conservation agencies have already had their funding cut to such an extent that they are struggling to function.”