No sale of public forest estate

The Government has said it would not sell the public forest estate after an expert panel called for the 258,000 hectares of woodland to remain in public ownership.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman pledged that "our forests will stay in public hands", more than a year after she was forced into a U-turn on a bid to privatise England's forests following public outrage.

The Independent Panel on Forestry, set up after the outcry prompted by the bid to dispose of public woodlands to businesses, communities and charities, said the estate should remain in public ownership as land held in trust for the nation.

The panel said the Government needs to value woodlands for all the benefits they provide for people, nature and the economy and to invest in the public forest estate to avoid having to sell off woods to balance the books.

Responding to the report, Mrs Spelman said: "Our forests will stay in public hands. We will not sell the public forest estate. We'll be talking to all those who are passionate about our forests to decide how we will manage our forests for the future."

The Environment Department (Defra) also confirmed that the planned sale of 15% of the public forest estate, the most that can be sold off under existing legislation, would not go ahead.

The sale to raise up to £100 million had been put on hold while the panel conducted its inquiry.

The independent panel said the public forest estate cost around £20 million a year to the taxpayer - around 90p per household in England - but paid back an estimated £400 million in benefits to people, nature and the economy. The estimate does not include the intangible benefits forests provide such as connecting people with nature and preserving historic customs.

The Government must pioneer a new approach to woodlands which valued and rewarded management, improvement and expansion of woods for all the benefits they provide to people's health, recreation, wildlife and a sustainable economy, the panel said.

The report called on the Government and other landowners to give as many people access to woods as possible by planting trees and woodlands near to where they lived and providing incentives to increase access to existing wooded areas. Woodland cover should be expanded from current levels of 10% of England's land area to 15% by 2060.