Concern at British plan to rent out forests

27th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Britain unveiled plans Thursday to rent out half of the state-owned national forests to raise an estimated £250 million ($400 million, 290-million euros), but conservation groups are worried.

Under proposals from Prime Minister David Cameron's government, up to 130,000 hectares of commercially viable forests would be rented out.

That represents about half of the 258,000 hectares owned by the state, which itself accounts for 18 percent of England's woodlands.

Cameron's government, which is trying to save billions of pounds to reduce a record budget deficit, has already committed to selling 15 percent of the estate by 2015, raising up to £100 million.

The remaining woodland would either be handed over to charities to manage with the help of public funding, or sold or leased to civil society groups.

The government tried to reassure groups who fear the new tenants will fail to maintain forests to current levels, or that they will shut swathes of woodland to the public.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said the proposals were intended to put forests in the hands of the people who used them and denied suggestions that woodland would become victim to property developers.

"It's time for the government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England's woodlands to play a much greater role in their future," she said.

She added: "We will make sure that public access is maintained and biodiversity protected."

Some politicians also criticised the plan. Opposition Labour lawmaker Dennis Skinner asked in a parliamentary debate on Thursday: "Will the sleazy bankers be able to buy up large chunks?"

He asked: "Will the supermarkets be allowed to buy? Tesco -- 'Buy two forests get one free'?"

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) welcomed Spelman's promise to protect the forests but said it wanted "cast-iron guarantees" that they would not be sold off to developers.

An online YouGov poll this month found 75 percent of Britons would oppose any attempt to sell off England's forests, and Greenpeace UK urged ministers to heed public opinion.

"It's no surprise that there has been an upswell of public concern at the prospect that our island's natural life might be auctioned off at a government-sponsored jumble sale," said executive director John Sauven.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the figure of £140 million to £250 million which reports said the move would raise was an estimation which would cover leases for a period of ten years.

© 2011 AFP

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