Britain gives chop to forest rental scheme

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The British government abandoned plans Thursday to rent out half the country's state-owned national forests following a massive public outcry.

More than 500,000 people had signed a petition condemning the proposals to raise at least £250 million ($400 million, 290 million euros) by allowing companies and charities to take a lease on woodland.

"We got this one wrong," said environment minister Caroline Spelman as she told lawmakers the government was halting a public consultation into the plans.

The policy turnaround is the biggest by Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led coalition government since it came to power in May with a mission to slash Britain's huge deficit.

The plans were announced just three weeks ago.

Cameron said the way Britain's forests were managed still needed an overhaul but said the government had to listen to public opinion.

"If you launch a policy consultation and you get a very strong and clear response, it is the right thing to do to be a listening government and respond to that," he told reporters.

The plan aimed to rent out up to 130,000 hectares of commercially viable forests -- about half of the 258,000 hectares owned by the state, which itself accounts for 18 percent of England's woodlands.

Under the plans, the 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 plans sparked an angry reaction, with critics fearing the new tenants of the forests would fail to maintain them to current levels, or that they would shut swathes of woodland to the public.

Campaigners welcomed the decision to scrap the plan.

"This is what people power looks like, and over half a million of us are feeling very proud of what we've achieved together today," said David Babbs, head of the 38 Degrees campaign which launched the petition.

"We will keep watching David Cameron to make sure he keeps his word. But right now it looks like fantastic news for all of us who want to keep our forests safe in public hands for future generations."

The government is trying to save billions of pounds to reduce a record budget deficit.

© 2011 AFP

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