UK’s national cyclists’ organisation CTC say that, despite yesterday’s government U-turn, the fight to stop the sell-off of England’s public forests and ensure continued access for mountain bikers and other cyclists isn’t over yet.
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman MP has announced she will delete the clauses in the Public Bodies Bill that would have enabled the sale of huge chunks of the Forestry Commission estate, telling MPs: “I’m sorry, we got this one wrong.”
But the sale of 15 percent of the woodland, or 40,000 hectares – which is permitted under current law – has not been dropped but instead temporarily postponed. Ministers say it won’t be put on the market until the sale criteria have been reassessed.
The Government has announced it will set up a panel to advise on biodiversity and forest access. If the sale of the 15 percent goes ahead, it could theoretically raise up to £100 million that could be ploughed into the UK’s struggling economy.
But the coalition’s own forestry consultation paper and impact assessment revealed that income from the sale would be outweighed by potential long-term income from logging and tourism, not to mention the costs of disposing of the land, in terms of compensation and redundancies.
CTC had been working behind the scenes to ensure an acceptable outcome for cyclists ahead of yesterday’s U-turn. The organisation’s off-road advisor, Colin Palmer, said: “CTC have said all along that we’d prefer to see England’s forests remain in public ownership and we’re very pleased that the Government now seems to be accepting this principle.
“However, we need to ensure that cycle access isn’t lost in the future. We hope that Ministers now understand the importance to cycling of the forestry estate, and will look for ways to meet the increasing demand from families and mountain bikers for traffic-free cycling opportunities in the forest.”
Prime minister David Cameron signalled the U-turn yesterday in Prime Minster’s Questions. Asked by Labour leader Ed Miliband whether he was happy with his government’s forestry policy, he said: “The short answer to that is, no.”
The move came after more than 500,000 people signed an online petition against the proposals, which would have seen 258,000 hectares of woodland sold to timber companies or handed over to charities and local communities over the next 10 years to raise £250m.