Caroline Spelman still hopes to sell off a chunk of England’s forests, she has admitted to MPs, despite February’s embarrassing U-turn on the issue.
Speaking to the Commons’ environment committee, Ms Spelman said she wanted to go ahead with plans to sell 15% of UK woodland – the maximum amount allowed under current rules.
The decision has raised eyebrows as it follows her U-turn on the issue in the Commons last month.
Ms Spelman told MPs she was concerned about rights of access to the woodland areas, but expected the sales to continue once the problems were addressed.
“We await of course the outcome of the independent panel in terms of finding ways to provide better protection for access and other public benefits,” she said.
“And if they’re successful in doing that they will presumably recommend we resume on a better more protected basis.”
The sale would raise £100 million for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and be finalised in the next four years.
February saw Ms Spelman apologise to MPs for the plans to sell off the forests, after a popular backlash against the proposals which prompted a sustained public campaign against them.
“I am sorry, we got this one wrong,” she said at the time.
An independent panel are considering the plans for England’s forests and the government maintains any changes in ownership would not affect the public’s ability to enjoy countryside activities in the woods.
Dr Hilary Allison, policy director at the Woodland Trust, said the government needed to clarify its position.
“On 11 February this year, Defra issued a suspension notice for the programme of forestry sales announced in the Spending Review in October 2010, until extra protections on access and biodiversity were put in place,” Dr Allison said.
“Caroline Spelman actually said that pending this review of ‘inadequate’ safeguards, ‘no individual woodland site will be put on the market’.
“Nothing has happened to change this situation in the meantime, so it is hard to see how these woods can have any lasting protection on a change of ownership.”
A Defra spokesperson said the sales were still suspended.
“All new sales of public forestry land were suspended from the 17th February. We will decide on the level of any future sales and the conditions to be attached to them only once we have received and considered the advice from the independent panel.”