Caroline Spelman calms fears of Forestry Commission carve up

Defra secretary of state Caroline Spelman has attempted to dispel fears that the Forestry Commission will "sold off piece by piece to developers".

Caroline Spelman claimed the sell off was planned to enhance biodiversity and to give business a chance to protect their natural environment.

Writing in The Guardian, Spelman said of the Government's plan to try and make £5bn from selling Forestry Commission land in England: "It is enough to chill anyone's heart. It would certainly chill mine. Thankfully, it is not going to happen.

She said: "One of our main motives is the need to enhance biodiversity. We need to see more planting of trees and they need to be the right trees in the right place if we are to meet our aim of reversing the loss of species.

"This is no fire sale by a cash-strapped state. We think it's much better to give individuals, businesses, charities and local authorities the chance of a much bigger role in protecting their natural environment – and, frankly, those who live closest are most likely to protect it.

"Around 70 per cent of England's woodland is already under private ownership – some of them already participating in woodland schemes that actively preserve the environmental and public benefits our woodlands deliver.

"Putting more woodlands into alternative ownership will not lead to a free-for-all of golf courses, holiday parks or housing developments – I imagine local planning departments would have some strong views and use a range of safeguards to prevent this happening. Any proposals for development will come before the town and country planning process.

"Except in exceptional circumstances, such as emergencies, any land owner wanting to fell more than five cubic metres of growing trees a quarter needs a licence from the Forestry Commission. The role of the commission will remain central to controlling tree felling and replanting. We have no intention of diluting the existing safeguards, including those involving replanting and the protection of biodiversity, in the future.

"The Forestry Commission requires all woodland managed under the English woodland grant scheme to meet the UK Forestry Standard (PDF), and follow all the guidelines involved, including those on biodiversity.

"What we envisage is a long-term, managed programme of reform with the Forestry Commission playing a pivotal role. The Forestry Commission has extensive experience of this, as it has been managing an ongoing sales and purchase programme for many years. What we are suggesting is a new approach to how that happens.

"There has also been a degree of environmental jingoism in some of the reporting of our plans; contrasting the pledge I gave at Nagoya to provide £100m funding for protecting forests in developing countries with straitened funds at home.

"This money is just part of the nearly £3bn that we received under the Overseas Development Assistance budget ring-fenced for international climate finance – it was never an "either/or" option to spend it domestically.

"Public is not always good, nor non-public bad. Without, for example, the intervention of charities and others, parts of our landscape might not be managed and its ability to support biodiversity damaged. This is not about a quick sale of some of our most valuable environmental assets, but the start of new approach to making their protection more local and less central.

"Virtually everyone has a stake in making sure any transfer of woodlands from public to private hands is done properly. From the people who walk in them, to producers of biomass energy and paper, to environmentalists and local authorities.

"We need to hear from them all. So, when we launch our consultation on these proposals shortly, we want your contributions. They are valuable and they will help shape the next stage in the way we manage these precious natural assets."

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