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Save Our Forests

* The Government is planning to sell over 635,000 acres of woodland

* Once woodland has been sold, the public will no longer have any automatic "right to roam" on the land

* The "right to roam" laws do not include riding

* Selling public woodland will dramatically reduce riders' rights to ride, force more and more riders on to increasingly dangerous roads and even force many riders to stop riding altogether.

Saving our forests is seeing the wood for the trees

Maureen Comber writes to her MP, Damian Hinds

Dear Damian,

I am concerned about the government’s plans to sell off English forests.

As my MP, can you promise me that you will vote for a rethink ?

I want to keep the forests in public ownership, to maintain current access for the public and to protect the diverse wildlife found in forests. I understand that the clauses that allow this to go ahead are in the Public Bodies Bill - will you also vote against these clauses?

Have you written to your MP?

If you have, please send us a copy of your letter.

And also send a copy to
– that way we can build up a national picture of what MPs are saying.

Please get more people to join in by telling your friends to sign the petition?

Have you written to your MP?

Damian Hinds MP replies to Maureen Comber

"There was a government amendment to the motion, which addressed some issues on access; specifying “access rights for cyclists and horse riders” as one of the features of lease conditions."

Dear Ms Comber,

We are now less than two weeks into a twelve week consultation on government proposals on the future of the Forestry Commission and its estate in England. There is a lot of uncertainty and a number of as yet unanswered questions, some of which are of direct relevance to our own much-loved local woodlands including Chawton Park Woods, Bushy Leaze, Queen Elizabeth Country Park and Alice Holt. Our local woods are part of the fabric of our community and our access to them must be protected. I am absolutely committed to this.

Consultations can sometimes be greeted with cynicism, as little more than a fig leaf for potentially unpopular ideas, but the Secretary of State has committed herself to this being a genuine consultation with no predetermined outcome. I am engaging with the consultation on this basis. We have a real chance to make our views as a community known and there can be no doubt there will be immense scrutiny of how the government responds to the results. A number of people have asked why maintenance of the status quo is not an explicit option. I can understand that frustration. I would say to people who want to make this point in the consultation: please do so, even if there is no 'pro forma' question on it or you believe the questions are too restrictive.

At this point it is perhaps worth reiterating what is NOT being proposed:

  • This is not about clearing forests to make way for housing or other development; under the government's proposals, forests would remain as forests
  • The various protections on biodiversity, and measures against the felling of trees, stay in place, whoever owns or manages a forest
  • The government is talking about leases, not selling freeholds; the public sector - ie the country - would remain the freeholder and able to enforce lease conditions on access, biodiversity etc.
  • This is not an immediate programme: the government is talking about a programme that would take place over 10 years
  • No one is proposing to abolish the Forestry Commission; its regulatory and research functions would remain intact under the government proposals.

Nevertheless, there are a number of real worries. These are worries I have heard from many constituents and some are worries I share. The example of Rigg Wood in the Lake District demonstrates to me the dangers that have arisen in past changes of ownership. Protections were clearly insufficient and lessons must be learned.

There is a distinction in the consultation document between 'heritage forests' and others. The former get a lot more automatic protection but it is not clear to me what the criteria are for being a heritage forest, or if there is proposed to be some sort of 'appeal' process. If much of the emphasis goes on heritage forests, that makes it even more important to clarify the protections for others which also have crucial community amenity value.

I can see the potential for some advantages in more local community trusts owning forests and for some large scale commercial forests (of a sort we do not find in East Hampshire) being leased to specialist operators, so long as the appropriate access and other protections are in place and enforced (indeed I do accept the government's point that the Forestry Commission being both the regulator and a major operator is an anomaly which should be addressed – though you could say that there is more than one way it could be addressed).

I believe it remains unclear how transfers to community trusts would work in practice - in particular funding; what the grant-funding outlook is for the medium term; and what happens if no community trust comes forward (or indeed if something goes wrong later on).

The fact that last week's Commons debate was so heavily over-subscribed demonstrated how strongly many MPs feel on this subject. Sessions in the Commons chamber are in fact only one part of the debate that goes on in Parliament, and forestry has dominated a number of very well attended meetings outside the chamber too.

In Wednesday’s debate I was eager to stress the centrality of access in its widest sense. I specifically highlighted that “there is some nervousness about which forests count as heritage forests...people want the reassurance that there will be no loss of access or amenity for walkers, cyclists and horse riders even in the forests that do not count as heritage forests”. To be clear, there was no vote on Wednesday to sell forests. Indeed there was no legislation to vote on at all. Wednesday was what is called an 'Opposition Day', and the Forests motion was one of two put forward by the Opposition to have a go at the government. There is nothing wrong with this in principle (all Oppositions do it), but the first week of a twelve week consultation seemed to me to be not the right timing.

The debate did however serve some useful purposes. First it gave an opportunity for the strength of concern on these issues to be given a full hearing. There was also a government amendment to the motion, which addressed some issues on access; specifying “access rights for cyclists and horse riders” as one of the features of lease conditions. As I have said, I believe there is still a lot that is not clear. Now that these questions have been posed the consultation period must be used to address them. As you know, the consultation runs until the 21st of April and I hope everyone will respond to it. You can find a link to it on

I am making interim representations to the Minister on the points above. I have also already spoken with Forestry Commission managers and others in woodland management and am due to have further such meetings and site visits later this month.

I will of course later on be making my own formal submission on the consultation, and I want to reflect fully the views of East Hampshire residents. There is no substitute for meeting people and hearing from them in person. For this reason, I will be holding a public meeting on the evening of the 11th of March specifically to discuss forestry and the consultation. I do hope you will be able to come. The venue and other details of this meeting will be published on soon.

Sincerely Damian Hinds

Says Maureen Comber

"Please let Damian know that horse riders should be treated equally with other non-motorised users and expect to have free access to the public forests "

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