Gallery: MP faces criticism at heated forest meeting
PUBLISHED: 06:00 12 February 2011 | UPDATED: 08:57 12 February 2011
SUFFOLK Coastal MP Therese Coffey faced a barrage of criticism last night from livid forest users angry over controversial proposals to sell off woodland.
Hundreds of protesters turned out in force to voice their strong opposition to the Government’s plans.
Dr Coffey held a meeting at Rendlesham Community Centre to gauge people’s opinions – and she can have been left in no doubt about how they felt.
The hall was packed to the rafters and nearly 150 people were left standing outside in the cold because they could not get inside the room.
They signed an on-the-spot petition demanding another meeting with their MP, which Dr Coffey has said she is happy to have.
The Government is now consulting on plans to off-load England’s 258,000-hectare public forest estate, currently managed by the Forestry Commission, over the next 10 years.
The controversial proposals – which could see woodland sold to charitable trusts, individual communities or the private sector – have whipped up a storm of protest.
At the top of the agenda last night were the three Sandlings Forests in east Suffolk – Tunstall, Dunwich and Rendlesham.
The heated meeting was attended by a range of woodland users from ramblers, mountain bikers and horse riders through to professional foresters, wildlife enthusiasts and dog walkers.
There were passionate calls for the forests to be left alone and fierce criticism of the proposals – with particular fears over what would happen to public access should they fall into private hands.
Those who attended made it very clear that they expected Dr Coffey to represent their views in Parliament and to not tow the party line – or run the risk of losing her seat.
Richard Quarrell, from Sudbourne, said: “There is no economic reason for doing this, there is no social reason for doing this. You can see from this room that there is no community reason for doing this. I urge you not to do it.”
Mike Moore, chairman of local mountain bike group TROG, who use Tunstall and Rendlesham forests, said: “Previous experience shows us that when private landowners come in they close car parks and make access as difficult as possible. What protections will be there to stop it happening again?”
Colin Turner, from Saxmundham, accused the Government of stealing the county’s heritage from future generations.
Bill Jackson, of Cookley, near Halesworth, said: “Once this is gone there is no getting it back. We can’t guarantee anything in the future, who knows who might buy it in 10 years’ time?”
Other fears were raised about the impact that the loss of the forests could have on people’s physical and mental health, while there were also concerns about how it could affect biodiversity.
The Government has designated Tunstall Forest as “heritage” – which means it is earmarked for charity ownership – while Rendlesham and Dunwich forests have been classified as “small commercial”, which could see the land sold to a commercial operator or handed to a community group.
Thetford Forest, on the Suffolk-Norfolk border, has been designated as “multi-purpose”, which could see some sections sold off to commercial operators.
Dr Coffey urged all those who attended to make their feelings known by responding to the consultation.
She said she was aware of people’s strength of feeling and tried to explain the reasons behind the proposals, which she said were not wholly driven by economics.
“One, is to look at the role of the Forestry Commission,” she said. “At the moment it acts as a commercial operator and it also licences other commercial operators. There is a potential conflict of interest. Second, is biodiversity – there is a thought that by allowing partnerships and wildlife trusts to take ownership of some of the forests that this might happen quicker.
“Third, there is access. I know that’s a main concern. Currently legal protections only exist for people on foot – there are none for horse riders or cyclists. One of the things that the Government is committed to doing is to increase protection for people on horses and also for cyclists.
“The Government has made clear that, without exception, rights of public access will be guaranteed, heritage forests protected, communities put first and biodiversity preserved.”
The meeting was held just hours after environment secretary Caroline Spelman said the 15% of publicly-owned woodlands already earmarked for sale would be put on hold while the criteria for selling were re-examined,
However she said the review had no impact on the consultation into the remaining 85% of the public forests – which includes those in Suffolk.
The consultation lasts until April.