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Cameron Drops Forest Sell-Off Plan in Biggest U-Turn

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to protests and abandoned plans to sell hundreds of thousands of acres of state-owned woodland in England in the biggest policy U-turn since his government took power last May.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told lawmakers in London today the Conservative-led coalition would end a consultation on whether to sell 258,000 hectares (638,000 acres) of woodland currently run by the Forestry Commission to private investors, charitable and community groups. Spelman only announced the plan 21 days ago.

Cameron was reacting to criticism of the sell-off from lawmakers within his own party, environmentalists, celebrities such as actress Judi Dench and the head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. More than half a million people signed a petition against the sale.

“If you launch a consultation and you get a very strong, clear response it’s the right thing to do in government to be a listening government,” Cameron told reporters in east London today. “The big picture for the government overall is these twin aims of reducing our deficit and getting our public finances back in balance, but at the same time aiming to build a bigger, stronger society.”

“If there is one clear message from this experience, it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands,” Spelman told lawmakers to jeers and laughter. “I am sorry; we got this one wrong but we have listened to people’s concerns.’’

‘Publicly Humiliated’

The opposition Labour Party’s environment spokeswoman, Mary Creagh, told lawmakers that “today the air is full of the sound of chickens coming home to roost.” Labour lawmaker David Winnick said that “if there is any public sympathy for the environment secretary today, it is because she has been publicly humiliated by the prime minister.”

Cameron came into power pledging that his ministers would have a freer rein than under previous governments on developing and handling their own policies. This week, though, the premier appointed Andrew Cooper, the founder of polling company Populus Ltd., as a new director of strategy, to take charge of the administration’s “grid” of forthcoming announcements and to help shape the future direction of government.

“There is a always a question for the prime minister about how much to delegate to colleagues,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Sussex University, said in a telephone interview. “Since Margaret Thatcher there has been a model whereby you control from the center and look like a control freak, or you can delegate and risk looking weak.”

Inflation, Unemployment

Cameron intended a relaunch of his plans to encourage charitable volunteering and the announcement of an overhaul welfare payment to dominate the political week in Britain. Instead, he was forced to defend his economic policy amid accelerating inflation and climbing unemployment. Ed Miliband, who leads the opposition Labour Party, attacked Cameron on both the economy and the forest sale at the premier’s weekly question-and-answer session in the House of Commons yesterday.

Cameron has four years until he has to call a national election and is betting that his plan to all but eliminate the deficit by 2015 will see a resurgence in growth before then. The economy shrank in the final quarter of last year and Cameron said this week he expected his popularity to decline.

“You’ll notice, however, there have been no significant U-turns on policies that save a lot of money such as reforms to child benefits payments,” Bale said. “Dropping the forestry plans will please the Conservatives and it won’t cost a lot of money and then Cameron will be able to move on.”

Free Books

Today’s change of policy isn’t the first climbdown by Cameron’s government during its nine months in power. Ministers scrapped plans to withdraw funding from a free book scheme for children and watered down plans to reduce the budget for competitive sports in schools.

In August last year, Higher Education Minister David Willetts was defending the idea of removing free milk for under-fives live on a Sunday television talk show when Cameron’s aides announced a U-turn on the policy, leaving broadcasters to inform the minister of the change while still on air.

Cameron has also faced challenges to the government’s authority after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that prisoners should be granted the right to vote and Britain’s Supreme Court forced ministers into allowing sex offenders to request their names are not kept on a register for life.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kitty Donaldson in London at kdonaldson1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net.

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