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New Forest (Ministerial Mandate)

Volume 449: debated on Monday 24 July 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for this opportunity to hold an Adjournment debate on an issue of vital importance in the New Forest. I am indebted to Anthony Pasmore, one of the verderers of the New Forest and a monthly correspondent in the New Forest newspaper of record, the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times.

The Minister’s mandate sets out the rules by which the Forestry Commission must administer the New Forest. It establishes

“conservation of the natural and cultural heritage as the principal objective of management”.

My purpose in asking the Minister to respond to the debate is to give him the opportunity to reaffirm that principle against the fears that it may be superseded.

The Forestry Commission raises revenue. That is why it calls itself Forest Enterprise. It might raise revenue through commercial forestry or through commercially exploiting the leisure opportunities afforded by the New Forest. Arguably, the latter has become a more favourable target in the existing climate.

I should like the Minister to deny categorically the rumours that are circulating that the Minister’s mandate will become a dead letter, and that the primacy of conservation will be superseded by the need to provide recreation opportunities. I have two specific concerns, with which I shall illustrate the problem. The first is to do with the campsites in the New Forest. They fill some 357 acres of the forest, not including the areas around the campsites that are inevitably affected and disrupted by their existence.

This has been a long-running sore—a battle between the Forestry Commission, which obviously wants to increase the services and the pitches available in those campsites in order to generate more revenue, and the verderers of the New Forest who represent the commoners and the rights of grazing. Currently, that battle is joined over the Roundhill and Hollands Wood campsites. But now something of a quite different order has arisen.

In May this year the Forestry Commission and the Camping and Caravanning Club announced a new joint venture partnership, Forest Holidays. Forest Holidays will lease the campsites of the New Forest, all 357 acres, and the press statement announcing this new venture stated that it

“opens the door to Forest Holidays developing even more camping and cabin sites on Forestry Commission land”.

It then goes on to say that the objective of the new venture

“will be to modernise the facilities across the network of Forest Holiday sites.”

What does that all mean? It certainly means more pitches, with electric hook-ups. Does it mean more roads and paths? Does it mean, for example, security lighting, entertainment opportunities, shops, playgrounds, perhaps a swimming pool, perhaps even a swimmers’ sub-tropical paradise, as exists at Centre Parcs, or even a “stately pleasure-dome”, such as Kubla Khan decreed, in “caverns measureless to man”? Remember that we speak of the New Forest, a world heritage site, our smallest national park, where the camp sites are never far from the most sensitive parts of the forest core.

All that stands between these potential developments being realised are the verderers of the New Forest, armed, of course, with the Minister’s mandate. Will they be supported by the Minister and his mandate, or will they be bullied into submission or even circumvented by a new national park authority, which as a local authority is armed with compulsory purchase powers?

Of course, I have deliberately exaggerated in order to point to the potential danger that exists for the future. I do that in order that we recognise that danger now so that we can guard against it. The Minister’s reaffirmation of the core principle of his mandate tonight will be a powerful guard against that potential future that I have just described.

I now come to a more pressing and imminent concern, and that is the disposal by the Forestry Commission of Holmsley lodge and Shrike cottage, together with 13 magnificent acres at the heart of the New Forest. I am reassured by a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), of 4 July when he assured me that no final decision has been taken on this matter. I hope to persuade the Minister to abandon this proposal entirely, but if I fail to do that, at least to reconsider the time scale in which this is to take place. The current tenants have been told that they need to leave by January 2007. Given the business that they have and the fact that they have nowhere to go and that they have been in those properties for 40 years, I suggest that a much longer time scale would be necessary.

I find, surprisingly, that I am at odds with the verderers on this particular question. Because the verderers have backed the Forestry Commission’s proposal. I honestly believe that in this respect they have made the wrong call. It was a narrow decision made on the casting vote of the official verderer. Perhaps the verderers were influenced in that decision by the campsite issue, and not wanting to open up the possibility of war on two fronts with the Forestry Commision at any one time.

I also understand the verderers’ concern that properties be made available for commoning. I would not say for one moment that the verderers were bribed in the decision that they came to, but as the Under-Secretary put it to me, rather delicately, in his letter of 4 July:

“Therefore if the sale is approved a proportion of the funds raised would be reinvested in affordable housing for commoners.”

It is, of course, right and proper that the verderers should take that into account. I understand that the offer of one property was increased to two, and the verderers reached their decision accordingly. What the Under-Secretary did not say in that letter—perhaps the Minister will throw some light on this matter, if not tonight, then in correspondence—is the proportion of the funds generated by that sale that will be reinvested in housing for commoners.

In its letter to me of 15 May, the Forestry Commission stated that the properties concerned do not meet the criteria set out in the Illingworth report. On Holmsley lodge, it stated:

“the house does not make a practical family home.”

And on Shrike cottage, it stated:

“The cottage does not make a practical family home.”

I accept that the current tenants of Shrike cottage and Holmsley lodge are not practising commoners, but if we do not sell the family silver, those properties will be available to commoners in the future. Making properties available for commoning at affordable rents is a vital part of the Forestry Commission’s role.

As to the practicality of those properties as family homes, tell that to the Landers, who have raised a family of five in Holmsley lodge, and to the Mays, who have raised a family of four in Shrike cottage. The irony is that those properties were probably not practical family homes. Shrike cottage had no kitchen, a leaking roof, rotten window frames and one open fireplace to heat the entire cottage, but that property has been transformed, as has Holmsley lodge, by the existing tenants. Perhaps that has contributed to such a gem being disposed of on the open market, rather than its being secured for the long-term interests of the New Forest.

The Landers and the Mays have installed a vermin-proof fence around all 13 acres of magnificent landscape. They have built up a wild fowl business of national and international renown. It currently contains some 1,000 birds, many of which are endangered species, and the families are now part of the forest community. I have a letter from Burley parish council, which I shall furnish to the Minister by tomorrow’s mail, that states the importance of the enterprise and of those tenants to the community. I have a petition containing the signatures of 110 local residents, which, given the sparsity of residents in that part of the forest, is something of an achievement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the New Forest was much more than the heathland and woodland that it now comprises. It was a great national estate, which included farms, mansions, shops and businesses all under the Crown estate. The Forestry Commission sold off many of those assets, until it was checked, partly by the Illingworth report in the mid-1980s. The question is whether that process has started again. Last year, we saw the proposals for the sale of Swan Green, and this year we have Shrike cottage and Holmsley lodge. I urge the Minister to come and see this outstanding site and to consider that once he sells this gem in the heart of the New Forest—he will sell it, because he will sign the order for the disposal of the properties—he will lose control for ever over what happens there. Before he signs—before he closes an ecologically important business and renders three elderly people homeless because, after 40 years as tenants, they have nowhere else to go—I ask him to consider his mandate and the fundamental principle, which is the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the New Forest. Over the best part of the past half century, the Mays and the Landers and their wildfowl have become part of that cultural and natural heritage. The millionaires or footballers’ wives to whom these properties will be sold are unlikely to do so.

I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on securing this debate. I apologise for the fact that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who is overseas on ministerial business, cannot reply, which is why the hon. Gentleman has me.

As the hon. Gentleman reminded the House, the importance of the Minister’s mandate goes back to 1971, when it became the Forestry Commission’s “licence to operate” after a rather turbulent period in the New Forest’s history. The last review and renewal of the mandate was in 1999, a few years ahead of the planned renewal date because of the pace of change in the New Forest and the importance of the mandate.

At the heart of the mandate are a number of objectives for the management of the Crown lands: the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage as the principal objective of management; community engagement through greater public participation in decision making; the promotion of rural development opportunities; the provision of access and recreation opportunities and increasing public awareness and understanding; and, insofar as it is consistent and compatible with the first and second objectives, efficient management of the Forestry Commission’s operations and appropriate generation of income from timber production and other uses of the Crown lands. There are also a series of guiding principles concerning natural heritage, cultural heritage, public enjoyment, rural development, and something called working together.

Overall, the mandate gives clear direction without overly constraining the commission’s ability to manage the forest. Even with the creation of the national park, it remains just as relevant today as it was in 1971. The mandate has been included in the special guidance that Ministers sent to the national park authority, emphasising the importance of the mandate to the management of the New Forest.

There has been a suggestion in the local press—the hon. Gentleman quoted it—that the mandate is being abandoned. Let me reassure him that that is completely unfounded. I am pleased to be able to reassure all concerned that the mandate remains the key guidance to the commission’s management of the Crown lands. I am assured by my officials that the character of the campsites will be unaffected by the holidays venture. To change their character would require the agreement of all the relevant statutory bodies, and, as he said, there is considerable disquiet in his constituency about that suggestion.

The mandate is due for review and renewal in 2008. That will give those with an interest in the forest—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be right there at the front—an opportunity to help to ensure that it remains relevant to future needs and coincides with the completion of the management plan for the national park.

I turn to the commission’s plans to sell two properties in the New Forest—Holmsley lodge and Shrike cottage. The changes in society and forestry practice mean that the Forestry Commission no longer has a significant need to provide housing to forest workers. That has resulted in the commission reducing its housing stock in England from over 1,500 in 1980 to fewer than 240 today. However, the New Forest has seen proportionally far fewer sales than elsewhere because of the additional criteria applied to sales in the New Forest. Two criteria underpin the retention of properties in the forest. The first is to provide opportunities for affordable housing, with associated back-up land for practising commoners and the second is to provide affordable local accommodation for commission employees in key posts when there are operational reasons for staff to be based in the forest.

With the existing lease on Holmsley lodge and Shrike cottage ending in June this year, the Forestry Commission rightly considered their future against the criteria that I outlined. It found few grounds for retaining those properties, and it is consulting interested parties, including, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the verderers of the New Forest, who are the experts in assessing the value of a property to commoning.

Once the commission has considered all the arguments, and if it believes that the sale should still go ahead, it will seek a final decision from the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North, on whether the properties should be sold.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West rightly mentioned the concerns of the properties’ tenants, who have been there for a considerable time. They knew that the lease was coming to an end and that a review of properties’ future was taking place. The matter should not, therefore, have been entirely unexpected.

Of course, the tenants were expecting to pay more rent but there was no suggestion that the lease would end. That is always a possibility for any tenant, but I ask the Under-Secretary who makes the decision to consider those tenants’ specific circumstances, their input and the difference that they have made to that part of the forest.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will consider the hon. Gentleman’s representations. I know that they have exchanged correspondence on the subject.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Forestry Commission, as a public body, has a responsibility to the taxpayer to maximise its income and asset base while maximising the help that it gives the commoners in his constituency. Subject to a decision to sell the properties, the Forestry Commission, which is not unsympathetic to the tenants’ position, is prepared to allow them to stay on until February 2007 to give them more time to make alternative arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the tenants should be allowed to remain in the properties for the rest of their lives. That would impose an unquantifiable commitment on the commission, as I am sure that none of us would wish the tenants an early departure from this world. Such an open-ended commitment would affect the commission’s ability to invest elsewhere in the New Forest.

As the hon. Gentleman said, it is planned to invest a considerable amount of the capital—I cannot give the exact figure—realised by the sale in providing new affordable housing to support commoning. There will thus be new properties to support commoning in his constituency. I understand that that is the reason for the verderers’ support for the sale. Revenue will also revert to the Forestry Commission and there will therefore be more income on both sides.

I hope that, if the Under-Secretary responsible for the matter is not persuaded to abandon the proposal, he will consider the possibility of at least a period that is long enough for the tenants to wind up humanely a business that involves 1,000 wildfowl. From now until January next year is a short time.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is responsible for biodiversity and I am responsible for animal welfare. I am sure that we will liaise with each other to satisfy ourselves that, in the event of the tenancy ending, animal welfare is taken into account in the way in which the hon. Gentleman requests.

As the hon. Gentleman said, one of the reasons for the sale is that Holmsley lodge and Shrike cottage do not have rights of common or recent history of commoning associated with them. The view of the Forestry Commission and, indeed, the verderers, is that the properties are not suitable to be used in such a way. New housing built to modern standards, with the provision of some grazing land, would be a better way for the commission to continue to demonstrate its commitment to commoning. That would help maintain the cultural heritage of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as required by the Minister’s mandate.

The commission has already shown a strong commitment to supporting commoning by increasing the number of properties that it lets at reduced rents to commoners. That has increased from 16 in 1992 to 29 today and it represents 44 per cent. of the commission’s housing stock in the New Forest. It is expected that the number of commission properties let to commoners will continue to increase.

In summary, I reiterate to the hon. Gentleman that the status of the Minister’s mandate has not been devalued by the creation of the national park, and there are no plans to abandon it, although it is up for renewal in 2008. The proposed sale of Holmsley lodge and Shrike cottage would not be contrary to the direction in the mandate. It would serve to help commoning, rather than undermining it. The reinvestment plan would, in my view, be to the long-term benefit of the New Forest.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o’clock.