Open Letter from Barrie Foley
(Ex-Interim CEO, New Forest National Park Authority)
Save Our Forest
From the period of June 2009 and July 2010 I was fortunate enough to have an input into local life as the Interim CEO of the National Park. When I finished I felt it necessary to step back quietly knowing that others would continue to make certain that we had the right balance of enjoying the Forest whilst at the same time not destroying it. However, since the idea of selling off our woodland has been introduced I feel it necessary as a local resident to come forward and make comment on this very important subject. ďThe Forestry Commission should be allowed to continue to manage the Forest in its existing formatĒ.
It has already been highlighted that there are no financial benefits in changing the system but the government is still making noises about using the third sectors to manage our Forest, which is difficult to accept. There are many charities in this area doing great work in supporting the Forest from a number of different perspectives. There are charities with conservation and animal welfare as their core objectives and others more focussed on recreation and enjoyment assisting people with and without disabilities, the Forest is a complex area and I believe that we are already applying many of the Big Society characteristics by working together in the form of partnerships and involving the public and stakeholders wherever possible. But to hand the Forest over to one particular charity or a combination would take away my right and anyone elseís to change it if we were not happy.
The Government can put certain rules and regulations in place but we all know that with time these can be diluted and loopholes will be found. With the existing system I can approach my councillor or MP and get their support for any issues that I consider necessary. If I am not happy I can vote every 4 years and campaign for an alternative, whether it is a local or a general election. I will not have any say if it goes to a charity unless I sit on its committee. The arguments that Desmond Swayne MP and Julian Lewis MP made over the years against the National Park are even more profound if we hand it over to a charity because the charity will not be accountable at all, this situation would be worst than the existing system. The National Parkís accountability is not yet sorted but like it or not people pressure had a major influence in 2009. In my view some of the Members of the National Park made the changes in 2009 knowing that their own constituency seats in other authorities were at risk, otherwise change may have not occurred and I would never have been employed. This shows that there is some form of accountability with 16 out of the 22 being indirectly elected, but it is obvious that work still needs to be done concerning direct accountability.
I am also a big supporter of the Verderers, the National Trust, the Commoners, the New Forest Association, Hampshire wildlife and many others but they would not cope in managing the Forestry Commissionís responsibilities, they would find it difficult to address the wide remit that the Forestry commission has to manage ranging from woodland management to conservation and recreation, not to mention the administration support that would be required.
I support Julian Lewis MP in keeping the Forestry Commission under Government control and welcome his approach in not towing the party line, what a breath of fresh air. We must also remember that the Forest is within a National Park and thus could bring in many financial benefits (once we get over this recession) and increase its protection. I also believe that the National Park Authority should be made accountable via direct elections with the right balance of majority accountable local Members and a minority of unaccountable national Members. MPís should not duck the issue by saying that the public will not have the appetite to vote, it is up to them to make certain that we have the appetite. Accountability has always been at the front of the MPís arguments over the last four years and now that they are in office why must it change. Majority local accountability is better because some local councillors would like to build more houses in the Forest securing their seat but this may have a devastating effect on the Forest, once it has gone it has gone forever. The minority unaccountable national input would put back some balance and bring in the required expertise, but it should not have the overriding influence above the local people. We have to remind people at all times that this is a national treasure allowing us to enjoy the benefits that this status brings but also point out that we are living and working here and the state of the Forest has a direct consequence on our lives.
It is time for the Members of the National Park to stand up and be counted and help save the Forestry Commission. It is more difficult for the Officers to put their view because they work for DEFRA but the Members can have their say. It was good to see NPA Members David Harrison and Julian Johnson make comment and I would welcome others to join the public debate, especially after the NPAís Authority Meeting in March. It is a shame that they cannot discuss this in February, letís hope that they have enough time after March to make an impact.
Before I worked at the National Park I did not understand why we needed it. After doing the job I now truly believe that it is needed more than ever, it plays an active part in bringing all these complex bodies together and will be pro-active in bringing in more funding in the future. It has also got over many of its problems and the culture is more supportive, it just needs accountability to give us confidence for the future and stand up for the Forest where it counts. Letís not keep beating it up but encourage its Members to support us in keeping the Forest a special place to live and work.
I hope people will approach MPís, Members of the National Park and the Councillors of NFDC to help support the Forestry Commission in keeping its original format of keeping it under the ownership of an accountable body i.e. the Government in this instance as well as contributing to the Governments Consultation Paper at http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/forests/index.htm. I also hope that we make certain that our keepers are protected and the existing successful Forestry Commission management team continue to work under the present leadership.†
Barrie W Foley