We have signposted the panel’s ‘call for views’ to our members and encouraged them to make their own independent comments and views. We have also asked that they take part in the current online survey(s). This written response is a reflection of some of those views. One Voice is not qualified to pass judgement or offer alternatives on matters of future forestry in terms of detailed analysis – we leave that to the experts. We are most concerned with ensuring that there will be open and transparent accountability during the decision making process and in particular to ensure mechanisms are put in place to consult the general public in the process of taking forward the recommendations of the panel. We feel that informing and including the general public will lead to a greater understanding of why our woodlands and forests are so very dearly cherished.
Broad points we would like Defra to include in their deliberations are: -
· The New Forest should not be thought of as a separate unit, but there are local complexities, which need to be considered. There will not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution and central government should take into account local government regulations and by-laws, which may have different impacts on different areas.
· The New Forest Acts must be preserved intact and not diluted or changed.
· Access Rights in the New Forest:
From a laypersons viewpoint it is currently unclear whether Access Rights are enshrined in the CROW Act 2000 or a combination of the CROW Act, the Law of Property Act and the ‘Understanding’ between the Forestry Commission and the New Forest Verderers: -
A Memorandum of Understanding Between the Forestry Commissioners and the Verderers of the New Forest (2002) has been drawn up to clarify the position and is intended to be binding in honour only. (Information taken from Forestry Commission Website)
The Law of Property Act 1925; and the fact that the Forestry Commission in the New Forest has dedicated as access land all the woodland areas that it manages which do not have access rights under the Law of Property Act 1925. (Information recently found on the New Forest National Park website, but now removed)
This is something we feel should be discussed and clarified by Defra.
· The boundary of the New Forest National Park does not encompass/envelope the entire New Forest and the NPA have more stringent planning regulations and local agreements. This is one of the complexities that will need to be addressed.
· The Forestry Commission is a multi-functional organisation, which is ultimately accountable to the general public. It employs its own (local) conservation staff, works in partnership with other conservation organisations and has links with landowners through its grants schemes. It is therefore able to acquire and use a vast knowledge pool, which can be of service to the New Forest, and elsewhere.
Whilst we feel the Forestry Commission is best placed to continue to manage the New Forest, the lack of funding and local autonomy means they are limited and therefore have to make difficult choices in the work they do.
§ We would not support land sales unless it has been the result of a full public consultation exercise. The lands are in public ownership – the public should therefore be part of the decision making process.
· Community Groups cannot manage woodlands or forests in a sustainable way without the expertise and knowledge base of the Forestry Commission. There is however a role for local community groups to get involved by assisting Rangers or even becoming Rangers in a voluntary capacity. This is something that Defra may wish to explore further.
· We would not support ‘gifting’ or ‘leasing’ any part(s) of the PFE.
· We feel strongly that any newly formed Public Forest Management Organisation should be enshrined in ‘guardianship’ rather than a ‘Trust’ formation. The general public have a perception that the PFE will remain in public ownership in perpetuity; therefore a time-limiting Charter will not be appropriate, although the regulations should be revisited at appropriate intervals.
· Planning Policy and Practice: It is our experience that unless local residents are properly consulted, Local Plans may not be a reflection of the community’s views or aspirations. In the New Forest local authorities rely heavily on 34 Parish Councils to produce their own “Village Design Statement”, but with a lack of resources and time some Parish Councils do not consult widely with its parishioners; which results in decisions being made by a handful of people.
There are changes taking place in planning policy by central government so these (and any other legislative changes) will need to be taken into account when taking forward the Panel’s recommendations.
§ Stakeholders: Historically, local and central government rely heavily on NGOs; charitable organisations; local ‘established’ organisations; high profile representatives or those who push hardest to be heard. Those who are consistently left out in the cold, (for example hotel owners, caravan park owners, pub owners, dog walkers, horse riders, residents, petition signatories etc.) including those who are not members of the ‘established stakeholders’ need to be engaged fully and openly in the process of changes to the PFE and FC.
We feel strongly that this is a unique opportunity for government to ‘think outside of the box’ and find meaningful ways in which to engage fully with the public alongside the more traditional routes. In our view it is vital that the ordinary people who live, work or visit woodlands and forests are made to feel included in its immediate and long-term future.
Whatever the outcome, the resulting changes should be seen as robust, open, transparent and fully accountably.