CONSULTATION: FUTURE OF THE PUBLIC FOREST ESTATE
ONE VOICE POSITION STATEMENT
This consultation document defines the New Forest as “heritage forest”. The FC has confirmed to us that the proposals do not sub-divide the New Forest. The consultation map shows the extent of the area to be considered. The map clearly shows that, under these proposals, the New Forest is the largest area of heritage forest in England. It also shows there are only small parcels of heritage forest within other English National Parks.
“Subject to the outcome of this consultation, the government proposes to transfer the ownership or management of the large heritage sites on the public forest estate to a charity or charities, via a Trust arrangement or lease”. This proposal may work in other National Parks because their ‘heritage forest’ sites are small, but the New Forest has the second largest area of FC land in England, totalling 27,613 hectares and such a model does not exist in the UK for comparison purposes. If this proposal goes ahead unchanged then the New Forest is in danger of becoming ‘Cameron’s Folly’.
This clearly singles out the New Forest from the family of National Parks and subjects us to the prospect of a stand-alone ‘job lot’ to be transferred or owned by any new or existing charity(s). The government must have been aware of this when preparing the consultation paper, yet fails to offer assurances that any such transfer of the New Forest to a charitable trust should also have regard to the existing National Park Purposes and the duty to foster socio economic well-being of local communities. There is no detailed information on mechanisms of how a charitable trust would be expected to work within the existing delicate balance of interests, which has evolved over many hundreds of years. It didn’t just happen overnight, but many thousands of visitors chose to come here because they feel and see the ‘special character’ all around them, without necessarily being aware of what made it special. This is what sets the New Forest apart from others, and brings visitors back year after year.
There are too many uncertainties in the consultation document for New Forest residents to make informed decisions about the future of the land they so fervently care about. There is no guarantee that a charitable trust could continue to manage the land without compromise when the government grants dry up. Yet the consultation expects some charities to “move towards financial self-reliance. The charity could pursue income generating activities in the forest, consistent with the delivery of public benefits”. Without more details on how this will be regulated (over and above the Charities Commission Regulations) we are left open to a change of focus from that of managing and protecting the land without compromise to free recreational access, to that of income generation which could include all types of “paid-for activities”. Charities may already be experiencing a slow down in public donations because of the recession and the real threat of job losses. We have no indication that financial self-reliance is either feasible or manageable for a heritage forest totalling 27,613 hectares.
Another uncertainty is the possibility of new charities being set up by purist conservationists or business groups, who are probably better placed to seek other grants outside the UK to enhance their sustainability – but could unbalance the socio economic well-being of our communities. The possibility of an ‘umbrella trust’ of existing charities could lead to an imbalance of interests, but the consultation document does not provide details of how such a trust should have regard to this.
The New Forest is too cherished by the public to be subject to the outcome of a carefully crafted consultation questionnaire, which will only put flesh on the bones after it closes and without further public consultation. There is a need for more certainty, more assurances and more fail-safe mechanisms to give credibility to this consultation exercise and to demonstrate the government’s ability to deliver a better future for our forest.
ONE VOICE, New Forest
29 January 2011