FUTURE STATUS OF THE NEW FOREST – 26 November 1998

Dr Julian Lewis: With typical generosity, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr Swayne) has allowed me to intervene in the debate, which he was fortunate enough to secure in the ballot. He has touched on three possible options for the management of the New Forest in the future. These can be summarised as: specialist legislation combined with the activities of voluntary bodies, voluntarily co-ordinated; specialist legislation combined with statutory bodies and statutory powers; and designation as a national park under the 1949 Act.

I contend that either a statutory body or designation under the 1949 Act would overlap with and undermine the powers of the Verderers to protect the institution of commoning in the Forest, without which the Forest would not be as it is today.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the establishment of a national park authority under the Environment Act 1995 would allow for delegated powers to be given to the local authority and for the commoners and Verderers to continue much as at present?

Dr Lewis: I am concerned that there are very different ideas as to what statutory powers would entail. I asked the outgoing chairman of the New Forest Committee what would be the difference between a statutory body and one, such as the present committee, that voluntarily co-ordinates the various interest groups. His response was that the bodies that were voluntarily involved in the New Forest Committee would have to belong to it in future.

I asked what was the purpose of doing that if we were not to have a regime in which the majority of bodies that were forced to belong to the statutory body might outvote the minority, thus undermining the authority of the Verderers. The outgoing chairman said that would happen only in the last resort. I said that sounded like the concept of subsidiarity and he said that, knowing my views on that concept in the European context, he had thought that the word would never pass my lips. I replied that I did not trust it in Europe and I do not trust it in the New Forest.

On 15 July, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu initiated a debate in the other place on the future of the New Forest. Four days earlier, the Southern Daily Echo, a newspaper that is generally reliable – apart from an occasional rush of blood to the headline – quoted him as stating that his own preference was for

"improved administration based on existing Acts of Parliament relating to the New Forest, with a co-ordinating role for the New Forest Committee – but not statutory powers."

I was therefore rather disappointed that, when the debate took place, he gave a slightly different interpretation. He rightly said:

"There is very little support for national park status in the Forest",

but he went on to say, in relation to special legislation, that

"Clauses would be required to establish a statutory authority to co-ordinate management over the whole heritage area".

I am worried about a statutory authority for the reasons that I have given. I was impressed by the remarks of the Labour peer, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, a former chairman of the Forestry Commission, who said:

"I very soon discovered that what I needed" – in the New Forest – "was not simply a good forest manager but also a diplomat who could live with all the conflicting interests. Without a great deal more evidence, I would be reluctant to believe that a change involving legislation would achieve any better solution than the present regime." – [Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 1998; Vol. 592, c. 332-35.]

When the Minister came to visit us in the New Forest, I formed the distinct impression that the likelihood of any fresh legislation in the Government's timetable was remote. I fear that we will be faced, not with statutory powers for the New Forest Committee or a similar body, but either with designation as a national park under existing legislation or a continuation of past practice whereby the Forest has been defended, protected and safeguarded by individual laws and not by the erection of overarching bodies. What has worked for many hundreds of years is the best solution for the future.

We face the prospect of the Dibden Bay port development, which would erect massive container stacks and put massive burdens on the infrastructure along the edge of the Forest. The problems which the Minister faces in dealing with the issues raised in this debate are as nothing compared to the problems which the Forest will face if that development goes ahead without arrangements being made for the traffic into and out of any Dibden Bay container port to go in and out of the port of Southampton, and not be inflicted upon the Waterside or Forest area.