FUTURE OF THE NEW FOREST – 2 February 2011
Dr Julian Lewis: At the end of that classic film, 'It's a Wonderful Life', the James Stewart character is taken back to see what would have happened to his home town, Bedford Falls, if he had never lived. He discovers that it would have been cheapened, commercialised and degraded. Indeed, even its name would have been changed to Pottersville – after the greedy, grasping capitalist who was the villain of the film. I know that no one would wish to see any such fate befall the New Forest, but there is huge concern in my constituency that steps may be taken in that sort of direction.
I had an early start this morning. I had to go to the New Forest and get back in time for the debate, because I was attending the funeral of my constituent and friend, Mr Mike Gilling. Mike was the sort of person who, by anyone’s definition of a Society, Big or not, put into it far more than he took out of it. It was therefore not surprising that there was a wide spectrum of mourners at that funeral, representing a good cross-section of the people of Hythe, which is on the edge of the New Forest. Did any of them come up to me after the funeral and say, "Julian, I really think you should be supporting these proposals that the Government are putting forward for the New Forest"? Not one. Did anyone come up to me and say, "Julian, I do hope you’re going to speak out against these proposals this afternoon in the debate"? Quite a few.
I did not just go by an, as it were, self-selecting sample like that. Nor did I just go by the self-selecting sample of people who have written a sheaf of letters to me, even though the balance is still dozens on one side of the argument and not yet a single letter – the Whips Office had better get cracking and find someone in my constituency so that I cannot say this again – in favour of the Government’s proposals. No, I am afraid it is all anti.
I did not rely even on those two samples, the small one and the larger one via the correspondence. I also spoke to one of the most senior figures in the New Forest, who has all the expertise that I freely confess I lack. What he said to me was that everybody in the New Forest who is involved in its administration in various types, capacities and dimensions is in a state of deep shock; that the status quo is unanimously preferred; and that, if there is a consultation, we had better hope that it is a genuine one, because then, on the basis of the sampling that I am seeing so far, there will be an overwhelming series of representations against what is proposed.
Neil Carmichael: What I would like to know is what will happen to multi-purpose woods – those which are commercial, heritage and used for recreation.
Dr Lewis: My hon. Friend will find that I am coming to that very point. There are two models according to which the New Forest can be run. There is the old model, with many sources of power intermixing, interacting and influencing each other, and there is the overarching model, with some authority in place to which everything else is subservient. My dear and hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Desmond Swayne) was right when he said that we stood shoulder to shoulder to battle against the National Park Authority being imposed on us, because we felt that that was an overarching model rather than an interacting model of different organisations.
That is where I fear my Front-Bench team has lost its way. It is not as if the Forestry Commission has, or ever has had, overall control. The Forestry Commission is one of a number of bodies in this universe, along with the Verderers, the New Forest Commoners Defence Association, and voluntary bodies such as the New Forest Association, all of which have to work together and persuade each other before they can go forward. The Forestry Commission is not just about commerce or timber; it is also about conservation and disease control.
Dr Sarah Wollaston: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that when phytophthora ramorum, otherwise known as sudden oak death, is starting to devastate large forests and mixed woodland, it is not the right time to do something that might put at risk measures to control it?
Dr Lewis: I share that concern. It comes back to the exchange that I had with the Secretary of State during her initial contribution. There is a deficit in the running of the New Forest, and there is a good reason why there is a deficit. It is precisely because the Forestry Commission has duties, such as trying to address matters concerning disease and matters concerning conservation, as well as trying to make what profit it can from the commercial management of the timber industry.
When we consider what the future holds, we are told not to worry because either the Government will be convinced that a new or existing charitable trust will be able to take on the burden, or they will not give up the Forest and it will remain in public ownership. This is not dissent; this is me participating in the consultation. Here is my answer: do not give up the Forest or give it to a charity, either a new one or an old one, because they will be unable to take on the £2.9 million deficit. If the Government say, "Don't worry, we'll pay for that," why the heck are they bothering to make the change? We really do not need this.
There is particular concern about the Public Bodies Bill. The New Forest has traditionally always been governed by its own legislation, which is laid out in the New Forest Acts, but there are provisions in the Public Bodies Bill that look as though they will take precedence over those Acts. If I seek any assurances at all from the Government Front Bench, it is an assurance that no provision in that Bill will have supremacy over the provisions of the New Forest Acts. It is terribly important that we have a constellation of organisations and that the Verderers are able to say 'no'. We need a sort of mixed economy, with neither statism on the one side, nor total privatisation, or hand-over to a private organisation or charity, on the other.
John Pugh: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr Lewis: No, I will not. I must say that I am getting a bit fed up with being put in this position, as this is not the first time. At the General Election there were Liberal Democrats who pledged in good faith that they would not raise tuition fees, and yet they have had to treble them, and there were Conservatives, like me, who pledged in good faith that the nuclear deterrent would be safe, yet we have seen its confirmation put off until after the next election. Now we have this measure, which I do not think was in any party’s manifesto. Much effort has been put into ensuring that the Conservative Party is no longer seen as the Nasty Party. We may no longer be the Nasty Party, but I do not want the new party that I understand some people are trying to form – a strange permanent coalition of Conservatives and Liberals – to get the reputation of being the Party of Nasty Surprises. This is a nasty surprise that we can do without.