Dr Julian Lewis: It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd (Mr Ruane) and for Gower (Mr Caton), with both of whom I share membership of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs – there is a danger of the debate becoming a little parochial. I was born and brought up in Swansea and can, therefore, advise the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr Brake) that he is missing out by never having visited the area of outstanding natural beauty in Gower – the second most beautiful rural area in the country. However, I shall speak about Hampshire, especially the New Forest, which is, of course, the foremost outstanding area of natural beauty in Britain – even if it is not formally classified as such.
Before I begin my own comments, I shall relay the views on AONBs of the head of countryside at Hampshire county council – Mr Merrick Denton-Thompson. He was good enough to write to me, hoping that I would be able to support the hon. Member for Gower in the general thrust of his remarks in the debate; I am happy to do so. Mr Denton-Thompson points out:
"21% of Hampshire is covered by AONB designation which provides substantial protection from changes in land use. However there is often little or no co-ordination of the land management operations which play an important role in sustaining the outstanding characteristics of such areas. There is an urgent need for more integration between agricultural and environmental objectives within Government if AONBs are to retain their outstanding contribution to the beauty of the English countryside."
I am, of course, happy to endorse that in general, but I am sure that Mr Denton-Thompson and others will appreciate that, sometimes, the same formula does not fit every instance of beautiful countryside. The New Forest is one such case. Some people would try to force the New Forest into the straitjacket of a national park. There are also those who would like to force the parliamentary representatives of the New Forest into a similar appliance. However, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr Swayne) and I are united in our belief that the New Forest has survived very well over many years, with special legislation that acknowledges its role as a unique, living and working forest. The forest would not have its current form were it not for the special contribution of the commoners who raise animals there. That is essential for it to maintain its character.
In recent times, the problems of the commoners have greatly intensified; they turn their animals out on the forest only as a labour of love. They certainly make no profit from doing so. However, they are content to do so in the knowledge that special mechanisms protect their rights in the New Forest, and hence the particular characteristics of the forest that give it so much value in the eyes of the many people who are fortunate enough either to visit it regularly, or – as in my case – to live there. One of the mechanisms that protects the forest is the verderers court – an ancient institution that prevents change in the management of the forest that would be to its detriment. Another body that protects the forest is the Forestry Commission itself. The local authorities also play a serious and responsible role in keeping the forest as we want it to remain for generations to come.
The delicate interplay of all those organisations has an overall beneficial effect and keeps the balance of interests in the forest gently in equilibrium. We are concerned that forcing the New Forest into the straitjacket of national park status would centralise and bureaucratise control of the forest.
Mr Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in giving way. Does he accept that, over the past 30 years, on every development versus environment issue, one or other of the local authorities in the area has been on the side of development? That does not inspire confidence in the prospect of a national park authority dominated by local authority interests.
Dr Lewis: As always, I wholly agree with my hon. Friend's comments on that subject. I much admire the Minister – I am pleased that he will answer the debate today – for the patience and consideration that he showed us when we made representations on that matter. My hon. Friend and I live in hope that the special status of the forest will continue to be recognised, and that the 50th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 – of which the Government are, rightly, proud – will not be used as an excuse to turn the New Forest into a national park. To celebrate the anniversary in that way might be to the advantage of the Government's PR machine, but would be to the disadvantage of the forest itself.
Other hon. Members want to speak so my remarks will be brief. I refer only to one other threat that seriously menaces the New Forest and to which I adverted on 26 November last year: that a giant container port will be built on the edge of the forest at Dibden bay. That container port would be part of the great port of Southampton. No one appreciates more than my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West and I the importance to the area of a successful port in Southampton. But the idea of giant container stacks, huge cranes, and enormous container lorries and trains trundling through the countryside, disfiguring the boundary of the New Forest, fills us with horror.
Sacrifices sometimes have to be made in the national economic interest, but if such a development is imposed on the forest, it will not be necessary in the national economic interest because there is a perfectly acceptable brownfield site in the constituency of the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) at the site of Shell Haven, an oil refinery which is closing. It is an example of cross-party co-operation that the hon. Lady and I have worked together to achieve something which might be necessary for the national economic interest, is certainly necessary for the interests of her constituents and is anathema to the interests of my constituents, so that the new container port is sited in the most suitable area.
The New Forest has been a jewel in the crown of the English countryside for 900 years. It can continue to glitter and to shine providing that it is protected from the twin threats of unnecessary designation as a national park and appalling desecration by the building of a container port far better suited to other parts of the United Kingdom.