Dr Julian Lewis: It is customary to begin an Adjournment debate by congratulating oneself on one's good fortune in securing the debate.
Mr Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Quite right.
Dr Lewis: Indeed, as my hon. Friend observes from a sedentary position, I am lucky to have done so. However, the Minister is also rather fortunate tonight. It is a lucky night for him, because for once this is not a NIMBY debate. This is a debate about people who have something in their back yard already and who want to keep it there, rather than have it removed further from their area, with possibly catastrophic consequences for the local economy.
Let me spell out the background. The Hollands Wood campsite is on the east side of the A337, near the village of Brockenhurst in my constituency. The New Park site is on the west side of the A337, further north towards the village of Lyndhurst, also in my constituency.
One might think that the villagers of Brockenhurst would want a large number of visitors to be congregated somewhat further away, rather than nearer to their village environment, but not a bit of it. In fact, the Parish Council is totally united against the proposed move to close the Hollands Wood campsite and transfer it to the New Park site, and other parish and town councils in my constituency are also strongly against the proposal. Most important of all, the residents of Brockenhurst are overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed change.
On 7 March I presented a petition on the matter to the House. It contained no fewer than 1,719 signatures out of a possible total of 2,652 people on the electoral register. That was no less than 65 percent of the electorate, but in reality only 3 percent of the electorate declined to sign, and that understandably included a number of employees of the Forestry Commission. Thirty-two percent could not be contacted. In other words, 95 percent of those who could be contacted signed the petition, and all that between 9 and 25 February. I pay tribute to Nina Ball, Jean Wingate, John Cockram, John Purkess, Andrew Mitchell and more than 50 other villagers who gained so many signatures in so short a time.
Why is that feeling so strong? There are four principal reasons. First, a major traffic hazard will be created on a busy trunk road. Secondly, the New Forest Show will be endangered. Thirdly, more harm than good will be done to the environment. Fourthly, the local economy of Brockenhurst will be gravely undermined.
From about 1930 until the end of the Second World War, the Hollands Wood site was the village rubbish tip. From 1946, the then Rural District Council turned its attention to the site. The tip closed in 1950 and the campsite was created soon afterwards, and so it has remained for half a century.
According to the admirable Lymington Times of 1 December last year:
"The Forestry Commission has a total of 3,320 camping pitches in England of which no fewer than 1,860 surround Brockenhurst."
It has been suggested that a European Union directive on the restoration of ancient woodland is forcing the Forestry Commission to close Hollands Wood. It is for the lawyers to decide whether that is the case, or whether a degree of creative "gold plating" has been going on. For once – I hope that the House will note this point carefully – I think that the EU is being maligned.
In reply to our petition, a ministerial response was drawn up, undoubtedly on the basis of a Forestry Commission briefing. The response points the finger at English Nature for having designated the Hollands Wood campsite as part of a candidate special area for conservation under the EU habitats directive of 1992. If that is so, it is a piece of meddlesome stupidity on the part of English Nature that lies at the root of the problem. I am advised that current regulations require only a 95 percent implementation of SSSI – sites of special scientific interest – (SAC) target statements. If that is true, it means that there is no necessity to vacate Hollands Wood, as it occupies only a fraction of 1 percent of the New Forest SSSI (SAC).
I acknowledge the courtesy of the deputy surveyor, Mr Donald Thompson, in alerting me and Hampshire County Council leader Councillor Ken Thornber early on about the intended move. Two problems immediately occurred to us. First, there was the traffic danger: the A337 is a very fast stretch of single carriageway that is arrow straight, but has periodic dips that can temporarily mask traffic hold-ups ahead and conceal oncoming vehicles from view. By transferring the campsite from the east to the west of the trunk road, the Forestry Commission would create an all-year-round problem of southbound traffic from arriving campers having to cross the northbound flow in order to enter the New Park site. That currently happens on a large scale for three days a year, when the New Forest Show is held at the New Park site in July, and would cause major dislocation but for the sterling efforts of traffic controllers drafted in for the occasion. That can be done three days a year, but could not be done continuously.
This leads us to the second problem: the future of the New Forest Show. It is becoming abundantly clear that a permanent campsite in New Park will have a crippling effect on the Show. The event involves the creation on the site of temporary car parks so vast that people attach helium-filled balloons to their vehicles in the hope – usually it is a vain one – of successfully finding them again at the end of an enjoyable day at the Show. The notion that a park-and-ride shuttle scheme for the Show might provide an effective substitute for the car parks is, to use a favourite term of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), frankly risible.
It has also become abundantly clear as the controversy has developed that even if Hollands Wood could no longer continue, a move to New Park would be unacceptable on environmental grounds in any case. It may take 100 years to restore Hollands Wood from its present existence as a much-loved campsite in the forest, but it will take a fraction of that time to commercialise and degrade the rural environment of New Park. Not only the farmland New Park site itself will suffer, but – far worse than that – the contiguous unspoilt, ancient and ornamental woodland will be put at risk from such a large development. Some of those adjacent areas are designated sites of special scientific interest and special protection areas. Above all, the riverine woodland between New Park and Brockenhurst village is a rare and highly protected habitat. Indeed, I understand that it is an EU-designated candidate special area for conservation, and thus requires maintenance and improvement, not degradation.
The principle of Occam's Razor states that when one has eliminated all other possibilities, that which remains, however improbable, must be the true explanation. We have considered the traffic implications, the New Forest Show implications and the environmental implications of building a huge campsite at New Park, all of which suggest that the proposal is fatally flawed, so what explanation remains? As is so often the case, only a monetary one. A big difference between the two locations is that Hollands Wood is subject to the authority of the ancient Court of Verderers, whereas New Park, as Crown freehold land, is not.
The Verderers Court has been staunch in defending the interests of the people of the forest and its villages from time immemorial. One of the first occasions on which I attended the Verderers Court was unforgettable. A villager from Ashurst tearfully related how her village shop had had to close because the Forestry Commission had for a period of time allowed illegal sales of products on one of the campsites – the one near Ashurst. By the time the Verderers were able to step in to stop it, her trade had already been undermined to the point that the shop could not continue. As a result, the village of Ashurst lost its village shop and the lady lost her living. We all recognise that the Forestry Commission has an important job to do, part of which is to try to generate income. However, there is a history of attempts to allow more and more goods to be sold on campsites – attempts that can be blocked by the Verderers anywhere in the open forest except on Crown freehold land. My general line of argument will come as no surprise to the Minister because, as is my normal practice, I took the precaution of advising his office in advance.
Brockenhurst village depends on its shops if its local economy is to continue, and that viability depends in turn on the summer trade and the influx of non-village custom. Even if the Forestry Commission refrained from selling anything extra on a site at New Park, the greater distance from Brockenhurst, the lack of easy access to Brockenhurst by foot and, especially, the location of the New Park site – where a camp would now be – to the west of the A337 would have major adverse effects. Traffic leaving the new campsite would naturally head north to Lyndhurst, adding to its already diabolical congestion at that time of year, not south to Brockenhurst, where trade from the campers is so welcome and important.
The truth is that the Forestry Commission will not resist the temptation to commercialise if it is allowed to build the new site. The experience of the Ashurst village shop will be repeated on a much larger scale, driving a stake through the heart of the Brockenhurst economy. In fact, I understand that English Nature could easily be asked to redesignate the Hollands Wood campsite to exclude it from the special area for conservation. That would be entirely in line with the derogation allowed in the habitats directive – introduced so considerately, it must be said, by the European Union – which allows for
"Imperative reasons of overriding public interest, including those of a social or economic nature".
That certainly applies to the effect on Brockenhurst of failing to apply for such a derogation. There is no good reason for closing the Hollands Wood campsite. Even if English Nature and the Forestry Commission succeed between them in doing that, it will provide little justification for a move to New Park, with all that that entails. As so often happens with crafty little stratagems, one can end up with the worst of both worlds.
By failing to resist the closure of Hollands Wood, the Forestry Commission may end up with no large campsite in the area; the villagers of Brockenhurst, however, will be the biggest losers of all.
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[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) on securing the debate and presenting the anxieties of local people about the proposed change. It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I know the New Forest well and have a long-standing personal interest in it. I talk to representatives of the Forestry Commission regularly, and I recently met the Court of Verderers.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that I introduced the Ministers' Mandate. It was revised in 1999 and it clearly sets out the principles for managing the Crown lands, which cover half the New Forest Heritage Area, of which Hollands Wood is part. The first objective of the Ministers' Mandate is the conservation of nature and heritage. The second includes promoting rural opportunities, providing access and recreation opportunities and increasing public awareness and understanding. The objectives in the Mandate are compatible with the Forestry Commission's proposals.
Of course local people's views have to be taken into account, and I have therefore listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I want to take them into account because it is important that the reasons for the move are properly understood and debated. I must confess that I was a little puzzled about some of the reasoning behind the hon. Gentleman's anxieties. I shall try to deal with them.
First, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, English Nature requires the closure of Hollands Wood campsite because it is in a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation. I have visited Hollands Wood campsite; I walked around it while it was closed so that I could have a clear view. We cannot escape the fact that it is situated in an area of ancient woodland that is important scientifically and from the point of biodiversity.
Of course, Hollands Wood is a popular campsite and it needs to be replaced with an alternative, modern campsite for visitors to the New Forest. We recognise the importance of the New Forest not only to visitors and recreation, but to the area's economy.
New Park is literally across the road. It is a desirable site that is not in the site of special scientific interest or the special area of conservation. It is close to Hollands Wood and ensures that the considerable economic benefits to Brockenhurst are not lost. New Park is a farm that does not have same biodiversity importance as Hollands Wood. There is no comparison. It is next to important riverine woodland; I took the opportunity of walking the length of it the last time I was there when I was discussing the issues with the Forestry Commission.
Part of the proposal for New Park is to establish, at some cost, a buffer zone to protect the riverine woodland. The proposals recognise the potential for increasing conservation and protecting fragile areas. The commission is therefore complying fully with all the requirements of the planning system. A full planning application and environmental impact assessment will be submitted to the local authority. That is also right because we must examine the impact of the proposals, which must be open to public scrutiny.
The proposed campsite will be designed and built to a high standard to take into account the fact that people live close to it; that has also been recognised.
On the New Forest Show, I have attended it and I recognise that it plays an important part in the culture and activities of the area and the local communities. I very much enjoyed my visit and was impressed with the range of activities and displays. I do not want the New Forest Show to be threatened, and I want to make that point very clearly as the person who oversees the Ministers' Mandate for the forest.
The needs of the New Forest Show are being carefully considered, and full consultations are being undertaken with the show committee. Following my discussions with the Forestry Commission, I have been convinced that it would be possible to meet the requirements of the Show, even if there were a campsite on the ground. I want to make it clear that the New Forest Show is not going to be abandoned, and that its importance is recognised by me, as a Minister, and by the Forestry Commission.
I also want to stress that the campsites are very important to the local economy, bringing into the forest a large number of people with considerable spending power. Those people spend their money in the shops and pubs, and on local services such as cycle hire. The hon. Members for New Forest, East and for New Forest, West (Desmond Swayne) know how important that is for their constituents and for their constituents' businesses.
I am not very clear on the issue of traffic. From what the hon. Gentleman has said, I understand that there is an assumption that the traffic will all turn one way when it leaves the new campsite. I do not believe that that will be the case. There will be the same amount of traffic going into the campsite. As I understand it, there are currently about 600 pitches in Hollands Wood, and about 100 overspill pitches in New Park. So, when the site moves – if it does move – to New Park, there will be about 100 fewer pitches. That would result in there being less traffic turning in and out of the site. I would be happy to examine these hypotheses in greater detail, but, at the moment, I cannot see how moving from one side of the road to the other will increase the traffic.
Dr Lewis: Perhaps this is an argument for adopting a Continental system of traffic flow – I really am being reborn, here – because if we drove on the same side of the road as they do on the Continent, the campsite's move from one side of the road to the other would be a positive enhancement. As we drive on the left, however, it is clear that when people come out of the campsite to shop in the villages, they will turn left, rather than turning right across the busy main road. I am sorry if I did not make that clear enough. More importantly, will they want to come out of the campsite at all when, without the protection afforded by the Verderers, the site is developed so that it becomes a rival to Brockenhurst with its self-contained shopping centre? That is the question at the heart of the problem.
Mr Morley: On that last point, the hon. Gentleman is assuming that some kind of shopping centre is going to be built on the campsite. I am not aware that such proposals feature in the Forestry Commission's plans. Those plans will be submitted for approval, and the hon. Members for New Forest, East and for New Forest, West and their constituents will, of course, be able to scrutinise them. But they should not make that assumption. The Forestry Commission has been very sensitive to the potential impact on the local economy, and I think that that has been reflected in its activities.
On the issue of traffic, I do not disagree that, if people are going into Brockenhurst, they will have to turn right, whereas, before, they would have turned left. That assumes, however, that all the traffic in the campsites always comes from one direction. The traffic comes from both directions, and there is no guarantee that there will be any increased congestion. That issue needs to be carefully examined, and there will be an opportunity to do so as part of the planning process.
Dr Lewis: I will not reiterate the point about the traffic. I feel, however, that the Forestry Commission has a long history of trying to commercialise its campsites by increasing its sales – given half an inch, it generally takes more than half a mile. The Minister is, therefore, being unrealistic if he feels that, without the guardianship of the Verderers to limit this kind of activity, this development will not happen. It will happen, and everyone believes that it will happen.
Mr Morley: People may believe that. Again, it will be a matter for proper scrutiny during the planning process. I merely say that the hon. Gentleman should not assume that that is the case, or that that is the motivation. I do not believe that it is the motivation. I genuinely believe that there is a problem with a site of special scientific interest and a campsite in ancient woodland, and that someone starting from scratch would not have put the campsite there in the first place. However, when it was opened, there was not the pressure that is imposed on it now by all the people wanting to use it.
As I have said, there will be extensive consultation. Indeed, that has already begun as part of the environmental impact assessment: local individuals, groups and organisations are being consulted. All local people, groups and neighbours will have a full opportunity to comment on the details of the application when it is submitted, and to make objections as appropriate in the normal way.
I ask local people, and the hon. Member for New Forest, East, to consider this. The choice is between a campsite which I do consider to be inappropriately placed in terms of its impact on the special conservation importance of the New Forest, and farmland which, despite its extremely limited biodiversity potential, could be developed in a way that would enhance facilities for visitors to the forest, and indeed designed – I know that this is what the Forestry Commission proposes – to take some of the pressure off the more fragile parts of that ancient forest.
That proposal is, at the very least, worth considering carefully. It is worth looking at the details, and worth recognising that the motivation is right. Of course issues affecting local people, such as traffic and economic impact, need to be taken into account. I want them to be taken into account, but I also want the right balance to be struck between providing for the many visitors who enjoy and love the New Forest and ensuring that the pressures on one of our most ancient and precious natural woodlands are properly managed. I am sure that no one disagrees with that objective.
I believe that the Forestry Commission is motivated by that consideration. I also believe that the proper scrutiny processes that will take place will give local people an opportunity to ask questions, examine the proposals and consider them properly – and, I hope, fairly.]