By Tosin Sulaiman
The Times – 29 June 2004
The New Forest is to become England's first new National Park for almost half a century, the Government announced yesterday. The decision, after a seven-month public inquiry, is a victory for rural campaigners who have lobbied for years to ensure the ancient forest's way of life is better protected.
The New Forest, between Southampton and Bournemouth, is already a large tourist attraction, with at least seven million visitors a year. It was created in 1079 by William the Conqueror as a hunting ground, primarily for deer, and it is now famous for free-roaming wild ponies.
At 220sq miles (571sq km) it will be England's smallest National Park, with an estimated population of 38,000. It is also home to five different species of wild deer and various rare species of flora and fauna including the wild gladiolus, unique to the New Forest, the Dartford warbler, nightjar, woodlark, sand lizard and smooth snake. The last National Park to be designated in England was Northumberland in 1956.
Supporters of the New Forest plan argued that a National Park was needed to limit development on the forest's countryside to protect the creatures' habitat and to provide better support to farmers and commoners. But the plan was opposed by some residents, who fear that the new National Park Authority will take the future of the area out of local hands.
Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister, said that the new status was a necessary step to conserve the area for future generations.
"Our National Parks have a vital role conserving our natural heritage, but conservation alone is not enough – the parks must balance environmental priorities with those of communities,"
"Today's decision will help protect the unique character of the New Forest, valued by so many people and acknowledged as a national treasure for nearly 1,000 years, whilst recognising that it is a working, living place with social and economic needs."
Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP for New Forest East, said that many of his constituents feared that the Authority would lead to additional bureaucracy, making it difficult for people to continue living and working within the borders of the National Park.
"The view of many people is that if the New Forest needed more protection it should have been done by way of special legislation rather than by the straitjacket of the National Park model,"
Dr Lewis said.
"Whereas, in the past, decisions about the future of the forest evolved out of a consensus of interested bodies and individuals, the National Park Authority will be able to force decisions through."
Residents have 28 days to object to the park's proposed boundaries.
Richard Wakeford, Chief Executive of the Countryside Agency, welcomed the decision.
"Today's announcement is the culmination of a five-year process, led by the Countryside Agency, which has involved extensive consultation with local residents, landowners and businesses,"
"The New Forest is a remarkable historic landscape of international importance ... National Park status is the best way to protect this special area from the pressures that it continues to face. The creation of a dedicated National Park Authority will help to ensure co-ordinated, first-class land management, conserving this rich landscape, enhancing it for the enjoyment of current and future generations and driving forward sustainable development for the benefit of local communities and the nation as a whole."
The decision was welcomed by the Association of National Park Authorities, which will celebrate National Parks Week on Thursday. The association represents Britain's 13 National Park Authorities.