Lymington Times – 22 October 2022
Support for the creation of an investment zone within the New Forest National Park has been branded "inconceivable" in a report to authority members. They were due yesterday (Thursday) to discuss a policy against the controversial idea which, by contrast, has been welcomed in principle by New Forest District Council and Hampshire County Council.
The response comes as the Solent Freeport has officially lodged an expression of interest in becoming an investment zone. The government has said successful applications for the status would enjoy a variety of tax and regulatory "innovations and flexibilities" as well as planning "simplifications". But fears over the potential impact on nature were cited in a report advising NPA members to veto any potential effort to involve the national park.
The document said:
"It is inconceivable the authority would support the principle of investment zone sites within the national park. Such status introduces relaxed planning controls, removes legislation that currently protects some of the most important areas of the New Forest, and shortens consultation with statutory bodies. The authority does not support the principle of investment zone designation for sites within the national park due to the incompatibility of a liberalised planning approach with the high level of protection afforded to the national park."
The report further highlighted "concerns regarding the lack of detail" on how freeport policies could clash with the park's environmental protections. As reported in the A&T, the NPA has asked the government for clarity on how the outer boundary of the Solent Freeport, which encompasses the national park, might affect it.
Since the issue of the freeport's outer boundary was raised by New Forest East MP Julian Lewis, the government has said planning powers would remain with the NPA. Dr Lewis has called for further reassurances over the impact of any investment zone, saying a Solent Freeport application should be blocked
"unless it is made absolutely clear there will be no weakening at all of the planning constraints and other protections for these areas which are currently integral to the freeport plan".
"In short, the freeport would like to have the financial advantages offered by investment zone status but only if it is accepted we maintain current environmental protections with no dilution of planning powers."
NFDC leader Edward Heron has told the government the authority is "keen" to explore the idea, but he stressed only under certain conditions. But he added:
"The indication of support from this council ... is based on the understanding the current level of environmental protection is assured for the future and on the clear and unequivocal understanding that conversion of the Solent Freeport to an investment zone will not include a streamlining of planning, deregulation, or a dilution of the environmental protections that are currently in place. Should this not be the case, then the council would not support the designation of the freeport tax site within the district as an investment zone."
Expressing Hampshire County Council's support for the creation of an investment zone, leader Cllr Rob Humby said:
"Becoming an investment zone would bring a real economic boost to the local area and enable the county to benefit from lower taxes for business rates and employee earnings – up to £50,270 per annum – stamp duty relief and tax relief on plant and machinery. Additionally, planning rules for both commercial and residential development would be streamlined to reduce unnecessary delays."