HC Deb 18 October 1949 vol 468 cc491-521

Order for Second Reading read.

3.35 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. George Brown)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

In moving the Second Reading of the New Forest Bill, I draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that since its introduction it has been considered elsewhere, and its present form is the result of deliberations and of consultations with the local and other interests who presented petitions. I think that I may claim that the Bill is now acceptable to those interests, as it is to His Majesty's Government.

It will, of course, be common knowledge that for many years conflict and disagreement—greater at some times than at others—existed in the New Forest, between the Crown and the commoners who have various rights over the Forest, the most important of these being the right to depasture their animals over unenclosed parts of the Forest, more generally known as the open forest. In more recent years, it has been considered desirable to bring the general position in the Forest under consideration in the light of present-day conditions, and to this end a Committee was set up under the chairmanship of the Rt. Hon. Harold Baker.

The terms of reference of that committee, as the House will know, were to investigate the state and condition of the New Forest and, having regard to existing rights and interests, to recommend such measures as they consider desirable and necessary for adjusting the Forest to modern requirements. The committee took evidence from all interested bodies, local bodies and those of more national concern, and their report was published in November, 1947. I think that it is right to say that there is agreement on all sides, that it is an excellent report, and I have great pleasure in adding the tribute and thanks of my right hon. Friend, because it is to the right hon. Gentleman and to the other members of the committee that we owe thanks, for the very great public service which they have so freely rendered.

I do not think that I need at this stage, go through the main conclusions of the committee, but there are some important issues which have been the subject of discussion as the Bill proceeded on its way in another place and which, perhaps, ought to be referred to now. The first matter is that of the Constitution of the Ancient Court of Verderers. At the moment, the Court consists of an official verderer appointed by His Majesty and six verderers elected by local residents and the commoners, by personal voting which involves no element of secrecy. The Baker Report recommended that there should be a chief verderer to be appointed by the Lord Chancellor, four verderers to be elected by the commoners, and six to be appointed by interested parties.

I do not think that we need at this stage go into the various considerations which led us to feel that this recommendation could not be wholly accepted, but, following discussions between the Forestry Commission and the local interests, provision has been made for an official verderer to be appointed by His Majesty as heretofore, five elective verderers, and four to be nominated, one by my right hon. Friend, one by the Forestry Commission, one by the planning authority and the other by a body concerned with amenity, such body to be designated by my right hon. Friend.

There was a fear in the minds of some of the local interests that in certain, although possibly remote, circumstances the elected verderers would be outvoted by the combined votes of the official verderer and the nominated verderers, although this would only happen on the assumption that the chairman had the casting vote. My right hon. Friend hopes very much that the verderers, whether they are elected or nominated, will not treat any matter brought before them as sectional, but will consider it in the light of the interest of the Forest, coupled with the national interest.

However, it is my right hon. Friend's desire in this, as in all other matters, that there should not be any possible chance of the elective verderers being outvoted on the important matters, for example, of enclosures for afforestation and for agriculture. The verderer nominated by the Forestry Commission will not be allowed to vote on the afforestation issue and, similarly, the agricultural verderer will not be allowed to vote on the agricultural issue; so when considering Clause 1 of the Bill which deals with the constitution of the Court, it is necessary for the House to bear in mind the provision of subsection (4) of Clause 12 and subsection (6) of Clause 14. The effect will be quite obviously that the five elective verderers will have the final say on these matters, if they so wish, but my right hon. Friend has no doubt that after considering the pros and cons of any issue put before them they will exercise this power in a wise and statesmanlike manner. Clause 5 provides that elections in future will be by secret ballot instead of by the present provision.

The next point upon which a good deal of discussion has centred has been that of finance. It was maintained by the local interests that the local verderers should be financially independent, so that they would not have to agree to anything which they considered contrary to the best interests of the Forest, simply because of the possible alternative of bankruptcy. It has been visualised, rightly or wrongly, that instead, of being able to give unfettered consideration to proposals for enclosures under Clauses 12 and 14, they might be forced to agree to them on account of the need for funds. This objection has been met by the inclusion in the Bill of paragraph 8 of the First Schedule whereby any reasonable expenses incurred by the verderers in the preparation, maintenance or provision of the electoral register shall be met by the Forestry Commissioners, and of subsection (3) of Clause 18 which provides for compensation for loss or diminution of common rights consequent on the grant of licences.

It has already been arranged that the Forestry Commission should bear the cost of the preparation of plans showing lands to which rights of common are attached, that payments would be made to the verderers in respect of any enclosures under Clauses 12 and 14, and that compensation for loss of common rights would be payable under Clauses 16 and 17. Therefore, I think that one can say that the verderers' expenses will be limited strictly to matters arising out of the exercise of the rights of common, mainly the care of the commoners' animals.

The major source of income to the verderers is by way of the fees payable for the turning out of animals on the Forest, which fees are at present limited by the New Forest Act of 1877. The change in money values alone justifies the increase in these fees, and Clause 9 will enable the verderers, inter alia, to increase them to such amount as they think right and proper. Tenants of my right hon. Friend in the New Forest who turn out animals under licence granted by my right hon. Friend will in future have to pay the appropriate fees to the verderers, which means that there will be a new source of revenue which the verderers so far have not enjoyed.

When dealing with the constitution of the verderers, I covered to some extent the matter of the enclosures for afforestation and agriculture provided for in Clauses 12 and 14, and I think that it is only necessary at this stage to say that there is agreement on all sides as to the urgent need of land for afforestation. We need in this country a great deal of increased planting of trees for the future, and my right hon. Friend trusts that the verderers in their consideration of this matter as it affects the New Forest will give due weight to the national need and ensure that the New Fore pays its just proportion towards meeting it.

As regards the agricultural provision, the ultimate aim is to improve the grazing and thus benefit the commoners. Views as to the best method of carrying out this improvement are not unnaturally at variance, and the Clause in question leaves the permission for cultivation followed by permanent pasture entirely in the hands of the verderers. It is the view of my right hon. Friend that in addition to a substantial increase in the number of animals turned out in the Forest there is room for further afforestation and for the temporary cultivations. It is of the utmost importance that the Forest be used to its fullest extent consistent with the preservation of the amenities, and my right hon. Friend wishes me to commend this fact to the verderers in their deliberations on any presentments which may be made under the Clauses in question.

The liability for the management of the drainage, culverts and bridges in the open forests, and the keeping of the grazing in the forest sufficiently clear of seedling trees and scrub, has also been the subject of a good deal of discussion. In the past this work has been done mainly by the Forestry Commission, but there is in fact no statutory liability on anybody at all to do it. The Forest is to all intents and purposes a national forest park; it is extensively used and enjoyed by the public, and there is much to be said, I think, in favour of part of the expense of maintaining it being met from public funds.

Clause 11 puts this duty squarely on the shoulders of the Forestry Commissioners, in so far as such work is reasonably necessary, having regard always to the interests of amenity. It is not the intention that the Forest should be converted into something like a London park, but rather that it should be maintained, as nearly as possible, in its present natural state; but of course we must always bear in mind, as those concerned must always bear in mind, the needs of modern times, which are changed compared with those that existed in the past.

Another matter which I think I should raise is with regard to Clause 7. There is a feeling locally that the Forest should be divided into five electoral districts, each to elect one verderer, and much discussion has proceeded between officers of the Forestry Commission and representatives of local interests. I think it can be agreed that there are many pros and cons, but it seems very difficult to reach a decision until the electoral register and the plans referred to in Clauses 3 and 4 are prepared. It seems to my right hon. Friend impossible in present circumstances to say just where boundaries should be in order to divide the lands occupied by commoners into five more or less equally representative areas; and there are other matters, such as the position of commoners who occupy lands in more than one district, the location of the open forest relative to the commoners' land, and various other points which have come out in discussion.

When the documents I have mentioned—the plans and the electoral register—are ready, it will be less difficult to assess the whole position, and it may be found that some of the possible disadvantages disappear, or equally that the disadvantages grow in their relative importance and outweigh some of the advantages. In Clause 7, therefore, my right hon. Friend is seeking power to cover this matter if, at a later date, the verderers submit a satisfactory scheme. The position is kept quite open, and if in the light of all the discussions it is found to be the right thing to do, and a satisfactory scheme comes forward, my right hon. Friend is seeking power in Clause 7 to do it.

Clauses 16 and 17 deal with public roads in the Forest, and provide machinery for the transfer of land of the Forest which may be needed for road improvements to the appropriate highway authority, with provisions for the protection of Forest interests and for compensation. Clause 16 relates to the existing trunk road between Cadnam and Ringwood, which passes through the northwestern part of the Forest for a distance of about seven miles. This road forms part of the national system of trunk roads for which the Minister of Transport is the highway authority. It seems to us that through traffic, including traffic between London and Bournemouth—which some of us have experienced at different times—should use this particular road, passing as it were through a corner of the Forest, rather than be encouraged to use A.35, which passes through Lyndhurst and the centre of the Forest. If that is so, this particular trunk road between Cadnam and Ringwood may eventually have to be widened and improved to carry the increased traffic, but no major works are envisaged or likely to be possible for some years to come.

The Clause therefore includes powers to enclose the trunk road to prevent the risk of accidents due to ponies or cattle straying on to the road, if it should become necessary in the light of circumstances as they develop. If this should be necessary, care will be taken to preserve amenities. It has been suggested that the best way of dealing with the problem would be to provide what I am told is called a ha-ha ditch, in order to prevent animals straying easily on to the road, and the Clause includes a provision for consultation between the Minister of Transport, the verderers and the local planning authority—in this case the Southampton County Council—on any proposal to use raised fencing. Provision is also made for crossings which would be desirable if the road were enclosed, to allow animals to pass properly from one side of the road to the other.

Clause 17 relates to other public roads in the Forest for which the highway authority is not the Ministry but the Southampton County Council. They may need to be improved or widened from time to time, although the intention is, as I have said, that the main flow of through traffic should use the trunk road. This Clause contains no provision for fencing. Any area of the Forest land which would be needed for these road improvements would obviously be very small in relation to the area of the Forest.

There have been very wide consultations and discussions; a whole variety of points from one side or another have come up and been considered. I think it is fair to say, having regard to all that has now happened and been said and done, that this Bill, in its present form, should do much to preserve this ancient forest as far as possible in its natural state, and to make for more harmonious relations between what are sometimes described as "the conflicting interests." My right hon. Friend is confident that, provided its provisions are operated in a co-operative spirit—and that obviously involves everybody—with the national as well as the local interest in mind, this Bill can be made to work satisfactorily. It is with the greatest pleasure, and in the assurance that we are here doing something to help along a very important and valuable part of our national heritage, that I move the Second Reading of this Bill.

3.57 p.m.

Mr. W. S. Morrison (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

The hon. Gentleman has explained the Bill to us in a speech of great lucidity but of extreme rapidity, and were it not for the fact that I had some acquaintance with the subject matter of the Bill before I heard him speak, I should have found it more difficult to follow him than I have done. If I myself proceed at a somewhat slower rate of utterance, it will not be because I desire to hold up business but because I think I am incapable of such articulation, at once clear and rapid, as that to which we have just listened.

The Bill is made easier to understand because—as is quite evident to one who has seen many Bills in his time—great skill has gone into its drafting. Perhaps the House will permit me to remark that I happen to know that this is the last Bill with which Sir Denys Stocks, the distinguished legal adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture, will be concerned. Though I never as a rule name those who are advisers, I think the House would permit me to say, because he served me so well in my time and has ever since served the Ministry, that we wish him every success and happiness in the retirement which he has so justly earned by right of distinguished service to the Ministry of Agriculture.

This Bill affects both private and public interests. It is clearly of great interest to the commoners themselves, whose rights are affected by the proposals; but it also affects the public, inasmuch as the New Forest is now a State forest. Quite apart from that formal link, the New Forest, as is well known, is one of our finest beauty spots and is a treasure to the whole nation, so we all have an interest in any Bill which concerns it, not only to see that justice is done to those private citizens most intimately affected, but also to see that this great national heritage is handed down by us unimpaired to the next generation.

This Bill, therefore, takes the form of what is called a hybrid Bill. It has been said about some hybrids in the past that they have neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity. I do not think that can be said about this Bill, because it has a very long line of predecessors in legislation dealing with the New Forest. As for its posterity, I am sure that not even the right hon. Gentleman would claim that this will be the last Bill about the New Forest to be introduced to Parliament. Times change and we change with them, and it is obviously necessary to amend our enactments so as to bring them up to date.

The reason for so much legislation in the past about the New Forest is, I think, to be found in the diversity of the interests which any Act affects. There are the rights of the commoners themselves, pasture, mast, turbary, fuel and marl. These rights as a group constitute a valuable body of privileges. Then, of course, there are the interests of the State in producing food and timber, and the interests of the public, not only in access to the New Forest, but in seeing the beauty of the forest so maintained as to make access to it continue to be desirable.

This Bill, like the legislation which preceded it, is an attempt to reconcile these sometime conflicting interests. Like all compromises, it cannot be all that any single interest would desire for itself. At its first seeing the light, there was a considerable feeling against it expressed by some of the commoners, and I cannot help feeling that some of this could have been, if not avoided, at least mitigated by earlier and franker consultation with the commoners as to what was proposed. Surely the history of the question, at any rate since 1851, should have warned the Government of the suspicion engendered by any further proposals to enclose part of the forest. Commoners in the past have protected their rights only by constant vigilance.

There is no doubt that in fact this is in part, an enclosure Bill. By Clause 12 up to 5,000 acres may be enclosed by the Forestry Commission, and by Clause 14 up to 3,000 acres may be enclosed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. These enclosures are sought to be justified by the argument by which every enclosure in the past has been supported—namely, the economic necessities of the times and the need to secure greater production from the land. Is it true that these enclosures can take place only with the consent of the verderers, but it is proposed by this Bill to change the constitution of the Court of Verderers, and it is but natural that the commoners in these circumstances should look somewhat closely at the new constitution it is proposed to erect, to see how far the new body may be capable of protecting their rights and interests from further encroachments.

It is at once clear that in the proposed new body there will be a decrease in the proportion of elected members and an increase in the proportion of nominated members. Under the Act of 1877, there were seven verderers, six elected and one nominated. Now there are to be five elected and five appointed, and one of the appointed verderers will, I understand, have a casting vote because he is the chairman. By an Amendment made in another place, it is now proposed that the appointees of the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture shall not vote on proposals for enclosure sponsored by their own Departments, which is a considerable improvement on the Bill as introduced, but it is still a matter for consideration whether it goes far enough to Rive confidence to the commoners. I would stress the importance of this new scheme being started in the right atmosphere of mutual trust and co-operation. That is a matter for further consideration in the other stages of the Bill.

Certainly it is an improvement that the qualification of a verderer is enlarged. The old qualification of ownership of 75 acres of land with common rights was difficult to justify, and the new qualification of one acre in occupation will greatly enlarge the field from which people able and willing to undertake this important and at times no doubt thankless task may be selected. The electorate is also changed. Formerly anyone who was a commoner or had a Parliamentary vote in the Forest could vote in electing a verderer. Now the qualification to vote is to be the same as that to stand for election, namely, the occupation of one acre of land with common rights.

There is only one observation which occurs to me on this proposal. There must be a number of people excluded from voting for a verderer in future who could have voted under the old law. They may not be in occupation of an acre of land with common rights attached, and yet they may be vitally interested in how the Forest is administered. I think, for example, of all those who depend for their livelihood on catering for visitors. It may be too late to do anything about this, but it seems to me that the point merits consideration.

Our national necessities are such that it is difficult to resist the proposals to produce more timber and food from the Forest, but the proposals require the greatest care in their administration so that the legitimate rights of the commoners are not needlessly or wastefully invaded, and that the beauty of the Forest is not impaired. Much will depend on the careful selection of sites for these operations to secure the minimum of interruption with the natural life of the Forest. The choice of trees is an old controversy into which I do not propose to enter today, but it is of great importance, not only from the point of view of the look of the place and of the trees, but on account of the different effects on the soil beneath conifers, on the one hand, and broad-leaf trees, on the other. The pines are unkindly to other forms of life, and the hardwoods are much more hospitable to the soil and its pasture, and also to the birds and beasts of the region.

As to the proposal in Clause 14 to make it possible to enclose land for the purpose of regenerating the pasture, it is difficult to see how the Minister justifies 3,000 acres, although it is true that that is the maximum of what can be enclosed for the regeneration of pasture. I should have thought that a much smaller area would have been sufficient for what must be an experiment; it is a worthy experiment, but it is as yet only an experiment. I am aware that the county war agricultural executive committee made some efforts in this direction during the war, but I have never seen any detailed reports of them or of what they cost. I should be very interested to know what the cost was and what the return was for the money.

It is a very difficult problem to regenerate some of the land of this forest, much of which is acid and of poor quality. The ponies with their chisel-like teeth crop very close, and it is very difficult to establish a good sward in these conditions. I wish the experiment all success, but I do counsel the Minister in this matter to start in a manageable small area before he accepts any definite rotation as the right and best one for this difficult piece of land.

I see that by Clause 14 the land is to go back to the commoners when the pasture has been regenerated. I think the best way of commending this proposal to the commoners would be to make a success of a small area in the first place. Then there would be little difficulty, I think, in getting widespread support for an extension of cultivation. I think that the best way to improve the rougher pasture of the area is to put more cattle on it; that policy would show better, or at any rate quicker results than what is proposed in Clause 14.

There are many other points of a local character with regard to this Bill. Being a hybrid Bill it will go to a Select Committee and then to a Committee of the Whole House, and I do not wish to advise the House to hinder its progress in any way. I see that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre) is here. I know that he has been very active in the discussions which have led up to this Bill, and I hope we shall hear from him during the Debate. For my own part, I advise the House to accept the Motion for Second Reading.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Shackleton (Preston)

I am glad that I have caught your eye, Mr. Speaker, in this Debate since I am the possessor of property in the New Forest, to which common rights attach. I can therefore speak as a New Forest commoner, although not with anything like the expert knowledge of the New Forest as the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre), who I am glad to see has recovered in time to be here. It is surely a climacteric in his life. Remembering the part his grandfather played 80 to 100 years ago in connection with previous New Forest Bills, it is apt that he should be here himself to advise the House and to help us pass this Bill into law.

The discussion we have had so far has been peaceful and easy, and I am glad that the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) has welcomed the Bill for the Opposition. I do not think the House appreciates what turbulent emotions have been aroused in the New Forest. In the calm and dispassionate atmosphere of the House we are not fully aware that there was almost a danger of embittered commoners armed with pitch-forks and riding on ponies—no doubt led by the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch—taking up a position in defence of the rights which they cherish and claim to have inherited over many years. I feel that a lot of the opposition, doubts and anxieties which have been aroused over this Bill have been based on false information and suspicion of what it might do rather than the reality of what it would do.

Let us recognise at once that the Bill seeks to do something which is virtually impossible, namely, to provide for the mutually conflicting interests of the commoners, the public and the Forestry Commission which, of course, also represents the public. There is some conflict there, and it is right that we should recognise it, decide how far we can delimit the areas and how far we can decide what is reasonable to satisfy each side. I believe that the Bill is an absolute necessity, and I think the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch will agree that something had to be done about the finances of the verderers. That was the primary factor in bringing forward this Bill at all. I feel, with the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, that there was some clumsy handling in the early stages.

Undoubtedly, there was a great fear on the part of people in the New Forest that there would be large-scale enclosures of the Forest which, I am convinced, were quite unjustified but which, none the less, were there. There was a suspicion that conifers, which are particularly objected to by many in the New Forest would be grown wholesale over this lovely area. There was a feeling that Lord Robinson.

the able chairman of the Forestry Commission, was so devoted to conifers and that it was entirely as a result of his initiative that a conifer appeared in Trafalgar Square last Christmas.

Of course, it is quite unfair to suggest that the Forestry Commission are not concerned equally with the amenities of the Forest. There is a national need for more trees and it is desirable that more should be grown, if possible, in the area of the New Forest. But I repeat, the proposals for these enclosures were primarily actuated as a result of a desire to assist the verderers in their finances. I believe there are areas in the New Forest which can be properly enclosed. Although I cannot speak with the authority of all in that area, I am advised by a number of my friends, whom I regard as able in cattle management, that the forest is under-grazed and that there is scope for the increased growing of trees without seriously affecting the stock or pony raising capacity of the Forest.

The real problem, however, which the Bill has had to try to solve has been in a provision of finance. Members of another place have seen fit, in their wisdom, to take responsibility for upkeep and management of the open Forest from the verderers and put it on the Forestry Commission.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre (New Forest and Christchurch)

It has never been on the verderers.

Mr. Shackleton

The hon. and gallant Member is quite correct. The financial responsibility has now been clearly laid on the Forestry Commission. This will cost the country some money—I think the Bill suggests something like another £1,500 per annum. Are we justified in laying this additional obligation on the taxpayer? It is small, but there is a principle involved. Is it right that the State should contribute towards the cost of maintaining land which will be used by commoners individually for the profitable raising of stock and ponies? Personally, I feel that it is an arguable point, but I agree with the Minister about the desirability of arriving at some sort of compromise which will satisfy local interests.

I do not believe that this is a good compromise; I do not believe that it will necessarily ensue peace. I think there may be a serious danger in what is proposed, and that it is rather extraordinary that the users of this piece of land should not be a people who are financially responsible for its upkeep. I am sure the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch will point that out. None the less, a compromise has been put forward and I hope it will be accepted and given a trial. I hope that this division of interest will be recognised so that people will avoid falling into the pitfall, especially from the commoners' side, of pressing the Forestry Commission to do what they feel they should do and blaming them if they fall short of what they consider they should do.

It is clear that there will be required both from the verderers, the Deputy-Surveyor and the Forestry Commissioners in the area, qualities of a high order of diplomacy. The previous Deputy-Surveyor, Mr. Young, was a man who was greatly respected, and who succeeded in fulfilling his duties of looking after forestry interests while having satisfactory relations with local interests. It is important that every effort should be made to continue that sort of good will which was in serious danger of being destroyed when the Bill was first laid before Parliament.

There are a number of specific points to which I should like to refer, but I shall only mention them very briefly. First, there is this question of the adjacent common areas—the areas of land in which people, not being commoners of the New Forest, have common rights, and from which areas cattle are apt to wander into the New Forest itself. This Bill makes no attempt to solve the relationship between those areas and the New Forest proper. There are people in the New Forest who strive continuously to improve the quality of the stock. For instance, one day if it should be possible or desirable to make the whole of the New Forest a T.T. area—and I do not know whether that is a practical proposition or not—this question of the adjacent commons would have to be solved.

Then again there is the proposal with regard to trunk roads. The Parliamentary Secretary glossed over the difficulties that are involved in the fencing of these roads. They are very real and very difficult, and if it is possible in any way to consider routing the main roads outside the area of the New Forest, I would urge that it be done. It is difficult I realise, but it is a very real problem to have cattle or ponies wandering across the roads at night. I myself have had the misfortune to kill a pony which was in collision with my car at night. I know a young man in the village where I live who was killed when his motor-bike ran into a pony. It is a difficult problem to adjust an ancient system of agriculture within our modern civilisation but on the subject of trunk roads and the fencing of them, the difficulties will be immense if cattle and ponies are to have the right of freedom to wander at large over the forest.

I believe the most important issue raised by this Bill is one to which little attention has been given, namely the protection of the scientific interests of the New Forest. The original report, that admirable Baker Committee Report, pointed out that the New Forest was one of the most important if not the most important areas of scientific interests in the whole of the country. They recommended that a curator with scientific knowledge should be appointed by the verderers, and should be answerable to them for the protection of scientific interests over the whole area of the Forest.

I realise that the verderers, in their new role, are not the appropriate people to employ a curator, but at the same time what assurance have we that the Forestry Commission or the verderers may not take steps in agreement either towards the growing of trees or the improvement of land from a commonable point of view which would be disastrous to some type of wild life in the Forest? There is always the possibility through drainage of alteration of the water table, which may, in fact, be disastrous, and I feel very strongly that those scientific interests, which are of great importance, should be protected in some way.

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend would look favourably on the suggestion of an Amendment laying down that a verderer broadly representative of the scientific interests of the country should be appointed. It would not seriously upset the balance of the Court of Verderers with regard to local interests. Indeed, I do not see how it could endanger local interests at all. It would help local interests, but I feel that some sort of an assurance should be given by the Forestry Commission as to what is intended so as to ensure that the Nature Conservancy will be able to fulfil their duty in this most important area. Unless we have some assurance it may be necessary at a later stage to move an Amendment authorising the appointment of a verderer representative of those scientific interests.

I am sure hon. Members in all parts of the House and the people of this country would agree that the wild life and the ecological study of it is of great importance and for that reason the New Forest should be protected. I should be interested to hear what my right hon. Friend has to say on this issue. The Nature Conservancy are themselves empowered under the National Parks Bill to enter into an agreement with the owners, in this case the Forestry Commission, to secure that certain lands should be managed as a nature reserve. Even so, quite apart from those specific and limited areas within the perambulation of the Forest, I believe that there should be a general assurance that nothing will be done to damage the wild life of the New Forest.

This sums up what I have to say. I shall only conclude by saying that I hope the people in the New Forest, the commoners in particular and the Forestry Commission, will really make an endeavour to co-operate. Bad feeling has been growing up recently, but now I think it is agreed on all sides that this Bill must go through. It must be accepted as the best compromise possible, and it is incumbent on everyone to do his best to work it. If there are difficulties, it may be necessary to come to the House again and have a new Bill brought forward to put them right, but meanwhile I ask that there should be an attempt to co-operate and that so far as possible good will shall grow and exist in the development of the Forest's preservation and of those important amenities which are a national birthright.

4.27 p.m.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre (New Forest and Christchurch)

Before I come to the speech of the junior Member for Preston (Mr. Shackleton) or the Bill, I should like also to pay my tribute to the work done by Sir Denys Stocks. He has had a far from enviable job in dealing with the many complaints and the many questions put to him not only by representatives of the New Forest, but I suspect also by his Minister as well. The way in which he has dealt with the matters of the Bill itself is a tribute to a civil servant and to a man who has given of his best in order to try to achieve the best result.

I would pay my tribute too to the former Deputy Surveyor of the New Forest, Mr. Young. He has now retired, but in the years in which he represented the Forestry Commission in the New Forest he gave of his best to try to see that the conflict of interests which the hon. Member mentioned, and about which I myself will have something to say later on, were as far as possible reconciled so that the best should be made of the New Forest in the national interest.

Now I come to the Bill. If one reads the Baker Report, one is given the impression that the New Forest is a sort of miraculous survival, something which, despite the changes of fortune, has managed to survive all the vicissitudes of encroachment and enclosure by the various Governments that this country has had. That is not true at all. The only reason the New Forest has survived is because the people there have for centuries been willing to fight to protect not only their own rights, but the rights of the general public to ensure that the New Forest shall survive as an entity.

If one goes back—and I must trouble the House with this—two or three centuries, one finds that during the 18th century one Royal Forest after another was dissipated by Acts of Parliament, in which a certain percentage of the forest concerned was granted to the Crown because of its rights and a certain percentage to the commoners because of their rights. Both sides were allowed to enclose their areas, and within a very few years the forest so apportioned disappeared. The same thing would have happened to the New Forest if it had not been for the fight made by the inhabitants.

I must quote in evidence one of the renowned Prime Ministers of my party, Mr. Pitt, who, in 1792, introduced a Bill to try to enclose the New Forest. That Bill was stopped in this House and in another place by the action of the residents of the New Forest. In the 19th century the same thing happened. A Bill was introduced in 1851 by a Government with a large majority, and the Government said frankly: "We can get the Bill through, no matter what anybody says." The Bill was designed to reduce the New Forest to nothing. It gave the Forestry Commission, in exchange for taking away the deer, the right not only to enclose 20,000 acres of the Forest but, once those 20,000 acres had grown up to a height at which the trees could not be damaged by cattle, to enclose another 20,000 acres. By that kind of rolling power it was proposed to take away the whole of the New Forest. A member of the Office of Woods at that time said: "It is right for the Crown to try to exercise their power in this way. The sooner they take away the open forest the sooner will the commoners' rights be found of no avail."

It was only by the Act of 1877 that the New Forest was preserved. The inhabitants of the New Forest had fought the matter for 26 years, between 1851 and 1877. The Act of 1877 said that the Forestry Commission should have no more than the acreage that they then enjoyed, and that the rest of the open forest would stay permanently unimpaired, not only for the benefit of the commoners but for the benefit of the people of the country. What was the answer of the Office of Woods? They said merely: "It happens that you have won this fight in Parliament, and we cannot enclose any more. So far as the open forest is concerned, we therefore have no interest whatever. We will not spend any money upon it because we have lost interest in it. We shall confine our activities to those bits that we have been allowed to enclose." When the hon. Member for Preston said that another Bill was necessary because the verderers' finances were inadequate, he said what is true. When Parliament passed the Act of 1877, it did not envisage that the Forestry Commission—or the Office of Woods, later called the Forestry Commission—would take the view which they did, that, having been defeated in their attempts to enclose the New Forest, they would take no further interest in its maintenance. That is why another Measure was necessary.

When the verderers asked for a further Act they asked for one that would put them in an independent position and would enable them to do their duty properly as representatives of the commoners and the public. Their task was to maintain a just balance between the Crown, the commoners and the public. When the present Bill was first produced, it was a Bill of blackmail, and blackmail only. Its clauses were so designed that the verderers would either have had to agree to further enclosures or they would not get any revenue. It is as a result of the action taken by the residents of the New Forest in fighting the Bill in another place that the Bill has been so altered that now the verderers are to be put in an independent position, so far as maintenance of the open Forest is concerned, by seeing that duty of maintenance firmly placed on the shoulders of the Forestry Commission.

Mr. Shackleton

The hon. and gallant Member said that the Bill was deliberately framed as a piece of blackmail, but I am sure that he does not really mean that. The Bill may have given that impression and it may have been clumsily worded, but I am certain that my right hon. Friend had no intention whatsoever of bringing undue pressure to bear on the people and the commoners of the New Forest.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

I am very glad to receive that assurance from the hon. Member. I would ask him to study the evidence given in another place by Lord Robinson, Chairman of the Forestry Commission, on this very point. He said that it appeared to him unfortunate—that was the word he used—that the verderers should be faced with the conflicting interests of either getting no further revenue or surrendering the lands concerned. I suggest to the hon. Member that he would be well advised to see his right hon. Friend again and to go into the reasons which made the right hon. Gentleman give that undertaking.

That is, briefly, the history of the Bill. When the hon. Member for Preston said that he regretted the suspicion—I think that was actually the word he used—I would point out that it is entirely due to the fact that Governments, not only this Government but many other Governments, have seen in the New Forest something easy to seize, something from which they could get immediately a tangible reward, if only they could do away with the rights of the commoners and of the public as a whole.

I ask the House to consider this case. We shall have time later in Committee to go into it in detail. Let us take into consideration the powers under which the Forestry Commission are now asking for 5,000 acres of forest. In another place, in a Select Committee, Lord Robinson was asked to state whether he knew that the 5,000 acres could be taken and whether he had any idea exactly from where they could be taken. To both of those questions he replied "No." All that he said in defence of asking for those powers was: "There are 40,000 acres of unenclosed forest, and if I cannot take one-eighth of them I shall be very surprised." What a reason for asking for a Clause of this nature. There was no reference to the needs, the rights or the requirements of commoners and public—simply a bald statement: "I must be able to take with advantage one-eighth of what remains."

Those people who know the New Forest must be aware that the best land has been taken from the forest and that the enclosures are all of the better, low-lying ground. In many cases watering has been taken away and land that was most suitable for immediate profit by afforestation has been that taken by the Forestry Commission. Were the Commission to substantiate the taking of a further5,000 acres—this question was thoroughly debated in another place—the Commission should have been able to show from where this could be taken without doing grave permanent injury to the rights of the commoners. I hope that the Minister will say something more on this point.

Then there is the question of the 3,000 acres suggested for agriculture. I have not only discussed this matter with soil experts, but have listened to the evidence given in another place. From where do the Ministry of Agriculture think that these 3,000 acres will come? They say that that is the maximum, and that they probably will not need so much. If they do not need it, why should they put it in the Bill? If they put it in, surely before asking Parliament to give them this power they should have taken the trouble to see that that acreage was available. So far as I know, no survey has been made.

I should be the last simply to condemn out of hand all that the Ministry of Agriculture have done for the New Forest. As a verderer I could not do it, having agreed to the temporary enclosures which they now hold, but I believe that for any real benefit to agriculture in the New Forest they are going about it in the wrong way. We do not want large reseeded areas. Such areas, very naturally, because of the nature and the newness of that grazing, congregate all the cattle upon them, and the ancient feeding places tend to go back. The new feeding places tend to be over-grazed and very quickly deteriorate. Instead of this producing any lasting benefit, I think it is upsetting the balance of the agricultural position in the New Forest. All the people with whom I have talked say that what really counts is to try to get back the small traditional grazing places and once more make them the natural habitat of the cattle of the district.

I was horrified to find that the hon. Member for Preston knew something which I did not—due entirely to my ignorance—namely, that the right hon. Gentleman had said that he thinks £1,500 a year will be required to maintain the open forests. In another place the minimum sum set down was £3,000. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not come to this House and say that, despite the obligations which he took on there, he is now going to cut them by half and thereby reduce the value of what we understood would be obtained as a result of the Select Committee in another place.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

I hope that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will not develop arguments based upon assumptions which have no relation to anything I may have said about the New Forest.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

I am not saying that the right hon. Gentleman said it, but the spokesman on behalf of the Government said it in another place. It was laid down that the Forestry Commission should become responsible for the maintenance of the open forest. In evidence which was not challenged, that maintenance was set at a minimum of £3,000 a year. In this Bill the expenditure is put at £1,500. I ask the right hon. Gentleman why that discrepancy has arisen, and I hope that he will say why when he replies. I was not suggesting that he was present in another place. I am merely asking how the divergence of figures has occurred.

The final matter I wish tonight to raise concerns the Court of Verderers. Some people may not quite appreciate what a Court of Verderers is, as it is an archaic body which has come down to us through the centuries. From the time of William the Conqueror, verderers were officers appointed with the sole job of seeing that the Crown rights in the forests, paramount as they were, were not used to such an extent that they acted against the legitimate rights of the small commoner and the small farmer. The duty of the verderers was, while maintaining the prerogatives of the Crown, to ensure that justice was done to the small man.

In this Bill, for the first time in history, it is proposed completely to alter the composition of the Court of Verderers. Instead of being an independent body with the very well-defined job of maintaining the balance between the various rights, the verderers are now to become a body half of which is to be elected and half to be nominated. In all the discussions I have had, I have not heard one reason from the Government why that should be so. Why is it that, in this year in which we are alleged to have a Government which believes in democracy and all the rights of the small people, the Government want to take this independence from one of the few bodies which have functioned well throughout the centuries? I hope to hear something more about this from the right hon. Gentleman.

The Minister wishes to have in this Court a member of the Forestry Commission, and a member of the Ministry of Agriculture for the grazing and the enclosures sides of the verderers' work. Also a member of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and members of such bodies as he may consider it necessary to consult for amenity purposes; and, instead of being an elected body to deal impartially with all the rights of those concerned in the Forest, the verderers will now become a Court half composed of nominees of the Minister. Why does the Minister wish to do this? In the Acts of Parliament throughout the last century and this century, he has complete powers to maintain the rights of the Crown which have now devolved upon his Ministry. Why does he therefore wish to put his representatives on the Court? What good will they do? What purpose will they serve? They cannot help in the administration of the Forest. By their very nature they will be people concerned purely with the interests of afforestation or temporary enclosure for catch-crops of some seven years. They can add nothing to the deliberations of the verderers. As to the representative of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, I should like to know what the Minister thinks he will do.

As the hon. Member for Preston said, we in the Court of Verderers have always said, I believe rightly, that there are a very great many interests, particularly of the wild life, which must be preserved in the New Forest. We have always said—and we asked in the petitions in another place—that we should be given power to co-opt two members to the Court of Verderers who would advise and help us on these problems of wild life. I am certain that that would be an advantage, but I can see no reason whatever for all these stooges of the various Ministries to come on to the Court. If I were evil minded—I must admit that I sometimes personally feel the suspicions mentioned by the hon. Member for Preston—I could see only one reason for this, to try to invalidate the independence of the Court and to obtain sufficient nominees on it to secure the power to sway the decision of the Court.

In the New Forest we are proud that, of all the Royal Forests and of all the heritages of the small fanner and the commoner, we alone now remain. We have done that, quite honestly, by fighting and by making it clear to every Government that we will not tolerate an invasion of our rights. The Bill as originally drafted was an invasion of those rights on a major scale. Many of the things to which we objected have been taken out in another place. I hope the Government will realise the value of the New Forest; of its tradition and the part it can play in English agriculture, and will remove the other matters which I have mentioned. If the Government do that, we shall have a Bill which will be a worthy successor to the Act of 1877 and will enable the New Forest to go on not only as a pleasure to countless thousands of holiday-makers but also as an invaluable centre of the small agriculturist.

4.50 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

I am at least thankful that no tangible opposition has been expressed to the Bill so far, apart from the regrets of the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre).

The right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) said quite rightly that this Forest was a thing of beauty, something of great national value as well as of local value, and that all those who had any responsibility for it ought to walk warily before they damaged what has been an historic traditional right of the common people. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that has been the desire in all that we did, or attempted to do before this Bill was produced. Had it not been for the finance expended by the Forestry Commission for a number of years, I am certain that there would have been a Bill long since, despite what the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch said about the magnificent administration of the historic verderers, since they have been literally bankrupt for a long time and could not have done the kind of work that has been done over a long period by the Forestry Commission.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

Having made that assertion, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will give us details of the work done?

Mr. Williams

The hon. and gallant Gentleman knows of that without my giving him details here, since the history of the contribution made by the Forestry Commission is well known not only to himself but to all those associated locally with the New Forest.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman again? He has made a grave statement—[An HON. MEMBER: "No."] Yes, because it impinges on all the verderers have done. Apart from the 1937 conference, of which the right hon. Gentleman is aware, has any money been spent by the Forestry Commission on the open forest?

Mr. Williams

The Forestry Commission of their own volition have been spending money annually for quite a time. The hon. and gallant Member knows that while there was no statutory obligation either on the Forestry Commission, or for that matter on anyone, the Commission have dealt with drains, the clearance of scrub, and so forth, for quite a period. Clause 11 is only imported into this Bill to make that a statutory obligation for, I hope, all time. In any case, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, when moving the Second Reading of this Bill, stated that since this is an area where not only commoners are interested but the whole nation to a minor extent, since tens of thousands of people enjoy the open moors, it is not unreasonable that the Government should make a financial contribution in some form to the maintenance of the amenities, and Clause 11 is designed to do that.

The right hon. Gentleman referred particularly to Clause 14 under which there is a possible enclosure with the assent of the verderers. That apparently still does not satisfy the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch who, I am sure, never would be satisfied even if we gave him the moon. The right hon. Gentleman said that when ploughing up areas of land or carrying out experimental reseeding programmes we must be careful. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we have been experimenting with the reseeding of commons for 10 years, almost always with success. Indeed, if the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. and gallant Member will consult their colleague the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd), he will be able to tell them about the various successes in experimental reseeding, not only in the New Forest but in various other parts of the country.

The hon. Member for Newbury, writing in "Country Life" on 26th August last, illustrates the value of what the county agricultural executive committee has done in the New Forest, where, thanks to the verderers not having had the wherewithal to perform their duties if these were their duties—I am not suggesting any lack of enterprise or lack of desire on their part to do the job—large areas which were of no use to man, horse, or any other animal were taken over by the agricultural executive committee. After illustrating the useless scrub, this issue of "Country Life" which I hold in my hand gives a picture of the first result of reseeding, then the first crop of oats, then the scene after reseeding. There, on two sides of one article contributed by the hon. Member for Newbury, is the full story of what has been done, and I recommend the hon. and gallant Member to consult his hon. Friend if he wants knowledge of the potential value of cultivation and reseeding.

Mr. Stubbs (Cambridgeshire)

Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman apologise?

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

I hope I made it quite clear that some of these agricultural experiments had done well.

Mr. Stubbs

The hon. and gallant Member did not say that.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

I think I did; if not, I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Williams

indicated assent.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

The right hon. Gentleman has nodded his head, and he is as good a judge as anybody. However, is he aware that 300 acres which he took over has cost his Department £6,000, and does he consider that good management?

Mr. Williams

If the hon. and gallant Member asks me what any particular experiment has cost, I tell him readily that I cannot offhand say what any part of an experimental scheme has cost. However, when the hon. and gallant Member suggests that some scheme may have cost £6,000, I wonder if he has looked at only one side of the balance sheet?

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

No, both sides.

Mr. Williams

I imagine that must be the case—

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

It is what the Minister's own experts say.

Mr. Williams

The hon. and gallant Gentleman has looked at the cost but he has not looked at the potential income, and certainly has not paid any attention to the possibility of a heavier carrying capacity of animals of various kinds after reseeding had been undertaken. However, I am quite certain that Clause 14 will be used with the assent of the verderers for experimental purposes exclusively in the interests of the commoners. The Ministry of Agriculture has no other object in view than to render many acres capable of carrying more ponies or cattle; in other words, continuing what they did during the war by removing the useless scrub, taking a good harvest of oats, of potatoes, reseeding, and leaving the land in a much better state for the commoners than it was in before. That could be the only object which any Ministry of Agriculture could have in mind.

And so with the Forestry Commission, I am sorry that, even after all the concessions that have been made to try to make this an acceptable Bill, the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch still seems to regard the Forestry Commission as a body of Pitts who want to enclose the New Forest for their private use just as enclosures happened 150 or 200 years ago. The hon. and gallant Member should remember that the Forestry Commission is a body of civil servants acting for the State, not for themselves, who want to grow timber on land useless for anything else. They want to make better use of our national assets than has been made before, and instead of condemnation I should have thought that would have merited praise. Whether it be actually 5,000 acres that can fit fairly into the scheme of things without destroying the amenities of the Forest. I am unable to say.

Therefore, in Clause 12 we say that if the Forestry Commission make a presentment—and it literally means the assent of the verderers within a certain area—a maximum of 5,000 acres shall he enclosed for afforestation. What can there be wrong in that? If there is an area of land which is rendering no contribution to the State or to the commoners, but can render a contribution to the growth of timber, then, surely, the Forestry Commission are the right body to determine whether or not that land is suitable for timber. I should have thought that by now, after all the conflicts from 1877, 1879 and onwards, the hon. and gallant Member himself would have been longing for a period of reasonable compromise such as he has had during the past few months, and not the sort of suggestions he has been making in his speech today. We have gone as far as any Government could be expected to go. Perhaps, in our efforts at sweet reasonableness and compromise, we have gone a little too far, but it is clear that nothing we could do would satisfy the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Shackleton) asked about the enclosure of roads in the interests of safety. In Clause 16 we have taken power to enclose the main trunk road, which cuts across a corner of the forest rather than through the middle of it, and only by that means, with appropriate high fences or something lower down, will it be possible for animals to roam from one portion of the forest to another without endangering either human or animal life.

My hon. Friend asked another question about a special verderer being appointed to represent the Nature Conservancy. The Select Committee, following their first discussion in another place, had that proposal before them and turned it down, but I can assure my hon. Friend that it always was the intention of the Forestry Commission to co-operate with the Nature Conservancy to ensure that scientific investigation and so forth can be carried on. Indeed, as my hon. Friend knows, one of the verderers must represent some organisation representing amenities; and the Ministry can designate that particular verderer. I assure my hon. Friend that, with the power of the Minister to appoint that particular verderer representing amenities, and with the undertaking of the Forestry Commission always to keep in close touch with the scientific position, wild life in the New Forest will be cared for after the passing of the Bill.

There were not any further points to which I need reply, but I hope that the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest and Christchurch will feel that he has had his fling. Perhaps, quite rightly, he felt that with the tradition and history behind him, dating back to the days of his father, grandfather and all the rest, he must be the last person not to put up a struggle for the New Forest—a feeling that the Forest belonged to him. I have made no complaints but, having gone so far, having compromised so readily and having conceded 99¾ per cent. of all that has been asked for, I hope that the hon. and gallant Member will not delay the Bill further or even expect to secure more concessions than he has already obtained.

The Bill, representing as it does only a tiny corner of Britain, is of some importance. Tens of thousands of people delight to pay visits to the New Forest and to enjoy the luxury of its fresh air. The hon. and gallant Gentleman asked why I thought it was necessary to change the appointment of verderers and to appoint one each representing the Ministry of Agriculture, the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning since, as he said, these representatives could render no contribution to the verderers. I can only say that I beg to differ from the hon. and gallant Member. The person chosen to represent agriculture will be the sort of person who can advise the verderers on things which they do not themselves understand; who can advise them where it will be wise or not to undertake reseeding or any other agricultural function. The person so appointed might, in fact, be better able to advise and guide the verderers because of his scientific knowledge which they, perhaps, may not possess.

Similarly, with the representative of the Forestry Commission. If an area is under consideration for afforestation, surely the person deeply saturated in the science of silviculture ought to be able to be of valuable assistance to the verderers, In future the verderers, with their appointed chairman and the persons representing the Ministry of Agriculture, the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and, perhaps, amenities, and with the five elected verderers, will be a far better body than the traditional verderers who, for one reason or another, were unable very often to do the job that all of us would have liked them to do on a comprehensive scale.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon. South)

Are the appointed verderers likely to be resident locally or may they come from any part of the United Kingdom? Will they have special local knowledge or not?

Mr. Williams

I could not say where the person who is to represent the Ministry of Agriculture would actually reside. He would, however, be appointed because of his expert knowledge of agriculture, and not because of geography or the place where he happened to live. Similarly, the representative of the Forestry Commission will be appointed because, perhaps, of his scientific knowledge of silviculture; that, and not his actual place of residence, will be the basis of his appointment.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Select Committee of Six Members, four to be nominated by the House and two by the Committee of Selection:

Any Petitions against the Bill deposited in the Private Bill Office at any time not later than the sixth day after this day to stand referred to the Committee, but if no such Petitions are deposited, the Order for the committal of the Bill to a Select Committee to be discharged and the Bill to be committed to a Committee of the whole House:

Petitioners praying to be heard by themselves, their Counsel or Agents, to be heard against the Bill provided that their Petitions are prepared and signed in conformity with the Rules and Orders of this House, and Counsel to be heard in favour of the Bill against such Petitions:

Power to report from day to day the Minutes of the Evidence taken before them:

Three to be the Quorum.—[Mr. T. Williams.]