HC Deb 09 April 1968 vol 762 cc1290-5
Mr. Channon

I beg to move Amendment No. 94, in page 21, line 8, at end insert: (7) The provisions of subsection (2) above shall not apply to any land for the time being forming part of the open waste lands of the New Forest. I am sorry that we should have to deal with this very important matter at this late hour. I shall be as brief as possible, but I may have to take a little longer than I did in dealing with recent Amendments. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the New Forest (Sir O. Crosthwaite-Eyre) will also wish to take part in the debate.

There was a great deal of discussion in Committee about the New Forest. A proposed new Clause dealing with the New Forest, its special position, and how it would be affected by the Bill if unamended was debated at some length. It had the support of the verderers of the New Forest as well as of my hon. and gallant Friend, who was not a member of the Committee.

My hon. and gallant Friend's Amendment, which also has the support of the verderers, is more restricted than the new Clause we considered in Committee, dealing only with Clause 18, which concerns the Forestry Commission and its powers in regard to trees and woodlands. Subsection (2) is the very large subsection that entitles the Forestry Commissioners to … provide, or arrange for or assist in the provision of, tourist, recreational or sporting facilities … and allows them, for example, to provide

  1. "(a) accommodation for visitors,
  2. (b) camping sites and caravan sites,
  3. (c) places for meals and refreshments, …
  4. (e) information and display centres,
  5. (f) shops …
  6. (g) public conveniences."
The verderers have long been aware of the rapid increase in the use of the New Forest by the public for recreational purposes and have taken many steps to help this.

They ask that they should be entitled to continue their present responsibilities on these matters and that it should not be left, as the Bill would have it, that the Forestry Commission should be empowered to provide these facilities on the open waste lands of the New Forest. Section 6 of the New Forest Act, 1964, enables the Minister of Agriculture, with the agreement of the verderers, to authorise the appropriation of land forming part of the waste land for camping sites and so on. That Act already includes ample power, and the principle that the verderers shall have control of this kind of activity within their jurisdiction was conferred by Parliament in 1964. After we had had a longer discussion in Standing Committee than we shall probably have today, a deputation of verderers had the pleasure of meeting representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and the Forestry Commissioners, on 8th March, in response to assurances given by the Parliamentary Secretary in reply to the debate. I understand that an assurance was given that the Forestry Commission would consult the verderers before exercising Clause 18(2) in relation to the New Forest.

However, I think there is no doubt that the verderers are concerned about losing the protection afforded by Section 18 of the New Forest Act, 1964, which later became the New Forest Act, 1964. The principle that verderers should have control in matters within their jurisdiction is important. Once it is allowed to be eroded, it may be that the New Forest, as it exists today, will be threatened. I hope that a method will be found of meeting the points raised by the verderers, discussed in Standing Committee, and raised by the deputation. If it cannot be done in the way suggested in the Amendment, I hope that other ways will be sought to achieve the aim of the verderers in this matter, for which I hope the Government have good will. I do not think it is a great deal for the verderers to ask for this protection. Other places get special treatment, like Epping Forest and Burnham Beeches which are specially mentioned in Clause 36, and they get special treatment which is not now afforded to the New Forest. It may be argued that there are historical reasons why this should be so, that it is easier to do this for Epping Forest and Burnham Beeches than for the New Forest, but any argument based purely on historical grounds is not sufficient to invalidate the arguments put forward for the New Forest. If it cannot be done this way, surely it is not beyond the wit of the Minister to get something in the Bill to meet these special points.

I have heard rumours that if an Amendment of this kind were made, it might make the Bill hybrid. That is the last thing we want to do, but Clause 36(4) of the Bill applies, in a similar way to what we are asking, to Epping Forest and Burnham Beeches, which are lands under the regulation and management of the Corporation of London as Conservators of Epping Forest.

I also understand that in the Commons Registration Act, 1965, the provisions relating to registration are not to apply to the New Forest or Epping Forest and that the question of hybridity did not arise there. The merits of the case are self-evident. The New Forest is managed in a way much admired by those who know it. The verderers are entitled to the protection they seek and it is in the interest of all those who know the New Forest and want to preserve it.

I am sure that the Forestry Commissioners have no wish to do anything damaging to the New Forest but the present more satisfactory system, enshrined in legislation as recently as 1964, should continue. The verderers are entitled to the support of this House for their keeping overall control of matters long within their jurisdiction.

I hope that the Government will be able to find a way, preferably by this Amendment, of protecting the verderers. This is an important matter and I am sure that all those who know the New Forest support the principle involved, I hope that, even at this hour, the House will turn its attention to doing what it can to meet the point raised by the verderers. A solution along these lines would be in the interests both of those who live in the New Forest and those who visit it. I hope that the Government will not stick on the ground that it is difficult to do this because it would make the Bill hybrid.

Mr. Skeffington

I hope I can short-circuit the discussion while doing justice to the arguments put by the hon. Gentleman. The powers of Clause 18 are very important new ones for the Forestry Commission and of great assistance to it, here as elsewhere. Anyone who knows the New Forest and the intense holiday pressure on the area realises that proper provision has to be made. The Forestry Commission has done and will do a great deal of work in this respect with the consent and agreement of the verderers.

I had the pleasure of visiting the New Forest recently and of seeing the splendid work done there. It is true that the Forestry Commission could exercise the powers under this Bill for the attainment of the objectives of subsection (2), but, as I said in our interesting debate in Committee, unless, from the practical point of view, it secured the consent of the verderers, it would have no power unless it went through a very long procedure for the alienation of common rights. That would obviously defeat the whole purpose, so it should be done with the consent and agreement of the verderers.

2.15 a.m.

I am happy to give the undertaking that the Forestry Commission will, as it has always done, consult the verderers in any activities it proposes to undertake. It may find it easier to do so under the legislation which the hon. Gentleman prefers. On the whole the powers contained in Clause 18 are more widespread. It would be impossible from the commonsense point of view, to undertake these necessary developments in the New Forest without the consent of the very honourable and ancient verderers, who have for so long discharged important duties in the Forest. I am happy to give the assurance that the Forestry Commission will consult.

Col. Sir Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre (New Forest)

I find it difficult to follow the Minister. If he is genuine in the assurance that he has given, he has all the powers under the New Forest Act, 1949. Clause 18 (1) (c) reads: with the agreement of the verderers authorise the use of land in the Forest for the purpose of recreation and the erection on such land of buildings or other works for that purpose and the enclosure of such land in so far as its enclosure is necessary to preserve the land for use for that purpose or to preserve buildings or works erected or constructed by virtue of this paragraph". That gives him all the powers he needs, but it means that he has to get the consent of the verderers first. How far in future does this Measure extend those powers? All that it means is that the Forestry Commission now takes the ultimate right in its own hands to decide what it is to do. Under the provisions in the 1949 Act, passed by a Socialist Government, it has all the powers it needs. But now it is taking these additional powers. Why?

It would be equally fair to say that the Minister has not given any reason why he wants to extend the Act. If he can give me any reason why the powers of that Act are insufficient, I will give him an assurance on behalf of the verderers of the New Forest—and I should have said that I am a verderer—that we as verderers will support him. That is a rather generous offer. What he has said tonight sounds like the Government bulldozer. For over 300 years, the New Forest has had its own, separate, legislation, and has managed its own affairs. As the Minister was gracious enough to say, it has proved its worth. All those Measures have been hybrid. We have tried to avoid embarrassing the Minister by putting down an Amendment that would cause the Bill to be hybrid. We have had no response from him at all.

Consultation is promised. If under all legislation up to the present moment there has had to be consultation or agreement, would the hon. Gentleman agree that to hand all powers to the Forestry Commission seems unfair? Not only that, but the Minister might agree, after studying the practice concerning parks in Canada and America, that to have a successful park one has to delegate authority to the people immediately responsible for it. One finds that throughout the whole range of Canadian parks, from the great wild parks to the parks near a city and finally urban parks. If this Clause is forced through, the Minister will be taking away local government and placing it in other hands. We are told it will be the Forestry Commission, but the whole temper of the Forestry Commission has changed in the last few years. It has had to change. Giving control to the Forestry Commission is in effect giving it to the Minister himself.

I had the opportunity of talking to the ex-Minister of Agriculture. I told him of this position in the terms of the generous offers given in Committee on the Countryside Bill. I very much regret that he changed his office and his successor did not see fit to see me to discuss the problem.

I will not ask my hon. Friends to divide on this Amendment, but I do not think that the Government have given us a fair deal. They have not realised what the New Forest stands for and they have not honoured the pledges that they gave in Standing Committee.

Amendment negatived.

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