HL Deb 25 February 1948 vol 154 cc103-30

2.48 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to ask His Majesty's Government, what action they have taken or propose to take to implement the recommendations of the New Forest Committee; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think it would be appropriate if I conformed to the usage of your Lordships' House and declared my special interest in the Motion which stands upon the Order Paper in my name and which I now beg to move. First of all, I was a member of the New Forest Committee who made this investigation and are responsible for the production of the Report. Secondly, I enjoy the great good fortune, which I share with many members of your Lordships' House, of living practically within the perambulations of the New Forest. It was a special pleasure to me to serve upon this Committee because it allowed me to enjoy the privilege—a privilege which will be appreciated to the full by many noble Lords—of serving under the Chairmanship of the Right Honourable Harold Baker (who will be remembered by many noble Lords) who was, until succeeded by the noble Lord, Lord Simonds, Warden of Winchester College. To the Chairman must be given the major credit for a Report which is not only a literary achievement but, if I may say so, a constructive effort to set right a number of things that for centuries have been wrong.

There cannot be many members of your Lordships' House who at one time or another have not travelled through some part of the 93,000 acres that make up the New Forest, which has been called a miraculous survival of pre-Norman England. I feel that I can easily secure your sympathetic interest if I call to your minds that wonderful vista from the high road between Stony Cross and Picket Post, right over towards the ancient City of Salisbury, or, on a summer evening, towards the setting sun over the Dorset heaths, or that marvellous view between Brockenhurst and Beaulieu across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. If any of your Lordships have been tempted to stray off the beaten track and to admire the cathedral-like dignity and grandeur of some of the stands of timber, without parallel in Europe, you will agree with me that the New Forest is a great national heritage. But if it is to be preserved and developed upon the right lines, as it must be, drastic action will have to be taken in certain directions. Is it too much to ask that, even amidst the stress of our present times, some thought and some legislative time can be given to carrying out the recommendations which this Committee make?

Ever since the days of Canute, the New Forest has had a turbulent and stormy history. I doubt whether any tract of land in this country—certainly no forest—has been the subject of so many investigations by so many Commissions and departmental and Select Committees, all charged with resolving the age-old quarrel between the commoners and the Crown. The New Forest Committee were charged with succeeding where all others had failed. Whether or not the recommendations which the Committee make will bring success, history alone will prove; but, if they are successful, it may well be that peace will come to the New Forest—and that (as the Report itself says) its advent will mean that one of the chief amenities of forest life will disappear!The terms of reference of this Committee were wide. They were: To investigate the state and condition of the New Forest and, having due regard to existing rights and interests, to recommend such measures as they consider desirable and necessary for adjusting the Forest to modern requirements. I would particularly direct your Lordships' attention to the last words— which they consider desirable and necessary for adjusting the Forest to modern requirements. I have said that the New Forest is a great national heritage and, after the proper interests of the commoners have been met and appropriately dealt with, and the amenity has been secured, there must be considered the interests of the 47,000,000 people of this country whose heritage it is. The Committee take the view that a prerequisite to planning the Forest as it should be planned, protecting the rightful interests of all, is the reconstitution of the governing authority. The New Forest is governed at the present time by an Act of 1877, and quite apart from faults in its initial drafting, this seventy-year-old enactment has, by modern standards, become outmoded and out-of-date. In fact, it would be true to say that no advance could have been made in the Forest over these last seventy years without causing a breach of its provisions.

The governing authority, the Court of Verderers, was originally brought into being to protect the interests of the Crown against the commoners, and it was reconstituted by the Act of 1877 and charged with the duty of protecting the interests of the commoners against encroachment by the Crown. In recent years the verderers have taken a far wider view of their responsibilities. That Statute still governs their powers, constitution and the method of election. The first are too narrowly drawn, and the second and the third are antiquated, because the qualification for a verderer of the New Forest is the ownership of seventy-five acres of land carrying with it rights of common. Today, my Lords, there are only sixteen persons of both sexes, out of a total of 2,000 commoners, who can meet that qualification; and the method of election is by the now discredited principle of the open poll. The recommendations which the Committee make cover the reconstitution of the Court of Verderers in order to allow a proper representation of all interested parties, and also for the election to be carried on by secret ballot. The recommendations also deal with finance. This unfortunate body has been almost bankrupt from its inception. It has been saved from complete insolvency only by unexpected windfalls from some unexpected quarters. The strict legality of some of them, to say the least, is open to doubt. The responsibility for providing the future finance of the Council of Verderers, as it is proposed that it shall be called, is securely placed upon the three beneficiaries, the commoners, the Forestry Commission and the public.

At this stage I think it would be appropriate if I went over one or two of the recommendations. I do not want to weary your Lordships by going through them all—some are of principle, many are of detail—because my object in putting this Motion upon the Order Paper is to press His Majesty's Government to take action, either immediate or as soon as may be, on many of the recommendations. Some of the others, I realise, will have to be the result of protracted negotiation. There is one recommendation which must concern the whole of this country and which, especially at the present time, lifts the New Forest above mere parochial interest. I have already mentioned the necessity of conserving the proper rights of the commoners; and I have also stressed the necessity of preserving the amenities. But there is one outstanding requirement to-day, and that is to increase the timber production of this country. Out of this vast area of 93,000 acres, by the Statute of 1877, only 18,000 acres can be enclosed for the purpose of timber production, with the provision that only 16,000 acres can be enclosed at any one time.

During the 1914–18 war, about 8,000,000 cubic feet, or 230,000 tons, of timber were felled in the New Forest. During the last war, 12,500,000 cubic feet, or 440,000 tons, of timber were felled—saving, as your Lordships will readily appreciate, 440,000 tons of shipping space. That was no mean contribution to the effort of a nation at war. I think it only right for me to say that great credit is due to the Deputy Surveyor of the New Forest and his staff for the fact that such a gigantic amount of timber was felled without any detriment to the amenities of the Forest, because, as your Lordships will have noticed when driving through the Forest, you can hardly see where that timber has come from. But our requirement of timber to meet our needs as a country does not stop at the end of a war. Our present requirement is prodigious, and your Lordships will be able to measure it when I tell you that at the present time we are having to import 80 per cent. of our mining timber, including 90 per cent. of the pit props required in the mining industry.

Expert evidence was given to the Committee that an additional 20,000 acres should be brought under timber. The Ministry of Agriculture gave evidence to the effect that there were 10,000 acres in the New Forest unfit for grazing. Local planning authorities pleaded for the planting of shelter belts and screens on the eastern side of the Forest, adjacent to Southampton Water, made necessary by the spew and sprawling of the urbanization of that area in some of the worst forms of industrial development that this country has known. The Committee recommend than an extra 5,000 acres of the Forest should be afforested. They support the planning authorities' suggestion that these belts should also be planted. I am well aware that this immediately affects the interests of the commoners, that it impinges upon what they would call their proper rights. The Committee gave very careful thought to this matter, because it is the focal point of the centuries-old quarrel between the commoners and the Crown.

With your Lordships' permission I should like to read a paragraph in the Report which deals with this particular point. It is in precise language and I think that your Lordships should know exactly what the Committee say. Dealing with the opposition which the recommendation which I have just outlined will arouse, the Committee say: The real reason for their opposition and few of them made any concealment "— this refers to the commoners— was a determination that the Forestry Commission should on no account get an inch more ground for enclosure. It was put to us by one witness in this way: ' We have been fighting to get back the land which was taken from us centuries ago: the Act of 1877 gave us what we have been fighting for: we call it our Charter: now if we give the power to the Forestry Commission to take what they want we shall be put back to where we started.' In answer to this it must again be repeated that the premise to this statement is wrong. The Open Forest does not belong and never has belonged to the Commoners. Their right is not to the land but to what they can take from it through the mouths of their animals. That is an ownership real and valuable, and one which they and all concerned with the Forest should defend to the utmost. They should remember however that others have interests in the land as well as they and that these equally must be defended. As regards the second point the witness spoke more justly and we say plainly that there can be no return to the position before 1877. On his third point we have already stated that the decision cannot be left to the Forestry Commission and we have provided adequate safeguards in entrusting it to an independent authority on which the Commoners will be directly represented…In the proposals for compensation we consider that we have paid due regard to their existing rights and interests.

It would be as well, in passing, to ask the opposition—if such there be—where the income is coming from if the recommendations of this Report are not accepted. I will not weary your Lordships by going through many more of these recommendations. There is one about the preservation of the ancient woods of the Forest, which are perhaps its crowning glory. Five thousand acres of ancient woods are falling into decay because they cannot be enclosed for regeneration. Perhaps I may be displaying temerity in your Lordships' House, speaking before so many of your Lordships who like to spend somnolent afternoons in the pavilions of Lord's—and sometimes in those of the Oval—in claiming that real cricket is played upon the village greens of this country. But no village cricket club within the New Forest can obtain any grant from the National Playing Fields Association—a body which is anxious and willing to make such grants—because of the existing Statute which prohibits all security of tenure.

I am sure that I could arouse indignation among your Lordships by speaking of the continued vandalism of Service Departments which, at the present moment, occupy 8,000 acres of the New Forest. Of course, as is the custom of Service Departments, they have desecrated the most beautiful parts of those 8,000 acres. The Air Ministry and War Office occupy these 8,000 acres with derelict buildings, and in one case with a bombing range which has not been used since the war and which is now harbouring all the vagabonds of the district. That is one of the sources of the verderers' income. Your Lordships will be surprised when I tell you that the Air Ministry are paying the verderers an annual compensation of £600.

There is one other point which is of great national concern. Many of your Lordships will agree that alongside our need to increase our timber production is the necessity to increase our livestock population. The New Forest is a natural cattle-raising area, and if its potentialities are extended and the verderers given greater authority I feel certain that a valuable contribution can be made, not only to the quantity but also to the quality of our livestock. Already the verderers, by their ability to institute by-laws, have brought the cases of contagious abortion down to a very small number, and the incidence of tuberculosis in the New Forest is down to 25 per cent. compared with 60 to 80 per cent. reacters in milking herds in other parts of the country. Expert evidence before the Committee showed that the New Forest, even with the 30,000 acres grazing which will be left after the Committee's recommendations for new afforestation are carried out, will carry 6,000 to 8,000 head of cattle, whereas only 2,000 are: at present grazed in the Forest. In spite of all the suggestions that have been made for improving the grazing, the Committee came to the conclusion that by far the best way is to increase the number of animals.

I have not mentioned, and I am not going to mention, perhaps the most contentious part of the Report—that is, the Committee's affirmation that it is necessary to readjust the local authority boundaries in order to have one local authority for the Forest. That, I know, must be a matter for the Boundary Commission and protracted negotiations with the various Government Departments. But even with these omissions, I trust that I have said enough to interest your Lord-ships in this great natural heritage. If the Government can find time for legislation, I think that there is no more appropriate place in which to introduce it than your Lordships' House. I beg to move for Papers.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, in venturing to intervene in this debate, I feel the need for a full measure of that consideration which your Lordships are accustomed to give to the novice. I am encouraged to proceed because I have been told that a statement coming from one who has long been implicated in the administration of the New Forest might be of interest to your Lordships. I have to declare my interest in the New Forest, just as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has done, by telling your Lordships that I am still the Chairman of the Forestry Commission and as such am responsible for a great part of the administration.

I will begin my plain tale, if I may, with an incident which occurred when I went down to the Forest in 1914 to see about timber supplies for the war effort. I received a kindly and courteous welcome from the Deputy Surveyor, Chief Officer of the Forest, but it seemed to me, both from his manner and his attire, that he was preoccupied with something else; and so it transpired. I believe that that was probably the last occasion on which an officer of the Forest rode to hounds in official time, secure in the fact that he was safe from carping criticism from his superior officer and also at complete peace with his conscience. That trifling episode has always remained in my mind as the end of one period and the beginning of another—a period in which timber, both in the national defence and in the general economy of the nation, was to take on a new and much greater significance. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has already told the House, great quantities of timber were felled during the war of 1914–1918. That necessitated, according to the sylviculture of the times, making great clearings which naturally took a long while to fill. The military were also active with training schemes, but after that war the scars which they had made soon healed.

In 1923 the administration of the Forest was transferred from the old Office of Woods and Forests to the new Forestry Commissioners. Those Commissioners went in to bat—I take, the analogy from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—on an ill-prepared and sticky wicket, in a game for which even the rules were not clearly defined. That uneasy state of affairs continued for three or four years, until 1927, when the then Chairman of the Forestry Commission, the late Lord Lovat, and his immediate successor, Lord Clinton, came to the conclusion that something must be done about it. They accordingly set up an Advisory Committee to deal with those extremely troublesome amenity questions, and also initiated a general policy of trying to get on terms with the various interests in the Forest. That policy was confirmed by Sir John Stirling Maxwell, who succeeded Lord Clinton, and it has been continued ever since—I think, if I may say so, with productive results.

To go back, however, to 1923. The most important business so far as the enclosures were concerned was to replant the felled areas and to conserve and cultivate the remaining timber. In that particular job the policy of the Commissioners received relatively little help either from the local people or, I must say, from the nation at large. Your Lordships will remember the atmosphere of the times. There were to be no more wars. As for British timber, it was a second-rate product and we should always obtain from abroad, when and how we required it, just as much timber as we should ever want. Fortunately, the Commissioners persisted in their good intentions. I may group together, I think, the things which throughout the inter-war period steadily deteriorated. One was the grazing in the Forest. The number of animals decreased quite steadily over the whole period, so that at the end there were left rather fewer than 2,000 beasts, with access to some 40,000 acres. That gave every beast the task of consuming the vegetation on 23 acres. That, your Lordships will agree, was some task, which they did not succeed always, in all places, in accomplishing. The result was that in order to get young grazing, and to keep the beasts—even to keep those 2,000—the Commissioners were burning annually something like 4,000 acres to get more fresh grass. That was a slightly ridiculous position to have reached.

Yoked with the beasts, if I may put it in that way, were the Court of Verderers, who were depending for their finances on the numbers of beasts, and they, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has said, had almost reached bankruptcy by 1938. Simultaneously, too, the open woodlands, some 5,000 acres, steadily deteriorated, and there was nothing whatever that the Commissioners could do about it, because they could not enclose a single tree or protect it from the bite of the animals. Also, during this inter-war period the pressure from outside the Forest on to the rural scene within it increased steadily. More people came to live in and about the Forest. The towns and the cities round about were increasing their boundaries, and making provision for more. All that meant that more and better roads, more pylons, transmission poles and so forth, were required to meet the wants of the various expanding communities.

By 1937 the position had reached the stage where it seemed highly desirable that this general drift should be stopped, and conferences were called from all the interests within and without the Forest to try and see what could be done about it. If I were not wearying your Lordships, I would have liked to say a great deal about those two conferences, but I wish to make only two points: first, that there was a large measure of good feeling among all the people, who were widely drawn, in respect of the problems to be faced; secondly, that out of those conferences there did come some excellent planning work. I would like to say this, too, about the inter-war period—and I think it is important. The Forestry Commissioners and their staff over that period paid a great deal of attention to the sylviculture of the Forest; they learned more about that, about the wild life, and about the general amenities of the place. There was much information to be collected. They were greatly helped by the Advisory Committee, and they instituted researches. That information, in the aggregate, was put to very good use in the Second World War, and there is still a good deal of it which has not been applied but which is waiting for the opportunity.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has said, the World War hit the Forest very hard indeed. The quantity of timber taken out was really extraordinary. It would take about 100 good-sized timber ships to transport 450,000 tons; and, mind you, during the Second World War it would have had to be transported right across the Atlantic. The work was done with extraordinary skill by the Deputy Surveyor, Mr. Young. But, although the timber was removed in great quantity, by far the most permanent damage has been done by the military—shall I say, by the Services. The aerodromes which have been established there—three great aerodromes and bombing ranges—could not by any manner of means have been refused. No one could have suggested at the time that opposition should be placed in the way of our gallant airmen in performing their duties, and I make no excuse whatever when I say that I helped them, to the utmost of my ability.

But all those military works were carried out with an understanding, at least from the Forestry Commissioners' point of view (we received a written undertaking where such could be obtained in those hectic days; where we did not get it we tried to get the implication acknowledged) that as soon as national defence was secure those works would be removed and the Forest restored to its former condition. That has not been done, but remains quite certainly as an obligation to be fulfilled as soon as possible. Even with the increase of beasts on the Forest which took place during the war—and the number then rose to 4,000—the Forest was still under-grazed. The area was less by some 9,000 acres than before the war; the number of beasts was more than double, and yet the Forest was under-grazed. That is a matter well worthy of notice.

I come to the period towards the end of the war, when it became apparent that the New Forest, from the Forestry Commissioners' point of view, would require special attention. We felt then the need of getting independent advice, and we were extremely lucky in securing the services of Mr. Harold Baker as Chairman of the Committee, and of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and Mr. Langley-Taylor as his fellow committee-men. With your Lordships' permission, I would like to take this opportunity of thanking Mr. Harold Baker and his colleagues for the excellent Report which they have produced. They have saved the Commission much work which would have been difficult, in any event, for the Commissioners to do; but, above that, Mr. Harold Baker and his associates have produced a Report which, quite frankly, the Commissioners themselves were not capable of producing.

I do not think it would be appropriate for me to say what ought to be done on the Report. That opportunity may come later. But I think I am fully entitled to say what are the possibilities within the Forest. I believe that under reformed or better management it would be possible to get for most of the people and most of the interests more of those things which they desire than they are getting to-day. There is room for more and better grazing, for more timber production, for more and better amenity and for more public recreation. But there is one proviso in the getting of all those things, and it is that there shall be a greater spirit of compromise than has yet reigned in that particular domain since the days of William the Conqueror. I would ask those who have special interests in the Forest to consider for once that their interest is not necessarily the sole or the most important interest. Let them raise their eyes a little from the daily task and survey the general scene. So, perhaps, may we get a better system established.

The first recorded history of this magnificent estate took place soon after the Norman Conquest. Even I remember the date, but I will not quote it. At intervals over the long stream of centuries which have rolled away since that time there have been erected landmarks in the shape of Statutes and documentary reports, which reflected very faithfully some special feature of contemporary history. Let me name just three. There is the liberty of the subject in relation to the Crown; there is the provision of oak timber for the Navy, and, coming right down to recent times, there are the Victorian ideas of amenity as expressed in the New Forest Act of 1877. It may be that the time has arrived to erect a new landmark in keeping with our own troublous times. If that should prove to be the case I would ask all those who can assist, even in relatively humble ways, to reflect, as I do sometimes, how great is the honour of being allowed to participate in the building of such a landmark, and how great is the responsibility that that work should be faithfully and well done.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, if, by the courtesy of other noble Lords who were to have intervened in this debate, I am allowed to do so now, it is with particular pleasure that, on behalf of all your Lordships, I congratulate the noble Lord who has just sat down, not only upon his first speech in your Lordships' House but also upon its subject. It is, I think, more fitting than anything that has happened in your Lordships' House for many a long day that the noble Lord, Lord Robinson, with his associations of the past, should have chosen this particular subject upon which to address us. Like the trees for which he is responsible, like the vegetation in the New Forest, your Lordships' House has continued for many centuries, has suffered the vicissitudes of many times, and yet has seen the same kind of continuity as is shown in the trees and in the administration of the New Forest. Governments come and go, attitudes of mind change, but the trees and your Lordships' House seem to endure in spite of everything that happens. In the light of what has taken place here in recent weeks, we look like continuing to endure as a part of the Government of this country, just as the administration of the New Forest, which has endured for a thousand years, looks likely, as a result of this Report, to endure for many centuries yet.

The document of which the noble Lord, Lord Robinson, has spoken on the Motion introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, seems to me to be one of the most remarkable productions for many, many generations that has been issued to the world at large by a Government in this country. This White Paper, a model, in my humble view, of what a White Paper should be in production, content and form, contains in its hundred-odd pages the whole of the history of this country. Apart from the recommendations which it makes, this White Paper represents a piece of historical research beyond praise, and, what is more, gives us all the opportunity and the honour—as the noble Lord, Lord Robinson, so rightly said—of participating in carrying on the tradition of a thousand years to which that document bears witness.

When the White Paper first appeared, I sent a certain number of copies to various friends of mine in America, because I thought it was appropriate that in the Western Hemisphere something of what goes on in the mentality of this country should be understood. It seems to me outstandingly remarkable that in 1947, at the end of a year of considerable difficulty and crisis, any Government in this country—and perhaps, with respect, this Government in particular—should have seen fit to publish a White Paper containing the recommendations that this contains. What it contains in fact is a recommendation to the people of the country to maintain and perpetuate, under modern guise, a system of administration which began under the laws of King Canute. It is to re-establish and re-endow with authority the two administrative bodies which have been responsible for the administration of the New Forest under the Crown for a thousand years.

The Court of Verderers is to continue, only slightly modified under the new name of the Council of Verderers, but with endowed powers and the support of the Treasury to safeguard the rights of commoners, to protect the amenities and to do the day-to-day housekeeping of that unique area. Superimposed on that—as it is proposed in the recommendations of the Commission—is the restoration to its original authority, and perhaps endowment with even greater authority, of the Court of Swainmote. It is recommended that it be given judicial authority and, in addition, the powers of dealing with land tenure and rights which have existed in that area for the thousand years of which I have spoken.

If it were fitting that the administration of the New Forest, under the guise which is now proposed, should have a motto, it is a motto that should perhaps be taken from that well-known inscription over the gate to which Dante referred: "I eternally endure." Abandon ye all hope who attempt to understand the way the British Constitution works. Is it conceivable to anybody outside this country, and even perhaps to many inside, that in the Year of Grace 1947 in which the White Paper came out, this Government should have made these recommendations? A number of Members of the Government Party, including a prominent member of your Lordships' House, have added their signatures to those of well-known authorities for the perpetuation of the verderers, the increase of the powers of their officers, and the circumscription of the rights of the Forestry Commission. It is surely remarkable that the Commissioners should have reinstituted and agreed to the swain-mote and should have given birth to one or two of perhaps the most unsocialistic doctrines that I have seen advanced for many years.

For instance, in the recommendations you will find the support of members of the Commission for the régime which will deal with the so-called gypsies and their children. Those recommendations are contained in Appendix XI. The recommendation in the body of the White Paper is undoubtedly a right recommendation, but one which it would be difficult to justify in what might be called the commonly-accepted doctrines of international Socialism. It is said, for instance, that the gypsy children are not welcomed in schools, that they are the progeny of a group of people of the Stone Age but nevertheless citizens of this country, and that they should in fact be segregated—not only their elders but the children also—until they become somewhat more civilised. The recommendation, which has the wholehearted approval of the Commission, says that notwithstanding any educationalists' theories on the subject, the mixing of these children in their present state is much resented by the parents of other children; and apparently the members of the Commission agree that that is quite reasonable.

They go on to say, in support of the recommendation: We have mentioned, apart from the provision of living accommodation under more or less decent although perhaps sub-standard conditions, the need for reclamation of character and education. It is suggested that when the children are more civilised they should eventually be admitted to the local Government schools. I am sure that that is right. But is it not remarkable that to-day we should see that: recommendation put forward from the quarters which have put it forward? Does it not make the whole of our Constitution, the whole of our assembly and of our community in this country a complete mystery to everybody? Can anybody tell what this country is going to do next? Yesterday we had a debate on a very depressing subject and on a position from which there appeared to be no way out. It might perhaps be surprising to the world in general if we should find a way out of that situation—as surprising as that these recommendations should have come forward about the administration of the New Forest. I take this as a very good augury. I believe this debate in your Lordships' House to be appropriate on account of the tradition, appropriate on account of the good sense which it conveys, and doubly appropriate on account of the support that it has received from the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Robinson. This will commend it fully to your Lordships' House. The administration of the New Forest is as old as the kingship of England, and it should be increased and perpetuated in the terms of the recommendation of the Commission.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, after the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who dealt with the more humorous aspect of some of the recommendations and who, like the noble Lord, Lord Robinson, also covered the ground so far as forestry is concerned, I will touch on only one or two points. As one of those keenly interested in agricultural policy, I naturally turn with the greatest interest to what the Committee have reported with regard to the grazing facilities and the capacity in the New Forest for producing more cattle, all of which matters would inure to greater development, at any rate in this part of the country, and thus would assist with regard to supply of food. I suppose that on that topic we should not pass by any suggestions of so sound a nature as those which we find in this Report; great weight, I believe, ought to be given them. I should, therefore, like to reinforce the appeal made to the Government, by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, not merely to give this scheme generally their blessing, but so far as may be to do something on the lines suggested and to take speedy action to see whether the suggestions and implications of this Report cannot be implemented in a comparatively short time. As has been said, the possibilities of development in the Forest are considerable. The conditions appear to have proved themselves suitable, but there is room for more and better grazing.

One other point that I should like to mention is the suggestion for drawing together all the authorities dealing with the New Forest. That is bound to take time, and it implies a good deal of argument and negotiation; indeed, I am afraid that a great many months must elapse before this excellent suggestion can be implemented. I believe that it would have an extraordinarily good effect, however, and that it would be helpful in developing all those amenities of the Forest, and all the possibilities of food and timber growing, and so on. If we could have one authority, one district council or whatever it might be called, we might secure the closest co-operation of the Forestry Commission.

I should also like to emphasize what has been said with regard to the project of building, not only on the periphery of the forest but also in certain parts of the forest. There is a risk that such development, instead of improving the amenities which the New Forest affords at the present time, will destroy them. I warmly echo the hope, therefore, that His Majesty's Government will at least set in train something to see that in these two regards the Report of the Committee is not pigeon-holed. As has been said, too, the New Forest is a priceless possession of this country. It is not merely possessed of intense beauty, but it is also a home for wild animals of all descriptions, both desirable and—so far as the grey squirrel is concerned, I am afraid—undesirable. Also in this area are a number of rare birds and rare floral growths which deserve careful and direct attention from people like the agisters, verderers and keepers who are dealing with the actual handling of the conditions in the New Forest.

In conclusion, I should like to say one word with regard to the question of amenities, to which allusion has been made. Those of us who live near the New Forest, and who go through it fairly frequently, realise the waste, on the one hand, and the hideous conditions, on the other, which the perpetuation of military and other occupations of the land in the New Forest now presents. I cannot help feeling that something more could be done there. If there were a sufficient drive from those in authority in London, and in the commands of the various arms of the Services in the country, a great deal could be done to remove what I find is a real eye-sore. It is distasteful, not only to those who live in the Forest but also to those who visit the New Forest as a means of recreation and for the rest and comfort that the Forest can afford to those not fortunate enough to live there. There are so many of them; they come in their hundreds and thousands. With these few words, I should like warmly to support everything that has been said this afternoon. I have said nothing about the production of timber, for I could not pretend to speak on that point so forcibly as the noble Lord, Lord Robinson, spoke. I earnestly hope, as has been said, that this may be one of the milestones from which, with good will on the part of those in authority, something may be done to avoid the bad things that are going on in the New Forest, to build up that great national heritage which we have and to retain it and develop it for the future generations of this country.

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, two or three earlier speakers have declared their interests, and I feel that I should do the same. I have several interests in the New Forest. First of all, I am a Forestry Commissioner. Secondly, I am one of the biggest common right owners, if not the biggest, in the Forest. I was not aware of that fact until about four years ago. So far as my researches go, those rights have not been exercised, either by my forbears or by the tenants of the land to which they attach, certainly during this century. I should add that quite recently a near relative of mine has been Chairman of the New Forest Advisory Committee. If your Lordships can tell me which of my interests will sway me most, it will be a great help to me.

Like other speakers, I must pay tribute to the Report. It is excellent in every way, and is a valuable addition to the historical documents attaching to the New Forest. Unlike quite a number of historical documents, it is also very readable indeed, and in places most amusing. That Report points out quite clearly that there are three interests concerned—the commoners, the public and the Forestry Commission. As a matter of fact, there is yet another interest to which they do not specifically refer, but which they imply throughout the whole of their Report and which was spoken of at some length by the noble Lord, Lord Rennell. That is the historical interest, which we must maintain in the New Forest. After all, as has been pointed out, the New Forest has persisted in its organization since Norman, and even pre-Norman days; and even in these times it is good to maintain some of the old things in the state that they were many years ago.

That ancient organization has been preserved, and I am inclined to think that it has been preserved by that very thing which has been referred to—the age-old quarrel between the commoners and the Crown, in the first instance, followed by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, now, in turn, followed by the Forestry Commission. If one were not to be too polite, one would say that the commoners, through their chosen representatives, have on occasions been stubborn—even obstinate. I think that that comes out rather clearly in the Report. Referring to three proposals which they have been discussing the Committee say: These three proposals all affect the interests of the commoners. Their attitude to them varies from strong dislike to resolute opposition. From occasional meetings with the commoners for business reasons, my own experience is that, as often as not, any new ideas, or even any old ideas, put before them are generally met with resolute opposition. I feel that we owe a debt of gratitude to the commoners for the attitude that they have taken throughout many generations and many centuries. If they had not been stubborn in preserving their rights, we should not have the New Forest in the guise in which we see it to-day. We owe them a debt of gratitude that that lovely area remains comparatively unspoiled, even to this day. In any consideration of this problem we must give due weight to the views of the commoners, and even defer to them to the extent, possibly, of not producing an organisation quite so perfect as we should wish. It would be better that we should preserve the New Forest as we know it rather than that we should seek too enthusiastically a perfect organisation which will destroy the organisation of the New Forest as we know it.

There is one other point which I would like to mention in that connection, and that is that the New Forest is not a national park in the sense in which that term is understood, and I hope it never will be a national park. On the other hand, it is the prototype of what a national park should be, and the problems that are confronting the New Forest to-day are similar in nature to those which will confront any area which is turned into a national park. Therefore, what we do with the New Forest may well be a precedent and a guide for what we need to do in the future when national parks are set up. I know there are many people who say that the New Forest is different. Of course it is different. I have never known an area anywhere in England where, if one wanted to do anything, it was not claimed that conditions there were different. There are always differences; they are differences of detail though not of principle, and it is the principles that underlie what we do in the New Forest which will be a guide in the national parks of the future.

As has been pointed out, the main problem in the New Forest is one of finance. The verderers have been bankrupt for many years past except for an occasional windfall. They have not had sufficient money to do their job properly. It is not their fault; the Act of 1887 has kept them tied down. A good many proposals are made in this report whereby they may be set on the right road in regard to finance. There is a mention of marking fees. Of course, marking fees could be increased, but I should hesitate to recommend that that should be done to any great extent because, as has already been pointed out by Lord Lucas and others, the number of cattle in the New Forest is to-day far short of what it should be—far too short to keep the grazing in good order. Therefore, any great increase in the marking fees might easily deter people more and more from putting cattle in the Forest. Various other recommendations are made whereby the verderers may increase their income, such as that relating to enclosures and so on. I hope that they will come into force and that they will provide a sufficient income to enable the verderers to carry out their duties properly and efficiently, as set out and suggested in this Report.

I think it is not inconceivable, however, that they will need additional aid, over and above the income that they can get from marking fees, rents from enclosures or other sources; and that must mean a grant from some source. It is suggested that it should be from the Forestry Commission, out of the Forestry Fund. I would agree with that. I should dislike a direct Treasury grant very much indeed. If it is required, I would like to see the Forestry Commission interposed between the verderers and the Treasury, so that they can fight the battle of the verderers with the Treasury, as they are better fitted to do so than are the verderers themselves. I hope, however, that the verderers will be able to stand on their own feet without any such grant, because if they have a grant they necessarily will be tied to somebody who will see to the administration of that grant.

There is another point in connection with finance which I think should be mentioned. Various suggestions are made in the Report for the improvement of amenities, such as the provision of the belts which have already been mentioned, the small enclosures for the regeneration of the ancient and ornamental woods, and matters of that sort, including one thing which has not been mentioned so far—namely, the acquisition of adjacent commons. All that is going to affect the financial side of the Forestry Commission's activities in the New Forest, and affect it adversely. I have no objection to that at all, so long as it is clearly understood that the Forestry Commission, if they carry out those suggestions, will be carrying them out for the purpose of public amenity and will possibly be allowed to make a separate entry in their accounts showing clearly that this is something which is separate from their activities as producers of timber.

My Lords, it is proposed that the Court of Verderers should be reconstituted. I do not know whether I am right or wrong, but the newly constituted Court of Verderers is going to consist of a chief Verderer, appointed, I think, by the Minister of Agriculture. Is that right?


By the Crown.


Appointed by the Lord Chancellor. I think the Court should be, as now, appointed by the Crown, to keep the tradition going if nothing else. The Court of Verderers is also to consist of four members elected by the commoners, and six other appointed members. I think I am right when I say that the Court of Verderers has always been the body representing the commoners, and I feel strongly that it should continue to be so. Under this recommendation, the elected representation of the commoners will not be in a majority, and I feel that there should be a majority of elected representatives on that body, so that it may continue really and truly to represent the interests of the commoners.

I have concluded all that I wished to say. But action is required. It has been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that the Government should introduce a Bill, and, as he so rightly suggested, this House is the most suitable place in which to introduce it. Politically the subject of the Bill will not be controversial. In almost every other respect, however, it will be extremely controversial, I have no doubt, and I suggest to the noble Earl. Lord Huntingdon, that if he is going to view the Bill with favour, he should follow the precedent which his Ministry has exercised so satisfactorily in the past—namely, that of calling together the interested parties to study the Bill in draft before it sees the light of day. By that means at least the highest common measure of agreement may be reached. I had some experience of that procedure with regard to the Agriculture Bill last year, and as we all know, it was extremely satisfactory on the whole. I would say this from my experience on that occasion: that the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretaries and, more particularly perhaps, the senior permanent officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, have a measure of tact and understanding which enables meetings of that nature, however controversial and however difficult, to go with a smoothness which is quite agreeable.

4.9 p.m.


My Lords, it might be presumptuous of me if I were to congratulate all the very able speakers this afternoon, as I think they deserve, but I feel from the sense of the debate that I can, on behalf of the House, and particularly on behalf of the Government and myself and those on these Benches, congratulate the authors of this Report. It is an excellent work; not only is it clear in itself but it clarifies an extremely difficult subject. Moreover it is presented in such a delightful manner that it is one of the rare White Papers that one can study with enjoyment from start to finish. To read it is more like reading history than reading an official document. Therefore I would like to convey our thanks to the authors, to Mr. Baker and the other signatories, and to tender them our sincere congratulations on this production.

I would also like, on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, to thank the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, for his kind words. I am glad he found that the negotiations to which he has referred progressed so harmoniously. We too were glad to have the opportunity of taking part in such negotiations before introducing a Bill which in the event commanded a lot of support. I would add a word regarding the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rennell (I regret to note that he is not now in the Chamber), and to point out that this Government are always anxious to preserve those things which are good. It is only the bad things that we wish to eliminate.

But to return to the subject of forestry. Unfortunately the large forests of England have disappeared. Forests which used to exist on such an enormous scale, covering large tracts of this country, are no more. Traces remain in Charnwood, Windsor, Sherwood, Savernake and Dean, but especially in the New Forest, once the preserve of Royal deer—now, alas, hunted only in ghostly form by the shade of the Norman King, William Rufus. To all antiquarians these forests are of particular interest. It has already been pointed out that, in a way, they enshrine the whole history of England from the days of Canute down to the present rather more troublous times. But there are more vital and pressing reasons, apart from historical and antiquarian interests, why the remains of these great forests should be preserved. And they apply particularly in the case of the New Forest. This forest, which once belonged to the Crown, has now, under the Forestry Acts of 1923 and 1945, become a State forest—that is to say, it belongs to the people of this country, and on their behalf is vested in my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries. His Majesty's Government rejoice in this great national heritage, and they are determined to see that it is used and kept in the best possible way for the benefit of the people of this country. That is the Governments' point of view with regard to this very great trust.

I am satisfied, having listened to the speeches which have been made this afternoon, that there is universal agreement with that point of view. But while such a principle is easy to state, when we come to what we are to do, and how we are to work out plans, it is rathar more difficult to disentangle the details and re-weave them into a harmonious pattern. I do not suppose that any of your Lordships will expect me this afternoon to announce the Government's policy on this Report, or to state specifically what proposals we are going to carry out. As the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, has pointed out, there are many conflicting interests. In fact, I might say that the Forest has grown as bountiful a crop of quarrels over many years as anyone could wish to see. There has, indeed, been a real harvest of difficulties and of matters of conflict. I am confident, however, that with the right spirit of compromise, with good will on all sides and with a general realization on the part of the people concerned of how desirable it is to reach agreement, a satisfactory solution can be reached and, indeed, will be reached.

I should like now to say a few words about forestry. It has been pointed out this afternoon—and rightly—that an enormous amount of timber was taken from the New Forest during the last two wars, and that this made a big contribution to our victories. I should like to remind your Lordships that the need for growing timber is as great now in peace time, in the very difficult economic circumstances in which we find ourselves, as it is necessary to have a reserve of timber in case of a future war—though we hope of course that war will never come again. Timber is absolutely vital to us. There are various points of view apart from the amenity aspect of our trees, to be taken into consideration. There is the question of climate, and the absolute necessity for keeping a balance between our woodlands and our open spaces. If this should be neglected, the ultimate effects on agriculture may be disastrous. Therefore, it is imperative that the people of this country should pay strong regard to the growing of timber, both in these forests and elsewhere. Of course, we must never lose sight of the fact that the forest has an enormous amenity value to the general public, and in any schemes which we may introduce that amenity aspect must be given due weight. It is most essential that it should be preserved and developed.

Questions of forestry can, of course, be extremely controversial: What should be planted, how much, when and where? It is here, I think, that we can count on the very great experience of the Forestry Commissioners. At this point I would like to congratulate wholeheartedly the noble Lord, Lord Robinson, on the excellent speech which he has given us this afternoon. I know that this House—because one senses the feeling—was greatly impressed by what he said. It was most enjoyable to hear someone speaking who knows as much about his subject as does Lord Robinson about forestry. I can only say, on behalf of noble Lords on these Benches, that I feel sure the whole House will hope that Lord Robinson will favour us with many speeches in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Robinson, has dealt at length with trees and woods, and I do not wish now to repeat what has been said in that connection. But there is a little problem upon which I may touch. I understand that the soil of the New Forest is particularly suitable for growing softwoods, which we urgently require for various needs. On the other hand, we do not want entirely to neglect the hardwoods which contribute so much to the beauty of our woodlands. I believe that the experience upon which the Forestry Commission can draw will enable them to concentrate on both these aspects of forestry. I am sure that they will give adequate consideration both to the amenities and to the necessity of having reserves of timber; also that they will have regard to the need for making a profit, which is so essential to us in these days. From the speech which the noble Lord, Lord Robinson has made, I feel sure that your Lordships are all convinced—certainly you should be—that the Forestry Commissioners, while they will bear in mind the commercial features of the matter, will have the deeper interests of the country very much at heart.

An aspect which strikes my mind as being extremely interesting is that which was dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan. In our programme for the expansion of agriculture this ideal grazing ground of the New Forest, now under-grazed, could be of extraordinary use to us, and I assure your Lordships that it will not be overlooked by my Department. Another important consideration is the rights of commoners to grazing in the Forest. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has pointed out, their rights can be exercised only through the mouths of their animals, but with their appeals and eloquence we have been made continuously aware of their claims. These very ancient rights should undoubtedly be preserved. Then there is the ancient Court of Verderers, to which the Crown appoints the Chief Verderer. On this point the Report makes some interesting suggestions, which should be looked into. The noble Lord brings into the picture the problem of the amenities of the Forest. The question of the encroachment of industry and building is a difficult one, particularly as encroachments have already taken place. Here again, I cannot prejudge the issue, but it will not be overlooked.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, gave a most interesting speech from first-hand knowledge. He earns praise on two counts, as one of the authors of the Report and for his excellent speech. The noble Lord pressed on the Government not only that they should deal quickly with the question but that they should deal with it in sections, that they should not wait for the bigger issues to be decided before implementing in some way or another the lesser recommendations of the Report. I assure the noble Lord that we are seized of the urgency of this matter. I cannot go further than that this afternoon. We realise that it is not just a policy which it would be pleasant to carry out one day but an urgent problem which should be dealt with as soon as possible. To add substance to that assurance, let me say that the Minister has set up a small inter-departmental Committee, under the Chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Robinson, to consider the different views of the Departments concerned, such as the Ministries of Agriculture, Transport, and Town and Country Planning. This Committee have already had their first meeting. It would obviously be improper for me to prejudge in any way the findings of this Committee; that is the reason why I cannot give a fuller statement this afternoon. I would like to convey to the members of the Committee that we are awaiting their Report with much interest, and I hope they will reach their conclusions without undue delay so that we can take some action. There is not much more I can say. I have tried to show, without being able to say much that is positive, that the Government realise the importance of this question, and are whole-heartedly behind the preservation of this great and very interesting Forest.

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the many noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, and for the very flattering remarks that have been made. I made it clear at the outset of my previous remarks that the credit and all the praise for the literary style and excellence of the Report must be given to the Chairman. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rennell, for all that he said, although I was rather hurt that he should express surprise—indeed more, for he said that people both outside and inside this country were filled with consternation—at the fact that anybody on this side of the House should put cleanliness next to godliness.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, for filling in a gap which I had left, in the interests of time, on the preservation of the flora and fauna of the Forest. Experts have submitted to the Committee in evidence that the Forest is unique in Western Europe; that is the reason for the strong recommendation made by the Committee that the New Forest should be declared a nature reserve and put in charge of a curator. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, for his very great interest. He is the largest commoner and the least quarrelsome. I would also extend my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, but I am rather shaken by one thing he said. If his idea of speed is to set up a departmental Committee, then departmental Committees must have altered considerably since I had experience of them. Nevertheless, I am impressed with the fact that the noble Earl has given an undertaking that this shall be treated as a matter of urgency. I feel that the weight of arguments that noble Lords have used this afternoon will be conveyed by my noble friend to the Minister, and that we shall get a speedy enactment, as the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan said, as soon perhaps as may be. I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, with drawn.