HL Deb 17 July 1974 vol 353 cc1216-28

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Listowel.)


My Lords, generally, when a Bill of this nature comes before your Lordships' House, somebody speaks on behalf of the Promoters. It seems that I follow the noble Earl, the Chairman of Committees. I was rather surprised, because I expected that he was going to give us a long dissertation on the difficult problems that arose last time, from a constitutional point of view. Although all of your Lordships who have remained to talk about this Bill probably remember what it is all about, perhaps I ought to remind you that it is a Bill that makes provision for the better regulation of this attractive area of mostly open heath-land of about 6,500 acres, which carries some beautiful flowers and attractive little animals, which is already designated as an area of special scientific interest, and which is shortly to be designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The old arrangements for its management broke down. They were out of date, and the first Bill was promoted to put this right. The Bill that was before your Lordships' House a couple of years ago was warmly welcomed by all the amenity societies and conservation societies, and indeed by everybody who had any ownership or property interests in it. Indeed, it was promoted, by general agreement, by the local authority. I, among many others, welcomed that Bill and it passed through both Houses of Parliament. Then, for reasons which are beyond the knowledge of your Lordships, and indeed possibly beyond your comprehension, it failed at the last fence.

So often your Lordships can produce an expert on almost any subject that may come up, and I note with interest that we are to have a maiden speech from a noble Lord who may well be able to explain to your Lordships how this unfortunate occurrence took place. Nevertheless, here we have the Bill again, substantially in the same form as it was before, with one or two alterations about which everybody is very happy. I have a feeling that some of the reasons which caused this Bill to be delayed for a couple of years were due to a misunderstanding of the original provisions. Be that as it may, changes have been made in this Bill of a kind which I am sure are now satisfactory to everybody concerned with the old Bill, and I warmly commend it to your Lordships.

7.24 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, as Chairman of Committees, having moved the Second Reading formally, and your Lordships having had a very useful short explanation of some of the problems into which this measure ran during the last two years. I now have the very welcome chance of making this my maiden speech in your Lordships' House. Naturally, I ask for the patient indulgence traditionally shown to new Members going through this ordeal.

I am told that it is somewhat unusual to make a maiden speech on a Private Bill. I have an interest to declare. I am one of several noble Lords who are Commoners of Ashdown Forest, and I have lived within its historic boundaries for more than 50 years in Chelwood Gate, one of the ancient Gates on the southern edge of the Forest. I have rights of pasture and herbage—that is, to graze cattle and sheep. I gather that in the 13th century if a customary tenant owned 10 swine, the Monarch could claim the best one or charge 2d. a pig, a privilege that the Monarchy lost some time ago, and I can tell your Lordships that it is not being claimed in this Bill. I also have the right of estover, to take wood to burn on my hearth or to repair my tenements, and the right to take bracken and heather to bed down my animals—my animals consisting, at the moment, of one Sealyham. At present, I exercise none of these Commoner's rights, nor do I regard Ashdown Forest as belonging just to those lucky enough to live on it, Commoners or not.

This great stretch of heath, some 14,000 acres in all, is little over an hour's journey from London. About half the area, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, has told us, is open and accessible to the public. Ashdown Forest belongs to us all; to those who walk in it, who ride on it, or who just wish to relax on it. It belongs no less to the occasional curlew that nests in it, to the nightjars that can be heard churring occasionally on a summer's night, to the over-numerous deer, to the badgers, one of which I very nearly ran over last weekend—it just avoided death by the skin of its teeth—and to the rare flowers, including the very rare Marsh Gentian. Until a century ago the Black Cock bred there. I am sorry to say that they never will do so again.

Ashdown Forest is one of the largest and scientifically most important areas of open country in the overcrowded South-East of England, and from it one enjoys breathtaking views of the South Downs across the Weald. It is of singular beauty and conjures up something that George Borrow wrote: There's the wind on the heath, brother; If I could only feel that, I would gladly live forever. So would I.

How I wish it were my late father, Admiral Beamish, who could be making this speech to-day instead of me. I know that some of your Lordships remember him with great affection. He was in every way more worthy of the honour bestowed on me, both because of his distinguished Naval career and because of his devoted work in another place. This is one of the very many subjects on which he would have spoken with great knowledge and authority, for he was in fact one of the Conservators of Ashdown Forest. In studying the Bill throughout its progress and setbacks—and it has had some difficult and serious setbacks—I have always asked myself how he would have judged it. I am in no doubt that he would have welcomed the Bill as it is at piesent drafted, as I now do.

The purpose of the Bill, badly needed and somewhat overdue, is to protect the unique charm of Ashdown Forest, its ecological value, which is very high, and its facilities for public enjoyment and relaxation, by means of good management and adequate financial backing. The Conservators' duties are clearly laid down in Clause 16, the last few words of which require them to maintain the Forest as a quiet and natural area of outstanding beauty. We all rejoice that modern travel brings areas like this within the reach of millions of vistors every year, but it also makes them highly vulnerable to exploitation and to risks such as fire, and other undesirable things. Only time will show whether at some future date further amendments to the Bill may be desirable. We shall need to be sure that there is adequate public accountability when the county council uses public funds to the tune this year of more than £11,000 to meet the deficit on running expenditure, without having a majority on the newly constituted board of Conservators. I confess to some concern about that.

But whatever its minor imperfections, after its major re-shaping—and no Bill is perfect—this Bill serves in one respect as a model for others of its kind. The original Promotors of it, the former East Sussex County Council, of which the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, was an outstanding Chairman and for many years the Chairman of the Planning Committee, leaned over backwards, perhaps even a little too far, to meet all the valid criticisms and to take account of the many suggestions that were made.

Adopting the same constructive and flexible policy, representatives of the Conservators, the Commoners, the new Wealden District Council and the new East Sussex County Council have together hammered out any remaining points at issue and reached agreement, and I congratulate all concerned on the give-and-take approach they showed. However, I think that to seek to amend the Bill in Committee in your Lordships' House at the instigation of the Commoners on this occasion would be a mistake, might result in a serious setback and might mean losing the Bill yet again, which would be very unfortunate indeed. All the local authorities involved, as well as many amenity bodies and individuals in the Ashdown Forest area and beyond it, have been determined that in its final shape the Bill should be consistent with the highest standards of good management in the broad public interest. The Sussex Trust for Nature Conservation, of which I am currently President, has supported this measure in principle from the outset.

My Lords, I made my first maiden speech in August, 1945, nearly 29 years ago, from the identical Bench to this on the other side of your Lordships' House, and a very frightening thing occurred. Within ten seconds of my rising to speak and catching Mr. Speaker's eye about 200 Conservative Members of Parliament got up and left the Chamber, leaving me with one Opposition Whip and some 200 Labour Members to listen to me. I discovered very quickly, because a friend whispered to me, that, in fact. Winston Churchill was just about to speak to the 1922 Committee. I was very relieved that this was the reason.

In that speech, my Lords, I made two references to Sussex. I said, first, that Sussex is the most intelligent county of all and, secondly, that Sussex people will not be "druv". I must admit that the first statement is a matter of opinion and highly controversial, a note which I must scrupulously avoid to-day. I had in mind the fact that every seat for Sussex was held by a Conservative, which is still the case to-day. However, the second statement that Sussex people will not be "druv", has been underlined yet again by the intense pressures that have been exerted on all sides to make sure that the objectives are right in this measure and that the Bill has the best possible chance of achieving them. No one has been "druv" as they say in Sussex, and I am happy that there is now a general feeling of approval and satisfaction on Ashdown Forest and throughout the county about the Bill in its present shape.

The Commoners of Ashdown Forest have had the good sense throughout many centuries to fight for their rights and to view authority with suspicion, whether the authority was that of John of Gaunt, who was given the Forest by his father, Edward III in 1372, or that of the Conservators or the County Council, or anyone, for that matter who could threaten their neighbourhood and in some cases their livelihood too. For their part, the Conservators have for many years, in my view, done a splendid and selfless job with inadequate resources and been too much criticised and too little praised. William Cobbett, that dogmatic and peripatetic gentleman whose writings I enjoy so much, described Ashdown Forest as "Verily the most villainously ugly spot I ever saw in England". He must have been suffering from a very bad hangover. For my part, I love it, and not only because I live there, but because it represents home to me and because in our crowded island and in the increasing congestion of the South-East it is such a fine stretch of open country, so rich in wild life, where every prospect pleases.

Last weekend Sussex acted as host to representatives from 38 counties attending the Biennial Conference of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves and 100 persons visited Ashdown Forest. It sometimes looks like Scotland and it looked even more like it on this occasion, because it pelted with rain, there was a very thick Scottish mist and they were not able to see very much. It was bad luck. I agree with the late Garth Christian, a friend, a neighbour, a distinguished naturalist and a constituent of mine for the years I was in the House of Commons, in another place, whose death seven years ago was a great loss to Sussex and the whole conservation movement. He knew and loved every inch of Ashdown Forest, and described it in these words: Soil and sky, plants, animals, man: these are the elements that form Ashdown Forest. And it will remain a place of beauty, constantly delighting the eye and the ear, if only enough people care; if we face the future with our eyes open and plan now for the shaping of tomorrow. I am sure that Garth Christian would have strongly approved of this Bill, my Lords, because it shows clearly in its own small way that enough people care and are determined to shape to-morrow in the way which he had in mind. The Bill is intelligently drafted. It is straightforward. It deals with a lovely part of our English countryside that it is the privilege and responsibility of all of us to safeguard for future generations.

7.36 p.m.


My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to welcome and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood. He has been known as "Tuffy" for so long that no doubt he will become so known in this House. Like Lord Chelwood, I made my maiden speech from practically the identical place in your Lordships' House that I occupied in the House of Commons when we were lodgers here. Then I had a horrifying experience, because it was one of those occasions, and the noble Lord will remember, when in Defence debates there took place a mini-debate, and then when it was over the Speaker put the Motion: "The Motion is, That I do leave the Chair". Everybody said they were waiting for me to get up. The Speaker left the Chair; the debate collapsed and I was left suffering from the very worst form of ingrowing speech, namely, an ingrowing maiden speech. So the noble Lord is not alone in having that horrifying experience; but he will find your Lordships are a very amiable lot. I am quite sure he will contribute very greatly to our debates.

My Lords, it is characteristic that in a matter such as the Ashdown Forest Bill it is possible for us sometimes to achieve results and to make changes which are valuable and which we are prepared to devote the time to, but which, in the more politically, I was going to say, hot-headed House—a more Party-politically interested House—might escape notice. At any rate it is a great pleasure to see the noble Lord here, and I am quite sure that he will with vigour enliven our debates in your Lordships' House. It is equally a pleasure to hear him speak on this matter, on which it is very obvious he has deep feeling and concern from his long experience as a Member of Parliament.

I too welcome this Bill very much indeed, and I welcome the expressions of hope that the Bill will now proceed rapidly into law. On the last occasion a number of statements were made which have been shown to be quite inaccurate, and I want to take this opportunity to set the Report right. It was partly the inaccuracies of those arguments and the rather rigorous rejection of certain views by a noble Earl who is not present that led to action in another place by two Conservative Members and one Labour Member as a result of which the Bill was lost.

The Bill now before us is significantly different in certain respects and in my opinion significantly better than the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, so passionately defended on the last occasion, on which he was so inadequately briefed by his friends. I must therefore correct the Record in certain respects. It was argued that the opposition to this Bill came from a small clique—the numbers were given as 12, or 2 per cent.—of the Commoners. This, of course, was the number on the Committee of the Commoners' Association. In fact something like 60 per cent., 350, supported the Petitions and supported the further action. It has been the staunchness of the Commoners that has led to a Bill which is very much better than before. At this point I should also like to pay tribute to the new county council and, in particular, to Mr. Green, Chairman of the Committee, in showing a sensitivity to Commoners which not everybody shows.

I was drawn into this because of my long association with the Commoners of the New Forest. Those who might be called the Establishment find Commoners extremely irritating. They are a very traditional body of people who stand up for their rights, to some extent regardless of Party; whether it is the King's Woodsmen in the New Forest or whoever it is, they will fight for their interests. It is to their credit that they have now achieved changes in the Bill which are worth noting. For instance, the constitution of the Board of Conservators—the noble Lord referred to it—now ensures that the county representatives are

reduced from nine to eight, so that they do not have an absolute majority among the Conservators.

I have a great deal of sympathy for local authorities who, as we know very well, will have to provide most of the money. It will be the ratepayers and the local authorities, who are the democratically elected bodies. But in dealing with commons and Commoners' rights there is a need for sensitivity and, in the same way that Whitehall is sometimes regarded as remote, so may be county hall. A tribute is due to the new county and I am glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, who was an alderman of the old county, is to speak.

Another major change concerns the exchange of land by the Lord of the Manor, power for which is deleted in its entirety. This means that the boundaries of the Forest stay as they are. There is no power for the Lord of the Manor to exchange forest land. This is a great relief to Commoners. Noble Lords who may feel that this is a matter of no importance underestimate the psychology and natural suspicion of authority which Commoners have had over countless centuries. This single most objectionable feature of the old Bill has now been removed.

Furthermore, the Conservators will be able to exchange only land which is outside the Forest, if and when they have any, and they have powers under the Bill. There are a number of other proposals which I shall not detail, including granting of licences, and activities inconsistent with the use of the Forest by individual members of the public are out. It is a greatly improved clause which lays down the main duies of the Conservators. I shall not bother your Lordships by quoting it, but this is a Bill which is a great improvement on the Bill that was before us earlier.

There are a number of other points on which I should have liked to put the noble Lord, Lord Henley, right, but I do not wish to detain your Lordships. I am not sure that the noble Lord was properly informed on the extent to which Commoner rights are actually exercised. I am told that up to 50 Commoners make use of the right of pasture. I should like to stress that those who are concerned with common land sometimes fail to recognise the value of Commoners' animals. The New Forest would be an absolute jungle were it not for the contribution of the Commoners in achieving the present balance of ecology.

The fact that the original Bill was, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, supported by the conservation societies, showed either that those bodies had failed to appreciate the significance of this, or that they had not studied the Bill. Since I am told that they supported only the principle of the Bill, I think it is fortunate that it has been possible to have another look. There is one further by-product which comes from the previous debate. I should like to express my appreciation to the Chairman of Committees for the fact that, in future, amendments made in the Committee in the other place are now listed and are available; the filled-up Bill is also available to your Lordships. So there was even a small constitutional improvement as a result of that.

It is perfectly true that there are aspects of the present Bill with which the Commoners are not entirely happy. But it is also true that they have done a deal and have no intention of hazarding this. It may well be that the admirable activities of the Chairman of Committees and his counsel, if they consider certain drafting points which are subsequently acceptable to the Promoters of the Bill, will ensure there may be the sort of improvements which are desirable. But, certainly, there would be no intention of endangering a Bill which is a great improvement and which will contribute significantly to the enjoyment by the public, with due regard to the real dangers of public activity in our ever-encroaching population. At the same time, it will ensure that that area of land, about which the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, spoke so eloquently, will continue to be a source of enjoyment and use for many generations to come.

7.47 p.m.


My Lords, having recently assisted in the introduction to this House of my noble friend Lord Chelwood, I am glad to have the honour of echoing what the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, said about his maiden speech. Knowing the noble Lord's qualities, I hope that he will be listened to by your Lordships with increased pleasure and attention. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, certainly ended the debate in a burst of glory in his official costume. I congratulate him on that. But he suggested that I was the leader of the old gang that made all these mistakes. That is not really true. I had nothing to do with the original Bill. I think some of the misunderstanding arose from the fact that if you take general powers you can always say: "If you use these powers to excess they will be troublesome", and of course they will. Under the Bill it was possible that the whole of the forest could be re-afforested. It was unlikely to happen, but it was possible.


May I interrupt the noble Viscount? I did not make any imputation on his past performance, but merely regretted that I could not give all the credit I should like for the legacy.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much. It was possible to read into the original Bill a good deal more than was actually intended. But it is all over now; everybody is very happy. As it has now become uncontroversial—one of the few uncontroversial issues that come before your Lordships—the less I say about it now the better. I am sure that the present county council will warmly welcome the reception which your Lordships have given it.


My Lords, I too should like to intervene briefly to welcome the Bill, though certainly not to propose any Amendments to it, and to congratulate my noble friend Lord Chelwood on his maiden speech. I do not know about the conventions, if there are any, which normally require one to make one's maiden speech on a Public Bill. I should have thought that the overriding convention was that it is better, if possible, to make your maiden speech on a subject in which you have an interest and concern. I think my noble friend has amply established his credentials in that respect.

I should have thought, in general terms, that there is no doubt at all—and my experience in the Department of the Environment with responsibility for countryside affairs has certainly borne this in on me—that we need to have better management of common land and greater public enjoyment of it; in so far as this Bill achieves both these objectives, it will be very good to have it on the Statute Book. However, since the Bill first appeared before your Lordships, two things have happened which are beneficial and which support the purposes of the Bill. We have enacted the Nature Conservancy Council Act, and we have passed the Local Government Act 1974. As a result of that, there are two bodies, the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council, each of which can grant-aid the Conservators and neither of which could have done before. So there has been that benefit over the past two years.

I should have thought there had been another trend; namely, a greater understanding of the importance of educational facilities and interpretative services in the countryside, particularly in areas such as this, where there is rather more virtue and beauty than at first meets the eye. I would hope that the powers of the Conservators here and the wording of these clauses are wide enough for these services and these facilities to be provided, so that we do not just make provision for the public to enjoy Ashdown Forest, perhaps in ignorance of its many virtues, but help the members of the public who go there to appreciate and understand its many virtues and beauties.

7.52 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, if I may, to join the noble Lords who have spoken in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, on his maiden speech. I think it was particularly appreciated because he was speaking with, I think he said, 50 years' experience of Ashdown Forest. I have known the noble Lord for many years as an outstanding authority on foreign affairs, and I must confess that his intimate knowledge of Ashdown Forest came to me this evening as a pleasant surprise. However, in view of the very wide range of his knowledge and experience, I am sure your Lordships hope that he will intervene frequently in our debates in time to come.

My Lords, I have no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Henley, will excuse me for not having put the case for the Promoters in introducing the Bill, because I am strictly forbidden by your Lordships from taking sides on Private Bills. In any case, I think that this would have been quite unnecessary after your Lordships had heard the speeches, entirely favourable to the Bill, made by the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, himself and the noble Lord who followed him. I am grateful to all the noble Lords who have spoken and who have given the House the benefit of their views, and I undertake to draw the attention of the Promoters to what they have said.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to the Committee on Unopposed Bills.