§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
The Minister will be aware that I have had profound reservations from the very beginning about his plan for a New Forest national park. I have been corresponding with him for some time about the administrative arrangements and their effect on existing bodies in what will become the national park—particularly the Court of Verderers. In the last letter that the Minister sent me, just before Christmas, I detected a note of tetchiness creeping into his correspondence. I am therefore pleased today to be able to move on to what will be regarded as more consensual ground, where there is scope for greater agreement.
It will give the Minister some satisfaction, given the extent to which people entertain reservations about the fundamental case for a national park, that most of the representations that 1 have received—and I assume most of those received by the Minister and the agency—are from people keen to get into the national park, rather than to get out of it. The Minister has a powerful marketing tool for his policy on the national park. If he can generate enthusiasm about the proposed boundaries, and support for them, greater enthusiasm than has so far been felt in the forest for the concept of a national park may be generated.
I do not intend to spend time saying in what respects I agree with the Countryside Agency's proposed boundaries. I want to save the time of the House by referring only to my reservations. I begin in the northern end of my constituency in the Avon valley at Breamore. Breamore marsh has been included in the proposed boundary, but the rest of Breamore village has not. There does not seem to be any logic to this change: the whole of Breamore parish at present is in the New Forest heritage area. I cannot see a reason for splitting the community and village, which have an integral part in the history and make-up of the New Forest. I ask the Minister to ensure that the agency will pay particular attention to the submissions of the Breamore parish council.
Further south down the Avon valley, south of Ringwood, is Harbridge, where the situation is similar to that in Breamore. Harbridge has been separated from the remainder of its parish of Elligham, Harbridge and Ibsley. Again, there seems to be no logic to that. Harbridge church should certainly be in the boundary of the national park, but I ask the Minister and the agency to pay attention to the submission of the parish council, which has argued that the boundaries should be extended to include the surrounding land with all its historical and archaeological significance.
The south-eastern corner of Bransgore parish has been excluded. I believe that the draft boundary should be extended to include Walkford brook. It should run along the railway line to encompass Meeting House plantation, Walkford Moor copse, the brook and the land up to Walkford lane, up to the B3055, including Beckley common and Beckley itself. The whole parish of Bransgore would then be united in the proposed national park, together with the footpath network that gives access to the forest from the south. That would also have the advantage of bringing within the planning 210WH authority those areas earmarked in previous local plans for gravel extraction. That would provide no guarantee that there would be no gravel extraction in future, but it is important in this environmentally sensitive area at the fringe of the park that any gravel extraction be determined by the national park authority rather than by any other planning authority.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
While my hon. Friend says that the boundaries might not guarantee that an unpleasant development will not occur, does he agree that the ageney should be praised for including Dibden bay within the proposed boundary, which might make it a little harder to build a container port on the edge of the forest with devastating consequences for the inhabitants, the environment and the forest itself?
§ Mr. Swayne
I entirely concur with my hon. Friend in congratulating the agency on its robust and proper decision to include Dibden bay within the proposed boundary of the New Forest national park.
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
My constituency is adjacent to the south-west of the area proposed by the agency as the draft boundary of the New Forest national park. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), and also the Minister, may like to know that I shall be using the comment form in the consultation document, which must be completed by 19 January, to propose that the park should also include the outstanding coastal area of Hengistbury head in my constituency. Back in 1956, it was designated a site of special scientific interest. It is now a nature reserve notable for its internationally recognised monument, geology and habitat, including marsh land and mud flats. It is similar to Calshot, which the agency included in the south-east draft boundary of the park. I hope that the agency and the Minister will agree that the park should include Hengistbury head in my constituency, as that would receive the enthusiastic support of my constituents.
§ Mr. Swayne
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. It is difficult to draw lines on the ground when the coastline countryside is so similar and so deserving of the status sought by my hon. Friend. My proposal is consistent with the criteria for setting the boundaries, outlined in the agency's document, "the New Forest National Park Draft Boundary". I emphasise that before I move on to expound why Ringwood and Milford on Sea should be included within the boundary.
First, I draw attention to the Milford on Sea parish council's own submission, signed by Major Chris Beaton, who was for many years the district councillor for Milford and is presently a parish councillor. I also have a letter of 30 December from Colonel Hutcheson, another longstanding parish councillor and a former planning inspector In this brief debate, I cannot do justice to those submissions, but I draw the agency's attention to them because they make powerful arguments on economic, historical and cultural grounds.
I should like to draw the Minister's attention to section 2 of the agency's document, particularly table 1, which sets out the criteria of natural beauty and their interpretation in establishing the boundary. I shall not 211WH quote from the extensive discussion there, but Milford on Sea meets all the criteria: from Hurst spit through to the edge of Barton on Sea, it is a mixed landscape of woodland and rolling farmland interlaced with footpaths. The parish is layered with areas of conservation, special protection areas and sites of special scientific interest and has been designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. It includes 13 proposed sites of importance to nature, together with numerous listed buildings. Given its flora, fauna, beauty and history, there is undoubtedly a case for including it within the boundary.
Section 2(g) of table 2 on page 7 of the report states:Towns or villages should not normally be cut in two by a National Park boundary.The parish of Milford is being cut in two. Milford, which will be outside the proposed boundary, is being split from the hamlet of Keyhaven, which is within it—they form one community. On those grounds alone, there is a clear case for considering the inclusion of Milford.
Section 2(d) of the table states:Boundaries should include land and settlements which contribute to the rural economy and community life within the Park.An explanatory note at the foot of the page says:This may include a contribution to the Park's economy and community life, and a value for visitors; eg. provision of accommodation, access to public transport, information or other services.Milford on Sea does precisely that. It provides its buses—access to public transport—its extensive free parking and its retail centre around the traditional village green. It also provides a caravan park at Shortfields, numerous hotels and guesthouses, extensive beaches, which draw tourists in summer, and a renowned summer fete. Those facilities all provide an economic service to tourists and to the community of the forest, and I submit that they would be vital in managing recreational activity in future.
As the Minister will be aware from my initial discussions with him at the very outset of his plans for a national park, my principal concern was with recreational activity. I have always stressed that recreation is a greater danger to the future of the New Forest than commercial forestry. I feared that we were planting a flag that said, "Come and see Britain's newest national park, the New Forest." Considerable worries have been expressed—especially by the Verderers—about the level of recreational activity that the Forestry Commission is taking on, almost as a substitute for forestry.
I am glad that the report takes those worries into account. Appendix E, on page 57, states that measures should be encouraged such as:co-ordinating the recreation strategy of the coast and the Forest;moving car parks, camping sites and visitor centres away from sensitive areas to the more robust areas on the Forest fringe;using the Solent Way and the Avon Valley Path as alternatives to walking in the Open Forest;It will not have escaped the Minister's notice that the Avon valley path runs through Ringwood and that the Solent way is intimately connected with Milford on Sea. 212WH The report continues:integrating the rights of way network of the enclosed landscapes with that of the central parts of the New Forest to reduce erosion by walkers and riders and to encourage local residents to visit on foot rather than by car;developing new attractions, such as country parks, outside the Forest to help direct pressure away from core areas.Appendix E concludes thatTo optimise this potential and to protect the Forest's traditional quiet, pastoral character, the Forest core, the coast and the peripheral landscapes of the Forest need to be managed as a whole. The area proposed may offer new scope for meeting recreational needs in a sustainable way, especially those of local residents and day visitors, and alleviating pressures on the Forest core.
If the Minister were to read that carefully—perhaps reading between the lines—he would recognise that the author has a clear message. Reading between the lines it says to me, in black and white, that Milford on Sea and Ringwood should be included within the boundaries of the national park, precisely to facilitate that sort of recreational management to take the pressure off the core of the forest.
Moving on particularly to the case for Ringwood: again, starting with the argument for natural beauty, as set out in the document, Ringwood should be included precisely because of its beauty and its history as a New Forest market town, the character of which still reflects its association, and long relationship, with the western part of the forest and the Avon valley. Again, I cannot do justice to the history of Ringwood and its intimate involvement with the forest, its economic links and so on, but I draw to the attention of the Minister and the agency submissions to the agency that I have received, in particular a letter from Mr. and Mrs. Keating dated 30 October. Mr. Keating was a long-serving New Forest district councillor, with experience of the planning committee. He makes an excellent submission, which deserves intense scrutiny.
§ Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that people write to the Countryside Agency asking specific questions, to which they get very woolly responses? For example, my constituent, Mrs. Robertson, of St. Leonard's in Ringwood, asked the specific question:If people in and around Ringwood are not happy with future exclusion from the New Forest national park, will you then amend the boundary to reflect this?The answer was:Your views on this are very welcome.
§ Mr. Swayne
I am glad that the views are welcome. I hope, when the period of consultation concludes on 19 January, that the agency will spend a great deal of time going through the submissions that have been made. Seeking submissions from the public by sending a document to every household within the proposed boundaries has been a very costly exercise. I trust that the submissions will be treated with the weight that is due to them. It is for precisely those reasons that I have drawn particular attention to those that I have received myself, which will bear much greater examination from the proper authorities at the appropriate time.
I have already referred to section 2(e) in this document, which says that communities and towns should not be split, but the effect of the boundary as 213WH proposed will split the town of Ringwood. Hightown, Hightown Hill, Hightown Common, Crow, Picket Post, Picket Common, Poulner Hill and Hangersly Hill, which are all part of the Ringwood community, will be within the boundary and will be separated from the town centre with its church and market—the heart of the ancient community—which, of course, will be outside the boundary.
I know that section 2(e) goes on to say that, where urban and industrial developments have taken place, those parts should be excluded, but that is not a description of Ringwood. It does not describe Ringwood to me at all. The main reason given in the document for excluding Ringwood is on page 22, where it says thatRingwood has been isolated from its landscape setting within the Forest by the A31 and no longer contributes to the Forest character.Again, on page 30, it says thatthe townscape is now dominated by the A31T and by extensive modern development.I know Ringwood intimately and that is not a description of God's own town by any stretch of the imagination. I challenge members of the agency to come to look at Ringwood for themselves, to stand in its market square and see that the A31 does not impinge upon it at all. If the A31 is to be an argument for exclusion from the national park, half the forest—either the northern or the southern part—should be excluded from the boundary, because the A31 bisects the entire forest.
The A31 should be presented as a virtue—a reason for bringing Ringwood within the national park boundary—because it is via the A31 that visitors and tourists will be able to drive to the fringe of the New Forest, park their cars in Ringwood's extensive free parking facilities and then use the forest in precisely the way suggested on page 57 of the document, as a means of managing the tourism and pressures on the core of the forest. Those visitors will be able to make use of Ringwood's many hotels, restaurants, pubs and free car parks. These attractions are, of course, already enjoyed by visitors, many of whom use Ringwood as their stopping point for their visit to the New Forest by bus, bike, horse or on foot. That is something that we need to encourage and the Countryside Agency document stresses those points in appendix E and on page 57. There is a first-class case for including Ringwood within the boundary for precisely those reasons, in addition to its historical claims to be at the centre of the New Forest.
We have a once in a generation opportunity to get the boundaries of the New Forest right and, particularly in respect of what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said, it is vital that due consideration be given to the submissions that have been made. The Minister should come to the New Forest and look at those areas that are now matters of contention as to whether they should be within the boundary or not, particularly the two main ones to which I have referred, Ringwood and Milford on Sea. I am certain that that experience will convince him of the strength of the case that I have made.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)
First, I thank the hon. Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) for setting out their case so robustly and with their customary good humour. They are all fortunate to represent such a beautiful area.
I am sorry if the hon. Member for New Forest, West, who proposed the debate, noted any tetchiness on my part in some of the et correspondence that he has received. I do not think that I am regarded as one of the more tetchy Ministers, though he might have detected a certain weariness at making the same points repeatedly. I have followed the lively correspondence in the local press about the virtues or otherwise of a national park and, as he says, it is very good to know that there are communities fighting to get into rather than out of it.
I cannot go into detail about the particular places that he mentioned, for reasons that I am sure he will understand, but I will say a word or two about the process, which began in October 1999. The agency will complete it later this year and if at that point it concludes that national park status is appropriate, it will produce a designation order for the Secretary of State's confirmation. He will consider any representations that he receives on the order, and if necessary he will call a public inquiry to enable all views to be fully aired. There is a considerable way to go yet, and there will be ample opportunity for constituents and colleagues to make representations.
The Countryside Agency has been holding meetings with the New Forest Panel, local authorities and town and parish councils and mounting public roadshows. Many people have attended those events to discuss particular aspects of the proposed boundary. While none of the meetings or roadshows held so far has been in Ringwood itself, no deep significance should be attached to that. I am advised that the Countryside Agency will attend a public meeting in Ringwood on 15 January, so people will have plenty of opportunities to ask questions then. I also understand that people from Ringwood have been active in the meetings that have been held.
The three-month public consultation period, which started on 19 October, is due to end in 10 days' time, on 19 January. The agency will then analyse the comments that it has received and reconsider the proposed boundary. The plan is to hold formal consultations with local authorities on the proposed boundary, which will be revised as necessary following the public consultation. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, because the draft boundary is currently out to consultation and given the role of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the process, I cannot comment on the merits of specific boundary issues. I can only emphasise that the Countryside Agency is eager to hear people's views and urge anyone who has not done so to provide them to the agency as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for Christchurch referred to a postcard. He has been a Minister, so he will understand that questions such as that posed by his constituent cannot be answered until the inquiry has reached its conclusions.
215WH The hon. Member for New Forest, East referred to Dibden bay and, again, he will understand that I cannot comment on that because the issues largely concern planning, which will have to be considered separately. However, I pay tribute to his ingenuity in getting the subject into the debate, considering that he opposes the whole concept of a national park—unless he has changed his position since we last discussed the matter.
Running concurrently with the boundary considerations, the Countryside Agency will formulate advice on the administrative arrangements for the forest. The agency has set up individual local working groups to examine specific issues focusing on governance, land management, recreation and tourism, and planning. The hon. Member for New Forest, West referred to concern that the area may be flooded with visitors. We have discussed the matter previously and he will know that the national parks are very good at 216WH managing visitors The problem is not to increase the number of visitors but to manage the existing number. I am confident that there would be an improvement in existing practice were there to be a national park.
As with the boundary, the agency will draw together its proposals for the administrative arrangements, which will be put out to wider consultation later this year. A lot of work is needed on both the boundary and the administrative arrangements. Careful attention must be paid to the views of all concerned, but I am optimistic that it will be possible to achieve an outcome that fulfils the majority of people's aspirations for the forest, for its future protection and for our enjoyment of it. I look forward to many stimulating discussions on the subject in the months ahead with the hon. Members who have spoken.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Two o'clock.