HL Deb 14 July 1994 vol 556 cc112-4WA
Viscount Davidson

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their intentions towards the New Forest.

The Earl of Arran

In September 1992, the Government published a consultation document on the future of the New Forest. The document proposed to give the wider New Forest area—the so-called New Forest Heritage Area (NFHA)—a statutory designation and to apply to it a planning regime similar to that which applies in the national parks. It also proposed to establish a statutory body, based on the existing New Forest Committee, to co-ordinate the management of this wider area.

The consultation produced a very substantial response. Some 220 people and organisations gave their views to the department, and it has been arranged for those responses and a summary of them to be made available in the Department of the Environment's Library. We have continued to receive extensive representatoins about these matters, totalling to the present some 1,000 further letters.

The core of the forest is already well protected against inappropriate development through the New Forest Acts and the existence of that land owned by the Crown and administered by the Forestry Commission. The Government have recently reinforced this protection through the designation of the core forest area as a Special Protection Area under the EC Birds Directive.

However, the New Forest lies between two of the most rapidly developing areas in the south of England. The Government therefore recognised the need to protect a wider area, where the development pressures are greatest, but which is essential if the traditional management of the forest is to be maintained.

These aspects of the Government's proposals received overwhelming support. We therefore intend to apply to the wider New Forest area the same planning policies as would apply if that area were a national park. These policies are set out in the Department of the Environment's Planning Policy Guidance Note 7 and elsewhere and we are today asking the relevant local planning authorities to ensure that in their development plans and planning decisions they apply those policies. We also intend to take early stepss to amend the General Development Order to extend the scope of development control as applie in national parks to that wider area. The new planning regime will apply to the definition of the New Forest Heritage Area as it emerges from the current process of preparing and adopting local plans.

A number of representations have been made to include the Avon Valley in the heritage area. My honourable friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside has therefore also today written to New Forest District Council asking them to look closely at the merits of this and consider whether there is a case for incorporating the area concerned.

These measures will deliver the necessary planning protections to the wider area. They have also the advantage of being able to be implemented Immediately without recourse to primary legislation, for which there is little prospect of parliamentary time in the near future.

The consultation revealed far less agreement about the future of the New Forest Committee. Whilst there was acknowledgment of the need for co-ordinated management over the wider area, some considered that to turn the committee into a statutory body would merely add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to the administration of the forest. Some also feared that the committee would find itself in conflict with those already charged wth the management of the forest and that it might ultimately seek to usurp their roles. However, the Government have always emphasised that their proposals did not envisage a new body taking over the existing powers and responsibilities of the local authorities, the Forestry Commission, the Verderers or other agencies operating in the forest.

The New Forest Committee emerged in 1990 following the New Forest Review. The Government feel that, in the light of the reservations expressed about its role, it would be unwise to give it statutory status. We therefore do not intend to proceed with these aspects of our original proposals.

The New Forest is a unique area. Not only is it a valued part of our national heritage and an internationally important range of habitats but its character is the result of 900 years of distinctive management. The Government are firmly committed to the conservation of these habitats and that traditional character. We believe that the steps we have taken today will greatly contribute to these objectives.