A LEADING New Forest commoning group has accused Forestry England of prioritising profit over conservation and disregarding its licence to operate set by the government.
Pointing to Forestry England’s decision to furlough some staff during the pandemic and its inability to persuade Camping In The Forest to reopen local campsites this summer, the Commoners’ Defence Association claims the organisation has radically changed its priorities in recent years.
In a presentment to the Verderers Court, CDA chair Charlotte Lines urged the verderers to step in and insist that Forestry England reaffirms its commitment to the minister’s mandate which places the conservation and support of commoning above profits.
Describing the mandate as Forestry England’s “licence to operate”, Mrs Lines said the document, published in 1999 by the then forestry minister Elliot Morley, set out a list of priorities for the management of the national park.
She said: “As the court will be aware the mandate set three objectives for the Forestry Commission’s management of the New Forest on behalf of the Crown.
“The primary objective is conservation, including support for commoning. The second is engagement. The third is efficient management insofar as is consistent with the first and second. These objectives are repeated in government guidance to the national park authority.”
Mrs Lines said the CDA had become “deeply concerned” that Forestry England had reversed these priorities, pointing to a number of recent decisions.
On a decision to abolish subsidised rents on properties owned by the Crown and used by Forestry keepers and commoners, Mrs Lines said: “We only became aware of this dramatic change from established policy when tenants were told that they would be moved to rents at market levels for Britain’s least affordable national park.”
She went on to say that the decision to furlough Forestry England keepers during the initial weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown was another example of financial pressure driving policy “despite the obvious landscape risks”.
Forestry England’s inability to negotiate the reopening of the 10 campsites in the New Forest which are run by Camping in the Forest under a licence agreement, was also highlighted as evidence that the best interests of the national park were no longer being served.
Mrs Lines reminded the Verderers Court that it had been told by Forestry England at the launch of the public-private partnership that local relationships built up should continue.
But she said: “Recent events have shown this to be untrue. There is no longer local input into important management decisions.”
Demanding that Forestry England should publish the minister’s mandate on its website, Mrs Lines urged the verderers to call for the organisation to publicly reiterate its commitment to conservation over profit.
She concluded: “Those of us who thought that the change to Forestry England was simply a rebadging exercise appear to have been much mistaken. Building the business brand and its revenue streams has become the primary focus. The conflict with the minister’s mandate is obvious and deeply worrying.”
However, a spokesperson for Forestry England told the A&T the minister’s mandate was mainly concerned with the natural and cultural heritage of the Crown lands of the New Forest and did not include any references to the provision of lettings. Forestry England had supported commoning through land management and property letting policies for many years and that it would continue to do so.
She continued: “The CDA has taken an active role in the current New Forest Housing Review Group, which will help to determine which Forestry England properties can be used to provide affordable accommodation for commoners and Forestry England’s staff.
“It’s essential that all New Forest organisations and local communities continue to work together to tackle current and future challenges and we look forward to further discussions with the CDA.”
The spokesperson confirmed that three out of eight New Forest keepers were furloughed for a two-week period, and other staff covered their duties during their short period of leave.
She continued: “Recreation rangers and the verge protection officer roles were not furloughed and the full complement of keepers was brought back by 13th May following the government’s easing of travel restrictions for exercise and the reopening of our car parks.”
“There were always arrangements in place that would allow staff to come back to work at short notice if needed, for example if there was a forest fire.”