A DEAL has been struck to resolve a row over the rent Forestry England demands for homes it manages, which had sparked concerns about the future of commoning.
The agency had been criticised for listing some of the 65 properties it manages in the district at full market rents, amid claims it was pricing out the next generation of commoners facing average house costs 15 times local earnings.
Critics pointed to a 1991 review into the challenges of commoning, the Illingworth Report, which advised all Forestry England (FE) properties be prioritised at an affordable cost for “those who are committed to commoning and New Forest grazing”.
The new deal, signed off by environment minister Lord Goldsmith, will see 13 FE homes rented on the private market, with 43 homes set aside for commoners and the other nine to “core” FE staff.
It also set out a new rent calculation to keep prices below the open market level, and an open and transparent way to decide who can rent a property. It further clarifies identifying dwellings that might be used to provide suitable homes.
It was recommended by the independent New Forest Housing Review Group for Forestry England, which was chaired by Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre and included the verderers, FE and Commoners Defence Association (CDA).
Tony Hockley, former CDA chair who represented it at the review, was “relieved”, saying: “The extreme cost of land and housing in the New Forest National Park is probably the biggest threat to the continued grazing of this landscape, and to its cultural heritage.
“It is getting much worse. We hope that by compromising on the market letting of a small number of homes, and by clarifying Forestry England ‘operational needs’, we have found a system that is fair and sustainable, and which enables essential improvements to take place in the next few years.”
The review acknowledged average Forest house prices are more than double the Hampshire average, with land values inflated amid a “great demand for affordable rented accommodation” and enclosed fields and essential back-up land for livestock.
Only a small number of FE houses become available each year, which will be offered using the new housing criteria.
In total FE manages 65 residential properties for let within the New Forest and 59 parcels of grazing land totalling 159 hectares – excluding the New Park showground – with most being two or three-bedroom Victorian cottages.
In an example of how rates may be calculated, the report suggested dividing the homes into three categories based on their size – charging around £618 monthly rent for the smallest, £678 for a medium and around £727 for larger properties.
Other changes will see prospective tenants go before a selection panel comprising the Official Verderer, an elected verderer and an FE representative, and back up their application with credentials and evidence proving their commitment to commoning.
Tenancies will be regularly reviewed, rents increased if a household income gets above £60,000, and inspections held every two years.
Official Verderer Lord Manners said: “Implementation of the policy statements in the report will ensure commoners continue to have access to Forestry England properties at affordable rents.
“This is vital to the survival of commoning which shapes and preserves the iconic New Forest landscape.”
Bruce Rothnie, FE’s deputy surveyor of the New Forest, added: “It remains our priority to make the fairest and most effective use of our limited houses in the New Forest.
“The report sets out a clear way for FE to support affordable rents and maintain a level of homes rented to commoners.
“The review means we can support commoners and keep FE’s critical workers in the area, both of which are critical to maintaining the condition of the Forest and the all the benefits it provides to society.”