AUTHORITIES are resisting growing calls from residents to open up New Forest car parks to walkers amid confusion over enforcement of the coronavirus lockdown rules.
Forestry England has padlocked all gated parking areas, leaving just those without barriers available for people to park when taking their permitted daily exercise.
Local authorities including the national park, district council and Hampshire police have been urging people to stay away from the Forest to help stem the spread of the virus, after car parks filled up in sunny weather at the start of the lockdown in March.
But that direction seems at odds with College of Policing guidance issued to officers by the National Police Chiefs’ Council. It says people are allowed to drive for exercise as long as the activity lasts longer than the car journey.
Published earlier this month, it states that driving to the countryside and walking is “likely to be reasonable”, as well as stopping to rest during a long walk.
The government has not issued a time limit on how long exercise should take. But it has said people should “stay local”, not travel unnecessarily and use open spaces near their home where possible.
Gatherings of more than two in parks or other public spaces have been banned under the nationwide lockdown which was last week extended for at least another three weeks. Officers have powers to issue fines or arrest repeat offenders.
In response to a constituent’s email about the car parks’ closure, New Forest West MP Sir Desmond Swayne said the country was in the grips of a “collective hysteria” and said he would “agitate for sanity”.
This week the New Forest Dog Owners Group (NFDOG), which represents 1,300 owners, wrote to Forestry England asking it to consider a “measured” reopening of some car parks.
NFDOG chair Heather Gould told the A&T: “The closure of car parks is a restriction which affects thousands of local people.
“This is especially hard for people living in towns such as New Milton, Ringwood and the Waterside. They do not have local parks – which in any event the government has also specified should be open in all areas at all times – in part simply because the New Forest is on their doorstep.
“In some cases like the Waterside they’d also have to cross busy main roads to access the Forest. In effect they are denied access as they cannot drive and park to take exercise with dogs in the Forest.”
She added: “But this is a very difficult balancing act for the authorities. We fully support measures to social distance, and would not want to see ‘gatherings’ of any nature.”
One dog-walker out by herself complained to the A&T that she had been chastised for parking in the gravel area off the A35 at the rear entrance to Wilverley Inclosure.
When Rebecca Callow returned to her car it had been slapped with a “please stay at home” note featuring the logo of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Local Resilience Forum, which includes the police, county council and health bodies.
She stressed she was not contravening any of the government measures allowing one form of daily exercise within a few miles of home.
She said: “To walk on pavements from my home carries more risk since it is impossible to safely socially distance when meeting others without stepping into the road since crossing to the other side usually involves coming close to other pedestrians.”
However, Forestry England (FE), Hampshire police and the national park authority have told the A&T there will be no relaxation of the car parks’ closure.
A spokesperson for FE – which manages the car parks – said: “We understand that some people still want to drive to the New Forest, but we must all consider the bigger picture and do what we can to prevent unnecessary travelling and dangerous crowding.”
FE has reported continuing problems around its Forest car parks, despite the closures, including anti-social behaviour, fly-tipping, arson and unsafe barbecues, and wild camping.
“There are real concerns that some people will keep ignoring government advice on restricting the spread of coronavirus and travel to the Forest unnecessarily,” the spokesperson continued.
“We continue to urge people to stay local, behave responsibly and not park on grass verges and in front of gates, blocking access for emergency vehicles and obstructing the highways.”
A Hampshire police spokesperson told the A&T its policing approach had not changed, saying: “These powers are about keeping people safe, and the starting point is everyone staying at home.
“We will use discretion and judgement in deciding what is and what isn’t ‘necessary’ and ‘reasonable’ in the circumstances, being mindful of the purpose of the regulations – to prevent the transmission of infection. Driving for several hours to exercise when not necessary would not be appropriate.”
A national park authority spokesperson echoed their comments, saying: “Government guidance remains the same: stay local and use open spaces near to your home where possible – do not travel unnecessarily.”
Although Sir Desmond has not spoken out directly about car parks, he has previously described the lockdown as “deeply distasteful”. He conceded it was “necessary” to slow infections but has called for it to be lifted as soon as possible.
Writing on his website at the weekend, Sir Desmond said the regulations had “astonishingly” not been debated by parliament, which is reconvening this week.
He said: “I hope that, as parliament resumes this week, we will be able to seek opportunities to debate and question the regulations along with a stack of other issues, including the plan for lifting them.”