Ministers order Forestry chiefs to open talks in commoners rent row
GOVERNMENT ministers have ordered Forestry England to hold a formal consultation over the rent it demands on properties it manages in the New Forest for commoners.
Stepping in after the Commoners’ Defence Association (CDA) accused Forestry England (FE) of defying government policy by increasing fees, DEFRA ministers requested that the consultation must be completed by the end of the year when a “shared outcome” should be presented.
The row erupted when a four-bedroom property in Brockenhurst called Little New Park was advertised for a monthly rent of £1,450, with a commoning restriction.
Speaking at a meeting of the Verderers’ Court in May, CDA chair Tony Hockley claimed the future of the ancient New Forest tradition of communing was at risk if FE continued “misappropriating” Crown properties.
Describing the cost as “disgraceful”, Dr Hockley stated that the rent demand was more than 100% of many young commoners’ household income, and way off the 15% stipulated by government.
He revealed he had written to the then secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Michael Gove, asking him to intervene.
“It is nearly two years since ministers told Forestry England that any change of housing policy must be properly consulted upon, and passed to ministers to decide,” said Dr Hockley.
“We are pleased that, in view of Forestry England’s failure since then, ministers have now forced a fixed-term consultation.
“We are also pleased that the national park authority is involved, as this is a decision about the use of public assets that are fundamental to the future of this protected landscape.”
A FE spokesperson said: “Our policy on housing in the New Forest has not changed, it will continue to offer discounted residential rents to commoners.
“The 2007 review of commoning, produced in collaboration with the CDA, noted that not all of Forestry England’s properties are suitable for commoning purposes and acknowledged that FE subsidised open market rents by around 50% to make them affordable to commoners.
“There has been dialogue with the CDA about the scope of the rent review. Currently in the New Forest, Forestry England manages 65 dwellings ranging in size and in legal occupancy restrictions.”
The spokesperson added that 33 (51%) dwellings carry a legal restriction which limits the occupant to a ‘woodsman’ (interpreted as FE employees) and 49 (75%) are currently occupied by current or retired FE employees including keepers, craftspeople, rangers and foresters.
Overall, 25 (38%) of the dwellings are let to commoners, including 20 FE staff/ex-staff members and two agisters, and five properties (8%) are let at open market rates. This includes two large six bedroom lodges.
The minister’s decision now means that a series of consultation meetings will be held, and both the CDA and the verderers will be represented in a review group.
This will meet on 2nd September, 14th October and 25th November, and will be led by Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, chairman of the national park authority.
Bruce Rothnie, New Forest deputy surveyor at FE, said: “We’re looking forward to constructive talks with the CDA and other interested parties to get the right outcome for the New Forest.
“The minister has asked us to complete a review by the end of this year and I’m hopeful that solutions can and will be found for how we can provide sustainable support for staff and commoners.”
Dr Hockley continued: “Our representatives in the consultation will, of course, be working hard to make the case that these properties have been saved from past forestry sell-offs because of their value to the New Forest, and that the case for using them as affordable bases for commoning into the future has only got stronger over recent decades.
“The CDA is really grateful to our local MPs, who all pressed ministers to force FE to come clean on their plans for the Crown holdings, after three years of stealthy change.”