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New Forest house prices 'threat to the landscape', warn commoners

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New Forest pony drift (Photo: Sally Fear)
New Forest pony drift (Photo: Sally Fear)

SPIRALLING house prices are a “grave threat” to the future of the New Forest’s historic landscape and traditions as it increasingly becomes the preserve of the “wealthy few”, leading commoners have warned.

In response to a government-instigated review of national parks, the Commoners Defence Association identified housing costs and the failure to enforce local bylaws as two key dangers that could lead to a “collapse of grazing”.

It said: “The desirability of the area has long been an economic problem, inflating prices on property, but offering very few local career opportunities that could provide a salary that would make rental or purchase of a smallholding a viable proposition.”

Despite “considerable benefits” from being a national park, such as better cooperation between organisations, it warned the status “has made this serious problem considerably worse” – endangering the next generation of commoners running livestock on the Forest.

It pointed to a “growing crisis in commoners’ housing” and attacked the Forestry Commission for a damaging, finance-driven approach such as raising rents on more than 60 Crown-owned cottages, contracting work to major companies instead of local foresters, and commercial camping.

The New Forest became a national park in 2005 and now has the highest property prices of any national park in England and Wales, according to latest research by Lloyds Bank.

The area’s average came to £661,957 – more than double the £319,128 equivalent cost for Hampshire as a whole, creating a local price-to-earnings ratio of 15.9.

Even the second most expensive national park, the South Downs, was still more than £100,000 less than the New Forest with an average house price of £551,877.

The CDA said: “This is a grave threat to the sustainability of the commoning system upon which [the New Forest] depends.

“It makes it increasingly untenable for commoners to rent or buy the land and homes they need, from which they can turn out animals to graze.

“A small cottage with land and outbuildings in the national park will typically be worth in excess of £1m to purchase or £2,000 per month to rent.

“The more the landscape becomes a retirement or commuter home for the wealthy few, the more it is ‘tidied’ and becomes a manufactured depiction of a ‘national park’. At present its designation does nothing to protect it from commercial exploitation.”

As reported in the A&T, the New Forest National Park Authority is trying to help with new planning policies in its draft Local Plan, such as supporting rented homes for commoners. Overall, it proposes a target of 800 new dwellings by 2036.

The CDA’s warning has been sent to Julian Glover, who was appointed in May by environment secretary Michael Gove to lead a panel assessing how management of England’s iconic countryside could be “improved” on issues such as housing, transport, access and habitats.

Mr Glover, associate editor at the London Evening Standard, visited the New Forest in October when he discussed affordable housing for commoners with CDA chair Tony Hockley and Official Verderer Lord Manners.

In its eight-page submission, the CDA also complained that the failure to enforce New Forest bylaws had led to a proliferation of problems such as feeding ponies, blocking gateways, lighting fires and barbecues, out-of-control dogs, drone flying and off-track cycling.

It said: “The Forestry Commission lacks any incentive for enforcement, and the verderers and national park authority lack the resources.

“The absence of enforcement has sent a clear message that the byelaws are of little importance, creating a downward spiral of damaging activity.”

A suggested solution was to create more visible boundaries to the New Forest to give it a stronger identity so visitors and public bodies better understood and respected its unique landscape.

There was praise for the NPA for its work with New Forest private landowners, as well as its role securing environment and heritage funding via the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme and the Our Past, Our Future project.

It added: “For commoners it is vital that the New Forest continues to be a working forest, resilient to change but maintaining its cultural heritage, ensuring future generations of commoners can survive.”

The 220-square mile New Forest is the smallest and most densely populated of the 14 national parks, with about 35,000 people living in 15,000 homes, of which about 7% are second homes. The park receives about 13.5 million visits every year.

Mr Glover’s review panel is due to report back later this year with recommendations to be considered by Defra.

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