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New Forest Notes: A national park 'spatial vision' - fiddling while Rome burns?

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I FIND increasingly frustrating the piles of jargon-filled paperwork which are thrown at members of the Verderers' Court by outside bodies.

The latest batch of such material to blight my filing system is a 53-page report from the national park’s head of recreation management and learning called Recreation Management Strategy – Towards a Spatial Vision.

I regard anything that's name incorporates “spatial vision” as extremely off-putting, but this is the result of several years of work which was supposed to tackle urgently many of the ills to which the Forest is subject. In fact it seems to me to comprise a great many warm words and aspirations for the future but very little else. It is a case of fiddling while Rome burns.

My concern is not only the unending delays in actually getting to grips with the Forest’s problems, but the degree to which the park again seems to be trying to involve itself in the management of the commonable lands – something which is quite beyond its remit.

Its functions there are limited to planning matters and to the extent that planning is reflected in the latest paper I have no objection to it, but it is for Forestry England (FE) and not the park to determine how the woods and heaths are managed. The FE, of course, is subject to the verderers’ control in many aspects of public recreation management.

Years of seemingly fruitless discussion (which has included FE and the verderers) has produced mostly platitudes. The public is promised more and better enjoyment and education, there should be wildlife benefits, commoners and residents will be happier and livestock will be protected. Erosion and anti-social behaviour should be challenged.

There will be data collection and analysis, fundraising and reviews. Despite all these ambitions, there is scarcely a hard proposal which looks like being implemented any time soon. All will be “developed” over the coming years. No doubt there will be calls for more research and more consultation as the process is dragged painfully onward and little gets done.

The one firm idea to emerge from all of this new “spatial strategy” is for a “local development order” and this is quite properly a matter on which the park is free to act. The scheme was explained to the June court by representatives of the park.

The plan is to secure something akin to limited permitted development rights for the commonable lands of the Forest. That means that the relevant landowners (principally FE) would obtain, in effect, automatic planning permission for works of a specified type and extent related to car parking, rather than having to make repeated applications for consent.

Construction of Hincheslea car park 48 years ago - one of the first in the New Forest
Construction of Hincheslea car park 48 years ago - one of the first in the New Forest

The securing of such an order seems to be a rather complex business, open to challenge and which will require a year or more of talk and bureaucracy before it is approved – if it ever is approved. It seems a fairly inoffensive proposal, but to my mind it will be of questionable value even if it is eventually obtained.

It will not mean that, say, the building of a car park can go ahead. That is and will remain within the verderers’ control and also subject to the all-pervading powers of veto possessed by Natural England. It will merely ease the process of getting planning approval if and when the veto holders agree.

The thinking behind it seems to be that whoever controls the provision of car parking also has the whip hand over damaging recreational uses and their location. I agree that this is sound thinking.

Most recreational use involves arrival by car. The idea is at the moment that there should be no net increase in parking provision, but that relocation is a possibility in a few cases. Since I can’t see widespread tinkering with the existing car parking provision being attempted by the landowner, the local development order may save no more than the need for a handful of small planning applications.

While all of this is going on the desperately needed measures such as control of livestock worrying by dogs, of mountain bike trespass and other anti-social behaviour, and of the appalling over-use of the Forest are pushed off into the future yet again.

Everyone in management knows perfectly well what needs to be done now, but still the endless talking goes on and the Forest deteriorates before our eyes. The strategy now promises action in 2020.

Back in November 1971 the public bodies interested in the subject issued a report called Conservation of the New Forest. It was a slim volume of about 60 pages, but it was packed from beginning to end with concrete plans for action needed to correct the damage caused in the first post-war onslaught of unregulated recreation.

Its preparation had, like the “spatial vision”, taken several years, but the outcome was dramatically different. There was to be radical and immediate action. The report prescribed an end to wild camping and the concurrent construction of camp sites to replace it.

It provided for the construction of over 100 car parks and an end to the free-for-all which allowed the public to drive about wherever it pleased in the Forest.

It specified the phased making of car-free zones across the Forest and ultimately the closing of the whole of the area to cars except on public roads and in official car parks.

Like all proposals for change in the Forest it was surrounded by a good deal of controversy at the time, but within six months the bulldozers had moved in and the first car parks and car free zones were being formed. In less than a year the wild camping had been ended. The Forest was transformed.

Nobody in those days suffered from the malady of spatial visions. The hard-headed deputy surveyor of the time, Donn Small, pushed the schemes forward with vigour and determination, sweeping aside howls from disgruntled campers and off-road drivers. He left behind him a treasured legacy from which the Forest still benefits today.

Contrast the actions of 1971 with today’s woolly response to problems of not dissimilar magnitude and one is left almost in despair. The report from the park contains 32 pages of consultation analysis – much of it in coloured charts and diagrams which I doubt if anybody will bother to look at again. We are also promised the input of yet more consultants - no doubt at huge cost and involving interminable delay.

Scots pine at Puttles Bridge

A very popular walkers’ car park near Brockenhurst adjoins the Ober Water stream at Puttles Bridge. Just to the north of it and towards Rhinefield House a little footpath leads over a bridge to a round wooded hill and here FE is about to undertake major thinning work.

This wood is unusual in that it is entirely natural but not of very ancient origin. The trees it carries are principally Scots pine with an understorey of holly. Few of the pines are likely to be more than 150 years old, but some of them are big trees and of very attractive shapes.

They are surrounded by a large amount of pine natural regeneration which makes the wood’s structure more like that of a commercial plantation than a piece of open Forest and it is this new growth that FE is to clear.

It is one of those cases where those who hold extreme ecological views would like to see every last pine tree cut down, irrespective of its aesthetic qualities, while the average Forest user values the contribution to the landscape of the great trees themselves and the wood itself as an element of that landscape.

It is the balance between these competing demands that FE must try to hold. That is not always an easy task for those who are highly-skilled in the difficult and dangerous business of tree cutting, but not necessarily so experienced in making judgements on landscape. It will be interesting to see how the work goes.

The thinning will not be confined to the round hill alone, but will also take place alongside the road opposite the west end of Aldridge Hill Inclosure. Here the woodland structure is the same, but the trees if anything a bit older.

It is also remarkable in that there are a few young broadleaved trees struggling up amongst the conifers and hollies. Such recent regeneration is almost non-existent in the old woods of the Forest, but here if the young trees survive, there is the possibility of a gradual conversion to oak and beech woodland in generations to come.

It will be a small contribution to the Forest, but a welcome one, not least because the trees provide a valuable screen to traffic on this busy tourist route.

Powered mountain bikes

In a Sunday Times article last month the vice-chairman of the New Forest Association, Gale Gould, is quoted in support of the protests against the use of powered mountain bikes in the national parks. She is to be congratulated upon condemning the disruption they cause to the tranquillity of areas such as the New Forest.

However, where I do part company from her is that she fails to explain the difference between the Forest and the other national parks. Here the use of the cycle network is by permission of FE (with the approval of the verderers) and not by right.

The taking of any vehicle onto the Forest (and that includes cycles - powered or not) is a by-law offence without the permission of FE.

In most other parks legally authorised vehicles may be taken onto public rights of way of an appropriate class. For example, scramble bikes may be used on byways and bicycles on bridleways - all without consent.

On the Crown lands of the Forest there are virtually no such rights of way, although the ordinary law applies on private property.

When the New Forest’s extensive permitted cycle network was established, there was a clear understanding that it was available to pedal cycles only and not for any power-assisted machines. Indeed, the verderers would never have granted permission for the ‘E bikes’ which are now causing such problems of erosion and disturbance on public rights of way in other parks.

The Sunday Times article quotes a case in Surrey where a trail had to be closed because of the disruption to horse riders by fast-moving bikes of all sorts. The New Forest is used by horse riders as of right and the adverse effect of any form of recreation upon them is a key consideration – quite apart from the damage to the fabric and peacefulness of the Forest.

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