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New Forest NPA and perhaps Forestry England in loop behind behind closed doors on law changes – but not the Verderers’ Court.

New laws for national parks

The law governing national parks has just undergone potentially serious changes without, so far as I am aware, any discussion or consultation with New Forest management except, presumably, with the New Forest National Park Authority and perhaps with Forestry England behind closed doors. They were certainly never brought to the attention of the Verderers’ Court.

The changes have been effected through an extraordinary piece of jumbled law under the title Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 covering everything from transport networks, police and crime to tenancy law. No wonder that the provisions relating to parks escaped notice. It is also one of those horrible pieces of modern legislation where the reader is shunted about from one section of a 70-year-old act of parliament to an unspecified sub-section of another act and back again so that a non-specialist user quickly loses the ability to understand anything at all of what he is reading. What appears to be the purpose of the changes is to make all public bodies whose decisions affect a park far more subservient to the ambitions of that park – chiefly as set out in the “park plan”. Depending on one’s assessment of the value of our own national park, that is either a considerable benefit or a greatly increased threat to the Forest.

Until recently, public authorities were required, in making relevant decisions, to “have regard to national park purposes”. Those purposes as originally defined by statute have two objectives which are these days almost invariably in conflict with each other. The first objective may be summarised as protection of the park and the second as promoting the park for public enjoyment. No doubt these objectives were reasonably compatible with each other 70 years ago when visitor numbers at a busy weekend were numbered in hundreds. Today they are in deep conflict when the corresponding figures are tens or even hundreds to thousands. Parks are supposed to give priority to the first objective where there is irreconcilable conflict, but in fact they almost always reverse the rule – as witness Dartmoor Park’s promotion of wild camping in opposition to the more traditional values of quietness, cleanliness and natural beauty.

Ponies in Lyndhurst High Street in 1966, when the animals could prove troublesome for local greengrocers
Ponies in Lyndhurst High Street in 1966, when the animals could prove troublesome for local greengrocers

Now, instead of “having regard to park purposes” those decision makers must “seek to foster” park objectives. It is true that this duty will remain subject to the original statutory priority, but this is of no use when the park authority has itself reversed the wise qualification of the founding principles. Worse still, the government now has powers to make regulations telling decision makers how they must carry out their new duties. While I hope I am wrong, public popularity, profit and a tertiary park objective – economic wellbeing – may figure largely in the rules.

How will all this affect the New Forest? That remains very unclear, at least until the regulations are promulgated. Perhaps we are not as vulnerable as some other parks because here the park authority’s powers over the commonable lands of the Forest are very limited. Still, there is no room for complaisance. A determined assault by an alliance of the park and Forestry England, on what the Verderers in their policies have described as the Forest’s special qualities, could have very serious consequences. Already there is a move for intensified development of many of the larger car parks by the installation of refreshment sales, lavatory blocks and so on. This was announced to the Verderers at their December committee, but no details were available and no decision was made, but I understand that invitations to tender for the concessions have already been advertised The scheme comes from Forestry England, but I would be surprised if it did not receive wholehearted backing from the park, because it is “promoting public enjoyment”. Why should they stop there? Surely an enclosed adventure playground, safe from ponies and threatening adults would be an outstanding asset at many of the camp sites and car parks – prescribed national park priorities notwithstanding.

Moss-gathering officials

The old saying that a rolling stone gathers no moss is, I believe, particularly applicable to those who work in New Forest management. I seldom visit King’s House (Forestry England’s headquarters) or attend a site meeting without being surrounded by a crowd of young faces that I cannot put a name to and don’t recognise. I am sure that such birds of passage are adopting a very sensible policy from a career point of view, rapidly experiencing different working environments of which the New Forest may be just one fleeting example. They then move quickly onwards to recreation facilities in Kielder, bog creation in the West Country or even tree planting in the Forest of Dean. Whether this is a good thing for the New Forest is an entirely different matter. I may be old-fashioned, but I feel more comfortable dealing with those whose professional lives have been spent in this forest, perhaps maturing with the trees they planted 20 years ago or remembering the bridges they built or repaired in deputy surveyor Barlow’s time. If I talk about Woolsmoor Meads, the New Piece at Islands Thorns or even Mouse’s Cupboard, they will almost certainly have visited these places and will at least know where they are. Many will be as concerned as I am at the ruinous state of the A&O woods or the chocking-up of lawn drainage, lovingly maintained in their early years and perhaps by their fathers before them, although it would probably be unwise for them to admit this in the presence of their superiors. The moss they gather is a deep understanding of the Forest’s landscape, history and traditions.

Holding, as I do, such antiquated views, I was concerned when Forestry England’s present land agent, Paul Grugeon, announced to the Verderers in December that he will be retiring early in 2024. “Well, he has not lasted long,” was my immediate reaction, but that only goes to prove that advancing age distorts one’s perception of passing time. In fact, he has served a very creditable 10 years and that is probably close to the average for holders of this office.

The position of land agent in the New Forest is an unusual one. He is not particularly concerned with the building of car parks or the planting of Douglas firs. He may know little of the great woods and heaths, unless he has a particular personal interest in the Forest such as did some of the land agents of the past. I remember, in 1961, attending an inspiring lecture on the Forest’s history and customs given by land agent SA Simmonds, but perhaps few of his successors developed so deep a knowledge of the Forest.

If today’s land agents know less of the wider Forest, they do possess (or must quickly acquire) a very detailed knowledge of the interface between the ‘Crown Lands’ and the private property which surrounds them – and that across a wide geographical area. Everything from encroachments on a dead-end lane in Woodgreen to the verges between blocks of land sold off at Norley Wood 16 miles away falls within their purview.

Adjoining landowners are always busy trying to exploit the Forest in one way or another. They appropriate little hidden-away pieces of land, dump materials on the grazing outside their houses, dig unauthorised drains or line the verges with anti-car rocks and notices. They allow sewage overflows to discharge onto the Forest, park vehicles on the grass and use it as a convenient resting place for rubbish skips. The list is almost endless, with many people being serial offenders. All these challenges have to be met by the land agent’s department. There are then all the perfectly lawful applications for permission which must come before him for a decision, such as lines for underground cables, overhead wires, new access drives and even exchanges of land. These provide very profitable sidelines for Forestry England and are a crucial part of managing the remnants of this once great royal estate. Even within my lifetime the freehold of many shops, offices, farms and houses in Lyndhurst still belonged to the government and perhaps some still remain in that ownership.

Finally, there remains a large ownership of agricultural land and woodland across the Forest, collectively known as Crown Freehold. In 1947 this was estimated to be over 2,000 acres. Because the agent’s employers have an important interest in securing and reviewing appropriate levels of rent, his task is often a difficult and unpopular one, rather akin to that of a tax inspector. The present holder of the office has not been safe from such frictions, and perhaps too often there has been a desire to shoot the messenger rather than the instigators of the policies he has to pursue.

While nobody is indispensable in management, I think the position of land agent (along with that of clerk to the verderers) is probably the most difficult to fill satisfactorily. The deputy surveyor is, of course, the head man in the Forest and no doubt recent appointments have all been highly skilled in delivering government policy on such matters as recreation and keeping the locals in order or ignoring them when all else fails, but they do not always know much about the Forest. Perhaps these days they have neither the time nor the inclination to learn and continuity in management remains with long-serving officers further down the tree, such as the land agent.

The Bolton's Bench ice cream van is damaging to Lyndhurst trade, according to shop keepers
The Bolton's Bench ice cream van is damaging to Lyndhurst trade, according to shop keepers

Ice cream in January

At the January Court, Tim Laine asked the verderers to withhold consent for ice cream sales on the open Forest at Bolton’s Bench outside Lyndhurst. Such consent was first granted two years ago and caused concern amongst the village’s traders. No formal application for a renewal of the licence has yet been received. When it does come before the court, I am sure that careful consideration will be given to Forestry England’s arguments in favour of such trading vans operating on the open Forest and also to the views of others who back FE’s plans or oppose them. Aside from the details of this case, Mr Laine was supported by his local district councillor who particularly regretted the decline of Lyndhurst as a shopping centre, and I think that few people would disagree with her.

Many years ago, my family lived in Lyndhurst for a time. I went to school there and my sister was born in the Fenwick Hospital. In those days and for long after, Lyndhurst possessed a thriving shopping centre including several small grocers, an electrical retailer, a men’s clothes shop, post office, shoe shop, three banks and an outstanding ironmonger. The last of these was presided over by a Mr Purkiss who could advise on any gadget one could possibly want for an obscure DIY task. In those days ponies and cattle still roamed the High Street, dozing on the pavements and shading in the bus shelters. I particularly remember Mr. Cheesman, the principal greengrocer, who suffered greatly from equine shoplifters raiding the display of inviting goods outside his premises. Now all are gone, replaced by businesses designed chiefly to extract maximum advantage from the swarms of tourists.

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