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Perhaps your Lordships will allow me, however, to deal with the substance of the matter. It is said that a clear conflict of interest would arise for a person who was simultaneously a Minister of the Crown and a member of the executive committee. Accepting that argument for the purposes of the debate, does it follow that a provision is required in the Bill to deal with it? We believe it does not.
I invite your Lordships to consider the position from the point of view of the Prime Minister of the day. He or she will be free to recommend for appointment as a Minister of the Crown any Member of Parliament. In so doing, he or she will have as the primary consideration whether the potential appointee is best placed to do the job, both individually and as a Member of the Government as a whole. If the Prime Minister takes the view that a particular person, already serving as an assembly secretary, is the best appointee also to be a Minister of the Crown, I do not see that it is our place, by a provision in this Bill, to deny the Prime Minister that choice.
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, we have now had the clearest declaration of the intention of Her Majesty's Government to move to a presidential, rather than a parliamentary, system of government that I have ever heard from Benches in this House.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I could not disagree more. I should have thought that it is an established part of our constitution that the Prime Minister of the day is entitled to pick his or her Ministers from Members of Parliament, whether in this House or the other place. To suggest that that basic constitutional principle equals moving to a presidential system is wrong. The Prime Minister will be accountable for his nomination, and will, if necessary, have to defend it--that is the proper constitutional way.
Let us consider then the situation from the assembly's standpoint. If the assembly is content to have as a member of the executive committee someone who is already a Minister of the Crown, or if it is content to retain as an assembly secretary someone who is subsequently appointed as a Minister of the Crown, why should your Lordships seek to deny that by amendment to the Bill? The assembly--a mature, democratic body accountable to its electorate--will have taken such decisions in full knowledge of the competing pressures to which, under the noble Lord's scenario, the individual will inevitably be subject. If the assembly decides that the benefits of the arrangement outweigh the disadvantages, that, I suggest, is an assessment which it should be permitted to make and be accountable for.
So even if noble Lords accept the assessment that conflicts of interest would undoubtedly ensue, it by no means follows that Bill provision of the type proposed in these amendments should inevitably result. In my submission, these decisions should be left to the assembly and the Prime Minister of the day, in full knowledge of the circumstances and accountable for the consequences.
As I have already said, in the light of the existing amendment to Clause 12, this amendment serves no useful purpose. It is clearly otiose and its inclusion in the Bill would not reflect well on the House. I ask that it be withdrawn.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, as I said earlier, the passing of this amendment would give the Commons a clear choice. It is a narrower amendment than the one that was carried by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell.
I wish to make two points--first to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas. There is no trace of any antipathy towards Mr. Ron Davies in any of the remarks that my noble friend or I, or anyone else that I am aware of on these Benches, has made. I must warn the noble Lord that he should be careful what he says, otherwise he may well be accused of "cronyism".
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his observations, but what we are concerned about in the amendment is the nonsense that is made of devolution, if both the offices are held by the same person. As I said in my speech, under Clause 22 the Secretary of State transfers his functions to the assembly. Under another clause in the Bill, as first secretary he takes up those functions again. He is accountable for them to the assembly. So where does that leave devolution when he has given away his functions with one hand, as Secretary of State, and taken them back again with the other, as first secretary?
Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will permit me to intervene. Let us nail this point, once and for all. Mr. Ron Davies, our Secretary of State, in becoming the first secretary of the assembly is in precisely the same position as every public official in that great department of state, the Welsh Office. Those civil servants, by virtue of the transfer order, are being transferred; indeed they are transferring themselves from being servants of the Secretary of State to being servants of the assembly. They are in a precisely similar position. We are talking about a transitional period while the assembly is established.
The noble Lord denies that this is a personal attack on Mr. Ron Davies. Why do noble Lords always return to it? Why do they seek to legislate against an individual whose political position will surely be decided by the electorate?
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I have respect for him. But the whole purpose of devolution is to transfer the functions of the Secretary of State to the assembly. If, as is clearly the case, the Secretary of State, Mr. Davies, actually becomes the first secretary of the assembly, although it may be subject to an election, it is a contradiction in terms. It makes a nonsense of devolution.
I am bound to tell the noble and learned Lord that were it not for the fact that there is a gentlemen's agreement between both Houses that we shall not divide, I would otherwise divide this House. I have a fair idea that we might win. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Montagu of Beaulieu rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what are their reactions to the recommendations of the Countryside Commission for the future management of the New Forest in the light of the environmental and economic conditions of that area.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in raising this Question, I should declare an interest inasmuch as my family has lived in the New Forest for generations and both my grandfather and father, as well as myself, have always retained a close interest in New Forest affairs.
Arguably, the New Forest can claim to be Britain's oldest and first national park, created in 1079 as a hunting area by William I. In the past nine centuries it has witnessed a monarch murdered, has provided the background for a famous children's book, oak timbers
Today's problems arise from the changing conditions of the 20th century which have led to inevitable conflicts environmentally and economically between the Verderers, the Commoners who graze the Forest, the Forestry Commission, landowners and local residents, tourism and traffic. Today the New Forest is under severe threat and that is why all concerned welcomed the recent Countryside Commission's report on the New Forest which came out on 26th May. Due to the urgency of the matter, I make no apology for raising this subject so soon.
The Government, when in opposition, and the Opposition when in government, were aware of the problems facing the New Forest. The Countryside Commission points out clearly that the New Forest lacks a comprehensive landscape definition, despite its equivalent quality and character to a national park. It is a matter of concern that there is still no permanent statutory boundary for the heritage area, the delineation of which was after much discussion completed in 1990 and which covers land in more than one county.
Admittedly, in 1994 the previous government implemented equivalent national park policies for the New Forest largely through changes to Planning Policy Guidance No. 7. However, they signally failed to add amendments to secondary legislation in order to bring permitted development rights into line with national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
In the meantime matters have not stood still in the New Forest itself, as the Government are probably well aware. The agencies, local authorities, the Verderers and representatives of the farming and landowning communities, who together form the New Forest Committee, launched a strategy for the New Forest in 1996 but it is not statutory, nor is the New Forest Committee. The existing arrangement encourages partnership and co-operation towards a common vision for the future of the forest, but although admirable, it is only a voluntary body. The Countryside Commission's report now emphasises that the New Forest heritage area needs a new statutory body to co-ordinate management, be consulted and, where appropriate, give advice. At present, the New Forest Committee relies entirely on financial support from the agencies and local authorities. Although the committee has commendably managed its budget, it does not have the resources to co-ordinate delivery of the management plan; nor does it have adequate resources to support environmental projects or appropriate agricultural initiatives, especially commoning. Both are vitally necessary to preserve the New Forest landscape.
Commoning--in other words, the annual turning out onto the forest for grazing of about 7,000 animals such as ponies, cattle, sheep, pigs and donkeys--is accepted to be critical by the Verderers to the survival of the New Forest as we know it today. This view is strongly supported by the New Forest Committee, the New Forest Commoners' Defence Association, the National Farmers' Union and the New Forest Association. Such unanimity in the New Forest is rare. Indeed, the very special character of the forest was created and preserved by the activities of the commoners.
If the forest is under-grazed, great damage is caused to the landscape because the open forest will be covered by inappropriate vegetation. The forest's natural history and ecology has been dominated for so long by this grazing regime that it is one of the finest surviving examples in Europe of pastoral woodland. Thus, commoning in the New Forest is a unique cultural heritage in its own right. Unfortunately, commoning is under great pressure at the moment because the low prices received for stock, combined with the knock-on effects of the BSE crisis, mean that many commoners are seriously considering whether it is worth continuing. The disincentives that exist for young commoners to continue in the tradition, with the high costs of housing and back-up grazing, mean that their whole way of life is under threat. It is therefore essential, if the forest as we know it is to continue, for commoning to be placed on a sound financial basis. Any future management of the New Forest must be designed in such a way that it cost-effectively deploys available financial resources to commoners (and Verderers) as the persons best able to put such resources to practical and beneficial use on the ground. Any new New Forest management structure should be drawn up in a way that makes it the best possible conduit for the allocation of funding.
In contrast, the national parks, which are protected and nationally valued areas, owe their existence to the 1949 Act and have access to appropriate resources to deal with problems that affect their vitality. The New Forest does not. The Countryside Commission wisely emphasises that, and there is therefore great need to support the Verderers in their efforts to keep this grazing regime going against considerable outside threats. If hill farmers receive subsidies, why could not some similar scheme be devised for commoners?
The Countryside Commission and the New Forest Committee argue that the best way forward is to support the bodies that have joined together in the New Forest Committee so that their individual and sovereign responsibilities can continue to be carried out in unison as successfully as they have been over the past eight years. The legislation, the Countryside Commission advises, should be designed to deliver exactly what is required and must be tailored to the needs of the New Forest, rather than fitting awkwardly into some existing legislative box; for example, the national park Acts. There is very little support for national park status in the forest. Most people feel that the New Forest has adequate legislation of its own, but they would like equivalent benefits and status of a national park. However, they do not want the image of a national park, with its prevalence of tourism.
So new legislation would need to designate the New Forest area and fix its boundary, confirm its planning status and confer on it the highest level of protection. Clauses would be required to establish a statutory authority to co-ordinate management over the whole heritage area, with the necessary influence over other bodies but without blunting their powers. This must be designed in such a way that it would not add another bureaucratic level or further burdens. It would help secure a statutory management plan, which already exists in a voluntary form.
It is nevertheless important that planning and development control should continue to be delivered by the democratically elected local authorities. Any new New Forest "authority", or whatever one might call it, should be given the right to be consulted over all strategic plans and activities. But since at the moment it does not have a democratic base as we know it, any powers given should remain in careful hands and always be advisory and powers of veto should not be given. It must be said that some New Forest bodies are strongly opposed to the committee having statutory powers or indeed the New Forest being designated a national park. But I believe that such a committee would play an important role in co-ordinating so many interests and, further, it would be important to look at the composition of such a committee, perhaps making it more democratic and making sure that all forest interests are represented, not just official bodies.
Of course, the New Forest Heritage Area also includes a considerable amount of privately-owned land. The farmers and owners of land within the heritage area of the New Forest would wish to play their part in protecting and properly managing the land so valued by the public. The legislation must allow management agreements to be made with private land managers to support necessary measures. Strict land use criteria should be the basis on which the boundaries of the management body are defined.
It is interesting to note that where other areas in the country have been designated as environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs) the blessing and necessary financial support have allowed them to adopt their own management regimes. However, in the New Forest, where the landscape has no such designation, every official designation from a nature conservation point of view is relevant to the New Forest. It must be a leading candidate for being declared a special area of conservation and recently received from Europe the accolade of a European LIFE grant in order to correct some of the depredations of the post-war years.
The sad fact is, however, that in terms of government appreciation for status, provision of resources, the confirmation of the boundary and an understanding of the imperatives that I have highlighted, the forest is naked. If the Government accept the carefully considered recommendations of the Countryside Commission, backed locally by all connected with the New Forest, the position may be rescued in time to save it.
I speak passionately because I wish the Government to understand the urgency of the problem. My grandfather made a similar plea in 1874, when a Select Committee was appointed. The problem then was the Office of Woods. Its successor, the Forestry Commission, is now held in high regard in the New Forest and in recent years has done much to nurture and enhance its plantations and make them better for the public to enjoy them. The pressure is now not on the Forestry Commission but on Her Majesty's Government. No more inquiries are needed, and I hope not to hear the noble Baroness mention the word "review".
Although we now require action, it should not be rushed as mistakes might be made to be regretted later. I am therefore delighted to hear that Mr. Elliot Morley, Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, will be visiting the New Forest tomorrow and I hope he will look, learn and inwardly digest all he sees and hears. Perhaps the noble Baroness will make sure he has a copy of tonight's Hansard in his briefcase to read on the way down.
Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for his continuing interest in the welfare of the New Forest. The appearance of this Motion on the agenda took me back over 20 years when I was chairman of the Forestry Commission and had responsibility for the administration of the Crown lands in the New Forest. At that time I had a good Minister--he is not in his place tonight--in the noble Lord, Lord Prior, who at that time was Minister of Agriculture. We both learnt then how sensitive an area the New Forest was with its variety of interests, some of them conflicting and some of them complementary.
But there was a great deal of special interest involved in the administration of the New Forest. Some of the parties were extremely active and had the private telephone line of the Minister of Agriculture. At that time Jim Prior called me and said, "I am receiving calls nearly every day from people with special interests in the New Forest. I am finding great difficulty in carrying out my other responsibilities. Will you take it off my back?"
I went down to the New Forest and called a meeting of all the parties with special interests--the Verderers, the commoners, the Forestry Commission people and the local authorities. I established what was known then as the advisory committee. That took a load off my back as well as off the back of Jim Prior. It was a voluntary agreement, as mentioned in the report before us. I am not sure that the special legislation that is now asked for by the Countryside Commission will solve any of the problems we sought to solve.
I am all in favour of voluntary agreements. I am all in favour of consensus when we can achieve it. I am not sure that special legislation, such as is proposed in the Countryside Commission report, will achieve what it seeks to achieve. I am not sure that there is room anyway in the legislative processes for a special Bill
The noble Lord, Lord Montagu, acknowledged the fact that the Forestry Commission has done a remarkable job in difficult circumstances in administering the area. I very soon discovered that what I needed down there was not simply a good forest manager but also a diplomat who could live with all the conflicting interests. Without a great deal more evidence, I would be reluctant to believe that a change involving legislation would achieve any better solution than the present regime.
We are indebted to the Countryside Commission for acknowledging the difficulties of the national park solution. According to the report, it would deny the local authority some of the substantial responsibilities it has in the planning process. One has the verderers and the Forestry Commission. Overall, one has planning powers in the hands of the local authority, which, after all, is made up of the elected representatives of the people who work and live in the forest. I would be reluctant to see any diminution of the planning powers. The local authority is bound to be sensitive to the very special needs of the New Forest and will also be much concerned about protecting the amenities.
The Forestry Commission has discharged at no cost to the people in the New Forest its responsibilities for recreation, for amenity, for protection of wildlife and for all the things that add up to good management in a sensitive area. I look at the recommendations in the report and I see that they involve additional costs--for setting up a new body, presumably a quango. That would represent a demand for further government funds. I would be very careful about making the changes that are suggested with the best intentions because I am not sure that they will achieve any more than we have achieved by voluntary agreement.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, we all owe a great debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for initiating this debate. His family has for generations been at the very heart of the New Forest and has cared profoundly for it. I declare an interest. It is not the interest of someone who has a large holding in the New Forest--woodland, farming, or any other kind--but because I have lived for many years in the New Forest, as has my family. I was in part brought up there.
It is difficult, unless one has walked through the New Forest beechwoods on an autumn day or watched in the spring the countryside change from pink to bright green, to understand how deep is the sense of tie one has with the New Forest if one knows it very well. It is a very special place and one that it behoves us to do our very best to protect and to care for. I say that not least because in this country it is all too evident that the remaining areas of outstandingly beautiful countryside that lie south of Birmingham are under tremendous
As a county, Hampshire is one of the most pressed of all counties. It has absorbed a large number of people since the war in the shape of Basingstoke, Eastleigh and many other parts of mid and north Hampshire. Perhaps the point at which I would take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for whom I have the greatest respect, is that I think he has somewhat underestimated the sheer scale of the pressures upon this piece of unspoilt land. Anyone who has lived in the forest and has seen over the past 20 years the gradual effect of those pressures, not least of tourism, camping and the nibbling at the edges for the purposes of housing, must be concerned about whether the 1,000 year old heritage that we have can be protected for another 1,000 years.
As the noble Lords, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, pointed out, there are a large number of somewhat contentious and occasionally conflicting interests in the forest. As the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, said, there are the interests of the commoners. Those interests are central to the whole environment of the New Forest--the nature of what is pastoral woodland and not a commercially managed forest in the modern sense of the term. The commoners' interests are of crucial importance. Up to now they have, like the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, taken the view that they want no change. However, if they knew that their interests would not only be protected but also represented on a new body, they might well be willing to accept it.
Secondly, there are the interests of the Forestry Commission and the foresters. Those are important interests but ones which always need to be qualified by the significance of maintaining the character of the forest. In recent years I have been pleased to see a greater emphasis on planting deciduous trees and some reduction in the emphasis on conifers, which, long before the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, was in charge of the Forestry Commission, looked as if they might take over the whole character of the forest as great areas of larch and other conifer species were planted.
There are a number of other particular interests; for example, the interests of environmentalists. The New Forest is one of the very last areas of the south of England where there are still substantial areas of bogs and marshlands. One may think it strange to wish to protect a bog. As one who has fallen into a New Forest bog, which is quite an experience, I can understand those who wish only to drain them. But bogs are a fundamental part of a rare piece of landscape and certainly they are critical to the character and nature of the New Forest.
There is also the invasion by rhododendrons, which are very beautiful in May or June. Walking down the Rhinefield walk is a great experience when the rhododendrons are out. The only problem is that these tough creatures, which are rather like triffids, bid to take over a great deal of the forest. If one walks in the forest today one can see large areas of young deciduous trees
I conclude by returning to what the Countryside Commission suggested. I make it clear that I stand with the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, in saying that the compromise it is suggesting is probably the best one. I wish one could say that it is not necessary to do anything, but I believe that the pressures are now so great that some additional statutory protection for the forest must be written into the future. One of the possibilities is the national park. It is exactly right that we should take the view that the administrative overload of national parks and the costs of them are probably unnecessary in this case and would also mean that some of the crucial interests, like the commoners and the grazers, would find it difficult to get proper representation. Therefore, a tailor-made commission is suggested in the report of the Countryside Commission and is clearly indicated to be its favoured solution. It seems the best answer--there are no perfect answers--that we can hope to find.
As regards what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said about local authorities, before this debate I took the trouble to speak to a number of councillors on the New Forest District Council whose own feeling is very strongly that the problem with any continuation of the present structure is that under the pressure of the demands on rates it is already clear that a number of local authorities are beginning to cut back on--and in some cases actually stop--paying what has been a series of voluntary contributions to the New Forest Committee. It lives on very small sums of money and therefore if there is a reduction in voluntary donations it could be in very great trouble.
The advantage of a new proposal for a tailor-made outcome, rather like that for the Norfolk Broads, is that there would be local authority representation adequate to meet the requests and the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. At the same time there would be some underpinning of the finances from the local authority and others which would make the protection of the New Forest viable and real.
I do not wish to detain the House further. This is a matter of very great importance. I believe that the Government would wish to see the New Forest continue for another 1,000 years. What could be more suitable at the point of the millennium, at least for this part of our country, than to ensure that William the Conqueror's hunting forest is retained for future generations.
The Earl of Malmesbury: My Lords, it is with the greatest pleasure that I rise to support all that the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, has said. He raised many important points, as did the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. We have known each other many years.
I feel that I know the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, but I do not believe that I do. It was lovely to hear her speaking of the forest so very intimately. I was the Official Verderer at one time. I learnt that it was very difficult to be right. There were so many multi-interests from the woods, the nature people and the commoners with their animals. There was generally conflict and I had to strike a balance and keep it.
I have always had a great interest in the forest. My childhood was spent on its edge and I have never lived very far away from it. As Official Verderer, I was supported by the Court of Verderers. It is a very interesting body. It is worth mentioning its establishment. Five are appointed and five are elected. It was really a feather in the cap of any Verderer to be elected. The appointed Verderers are also extremely valuable. They represent the Forestry Commission, Hampshire County Council, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Countryside Commission. It is a body of men truly interested in the forest.
I believe that, as has been mentioned already, the Court of Verderers is the oldest administrative and legal body in the world. The Open Court is held regularly 10 times a year. It is not held in December and August, which is quite understandable. The Official Verderer of the day looks towards the Senior Agister and gives him the signal for opening the court. With such a long-standing body formality is very important. The Senior Agister says,
Those presentments are taken very seriously. They are the forebears of parliamentary questions and they have to be answered--not necessarily that day because some research might be needed, but they are always answered and have to be.
The people who make the presentments have to address the whole court and not an individual. On one occasion when I was in the chair as the Official Verderer, a presentment was made individually to a particular Verderer. The rest of the court had to say loudly, "We can't hear you". That went on for some time and the petitioner started shouting. In the end he got the message that he must address the court. That is important.
The presentments and the establishment of the court show that it is a body with great knowledge and understanding. Indeed, it is important to understand what the forest people want, which is to keep the forest as it is. That has been mentioned by the previous three splendid speakers who know the forest.
We encountered great trouble when the gridding and fencing was erected because straightaway that confined the grazing in the forest. When I was a boy, it was quite common to see the animals, which had left the forest in February, March and April, out grazing in the lanes and
Forest rights of pasture extend outside the forest. I believe they go almost as far as the centre of Bournemouth, and certainly deep into Southampton. I have known of one or two people who have tried to put their cattle in the forest and it has been a dead loss. I believe that the noble Baroness mentioned that it is essential for the cattle to graze the forest to keep it open.
The New Forest Committee is valuable in terms of co-ordination and liaison, but in my opinion it does not need powers. The powers are with the Court of Verderers. I strongly recommend that it remains, but it must be funded. I do not believe that I have any more time, but I must reiterate that it is the desire of everyone in the forest to keep it as it is.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, one of the problems about holding a debate in the Dinner Hour is that, as happened last night, one does not have time to thank the noble Lord who tables the Unstarred Question. We have a little more time tonight. I should like to join all other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for tabling this Unstarred Question. He brings to this debate such knowledge, experience and tradition of the New Forest. At the same time I thank the Countryside Commission for its report.
It would be wonderfully convenient for civil servants and politicians at all levels--which in a democracy means all citizens--if all problems could be slotted into neatly labelled pigeon holes. One has SSSIs, AONBs and national parks. Governments devise schemes to try to cut the British countryside into pieces and stow them in the appropriate files. But the British countryside is not like that. Each historic part has its distinctive shape and ethos which forces us to look not only at what a particular area needs but very much at what its people (with their traditions) want. We had the sense to recognise that in the Broads, for which a tailor-made, as opposed to an off-the-peg, solution was found. It is clear that we must do the same with the New Forest, as is suggested by the Countryside Commission.
The New Forest has a long and distinguished history, which includes--I speak as a Norman by descent--its foundation by one Norman king and the assassination of the next. We must look carefully at such traditions. My party has always believed that we must combine that with the maximum say for the people of the area who have inherited those traditions. We need grass-roots decision-making. Like my noble friend Lady Williams, I have spoken to councillors in that part of the world. It is important that planning decisions are made locally and are subject to the will of the people concerned within the democratic process. The commoners should have a strong role. That part of the tradition must be preserved and even strengthened.
It is very important that the New Forest be preserved. I agree entirely with my noble friend Lady Williams that it is no longer possible for the New Forest to continue without further powers to protect it. The threats will
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I too add my immense thanks to my noble friend Lord Montagu for bringing this very important issue before the House tonight. He has described the situation in the light of his great experience and knowledge of the area. We are indebted to my noble friend and his predecessors for their interest in the New Forest.
In its report the Countryside Commission has looked at four options to deal with the New Forest. One option is the status quo. This evening the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and the noble Earl, Lord Malmesbury, have spoken in favour of that option. At the moment the arrangements are by voluntary agreement. I believe that they should be allowed to continue. But if the Government having sought advice from different bodies believe that that is not possible they should ask themselves several questions. For example, what are the most important issues? Is it the great pressure of housing? Is it the ability to retain the forest as it is with the verderers and commoners operating as they do now? Are there more specific issues relating to tourism and general environmental issues? All of these concerns come from different angles. As noble Lords have said this evening there are conflicts of interest. Before the Government come to any decision they must give careful thought to these conflicts of interest.
The commission also considered designating the whole area as an area of outstanding natural beauty. Part of the New Forest already has that designation in the Southampton coastal area. But the commission concluded that such status would not deliver the recreational and commoning purposes sought. The question of the creation of a national park has also been debated by many. This evening noble Lords have recognised that to give the New Forest national park status will provide some of the protection that they seek, although they believe that it means additional bureaucracy which they regard as undesirable. The commission also takes that view. Others have argued that the powers of a national park authority may conflict with the present arrangements that apply to Verderers, the Forestry Commission and commoners. The Government face a difficult problem.
Another option mentioned by several noble Lords tonight is the promotion of tailor-made legislation to suit the particular area. That is much favoured by several people in the area, although they are anxious that if such legislation is introduced it should not give rise to conflicting interests among those who already work in and ensure that the forest area is well managed at the present time. The National Farmers' Union has written
Reference has also been made to the financial implications. The current annual budget for the management of the New Forest is £130,000. If the Government decided to create a tailor-made authority it is projected that the annual costs would rise to about £500,000. If they went for the national park option--which is not one put forward by noble Lords tonight--the estimated annual cost would be £1.5 million.
The other considerations that have already been mentioned, for example development pressure, are real questions that must be answered. What are the best measures to introduce to ensure that there is the highest level of protection from inappropriate development? As other noble Lords have mentioned, the local authority is responsible for that and for the planning in its area.
The New Forest area is a working environment. Some may argue that the only way forward is to create a statutory body. I suggest that we do not need new bodies to take on this role with new powers, nor old bodies with new powers. We do not want more formal structures; we want to protect what we have there already. If, in doing so, that means that we need additional legislation, then perhaps the tailor-making legislation is the way forward.
We have managed to exist down there. I am only sorry that I do not live in that area but in the Midlands. We have there a wonderful environment, a working environment, a place where people can go to live and enjoy, can go to the countryside. Whatever moves the Government make, they must protect the environment while recognising that there are people who live and work there. That is the challenge. It is a working forest; it is not a park. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to answer this debate on a particularly beautiful area of England with a very rich history. It goes back over many centuries, as many noble Lords have mentioned. There could not have been a more appropriate Member of your Lordships' House than the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, to introduce this debate. The noble Lord's family has, as he said, had a very long connection with commoning in the New Forest and with the Verderers' court. I understand that his grandfather was one of the early Verderers. I agree totally with the tributes paid by many of your Lordships, particularly the noble
The Government share the recognition of the New Forest as one of the most important areas of our beautiful countryside. That is why we asked the Countryside Commission to take a fresh look at the current position of the New Forest and to recommend the best way forward we start future management and protection. In looking at the best way forward we start with the benefit of its long history. I pay tribute to those bodies which are already working hard on the ground to conserve the forest's beauty and to manage it sympathetically. They include the New Forest Committee and all its members, the committee that has brought together many voices which are vital to the life and health of the forest. It has furthered understanding and produced a management strategy for the New Forest. At the end of the day, the existing arrangements which the committee has put into place are purely voluntary.
Noble Lords will be aware that the Forestry Commission has an excellent track record in its management of the Crown lands in the New Forest, reflecting the importance that the commission attaches to its duty of care in the forest. The commission is careful to ensure that all interests are taken into account when developing management programmes and introducing new initiatives and facilities.
This is a timely moment for the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, to have secured the debate. The Government have only recently received the Countryside Commission's formal advice on protecting our finest countryside. It concerns the future arrangements not only for the New Forest but also for the South Downs and the whole family of areas of outstanding natural beauty of which there are 37 in England. There is a great deal to consider in the Countryside Commission's advice.
The Government recognise the challenges that we are facing in protecting our finest landscapes. We are determined to make the right decisions. Noble Lords will recognise that I am not in a position tonight to offer any firm conclusions on the Countryside Commission's advice. My right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment has said that we hope to be able to reach initial conclusions in the autumn. We want to act with the benefit of the views of those who know and love the New Forest. We shall take full note of the views expressed by your Lordships tonight.
It was a Labour Government who, in 1949, secured the passage of the legislation on which our landscape designation system has been based ever since. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 provides for the designation of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. The New Forest has never been given one of those designations. The forest has long been considered by the Countryside Commission as worthy of a national park level of designation. That was looked at in the early years of this decade. The then government announced their conclusion in July 1994 that the New Forest was not to be given a statutory
My noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe is right that the national park solution would normally mean that planning powers would rest with the national park authority. It would also be possible under the legislation for the national park authority to delegate the powers back to one of the local authorities-- in this case the New Forest District Council. I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that local commitment and knowledge are vital for sound decisions to be made in the interests of all those who wish to enjoy and live and work in the community.
Perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me as someone else who is sorry, in one sense, that this is not my home territory. I did notice, as another Leicestershire girl, the slight slip into "national forest" from "New Forest". I recognised it as someone born in Leicestershire.
In its new advice to the Government the Countryside Commission has drawn attention to a number of what it sees as needs to secure the effective management of the New Forest. The commission recommends the designation of the heritage area as equivalent to a national park, with measures to ensure the highest level of protection from inappropriate development. A co-ordinating body would have the right level of resources and executive power and would prepare a statutory management plan. The co-ordinating body would act as a statutory consultee on planning matters. It would be able to enter into management agreement with those managing the forest on the ground.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, said, the Countryside Commission has recognised that designation as a national park under the 1949 legislation with the powers and responsibilities that would be available through the Environment Act 1995 would be one way forward. The commission sees a number of reasons to conclude that this would not be the best solution--and that includes the need to take account of the powers and responsibilities of the bodies already working there, especially the Forestry Commission and the Verderers.
The Countryside Commission would prefer the Government to deliver tailor-made legislation, a point amply supported by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. We will look into that. There is extreme pressure on the legislative timetable and legislation of this sort would obviously have to compete with many other priorities. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that we will consider all the issues to which she referred. The Government will look very carefully in the coming months at possible solutions for the New Forest.
My right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment, Michael Meacher, has already met with the New Forest Committee to seek its advice. As the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, said, the Minister with day-to-day responsibility for forestry in England, my
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