New Forest Notes by Anthony Pasmore - Lymington Times
THIS month (28th) sees the trienniel Verderers election and before going any further I should declare an interest as one of the two retiring Verderers (the other being Dionis Macnair) who will be offering themselves for re-election. This time their will be three vacancies. My colleague Richard Stride who has given a number of years valuable service to the Court will not be standing again. During his period as a Verderer he has been able to improve the Courts day to day working with the Forestry Commission out of all recognition - especially in such fields as Open Forest management. The Court will be lucky to replace him with someone of equal worth.
Nominations are not due to be published for another two weeks, but if rumours are to be believed, Miss Macnair and I will not be short of company. At the latest count either seven or eight candidates are likely to be contesting the vacant places - some perhaps confident of being able to right all the forests wrongs within weeks.
One of the great strengths of the Verderer's Court is that it has never been contaminated by party politics. With the sole exception of the County Council Verderer who is appointed by the ruling party in that council, I have never had the slightest idea how any of my colleagues would vote in a general election. From peers of the realm to small farmers they have always put (or claimed to put) the interests of the Forest first, irrespective of party allegiance. The only disadvantage of this lack of factions is that on occasions the Verderers may promote ten slightly different approaches to the same problem making the chairman's job an unenviable one. Lack of party structure means that in an election all candidates claim that they will protect the Forest and its farming, that they will fight development, work to cut down road accidents and so on. This makes choice for the electorate quite difficult. Often it boils down to which candidate is likely to be most effective in resisting, for example, campsite expansion, road construction or radio masts. Fifty years ago it was all much more simple. Potential Verderers then needed only a good knowledge of the Forests geography, common rights and half a dozen or so local Acts of Parliament. Today things are very different. Verderers must now grapple with an ever growing body of local, national and even European legislation. They must be prepared to argue the Forests case in all sorts of arenas from planning enquiries to select committees. Not least, they have to put up with a great deal of ill informed and (recently) deliberately destructive criticism, much of it directed at undermining the Court, with or without some sort of council dominated national park system of management as the ultimate objective. That, perhaps, represents the only major area of policy disagreement which is likely among candidates at this election.
There are again rumours that a further attempt at "national parking" the New Forest is about to be made, with the New Forest Committee again in the role of the Trojan Horse. Indeed, plans for the committee's future are to be presented to the Verderers in December-immediately after the election. The significance of that timing is, presumably, that discussion of the plans during the election should be avoided. Of course until we have the details of who will be standing, it is impossible to say whether such a scheme will receive any support, but I doubt if it is a line likely to be followed by many candidates. Present indications are that one pro-national park candidate, antagonistic to the Forestry Commission as manager of the Forest, will stand. In the old days it was acceptable for candidates to attack the Forestry Commission for the sake of doing so, but that attitude has rather gone out of fashion. Some of the Commissions policies on commercial forestry and recreation are certainly objectionable and deserve to be resisted, but the Commission as a management agency, combined with the control exerted by the Verderers Court, gives the Forest a far greater degree of protection than that enjoyed by any council run national park. The establishment of such an authority here would probably spell the end for both the Verderers and the Forestry Commission in the New Forest. It is that above all else which the successful candidates will have to resist.
The New Forest Association and New Forest Commoners' Defence Association will be organising a meeting later in the month at which candidates will have an opportunity of explaining their policies to those on the electoral register. Details will be advertised in the Lymington Times in due course.
On October 16th the Forest lost one of its most knowledgeable and vigorous supporters with the death of Colin Tubbs. As senior local officer of the Nature Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy Council and finally English Nature, Colin's policies were not always popular among the commoners with whom he had to deal. His dogged defence of the Forests ecology often conflicted with the demands of agriculture. However, unpopularity was no more than a measure of his professional success and, despite these conflicts, Colin was an almost impossible person to dislike. He always inspired respect in his more thinking opponents.
To those whose interests extended beyond the agricultural productivity of the Forest, Colin Tubbs's contribution to our understanding of the district was immense. His first major Forest book, published in 1968, broke new ground in the study of the areas history and ecology. While his second, eighteen years later, is undeniably a classic which ranks along side John Wises famous history of a century earlier. He was an ornithologist, authority on the Forests woodlands, a local pioneer of field archaeology, an expert in planning matters and a very active member (with his wife Jennifer) of the New Forest Associations' Council. At the time of his death he was chairman of the Association's newly established sub-committee on planing matters and he had recently completed an invaluable report on the threats to certain of the timber Inclosures.
Each generation seems to produce one or two outstanding figures in either the academic study of the Forest or in active campaigning for its protection. Colin Tubbs was a rare individual who combined both with success and I do not expect to see his equal again.
Maladministration at Balmer Lawn
Last month the Ombudsman made a finding of maladministration against the Forestry Commission which is likely to have significant affects upon the Future management of the New Forest. Mr. and Mrs. Collins who keep a shop in Brockenhurst, complained that in 1994 and 1995 the Forestry Commission authorised an ice cream van to trade from Balmer Lawn car park, without the consent of the Verderers, to the detriment of sales in their own shop. As a result, compensation is likely to be payable by the Commission. In 1996 the Commission asked for, and the Verderers refused, consent for the Balmer Lawn van. The result of the complaint is excellent news for the aggrieved traders who had campaigned long and hard to protect their business.
The reasoning behind the ombudsman's decision is not immediately clear. Presumably the mere fact that the Commission acted illegally was sufficient to trigger the payment of compensation - not that the right Mr. and Mrs. Collins to be heard in support of their trade had been infringed. Indeed, their is no statutory obligation on the Forestry Commission to seek the Verderers' consent for ice cream sales by public presentment, although in this case the Verderers asked that it should do so. When consent was rejected, it was not trade considerations which determined the Verderers decision. That was based on public safety as it was clear ice cream sales, small children purchasers and ponies intent on robbing those children was a dangerous mixture in a park where there had been a long history of such problems.
The Acts of Parliament which govern relations between the Forestry Commission and the Verderers clearly envisage different levels of control . In some cases the Commission merely has to inform the Verderers' of its intentions to do something such as reinclosing one of the statutory Inclosures. Neither the Verderers' nor the public has any say in the matter. Next the Commission must consult the Verderers over certain things such as the management of the Ancient and Ornamental Woods. The Commission is not obliged to take the Courts advice and the public again has no formal right to intervene. In fact, very wide public consultation does take place and the Commission is very unlikely to disregard the Court. At the next level, the Commission must obtain the consent of the Verderers for such things as the erection of a telegraph pole or litter bin, or the stationing of an ice cream van. This is quite distinct from the final category were the Verderers consent is required "on a presentment". On such major matters, Parliament evidently envisaged the need for public participation. They include the taking of land for timber plantations. In the case of ice cream vans, no public participation is required by the Acts, although it was requested by the Court. The Act which controls ice cream sales was passed in 1970 and licenses had been issued long before that and continued to be issued afterwards. The Commission might have argued that since the Verderers were aware of this, the consent of the court was at least implied.
Where does this leave the Commission in future? Clearly it will be a lot more careful in ensuring that relevant matters are submitted to the Court for approval. It is also likely that the Verderers will ask (they cannot apparently demand) that presentments are made in cases which are likely to prove controversial. Already for many years past they have asked that presentments be made in respect of all significant appropriations of Forest land and the Commission has usually agreed to this. On the other hand, it would be ludicrous if every manhole cover or signpost had to be the subject of a presentment and a sensible balance will have to be struck.
AT the Verderers Court in September, the Forestry Commission's land agent (on behalf of the Deputy Surveyor) asked for permission to sell a variety of goods at some camp sites throughout the Forest. It was very much a retrospective application because a thriving trade has been going on for a great many years past covering everything from tent pegs to children's toys. At first the sales caused little complaint, but for several years now there have been rumblings of discontent from local traders. They see the camp shops (the Commission prefers to call them wardens offices) as bleeding off trade which is rightfully theirs. That is hotly denied by the Commission which believes that its camping operations bring immense trade to the Forest and that on-site sales are very minor and largely confined to emergency supplies for those arriving late at night or ill-equipped. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, trading has been going on for a long time with no clear permission from the Verderers Court. That permission is necessary by law before the Forestry Commission is entitled to establish shops on its camp sites.
In July the Verderers indicated that they would allow (specifically at Ocknell) sales of bread, milk, batteries, tent pegs and freezer packs, but nothing else. These items it was felt either do not travel well of are genuine emergency supplies. That did not at all suit the Forestry Commission and the September presentment sought to expand the list to include gas, gas mantles, toilet fluid, washing powder, maps, guides, BBQ fuel, children's toys, bottled water, string, soap, toothpaste and tin openers. At Ocknell the Commission also wants to sell a "small" range of foodstuffs. The Ocknell argument is supported by the rather unconvincing claim that the site might have to close without this additional facility. Since the occupants of the site come almost exclusively by motor vehicle it is difficult to believe that they cannot find the local shop at Bramshaw or the shopping centre of Lyndhurst. Equally weak is the claim that camp shops are necessary to control traffic movements and congestion. How many people forget about their car once they've found their camping pitch? With or without shopping as an objective, I imagine that most of them drive about every day of there holiday.
For the Verderers the important question is not so much the sales themselves as the degree to which it is right for the Court to interfere in commerce, supporting one trader or group of traders against another. Sympathy inevitably, must be with the struggling shop keeper, but is that necessarily a proper ground for the exercise of the Verderers powers? Fortunately, this is not really an issue which has to be determined. Significant sales on campsites are so clearly in conflict with the peace and character of the Forest that the trading ambitions of the Forestry Commission seems likely to fail on this ground alone -- leaving the claims of local shops satisfied by an indirect route. That, at least is my prediction of the likely response to the Forestry Commission's presentment, but the Court will make up its own mind in November after receiving supporting and counter presentments.
In a rather more obscure way, the Verderers' influence on commerce is also under consideration over pony premiums. Premiums (euphemism for subsidies) have long been paid to ensure the continued stocking of the Forest with adequate numbers of animals. The expert Illingworth Committee had intended that they should be paid irrespective of breed. The subsidy was to animal mouths, not to mouths of a particular class or type. This meant that so long as the pony was in good bodily condition, subsidy was paid whether the animal was a Shetland, a so called "coloured pony" or a true blue registered New Forest pony. A list of non-registered ponies receiving subsidy was maintained by the Commoners Defence Association so long as annual applications were necessary. Latterly the subsidy has been paid direct without the need for time consuming paperwork in applying each year.
Next year a new super subsidy will be paid at much higher rates to the best mares running on the Forest, partly funded by European money. There are two schools of though as to how this should be distributed. The first says that it should go only to registered New Forest ponies as that is what the Europe intended. The Verderers should, by doing this, practise positive discrimination in favour of the New Forest breed in an attempt to boost a flagging market which has hit registered ponies quite as much as others. There are also fears that the Pony Breeding Society's income may be affected if registrations fall through subsidies going to unregistered stock. Why bother to pay a registration fee if subsidy is available without it and registration is no guarantee of a higher sale price?
The contrary argument is that it is not the Verderers business to influence the commercial practises of pony breeders and that a skewbald mare in good condition and of good conformation is just as worthy recipient of subsidy as a registered pony. It is probably also, to the disgust of the purist, more valuable than a registered mare. To the general public, of course, the skewbald is a Forest pony and the argument is too abstruse to be worth pursuing. I remember the horror expressed in pony breeding circles when the New Forest Visitor Centre was found to be displaying a picture of coloured under the heading "New Forest Ponies". Then the Ordnance Survey did the same thing on the cover of its Outdoor Leisure Map. Anyhow, whatever the publics view on the matter, the subject is of intense interest to specialists and a sub-committee of the Verderers will report with recommendations in October.
Over the last few weeks there has been a lot of unheralded activity in parts of the Forest, apparently directed at eliminating informal roadside parking areas. For example, at Homey Ridge there was a barrier gate set back from the road allowing parking for about four cars. more often than not, some of these spaces were filled. This has now been ditched and the barrier moved right up to the road. Similar works have been undertaken at Howen Bottom while a large dogwalking informal park at Godshill Inclosure has been closed down. All this work is highly desirable if its sole purpose is to prevent erosion, control the spread of litter and filth and confine cares to the proper parks. However, I wonder why it is being done now, twenty years after the car free zones were made and after repeated refusals to tackle the problem in the past. A suspicious mind might conclude that it is a subtle preliminary to a fresh application for car parking charges.
Very occasionally (and the September Court was such an occasion) the Verderers receive an application to depasture stock on the Forest under license. this is a curios procedure allowing someone who has no rights of common the privilege of grazing his animals in the Forest in exactly the same manner as a true commoner, but at a rate of payment much higher than the current marking fee. The marking fee is of course, the payment made by the commoners to the Verderers, largely for the services of the agisters. The issuing of a licence is entirely at the Verderers discretion and is unlikely unless the applicant is known to be a suitable person, usually recommended by the agister for the area. The applicant must also own or rent sufficient land to manage the stock off the Forest in case of an emergency and he must live and farm close to the Forest.
The number of people turning out under licence has always been very small, chiefly because so much land in and around the Forest carries common rights. The usually quoted figure is 65,000 acres although this takes no account of rights on the Adjacent Commons. Even a nominal tenancy of a small portion of land with rights qualifies a person as a commoner and avoids the relatively heavy licence charge.
The origin of these grazing licences goes back over one hundred years when a special Act of Parliament was passed (1879), supposedly to help small commoners who had failed to register their rights over the Forest a few years earlier. In fact it is more likely that the Act was passed because all sorts of people who had no rights had been allowed by the Office of Woods to turn out. The Act was necessary to sort out the resulting disorderly state of affairs in the Forest, but remains today as a useful access to the Forest for those whose land carries no rights.