[Back to Notes for 2001]
For those interested in the mechanism of these development powers (which would be used to evade the Verderers' control), the process is remarkably simple. If the park authority wants part of the New Forest for a visitor centre, it has only to buy the land from the Forestry Commission subject to common rights. It extinguishes the rights (by compulsion if necessary) and carries out its desired project. The Verderers have absolutely no control. Now of course the Countryside Agency seeks to put the best gloss possible on this process. It points out, quite rightly, that compulsory powers are complex to use and politically unpopular. They are subject to numerous checks. They argue that there are all sorts of planning and conservation restrictions which would shackle the park's ambitions, but such shackles have never stopped Forestry Commission projects, approved by the Verderers. Finally, they say that of course the park would not want to challenge the Verderers or damage the commoners' interests.
All these arguments seeking to play down the park's overwhelming powers are irrelevant. The simple fact is that in any irreconcilable clash over recreational development in the Forest, the park will be able to ignore the Verderers. Providing for recreation (including development) is a secondary duty of park authorities which, in practice, almost invariably become a primary objective - contrary directions in the Acts notwithstanding. The protective shield of the Court will have become worthless, but of course "the New Forest Acts will remain in force" ! Moreover, anyone with experience of compulsory powers knows perfectly well that their use is extremely rare. The threat is almost always sufficient to secure capitulation. "You Verderers must agree to this visitor centre project or else . . . . ." The language would be more diplomatic, but the effect would be the same.
For a long time, this looked like a cul-de-sac from which there was no escape short of a long fight through the public enquiry. That may still be the case, but now there does seem a possible way forward. The fact that neither the minister, nor the Countryside Agency, has rejected it out of hand is at least encouraging. This possible solution is to put the park authority into exactly the same position as the Forestry Commission or the highway authority over developing commonable land in the Forest. In other words, a two line clause inserted into an Agriculture Bill could be used to subject the park's activities (other than planning) to the control of the Verderers. On private land the park could do as it pleased. It is a proposal which now has the support of the Verderers and the Official Verderer has written to the Countryside Agency advocating it. It is being studied by the Commoners Defence as a possible way forward and it is to be considered by the New Forest Association this month. Its disadvantage is that it does not tackle the other damaging aspects of the park - intensified tourism, choking bureaucracy, party political control and council influence in favour of non-recreational development - but it is at least a chink of light.
There are two possible responses to the recreational and financial challenges which the Court now faces. The Verderers can go off into a corner and sulk, claiming that everything is the Deputy Surveyor's fault, or they can adopt a more level-headed approach. As to recreation, I believe that they should (as they are doing) explore the legal position as fully as possible, negotiate in a sensible manner with the Commission and only then, when all else has failed, raise enough money by appeal for a determined legal and public relations challenge. Then we would see just how important are these issues to the Forest societies and local people. They have not failed in similar situations in the past and I doubt if they would do so now.
Finance is certainly more difficult and really a matter for persons in positions of influence rather than for those of us who are the foot soldiers of the Forest. In the past it has been a task for Official Verderers, Members of Parliament, local peers and so on. One of the problems they may well face is that it could quite well suit the government to have a financially submissive Verderers' Court while it tries to impose a national park upon the Forest.
On top of all this, the state of the pony market has meant that far more foals have been retained on the mares than is desirable. It takes an exceptional mare to feed herself, a foal and an embryo inside her, in such appalling weather and without loss of condition herself. Unfortunately, many of our mares are not exceptional and the consequences are inevitable. The Verderers have issued repeated warnings to pony owners that stock falling off in condition must be removed at once. The agisters (depleted in number by injury at present) are going to be hard pressed supervising standards and assisting owners over the coming months. Conditions may already be bad at the beginning of the year, but experience shows that deterioration will continue until May (usually the worst month). It is going to be a long hard winter for all concerned.
Matters have come to a head recently with the "repair" of the track from Hasley to Linwood in a remote and beautiful part of the Forest. It has always been a bad track, liable to break up in wet weather and the Commission's solution has been professional and thorough. It is also undoubtedly intrusive within the landscape and local people believe that it will exacerbate the already growing mountain bike trespass in the area. It must be said straight away that what the Commission has done so far (the work appears to have stopped following recent television coverage) was approved by the Verderers, so there is no question of the officers having exceeded their authority. On the other hand, it is now clear that all concerned will have to give a great deal more thought to such schemes in the future. It may be that leaving the erosion damage untreated may be the lesser of two evils in many cases, while in others a much more sympathetic design will be necessary. That will have to include more appropriately coloured gravel, the burying of timber track shuttering with soil externally, and a general reduction in the scale of the works. Not for the first time, Life money is proving something of a mixed blessing in the Forest.
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