The New Forest is an area rich in history. When it was designated a royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror in 1079, its heaths became the playground of English Kings for over six centuries. By the eighteenth century, the forest's oaks made the frames of ships bound for the British Empire.
The surroundings of the New Forest are of great interest to young campers. Just a few, short, water-skimmed stone-throws from the coastal edge is Brownsea Island; location of Robert Baden-Powell’s first Scout encampment. For a young person's eye on the wonder of the area, Captain Marryat's "Children of the New Forest", published in 1847, is a highly recommended read*.
In 2002, the UK Parliament began a debate on the New Forest’s qualification for National Park status. Designation was sought in light of its historical interest, its obvious natural beauty, and the nearby advance of building developments that threaten them both.
A three year enquiry followed, championed by Alun Michael, the Minister for Rural Affairs. On the 1 March 2005, the enquiry approved the New Forest’s designation, and it became the first ever National Park in Southern England. Its governing body, the New Forest National Park Authority (NFNPA), acquired full powers on April 1 2006, with an annual fund from the government of £3.5 million pounds.
According to Martin O’Neill of the NFNPA, the timing was crucial. “In the South East, there are increasing development pressures from business, housing and transport links” says Mr. O’Neill, “and it was felt that the New Forest deserved the highest level of designation and the strongest possible planning protection, that would come from being a National Park". The NFNPA, Mr. O'Neill says, "will provide a unified voice" on behalf of the forest and its people.
Yet despite the growth of local cities - most notably Southampton, from where both the Mayflower and the Titanic sailed - a large motorway, and two busy airports nearby, the decision was not greeted with universal enthusiasm. Julian Lewis, Member of Parliament for the New Forest East constituency, raised a number of objections.
"The view of many people is that if the New Forest needed more protection it should have been done by way of special legislation rather than by the straitjacket of the National Park model”. He adds, "Whereas, in the past, decisions about the future of the forest evolved out of a consensus of interested bodies and individuals, the National Park Authority will be able to force decisions through."
William the Conqueror, founder of the New Forest, would have met such dissent with a swift and bloody retribution. Arguments may be settled more amicably these days but Mr. Lewis raises a point of concern shared by traditional managers of the forest: with a new, centralized, authority, what will happen to us? According to the NFNPA they have nothing to worry about, but this is yet to be proved.
The common denominator of New Forest management is, unsurprisingly, the Commoners, who have carried out the day to day running for much of its history. Commoners exercise special rights over the forest – they are, in effect, the owner of much of it - and their position is based on ancient terms granted by the monarchy.
The Verderers’ Court both regulates and represents the interests of the Commoners and it is they who have most to lose from the emergence of the NFNPA. The Court has power of veto over new building projects on common land, a key power that the NFNPA will now wield and with greater scope. For critical, perhaps large scale building projects, could the NFNPA’s power be used to overrule the Verderers’ Court?
Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP for New Forest West, is concerned this may be the case. "Over the past 30 years, on every development versus environment issue, one or other of the local authorities in the area has been on the side of development. That does not inspire confidence in the prospect of a national park authority dominated by local authority interests" he says.
In their defence, the NFNPA argue that planning protection will be extended under the new authority, making it harder for commercial interests and local authorities to put pressure on the forest. According to Martin O’Neill, “only those projects of vital national importance” stand any chance of approval.
What these exceptional projects may be, we can only guess. It is true that changing the environment of the New Forest will be more difficult under the NFNPA. Approval will be required even for a television satellite dish, if visible from pathways, before it is mounted outside a property.
The new authority will broaden the scope of conservation too, protecting an area twice the size of the forest itself, far beyond the jurisdiction of the Verderers’ Court. This expansion is indicative of the NFNPA’s concern with high level strategic commitments, rather than the day to day running of the forest, which it claims it is happy to leave to traditional groups.
Verderers hope that the NFNPA will be more effective than their former contacts in government, the Forestry Commission, especially in healing the tense relationship between Commoners and other users of the park.
Visitors to the forest are regarded as a mixed blessing by Commoners; a source of much needed money and at the same time, the cause of many management headaches. Sue Westwood, Clerk to the Verderers' Court, admits that the Forestry Commission (FC) was "always under financial pressure" and says visitor activity was encouraged because "with timber no longer producing worthwhile returns, the FC turned to recreation in order to try to balance its books".
Campsites that offer water sports, pony trekking, cycling and many other popular activities in the forest, are regarded by Commoners as "interferences" to their grazing land – indeed, several receive a small annual compensation for loss of space. Increased competition for finite land and building resources has forced prices far higher than local Commoners, and their families, can afford.
Visitors, and the businesses that cater for them, are also blamed for a number of day to day incidents: the dumping of refuse is a concern, so too pony feeding, and road traffic accidents involving forest animals - there is now a £1,000 reward for catching hit and run culprits.
"The Forest is very easily accessible by road and rail and gets an enormous number of visitors every year”, says Sue Westwood. “We are all hoping the New National Park Authority will try to manage visitors rather more effectively than the Forestry Commission has managed to do in recent years. It is very difficult to make money out of recreation without causing problems in the Forest".
The NPA has promised extra money to improve this situation, and to help in building bridges between each party. The major plank in this bridge is a £200,000 fund, available from April 2006, to finance innovative projects that will improve the environment and the daily running of the New Forest.
This sum may pale against the far larger amount of £3.5 million required to run the NFNPA itself, but it is a start. Only 50 miles east of the New Forest, the South Downs is next under consideration for National Park status. The level of success of the NFNPA will go some way to shaping that outcome.
The free e-book of "Children of the New Forest" can be downloaded from http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6471