Friday, 15 April 2016

NFA President's Report 2015-16

We leave the last word before tomorrow's Annual General Meeting to our esteemed President, Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre. He sets this year's work against the backdrop of developments in conservation and planning on the national stage.

In last year's report I mentioned the growing financial challenges that beset the Forest's publicly funded bodies such as the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the National Park Authority. At that time we had yet to get through the general election and the future was shrouded in uncertainty. However, the election is now far behind us and in his public spending review statement before Christmas last year the Chancellor delighted conservationists by singling out England's National Parks as organisations that would be protected from any government cuts for the next five years. Not only that, the existing grant would be increased each year by almost 2%. The only other organisation to receive this special treatment was the police force.

Whatever the Chancellor's reasons were for this welcome decision, we must not squander our moment in the sun. We must not assume that the goodwill that seems to currently ooze out of Defra is something that will be either perpetuated or repeated, and all the Forest's bodies must combine forces to extract the most that we can from this opportune climate.

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Liz Truss, is very keen to make some lasting decisions for conservation, and has commissioned a Plan for National Parks in England, and a brisk period of consultation has now started with a view to launching the plan later this spring. This is running parallel to the creation of a separate and broader 25-year conservation plan for the whole country. It is still very much on the drawing board, but at present its focus is, I am happy to report, on reinforcing the special status that places like the New Forest have as protected landscapes.

We must watch the process carefully, and ensure that the new plan avoids entering in to the territory of actively promoting tourism and ever more visitors to the Forest. We are the smallest of the country's national parks, and yet we have the most visitors for our size by far. Indeed, when looking at the large centres of population that surround the Forest the term "besieged" could sensibly be used! However, if the new plan is properly written and intentioned it will, I hope, be good news for the Forest.

looking at the large centres of population that surround the Forest the term "besieged" could sensibly be used!

In the meantime the Council's laudable efforts to influence the Forestry Commission in its decisions on how to control fungi picking continue. Prompted by the excellent public statements recently made by this Association, there is strong support for the view that the Commission should copy the bold action taken by the National Trust and ban all picking until it can be shown that no harm is being done by uncontrolled gathering of mushrooms in the Forest. This would follow the precautionary principle which is the conservationist's touchstone, including (one would hope) that of Natural England as the Government's advisors on such matters. It does seem to be totally illogical that the Commission's byelaws strictly and quite rightly prohibit the unauthorised removal of any plants and trees from its land, which is enforced, and yet mushrooms are somehow not deemed to be worthy of the same protection.

The Council continues to very effectively monitor the constant flow of planning applications in the Forest, and selectively lends its support or objections for applications with great effect whenever necessary. This year sees a full blown review of existing planning policy. An in-depth consultation is underway with all concerned parties to ensure that any changes are properly thought through and supported.

Our Association is heavily involved in this process, and is keeping a very close eye on the flow of new national planning proposals that are coming from the Government, many of which are designed to encourage a rapid nationwide acceleration in the building of new houses. We need to ensure that the New Forest is exempt from those measures which would potentially damage the landscape and its special qualities. Nobody doubts the need for more housing in England, but we must continue where necessary to persuade Ministers that some of the new ideas are definitely not appropriate for highly sensitive and protected places like the Forest. The work continues.

As ever, on behalf of all the members of the Association, I would like to conclude my report by thanking the Council for its vigilance and hard work over the year.

-- Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre, President, New Forest Association