I spent a lot of time as a kid, and since, in the New Forest and there are two things I know about it - it's not new and it's not all forest.
This mix of ancient woodland and modern tree farms, grassland grazed by ponies and heathland alive with Dartford warblers is a very special place. And a very complicated place with a long past and we hope a long future. But the government consultation on forestry suggests that one potential future for the New Forest might be for its forests to be managed by communities or NGOs like ourselves at the RSPB.
The RSPB manages over 140,000ha of land across the UK, and a good chunk of that is heath, grassland and forests of various types, and we do have some expertise in inviting the public in to see the landscapes and wildlife that we protect. But, let's be clear, we don't think running the New Forest can be done by charities. And we don't think it's desirable.
The New Forest, as with the Forest of Dean (of which I also have fond childhood memories), is a Crown forest - not strictly speaking owned by the state - and benefitting from its own specific primary legislation. The New Forest has a complicated suite of overlapping designations such as National Park, Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area for birds which aim to protect its public and wildlife value. Its adminstration is a complex mix of ancient and modern with an ancient Verderers Court and a modern National Park authority.
And does off-shoring management of the New Forest pass the Osborne tests?
Back in June last year the Chancellor George Osborne, set out these rules about departmental spending:
Is the activity essential to meet Government priorities? Does the Government need to fund this activity? Does the activity provide substantial economic value? Can the activity be targeted to those most in need? How can the activity be provided at lower cost? How can the activity be provided more effectively? Can the activity be provided by a non-state provider or by citizens, wholly, or in partnership? Can non-state providers be paid to carry out the activity according to the results they achieve? Can local bodies, as opposed to central Government, provide the activity?
Without going through these tests one by one it is not clear that any change in the status quo would deliver great advances in effectiveness or reductions in cost. For example, those SPAs and SACs mean that the UK Government is responsible for what happens whoever owns it - and therefore would be expected to monitor and police activities - or take the rap. If the RSPB thought that we could step in and make the New Forest a better place for wildlife and people then we'd say so - but we don't, and have no intention of pushing ourselves forward in that way. We work in the New Forest now, in partnership with others, as we do in the Forest of Dean too, and we'd like to carry on working there with local people. We might do more in future - but we aren't daft - we know when something is too big to swallow.
But we are interested in how such heritage forests are managed. Are they managed for people and wildlife or as state tree production units. To be fair to the FC they walk the tightrope quite well for most of the time, occasionally toppling off on one side or the other but a Forest and Wildlife Service could manage the heritage aspects of these forests, and others, and non-forest land of equal public value in a more effective way on behalf of us all. The idea of a merger between a heritage FC and Natural England keeps popping back into my head.
It was really interesting that in the Commopns debate Desmond Swayne who was portrayed as supporting the Government - not surprising, he workd for david Cameron and is hardly a pinko - actually said he wanted local Governance - and management by the Forestry Commission ! And he knows - he knows just how difficult the forest is and just how well FC carries out what is probably the most complex rural land management challenge in the UK. And, his neighbour Julian Lewis (best known as a lead champion of replacing Trident) went further, diagreed with the Government and said he wanted the NF to continue as it is.
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