ASHDOWN FOREST BILL [Lords]
Mr Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire West)
My information is that originally more than 80 per cent, of the commoners opposed the Bill on the issue of voting. If that is so, the sponsors of the Bill cannot expect the Bill to get an easy passage if, after framing and depositing it, they inform some hon. Members that they are prepared to do something that they ought to have done in the first instance and rewrite a substantial part of this measure. As I understand it, the only way that that can be done is for the Bill to be withdrawn and resubmitted with new provisions. Unless that is done, I promise the sponsors that there will be a great deal of opposition when the Bill goes through its remaining stages.
Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford spoke. He knows how well the Forest of Dean is looked after by the Forestry Commission. Although, at times, there is a dilemma in trying to balance the interests of the generality of the public with the interests of those who live in the area, the Forestry Commission has been able to ensure that, apart from certain portions of the forest which have to be enclosed for the purpose of maintaining the correct balance, the greater proportion of the forest is there for the benefit and enjoyment of not only those who live in it but who visit it from elsewhere. It is an enormous success.
By virtue of my experience of the Forest of Dean, therefore, I am in favour of trying to safeguard areas of this kind to ensure that we do not destroy or be spoil the whole of this small island on which we live. In this part of the world, perhaps, there is more reason to ensure that Ashdown Forest is retained for the benefit of the community who go there than there is for almost anywhere else in Britain. I take it that Ashdown Forest is within the area known as the South-East. The South-East is almost choked with industry and population.
In the Forest of Dean we have the Forestry Commission, and not conservators but verderers—a very ancient court. They are elected, but the Forestry Commission is directly responsible to the Minister. If I have a problem in the Forest of Dean, as I often have, and if I discuss it with the Forestry Commission but I am not satisfied with the policy as pursued by the commission. I can then go to the Minister. The Forestry Commission accepts that, and very often, when we have reached that point of impasse, I say to the commission's representative, "I am sorry, but I shall have to take this matter to the Minister". There is never the slightest straining of relations when I take that action.
I have looked at the Bill, however. To whom could anyone go, and what right would a Member of Parliament have in trying to redress any irregularities that may occur in the future once the Bill becomes law? I have full access to the Forestry Commission, and the commission has full accountability, but I cannot see any public accountability enshrined in the Bill. Where there is an admixture of local authorities and private persons public accountability, except in the fringe areas, goes out of the window.
I come now to my major objection. I asked earlier who was the lord of the manor. I referred to certain clauses in the Bill and assumed that the hon. Gentleman who was presenting the Bill would have been prepared to tell us something about the lord of the manor. This is a fundamental issue involved in Second Reading. The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) has told us that the lord of the manor is Lord Buckhurst and that he felt sure that it would be a matter of swapping pockets of land.
It is interesting to go through clause after clause in which there is reference to the lord of the manor. According to Clause 2 this means the lord of the manor of Duddleswell for the time being and, in relation to the lord of the manor, his nominee means such person as the lord of the manor shall nominate in writing, such nomination to be deposited with the clerk of the conservators.
One can go through the Bill clause after clause and see some of the rights and responsibilities of the conservators. It is the responsibility of the conservators to engage in arboriculture, which will include the planting, felling, cutting and lopping of trees and shrubs, the enclosing of newly planted trees or groups of trees, and the selling and disposing of timber. That is very much the kind of responsibility that is invested in the Forestry Commission and it is the sort of thing we should have heard something about. If we provide individuals who do not have public accountability with the right of felling and lopping of trees they can, without any difficulty, cut down the deciduous trees, which have an aesthetic value, and plant conifers. Thus, we can have the kind of situation, which has concerned me for a considerable time, in which the oak, elm and all broad-leaved trees are cut down so that a forest can be a commercially viable proposition, because conifers are faster growing than the broad-leaved trees.
If we give this power to private individuals we may destroy an amenity area rather than create it. We may be landed with conifers in Germanic rows and in uniformity, easy for felling. That is possible under the Bill. Before we start getting euphoric and rhapsodising over the possibility of retaining an area for amenity value we have to be quite sure that the amenity will be retained. The Bill gives the conservators the right to make the forest a commercial proposition.
I deliberately missed out the first line in my quotation from Clause 17(1)(a), which referred to these activities being
subject to the consent of the Lord of the Manor".
The Bill provides that, irrespective of what Parliament, the conservators or the county council feel, the lord of the manor will have the right to say yea or nay.