by Paul Goodman
Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) and Julian Lewis (New Forest East) entered the Commons together as New Forest neighbours in 1997. Both were on the right of the Party; both were rumbustious Parliamentarians; both were greeted with werewolf howls from Labour backbenchers; both served on the Conservative front bench. But their ways have parted: the first is David Cameron's Parliamentary Private Secretary, the second is a backbencher.
To the second, the first is his "dear and hon. Friend", but these neighbours – two of the three Conservative backbenchers who spoke in yesterday's Commons debate on Spelman's proposals – disagree. The nub of Swayne's position was as follows –
"I hope that those critics will look at these proposals with an open mind and wonder whether they might just be looking a gift horse in the mouth. There might be an opportunity to rebalance the interests of the forests that have been so shoddily disrupted by the creation of a national park. Within the Crown lands of the New Forest, there are already many private lands and private commons. Indeed, the National Trust itself owns two of the real gems: Hale Purlieu and the Bramshaw Commons. The land is not all owned and managed by the Forestry Commission…
…The New Forest is unique and what I would like to see is something along the lines of what we have in Queen's house in Lyndhurst – perhaps even with exactly the same staff and personnel who currently manage the forest there – but reporting not to a board in Edinburgh, but to a board in the New Forest representing the proper interests of the New Forest, and particularly those of the people who have always safeguarded the forest and been responsible for the law of the forest-namely, the Verderers…I say again to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, and also to opponents, that there is an opportunity here for us that we would be foolish to pass up."
In short, Swayne envisages a new board made up of a variety of local interests. To Lewis, however, the forest is already run, in effect, by such a variety of interests, and the proposals make no strategic or financial sense –
"There are two models according to which the New Forest can be run. There is the old model, with many sources of power intermixing, interacting and influencing each other, and there is the overarching model, with some authority in place to which everything else is subservient. My dear and hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) was right when he said that we stood shoulder to shoulder to battle against the national park authority being imposed on us, because we felt that that was an overarching model rather than an interacting model of different organisations.
That is where I fear my Front-Bench team has lost its way. It is not as if the Forestry Commission has, or ever has had, overall control. The Forestry Commission is one of a number of bodies in this universe, along with the verderers, the New Forest Commoners Defence Association, and voluntary bodies such as the New Forest Association, all of which have to work together and persuade each other before they can go forward. The Forestry Commission is not just about commerce or timber; it is also about conservation and disease control…
…When we consider what the future holds, we are told not to worry because either the Government will be convinced that a new or existing charitable trust will be able to take on the burden, or they will not give up the forest and it will remain in public ownership. This is not dissent; this is me participating in the consultation. Here is my answer: do not give up the forest or give it to a charity, either a new one or an old one, because they will be unable to take on the £2.9 million deficit. If the Government say, "Don't worry, we'll pay for that," why the heck are they bothering to make the change? We really do not need this."
The third speaker from the Conservative backbenches, Guy Opperman (Hexham) wasn't an enthusiast for the Government's plans either –
"Fundamental to this issue is ongoing access to walkers, cyclists, horse riders and a host of others. I hope that these plans will see an additional £31 million boost to the local economy, and several hundred new jobs in the next 10 years in an area where employment is far from guaranteed. I have genuine concerns that all that will be put at risk. I strongly urge the Minister to look closely at the proposals and to consider the many representations that I have received from my constituents who share my scepticism, and to reflect on the possible effect on this special place at the heart of my constituency…I have yet to be satisfied that a good economic case has been made, and with so much at stake I await genuine satisfaction that it will be made. I will fight the specific clauses that are linked to this issue in the Public Bodies Bill."
It's fair to say the interventions from the Conservative backbenches tended to be sceptical, too. As Jonathan reported earlier, Lewis, together with Zac Goldsmith and Caroline Noakes, voted against the Government.