The landscape of the New Forest, like so much of the remarkable countryside in the kingdom, is largely ‘man made’ in that it is the product of farming practices over generations.
In the New Forest, it is the grazing by commoners’ stock that is responsible for so much of the beauty and diversity.
Maintaining this landscape therefore, relies on the survival of commoning, and in particular bringing on the next generation of commoners.
Commoning is more a ‘way of life’ than a way of making a living. Many commoners subsidise their commoning activities from other sources of income.
A critical part of the equation to sustain commoning for a new generation is the provision of properties with affordable rents. A local home together with a back-up bit of land is an essential ingredient for managing ponies and cattle on the Forest.
The problem is that there is an ever grater premium on Forest properties, and you just can’t manage your livestock commuting from an address miles and miles away.
The problem isn’t new. It was spotted some time ago.
There are 65 Crown properties which were built to meet the needs of the Forestry Commission’s staff, most of whom were themselves commoners. In 1992 the recommendation of the Illingworth report was accepted by the Government, namely that these properties should be let to commoners at a rent equal to 15% of their income.
This policy was re-stated to the House of Commons by the Secretary of State in 2006 who said:
“Two criteria underpin the retention of properties in the Forest. The First is to provide opportunities for affordable housing with associated back-up land for practising commoners and the second is to provide affordable accommodation for commission employees in key posts when there are operational reasons for staff to be based in the Forest.”
Forestry England now stands accused by the Commoners Defence Association of breaching the policy was clearly stated in Parliament. First, it is accused of advertising the properties to all staff within the region and not just those in key posts requiring them to be based in the Forest.
Second, that the rents charged are now well beyond the reach of genuine commoners, with rents representing from 70% to in excess of 100% of commoners’ income.
This is clearly a change from the policy adopted arising from the Illingworth report. In 2017 the Minister assured me that any review of the Illingworth policy would be preceded by a consultation with all interested parties, and that any change of policy would require ministerial approval.
There hasn’t been a consultation, and there has been no ministerial approval of any policy change.
So what’s going on?
I await an answer from the Forestry Minister, David Rutley.
Of course, I can understand Forestry England’s desire to maximise the income from its assets. It does however, receive a substantial subsidy from taxpayers to pay for its special obligations to conservation of the New Forest. Equally, it cannot be allowed to unilaterally change policy without proper parliamentary accountability.