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10.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) on securing the debate and presenting the anxieties of local people about the proposed change. It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I know the New Forest well and have a long-standing personal interest in it. I talk to representatives of the Forestry Commission regularly, and I recently met the court of verderers.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that I introduced the Ministers' mandate. It was revised in 1999 and it clearly sets out the principles for managing the Crown lands, which cover half the New Forest heritage area, of which Hollands Wood is part. The first objective of the Ministers' mandate is the conservation of nature and heritage. The second includes promoting rural opportunities, providing access and recreation opportunities and increasing public awareness and understanding. The objectives in the mandate are compatible with the Forestry Commission's proposals.

Of course local people's views have to be taken into account, and I have therefore listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I want to take them into account because it is important that the reasons for the move are properly understood and debated. I must confess that I was a little puzzled about some of the reasoning behind the hon. Gentleman's anxieties. I shall try to deal with them.

First, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, English Nature requires the closure of Hollands Wood campsite because it is in a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation. I have visited Hollands Wood campsite; I walked around it while it was closed so that I could have a clear view. We cannot escape the fact that it is situated in an area of ancient woodland that is important scientifically and from the point of biodiversity.

Of course, Hollands Wood is a popular campsite and it needs to be replaced with an alternative, modern campsite for visitors to the New Forest. We recognise the importance of the New Forest not only to visitors and recreation, but to the area's economy.

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New Park is literally across the road. It is a desirable site that is not in the site of special scientific interest or the special area of conservation. It is close to Hollands Wood and ensures that the considerable economic benefits to Brockenhurst are not lost. New Park is a farm that does not have same biodiversity importance as Hollands Wood. There is no comparison. It is next to important riverine woodland; I took the opportunity of walking the length of it the last time I was there when I was discussing the issues with the Forestry Commission.

Part of the proposal for New Park is to establish, at some cost, a buffer zone to protect the riverine woodland. The proposals recognise the potential for increasing conservation and protecting fragile areas. The commission is therefore complying fully with all the requirements of the planning system. A full planning application and environmental impact assessment will be submitted to the local authority. That is also right because we must examine the impact of the proposals, which must be open to public scrutiny.

The proposed campsite will be designed and built to a high standard to take into account the fact that people live close to it; that has also been recognised.

On the New Forest show, I have attended it and I recognise that it plays an important part in the culture and activities of the area and the local communities. I very much enjoyed my visit and was impressed with the range of activities and displays. I do not want the New Forest show to be threatened, and I want to make that point very clearly as the person who oversees the Ministers' mandate for the forest.

The needs of the New Forest show are being carefully considered, and full consultations are being undertaken with the show committee. Following my discussions with the Forestry Commission, I have been convinced that it would be possible to meet the requirements of the show, even if there were a campsite on the ground. I want to make it clear that the New Forest show is not going to be abandoned, and that its importance is recognised by me, as a Minister, and by the Forestry Commission.

I also want to stress that the campsites are very important to the local economy, bringing into the forest a large number of people with considerable spending power. Those people spend their money in the shops and pubs, and on local services such as cycle hire. The hon. Members for New Forest, East and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) know how important that is for their constituents and for their constituents' businesses.

I am not very clear on the issue of traffic. From what the hon. Gentleman has said, I understand that there is an assumption that the traffic will all turn one way when it leaves the new campsite. I do not believe that that will be the case. There will be the same amount of traffic going into the campsite. As I understand it, there are currently about 600 pitches in Hollands Wood, and about 100 overspill pitches in New Park. So, when the site moves—if it does move—to New Park, there will be about 100 fewer pitches. That would result in there being less traffic turning in and out of the site. I would be happy to examine these hypotheses in greater detail, but, at the moment, I cannot see how moving from one side of the road to the other will increase the traffic.

Dr. Lewis: Perhaps this is an argument for adopting a continental system of traffic flow—I really am being

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reborn, here—because if we drove on the same side of the road as they do on the continent, the campsite's move from one side of the road to the other would be a positive enhancement. As we drive on the left, however, it is clear that when people come out of the campsite to shop in the villages, they will turn left, rather than turning right across the busy main road. I am sorry if I did not make that clear enough. More importantly, will they want to come out of the campsite at all when, without the protection afforded by the verderers, the site is developed so that it becomes a rival to Brockenhurst with its self-contained shopping centre? That is the question at the heart of the problem.

Mr. Morley: On that last point, the hon. Gentleman is assuming that some kind of shopping centre is going to be built on the campsite. I am not aware that such proposals feature in the Forestry Commission's plans. Those plans will be submitted for approval, and the hon. Members for New Forest, East and for New Forest, West and their constituents will, of course, be able to scrutinise them. But they should not make that assumption. The Forestry Commission has been very sensitive to the potential impact on the local economy, and I think that that has been reflected in its activities.

On the issue of traffic, I do not disagree that, if people are going into Brockenhurst, they will have to turn right, whereas, before, they would have turned left. That assumes, however, that all the traffic in the campsites always comes from one direction. The traffic comes from both directions, and there is no guarantee that there will be any increased congestion. That issue needs to be carefully examined, and there will be an opportunity to do so as part of the planning process.

Dr. Lewis: I will not reiterate the point about the traffic. I feel, however, that the Forestry Commission has a long history of trying to commercialise its campsites by increasing its sales—given half an inch, it generally takes more than half a mile. The Minister is, therefore, being unrealistic if he feels that, without the guardianship of the verderers to limit this kind of activity, this development will not happen. It will happen, and everyone believes that it will happen.

Mr. Morley: People may believe that. Again, it will be a matter for proper scrutiny during the planning process. I merely say that the hon. Gentleman should not assume

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that that is the case, or that that is the motivation. I do not believe that it is the motivation. I genuinely believe that there is a problem with a site of special scientific interest and a campsite in ancient woodland, and that someone starting from scratch would not have put the campsite there in the first place. However, when it was opened, there was not the pressure that is imposed on it now by all the people wanting to use it.

As I have said, there will be extensive consultation. Indeed, that has already begun as part of the environmental impact assessment: local individuals, groups and organisations are being consulted. All local people, groups and neighbours will have a full opportunity to comment on the details of the application when it is submitted, and to make objections as appropriate in the normal way.

I ask local people, and the hon. Member for New Forest, East, to consider this. The choice is between a campsite which I do consider to be inappropriately placed in terms of its impact on the special conservation importance of the New Forest, and farmland which, despite its extremely limited biodiversity potential, could be developed in a way that would enhance facilities for visitors to the forest, and indeed designed—I know that this is what the Forestry Commission proposes—to take some of the pressure off the more fragile parts of that ancient forest.

That proposal is, at the very least, worth considering carefully. It is worth looking at the details, and worth recognising that the motivation is right. Of course issues affecting local people, such as traffic and economic impact, need to be taken into account. I want them to be taken into account, but I also want the right balance to be struck between providing for the many visitors who enjoy and love the New Forest and ensuring that the pressures on one of our most ancient and precious natural woodlands are properly managed. I am sure that no one disagrees with that objective.

I believe that the Forestry Commission is motivated by that consideration. I also believe that the proper scrutiny processes that will take place will give local people an opportunity to ask questions, examine the proposals and consider them properly—and, I hope, fairly.

Question put and agreed to.

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