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The hon. Gentleman also referred to the EU water facility, which, after some initial problems, is now working effectively and bringing greater attention to water and sanitation. It has considerable potential further down the line.

The Prime Minister has described the situation this year—half way to the millennium development goals—as an MDG emergency. We face huge challenges on water and sanitation, but we are making progress in achieving all the millennium development goals. We are seeking to work with a range of countries internationally to reignite interest and momentum in the efforts to achieve those goals. That effort will climax at a meeting at the UN General Assembly in September, and we are working with a substantial number of European colleagues.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes raised the important issue of the predictability of funding streams. That is one reason why, in the right circumstances, budget support is essential. NGOs, such as WaterAid, Oxfam and Samaritan’s Purse, are a huge force for good in the areas in which they work; but if we want every area in country to have good access to water and sanitation, good schools and good health care facilities, we must build up the ability and capacity of Governments in developing countries to deliver that. That is why budget support is important, albeit in the right circumstances.

This has been an important debate, given the proximity of world water day. I hope that, with our water policy update, which we published yesterday, right hon. and hon. Members will be confident that we are continuing to deliver on our promises.

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Forestry Commission

4 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): This debate is taking place at the same time as the major debate in the main Chamber on post office closures. Both debates have a common theme: the perceived unwillingness of public corporations—in the main Chamber debate the Post Office and in this Chamber’s debate the Forestry Commission—to listen to and respond to public concerns and to be properly accountable. I have initiated this debate to seek the intervention of the Minster, whom I welcome to her place, on a local issue of vital importance to my constituents which, if left unaddressed, will undermine the good relationship between the Forestry Commission and the people of east Dorset.

I start with a quote from the Forestry Commission’s website. The Forestry Commission states that in its remit it has

When the Minister has heard what I have to say, I hope that she will reach the same conclusion as I have that that pledge, made in her name, is not being delivered.

Last summer, the Forestry Commission invited tenders for a contractor to extend the annual programme of forest concerts. It included reference to a potential new site in Moors valley in east Dorset. At Moors valley there is a very successful country park, run by the district council in partnership with the Forestry Commission. In January, however, it became apparent that the proposal was not to use the existing country park, but to create a completely new, purpose-built concert venue for 5,000 spectators and 2,000 cars by cutting down 15 acres of woodland in the heart of Ringwood forest.

Ringwood forest, unlike a lot of other concert venues used by the Forestry Commission, is surprisingly close to a residential neighbourhood. That is probably why there has been such reaction to the proposal, which is rather different to the reaction to similar Forestry Commission proposals. When local people heard about the proposal through their parish council, their reaction was one of horror and stunned disbelief. Lots of questions were asked, such as “Why does the Forestry Commission wish to destroy the peace and tranquillity of Ringwood forest at summer weekends and subject local residents to the noise and nuisance generated by rock concerts?”

The initial justification, gleaned from the Forestry Commission website, was a desire

In the vicinity of Moors valley, Ringwood forest, Avon heath country park and the New Forest, there is no need to invite people to the forest to find new relevance in the importance of woodlands. People are already aware of that, and they have plenty of opportunities for public access and recreation. That comment on the website as a justification for the proposal was greeted with a lot of scepticism. Local people pointed out that Somerley park, which is less than two miles from the proposed venue, is an existing privately owned facility
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at which concerts have been successfully held. It also has the advantage of better and safer vehicle access, without the need to cut down 15 acres of woodland.

In the past few weeks, the horror, disbelief and scepticism has turned to intense anger. It is impossible to overstate the extent to which local people are incensed by the proposed intrusion into their treasured local forest environment. The St. Leonards and St. Ives parish council convened an extraordinary general meeting, which was packed to overflowing, with more than 300 people inside the hall and others standing outside in the rain. The Forestry Commission representative failed to answer the concerns raised. At the end of the meeting, a vote was taken that overwhelmingly rejected the proposals. By overwhelming, I mean that two people supported the Forestry Commission proposal.

The Forestry Commission has manifestly failed to address the inconsistencies inherent in its proposal—for example, the incompatibility of removing 15 acres of forest to create a car park for 2,000 cars with the Forestry Commission’s climate change credentials. I am sure that the Minister is as concerned about that as I am. The Forestry Commission has said that no alternative venues are available, but we know that there are. The Forestry Commission has asserted that it wants to work closely with local people, yet it has made such an unpopular proposal.

On 6 March, the chairman of the Forestry Commission responded to a letter that I sent to him on 13 February. He delayed his response to enable him to report the outcome of the meeting. However, it will not surprise you, Mr. Hood, to learn that I had already received an extensive report on that meeting. The chairman said that the public meeting

He said that other possible sites for a concert venue had been considered, but land tenure, among other things, was a problem. The problem was that the other sites for concerts, including ones to which I have already referred, were not owned by the Forestry Commission—in other words, the Forestry Commission would not be able to profit from the activities that took place on those sites. The Minister smiles knowingly. Perhaps she recalls a time when, under a Conservative Government, there was discussion about the possibility of privatising the Forestry Commission. The strongest argument against such a privatisation was that it would lead to all sorts of undesirable commercial activities if the forests were taken into private ownership. Ironically, that is exactly what seems to be happening under the Forestry Commission while it still remains a nationalised body.

On the number of concerts, which was mentioned in my letter, the chairman of the Forestry Commission offered some reassurance, saying:

He omitted to say that three venues—Delamere, Thetford and Cannock Chase—now have weekend festivals that go on for three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That may not be so bad when people do not live close to a venue—some of those forests, Thetford in particular, are very large and dense—but a three-day festival at the Ringwood forest site would give local residents the prospect of a long weekend of hell.

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The chairman of the Forestry Commission went on to say:

On examination, however, it appears that the only benefit to the wider community is the profit that the Forestry Commission will make. There is no benefit to the local people in providing them with a concert venue when they already have one. I do not know how familiar the Minister is with the location, but it is not too far to the Bournemouth International Centre, which hosts the largest rock concerts in the country, and it is very close to a lot of other open-air stadiums.

If the only issue for the Forestry Commission is profit, how much will it make? Yesterday, a Forestry Commission staff member told a meeting in Verwood that for just one concert the gross income would be £150,000—from selling 5,000 tickets at £30 each—and that the net profit would be £15,000. My constituents are not spoilsports. They are proud to host round 1 of the Pirelli Motor Sports Association National Gravel Rally championship, which took place over 40 miles of Forestry Commission roads largely in my constituency in February this year, as it has for the past 20 years. The commission benefits from the event because it charges £600 per mile for the use of its forest roads, making a profit of £24,000. The event is called the Rallye Sunseeker—it is sponsored by Dorset’s largest employer—but it takes place in the winter and, in contrast to the proposal for Ringwood forest, it is designed to work with the needs and desires of local people. The money raised by the commission from the event is meant to be reinvested in the locality, although I have been unable to find any hard evidence that that has happened.

The commission also profits from the Moors valley car park, the income from which is shared with East Dorset district council, so it is already making profits or income from commercial activities in my constituency, if indeed money is the root of the problem. At a meeting, Mr. Rothnie of the Forestry Commission said that it is all about money. He said that if he could not raise the money from the proposed project, he would have to raise it from somewhere else. The question is, is it worth alienating local people for the sake of £10,000 or £15,000 per concert? I think not.

A letter sent to Mr. Rothnie by a local resident, Dr. Jonathan Edwards, who is a member of the parish council, asks:

as I am sure others would—

The Minister may be aware that such a long and bitter dispute involving licensing is exactly what happened in
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Cannock Chase. In the end, it cost the Forestry Commission £50,000 and the local council £25,000 in fees and generated a lot of animosity. We do not want that to happen in this case; instead, we want to get people talking to each other to find a common way forward.

The commission has discovered that there is a lot more money to be made out of promoting rock concerts than from planting and managing woodland. I am not surprised or concerned about that. However, one of the pop concerts being organised is Status Quo, and I was concerned to read that tickets for the Cannock Chase concert that were put on sale for around £30 in January and February are now on sale on the web black market for £80 or £90. That sort of activity causes my constituents a lot of concern. If there is a concert that is so popular and over-subscribed that people will do anything to get into it, what is the point of having a concert in a venue that is not self-contained, as many venues are, and that will generate an enormous amount of traffic from all over the country, to the detriment of local amenities?

There is stunned disbelief at the proposal and intense anger and frustration at the seeming intransigence of the Forestry Commission. I am going to see Mr. Seddon, the deputy surveyor of the New Forest next week. I hope, in the light of what the Minister says, that the meeting will be held in a constructive spirit and that there will be a desire to find an alternative way to raise funds for the commission locally, in addition to what it already raises. Otherwise, I fear that the prospects of the people of east Dorset working as closely with the commission in future as they have in past will be damaged. I look forward to hearing what the Minister is able to say to pour oil on troubled waters.

4.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on obtaining the debate, which is on an important subject and of great concern to his constituents. The picture he painted was so grim that I have difficulty promising to pour oil on troubled waters, but I shall attempt to put the rock concert proposal, as he called it, into some context.

The management of a 260,000 hectare public forest estate is a significant part of the commission’s work. It aims to manage that on behalf of the nation sustainably, to contribute to the economic, social and environmental objectives of the Government’s strategy for England’s trees, woods and forests. It is not primarily a commercial enterprise; it carries out commercial activities, but it is also required to provide a wide range of public benefits. It might be helpful if I mention some examples of those benefits.

The commission is England’s largest provider of countryside recreational opportunities. Almost the entire forest estate is dedicated for public access on foot in perpetuity under the provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. It has a significant role in enhancing biodiversity by working to bring into and maintain in a favourable condition more than 64,000 hectares of sites of special scientific interest on the estates. It makes great efforts to improve the ancient woodland—one of our most valuable habitats—
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through the removal of non-native conifers and the regeneration of native broadleaf trees. It restores open habitats, including lowland heath and upland mires, where that can make a greater contribution to enhancing biodiversity than the plantations that are being removed.

Over the years, the commission has changed, as have its funding sources, which include Government funding, commercial activities, partnerships and the sale of surplus assets, the proceeds of which have been reinvested. As the hon. Gentleman knows, all Departments are required to maximise the return on their assets, consistent with their objectives. The commission is allowed to sell areas for development when that is in the public interest, the pursuit of which objective has resulted in income of £30 million over the past 10 years, which is significant. The sale of sustainably harvested, independently certified timber, for example, is running at around 1.5 million cu m per year, which makes up around half of the commission’s operational income, so it is not true that it has decided that it is more profitable to organise rock concerts than to deal with the proper business of the woodlands.

The remainder of the commercial income comes from a wide variety of sources, as we would expect of any major landowner that seeks to make good use of the assets at its disposal. There are some recreational activities that have a commercial element, including mountain biking for which bike hire franchises are let. In addition, there are catering franchises, shops at visitor centres and, of course, an annual series of live music concerts.

That brings me to the heart of the debate: the proposal to create an events area in Ringwood forest, which is planned to be used on one weekend a year for live music and for the occasional community event. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there are no weekend festivals such as he described at Forestry Commission venues. No facilities are provided for people staying overnight at any of the venues at which it holds concerts. In fact, the sites that he mentioned have three separate events; there is no continuous festival, and there are no plans for one.

Mr. Chope: Does the Minister accept that although there may not be a festival similar to the Glastonbury or Isle of Wight festivals, having three rock concerts on successive evenings means that the weekend becomes a festival? That means that people come to the area, camp out overnight and cause nuisance. Is that not the problem?

Joan Ruddock: I have absolutely no evidence that that is what happens or of any complaints, but I shall check, and if there is any information that I can usefully share with the hon. Gentleman on that point, I shall be happy to do so.

Live music in the forest is not new. The commission has been hosting concerts for the past seven years and has a good record of understanding how to do so in a way that is compatible with the interests of the forest and with being a good neighbour. Last year, more than 120,000 people enjoyed a concert programme spread over seven Forestry Commission venues around the country.

It is not right to claim that Ringwood forest was chosen at random, as though proper consideration were not given to the decision. As the hon. Gentleman
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said, other sites were examined, including Moors valley. I understand that the decision about Moors valley was based on two factors: the country park is already extremely busy, so it would have been difficult to accommodate additional events, and it would be difficult to separate a concert event from the users going about their normal visits to the country park. For that reason, the consideration ended in the decision that that would not be an appropriate venue.

Ringwood forest, however, is entirely appropriate for many reasons. The final choice took into account the experiences of other venues and the planned future management of the forest. That is an important point, because there is always change in forests, and there are always management considerations. In the case of Ringwood, that includes moving from the existing plantations to a more diverse mixture of pines and native woodland, interspersed with open space, including swathes of heathland. In that forest, as in many others, trees are cut down for proper management reasons, to improve the status and condition of the forest.

The site also has particularly good road access, adequate drainage and natural orientation that will allow the stage to face away from the main residential areas. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is also space to accommodate the short-term parking of up to 2,000 cars. I examined the proposal carefully and had a map so that I could examine the major roads and connections in the area and consider how people arriving on the major roads would connect with roads into the forest. The vision is not of hundreds or thousands of cars passing through small villages. If people come from the neighbouring cities, as we anticipate, they will be able to come on a main road and enter the forest in ways that should be perfectly acceptable to people in the neighbourhood.

Mr. Chope: Does the Minister realise that in the summer, when it is proposed to hold the concerts, the A31 between Southampton and Ringwood is normally completely chock-a-block, as are most of the roads in the New Forest—so much so that the New Forest show is not held at the weekend? What might look perfectly alright on the map is very different in reality. Why do we have to have a rock concert venue in Ringwood forest, given that the local people are so strongly against it?

Joan Ruddock: Any forest cannot be the concern only of the people most local to it. Throughout the whole country, forests are available to people from beyond the local area. It is essential that people from further afield, particularly from cities, have the opportunity to visit our forests.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It is a great pleasure for me to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood.

My hon. Friend the Minister’s point is surely obvious. In the north-east, we have Kielder forest and Hamsterley forest, which are being run commercially through activities such as mountain biking. We are also trying to develop a Great North forest. The Forestry Commission’s role is to provide funds to supplement such developments, so clearly what is happening in Ringwood is positive for the rest of the country.

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