The Voice Of The People Of The Forest of Dean

Letter to Barry Gardiner MP

Barry Gardiner MP

Minister responsible for National Parks, AONBs and Natural England.

House of Commons

London. 27.02.2007

Dear Mr Gardiner,

I am writing to you on behalf of an organisation called Dean Forest Voice (DFV).

DFV was born out of a meeting that was called at the Miners Welfare Hall in CinderFord in the Forest of Dean on 9th March 2001. The main objective of DFV is: To promote and maintain the Forester identity and enhance the pride and culture of the people of the Forest of Dean by creating a powerful voice capable of being heard and taken account of, particularly at all levels of government and every other administrative organisation in the the Forest of Dean.

The issue of a special status for the Forest of Dean came to a head in the late 1990s. In the run up to the general election in 1997, the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment (Frank Dobson) visited the area and gave a commitment to offer the Forest of Dean "a new custom built special status appropriate to its unique history and character"

The new Labour Government subsequently asked the Countryside Commission (soon to become the Countryside Agency) to look again at the area and make recommendations on how the broad aims behind special status might be best achieved. In 1998 the Countryside Commission commissioned a technical review of the relevant issues and the potential management structures that could deliver the appropriate level of protection. In April 1999 the review concluded that AONB status provided the most suitable basis for the area's designation, but that this status "should be interpreted in a new and imaginative way to enhance social, cultural and economic as well as environmental objectives".

The Countryside Agency Board decided in late 1999 to defer the decision on special status in favour of trialling an Integrated Rural Development (IRD) approach in the area, run through the Agency's South West Region team. This was at a time when the Agency was developing its ideas on IRD.

From the onset DFV took the view that they were opposed to AONB perceiving it as imposing external and unwanted restrictions in an area whose unique qualities, and problems, require locally-derived solutions.

DFV were closely involved in, and worked with the IRD project manager (Val Kirby) in running some of the studies that took place , as well as keeping the project managers in touch with grass root local opinion.

The partners involved in the IRD programme included:

  • English Heritage
  • English Nature
  • The Environment Agency
  • Forest of Dean District Council Forest Enterprise
  • Glos. Association of Parish and Town Councils
  • Glos County Council
  • Glos. Rural Community Council
  • Government Office for the SW South West RDA
  • The Countryside Agency

Phase one of the Forest of Dean IRD programme concluded that the projects undertaken produced both information and ideas to aid the social and economic regeneration of the Forest of Dean.

The information included the production of baseline studies that included the 'Dean by Definition' work and the 'Landscape Character Assessment.

These studies provided a foundation for a second phase of work, which built on the specific culture, heritage and character of the Forest of Dean.

The studies undertaken were:­

  • The Landscape Character Study
  • The Dean by Definition Project
  • The draft Tourism Study
  • The Biodiversity Study
  • Archaeological Survey and Historic Landscape Assessment

The essence of the innovative, local development approach being that the distinctiveness or special qualities of the area should be clearly articulated and should form the basis of measures for protection and regeneration.

  • 1. By identifying and articulating what is special through an analysis of the 'baseline studies', to establish a firm basis for future decision making in the Forest-of Dean.

  • 2. By building on what's special to foster the sustainable development of the Forest of Dean's economy and communities.

  • 3. By exerting appropriate influence on the areas planning authorities, to foster the better conservation and enhancement of what is special about the Forest of Dean's landscape and environment.

  • 4. By exerting appropriate influence on the area's planning authorities, to foster the better conservation and enhancement of what is special about the Forest of Dean's culture, economy, heritage and biodiversity.

  • 5. To derive lessons of possible wider applicability in rural England, including advice on the value of this approach/methodology for managing, protecting and enhancing special landscapes and, more generally, the management of 'local special-ness'. DFV are of the opinion that the data and information collected - when incorporated into supplementary planning guidance - and given teeth, would have given the neccessary protection and 'special status' required for the Forest of Dean. The information and data would be used to influence those organisations that prepare and implement plans, strategies and prospectuses of various sorts, namely:­

    • * The Planning Authorities (i.e. at District and County levels)
    • * The Local Strategic Partnerships (at District and County level)
    • * SWRDA
    • * Other Economic Development Players
    • * Parish and Town Councils
    • * Transport Planners and Providers including the Highways Dept.
    • * Tourism Organisations
    • * Land Managers
    • * Other regional and national bodies, such as MAFF (DEFRA), English Partnerships, English Nature and the Environment Agency

The evaluation of what became Phase 1 of the programme recommended that the programme be continued but with changes of emphasis, and in April 2003 the Countryside Agency Board committed funding to the second Phase, which became known as 'Building On What's Special' (BOWS) This Phase was initially funded to run until March 2005. Delays in replacing staff resulted in a decision by the Countryside Agency Board in 2004 to extend the Programme until March 2006.

Responsibility for funding and leading the Programme switched from the Countryside Agency to the South West Regional Development Agency in April 2005.

The IRD process and the Baseline Studies are now shelved and with SWARDA.

In Nov. 2006 The Forest of Dean Integrated Rural Development Pilot Programme (Final Evaluation Report) was published (prepared for SWRDA by Land Use Consultants)No conclusive decision on the future status of the Forest of Dean is reached. In the reports key Findings it states (6.77)

"It is significant that the RDA's strategic interest in the Programme focussed on its purpose as a local delivery mechanism (and in this respect the RDA was significantly more involved in other regeneration programmes that the Countryside Agency had been). The RDA had little strategic interest in the Programme's other purpose as a pilot of national thinking on IRD. This led it to be less interested in the more innovative aspects of the Programme, although it should be said that by the time the RDA took over responsibility for the Programme it was entering the final completion stages. It is regrettable that once the paperwork and funds were transferred to the RDA, the Countryside Agency, which could have maintained the focus on the'test-bedding' purpose of the Programme, had no involvement in the management of the Programme."

(6.62) concludes...." There remains the real need for a 'champion' to be found who will take forward the philosophy of IRD and the outputs of the baseline studies......... Unless one of the key agencies or bodies with a cross-sectional interest in the District's economic and social development and environmental protection takes this role, many of the achievements of the IRD Programme risk being lost.

DFV understand that there is fresh impetus to gain AONB status for the Forest of Dean. Although there is a strong lobby for this, there are also as many opposed to it.

When consideration is given to any forthcoming request for a change in status, we ask you to consider the work already completed in the baseline studies and the sums of money that have been spent to date on the project, get it off the shelf - dust it down- and complete the project.

DFV are still of the opinion that this is the best way forward for the Forest of Dean.

Yours sincerely

Keith Morgan

4 Wilkes Meadow, Broadwell, Coleford Glos GL16 7DT

01594 833552