The Voice Of The People Of The Forest of Dean
Dean Forest Voice held a positive, constructive public meeting at Forest Hills Golf Club, Coleford, on Wednesday 27th February. The reason for calling the meeting was to stimulate debate and heighten awareness regarding developments within the Statutory Forest generally, and to specifically discuss the implications of the proposals to develop 120 acres (50 hectares).
The well-attended meeting was chaired by Richard Daniels (Acting Chairman of Dean Forest Voice), who took a brief moment to outline the aims and objectives of Dean Forest Voice, and to describe their involvement in various Forest-focussed projects, including the Integrated Rural Development initiatives. The meeting then heard submissions from Jim Stewart, the Director of Planning and Leisure Services for the Forest of Dean District Council, Richard Davies, the Area Land Agent for Forest Enterprise and Councillor Frank Williams, who, as a past Chairman of the Planning and Leisure Committee, was responsible for the Draft Deposit Local District Plan, which is currently out for final public consultation.
The main points discussed centred around the development of pit head sites within the Statutory Forest and the proposed changes to the A4136 Gloucester to Monmouth road. This then led on to a lively general discussion about the kind of Forest of Dean that people would like to see in the future, and touched on plans for developments at Cannop, which many see as being the heart of the Forest.
Passions were roused as the subject turned to future prospects for employment and the development of the tourism industry: a very strong level of feeling was expressed that, while tourism plays an important role in the area, we should not see the Forest and its unique characteristics destroyed by inappropriate development, and that a balance must be obtained between tourism and quality employment for the community.
The meeting was surprised to hear from Councillor Williams that the money allocated to the Forest of Dean for the regeneration of coalfield sites could only be spent on the pit heads themselves, rather than on helping the communities in the surrounding villages.
The Chairman put forward the suggestion that, due to the unusual layout of the Forest, it was in reality a special case, in that the pit heads are sited in the Statutory Forest rather than in the centre of town and villages, as is more normally the case in other coalfield areas.
It was felt that a more imaginative view to funding could be taken, and that, rather than developing these areas in the Forest itself, thereby potentially ruining the natural beauty and solitude of the area - the very reason that people feel passionately about the Forest - these funds could be used to create employment more beneficial to this unique area. The comment was made that, although the meeting recognised the excellent work done originally in obtaining the coalfield regeneration funding, the consensus was that it would be better not to use the funding than to use it wrongly.
This led to a constructive discussion about the type of employment that is needed in the area. While the value of the jobs and income to the area that the tourist industry brings was recognised, it was suggested that a diverse range of small to medium size businesses were needed, ranging from traditional local industries, through sympathetic small scale manufacturing to high tech "sunrise" industries.
None of these would require additional heavy transport infrastructure, but for the future, a modern communications infrastructure would be vital. A suggestion was made that the money would be better spent on a installing a Broadband communications network through the villages and towns around the edge of the Forest to create well-paid jobs for the future in the right places. A sum of money could also be allocated to returning the Pit head sites to natural Forest.
By creating the right atmosphere and attracting the right employers into the area, children could then be born as Foresters, get good well-paid jobs and live and work in Forest communities to be proud of.
The meeting closed on a positive note, with the promise of further consultations with both the FODDC and Forest Enterprise to allow the people who live in the Forest to have a say in their own future. Dean Forest Voice welcomed the opportunity for further debate, hoping that it would be "courteous, constructive and open, setting the stage for further debate and consultation".