DOES THE FOREST OF DEAN DESERVE TO BE DESIGNATED
The beauty of the Forest of the Dean (FOD), its landscapes
and its unique culture have been recognised for a very long time.
It was not by chance the Late Saxon, Norman, and Medieval Kings took
possession of it and used it as their “Forest” for hunting and other
pursuits. Since then, numerous
writers have celebrated its scenery, the culture of its inhabitants, and its
heritage, in their works; as do artists and photographers in the visual arts.
Despite this, the charm of the District’s landscape and
the settings of the existing buildings in it were not officially recognised
until 1938, when 27,000 acres (11250 hectares) of the afforested area between
the Wye and the Severn, were designated England’s first ever National Forest
However, rather than building upon this recognition of the
District’s beauty and its many varied attributes and uniqueness, the
importance of its National Forest Park designation has been allowed to decline
to the extent that the only remaining vestige of formal planning law protection
covering the majority of the District is the very limited shelter provided by
the recognition of Special Landscape Areas (SLAs). As if that was not bad enough, the intentions of the latest
FOD District Local Plan, supported by the findings of the Inspector following
the recent Local Plan Inquiry, is that even mention of SLAs will cease, leaving
all the Forest of Dean District’s outstanding landscapes with no more
protection than that afforded to ordinary open countryside.
necessity for strong legal protection for outstanding landscapes was recognised
in the 1945 Dower Report. The
Forest of Dean was a specific area considered in the background to that report.
second document, the Hobhouse Report, produced in 1947, recommended to the
Government the need for the “statutory protection of our finest landscapes for
the nation’s benefit”. This
was the impetus for an Act of Parliament The National Parks and Access to the
Countryside Act 1949 that led to the establishment of National Parks and
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
At that time, 17 candidate areas for designation as AONBs were
identified. The Forest of Dean was
one of the areas included, and during more than the half century that has passed
since then, it has been included on every other subsequent list of candidate
areas. It would be nice to know why
it has been consistently ignored. Could
it be anything to do with its mineral and aggregate wealth?
1972 the UK Government designated the Wye Valley an AONB.
Included in the designated area was the western edge of the FOD District.
The reason given for not including more of the FOD District was not
that it was of inferior quality to be included in the designation, but that it was seen as already benefiting from its core
“Statutory Forest” protection, and as such, the Countryside Commission
considered it was in the “safe hands” of the Forestry Commission.
In April 1997 following considerable
campaigning by local people for Special Status covering the rest of the
District, Frank Dobson, the then Shadow Environment Secretary, promised that if
elected a Labour Administration would give greater (special) planning protection
for the Forest of Dean. The
campaign, sparked by the issue of large-scale mineral extraction from the FOD,
was quickly joined by other ongoing concerns related to the increasing pressures
of development on the whole of the District
In June 1998, the Environmental Appraisal for the FOD
District Local Plan stated that “the incoming Labour Government appeared to
wish to confer some form of special planning status on the FOD and that the FOD
District Council resolved to support the proposal for improved status”.
Following on the heels of this, in response to a House
of Commons debate request from the FOD Constituency Member of Parliament (Diana
Organ MP), the Minister of the Environment (Rt. Hon. Michael Meacher MP)
requesting the Countryside Commission/Agency, as their advisory body on
landscape quality, to assess the quality of the FOD landscape with regard to
In April 1999, in responding to this ministerial
request, the Countryside Agency (CA) formally issued a report “Forest of
Dean Review of Special Status”. Commissioned
from Land Use Consultants (LUC), the main findings conclusions of the report
It recommended that the Forest of Dean should be declared an AONB with
enhanced status, interpreted by a need to satisfy social, cultural and economic
In June 1999, at an extraordinary meeting of the FOD
District Council’s Full Council held to consider the CA’s LUC produced
report, it was resolved to support AONB designation of the District with
enhancement as appropriate.
In November 1999, responding to CA Paper AP99/37 – Addressing
Social, Economic and Environmental Needs of the Forest of Dean, the CA’s
Board confirmed that the Forest’s landscapes are of national importance,
certainly equal to the qualities of other areas that had been designated as
AONBs, and decided to:
In February 2000, the Chairman of the CA (Sir Ewen
Cameron) wrote to the Minster for the Environment (Rt. Hon. M Meacher MP)
advising him of the CA Board’s November 1999 decisions and seeking a statement
from him on how the FOD should be regarded for the purpose of GCC’s Minerals
Local Plan Inquiry. He noted that
the District’s present designations of Special Landscape Area and Forest Park
do not carry statutory weight, and that although the CA was not currently
pursuing a designation, the quality of the area merited AONB status, and that
this should be accepted by those involved in the Inquiry. Finally he called upon
the Minister to give GCC “a clear steer that AONB designation is a serious
In April 2000, building on the November 1999 decisions
taken by the CA Board, an internal CA paper was produced by a CA Officer (V
Kirby) entitled “Countryside Agency Scope of Interest in the Forest of
Dean”. Its quoted objectives
The timetable for action was scheduled to begin in July 2000 by the
presentation of a CA Board paper recommending that the FOD AONB designation
process should start and take 2 years, and at the same time a 3-year FOD IRD
programme should begin.
On 13th July 2000 the CA Board met.
However, the minutes of the meeting make no mention of the “Countryside
Agency Scope of Interest in the Forest of Dean”, any timetable for the
programme of work scheduled in the report, or of any related discussion
concerning the Forest of Dean or its well-being.
This is despite the urgent exchanges that had taken place between the
Environment Minister and the CA.
At its July 18th 2000 meeting, the Forest of
Dean Regeneration Partnership Executive Group was informed of the CA’s
intentions as set out in the “Countryside Agency Scope of Interest in the
Forest of Dean” paper, and of the Environment Minister’s response to the
CA Chairman in which the Minister had informed Sir Ewen Cameron that the CA
would not be allowed to take the “middle ground” on the matter of
designation, and asked how the CA Chairman was progressing the IRD proposal.
The Forest of Dean Regeneration Partnership Executive Group were told
that the “Countryside Agency Scope of Interest in the Forest of Dean”
paper had not been taken at the CA Board’s July 2000 meeting, but that
a paper recommending AONB designation would be put to the CA Board’s September
Later, on 25th July 2000, the CA wrote to
the GCC Minerals Plan Inquiry Programme Officer enclosing further written
evidence to the Inquiry, a summary, a number of appendices, a map, and a copy of
the CA’s April 1999 report “Forest of Dean Review of Special Status”.
Paragraph 5.7 of the evidence clearly stated that “at a meeting on
13th July 2000 the CA’s Board once again confirmed that the
Dean’s landscape is of national importance and staff were exploring a range of
options that would deliver not only landscape protection but would contribute to
the area’s sustainable rural regeneration.
These would be considered by the Board at its meeting in September 2000.
Several would feature AONB designation as well as a continuation of the
already developing IRD programme – the two concepts were mutually
supportive”. Reiterating the
main text, the Summary advised GCC to regard the Forest of Dean as if it were an
AONB for the purpose of the plan. In
constructing an IRD programme for the Forest of Dean, it was stated that the CA
had not lost sight of AONB. The two
were complementary. It also
emphasized that the CA had grave concerns that the nationally important
landscape of the FOD was not being afforded sufficient protection.
The key conclusions presented were:
Included in the CA’s recommendations were that:
GCC subsequently refused the CA’s recommendations,
and to date no satisfactory published explanation appears to have been provided
by them for their negative, and potentially very damaging to the FOD, response.
On 31st July 2000 the FOD Constituency MP
(Diana Organ MP) wrote to the CA Chairman following her receipt of a copy of the
“no middle ground” letter from the Environment Minister (Rt Hon Michael
Meacher MP) to Sir Ewen Cameron. She
noted that the Minster had indicated that his opinion of the way was to ensure
the Forest of Dean gained protection from further quarrying by granting the area
AONB status. She expressed
concern that GCC was unwilling to take on board any of the recommendations of
the CA, and urged the CA to seriously consider the Minister’s proposal (for
AONB) at their September 2000 Board meeting. Her reason for this was “the great fear that unless
some form of protection is afforded to the FOD in the very near future the
County Council will be able to allow further destruction of what is now
recognised as an area of national significance”.
On 29th August 2000, Sir Ewen Cameron
responded to the Forest of Dean MP’s 31st July 2000 letter to
reassure her that the CA Board would consider the issue thoroughly at its
September 2000 meeting. He stated
the CA’s commitment to a positive package of measures that combined rural
regeneration and protection for a nationally significant landscape, and he noted
that “the Board would consider whether an AONB, an IRD process or a
combination of the two would meet the objectives for the Dean, not just the
short need for clarity in the minerals planning process”.
On 14th September 2000 the CA Board met at
which it took a paper AP00/35 “The Forest of Dean – Options for
Integrated Rural Development and Landscape Protection and Enhancement”.
The paper noted that in November 1999, following a visit to the Forest of
Dean, the CA Board had commissioned work to address the needs of the area.
While some work was already under way, an enhanced programme of action
was now recommended to:
A view was expressed that the programme would “create an example of
integrated rural development which can serve as a national pilot for areas of
special heritage such as the Forest of Dean”. It went on to say that “while there was still
pressure in some quarters for AONB”…”in opting for a special
programme of work last year, the Board decided against starting any such
designation”. It did
not say why!
Taken as a whole, the outcome of the 14th
September 2000 CA Board Meeting constituted a complete volte face with
respect to virtually everything the CA had said previously in its evidence to
the GCC Minerals Plan and its correspondence with the Minister (Rt Hon. M
Meacher MP). To date, no
explanation has been provided for this. There was no mention in either the paper
or the minutes of the Board meeting as to related correspondence with the
Environment Minister, GCC, or the Minerals Plan Inquiry evidence that the CA had
published. Instead, they simply
noted that the Chairman said, “the Board were unanimous on the objective of
a programme of work to meet the local needs of the Forest of Dean.
On balance, they believed that this could best be achieved through the
integrated rural development approach…” and that they should “monitor
and evaluate the pilot IRD and be ready to return to the designation issue in 3
years time. At that point the
difference between the IRD approach and a new deal for AONBs approach would be
clearer”. The only reference
to AONB designation was the “the Agency will return to this issue (of AONB)
after three years, after a review of the Dean’s needs and the impact of the
Agency’s work. Meanwhile the
district wide Local Plan Review gives us the opportunity to see how policies can
be tailored to meet the special needs of this kind of are while also conserving
the special environment”. The
CA made no such representation to the subsequent FOD Local Plan Review, nor,
with respect to the FOD, did they make any significant input to HMGs Rural White
In December 2000 the Countryside and Rights of Way Act
2000 came into force. Part IV –
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, confirmed the strengthening of AONB
provisions in line with those afforded a National Park, and the means for
creating Conservation Boards. As
such it went a long way to providing the mechanism for enhanced AONB designation
as identified in the CA’s 1999 Report “Forest of Dean Review of Special
Status” from Land Use Consultants.
In the three years that followed, the CA claimed that
it spent £1.1M on its Forest of Dean IRD Programme. However, on closer inspection, with a few exceptions, it
would appear that most of the work conducted was on activities to which the CA
was already committed within the general rural sector, either County or
nationwide. Little concrete was achieved, and at a community meeting in
Cinderford on 27th January 2003, the CA representatives present
admitted that IRD would provide no statutory designation or protection under
planning law for any of the FOD District, and that if this latter was wanted, it
could only be provided by AONB. It is noteworthy that despite many in the
room hearing what was said on this point, in the CA’s formal notes of the
meeting there is no mention of AONB, or the admission.
At their meeting on 10th April 2003, the IRD
programme poor achievement was reported to the CA Board via Paper AP03/06.
Despite this, through the Chairman, the response of the Agency’s Board
was to opt for a further two-year “Phase 2” FOD IRD programme.
No meaningful consideration was given to landscape or any form of
statutory protection either in the paper or during the discussion.
The Chairman solely stated “the option of AONB designation could be
considered at some time in the future”.
the CA has work ongoing in connection with its Phase 2 IRD programme, the Forest
of Dean District Council has had the Planning Inspector’s Report in which he
accepts the removal of Special Landscape Areas from the Local Plan, and there is
talk of “supplementary planning guidance” being applied to the Forest of
Dean District. So far, there are no
details available of this latter guidance, but from experience of other
occasions that such measures have been invoked, it seems very unlikely that it
will provide anything approaching the statutory planning protection that the
The general population do not want their environment
degraded and destroyed for the enrichment of a few developers, and it was set
against this background that Friends of the Forest were formed.
Friends of the Forest recognises that without some current form of
statutory designation to protect the District, it is just a matter of time
before its natural and man made high quality landscapes will be lost, as will
its extensive biodiversity, and its unique heritage and culture.
Principally this will be as a result of attack from unjustified
unsustainable development and creeping urbanisation.
It is Friends of the Forest’s view that the statutory protection needed is already available via application of the United Kingdom Parliamentary Law that allows the designation of portions of the England and Wales as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Friends of the Forest seek your support to gain that protection for the Forest of Dean District.