The ‘proposed’ closure of the main roads within Savernake Forest was discussed at last night’s ‘Annual Parish Meeting’ of the Savernake Parish Council. Present in the large audience were some of the interest groups to whom the forest is of great importance – namely the community (parishioners and those living beyond the Savernake Parish but who use and value the forest), Forestry England – the leaseholders who manage the forest, and the beneficiaries, on whose behalf the Trustees of the Savernake Estate act.
But the Trustees weren’t there although they did ask Parish Council Chairman, Guy Singleton to read a prepared statement on their behalf.
What was the outcome? Not a great deal in terms of future direction or likely immediate action. But the structure of ownership and responsibility did become clear as this has largely dominated debate in recent months.
It was established that any decision regarding road closure or such use of the forest would be made by the Trustees. Two individuals, neither of whom present at this meeting, and not based anywhere near to this area. They act on behalf of the ‘beneficiaries’, one of whom – Tom Savernake – son of Lord Cardigan was present last night.
So any decision regarding road closure, development of car park(s), commercial enterprises in such car park(s) would lie in the hands of the two Trustees and them alone.
Tom Savernake (beneficiary) presented his view on what currently faced Savernake Forest. To him, it was an issue of crime and decay, exacerbated by the recent period of pandemic and lockdown. Decay through overuse by traffic (of all sorts), creating dust and destroying verges. And crime mixed with anti social behaviour, which he listed as including car crime – damage and theft; sexual assault; major violent assault; drug dealing and use; prostitution; firearm misuse (including apparently, use of assault rifles); vandalism; and much more.
The Police, in his view didn’t act and criminals were attracted to the forest as the local Police Station (in Marlborough) had closed some while back so the area was now covered from Devizes. And criminals know that they could get away with whatever they wanted as it would take a long time to get to the forest from Devizes and tree cover would obscure visibility from any aerial visit.
Closing the Grand Avenue would, in his opinion eliminate most of this criminal activity.
Sgt Gareth Cole, presenting later did paint a somewhat different picture, listing twenty crimes as having been reported in the past year, six of which had been reported since 01 January this year. But of this twenty, only thirteen were actually reported as occurring in the forest area itself. He explained that there was an ‘increased patrol strategy’ in place, initiated in relation to ‘community feeling’.
One member of the large audience claimed that not all reported crimes are recorded. Sgt. Cole explained that this would be illegal and that all reported crime was recorded.
Beat Forrester, Rob Cullen representing Forestry England explained the role of that organisation – that of managing the actual forest itself, the trees, livestock, biodiversity on behalf of the Trustees, but not making major strategic decisions on their behalf. They were the lessees – not the lessors (owners, freeholders or decision makers).
The statement from the Trustees noted: “As Trustees for the Savernake Estate we have a responsibility to ensure the judicious management of the Estate (including the Forest), as a whole, for the future benefit of the land, the beneficiaries, the local community and those with wider interests in the rare, fragile and precious environment and heritage of The Forest. As you are aware, this management responsibility is shared with Forestry England as part of their lease. Any changes to the current terms of the lease and the parties responsibilities will require detailed negotiations and consultation with other interest groups.
“We are acutely aware and increasingly concerned that The Forest is being used in a way(s) that are having a materially negative impact. We believe change is needed to halt and reverse this trend.”
They further noted that: “At this stage, there are no fixed proposals for any plan; just a recognition that one is needed and that this will need to be developed in conjunction with our lessee, Forest England and in consultation with all key stakeholders.”
So where from here? Savernake Forest, like any major and significant entity is a ‘living space’. It has to evolve as time moves forward and as such it will adapt. But if nothing else, this debate has opened the future of Savernake Forest to a far wider audience, and whilst Trustees, beneficiaries and Forest lessees manage this evolution, the community at large are also the very important stakeholders. They use and value Savernake Forest and as such must be heard, and not just by means of a ‘tick box’ consultation.
This recent debate and last night’s meeting has made that clear.