Marlborough Town Council has delivered a scathing attack on Forestry England’s proposals to change the use and look of Savernake Forest, slamming the public body over what it sees as attempts to “sanitise” the ancient woodland.

The Earl of Cardigan, whose family owns the forest, says the proposals now seem "dead in the water".

More than 80 residents packed the town hall for a council meeting on Monday night, incensed by proposals to ban traffic through the forest and build a fee-paying carpark for 300-350 vehicles.

Councillors also chopped down the proposals with unanimity.

Loud applause from the public broke out as councillors sent the Forestry Commission, Forestry England’s parent body, a furious 500-word rebuke for daring to propose that the 1,000-year-old forest be altered to benefit “fit hikers” and cyclists at the expense of local families and dog walkers.

The full council’s withering resolution is bound to cause red faces at Forestry England whose outline proposal included the installation of a vast car park, large toilets, baby-changing rooms, a bicycle hire outlet, a bicycle shop, a bicycle workshop, a children’s playground, a café and prescribed walking, running and cycling tracks, with the public banned from other areas,

It says the plans were “taken out of context” when it was revealed by the Gazette and Herald to be a confidential document prepared privately by Forestry England for the trustees of the forest, but not sent to its owner the Earl of Cardigan, who strongly opposes the proposals.

Sustained and fervid clapping from residents erupted when Cllr Jane Davies told the meeting that Forestry England’s proposals would leave Savernake “utterly sanitised and not at all like the forest we love”.

In its strong objection to the proposals, the council damned the Forestry Commission and Forestry England for ignoring the public, working in secret and potentially discriminating against the disabled, young families and the poor – and it scoldingly reminded the government department of its responsibilities under the law.

Following the meeting, the Earl of Cardigan said: "I was delighted by the public turnout at the meeting in the town hall; by the strength of feeling voiced by all the councillors who spoke; and by the loud applause that greeted those comments. 

"Suggestions about effectively banning the public from Savernake Forest seem quite dead in the water to me now". 

The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald: Savernake Forest as Marlborough likes it, with now huge car park nor cafe at Postern Hill. Photo Trevor Porter.Savernake Forest as Marlborough likes it, with now huge car park nor cafe at Postern Hill. Photo Trevor Porter.

The council’s full response, supported by every councillor, reads:

“Marlborough Town Council strongly objects to the Forestry Commission’s proposals to:

• ban all vehicular access to the forest with the exception of Postern Hill car park

• extend this car park to accommodate 300 vehicles.

• and introduce a parking charge.

"The council believes this move will take away the rights of access enjoyed by thousands every year; open-access granted for years before and since the 1930s when the Forestry Commission became tenants.

"We fully appreciate conservation is key, but conservation measures need to be taken with the public, not against them in order to be successful. Your website states: 'We know that decisions are better, and mistakes are less when a diverse group of people work together',

"The Marlborough public are such a diverse group.

"The council is aware local and national media have referred to an internal document that outlines Forestry England’s proposals that are not explicit in the Savernake Land Management Plan. We believe that the Forestry Commission has not undertaken a transparent consultation to initially justify such proposals, nor has it properly consulted on them with insufficient time for the public to respond.

"The Forestry Commission is a public body with responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. The Act requires public bodies to have due regard to the need to:

• eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Equality Act 2010

• advance equality of opportunity between people from different groups

• foster good relations between people from different groups

"Such actions will, in our opinion work against all three points and will:

• introduce discrimination and reduce opportunity by severely limiting access to the forest to wide sections of the local and wider population who experience limited physical abilities, have young children and/or suffer from financial constraints, while benefiting the fit hikers and off-road cyclists.

"Your own website states: 'Our forests only work for our visitors if they are accessible' and that 'Our continued success, as an employer and a provider of first-class services to the public, depends on our track record on equality, diversity and inclusion'. Restricting access as proposed would damage any such a track record.

• Further reduce equality of opportunity as the accessible sites are more likely to experience damage done by people concentrated in one area – as is already evident around the Postern Hill site

• Encourage poor parking practices, with resulting safety implications while damaging relationships with those living nearby, in numerous sites around the forest as drivers attempt to avoid the parking charges and/or seek to access quiet areas not dominated by those concentrated around Postern Hill.

"We also suggest the Commission needs to undertake an objective Equality Impact Assessment to support such proposals – with the public’s views taken into account.”

A Forestry England spokesperson said: “We value the views of Marlborough Town Council and the communities they represent, and continue to engage with both in relation to our management proposals for Savernake Forest. The internal document under discussion was created at the request of the Savernake Estate trustees to suggest possible solutions to concerns they had raised. It makes no formal proposals for Savernake Forest.”