HC Deb 08 July 1952 vol 503 cc1270-80

12.29 a.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Conant.]

Mr. A. Blenkinsop (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

I regret that I should have to keep the House a little longer this evening, and in particular I regret that the Parliamentary Secretary, who, I know, has had a heavy day, has to stay another half an hour to deal with what I hope he will regard as an important subject falling under the control of his Ministry. I hope he will also agree that it is not a matter which ought to be the subject of party political dispute. It is a subject which has aroused great interest among many people, whose views I want to put to him.

It seems to me that the Ministry, and those concerned, for the present, with the inauguration of the National Parks, speak in a different language from other people. When the Ministry, or sometimes the Parliamentary Secretary, talk about the parks and their administration, they seem to be talking of different things from what many of us mean, and it is to try to clear up some of these points that I am anxious to have a reply from the Minister.

The "Manchester Guardian," in a leading article yesterday, put this point about the difference of attitude towards National Parks. It said that if the Minister could make a clear statement as to what he understood by the term "National Parks" in this debate, the debate would be of value.

I hope we can go further. I hope we can impress upon the Minister this morning the serious concern that is being shown about this matter among many groups of people all over the country. We are prepared to encourage the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend to change their minds as to the broad purpose and character of National Parks because it seems to be so necessary.

I want to take this opportunity of reminding the hon. Gentleman of what John Dower originally said in his Report. Unfortunately, he died some years ago but I am proud to regard him as having been a great friend. He said: A National Park may be defined, in application to Great Britain, as an extensive area of beautiful and relatively wild country in which, for the nation's benefit and by appropriate national decision and action, (a) the characteristic landscape beauty is strictly preserved, (b) access and facilities for public open-air enjoyment are amply provided, (c) wild life and buildings and places of architectural and historic interest are suitably protected, while (d) established farming use is effectively maintained. That conception of the essentially national value of these parks was stressed also in the Hobhouse Report when they said that the administration should be for the nation's benefit by appropriate national decision and action. Clearly, National Parks must be national in fact as well as in name.

That is the point I wish to put to the Parliamentary Secretary now. It appears to many of us that these National Parks are becoming not much more than local parks. This danger was stressed when the National Parks Act was discussed in this House some time ago. That Measure made many concessions to the position of local authorities. For example, in that Act we provided that the Commission, instead of having wide powers, was little more than an advisory body. Again, it provided that the joint boards or committees to be set up for certain parks were to have only one-third national representatives, two-thirds being from the local authorities. So the interests of the local authorities were amply protected and hon. Members on both sides of the House at the time said they had real fears about whether these National Parks were not fiction.

What has happened since the Act was passed? We find that during these last few years there has been continued pressure upon successive Ministers to whittle away even the small amount of representation that was provided. For example, we find that when it was proposed to set up the Peak National Park, there was strong pressure upon the Minister to provide merely for an advisory committee without any really effective powers. That pressure was withstood and a joint planning board was set up. And, what is of real significance, a planning officer was appointed with reasonable financial resources. Because of that independent board and proper planning officer with some financial provision, it has been a most successful board in the Peak District and we are all conscious of the excellent work done in that case.

In the case of the Lake District there was, unfortunately, some weakening. My right hon. Friend, when Minister, resisted the pressure to establish merely an advisory committee and insisted upon a joint planning board, but did not go so far as to insist upon a planning officer. Because of that lack there have been difficulties in the case of the Lake District Park, which we should all have hoped would be one of the most vital and most successful of the schemes. Some useful work has been done, but many of the most vital jobs remain to be tackled. Friends of mine who know the area very well are disappointed at the lack of progress because there is no planning officer.

The most important case of all where I feel that the whole conception of a National Park has been upset is that of Snowdonia. That is one of the most vital areas in the whole country, which many of us have walked and know well. In this case my right hon. Friend made his views known, and, in spite of pressure, he decided that a joint planning board ought to be set up. But that view was set aside by the present Minister, unfortunately, and in a most curious letter to the local authorities he declared his intention to give way to their pressure and set up merely a joint advisory committee. The letter said: The Minister cannot doubt that the National Parks Commission are right in believing that a National Park ought to be administered by one authority and that, therefore, a joint board would be likely to give better results than a system which would leave responsibility for administration of the Acts of 1947 and 1949 in the hands of the three county councils aided by a joint advisory committee … In spite of that, he proposed that merely an advisory committee should be set up. It seems doubtful, to say the least, whether, legally, the Minister is intending to take right action there and whether, in view of his expressed doubts about the procedure to be adopted, he has the powers that he seems to think he has. One of the interested bodies has taken legal opinion on the matter, and it seems very clear that a very strong case can be made for arguing that the Minister's proposal is not valid in law.

Quite apart from that, which is not to me the most important matter, it seems to be clear that it would be quite hopeless to conceive of an effective National Park in the conception of John Dower, the Hobhouse Report or any of us who have worked so strongly over the years for the establishment of National Parks. What we are likely to get in the North Wales-Snowdonia area is merely a local park provision with none of the wider provision and the wider vision that we looked for, and we may even get two local parks and not just one.

I want to make the further point—I hope that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Twickenham (Sir E. Keeling) will have an opportunity of speaking, in view of his very great experience and knowledge—that there is not only serious anxiety among many open-air organisations—not just a few odd individuals—about the progress being made and the attitude being adopted by the Ministry today, but also a wider concern about the future of the National Parks Commission itself. There have been suggestions that it is the intention of the Ministry not to press forward further with the designation of National Park areas. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able straightaway to give an assurance that he is as anxious as all of us are to carry on the excellent work that the National Parks Commission has started and to carry forward the designation of further areas which are now under consideration.

I hope that he will give the assurance that his right hon. Friend will reconsider the decision he has taken already because of the very real harm that can be done to what was, I believe, an inspiring project and one to which many bodies of all kinds, and the most responsible Press, gave their support. If I cannot convince him in any other words, may I remind him of that journal known as "Nature," and published, by coincidence, by a firm called MacMillan, Ltd. In it, there is a potent article on the subject of National Parks in the issue of Saturday, 31st May, 1952, to which, I trust, he will draw his right hon. Friend's attention. I hope he will convince his right hon. Friend that this is not a matter which concerns only a few people, but a large number of organisations throughout the country.

12.41 a.m.

Sir Edward Keeling (Twickenham)

I agree with everything which the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) has said; and I would draw attention to the fact that in the last four or five days three eminent journals have severely criticised the administration of the National Parks Act by the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary. I refer to the leading articles on Monday in the "Manchester Guardian" and at the end of last week in the "Estates Gazette" and "Country Life." The "Manchester Guardian" on Monday was the most severe. It declared: … Ministerial assurances, the principles of the Act, and finally the explicit provisions of the Act, one by one have been cast aside … No doubt my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will reply to these criticisms. I have only time to draw attention to three points. The first has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East. That is the proposal—fortunately, it is not yet a decision—of the Minister to reverse his predecessor's approval of there being a single planning board in the Snowdonia National Park. My right hon. Friend proposes to leave it to the three county councils, each of which will be responsible for its own area, with a joint advisory committee, which of course will have no powers at all.

This means, as the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East said, that it will not be a National Park, except in name. It will merely be three county parks. Let me quote what "Country Life" said last week about this proposal: No reasonable justification has yet been advanced for the Minister's decision to reverse his predecessor's approval of a joint planning board for Snowdonia National Park. This decision clearly defies the intention of the Act. Later, "Country Life" adds: The Minister is apparently willing to let the national and independent controls provided by the Act go by the board. I urge that this proposal should not be proceeded with, especially in view of the fact, mentioned by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East, that it is very doubtful whether the Minister can legally do so, in contradiction of what he has already said in writing.

My second point refers to the proposed National Park on the North York- shire moors. A public inquiry is to be held about this next week in Yorkshire. There appears to be a good deal of local opposition to having a Park at all. Fears have been expressed that the National Park will interfere with agriculture. That seems to be a total misconception. There is no ground for thinking that a National Park here or anywhere else will do so. A National Park should not, need not, and will not affect agriculture in any way at all, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, if he agrees with that, to make it clear with his authoritative voice.

My last point is the refusal, or at least the neglect, of some county councils to keep footpaths in repair. Nearly three years ago we passed the National Parks Act, Section 46 of which imposed the obligation on rural highway authorities to keep rights of way in repair. The county council now has exactly the same duty to repair footpaths that it has to repair roads. Of course the vast majority of paths do not normally need repair, but the bridges and stepping stones incidental to rights of way quite often do.

It is three years since that obligation was imposed by the Act, but some county councils still contend, or they did until a few days ago, that their obligation does not begin until the maps, provided for by Section 32, showing the footpaths, have been completed. In the meantime, they have refused to repair even admitted rights of way. In the debate that took place on 6th December last the Parliamentary Secretary supported this view of the county councils. He said that he very much regretted that we must wait until the end of December this year, when the maps would be completed. I maintained that the obligation existed already and it was not necessary to wait.

I am glad to see that now at last the county councils have admitted that the Parliamentary Secretary was wrong and that I was right. A conference took place quite recently, and the County Councils' Association have agreed that "the responsibility of county councils with regard to the repair of public paths in rural districts already exists and is not dependent upon the preparation and publication of the map."

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give an assurance that, the law being no longer in dispute, his Department will give every possible help in getting paths kept in order by highway authorities in accordance with their statutory responsibilities.

12.49 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

The nine minutes that remain for this Adjournment debate do not give me very much time to answer the comprehensive issues which have been raised. If I am unable to answer all of them, the two hon. Members must blame only their own exuberance and verbosity, and not my discourtesy. I say that, because it is more than likely that the journals that have shown a great interest in this matter will say that the Parliamentary Secretary did not deal with this point or that. The reason will be that there was not sufficient time.

The House is grateful to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) for raising this matter. I have the same deep personal interest in the National Parks that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir E. Keeling) have. The speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East tonight was moderate. His speeches in the country are not always quite so moderate.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Nor are the hon. Gentleman's.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Member appears very mild on occasions when he is here, but some of his speeches in the country have been more violent and have not done any good to the cause he has at heart. Had he really had an interest in the National Parks, as he says—and I am sure that he has—his Government could have framed the Act so that every single thing that he wanted was mandatory. Had his Government done that in the six years when they were in office and passed the Act, these difficulties would not have arisen.

Most of the debate has criticised the administrative set-up. Right from the beginning of the National Parks Act, as passed by the previous Government, the criticism of all the newspapers and of the "amenity fans," as I call them, like my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham, has been against the administrative set-up. But we must differentiate as far as the National Parks are concerned between what we want to do, and the machinery for doing it.

What do we mean by a National Park, and what is it designed to? When we get agreement on this, we can argue later about the administrative set-up. A National Park in this country is not the same as a national park in Canada or in the United States; it is an entirely different proposition. In those countries, a national park is a national playground. They are large countries with small populations. Here, we have 50 million people in an extremely small island.

Let me state what my right hon. Friend considers that the National Parks ought to do. First, regarding future development. The idea is to ensure that any areas of natural beauty and of great possibilities for recreation are strictly controlled as far as development is concerned, so that the natural beauty is preserved. In these crowded islands, it is not always possible completely to prevent some development, which quite a number of us would like to stop altogether—sometimes, but not always, for example, quarrying for limestone, use by the military authorities, and so on. We want to make sure that this sort of thing is allowed in these areas only if, literally, we cannot help it.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I did not refer to this tonight.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Member asked what we thought the National Parks ought to be.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Do not answer questions that I did not ask.

Mr. Marples

If the hon. Member does not want me to answer his questions, I will pass to footpaths, to which my hon. Friend referred. Let us put it on record, because the "Manchester Guardian," to which both hon. Members referred, asked what the Minister considered was meant by the principle of the National Parks.

The second principle is, as far as past development is concerned, to ensure, as and when we can, that we get rid of some of the blots on the landscape whenever possible. The third point is the question of access, to ensure that possibilities for recreation are developed and that people are allowed to get access to these beauty spots.

One case that I have in mind is Kinder-scout. For many years I fought for access to it, long before the hon. Member went near the place. There is access to it now. If the hon. Member's bitter, sarcastic criticisms, here and in the country, were more concerned—

Mr. Blenkinsop

What criticisms is the hon. Gentleman talking about? Tonight, I tried to make a reasoned, careful speech, so that he could make a helpful reply, but he is not doing so.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Member is not allowing me to do that, because in less than 10 minutes he has already interrupted once; and that is not giving a junior Minister time to reply comprehensively to the point that he has raised.

On the question of access to Kinder-scout, for example, to which I refer as illustrating one of the principles of a National Park, no one in the last few years has been denied access to it. There is a route which the hon. Member himself took on a very fine day when he was there. Most of the criticism which comes from the hon. Member and from my hon. Friend is directed to the precise and meticulous methods of the administrative set-up.

But surely what really counts in administration is not so much the method but the spirit. The marriage contract is an extremely small contract, and a number of people interpret it in a variety of ways. Some make a success of it, others do not. The main point is if you get the spirit right, whatever the contract, it will succeed. If you get it wrong it will not succeed. It is often said, and it was inferred tonight, that administration based on local control can never get results. But is that true, because if the local control can get the results, and fulfils the principles, that is what matters. It is the end product that matters, and no one has yet given these local boards a chance to succeed.

I appealed, on 6th December, to people to stop nagging them, particularly some of the more high-minded Press, and give them a chance. There was the criticism of the Peak Planning Board, appointed by my right hon. Friend's predecessor, on the grounds that he had not appointed the people who had really worked for many years for the National Park. Why not give them a chance? They cannot be removed until 1954. Is there any evidence, apart from the theoretical and fixed prejudices which people have had against these local boards, that local control cannot work? I do not think so.

My right hon. Friend believes that if the National Parks are to succeed the people who live in those areas must want them to be a success, and must work to that end, and must be given the first chance to make them a success. He does not believe he should force them to accept a form of administration repugnant to them, and I think it is better to give them a chance, and see how it goes.

On the question of Snowdon, where I shall be on Sunday, the hon. Gentleman opposite knows as well as I do that the Welsh temperament can be very eccentric. I was present with the Minister when he met a deputation from Wales, and the Members were unanimously hostile to any sort of joint board. In deference to their strongly expressed views he has agreed, for a trial period of three years, to a joint advisory committee instead of a joint board, subject to certain assurances from the county council designed to ensure the efficient administration of the Park.

I make no bones about this. My right hon. Friend and I did not like the arrangement at all, but it is much better to give them a chance rather than have the whole of the local inhabitants hostile. If it does not work we can still secure the principles of the National Parks, but it is wrong to demand them when there has been such strong expression of local sentiment, and I hope that that will be—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at One Minute to One o'Clock a.m.