HC Deb 25 March 1955 vol 538 cc2535-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

4.9 p.m.

Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)

I raise the question of the desirability of making the Broads into a national park at an early date. Many of us were surprised when we received letters from our constituents protesting at the closure of the Haddiscoe Cut in the Broads a few weeks ago. The Broads are, in fact, widely used as a holiday centre by people from all over the country. Of the 12 proposals which were put forward in the Hobhouse Report to create national parks, eight have been accepted and national parks set up. Two are, I understand, under discussion.

Why has no action been taken yet about setting up a national park in the Broads? This area is one of the most distinctive areas suggested for a national park in the whole of England and Wales. I should have thought that the decision about setting up a national park there was more urgent than in almost any of the other areas suggested, because a rapid deterioration is taking place in the conditions of the Broads at the present time.

According to the Report of the Hobhouse Committee, there are still 90 miles of navigable waterways and 2,600 acres of open water in the Broads. But the Report makes this important statement:

Careful comparison of early maps with recent aerial photographs indicates that the area of open water has diminished considerably in the last half-century. If the overgrowing of the Broads is allowed to continue there is a serious danger that the great area of water now available for sailing and holiday use may disappear within a few generations. There was an interesting article in the "Architectural Review." Volume 106, in 1949, in which it was stated that 50 years ago there were 3,000 acres open and 100 years ago there were 4.000 acres open.

Revealing figures are given about the change in area of particular Broads. Barton Broad now has 120 acres open; in 1900 it had 270, and, in 1800, 600 acres open. Hickling Broad, one of the most beautiful and typical Broads, has now an area of 300 acres, with a total depth of only two feet. The whole of the bottom is at the present time covered with thick weed. Half a century ago it had 464 acres and yearly regattas were held with boats drawing four feet or more of water. In 1920, regattas were held with boats drawing three feet of water. Now no regatta can be held and only small dinghies can use this particular Broad.

Why is this rapid deterioration taking place? First, I think it is the natural geographical development of silting up of this area. The process has been going on continually ever since the sea receded in the early Middle Ages. I imagine that had the Broads been in their present condition in the earlier part of the 19th century most of the area would have been reclaimed for agriculture, as were Soham Mere and other areas in the Fens in Cambridgeshire at that time.

It appears, however, that deterioration has been more rapid recently. According to a recent estimate, at least half an inch of deposit is added to the bottom of every Broad each year. The reason for this more rapid deterioration appears to be that there is less traffic through the area than in the past, when there were sailing wherries carrying most of the local transport. Use is now limited largely to the summer months.

Secondly, a number of the Broads have been closed to the public altogether. It is very significant that deterioration has gone forward much more rapidly in the ones closed to the public than in those still open. Thirdly, there is also the silting up of the through waterways to quite an extent. That assists deterioration in the open stretches of water.

At the present time various organisations are responsible for the waterways and the drainage of the area. There is the British Transport Commission, the Great Yarmouth Port and Harbour Commissioners, the Oulton Broad Committee, and the East Suffolk and Norfolk River Board, which was an amalgamation of a good many other bodies when it was set up a few years ago. Some of these bodies do a good job of work, but all of them are limited, by finance, as to what can be done, and the fact that the various authorities overlap to some extent. There is a very urgent need for dredging and clearing the through waterways to increase the flow of water and thus check the growth of weeds. But there are other problems apart from that of clearing the waterways. On the Broads, there has been a very big growth of trees and scrub which has shut off the wind and has, therefore, made sailing much more difficult, and has spoiled the typical landscape of the area.

Sewage has also become a serious problem; ugly bungalows have been built along the waterside. There may also be need for more nature reserves. It seems that the major development in holidaying has taken place in the northern part of the area, and that there has not been the same amount of development in the Yare and Waveney Valleys as there has been in the Bure. Landing stages, too, are frequently in a very bad state of repair.

If a national park is not created, this deterioration will proceed even more rapidly in the future. The creation of a national park, and of some committee to co-ordinate the whole area with a view to its preservation, and, in many cases, reclamation, is necessary. Unless that is done, we shall see the gradual disappearance of the Broads within the next few years.

If a national park is created in that area, with the necessary machinery and the necessary finance, it should be able to tackle the problem of preventing further deterioration and of making the whole area available for even more people than use it at present, without becoming overcrowded. If such a body is to be set up, then, obviously, it should have local roots, and some of its members should be drawn from local bodies so as to co-ordinate the work of clearing and dredging, and of providing other facilities.

So far as other national parks are concerned, there is no doubt that some grant from the centre would help to create facilities which would make them more attractive to the public. But, so far as this proposed national park is concerned, unless quite large sums of money are found there will be no purpose in creating it.

The National Land Fund is already in existence and I suggest that the creation of this national park is an obvious object on which some of this money can be spent. It is estimated in the article to which I referred earlier that £1 million would be required in order to do the elementary job of clearing the waterways, and of preserving the existing Broads that are open and making them sufficiently deep to be used, leaving apart any idea of reclaiming any of the water area which has already been lost. I do not think that anyone would suggest doing that, but I do think that a very strong case can be made out for improving existing waterways, and for preserving the actual water area now available, and for seeing that it is made deep enough for sailing and does not deteriorate and get grown over.

On 29th June, 1954, I asked a Question on this subject to which I received the following rather startling reply. I asked: what steps he"— the Minister— proposes to take to prevent further deterioration of the Broads. The Minister replied: This would be a matter for my right hon. Friend only if the Broads were designated as a National Park; and although the National Parks Commission have discussed this with officers of the Department from time to time, they have as yet made no proposal to that end. My right hon. Friend is advised that the cost of clearing the weeds and the silt would be very heavy; and he is not persuaded that it would be right to contemplate so major an undertaking."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th June, 1954; Vol. 529. c. 80.] That seems to me to be a very surprising statement to be made by a Minister at the present time, and, if that policy remains unchanged, then it will only be a question of time before the Broads disappear as a national asset to this country. In fact, the alternative before us is either a continuous deterioration and the ultimate disappearance of the Boards as an asset to this country, or the setting up of a national park, with the necessary authority, an authority with local roots so that it can do its job in sympathy with the people living in the area, provided that it is given the necessary finance to enable a decent job to be done.

Without the provision of the necessary finance the setting up of a national park would merely be a pious hope and would not have any results. I therefore hope that the Government will feel able, not only to set up a national park, but to provide the necessary finance in order that the job of work which is required can be done.

4.20 p.m.

Sir Frank Medlicott (Norfolk, Central)

I am glad to have the opportunity of saying a few words upon this subject. Like the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans),I represent a part of the very area which is being discussed. I am sure that the hon. Member for Lowestoft will agree that not only do we not resent this matter being raised by an hon. Member who represents a constituency which is some distance away, but welcome the interest which he has taken in the subject. I do not think that the case could have been better put than the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) put it in his concise speech.

I do not profess to say that there is agreement locally among all the interested parties upon the question whether or not this is the right time to make the area a national park. I should not like to commit those who are very much more fully versed in the detail of the matter, but I should think that all interested and knowledgeable local parties would agree that the hon. Member has put his finger upon the two most vital matters, namely, the need to preserve the area of the Broads and the question of sewerage. Those are matters upon which all parties in Norfolk and Suffolk are interested and are in agreement.

I have still an open mind upon the question whether the problem can best be solved by creating a national park, although I am inclined to the view that that will have to be the ultimate solution. Following upon the solution suggested by the hon. Member for Dagenham, I would urge upon the Minister that if the time comes for a national park to be created he should bear in mind that the people of Norfolk and Suffolk are deeply concerned about the Broads, are very proud of them, and would wish to have a very considerable say in the administration of the area within the framework of a national park.

4.22 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

I intervene as the representative of an area with which this debate is concerned, and because I had the privilege of first raising the matter in the House, in November. 1947. It will be recalled that the Hobhouse Report designated Norfolk as a national park. It is true that it came twelfth—last—on the list, but it occupied that position purely from the numerical point of view, and it was not last in order of merit. The Broads are a national asset. Only a few weeks ago, when we discussed the attempt by the British Transport Commission to close the Haddiscoe Cut, hon. Members received a great volume of correspondence from all parts of the country.

I am at issue with the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Sir F. Medlicott) about local opinion as to a national park. From the contacts I have made it appears to me that there is an almost unanimous body of opinion which is pressing for the inclusion of the Broads in a national park scheme. We claim that it is a natural national park; that the areas of delimitation are so clear that there is no question when one is in the national park and when one is out of it, and that the recreations available are very much in the British tradition—sailing, swimming, bird watching, nature study, skating, and so on—especially those, like sailing, which add a sense of responsibility to those who engage in them. It must be remembered that Nelson himself learned sailing on the Broads.

In those days there was twice the navigable area that there is today. Those who know the Broads go there with an aching heart to see, year after year, the growth of aquatic vegetation, the pierheads going to rot, the overhanging trees, and the general deterioration going on in what should be a national asset of which we can be proud.

I am sure that all people who are interested in this matter are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) for introducing this topic. I only wish that I had more time to develop some of the arguments put forward. The Minister is here, however, and we know that he is a strong protagonist of national parks. He is associated with one in his own area, and I am sure that he will give this matter the most sympathetic consideration that he can. We hope to hear something positive from him this afternoon.

4.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I should begin by expressing an apology for the fact that I am charged with the responsibility of replying to the debate. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government is away today on important Departmental business and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to that Department is ill. I feel some slight satisfaction at being called upon to reply to the debate as, when I was in Opposition, I took an active part in the consideration of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act when it was before the House as a Bill.

This question of the Norfolk Broads has been causing anxiety—

Mr. Edward Evans

And Suffolk Broads.

Mr. Molson

I beg pardon. I should have said the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads. I do not wish to get involved in the ancient controversy between the North folk and the South folk.

This question of the Broads has been causing anxiety for a number of years past, and particularly since the end of the war. As a result of representations made, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning convened a conference in April, 1945, of the bodies chiefly concerned, such as the local authorities and the authorities responsible for navigation, drainage and fishing, as well as associations interested in natural history, sailing and other amenities. The terms of reference of the conference were: To consider the question of the preservation of the Broads district as an amenity area and to submit a Report, together with recommendations as to what action should be taken to preserve or improve the amenities generally and to reconcile the various interests.… Not long after that, the Hobhouse Committee presented its Report. This was one of the areas which the Committee thought suitable for designation as a national park. It recognised, however, that in this case there were formidable technical, practical and administrative difficulties and that to carry out the works which were generally regarded as necessary would be extremely costly. I think that it was for that reason that, despite the beauty and interest of the Broads, they were the last of the areas recommended by the Hobhouse Committee for designation.

After the Hobhouse Committee Report had been presented, the Broads Joint Advisory Planning Committee was set up, consisting of the Norfolk and East Suffolk County Councils, and the Norwich and Great Yarmouth County Borough Councils and other authorities and interests concerned. I am glad to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Sir F. Medlicott),as well as the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch), are members of that Committee. I understand that it meets quarterly and discusses this matter. It is not in a position to take any action because it is without any financial resources.

After the National Parks Commission had been set up in December, 1949,at a very early date it began to consider this matter. I understand that it came to two conclusions which it regarded as fundamental. First, that it would be unwise to designate the area unless there was a clear prospect that something could be done to halt the deterioration. Secondly, that although the Act of 1949 allowed the Minister to pay a 100 per cent. grant on waterways expenditure it was only reasonable that local interests should make a contribution, because they would profit from the work done.

It was soon after that—in April, 1951—after prolonged consideration of this problem, that the Commission asked the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton),who was at that time Minister for Housing and Local Government, whether they could count on, say, £30,000 a year from the Treasury towards the work that required to be done. Before an answer could be given it was felt desirable that the very considerable technical problem involved should be carefully investigated.

Mr. Lane, one of the Ministry's engineering inspectors, carried out an extensive survey in the summer of 1951. His report, I am sorry to say, confirmed that anything in the nature of making a thorough job of this would be extremely costly. It would certainly be not less than £¾million and was quite likely to be in the neighbourhood of £890,000 for a period of 20 years, with, of course, the considerable maintenance costs which would follow from that. He considered how the dredging should be done and whether it would be possible and desirable for the very large quantity of silt—which he estimated at not less than 4 million tons—to be deposited upon the agricultural land adjoining the Broads.

In January, 1953, after considering the report of Mr. Lane, the Minister informed the Commission that any scheme involving works on this scale must, for the time being at any rate, be considered to be out of the question.

I have been asked about the prospects for the future. We have to remember that at the time of the passing of the Act the Nature Conservancy was also set up, and one of the important considerations which arise in connection with the Broads is the preservation of conditions in which nature can be conserved. The Nature Conservancy is opposed to the proposals of dumping large quantities of silt upon the banks of the Broads. There is every reason to suppose that the landowners also would be opposed to it. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, without expressing a final opinion, would certainly view with a good deal of anxiety the deposit on agricultural land of large quanities of soil from the bottom of the Broads. That Ministry is doubtful whether it would not harmfully affect fertility. It would, unfortunately, be prohibitively expensive to carry all this silt out and deposit it at sea.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer would make available the Land Fund, or part of the Land Fund, for this purpose. My right hon. Friend did make a statement recently. He said that he had under consideration the whole future of this very large fund, and that he was not in a position to make a statement at the time. Obviously, it is not possible for me to do so.

There are, I think, three possibilities. One would be to designate the Broads as a national park and to undertake the great expenditure which would be necessary to carry out the very large-scale dredging which has been recommended by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker). But I have felt it necessary to point out that there are some doubts expressed by those best qualified as to whether this work could be satisfactorily done even regardless of the great expenditure.

In the second place, it would be possible to designate, knowing that the whole of that money would never be available but it might be that a certain amount of money would be available for some of the purposes that were mentioned by hon. Members opposite, and that is clearly a matter which the Commission will consider. The third possibility is to leave matters as they are so far as the Government are concerned. I understand that the local interests in the Broads are doing a certain amount of work at the present time and that, therefore, some of the amenities which are of the greatest importance are being preserved.

I am sorry that I am not in a position to make any more definite statement than that this afternoon. The matter is constantly under consideration by the National Parks Commission, which is in touch with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government upon the subject. I have tried to indicate that, in the first place, the amount of money involved is such that the work could not lightly be undertaken, and, secondly, that there are technical difficulties which make it uncertain, to say the least of it, whether the work could be satisfactorily carried out even if that large sum of money were expended. Therefore, it is necessary to consider carefully what would be the best way, without undertaking something that was either impossible or unduly costly, to preserve the amenities of this interesting and attractive part of the country.

Mr. Parker

Would it not be possible to try out reclamation in, say, one particular Broad and see what happened?

Mr. Molson

I will certainly see that that matter is put to the National Parks Commission, but I think that it is really a matter that might be tried by the local authorities or by the landowners concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Five o'clock.