HC Deb 23 January 1974 vol 867 cc1764-9
Mr. Blenkinsop

I beg to move Amendment No. 55, in page 53, leave out lines 5 to 10.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

With this we are to take the following amendments:

No. 56, in page 53, leave out lines 18 to 19.

No. 57, in Schedule 8, page 68, leave out line 27.

No. 58, in page 68, leave out line 37.

Mr. Blenkinsop

These amendments seek to do a simple thing. They merely ask for the retention of the Minister's reserve power in connection with certain matters affecting our countryside.

I moved a similar amendment in Committee, and after some argument I received a promise from the Minister who then had responsibility, the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths), that he would consider the question in the hope that something might be done, but I agree that he gave no undertaking. The hon. Gentleman subsequently wrote to me to inform me that, alas, nothing was to be done.

Hopefully, I take the hon. Gentleman's departure from this immediate responsibility to mean that that decision has been rejected, and that the appearance of the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), with his pleasant smile, as the Minister responsible means that he takes a different view of the situation, which I hope he does, because this is a simple and reasonable matter.

All that we are asking in these amendments, which are supported by open air organisations such as the Ramblers' Association, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Countryside Commission, is that a reserve power should be kept to the Minister so that, in the admittedly rather unlikely event of its being necessary, the local authority could be required to provide access to areas to enable people who are keen to do so—as I am and as I hope many others still are—to get into the open country. I am thinking especially of areas near our large towns where access is not easy. That is the purpose of one amendment.

The purpose of another of the amendments is to retain a ministerial reserve power more generally for matters affecting national parks and long-distance footpaths. It is said that the whole intention of sweeping away reserve powers is to give effective independence to local authorities. We welcome that general proposition, and we have said so on many occasions, but we must be selective in this because I am discussing matters of national and not purely local concern.

Local authorities can fairly complain that in some cases they are asked to bear a burden and responsibility for matters that are truly national. Largely, we are talking about national park areas, and the very word "national" should mean something. The danger is that it does not. What we are asking is that at least this modest reserve power should be retained by the Minister so that the word "national" for our national parks means what most people believe it to mean, namely, that some kind of national concern is involved.

Ministers have said that the powers are not used. That is similar to the reserve powers in respect of many important matters, financial and other. The value lies in their existence, not in their being used. The value lies in the fact that everyone knows that, should a local authority take a wholly unreasonable stand, which we hope it will not, the powers are there, and this could in some cases affect the authority's judgment.

I was asked in Committee to give some evidence of the value of this provision. On the spur of the moment I offered some individual cases on the question of access. I suggested Barden Fell and Barden Moor in the West Riding of Yorkshire. I have had further evidence from both the Ramblers' Association and the CPRE to support the point of view that, although no order had to be made by the Government, nevertheless the question of the reserve power had been referred to in relevant discussions and, indeed, had had some effect on the final decision which enabled some effective access to be obtained in the Barden Fell and Barden Moor area. Something rather comparable has been brought to my attention concerning certain areas with which Lancashire County Council was concerned. Therefore, it seems that cases exist.

I understand that the Countryside Commission has also made representations on this subject and that it feels that the matter is all the more important because earlier requests for concurrent powers for the predecessor of the Countryside Commission, the National Parks Commission, of a similar character with regard to access and wider matters affecting national parks, had been rejected. If those requests were rejected, surely the Minister can look at this matter fairly again and grant what is, after all, a very modest request.

Many of us who are concerned about the enjoyment of our open spaces and about the proper use of our national parks and their conservation feel strongly that, as matters stand, the position is not satisfactory. They would very much welcome the retention of the reserve powers in these cases. I cannot believe that local authorities and other bodies would resent such a proposal.

Mr. Rossi

The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) has presented his amendments so amiably that it is very difficult to resist them.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Then the hon. Gentleman should not resist them.

Mr. Rossi

However, the matter has been considered very carefully by my right hon. Friend during and since the Committee stage. The Countryside Commission expressed concern about the disappearance of a power which seemed to the commission to be of some value in encouraging local authorities to fulfil their countryside functions. But the commission has not been able to produce any concrete support for its view that would seem to justify the Government having second thoughts about the extent to which local government can be trusted to do its duty.

It is believed that the effect of the reorganisation of local government is to create larger authorities with greater resources, and more responsible authorities, and that we shall not experience any of the shortcomings of which the hon. Gentleman gave one or two small details. It is difficult for the Government to say that we are here reorganising local government, creating bodies with greater powers and resources and giving them more responsibility, and at the same time keeping reserve powers and controls over them in the manner suggested by the amendments.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I take my hon. Friend's point that a larger authority might be more efficient. To that extent he may be right. But surely it is also true that the power of the individual against the larger authority will not be strengthened but will be weakened simply because that authority is larger. That is why the commissioner should have more power.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Rossi

I cannot accept that proposition. We must have regard to the fact that these powers have never been used. I would have thought that that was a prima facie argument for their removal. They are, in fact, a dead letter.

There has been no need to use them in the past. It seems pointless to keep them.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I keep saying that that is not the point. I have produced the evidence that the powers have been referred to and used in argument. That is their value. We hope that we shall never have to make final use of them in the sense of getting the Minister to make an order.

Mr. Rossi

The occasions on which that has arisen are few in number in the context of the questions which we are considering. In any event, we shall be dealing with a new type of authority. There are great hopes about the way in which the new authorities will discharge their functions.

I now turn to national parks. A new system of administration was introduced by the Local Government Act 1972. The Government consider that it will provide a better framework for the proper administration of the parks and that the retention of additional safeguards is unnecessary.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I shall not ask leave to reply in view of earlier comments from Mr. Deputy Speaker. I find the Government's reply utterly insensitive and lacking in any knowledge or understanding of the situation. I shall cease being cheerful and friendly and I shall be combative. It was a despicable and unimaginative answer.

There was an attempt to provide the Minister with valuable evidence. The Countryside Commission has made clear its concern. I made clear in Committee why the matter is becoming more and not less important. It is becoming more important in that certain safeguards such as referral to Ministers are now being taken away under the new local government reorganisation. Access is becoming more difficult because agriculture is changing in its nature. A great deal of land to which people used to have unquestioned access is no longer accessible to them for understandable reasons. That makes the matter one of concern to young people and people who feel themselves still young.

I do not want to delay the House unnecessarily. I suppose that we must hope that in another place their Lordships may take a sane view of the situation and not the view of those who are completely lacking in any kind of understanding of what we are talking about.

Amendment negatived.

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