HL Deb 16 November 1987 vol 490 cc10-21

3.3 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

The basic purpose of this Bill is to establish new statutory arrangements whereby the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads can be conserved for all who value and treasure this unique area. It provides for the establishment of a new statutory authority to manage both the land and the water spaces of the area. The Broads cover about 111 square miles in the valleys of the River Ant, Bure, Thurne and Yare in Norfolk and the Waveney on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. The character of the landscape is derived from its rivers, and meadows and marshes that fringe them, and a long history of man's management of the land.

These waterways attract many thousands of visitors from all over Britain and from overseas. There are now more than 12,000 hire and private boats on the Broads and over 250,000 people visit or spend their holidays in the area each year. This brings great benefits to the local economy but it brings pressures and problems as well.

Over the past 25 years there has been a marked decline in the natural beauty and scientific interest of the Broads. This has resulted from the cumulative effect of a set of complex and interrelated factors. A major element has been an excess of nutrients in the river system, mainly entering through domestic sewerage treatment works and agricultural run-off, the origin of most of which is outside the Broads area itself.

This has led to considerable algal growth, thereby killing other animal and vegetable life by depriving it of oxygen. That deterioration in water quality has in turn led to a loss of riverside reed beds and other fringing vegetation, particularly on the northern rivers. The loss of natural protection has exposed banks to erosion from the wash of the increased number of power boats and to abrasion by moored craft. In addition, the conversion of marshland to arable land, itself contributing to the problem of the agricultrual run-off that I have described, has led to the loss of some of the characteristic features of the Broadland landscape, a loss which designation of the broads as an environmentally sensitive area is designed to try to arrest and indeed to repair.

The causes have therefore long been recognised and I know that noble Lords who are taking part in this afternoon's debate are personally interested in these problems and in some cases know of them at first hand. The problem has been to find effective solutions which command general support among the various bodies and authorities involved. Possible solutions have been discussed and each in turn has been rejected over a period of some 40 years. As long ago as 1945 the Dower Report discussed the question as to whether the Broads ought to be designated as a national park but on each occasion that this was considered the conclusion was always reached that national park status as such was not really the answer for this unique area.

The breakthrough started in 1978 when the eight local authorities got together to form the existing Broads Authority to exercise their functions jointly over the Broads area. But that joint committee has no powers to manage the water spaces. That is why the Countryside Commission recommended in 1984 that a special statutory authority ought to be created with powers to manage the land and water in an integrated way. The eight local authorities led by Norfolk County Council prepared a draft Bill for this purpose with Countryside Commission and Department of the Environment support. However, when the local authorities were ready to introduce their Bill in November 1985, they were advised that it was unsuitable for introduction as a private measure. The Government deeply regretted that outcome. In March 1986 we promised that we would introduce our own Bill to set up a statutory authority of the kind proposed in the private Bill.

That is the origin of this Bill. I think it is important to stress that 40 years of failed endeavour, despite the strenuous efforts of many who have attempted to tackle the problem, have preceded this Bill, which has commanded a degree of general support that all previous efforts have failed to muster. I believe that it would be a tragedy for the Broads if it were now to fail to command the necessary support in your Lordships' House to pass into law.

This Bill, which was first introduced in another place last November, built firmly upon the foundations of the local authorities' draft Bill, even though its format and structure are different and various changes have been made. Some of those, changes were made to overcome valid objections by the boating and navigation interests, which had found themselves unable to support the local authority Bill. Others, however, were designed in response to equally valid criticisms by conservation and other interests.

I think it is fair to claim that the Government have throughout adopted an even-handed approach in the pursuit of an appropriate balance among the various potentially conflicting interests. It is conservation problems that have dictated the need for this Bill, and conservation of the Broads for all to enjoy must surely be our ultimate objective. But in seeking that objective we must do justice to all the other legitimate interests—boating, agriculture, tourism, recreation and so on—which contribute to and are a part of what we seek to protect as "the Broads".

In framing this Bill the Government had particularly in mind the precedent of national parks. We have sought to give the proposed new authority all the powers and duties of national parks authorities, adapted as necessary to fit the special circumstances of the Broads. In addition we have sought to confer upon it the powers and duties appropriate to a navigation or harbour authority but with the vital proviso that such powers are to be exercised within the framework not just of serving navigation interests but also in the interests of securing nature conservation objectives. In essence, we are seeking to create a new and special national park which we hope will shortly join the family of established national parks—albeit 40 years after this was first mooted.

I should now like very briefly to draw attention to the main provisions of the Bill. Part I of the Bill establishes the new authority and gives it its general functions in relation to the Broads area as a whole.

Part II provides for the authority to take over from the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners their present responsibilities as navigation authority for the Broads and rivers, leaving the commissioners with responsibility for managing the commercial port of Great Yarmouth and its adjacent haven. It requires the authority to set up a navigation committee—on which all the various navigation and boating interests will be strongly represented— which it must consult before exercising its specific navigation functions.

Part III deals with the financial arrangements for the authority. We intend that it should receive Exchequer grant aid on the same basis as national parks authorities. The balance of its expenditure will be met by the eight local authorities involved. Expenditure on navigation will continue to be met, as now, from tolls and charges on boat users.

Part IV provides for the necessary transfers of staff and property and for the authority to be slotted into the local government system generally.

I first impress upon the House that the fundamental purpose of the Bill is to establish new, indeed unique, arrangements whereby the future of the Broads can be secured. Clause 1 sets out the constitution of the authority and provides for a very carefully balanced membership in which all the appropriate authorities and other interested bodies are represented. The membership at a total of 35 is larger than we ideally wish, but with a smaller number it would have been quite impossible to give recognition to all the main interests. Even so, we recognise that there are others who feel that they too should have been represented. These are of course the interests that my right honourable friend will consider in making his appointments. We cannot hope to write them all into the Bill by name and I suggest that we should not even embark on so impossible a task.

Clause 2 sets out the general duties of the authority in the balanced way which we believe to be vital if the new authority is to win the co-operation and acceptance of all the parties who will have to work together for the future survival of the Broads. There has been lengthy debate in another place about the balance that is struck in Clause 2, and the wording of that clause is as amended and endorsed by the Select Committee of another place which examined the Bill with great thoroughness and heard evidence at length from all the interested parties.

Let me stop here to make a particular point. I do not intend to go through any more of the Bill in detail. Its whole thrust is the conservation of the Broads and that area's future protection as a very special kind of national park. I shall briefly draw to your Lordships' attention a few of the specific powers which the Bill contains for this purpose.

Clause 2 with Schedule 3 makes the authority the local planning authority for the Broads with broadly the same powers and obligations as national parks authorities. Clause 3 requires it to prepare a management plan after proper consultation with all interested parties—the first time that this will have ever been done statutorily—including of course the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council. Clause 4 requires the authority to prepare a map of all areas which need to be conserved both because of their beauty and their ecological importance. Again the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council are to be directly involved.

Clauses 6 and 10 give the authority wide powers to make by-laws, and nature conservation is expressly mentioned as a purpose for which navigation by-laws may be made. Those are just a few examples of the way in which nature conservation interests are built into the structure of the Bill. They demonstrate why it is in large measure a conservation Bill; but I stress that it also takes full and fair account of all the other Broads interests.

We firmly believe that tackling and solving the problems of the Broads depends upon striking a balance between the various interests. On Second Reading in another place my honourable friend Mr. Waldegrave, the Minister who was then responsible for the Bill, declared his conviction of the need to afford equal importance to the various interests. I quote his words: Clause 2 sets out the vital balance between the interests of navigation, conservation and enjoyment by the public. All three are, in their own way, equally important and the authority is required to have regard to all three aspects in discharging its functions".—[Official Report, Commons, 1/12/86; col. 666.] It is our firm belief that without a consensus among those concerned and a willingness on the part of all concerned to recognise and respect the legitimate interests of others no statutory authority can begin to tackle the area's problems. It has been the lack of such a consensus over the past 40 years which has frustrated earlier attempts to create a statutory authority for the Broads.

As I have indicated to your Lordships, the Bill has been given extensive and careful consideration, which has enabled it to be amended and improved in many details. I draw attention to the final conclusion of the Select Committee which considered this Bill in another place: We believe that the Bill as we have amended it represents a fair balance between the many conflicting interests, and we hope that this measure will encourage co-operation and goodwill—the only way in which the Broads will flourish". The Government fully accept the Select Committee's verdict and its amendments. Since that Select Committee reported the Bill has been given further detailed consideration in another place.

I believe that the Bill fully recognises the Broads' national importance and special needs. It accords the Broads a status equivalent to that of a national park but gives the authority even wider powers. It strikes a fair balance between the vital interests of conservation, enjoyment by the public and navigation—each of which is in its own way of equal importance. We believe that the combination of powers, duties and a firm financial base provided in the Bill for the proposed new authority will provide the means whereby, with good will and co-operation on all sides, the future of the Broads can be secured. I therefore strongly commend the Bill to your Lordships' House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Belstead.)

3.18 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he introduced the Bill and the reassuring things he said about its objectives. We welcome the establishment of the new Broads authority. At this point let me say that we applaud the work of the voluntary authority, which has battled on since its beginnings against great odds and has done some very valuable work, although obviously without the necessary powers to do as much as it would have liked.

It is generally agreed that the ecology of the Broads has deteriorated over the past 40 years. The Minister covered that so well that I do not propose to dwell on it at length. But we must keep before us, as he said, the object of the Bill. The whole motivation behind it is the need to protect and conserve the Broads. This has been acknowledged by the Minister today and by the Minister in another place in December 1986. I quote another small part of his speech: We agreed with all those who, since 1947, saw the need for a durable statutory basis for the management of the Broads, if the continuing deterioration in the ecology of the area was to be halted and reversed".—[Official Report, Commons 1/12/86; col. 665] I want your Lordships to concentrate on those two words, "and reversed". The extent of the deterioration is considerable but the Minister has covered it at length and I do not propose to go over it again.

We must now decide whether the Bill as it stands will achieve its stated objectives, including the objective mentioned at Second Reading in another place. After waiting for 40 years it is very important that what we do now is right. Maintaining the economic health of the Broads must be part of the exercise. The firm ultimate objectives must be to protect and where possible to restore the beauty and natural wildlife heritage; and then boating, access and conservation interests must all be considered in balance. We have come a long way down the deterioration path and it is necessary to reverse some of that before we can keep the other three in balance. Therefore we have some misgivings about some provisions in the Bill as it stands and certain omissions from it.

The Government have stated again and again—and the Minister has said several times today—that the prime objective of the exercise is to manage the Broads in the interests of conservation. It is surprising therefore that in the list of appointments to the new authority in Clause 1 the Nature Conservancy Council is not given parity with the Countryside Commission. The Countryside Commission is primarily concerned with access. I know that it argues to the contrary but nevertheless its terms of reference and operation are primarily concerned with access. The Nature Conservancy Council has a greater responsibility for conservation and it would seem sensible that it should have at least the same representation on the body.

The Minister spoke at great length about the extra powers the new authority will have—and that is very good—but the exercise of those powers depends to a large extent on the composition of the authority and the interests of the people who are on it. It is, for example, surprising that the Secretary of State should not be required to consult with the Countryside Commission and with the Nature Conservancy Council when he is appointing his nine members of the authority. He is required to consult with boating, farming and land-owning interests, so why not with conservation interests? Given the unqualified freedom of appointment by the organisations in Clause 1(3)(a), there will be a continuing danger of conservation interests being heavily outnumbered. There is absolutely nothing in the other part of the clause to protect the composition in the interests of conservation.

It seems advisable to strengthen Clause 2 to refer to the long-term objectives for conservation. We shall be considering whether we should do something about that in Committee. Later in the Bill the authority has power to delegate all its responsibilities as regards navigation to the navigation committee, yet that committee has no statutory representative of conservation or of access interests. This seems to tilt the balance very much against conservation interests in everything to do with navigation. In fact the role of that committee is not quite clear and that is a matter on which we shall seek clarification at Committee stage.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England is concerned that the final decision on land drainage proposals to which the Broads Authority has objected will be made only by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food without reference to the Department of the Environment. In view of the dramatic consequences of land drainage on the environment it seems odd that the Department of the Environment is not to be concerned.

My final question relates to Clause 17, which allows for money to be diverted from the general fund to meet a shortfall on the navigation fund. A reciprocal arrangement is specificially excluded, and one wonders why. Will the Minister be able to answer that point by the time he comes to reply? Is there to be a ceiling on the amount which can be diverted in this way? There is provision for the repayment of sums that have been diverted but no requirement to repay. Is that an intention of the Bill; or will there be a requirement to repay? If so, will there be a time limit on repayment?

We welcome the Bill. We hope that it will achieve its objectives. I cannot believe that the consumers of the boating interests—those who own boats or hire them and use the Broads in that way—will wish to sail through dead water in a dead landscape. It is as important to them as it is to everyone else that the whole atmosphere of the Broads should be conserved. The atmosphere is due in large part to the richness of its fauna and flora. To defend the interests of conservation is in the long-term to defend the interests of boating and of those who wish access to the Broads for purposes other than looking at the wildlife. With some adjustment I believe that the Bill can achieve its original objectives. We support those objectives. We do not wish to delay the progress of the Bill but we hope that it will leave this House with some improvements.

3.26 p.m.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, it will not surprise your Lordships if I say at the outset of my remarks that in most of what I say I shall be following closely what the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said, and said so ably. The Bill is good news at a time when we really need good news. It is good news for everyone who cares for the conservation of our wild landscapes not only in the moorlands and hills but also in the wetlands and water areas. That is precisely what the Bill purports to do.

It is no derogation of the Government's initiative, which I greatly welcome, when I say that the Bill has been a long time coming. In retrospect it could be said that, had the recommendations of either the Hobhouse Committee or the Dower Committee in the late 1940s been acted upon in the run up to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the Broads might well have been spared many of the problems which have arisen during the past 40 years as a result of developments in agriculture and tourism which have been besetting it ever since. It is worth recalling that background and that fact when considering the Bill.

It is important to be sure that the Bill's provisions safeguard the two purposes for which the national parks were created and that primacy—and this is the really important point—should be accorded to the first purpose of the 1949 Act; that is, conservation. The situation which has developed in the Broads since 1949 gives great urgency to that need. As many of your Lordships know, there is now, to an extent which did not exist 40 years ago, a conflict of interests between, on the one hand, environmental conservation and the protection of wildlife and nature, and, on the other hand, the enjoyment of the Broads by the public; developed, exploited and exemplified by tourism and leading to the proliferation of water sports.

The Minister mentioned a figure. I was looking at some figures in a Countryside Commission paper which show that in 1983 there were 250,000 annual visits to the Broads and rather more than 8,000 private boats on the waters. The latest figures that I have are not quite the same as those of the Minister. My latest figure for annual visits in 1986 is 650,000. I would agree with him—and he is in a position to know even better than me—on a figure of 12,000 boats on the Broads. This conflict in the context of the 1949 Act makes a compelling case for a clear priority to be established in Clause 2(1)—for paragraph (a) on the one hand over paragraphs (b) and (c) on the other—before further conflicts arise on the ground after the Bill has become law. I said "ground"; perhaps I should have said "water".

It is all very well, if the Minister will forgive my saying so bluntly, to speak of seeking an even-handed approach and a balance of interest between those three objectives in Clause 2. Conflicts will arise; conflicts have already arisen. Whenever that happens in future, there must be an established priority which will prevail. It is the duty of Parliament to make sure that this is so in the Bill. The Bill as drafted does not, with great respect to the Minister, establish that priority.

Rubbing it in, the importance of doing so can hardly be exaggerated. I should like to quote from the opinion column in the November issue of the Geographical Magazine. Perhaps I should explain that the Geographical Magazine is a prestigious journal published within the Royal Geographical Society and not to be confused—meaning no disrespect—with another periodical similarly named published in Washington, DC. What is quite tellingly said in the opinion column about the tourist industry is: The tourist industry generally perverts and consumes the very assets it exploits. The trade usually functions without regard to wider issues or the longer term. 'The Torremolinos effect' can now be seen in Bali". One could substitute for the word "Bali" one or two places in the Broads, even though they will not like my saying it. Wroxham, Hoveton and Potter Heigham are examples.

It surely adds further emphasis to the point made by the noble Baroness of the need for the Secretary of State to consult with the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council when making his own appointments. We note that five such appointments are earmarked for consultation with the boating interests and with the farming and landowning interests. That leaves four among whom I should have thought it important that he consults the two national bodies.

At the beginning of my few remarks I said that this is excellent news. I should like to join the noble Baroness, although perhaps she did not do so, in congratulating the Government on bringing forward their own Bill. I should also like to congratulate the Countryside Commission on its continued support of the voluntary body, the Broads Authority, over many years and its advocacy of a Broads Authority in statutory form.

Finally, I should like to congratulate—as the noble Baroness did—the Broads Authority. One has seen the conjunction, voluntarily achieved, of eight local authorities operating at a time of considerable difficulties and great financial constraint under a most enlightened Broads officer, Dr. Aitken Clarke, whose job is analagous to that of the officers in the national parks. To me, that co-operation is a splendid and shining example of local government at its best.

3.34 p.m.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, I should like to start by welcoming the Bill and saying that I fully support it. I make that clear because, like the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I wish to press strongly one main point. That should not be taken to imply that I do not welcome the Bill. I congratulate my noble friend the Minister who, I know, has put in painstaking and patient hours over months of work in order to bring us to where we are today.

There has been considerable debate already about the basic conception of the Bill as set out in Clause 2(1). Frankly, I believe that it is flawed and irrational, but I want to make a slightly different argument. It requires only a simple adjustment, as I believe, the noble Baroness and the noble Lord had in mind. The Bill seeks to equate as equal factors conservation, tourism and navigation. Indeed, a Minister in another place went so far as to say, in Norfolk of all places, that the primacy of one concern over another is not in the interest of the new Broads Authority and that conservation should be given only an equal standing with navigation and recreation.

I am surprised that there is general misunderstanding about the meaning of the word "conservation". I am even more surprised that so many authorities, like the Countryside Commission, seem to fall into the same trap. There really are too many people who seem to think that conservation means only the birds and the bees and so on. I find it rather disconcerting and annoying that every time I seek to intervene and talk about conservation everybody imagines that I am thinking only of eagles and avocets, and all the rest of it.

The Broads, like many other special sites all over the world, are a microcosm of a world problem, the interface between human development and the natural systems. The dilemma occurs on a local, continental and even on a global basis. Perhaps I may give your Lordships an analogy. What is being implied in this Bill—that conservation, navigation and recreation are equal—would be the same as saying that the health of the Antarctic continent is on the same level as oil drilling, sledging with huskies, or something of that sort. In world terms, it is the same as saying that the conservation of our natural systems, particularly the air we breathe and the water on which we totally depend, are on a level with motorised traffic and football. There is completely muddled thinking over the meaning of the word "conservation".

Funnily enough, it is widely understood by the young. Surely, therefore, it is somewhat embarrassing that we keep coming back to the problem in Parliament, and in your Lordships' House. Nobody seems to know exactly what we are talking about when we refer to conservation. The pitfall is that conservation is wrongly interpreted by all of us who ought to know better. It is interpreted as meaning the protection of birds, or whatever. Fundamentally that is not conservation. Conservation of the environment is now imperative for the wellbeing and perhaps for the survival of the human race. You can conserve buildings or bridges. We are conserving Westminster, and Venice. You can conserve rivers, forests, mountains and estuaries, and so forth.

When, within a conserved environment, you have achieved the health in which any human activity can take place, you can then decide to manage water ski-ing, tourism, employment, navigation, bird reserves, or anything you like. But without a conserved environment, how on earth can any of these things be perpetuated or survive? Everything will fail in the end. As, I think, the noble Baroness mentioned, there will be no interest for anybody in boating along in a sterile, stinking waterway. If conservation does not have absolute primacy over all other human activities—and I am not talking about bird watching—disaster will follow for future generations. There will be nothing to attract tourism and recreation, including boat hiring, in a degraded and sterile environment. If the Broadland waters are sterile and ultimately stinking, the boat owners will lose their customers, employment for local residents will be extinguished, and there will be no need any more for a Broads Bill.

I have known the Broads intimately off and on for 60 years, possibly longer. As recently as the 1950s and even the early 1960s you could go along in a punt and the water was always gin clear. You could see down to the bottom; anything up to 10 feet. You could even see little bugs crawling about on the floor of the dykes and the Broads. In the late 1960s and 1970s they looked like mulligatawny soup but now there are many which look like tomato soup. My belief is that that is due largely to drainage rather than to pollution from boats. It is absurd to say that agriculture, navigation, boating or anything else can exist without conservation of that environment.

In the context of the Broads it is relevant to emphasise the fact that exactly the same progression, I am sorry to say, is being permitted and encouraged in the Flow country in Sutherland and Caithness. That fact is not irrelevant and, unless the Government make a minor adjustment to Clause 2(1), I fear that the same thing will happen in the Broads as is happening in the Flow country. It is a unique wetland, of enormous importance throughout the world, and it is being vandalised and exterminated beyond the point of no return by the planting of lodgepole pines, which no tourist or anyone else wants to see. When that vital area has been obliterated and turned into dark green desert, the birdwatchers, fishermen and everyone will cease to go and there will be no local employment. We must avoid that happening in the Broadlands.

We are fortunate that the Government are introducing the Bill. I should like to ask my noble friend to take on board the views which are being expressed to him today as regards the absolute primacy of conservation; it is the primacy of conservation over the area as a whole, including those parts used for navigation, agriculture, tourism, birdwatching and so forth. I am not speaking about the conservation of birds. The conservation wording, or brief, and the duty of the authority, must be introduced before the three other factors are mentioned.

I have no objection to wildlife protection being equated with recreation, because thousands more people every year go to see wildlife wherever it may be and certainly in the Broads. Birdwatching and natural history are synonymous with recreation. In my view—and there is plenty of evidence to support it—they will outnumber boating, sailing and cruising. However, these people boating and sailing must be looked after and they need a pure environment. They need conservation, even though they may not know a heron from a sparrow. I hope that the Minister will include conservation in its broadest sense as part of the opening sentence in Clause 2 and then perhaps go on to substitute for subsection (a): enhancing the natural beauty of the Broads and its wildlife", or something similar. In other words, wildlife need not be included in the first sentence as regards the functions of the authority, provided that conservation of the Broads as a whole is the fundamental first objective of the Bill for all interests. Wildlife conservation can join Clause 2(1)(a) as part of the objective of enhancing the natural beauty of the Broads, which is where it belongs.

In making that suggestion the two parts are indivisible; I do not want to find that they have fallen between two stools. As Clause 2 reads at present it is nonsense and does not stand up to logic or comprehension. I believe that in future years it will appear as though Parliament did not understand what it was talking about unless the minor adjustments for which I am asking are made.