HL Deb 16 November 1987 vol 490 cc25-36

4.1 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I intended to start my remarks by saying that it is an understatement that the Bill has taken so long coming. With the intervention of the Statement it has taken an even longer time. It has taken a long time to set out a framework for a statutory body to manage the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads and I for one welcome its arrival in this House for a Second Reading.

As has already been mentioned in the debate so far, it was in 1947 that the Hobhouse Committee recommended that the Broads should at least have national park status, and I should like to add my praise to the Norfolk County Council and the relative local district councils who lent their support to the running of the non-statutory Broads Authority over these years as a kind of holding operation. Of course, more recently the Countryside Commission, following a review, concluded that a statutory body consistent with that set out in the Bill was their preferred option for a way forward. I also welcome their support for the progress of the Bill so far.

Of course the fate of the Norfolk County Council's Private Bill which floundered on a technicality is well known. Nevertheless there was, and still is, widespread support for a Broads Bill and the Government have recognised the national importance of the Broads, and indeed the international importance of the Broads, and have decided to introduce their own Bill. That, too, is a matter for congratulations.

It is essential that we in this House recognise the delicacy of progressing the Bill through both Houses. It would indeed be a tragedy if its passage was thwarted. Already the Bill in its present form is a hybrid and too much interference with its content could run the risk of re-hybridising it. I make apologies to noble Lords for the jargon. But the real risk is that of losing the Bill itself if parliamentary time cannot be found to start the process again.

I strongly believe that the Bill deserves our support. I also believe that there is considerable support for it inside your Lordships' House, across all parties, and of course outside, too. There is nevertheless substantial evidence that the Broads' eco-system is deteriorating. The rivers are polluted, as has already been said. There is erosion of the river banks, there is diminishing wildlife and until the experimental Broads grazing marshes conservation scheme was introduced by the Government large areas of the Broads were under threat. Incidentally, the high take-up of that scheme has certainly mitigated the worst effects of that loss: and of course the farmers are to be congratulated for their cooperation in the scheme.

This area of the Broads is unique in Britain and in view of the different interests, with the conservationists, the navigation rights and, of course, the access of people for pursuits of leisure, it is time to consider—indeed it is long overdue to consider— a framework for sound management which will address the issues of balancing various interests and, of course, strategically planning for the future of the area. Sadly, the history is one of fragmentation and diffuse responsibilities.

There are just two points that I believe should be given further consideration and I ask for the Minister's indulgence on both of them. The first is the need for the Bill to say something about a chief officer post for the new Broads Authority; that it should be full-time and should be permanent. The second issue is the concern shared by some who have taken part in this debate so far and others outside that insufficient emphasis is given to safeguarding, conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Broads.

On the first issue, there are a number of references to this area of Norfolk and Suffolk being comparable to the national parks. Certainly the task to be undertaken and sustained is as great as that of the national parks—dare I say even greater? Therefore it seems to me appropriate that the Minister gives some thought to this issue. May I suggest also that more thought be given to the possibility of the involvement of the Countryside Commission in making the appointment of the chief officer?

On the second point, it is my view that the Bill is a true Bill for "conservation" in all meanings of that word and that the wording of Clause 2 is all right as it stands. Conservation, rights of access for leisure and navigational interests must be given equal consideration and no one interest should be pursued at the expense of the other.

There are a number of safeguards for conservation built into the Bill for those who are concerned: in Clause 2, areas of special interest; in Clause 4, preparation of maps; in Clause 5 notification of all operations; in Clause 6, making by-laws and in Clause 15, allocation of grants. In all of these, the Nature Conservancy Council and/or the Countryside Commission are among the consultees. The point was made well by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, about the vested interests in the Broads being confirmed and enhanced, and about the broads being a beautiful place. Indeed it is a vested interest on the part of the navigational people, the people running the boat companies and those of us who enjoy the beauty of the Broads, to see that they are a beautiful place. The vested interest of all those partnerships is a very real one. Therefore I believe that the balance of interests and the necessary safeguards are contained within Clause 2.

However, one cannot rule out the possibility of the isolated occasions when conflicting interests cannot be reconciled. Will my honourable friend the Minister give some thought to this in his statement, without upsetting the substance and objectives of the Bill? The principle of parity has been established in the Bill so far and anything that could upset that runs the risk of our losing the Bill altogether. I ask the Minister whether he will please give some consideration to giving as part of his statement some guidelines similar to what is proposed in the DoE Circular 4/76, which is known by many of your Lordships as the Sandford agreement.

In conclusion, the Bill in its present form offers the best prospect that there has been for years to provide a framework for sound management, a clarification of responsibilities, protection of all the varying interests and long-term protection of this very special area of Norfolk and Suffolk. I believe that a fair balance has been struck between all the conflicting interests and I urge your Lordships to give the Bill a successful passage on to the statute book.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Walston

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was quite correct when she said that it was her view that there was in your Lordships' House general approval of the Bill. That is quite manifest from the speeches that we have already heard and when I have sat down only one remains. That does not mean to say that the Bill cannot be improved—but improved in. I suggest, only relatively minor ways and without in any way jeopardising its rapid passage. I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lord Hunt and with other speakers, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, in their comments about conservation. It is so refreshing to hear the definition made by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton. I am sure that his definition of conservation is the correct one. "Conservation" is an all-embracing term. It is the main point, one could almost say the sole point, of the Bill. But the Bill is concerned with conservation in its widest sense. There may be a danger from the constitution of the authority that the wide aspects of conservation are lost sight of or pushed a little into the background. That is a slight danger but we should be aware of it.

I should be happy to see the Nature Conservancy Council brought more into the operation of the Bill, just as the Countryside Commission has been. Both are valuable bodies. Their experience and the views they put forward will be essential if the new authority is to work well.

There are one or two relatively small points on which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, could enlighten us. Before moving on to those, I wish to support the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in her plea for the appointment of a chief executive. That is a vital position. I am sure that the authority and its chairman will be very able. But these part-time people have many other activities. The complexity of conservation, in its broadest sense, of the Broads is such that it requires not only a highly qualified officer but someone who is there for a considerable length of time and who can become acquainted with all the problems, the various local authorities, the people and the personalities involved in the proper conservation of the Broads. I hope that we shall receive some assurance from the Minister that there will be, if not statutorily, at any rate a very firm commitment from the Government that a chief officer will be appointed to the authority.

I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I raise some relatively minor details. I am not clear what the powers of the authority will be as regards pollution of the waters of the Broads. The noble Lord mentioned that quite a lot of the pollution comes from outside the Broads area. Will it be possible for the authority to have control over that, or will its efforts be restricted to the geographical area of the Broads itself? Will the authority be able to carry out properly its job of ensuring the cleanliness of the water which, after all, is the essential part of the Broads, if people outside its boundaries are free to go on polluting as at present?

Will the authority have power over the riparian farmers to restrict, if it sees fit, the application of nitrogen so that the nitrate level of the Broads does not rise unduly high? I believe that there is already danger from that source. What powers will the authority have to interfere with the farming practices of those who farm the neighbouring land? Will the authority have powers to limit the number of pleasure boats? We have heard of a terrifying increase both in boats and occupants. Will the authority have powers not only to license the boats and to make a charge but actually to say at some stage. "We have enough boats here. No more licences will be issued."

The final point on which I should be grateful if the Minister could give some indication of what the Government have in mind concerns finance. As I understand from reading the Bill, particularly Clause 14, the authority is empowered to recover costs, in excess of any charges it may make, from the local authorities in specified proportions. Is that an unlimited right? Or will the local authorities have the power to say, "No. This levy upon us is too great. We do not agree with what you are doing. We think that the charges are too high and therefore we shall not meet the commitment which appears to be laid upon us under this Bill"?

In other words, will the local authorities have the ultimate veto on the amount of expenditure, or will the authority be completely free of all financial restraints and be able to spend as much as it wishes regardless of the feelings of the constituent local authorities? That question may be unduly hypothetical because the authority itself is of course made up of representatives of the local authorities to a large extent. However, that is a question on which it would be valuable to have rather more information than I can glean from a perusal of the Bill.

I go along with those who have thanked the existing authority for the work that it has been doing. I also wish to add my thanks to the port and haven commissioners who after considerable discussions, and, one could almost say, struggles, had given up some of their age old authority in the interests of making the scheme feasible. They have been very public spirited, and that should not go unnoticed.

This is a good Bill. I hope that we can make the minor alterations which have already been suggested to improve it still further. We on this side of the House, as my noble friend Lord Hunt has already said, wish the Bill well.

4.17 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I, like most noble Lords, welcome the Bill. I congratulate the Government on making it part of their programme because the Broads is a remarkable area. It is unique in Britain. Those of us who know it, live in it and love it are keen to preserve it. This Bill will help to do that. The varied interests of the landscape: the water, the flora, the fauna, the birds, the wildlife, agriculture, leisure and holiday making, all make up the Broads. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Belstead on using those words. It is those features which the Bill seeks to conserve.

Modern methods of agriculture, sailing and tourism have all required a more co-ordinated approach in view of the difficulties arising over the last few years. It is amazing to think, as my noble friend reminded us, that for 40 years some form of organisation has been sought. At least that has been achieved. This Bill is the result of that. The Bill is to be welcomed and protected.

Enormous amounts of effort have been expended to get agreement on issues on which there was originally substantial disagreement involving a substantial variety of interests with different weights attached to them. At last those interests have been, if not reconciled, at least moulded in such a way as to produce this Bill. I congratulate all those who have been involved in bringing about the Bill. I associate myself with the noble Lord, Lord Walston, in paying tribute to the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners who have gone to a great deal of trouble to enable the Bill to come about.

I had a great deal of sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, when he said that the interests of the environmental conservationists are in conflict with tourism. I think that is so, and it is bound to be so. Any interest which is pursued to its finite end is bound to be in conflict with another. I remember my father used to say that he was quite sure Blackpool was a lovely place once upon a time but now tourism has taken over, and who is to say which is the better?

I was interested to hear the speech of my noble friend Lord Buxton. We know of his concern for conservation and wildlife. It is a concern which he has frequently expressed and it is one which I respect. But I thought he went over the top this afternoon. He said that nobody wants stinking Broads. Nobody does want stinking Broads, and that is the whole duty of the new Broads Authority. It is its duty to conserve.

If one looks at Clause 2 it says at the very beginning: It shall be the general duty of the Authority to manage the Broads for the purposes of— (a) conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Broads". If noble Lords look at Clause 25 at the bottom of page 19 it says: References in this Act to conserving the natural beauty of an area include references to conserving its flora, fauna and geological and physiographical features". That is pretty wide conservation. The noble Lord said that he wanted conservation to be given primacy. That is a very large step indeed. He explained how it was essential to have conservation in the end, otherwise nothing existed. If one were to follow that argument right through to its conclusion one should say that there should be no coal, no power stations, no chemicals used or anything of that nature, because in all those respects the environment is affected.

I do not believe that one can take a true, purist view of conservation because there are other interests to be considered. The whole purpose of this Bill is to allow a balance of those interests. I think my noble friend used a specious argument when he said that he was quite happy for the conservation of birds and wildlife to be equated with tourism and navigation provided that in accordance with the beginning of Clause 2 environmental conservation was given primacy. If that were to happen conservation would take precedence on every occasion when there was any form of conflict. The whole purpose of the Bill is to try to avoid conflict. The whole purpose of the 40 years of work leading up to it was to find some modus operandi. This has been achieved in the Bill and it has to be very carefully protected.

There are two danger areas. One is that it is perfectly possible for somebody to lodge a petition suggesting that conservation should be given primacy. In that case this Bill being a hybrid Bill would go to a Select Committee upstairs. If that happens it is redrawn entirely, goes back to square one and is lost unless the Government give time for it to be pursued further. I doubt whether that will happen. If it goes to a Select Committee and is rejected, there is no point in it going to a Select Committee. All that will be achieved is a great deal of consternation.

It is possible that an amendment will be put down. I urge this thought to be considered. If an amendment is put down which alters the balance of interests, other interests involved in this Bill may feel they have been affected. Any amendment like that may prima facie raise a question of hybridity. The Bill would then have to be referred again to the Examiners. If that happens the Bill is likely to be lost. I hope that wisdom will prevail and that my noble friend will not feel tempted to push it too far. I do not know whether it is his intention to do so, but if he does and this Bill is lost, it will do no good for the conservationists and the cause of conservation which they seek to pursue.

Many people will be very disturbed to see this Bill lost. After all, the whole Bill is about conservation and it is the variety of interests which are concerned. I respect the views of those who feel strongly about conservation. Most people do who live in the countryside; most farmers and most countrymen are concerned about conservation. But one has to accept that there are other interests which have to be considered. I do not believe that one should be given primacy. That is a very dangerous course to be followed and I hope that your Lordships will not be tempted to do so. I hope my noble friend will resist the blandishments and charms of my noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa when he says that environmental conservation should be given primacy.

This is a good Bill. It is there to protect and to help the Broads. It is the result of a great deal of work and effort.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister forgive me? I wish to say in the warmest terms to my noble friend Lord Ferrers that he missed the distinction I was drawing between conservation of the environment for the benefit of tourists, boaters, sailors, water skiers and others and the protection of wildlife, which is on a level with tourism.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if I may say so, I did not misunderstand my noble friend. I understood him perfectly. I just disagreed with him.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the debate which we have just had shows that your Lordships are at one in appreciating that we have been dealing with a Bill which is not only of local interest for all in East Anglia, who are very proud of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads; it is also a matter of national concern.

I agree with those noble Lords who referred in warm terms to the value of the work which the present authority has been doing and also, thinking of the last speech by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, to the value of the work being done by the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners. Again we are at one in looking back to the past and thinking that the work which has been done has been of great value.

Although different emphases have been put in this debate on what ought to be done to secure the long-term survival of the Broads areas, we are also at one in realising that something needs to be done. The whole purpose of the Bill and the establishment of a new authority are aimed at providing the means of conserving and managing the Broads in order to give the area the real protection and care that it has not had to date. We feel that such management is essential if the continuing deterioration of the ecology of this unique area is to be halted and reversed.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made it quite clear in his speech that there ought to be a clear priority for conservation over public enjoyment and navigation, the other two functions of the Broads Authority set out in Clause 2. The thrust of the noble Lord's argument was also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and certainly my noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa devoted a great deal of his speech to the same theme. I have to say on behalf of the Government that I believe the balance we have deliberately struck in Clause 2 and elsewhere in the Bill is however, the right one; that is, to put the three functions of the Broads Authority for the future on an equal basis.

The Government would not be promoting this Bill to set up a new statutory authority to manage the Broads if they were not convinced that the area needs special protection, which, sadly it has not enjoyed hitherto. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that arresting and reversing the ecological decline that has taken place over many years, for a complex mixture of reasons, must be one of our primary objectives.

However, I echo my noble friend Lord Ferrers that we really must not disregard or overlook other interests which are equally important in their own way. Navigation and boating, public enjoyment and recreation of all kinds, agriculture and holiday making are all integral features of the Broads around which its economy revolves and on which the future life of the Broads depends. I ask your Lordships, in looking back over this debate, to study carefully the warning which was given in the speech by my noble friend Lord Ferrers about the importance of the balance of interests which the Bill seeks to achieve.

That said, I realise that my noble friend Lady Blatch, while agreeing that the Bill should not be changed with regard to Clause 2, nonetheless urged me to consider a commitment on the lines of what is commonly known as the Sandford principle—so named after my noble friend Lord Sandford since it was a principle given in response to a report made in July 1974 by the National Parks Policies Review Committee, so ably chaired by him.

The general thrust of the Sandford principle is that in cases where the two equal duties—conservation of natural beauty and promotion of public enjoyment—which have been placed on national parks authorities are in irreconcilable conflict, nature conservation should have priority. That is the general thrust of that principle, which is so familiar to many people. However, in answering this debate, and my noble friend, I feel I should quote precisely the words of the Government's commitment of that time, which are contained in paragraph 4 of the annex to a joint DoE/Welsh Office circular, DoE 4/76. The relevant passage reads: National Parks Authorities can do much to reconcile public enjoyment with the preservation of natural beauty by good planning and management and the main emphasis"— I stress those words— must continue to be on this approach wherever possible. But even so, there will be situations where the two purposes are irreconcilable. The Secretaries of State accept the Committee's view that where this happens priority must be given to conservation of natural beauty". I take comfort from the fact that it has never proved necessary in the national parks to legislate for priority of nature conservation over public enjoyment. Moreover, the Sandford principle itself enshrines a clear statement that the main emphasis should be on reconciling these two equal objectives wherever possible. That too, we believe, should be the main emphasis in the Broads. We should not start out with the assumption that there must be conflict and that this conflict will be irreconcilable. If that assumption were correct then the future of the Broads would really be bleak. But I believe that assumption to be wholly wrong and unfounded. The general need to conserve the Broads from ecological decline is, we firmly believe, built into the Bill itself.

Therefore, on this major primacy point I shall, of course, look with great care at what my noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa said, particularly in the context of his interpretation of the meaning of conservation; but for the reasons I have just given the Government are extremely chary and careful about upsetting the balance which has been put into Clause 2. However, in looking very carefully at this debate we shall certainly consider with great care what my noble friend Lady Blatch said in pleading the cause of something on the lines of the Sandford principle.

I quickly pick up some other points which have been made in this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and my noble friend Lord Buxton intimated that they felt there was insignificant representation for nature conservation. As I endeavoured to indicate earlier, we are aware of the need to reflect in the authority's membership as fully as possible all the diverse interests, both local and national, which have a legitimate claim to be represented and ensure that there is a proper balance among them. We believe that the Bill as drafted achieves this, but I realise there may be other points of view on that.

I make this point to the noble Baroness. The Bill as originally drafted of course gave three places on the new authority to the Countryside Commission because of its very wide-ranging role, particularly in this context, in relation to the Nature Conservancy Council; namely, as regards the functions of the Broads Authority. In the end, the Countryside Commission is to have two places and as the Bill is drafted the Nature Conservancy Council, one. Therefore, the members appointed by the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council already provide for guaranteed representation for those interests and I cannot believe that many of the members appointed by the eight local authorities are not going to give conservation a very large say. They are, after all, the same authorities which, through the existing Broads Authority, have worked so hard to conserve the natural beauty of the Broads.

At the end of the day I realise that this is all a question of balance. I believe that the balance struck in Clause 1 is as near to a very good balance as one can hope to achieve. At any rate, at this stage of the Bill that is what I lay before your Lordships.

The noble Baroness also referred to the land drainage code. We have provided in the Bill that the new authority should have responsibility for drawing up a code of practice for drainage works because of the environmental considerations and I suggest that that is the right thing to do. However, as your Lordships are aware, there are legitimate land drainage interests to be considered. It is therefore surely also right that the issue of the code should be agreed by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Minister of Agriculture not only has departmental responsibility in this field but is also under Section 48 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as your Lordships will remember, required to further the interests of conservation and the environment wherever possible.

Where disputes may arise I realise that these arguments become more finely balanced. The noble Baroness may remember that assurances were given in another place that on any important issues of dispute in relation to the code the Minister of Agriculture would consult my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I believe that that undertaking, which I now repeat in this House, should reassure us that environmental interests will be given all necessary consideration.

The noble Baroness also asked about the financial and accounting arrangements, a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Walston, also referred. The Clause 17 arrangements are designed to ring-fence navigation income and expenditure. However, these arrangements must be read with Clause 13, which requires navigation expenditure, taking one year with another, to be balanced, There is a provision in Clause 17 enabling a temporary deficit in the navigation revenue account to be met but there is of course in the short term no other way in which this could be put right. However, the general requirement in this part of the Bill will effectively require repayment out of the navigation charges in due course. If the noble Baroness cares to glance at those clauses again, I believe that she will be satisfied.

The noble Lord, Lord Walston, asked me a blunt question. Do the contributing local authorities have some sort of veto on the amount of money which they are going to pay? The authorities' levy, like a county precept, will be enforceable against the local rating authorities from whom it is raised. However, Clause 14(10) requires that at least half of the local authority members must approve the levy.

An important point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Walston, and by my noble friend Lady Blatch. It concerned the position of a chief officer, which is not provided for in the Bill at the present time. I believe that both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord thought that it ought to be. The noble Baroness thought that there was a case for the Countryside Commission, with its long experience of dealing with national parks and its responsibilities not only for conservation but also for recreation and public enjoyment in the widest sense, to be able to advise on the appointment of a chief officer for the Broads Authority as it now advises on appointments of national park officers.

As the Bill now stands, there is no specific requirement for such an appointment to be made. When the Government drafted the Bill, and when Norfolk drafted its Bill, none of us thought to include such a provision. However, such a provision would have to be made before we could provide for the Countryside Commission to be consulted about the appointment and its terms and conditions. I shall look at the technical aspect of that matter. But I should like to say that the Government will look as favourably as we possibly can on the suggestion which has been made.

The noble Lord, Lord Walston, asked me two questions. The first concerned water and the second agricultural activities so far as the powers of the new authority are concerned. Perhaps I may take the question of agricultural activities first. We should then look at Clause 5 and the Section 42 powers of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The noble Lord is much more expert in those matters than I. However, the purpose of Section 42 is simply to provide a means whereby national park authorities will be notified of impending agricultural and forestry proposals and can impose a period of delay during which management agreements may be negotiated to obviate any damaging effects of such proposals. Basically that is what Clause 5 brings into play and perhaps we shall return to that area at another stage of the Bill.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I am grateful for that information. However, will the powers to which the noble Lord has referred extend beyond the confines of the Broads area? Will they extend to potential polluters, if I may describe them in that way, who live outside the Broads but whose discharge can have an effect on the water of the Broads?

Lord Belstead

I shall write to the noble Lord. However, I think I am right in saying that the powers of the Broads Authority in Clause 5 extend to the Broads area only.

So far as the noble Lord's second question is concerned, there is a rather different story. The Government have consistently taken the view that it would be inappropriate to seek to give the Broads Authority direct responsibility for water quality and other related matters. As I indicated in my opening remarks, most of the pollutants that enter the Broads rivers do so from outside the area as a result of activities which take place over other parts of Norfolk and Suffolk. It follows that those responsibilities must remain with the authority, which is the Anglian Water Authority, which exercises responsibilities over the whole river basin and catchment area.

However, there is a new duty on the Anglian Water Authority in the Bill to consult the Broads Authority before implementing any measures that would affect water quality in any part of the Broads. Secondly, the Broads Authority is given powers in the Bill as drafted in Schedule 3, paragraph 34 to carry out work to improve water quality and to make financial contributions to others carrying out those works. I am advised that so far as that power is concerned, it would be possible for the authority to contribute to improvements, for instance, in sewage works located outside the Broads whose effluent ends up in the Broads river system.

After 40 years, we shall at last be recognising the Broads as deserving national park status, albeit of a special kind. I join with your Lordships in saying that much credit is due to the Countryside Commission, whose efforts led initially to the preparation of the private Bill, and to Norfolk County Council and the other local authorities who followed the trail so well.

To assist your Lordships in preparation for the next stage of the Bill, I shall make available in the Printed Paper Office explanatory notes on the clauses of the Bill, together with a map of the proposed area of the authority. In the meantime, the Government will consider carefully everything which has been said by your Lordships in this debate. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee.