HL Deb 11 February 1993 vol 542 cc762-4

3.17 p.m.

Lord Hunt asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to introduce legislation upgrading the status of all national park authorities to that of independent planning boards in the next Session of Parliament.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, our policy statement on the national parks, published in January 1992, promised legislation to create independent authorities for the eight national parks in England and Wales currently run as county council committees. I appreciate the priority which many attach to this legislation and I regret we were unable to secure a place for it in this parliamentary Session. The legislation, however, remains a priority.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he recall that his honourable friend Mr. David Maclean, speaking in the Lake District last July, stated: It was unfortunate that heavy pressure on the legislative programme for this parliamentary session"— he was speaking in the previous parliamentary Session— prevented a place being found for the national parks"? However, he continued: national parks remain a high priority". The Minister will be aware that those remarks were made during the previous parliamentary Session and there is no sign yet of national parks legislation this Session. Can he reassure me concerning the next Session?

Secondly, will not the local government reforms at present in progress in England and the legislation to that end in Wales leave the national parks which are at present run by county council committees in limbo, without powers? Will it not also raise a question mark concerning their financing and accountability until that national park legislation is in progress? Does the Minister agree that there is great urgency in this matter?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, we 'are still in the same parliamentary Session as when my honourable friend David Maclean made that statement in the Lake District. In answer to the noble Lord's substantive point I can say that transitional arrangements may be necessary. They can be put in place to smooth the path to independence. The Local Government Commission has been instructed that the responsibility for national parks should not be affected by the commission. It is certainly not our intention that the national parks should be left in limbo as a result of the work of the commission.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, does the Minister share my concern about transitional arrangements for national park authorities if independence is delayed? For example, as a result of local government reorganisation the Snowdonia National Park will now fall under three independent unitary authorities. Does he agree that that can only lead to confusion?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am aware of the anxieties of my noble friend. As I said in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, we can put transitional arrangements in place if that is required. We do not want the national parks to be left in limbo.

Baroness White

My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that the issue is much more urgent in the case of Wales than it is in England? There is no commission for Wales; the Secretary of State makes up his own mind, whether we like it or not. Is the Minister aware that it appears from the Secretary of State's present proposals that in the Brecon Beacons National Park there will be no fewer than seven separate new independent local authorities with whom the national park authority will have to negotiate? How can there be adequate strategic planning in those circumstances? Does the noble Lord agree that there is an urgent need for a sensible approach to the situation which I described?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Baroness put the point extremely well. I have every sympathy with the position which she explained. However, I hope that she will accept my original Answer. The issue has priority and we hope to bring legislation forward soon.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the Minister used the word "priority" twice. Does he recall that in 1989 a White Paper on restrictive trade practices was described as priority legislation yet it is now 1993? Further, will the noble Lord take on board seriously the points raised by my noble friend Lady White? Will he accept that if local government reorganisation is to be imposed on Wales, with new authorities to be established on 1st April 1995, it is essential that the Government introduce legislation in the next Session?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am well aware of the situation in Wales, as I have already indicated. As I said, it is an area of priority for us.

Lord Moran

My Lords, does the Minister recall that the review panel under the chairmanship of Professor Ron Edwards found evidence within the parks of deteriorating environmental quality and permanent damage to the landscape? Does he accept that independent status and greater powers for the park authorities are urgently needed to enable them to resist the increasing threats from developments, above all from major roads such as the proposed Euro-route and the proposed trans-Pennine route?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the national parks have always been under pressure and it has been necessary to strike a balance between protecting the environment and encouraging visitors to enjoy the qualities for which the parks were originally designated. We have not waited for designation to give the parks greater protection. In January 1992 we published revised planning policy guidance for the parks in which we stated that major developments should not take place in the parks save in exceptional circumstances.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that since the Government, the Association of County Councils and many others are agreed that it is desirable to achieve the objectives of the Edwards Report on national parks, it is worrying that the legislation is being delayed, possibly so that it can form part of a large Environmental Protection Agency Bill? Can he assure the House that this relatively uncontroversial issue can be dealt with in a small separate Bill soon instead of having to wait for massive environmental legislation?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, if the legislative programme in the current Session proceeds considerably faster than we anticipate it is possible that there will be room to bring forward a Bill. However, I fear that that is unlikely.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is the Minister aware—although there is no reason why he should be—that I live in the middle of the Peak District National Park? Is he further aware of the remarkable record of success of the Peak park board, which is due to the fact that it is run as an independent authority? Is it not a fact that it is that very independence which enables national park authorities to manage their areas with freedom, enterprise and imagination?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on living in one of the most attractive parts of our countryside. I am, of course, aware of the positive work which is carried out by all the park authorities. I agree with the noble Lord that independence will give the park authorities greater clarity of vision and all the other advantages which he mentioned.