HL Deb 26 May 1993 vol 546 cc276-80

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to bring forward the legislation which they have promised to provide for all national parks to be administered by independent boards.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I cannot pre-empt the contents of the next Session's legislative programme. We are continuing to work on all aspects of legislation to which we are committed. I can reassure your Lordships that our resolve to create independent national parks has not weakened.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that helpful answer. However, is he aware that there is considerable and increasing pressure on national parks, and that the need for legislation is becoming quite urgent? Therefore, can he take some action to ensure that it is treated as a matter of urgency? Is the noble Viscount also aware that we were hoping that the legislation would be part of an environmental protection Bill which I now understand has been dropped? Is he further aware that during the passage of the Local Government Bill, his noble friend Lady Blatch gave very firm undertakings about legislation for national parks? Therefore, I am sure he will understand that his Answer has caused some disappointment.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that the Government remain committed to the care and protection of the parks. Legislation to establish independent national park authorities for all parks remains a priority to be introduced when parliamentary time permits.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that such legislation would be largely regarded as uncontroversial, and that it would therefore take little parliamentary time? Is that not an argument for bringing forward the measure promptly?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the Government fully understand the anxieties expressed about national parks. However, I can only restate that such legislation remains a priority for the Government and will be brought forward as soon as possible.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the largest provider of countryside recreation is the Forestry Commission which has 50 million day visitors per annum? Is he also aware that those facilities are well and sensitively managed? Therefore, can I have an assurance from the Minister that there will be no interference with that pattern of management by any new institutions that may be created?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of the Forestry Commission. However, what we are discussing here is the potential for the forthcoming legislation on national parks.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, can the noble Viscount say whether the Government read the very pertinent remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, during a recent debate when he spoke about the growth of unappointed quangos in the country? If we are to have boards appointed for national parks, can the noble Viscount say how those concerned will be appointed or elected? Further, can he give the House an assurance that the public will have some say in how they are appointed?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I cannot anticipate in detail the content of any legislation. However, I can say that two-thirds of the members of the boards and committees of existing national park authorities are appointed by county and district councils.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that four national parks—namely, the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors, the Peak District and Exmoor—will be involved in the first tranche of local government reform or reorganisation? However, the work of the local government commission does not include national parks because, as we know, the Government have promised independent authorities. Therefore, are those national parks to be administered under what the Government term "transitional arrangements"? If so, what does that term actually mean? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten the House.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, transitional arrangements will be put in place to ensure that the national parks committees will be able to carry out their statutory functions to receive funding from government and local authorities and ensure that there are local authority and Secretary of State-appointees on the committees.

Baroness White

My Lords, we have been told that we are to expect a local government Bill for Wales in the next Session of Parliament. Leaving aside whether or not one approves of its main provisions, can the noble Viscount confirm that it will be possible to include appropriate proposals for the independent administration of our three Welsh national parks in the legislation? Is he aware that the option has been under consideration by the Welsh Office at least since last September when it was publicly discussed by the Minister of State, Sir Wyn Roberts? If there is to be no guarantee of early general legislation for England and Wales—which would be the more desirable—does the noble Viscount acknowledge that there can be no excuse for not giving Wales its necessary national parks readjustment to coincide with changes in local government organisation in Wales?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I must restate that I cannot pre-empt the contents of the next Queen's Speech. However, the Secretary of State for the Environment already has powers under the Local Government Act 1992 to enable him to put transitional arrangements in place if needed. The Secretary of State for Wales plans to establish new authorities in Wales by 1st April 1995. He will no doubt be taking powers to ensure that transitional arrangements can be put in place for the Welsh parks, if needed.

Baroness White

My Lords, why should we have to put up with transitional arrangements if there is appropriate legislation for including Welsh parks in the Welsh local government Bill?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, again, I can only restate the fact that I cannot pre-empt what will be in the Queen's Speech.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I noted what my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter rightly said about such legislation being uncontroversial. Does my noble friend recognise that if the Government do not bring forward legislation this will cause widespread disappointment among the people who are deeply concerned about the future of national parks, among whom are many of the Government's own supporters? If the Government cannot introduce this legislation, will they perhaps at least facilitate such legislation by other routes?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, we are continuing to work on legislation to which we are committed but there is immense pressure on the parliamentary timetable. There are many pressing matters which need to be dealt with urgently. I am afraid the answer to my noble friend Lord Marlesford is still that I cannot pre-empt the Queen's Speech.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in view of the fact that these are supposed to be transitional arrangements, and in the light of the Government's own ideological obsessions, as well as their shortage of money, will the noble Viscount give the House a complete and unequivocal undertaking that these steps that are to be taken are not the prelude to privatisation?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I have said on a number of occasions in answer to this Question that I cannot say what will or will not be in the legislation and whether it will or will not appear in the next Session.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is there not a strong case for giving this Bill priority as it would be far more popular than anything else the Government have in mind?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the legislation has priority but I still cannot say whether it will be found a place in the next Session.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is it not nice to find so much agreement on a subject like this on all sides of the House? In the light of that agreement, will the noble Viscount undertake at least to discuss seriously and soon with his right honourable friend in another place the possibility of introducing a brief government Bill on this issue, and this issue alone, in your Lordships' House as I can assure him that it would command wide cross-party support and could provide the national parks with a happy end to all their afflictions?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am appreciative of the cross-House support for national park authorities and for the benefits of independence on this issue. However, I must repeat that I cannot pre-empt the contents of the next Queen's Speech.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister elaborate on his reply to the important question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe? If Forestry Commission property falls within the national parks, would the Forestry Commission's general policy on its woods come under the auspices of the independent boards administering the national parks?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a specific question about the relationship between the national parks authorities and the Forestry Commission. I cannot say whether that will be changed under any forthcoming legislation.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the noble Viscount has spoken a good deal about priority. Has he had the opportunity to read the 1987 manifesto of the Conservative Party in which that party promised to legislate to protect national parks? The manifesto was published in 1987, not 1992. In view of the high priority that the Government obviously place on this matter—it has only been six years since they gave that commitment—and given the feeling expressed by Members all round the House that legislation on the national parks is a matter of extreme urgency, will the noble Viscount talk to his noble friend, who I understand is in charge in some measure of the legislation that might be in the Queen's Speech, to see whether your Lordships' convenience can be met?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the Government consider the national parks to be the jewel in the countryside's crown and will continue to give their protection the highest priority. We have already acted to introduce a test against which any proposal for major development in the parks should be set. In any case such development would only take place in exceptional circumstances.