HL Deb 26 June 2000 vol 614 cc626-8

2.58 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they propose to implement the 1991 National Parks Review Panel and Countryside Agency recommendation that national parks funding should increase by £10 million.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, since 1990–91, the annual grant to the English National Parks and Broads Authority has increased by almost £9 million, or 33 per cent in real terms, including a 10 per cent increase last year. We are considering in the spending review what additional resources may be made available. In doing so, we shall take account of the recommendations of the Countryside Agency.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend for that helpful and hopeful reply. Does she recall that in 1991 the review panel found, evidence of deteriorating environmental quality, permanent damage to the landscape and poor local relationships"? Given the level of support since 1991, how can the national parks possibly take on the new responsibilities for assisting access to open country proposed in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the Government have responded well to the representations made following the Edwards report. We accept the point made by my noble friend that the national parks will be at the forefront of delivering new access in their areas when the Bill becomes law. If the new access gives rise to additional funding needs, we shall take that into account in future grant settlements.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, will the noble Baroness use her undoubted influence with the Treasury and with the governors of the National Assembly for Wales to address the problem of the historic imbalance in funding between English and Welsh park authorities, much to the disadvantage of the latter?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, it would come as a surprise to the Treasury to know that I have the degree of influence attributed to me by the noble Lord. There is no agreement on either side of Offa's Dyke as to which set of national parks fares better over a longer period of time. There are circumstances in which the English claim that they have been less favourably treated. In 1991, the Welsh parks received £3.43 million, rising to £7.2 million in 2000–01. Ultimately, while enjoying the national parks in Wales, as I know the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, does, this is a matter for the Welsh Assembly.

Lord Walpole

My Lords, can the Minister give the House an assurance that the extra cost associated with "best value" for the national parks will be met in full? The noble Baroness hinted that that would be so, but she did not give an assurance.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I was not aware that I had hinted at that. I shall place on record the fact that the Government's position is that the process of "best value" leads to a reduction in costs and better use of money as well as to delivering a higher quality service.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the national parks have a valuable part to play as role models for sustainable development in the wider countryside? If she does agree, is she satisfied that that is sufficiently recognised in their allocation of money?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important aspect of the role that national parks play in terms of all aspects of development and processes in the countryside. I am sure that, like me, my noble friend shares the view that we must make strong representations, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review, to ensure that the global amount available for national parks is adequate to meet their needs. Beyond that, it must surely be for the national parks in the North West, in the North East and in Wales to make their own judgments about what is appropriate rather than have priorities put upon them by Westminster.

Lord Renton

My Lords, are the Government aware that for a good many years our green and pleasant land, especially in England, has been disappearing owing to our ever-increasing population? Are they also aware that we need more national parks in order to protect our green and pleasant land, but that cannot occur unless more money is made available?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, designation of new national parks is the responsibility of the Countryside Agency. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is aware that the agency has started the process in respect of the New Forest and the South Downs. Were that process to lead to two national parks being confirmed, by 2002 at the earliest, discrete representations would need to be made to consider the appropriate funding.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, when considering further increases in grants to national parks, will the Minister take into account the fact that there is a social aspect to the grants in that so many national parks are to be found within easy reach of our largest conurbations, in Wales, in the industrial Midlands or in the industrial north, where the inhabitants enjoy those facilities?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, as someone whose home is in Preston and who lives within easy reach of both the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, I agree that the point raised by the noble Lord is valid. It is one that will be borne in mind by the Government.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, perhaps I can move further south, to Exmoor, and ask whether the Minister is aware that the settlement for the current year is causing severe financial difficulties for the Exmoor National Park, including a reduction in several key work areas, particularly in conservation and footpath maintenance?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I accept the point raised by the noble Baroness that. allegedly there are discrepancies between the funding that is allocated to individual parks. In 1998, the Countryside Agency, together with the DETR and the Association of National Park Authorities, commissioned a study that looked at the distribution of funding. In the light of that study, work is going on between the Countryside Agency, the national park authorities and the department to develop a robust, new formula. In producing a new formula, there will be losers as well as gainers and, therefore, I do not expect that it will be too long before there are questions from those who have lost.

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