HL Deb 05 July 2004 vol 663 cc507-10

2.48 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Council for National Parks.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure that government departments are committed to the preservation and enhancement of national parks.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government remain completely committed to the purposes of the national parks.

However, the duty on government departments and others to take account of the purposes of national parks needs to be clear. Therefore, my officials will be consulting those who are required to take into account the purposes and a list of the bodies affected, with guidance, will then be publicised.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will accept warmest congratulations on the designation of the New Forest National Park. But how will the Government ensure that that park, with its small boundaries, and those parts of the New Forest Heritage Area not within it are able to fulfil their purposes amidst the huge development pressures of the south-east?

Would my noble friend agree that the pressures and stresses of modern life have made the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty more indispensable than ever for the psychological and physical regeneration of the nation and that their invaluable statutory purposes—if they are to be fulfilled—demand the unremitting and uncompromising commitment of all government departments and ministries?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in this, the first National Parks Week, I undoubtedly endorse pretty well all that my noble friend has said. Certainly, the creation of the New Forest National Park is a major step towards protecting the unique landscape and land management in that area, which would otherwise be—and has been—threatened by some development pressures. In that national park and others, we need to take account of the original purposes of the national parks, which are to provide protection and conservation of the landscape as well as an outlet away from the stress of development and other stresses of modern life. Therefore, I agree with my noble friend on that as well.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, is the Minister aware, as I am sure he is, that there appear to be considerable differences of opinion within the Government on this question? Like the noble Lord, Lord Judd, I, too, am a vice-president of the Council for National Parks and am painfully aware of the situation. Does the Minister remember that when we debated the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill towards the end of last year, I asked whether the Government would confirm that the Sandford principle still applied? That sets out in statute that should there be a difference between the environmental considerations and the social and economic considerations, the environmental considerations would always win or be given prominence. The Minister and his colleagues very helpfully confirmed that that was the case. However, since then, a senior Minister in Defra has issued a press release on the national parks, written on the official notepaper of his department, with a headline one inch high, saying, "Conservation is not enough". Both these things cannot be true.

Does the Minister agree that it is highly desirable that, should the Government decide to change the Sandford principle or the Act setting up the national parks and AONBs, they should come before Parliament to do so, rather than seeking to nudge the policies in the direction some Ministers require by nods and winks and sharp elbows? I hope that the noble Lord will be able to satisfy me on that.

The noble Lord will be aware of the dangers—

Noble Lords


Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have to refute the accusation made in the latter stages of the noble Lord's remarks. Yes, it is true that the Sandford principles still apply and that conservation is the prime purpose, therefore, of national parks. It is also true—and it can be logically reconciled—that conservation of itself is not enough. Conservation requires a degree of economic activity to be clear in relation to the parks, and the enjoyment of conservation requires a degree of access. It is only when issues are in direct conflict that the Sandford principles apply. It is therefore important that all these aspects of activity within the national parks are taken into account.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a vice-president of the Council for National Parks. Does the Minister agree that the issue for many national parks is that those who have for generations lived and worked in them find that their children can no longer do so because of the lack of affordable housing? Will he encourage other national parks to look at Exmoor's example, where only housing for local people will be permitted as new build?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the national parks and the planning authorities have to take account of such aspects in their approach to planning proposals which relate to housing in national parks. It may well be that Exmoor has shown a good example in this respect. This underlines what I was saying—people need to work in national parks and to be able to access their work there if the principles of conservation, preservation and enhancement of the landscape are to be achieved, and that requires a degree of economic activity.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, with regard to the New Forest proposals, is the noble Lord able to confirm that the Court of Verderers will continue to operate, as now, and that those who have grazing rights will continue to have them?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are obviously changes in the administration of the national park, but those arrangements will be maintained.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, my question will be brief. Will my noble friend block any attempts by any national park authority to charge for vehicular entry?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my answer needs to be equally brief. I am aware of no such immediate proposition, but it may be part of the way in which a national park authority conducts its business to ensure that there is not over-congestion and that access for the many continues to be achieved by some restriction on excessive access for the few. Therefore, I would not like to rule out all such possibilities.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I hardly dare admit it, but I, too, am a vice-president of the Council for National Parks. Can my noble friend offer any assurance that during the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, the many benefits that the national parks offer will be recognised and will be adequately resourced?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I think that your Lordships will recognise that, much as I might desire to do so, I have no authority to anticipate any aspect of the forthcoming spending review.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, recent draft planning guidance includes the following sentence: Regional planning bodies and local planning authorities should not create 'buffer zones' around international or nationally designated areas and apply policies to these zones that prevent the development of renewable energy projects". That appears to suggest that the Government might be sanguine about what I would call a ring fence of wind farms around the periphery of national parks. Would the Minister care to comment?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the sentence to which the noble Lord refers, covers a wider range of matters than wind farms, although I know that he and many of his colleagues are obsessed with proposals for wind farms. Clearly, however, wind farms or other large projects close to national parks would have to take into account the objectives of national parks, but that would not mean that every development within X yards to miles of a national park would automatically be covered by the same restrictions as apply within the national park.