HC Deb 07 November 2000 vol 356 cc1-21WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Touhig.]

10 am

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

It is a great personal pleasure to introduce the debate, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who also requested an allocation of time to consider this important matter. The Adjournment debate is most timely, and I congratulate everyone who has been able to attend. I hope that we shall have a good debate. I intend to give the widest consideration to this important part of national life. I shall try to keep my comments brief to allow as many hon. Members as possible to participate.

I shall focus on the national perspective of the national parks movement, but I would be failing in my duty to my constituents, who enjoy the privilege of living in what is probably the most beautiful part of the country—the north Yorkshire coast—if I did not talk about how the movement affects their daily lives.

I was fortunate enough to be born in Carlisle in the north of England, on the edge of what is probably England's most famous national park. My two younger brothers and I lived on an out-of-town council estate and our lives were brightened by school trips to the national delights of the Lake District national park and the English lakes. My eyes and those of my brothers were opened by that introduction to an aspect of life that was different from the grey houses in which my family and others lived. It stimulated an early interest in the geology of the Lake district and a personal fascination with the natural wonders of glaciation, which led me to study geo-technical sciences and ultimately to become a civil engineer. National parks have formed an important part of my personal development, making almost as great a contribution as my parents and teachers. I challenge anyone in this place to disagree with my contention that our national parks are very special places.

Our national parks cover our most treasured countryside, comprising a unique blend of stunning landscape, extensive and diverse wildlife habitat, a rich cultural heritage and a distinctive pattern of land use and settlement. The environmental quality of national parks depends on the nature of human interaction with them, which goes back about 5,000 years. The parks attract more than 76 million visitors annually and are home to more than 250,000 people. It is 50 years since the first national park in England was designated and there are now 11 national parks in England and Wales. They will soon be joined by the New Forest, South Downs and, across the border, by Scottish landscapes. We hope that that will happen in the near future. National parks constitute 10 per cent. of the landscape across England and Wales and are managed by the national park authorities.

Following a detailed appraisal of our national parks a decade ago and the Edwards report "Fit for the Future", the Environment Act 1995 revised the purpose of the national park movement. I believe that national parks are constituted to conserve and embrace the natural beauty of wildlife and the cultural heritage of areas and to promote opportunities for the public to understand and enjoy their special qualities. That has been my family's experience.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the cultural as well as the environmental heritage of the areas, and the substantial number of visitors. Does he feel that, under the present structures, a balance can be maintained between the interests of those who live and work in the park and those who come to enjoy it? Is he satisfied that the legislation he mentioned gives adequate background to ensure that there is a proper balance.

Mr. Quinn

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that important contribution. Indeed, the central purpose of the debate is to focus on that aspect. My constituents will have sympathy with his comments, and if he will allow me to proceed with my speech, I hope to develop that point later.

The 1995 Act gives the authorities a duty to seek to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities in the national parks. Indeed, in my area and that of the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), those are fundamental aspects of everyday life. We need to see a living and working community in all the national parks. If national parks do not support and sustain those communities they fail in their raison d'être. The parks' special assets need to be managed sensitively if future generations are to appreciate them. Future sustainability also depends on healthy economic circumstances and thriving communities.

Communities in these areas share many disadvantages and the problems that affect all rural communities are, if anything, accentuated in national parks. Their special environmental and cultural assets provide many opportunities for enhancement of the economy and consequently their communities' future prosperity. With the increasing recognition that environment, community and economy are linked, the parks are trying to deliver an integrated, joined-up approach to projects that meet the several objectives at once and demonstrate sustainability in practice. That can be brought about only if there is a true sense of partnership across the communities and working relationships with other authorities.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

I happen to be a native of the Brecon Beacons national park. I was born and brought up there. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the agreement that has been struck in the National Assembly for Wales between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Administration provides for the direct elections of members of national park authorities from within their communities and thus makes it a far better joined-up and democratic process?

Mr. Quinn

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important contribution. I am not sure whether hon.

Members have somehow got advance notice of my speech this morning. Indeed that point of view will resonate throughout the debate. As I look around I see that all the hon. Members present this morning have much experience of these communities. Again, I will come to that point later.

"Partnership" is a key word, but it remains just a word unless it is delivered in practice. At the moment the parks authorities work extensively with other public agencies, local communities and the private sector such as, for example, the many land agents and managers who manage private land within the parks area. This is all about trying to manage change effectively and deliver the sustainable future to which we all aspire. Examples from all the national parks show the commitment and the ability of parks authorities to work with others for the benefit of the environment, the economy and the communities. It would be remiss of me if I did not focus on my national park, the North York Moors national park.

The key point about the work that is done on the nation's behalf in national parks is the tremendous value for money that is achieved. The grant from the public purse for all our national parks across England and Wales is a mere £26 million a year. I shall return to that important issue and I hope that it will be the culmination of my speech this morning. At the recent conference of the Association of National Parks Authorities, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), announced that there would be a policy review of national parks and their governance. I welcome that. The North York Moors national park will be able to demonstrate how good practice in governance can be helpfully used elsewhere. I hope that the Minister will examine the examples provided by that park and that we can learn from the review not only permanently to raise the quality of services but to reinforce the connection with people who live in the park area.

Demonstrating a high quality of service to local people is one of the most important activities taking place in the national parks. A debate is continuing in the rural economy about the need for diversification, particularly in agriculture. I have many letters about national parks issues, the bulk of which are really about planning. We need to consider the planning regime carefully and to consider how we might develop a working national park that would permit us to harmonise the local population's aspirations with sustaining the environment there.

The outlook is not all bleak. The main cause of correspondence between me and the authority in the North York Moors national park area has been planning. I did some research on the park authority's attitude to planning applications. In 1998–99, 87.5 per cent. of applications relating to the North York Moors area were approved. In 1999–2000, 86.3 per cent. of applications have been approved so far. Up to the end of March, of 96 applications submitted for developments relating to economic activity, 87 per cent. were approved. A sea change in the attitude of park officers has taken place. There is some realisation of the need for diversification in the rural community, away from the agricultural and tourism opportunities that have been traditional in the national park.

It would be remiss of me not to comment on the forthcoming rural White Paper. I hope that it will set out a clear vision and commitment to all rural areas, but I believe that the national parks should take a key role in carrying out the overall vision that I hope will emerge. The areas that we are considering this morning are sparsely populated, leading to social and economic underachievement, with a low level of services, and poor access to them across the board. The isolation of many of my constituents makes the services in question expensive.

We need to reconnect the most isolated communities in England and Wales to services. Investment in information technology infrastructure could provide opportunities for the parks' rural communities to gain access to information, services and training. Like many people, I shall observe with interest the development of rural post offices. However, we must not leave matters at that. We must recognise that national parks officers and the skills available in the national parks movement could make a vital contribution to the development of this important area.

In north Yorkshire a major new initiative has begun, in an attempt to make remote access a reality. It has been co-ordinated in conjunction with North Yorkshire county council and a wide range of partners, as well as the park authority. The project will enhance the local rural economy and give it a competitive advantage. It is attempting to build a shared base for capacity—an empowerment of local communities—and to maximise access to the full range of services for individuals, businesses and local organisations. The national authority is attempting to encourage tourism and to develop viable and improved access to local facilities. For example, the North York Moors national park has information points in village shops to encourage visitors to spend more time there. We want to see the brokering of integrated ticketing on public transport services within national parks.

Our authority is attempting also to engage with wider society with projects designed to mitigate the effects of social exclusion and to give better access to our wonderful landscapes to those in less favoured parts of the country. That is being done by the proactive management of the countryside and by promoting a better understanding of the parks. The North York Moors has a partnership of local disability action groups. That wonderful voluntary scheme allows local communities and the national park to work together to make footpaths and bridleways barrier free so as to allow greater access to the national parks for all, irrespective of people's physical ability.

The national park education service is developing links with urban schools in nearby Teesside and Hull. In-depth research, co-ordinated by Durham university, is being undertaken to examine how ethnic minority communities can be better linked to the national park service so that they can benefit from the recreational and other opportunities available in that wonderful part of Yorkshire.

Access to affordable housing within our national park is a tremendous problem for local residents. Parts of the park attract inward migration; people are tempted to retire to that marvellous environment or to buy second homes there and commute to nearby urban centres. Many of my constituents cannot afford to enter the local housing market, so I am pleased that the park authorities are now working with rural housing trusts, housing associations and other local organisations to provide new, affordable housing. However, lack of affordable housing remains a significant problem for my rural community.

The average asking price for houses in June 2000 was £128,000, and only 12 properties were on the market for less than £50,000. For those agricultural workers and skilled estate workers who earn less than £200 a week, those properties are simply out of reach. Time and again, people come to my surgery and ask how our young people can get started on the housing ladder. There are 90 villages in the North York Moors national park. Social housing schemes to provide for local housing needs are being developed at a rate of less than one a year. A proactive and accelerated approach is needed to deal with that problem. I referred earlier to the performance of planning authorities, so I am pleased that the North York Moors national park and other national parks have pioneered local policies to help provide housing for local communities and that the new North York Moors local plan seeks to develop that approach.

Another key problem in rural communities is transport. Although car ownership seems to be high, I shall repeat a phrase that I have used many times before—I note that the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) used a similar phrase this morning—which is that the private road vehicle is now a necessity of life and not a luxury. It is worth putting that on the record; I have being saying it for five years.

Car ownership in rural areas—and national parks, in particular—is a necessity of life for many people. We all look forward to finding out whether my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer deals with that important point tomorrow. As I said, a significant proportion of the community—particularly the young and the elderly—do not have access to a car. Some villages in my constituency are lucky if they have one bus service to Whitby per week. The put down and collection point is right outside my office in Whitby. People from remote parts of the community have limited access to the cosmopolitan delights of Whitby—in the 21st century, that is not good enough.

Increased traffic levels, stimulated by the many visitors who visit the national parks area, is another problem. People who watch television will know of "Heartbeat", the 1960s police drama featuring the mythical village of Aidensfield. It is, in fact, Goathland and receives 2 million visitors every year. On the horizon is the filming of a Harry Potter story on the north Yorkshire moors railway. In terms of the possibilities for global tourism, the Minister and his colleagues should be aware that "we ain't seen nothing yet" in our part of the world.

The national parks have attempted to provide innovative solutions to traffic congestion. The North York Moors national park has co-ordinated the establishment of the Esk valley rail partnership. It is intended to secure the future of the Middlesbrough to Whitby rail link through increased patronage and to promote the future of environmental, economic and community benefits: it has made a vital contribution to local life.

The Minister should also note the nationally acclaimed moors bus service, which has been successful in encouraging visitors to leave their cars behind. It provides recreational access for nearby local communities with low levels of car ownership and could be an important springboard for the development of park-and-ride and park-and-tour solutions. We want to encourage people to leave their cars behind and enjoy the feeling of being out there, communing with nature, rather than experiencing a bank holiday traffic jam around the parks area. Many people would recognise the importance of that.

I urge the Minister and his ministerial colleagues with responsibility for the development of transport policy to consider my plea for a multi-modal transport study on the A64 transport corridor, which will directly affect the North York Moors national park. I have already mentioned the "Heartbeat" phenomenon and Harry Potter, but we also want more sustainable tourism in our part of the world.

I have much to say, and feel passionately about my subject, but I also want my many colleagues present today to talk about their areas. I have one final point for the Minister—about financing and the national contribution to the national parks areas. We hope that the review will result in the empowerment of local communities, but it will not be successful if we rely solely on the good will of the local community; we rely on a contribution from the national purse.

I understand that an announcement on the national parks grant will be made shortly. The national parks do not expect anything dramatic but, as a Member of Parliament, it is my job to highlight important issues. That is why I want to put firmly on record my belief that the success of the national parks service over the past 50 years is due to the development of efficient systems by some of the most enthusiastic staff I have encountered in public service in my part of north Yorkshire. Members of the park authorities are especially good at connecting to local communities' aspirations. The Association of National Parks Authorities spends public money well; it has developed the ability to work in partnership with private sector organisations as well as with other public sector bodies. It has a good record of bringing external funding to the parks areas, but it has lost objective 5b money. Although the national parks are willing, able and keen to assist in developing the Government's agenda for the environment, they will need financial assistance to do so.

As I said earlier, at present, the national parks get about £26 million a year from the national purse to sustain their work. That is a contribution of a few pence a week from every person in the land to the wonderful service offered by the national parks. I hope that the opportunities afforded by future rural development regulations will provide the Treasury with a good route to help mitigate the lack of growth in the contribution from the national purse.

I hope that the national parks will be able to gain access to that important potential source of money and that the Minister will contact his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food urging co-operation with the national parks movement, at least to prove that there is a genuine attempt to bring about an integrated public service across the board. That would mean best value for the taxpayer and enhance the future potential for this vital part of the rural economy.

The Minister is welcome to join those who are passionate about the future of our national parks at a reception in the Jubilee Room this evening, where there will be further debate on the subject. You would also be most welcome, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Many hon. Members want to take part in the debate on this interesting subject. If contributions are reasonably brief, it will allow as many Members to speak as possible.

10.28 am
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I shall try to abide by your strictures to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) on securing this important debate on a subject that is close to the hearts of millions of people who visit the national parks.

I represent a large area of the Peak District national park; we estimate on good authority that we have about 22 million visitors a year, attendance levels about which the dome would be proud to be able to brag. If we could have a small proportion of the money that has been spent on that project, we would be very pleased.

I must take this opportunity to mention my constituents who are suffering as a result of the flooding, especially those in Rowsley, Bakewell and the appropriately named Ashford in the Water.

The Peak District national park is surrounded by three motorways the MI, the M6 and the M62, and by the A50, which has been upgraded almost to motorway standard. It is within an hour's drive of 50 per cent. of the population, and on some bank holidays it feels as if they are all there. That creates some special problems. The Peak district has a resident population of 38,000, second only to the Lake district's 42,000, which means that there is a tremendous amount of work for the national park to undertake. I examined the planning application figures in the annual report of the national parks authorities. In the Peak district in 1999–2000, there were some 900 planning applications and 800 approvals. As the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby rightly said, that often brings problems that have to be balanced and resolved.

Even if the Minister cannot respond in detail today, will he consider the problems caused by the large number of quarry applications in the Peak district? Naturally, those planning applications are detailed and complex. To consider only overall numbers of planning applications in deciding how a national park works does not reflect the amount of work involved. In normal circumstances, a quarry application takes three to four times longer to deal with than an ordinary application, creating a tremendous amount of work for the officers of the authority.

In discussing quarrying, it is important to note that a balance must be struck between residents, visitors who want to enjoy a park's beauty and, sometimes, the need to extract stone. I am not one of the fortunate few who have an office in Portcullis House, but those who have will have noticed its stone, which came from the Twyford quarry at Birchover in Derbyshire. The minerals used in some of our best buildings are extracted in the Peak district. A number of quarry applications before the national park authority are causing local residents a great deal of anxiety. It is important to strike a balance between them and other residents who are employed by the quarrying industry.

I was interested in the description of joined-up government provided by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. Joined-up government is not practicable when it means that the Peak district has to work with four different regions. The Minister looks puzzled, but it must be the only national park covered by four different Government regions: the east midlands, the west midlands, the north-west and Yorkshire. My experience of corresponding and negotiating with four different Government regions has not led me to believe in joined-up government in relation to the national parks.

There are 125 parish and town councils in the Peak District national park, and in considering the governance of national parks—I had not realised that the Minister had made this point about governance—I believe that a balance has now been struck. For many years, there was great local animosity because there were no local people directly on the national park authority. During the passage of the Environment Act 1995, I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who was then Secretary of State for the Environment, advanced proposals to enable parish councils to be automatically represented. That introduced an element of locally elected representation, but was attacked as not being the right way forward.

Whatever the results of the Minister's review of the governance of the national parks, I hope that that element of elected representation remains. Derbyshire county council once appointed eight people to govern the Peak District national park, only one of whom lived within the park area. It is important to get a balance of local representation. It is good to appoint people because they bring a national viewpoint to the debate, but we should not underestimate the need for local representation. It is important to understand that the national parks are not simply giant theme areas, but places where people have to live, work and earn their living. I believe that the right balance can be struck and that the competing arguments for and against development can be dealt with by having an element of local representation.

Will the Minister deal with transport, which the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby mentioned? When I was fortunate enough to be drawn quite high in the ballot for private Members' Bills, I pushed for a measure to give community transport the same kind of relief received by commercial operators. I was pleased that the Government announced such a measure in their transport plan, but so far we have heard no more about it. Will the Minister let us know what is happening to that proposal and when the community transport organisations can look forward to the fuel relief, which was announced before the House rose for the summer recess some four months ago?

The number of visitors to national parks, and the enjoyment that people get out of visiting them, should not be underestimated but neither should the problems of having so many visitors. One problem is that, despite their large numbers, they do not spend much, and so do not bring much wealth into the area. They come to the national parks and enjoy them, but they do not spend as much as we would like them to.

As the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, housing is a problem that must be addressed. There is a huge development at Carver Mill in my constituency, where Gleesons has restored a mill, which is being converted into homes. However, the cost of those homes is way beyond what locally employed people could afford. In addition, planning authorities may not allow planning applications for four-bedroom houses. That would restrict people whose families are growing. They might want to move around the area but face a blanket ban on such development.

The Peak district's attractive countryside undoubtedly contributes to surrounding areas, and I welcome this debate. That countryside exists not only because of the natural form of the land that we have inherited, but because of the way in which farmers have looked after it for generations. I fear for its future as I fear for that of agriculture in those tough areas, and I hope that the Minister will address some of those matters.

10.38 am
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

The Minister and I are perhaps the only Members present who do not represent national parks, although we share a great interest in them. We have almost adjoining constituencies and I often see him in one of the two northern national parks to which we are both frequent visitors. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) on taking the initiative by raising the issue. I have the honour of chairing the all-party national parks group, and we will want to contribute to the review of the national parks that we understand is to be conducted in due course both as a group and as individuals.

Like the Minister, my hon. Friend and I both represent the north-east of England and we are lucky that, with a drive of an hour and a half, we can be in three of the national parks: Northumberland, Lake District and North York Moors. I know them reasonably well and spent a happy day in the summer accompanying my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby to the North York Moors national park, where I met the new national park officer, Andy Wilson, who, I am sure, will add to the excellence of the work there.

All the national parks do a great deal of good work, but I want to talk about national issues because the parks are national. Equally, we must recognise the duty of all national parks to foster the economic and social well-being of the local communities within them.

Therefore, I agree with the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) that it is a question of balance.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)

Myhon. Friend referred to the national role of the national parks. Does he agree that, following devolution, there is a danger that the national parks, as a family, may be threatened? Does he agree that we must urge the United Kingdom Government and the National Assembly for Wales to recognise the common interests, aims and purposes of national parks, and to pursue a family approach?

Dr. Clark

It is desirable that the national parks work closely together. Indeed, all those in England and Wales do so under the Association of National Park Authorities, and we hope that those in Scotland will do so in due course. However, the devolution of power to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament has brought about a new problem and we must ensure that the right balance is struck.

I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his courageous and, in my view, correct decision to uphold his own inspector's plan to introduce a 10 mph limit on Lake Windermere, where there are more than 6,500 registered motorboats. Life has become intolerable for those who do not use motorised boats, and the overwhelming majority of locals have applauded that decision. He should not be taken in by the vociferous group of people who are campaigning against that move, especially as I believe that the main objector is the man who has the sole concession to import the powerboats, the majority of which come from the United States.

The national parks must be national. They must also retain a responsibility for planning. We welcome the possible addition of national parks in Sussex and the New Forest, and I hope that the Government will stand firm and include planning in the remit of the national parks. Like the hon. Member for West Derbyshire, I have looked at the figures.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

Myright hon. Friend has reached an apposite point. Land management is a crucial issue in relation to the forthcoming South Downs national park. Most of the destruction to the landscape that has occurred until now has been caused by common agricultural practice, which is bad practice; the deep ploughing of delicate downland soil is very destructive, not only to rare species, but to people. My constituents are suffering from run-off, which happens on ground that has been ploughed for winter cereals.

Mrs. Ray Michie (in the Chair)


Dr. Turner

I will be one moment, Mrs. Michie.

Mrs. Ray Michie (in the Chair)

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman please sit down? This is becoming a speech. Only short interventions are permissible.

Dr. Turner

Thank you, Mrs. Michie. I was trying to avoid a speech by making an intervention.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one vital issue that the national parks can address is proper land management, which not only preserves the landscape but protects those people who are exposed to the dangers of bad practice? They pay for farmers' profits.

Dr. Clark

Obviously, I do not want to follow that route, but I understand the point. Planning is clearly the key aspect.

I want to make two points, the first of which concerns social exclusion. The national parks have an important role because of their infrastructure. The North York Moors national park runs 13,000 bus services a year. If the Government want to encourage social inclusion, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the infrastructure within the auspices of the national park authorities, which can deliver services on time and at a price.

My final point concerns finance. We are all pleased that, following the comprehensive spending review, there will be a 10 per cent. increase in real terms in spending on the countryside and rural matters during each of the next three years and we look forward to the rural White Paper. However, I saw a letter from the head of the Wildlife and Countryside Directorate and was concerned that very little of that 10 per cent. increase is to be given to the national parks. I refer to a letter of 21 July from Miss Lambert suggesting that most of the money will go on wildlife management and laudable schemes, but if money is put into the national parks, it can provide excellent value for money and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that.

I shall draw my comments to a close and allow hon. Members with constituency interests to speak.

10.47 am
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Icongratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) on initiating this important debate. It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) because he knows the national park to which I shall refer, as does the Minister, and I concur with his comments.

The purpose of my brief comments is to ask the Minister in his review of national parks to resolve the conflict between the demands of military training and the statutory obligations given to national park authorities. The Minister knows that the Northumberland and Brecon Beacons national parks have extensive military training areas and a considerable military presence. More than 20 per cent. of the Northumberland national park is owned by the Ministry of Defence. The demands of both bodies have been a recipe for conflict, which has caused considerable trouble and disquiet and has made the national park authority unpopular among local people.

When the military authorities submitted an application for substantial improvements to the infrastructure on the Otterburn training ranges, the Northumberland national park authority wanted to object, but could not for technical reasons, because the objections had to come from Northumberland county council. The duty of the national park authority is to preserve the area from such development, but the Ministry of Defence in Otterburn is the largest employer in the Rede and Coquet valleys and puts around £3 million into the local economy. That national park's stated objective is to look after the needs of local people and the conflict arises because it is opposing an essential development to maintain military training on the Otterburn ranges, which brings great economic benefit to local people.

The saga of the infrastructure improvements on Otterburn date from April 1996 when the plan was first submitted to allow the AS90 automatic mobile gun to be used in training on the ranges. The AS90 is effectively a large tank with a large gun mounted on it, and it needs special roads and infrastructure to operate on the Otterburn ranges.

The planning inquiry opened in April 1997, following the refusal of the county council to grant planning permission. A second inquiry was then deemed necessary by the Government. That ended in March 1999, when the inspector reported to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, who has been sitting on the planning application since May 1999. In the meantime, the Army has experienced serious difficulty in training troops on the AS90. Were it not for the fact that some AS90s are now deployed in Bosnia, where training is allowed to take place, the military would face a real crisis in bringing the crews operating the AS90s up to the standard required. That has led to huge uncertainty among people who work for or benefit from the Army in the national park area.

The MOD has an enviable record in maintaining the environment of military ranges. Anyone who knows those ranges—as I am sure that the Minister does—will be aware that the Army has an excellent conservation record. If military training had not taken place in this part of the national parks since 1910, I have no doubt that the whole area would have been afforested along with the neighbouring forests of Kielder and Wark. The conservation of the area can be well and safely looked after by the MOD.

A solution to the conflict between the military and the national park would be to take the military training areas out of the national park. I have favoured and recommended that solution for some time. However, that would remove 22 per cent. of the national park area and would make Northumberland national park, which is one of the smallest national parks—consisting of only some 400 square miles—unviable as a national park. The problem could be solved by including the Kielder forest, an area that was deliberately excluded when the national park was formed. When the Kielder forest—the largest man-made forest in Europe—was planted, it was deemed to be unsuitable for national park purposes because it was man-made.

That situation has changed because of the way in which the Forestry Commission is remodelling commercial forestry to make it vastly more environmentally friendly and much more attractive. The growth in tourism to the Kielder dam and the forest means that the area could happily be put into the national park to compensate for the park losing considerable powers over the Otterburn training ranges. I urge the Minister to consider that solution to resolve the conflict between the two bodies.

10.53 am
Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

Icongratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) on having secured this important debate. Its importance for those of us who do not yet have national parks in our areas is shown by the fact that four Members who represent Sussex constituencies covering different parts of the South Downs are hoping to take part in the debate—although I suspect that we have different views about the national park.

I welcome the decision by the Minister and his Government colleagues to listen and respond to the campaign that has taken place over several years to secure a national park for the South Downs, which, in 1947, was one of the areas suggested by the Hobhouse report for the first tranche of national parks and was the only area not included in the family of national parks that was created in 1949.

The history of the campaign predates that. In 1934, there was pressure for what we would now call a national park to be established for the South Downs by the landowners and the majority of the local authorities in the area, with one exception—Brighton borough council—which effectively prevented matters from going further. That was a twist of history, because Brighton and Hove council is the only local authority in the area that took the trouble to consult local residents on whether they wished to have a national park. The residents voted in favour of the proposal, which Brighton and Hove council is supporting in the face of opposition from other parts of the region.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Iam sure that the hon. Gentleman was not expecting to avoid the point that, of the 15 local authorities that cover the proposed national park area, only one—his own—is in favour of national park status. All the others, which are accountable to their democratically elected councils, oppose it.

Mr. Lepper

I thank the hon. Gentleman for falling into the trap of making that intervention. He is right, but Brighton and Hove council is the only council that consulted its local residents. In many other local authorities, the decision to support the proposed national park was taken by council officers and rubber-stamped by a small committee of councillors. Indeed, in every case where a local authority held a public meeting concerning the proposed national park, the majority of those in attendance supported the proposal.

Why should the South Downs become a national park? There can be no doubt that the landscape is unique and needs protection. From Winchester to Eastbourne, the landscape is subject to all kinds of pressures, and needs the protection that only national park status can provide. The area is popular with visitors, and much more needs to be done to create a balance between the needs of conservation and recreation and of those who work there.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Thehon. Gentleman will be aware that some 32 million people a year currently visit the South Downs. Does he think that national park status will increase or reduce the number of visitors?

Mr. Lepper

I think that we will have better management of recreation for the South Downs, which will affect the visitors. For example, thanks to good management, the number of visitors to the Norfolk Broads has in some respects declined since national park status was recently conferred on it. The creation of a national park does not necessarily lead, therefore, to an increase in the number of visitors.

Those who oppose a national park for the South Downs have built up certain myths about the way in which national parks are run. One such myth concerns local involvement in a national parks authority. It is suggested that such an authority is a form of quango that is run from Whitehall, but nothing could be further from the truth. The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) expressed his support for the inclusion of parish council representatives as a move towards greater democracy in the management of national park authorities. Fifty per cent. plus one of the membership of such an authority consists of local, county and district councillors, and 25 per cent. minus one consists of parish council representatives. It is true that the remaining 25 per cent. are appointed, but as I understand it the chairman—or woman—of a national park authority is appointed by the authority itself, rather than Whitehall. Therefore, there is a degree of real local representation in national park authorities.

Another myth is that there will be a move away from local councils' involvement in the planning process. All who care about national parks regard the ability to form a strategic plan, through which the various conflicting interests of district councils and planning authorities are resolved, as one of their strengths. As I understand it, the situation that existed in the national parks until the 1995 Act was that the majority of planning decisions were devolved back to the individual local authorities. Following the 1995 legislation, the majority of local authorities decided to move in the opposite direction and to give greater decision making powers over strategic planning to the national park authority for their area. On both those counts, therefore, the opponents of a national park for the South Downs are creating myths that cannot be sustained by fact.

My final point is about funding. We have heard about the Government's contribution to funding, and I share the concerns that have been expressed about the need for that to be increased. However, it is often overlooked, especially in the important area of conservation, that a national park has access to lottery funding—or the ability to apply for it—and funding from the European Union, whereas bodies such as the South Downs Conservation Board do not. On the South Downs, therefore, conservation work would be enhanced by the possibility of attracting additional funding, not only from central Government but from sources from which the Sussex Downs conservation board is currently denied funds.

I pay tribute to the Sussex Downs conservation board for the work that it has done in the years since it was set up. It has done a lot, but its powers are limited, especially in relation to planning. It can be listened to, but it has no remit for decision making in terms of planning. A national park authority would have such a remit. That is why the campaign for a national park for the south downs is supported not only by my area's council, but by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Friends of the Earth, the Ramblers Association, the wildlife trusts, the Youth Hostels Association, the Open Spaces Society, the Society of Sussex Downsmen, the Sussex Archaeological Society, the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and a host of other local and national organisations. I am glad that the Government have listened to those people.

11.2 am

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) on securing this debate, which has been a very level-headed one.

The debate takes place against the background of increasing building pressure on greenfield sites, an increasing demand for access to national parks as well as country and urban parks, an increasing threat to biodiversity both onshore and offshore, and increasing demands for safe food and the sustainable management of natural resources. All that points to the need for an increase in the number of national parks or—to put it a different way—for areas to be granted the degree of protection afforded to national parks. Greater investment is also required in the less prestigious local parks relied on by many people in urban areas such as mine. That has been well documented in the Select Committee's report on country and urban parks.

I shall focus first on national marine parks, to which other hon. Members have not referred. That is one of the major omissions in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. I am not suggesting that direct comparisons can be made between a species that is being fished commercially, such as cod, and other species worthy of protection. However, if cod is in such decline that whole sea areas might have to be closed to fishing, I dread to think what is happening to the less well known species. That is why action needs to be taken on national marine parks. I know that the Government have identified that as an issue, and that a working party was set up to examine it. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made on this important matter?

With regard to onshore national parks, the South Downs has been referred to, and there is also the question of the New Forest national park. The extension of protected landscapes and habitats will be welcomed, but only if local communities feel that their interests are also being safeguarded. I have some questions to which I hope the Minister will respond. Does he support proposals for the South Downs and the New Forest to become national parks? If so, what time scale does he envisage? Has he considered the funding implications for local authorities? What local community involvement would he envisage and has he made any attempt to assess the impact on access arrangements for existing and future visitors?

On the question of reforms to the way that national parks are structured, a number of hon. Members mentioned planning. How can more consultation be carried out with local communities? How can we ensure that the planning officers who carry out the work are more highly qualified? How can planning help to provide more affordable housing in these areas? There is also the question of national park rangers. I understand that they have no powers of enforcement. Do rangers demand or require additional powers of enforcement to protect wildlife in national parks? Is the Minister reviewing that issue?

One of the concerns that has been raised by various organisations in relation to national parks is bureaucracy. Leaving land in a will is an expensive, complex and lengthy process, which is a key problem when a possible extension to a national park is being considered. Do the Government have any plans to review that legal quagmire?

The public are increasingly concerned about the environment, biodiversity and also the quality of the food that is produced. Could national parks develop a campaigning role in promoting high-squality, possibly organic food that is grown in those areas on sustainably managed farms.

What encouragement will the Minister give to sustainable resource development in those areas, and what can be done to sustain rural employment? My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), who has had to leave the Chamber, wanted me to make that point in relation to Wales, because he is concerned about a net outward migration, particularly of younger people. What can be done to help to promote skills that can be used in national parks, such as stone wall building?

Mr. McLoughlin

The hon. Gentleman referred to his hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, who was very pleased that the Welsh Assembly was to move to direct elections for national parks. Would the Liberal Democratic party welcome direct elections for all national parks?

Mr. Brake

I am happy for my Welsh colleague to pursue his agenda through the Welsh Assembly. That is what devolution is about. I will let him deal with that and I will concentrate on English matters.

Mr. Loughton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Brake

I am attempting to finish to allow time for other speakers and I shall not give way. I am drawing my comments to a close.

Another area to which hon. Members have referred is funding. I understand that Wales has received a significant boost to its national parks funding. Does the Minister expect similar action to be taken here? All hon. Members enjoy our national parks. The Minister must reassure us today that he will ensure that existing and future national parks, whether onshore or offshore, are adequately funded and sustainably managed, and that local communities thrive so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy them as much as we do.

11.09 am
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Icongratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) on securing this important debate. I was interested by the comments of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) about offshore national parks, an idea that may well commend itself to the former Paymaster General, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson).

The debate has been very interesting and a veritable tour of the country. We have heard powerful contributions, and I am particularly pleased that Sussex is so well represented today. I can claim particular knowledge of two relevant areas. One is the North York Moors national park. I grew up in Yorkshire and, like the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, have enjoyed visiting that national park. The other is the South Downs. My home in my constituency is on the very edge of the downs at Wannock and I get enormous pleasure, as I am sure other hon. Members in the Sussex area do, from walking regularly on the downs.

Today we have an excellent opportunity to celebrate the success of national parks. In particular I acknowledge the Council for National Parks, as it is now called—in 1936, when it began campaigning for national parks, it was the Standing Committee on National Parks. Its major contributions over the years are too many to mention, but they include lobbying for the extension of national parks and playing a role in the establishment of the 10 mph speed limit on Windermere in the Lake district.

The problem is that some national parks have become victims of their success, which has brought problems and challenges. The recent history of some national parks contains a message about the need for flexibility in the 21st century. We should tailor the excellent brand name of national parks to local needs and circumstances, as has happened in recent years in the broads, for example. A very different approach has been adopted there from that used in other national parks, exactly as one would expect given the special circumstances.

I attended a meeting with the hon. Members for Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and for Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) a year or so ago in this very building. It was addressed by Sir Chris Bonington, a distinguished supporter of national parks. He extolled the virtues of the new national park in the South Downs. It was a few days after his appointment by the Deputy Prime Minister to lead a task force to examine the problems in existing national parks, such as too many visitors, too much traffic, erosion, congestion and pollution. Those are the problems of success. It would have been pointless to set up the national parks without encouraging visitors.

I want to talk about the proposals for a South Downs national park, for three reasons. First, I know the area well and represent part of it. Secondly, it is the current live issue in the national parks context, along with the parallel proposals for the New Forest. Thirdly, perhaps the whole debate about the South Downs national park will inform a broader, and very important, debate about the future role and status of national parks. As I have explained, national parks are a concept that needs to develop and change in the light of new circumstances, not least, as the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby has said, the explosion in the ownership of private motor cars.

The issue that I have identified is not a new one. Originally, as the hon. Member for Pavilion pointed out, the South Downs was rejected when areas were being considered for national park status. The Countryside Agency's predecessors considered the issue twice, in 1956 and 1998. In 1992, of course, the Countryside Commission decided to establish the Sussex Downs conservation board, to which I join other hon. Members in paying tribute. It does an excellent job and shows tremendous commitment.

In 1998, the Countryside Commission again considered whether national park status would be appropriate for the South Downs, and concluded that designation was not especially desirable to ensure conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty of the area or to implement the necessary measures in respect of recreation and so on. It advised Ministers against designation as a national park. The new Government did not take that advice, and the process is thus on-going.

It is important, however, as the Countryside Agency stated recently, to focus on the factors that might make the area a proper place for a national park. They boil down to two criteria. The first is whether the area contains qualities that might merit the provision of a markedly superior recreational experience. No hon. Member who represents part of the area, or who has visited it, could argue that it does not. It is a wonderful area of recreational opportunities already enjoyed by many thousands, if not millions, of people every year.

The second criterion stated by the agency is that designation will lead to a markedly better managed recreational experience than can be achieved by local authorities alone. That is the key issue in this context. The document also states, rather in passing, that some regard must be had to public opinion. It continues that designation as a national park for better protection, should be seen as carrying low priority. It says that because national parks and areas of outstanding national beauty have similar protection under the existing rules.

It has rightly been said that planning issues are at the heart of the debate; that is the key to the future of the South Downs and other national parks. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) said that all the local authorities in the area, with the exception of Brighton and Hove, believe that they should continue to have a strong role in the planning process. That is not just because of democratic accountability, although that is important, but because they know the area and feel that they are best placed to take planning decisions.

The average figure for planning applications is roughly the same for national parks as for anywhereelse—about 80 per cent. That point was powerfully made by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. That is a double-edged sword. In the present circumstances, there will not be a major shift in the approach to planning. West Sussex county council, for example, made a strong case for joint local planning arrangements between a national park authority and the district authorities, possibly under section 62(2) of the Environment Act 1995. I should be interested to hear the Minister's views about that proposal.

The area in question is different from that of existing national parks. It is not a wilderness; it is heavily farmed and close to large centres of population. I am puzzled by the alleged advantages of national park status for recreation and access. We already have an estimated 32 million visitors a year, which is more than any of the existing national parks. The hon. Member for Pavilion seemed to think that we might end up with fewer visitors if the area was a national park, although I am not clear whether he thought that that was a good thing or a bad thing.

I advise the Government and others involved to be cautious about divining public support or opposition. There are some vociferous minority groups who are in favour of the proposal, and there have been some so-called public meetings that have not been representative of a cross-section of opinion. In my constituency, mainstream opinion is not in favour of a national park—almost every local authority in the area is against the idea.

We want a working and living community, not a theme park. Shakespeare said, "What is in a name?", which may be a wise approach. The need for national parks in the South Downs and the New Forest will be reviewed under the next Conservative Government.

Today is a time for celebration to mark the farsightedness and high ideals of those who started national parks; to congratulate existing national parks on their success; and to look to the future to establish whether, under the brand name "national park", we can produce a more democratic, more local and more workable system for the 21st century.

11.20 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

Ithank my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) for raising this important issue. He made an interesting speech and other hon. Members also raised important points. I shall attempt to address as many as possible in the available time, but if I cannot deal with all of them, I shall write to hon. Members.

Responsibility for national parks is one of the better elements of my diverse brief, as hon. Members have noticed. I am familiar with the North York Moors park because I holiday there from time to time. It is about an hour's drive from my home. I am in the process of walking in four stages from Holy island to the Lake district—a distance of about 250 miles. Thus far I have reached Shap, and the walk has taken me through three national parks, so I have some familiarity with the territory.

As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said, the decision taken 50 years ago to ensure the conservation of our most precious areas of countryside was indeed far sighted and it is worth celebrating. Modern pressures make the conservation of these fine areas even more important—not only on account of their great beauty but because they provide people with somewhere to go away from the hurly burly where they can truly enjoy their leisure time.

As hon. Members have argued today, we must recognise that national parks are also places where people live and work, and the benefits of increasing the number of visitors must be reconciled with the interests of people living and working there. They are not incompatible, but we are all on a learning curve and as we go along we should try to achieve that balance.

National parks are a vital part of our heritage. Each is different from the others, and between them they offer beautiful countryside and a great range of experience in recreational pursuits. It may be that no single ideological model can be imposed on all of them. I acknowledge that in respect of the proposals for the South Downs and New Forest national parks. I have received a delegation and am taking careful account of all the different representations on the subject. I have made it clear that our minds remain open about what model will be adopted.

Mr. Wigley

The Minister will be aware from some hon. Members' contributions that the National Assembly for Wales is, for the same reason that he proposed, considering possible variations in the model. If primary legislation is forthcoming, will the Minister bear in mind the need of the National Assembly for Wales for flexibility through order-making procedures? We want to ensure that we achieve a formula that is responsive to our area's needs.

Mr. Mullin

I shall certainly bear that in mind, but many of my superiors would be annoyed if I made any commitments about future legislation.

In view of the Government's current initiatives, today's debate is timely. The initiatives include the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, the introduction of rural development plans for England and Wales, the forthcoming rural White Paper and the policy review of national park authorities, which I recently announced. The review will be similar to other Government sponsored policy reviews. I expect it to cover a range of issues, including the parks' governing structures, overall policy relating to legislation that affects the parks, and the future distribution of funding. We want to ensure that the national park authorities remain forward looking, dynamic, open and innovative.

National parks contribute much to the social and economic fabric of rural areas. Tourism is just one example; it is an industry that is becoming increasingly important in rural areas. It supports about 380,000 jobs compared with just over 500,000 in agriculture, and it makes a vital contribution to the local economies of all the national parks and to the rural economy in general. In accordance with their statutory purpose, the national parks are keen to promote greater enjoyment of all their special qualities by everyone, in a responsible fashion. I hope that they will be seen as models in promoting sustainable tourism.

Mr. McLoughlin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mullin

I am sorry, I have very little time.

Public transport projects are a key factor in tourism. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby mentioned the North York Moors bus scheme and the leading role taken by the Esk valley rail partnership.

Several hon. Members mentioned the need for social inclusion. That operates two ways: first, it means making the parks available to people from all backgrounds and in all income groups; secondly it means taking account of the interests of those on low incomes who live in the parks, including their need for decent local transport and affordable housing. It is imperative that we send out the clear message that the national parks are for everyone. Efforts are being made to make the parks more accessible to all by public transport, particularly disabled visitors. We are also keen to encourage greater involvement by minority ethnic communities. The Government are playing their part in that by broadening the membership of national park authorities to make them more representative of the social and cultural mix of the countryside at large.

There has been some talk about the use of cars. These days the Conservative party is posturing as the party of the motor car, but that is rather irresponsible. We need to make more sensible use of the car. Everyone recognises that cars are essential, especially for those who live in rural areas, but we can do much to make more sensible use of them.

There have long been stricter planning controls in the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, particularly in respect of major development. There are also tighter controls over permitted development rights in the parks. Those additional controls are needed to reflect the special features and qualities of protected landscape areas, and they have proved their worth. I know that concern is often expressed locally about the national park authorities' interpretation of planning controls, but it is a difficult balance to strike. Well over 80 per cent. of planning applications in national parks are granted. The Countryside Agency offers special training seminars for authority members on planning matters, so that the national experience can be more widely shared.

The new national parks have been mentioned. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) said, a number of myths exist about national parks. I agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne that parks are living communities, not theme parks. The Government are considering the possible designation of two new national parks, and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) asked about the timetable for that. We intend the designation order for the New Forest to be produced in late 2001 and that for the South Downs to be published in the spring of 2002. It will then be for the Secretary of State to consider the orders, with any representations that may have been made, and to decide whether public inquiries are needed before final decisions are taken.

The national parks have received a real terms increase of about £5 million in funding over the past 10 years, and further increases will be announced shortly. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said that extra money will be available—about 10 per cent. a year—but we must bear in mind the fact that some of that will be consumed by the extra responsibilities that will arise under the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, particularly the access provisions of which he is a strong supporter. Everyone expects us to fund authorities properly and not just impose extra responsibilities on them. In any case, the parks benefit from many other aspects of Government policy. We are putting a lot of money into rural buses and, through the Housing Corporation, into affordable housing, which is an important issue not only in national parks, but in all parts of the country. It is not true—

Mrs. Ray Michie (in the Chair)

Order. I am sorry to stop the Minister in full flight, but we must now move to the next debate.

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