HC Deb 13 July 2004 vol 423 cc388-411WH

2 pm

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab)

It is a great personal pleasure and privilege to be allowed to introduce this debate, which I hope will enable us to consider the present activities and future mission of national parks in the United Kingdom. The debate will allow us to consider the issues surrounding national park authorities and their role in national conservation, recreation, tourism and rural regeneration agendas.

First, I thank you, Mr. O'Brien, and all right hon. and hon. Members who, with me, have requested an allocation of time to consider this important matter. This Adjournment debate is timely and I congratulate everyone who has been able to find time to attend this afternoon. I hope that we shall have a good debate and that we shall be able to give wide consideration to the important issues concerning national parks, which are one of the most important—indeed, vital—parts of national life. In an attempt to allow as many hon. Members as possible to participate, I shall make my opening comments as brief as possible.

I represent Scarborough and Whitby and live in one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom. As the secretary of the national parks parliamentary group, I know only too well that there are many rivals for that tribute. I have been able to appreciate many different aspects of national parks throughout the country and, as I look round the Chamber this afternoon, I am pleased that I have had the opportunity on many occasions to visit national parks with my colleagues. We have had some very pleasant times indeed, but the jury is still out on which is the most beautiful part of the country.

I am sure that you are aware, Mr. O'Brien, that last week was the first national park week. That important period of celebration, recently concluded, was aimed at achieving a greater understanding and commitment at two levels; first, by encouraging people to visit and enjoy a range of events and sites, and secondly, to raise the profile of national parks nationally.

I am reminded of that old public information message that a dog is not just for Christmas. I passionately believe that the national parks are for every day of the year in every weather, and are not just for holidays. I am sure that my constituents and fellow residents of the North York Moors national park agree, as, I hope, do other Members of the House.

Our special week celebrated national parks and was given an excellent opening by the Minister who announced the Government's intention to confirm the designation of the New Forest as a national park.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of my concern that the park as designated is too small to protect its sensitive core. The Minister has now decided to follow the inspector's recommendation and make it even smaller by excluding Lymington, Ringwood and other areas. I hope that the Minister will be open to representations on that score.

Lawrie Quinn

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. From our previous encounters on the issue I know of his passion for the national parks movement and I am sure that the Minister has heard what the hon. Gentleman said.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

I want to make it clear that the points raised by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) are not open to reconsideration. In my announcement, I sought to define clearly the New Forest national park according to the characteristics of the national park and the New Forest. He referred to urban areas. Urban areas such as Buxton in the heart of the Peak district do not need to be part of the national park area to be clearly engaged with and related to it. I suggest that both my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman read the details of the decision, which was clearly based on the inspector's report, the landscape expertise and the representations made during the seven months of public inquiry. The conclusions were reached carefully and the areas that remain concern three possible small additions that would improve the overall definition of the national park.

Lawrie Quinn

I thank my right hon. Friend for that quick response to the intervention. I am sure that the Official Report will be read by all of us in what I regard as the national parks family in Westminster. Indeed, it is from that sense of family that I give a warm welcome to everyone who will be part of the new national park in the New Forest; not only the residents but the authority and all the partners.

The debate will go on, with the words of the Minister regarding the remit and the necessity for designation ringing in our ears. I am sure that the future management of the New Forest will benefit from a focus not only at the national but the local level. Without doubt that national park designation can and, I believe will, allow greater community and public park participation. I want to encourage that.

The national parks movement goes back to the mid-19th century in north America. I have had the privilege and pleasure of visiting national parks across north America. It is my aim to try to emulate the high standards in national parks such as Yellowstone. It is important that we try to take a lead from the inspiration of the post-war settlement in terms of national parks to make sure that that place provides the tools for local communities to build a national park in their location in the way that they want.

The possibility of extending the national parks designation to other areas is also important and I look forward to seeing more national parks closer to more heavily populated parts of the country. Given the dynamic nature of the economy in south-east England and this capital city of ours, I hope that the landscape and the opportunities that the south downs offer will allow for a designation in the near future, if not next year. The quality of that landscape deserves the high accolade of national park status of which I am sure everyone would be proud.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op)

I welcome the comments that my hon. Friend made about the south downs. Is he aware that a poll carried out by Meridian television showed that about 85 per cent. of people in the proposed south downs areas support the national park? There is a great deal of public support in the Sussex and Hampshire areas.

Lawrie Quinn

My hon. Friend has great experience and I recall that he had the opportunity to participate in a similar debate approximately four years ago, in November 2000. I wish him and his constituents well in bringing that forward.

The media involvement and interest in the issue gives credit to the national park movement, which has used national parks week to focus the significance of that vital part of national life across the nation. The hundreds of pieces of print and broadcast coverage during that week, both near to national parks and beyond, have allowed us to give the country a flavour of the wide variety of opportunities in national parks.

It is interesting to note that many other audiences were reached in different ways. The UK's largest outdoor retail store featured a national parks week window promotion in its 260 stores nationwide. I am sure that that has prompted many people from urban areas to find out for themselves the great attractions that national parks have to offer.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab)

I see that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) is present. We both enjoy the delights of the Norfolk broads, but the local council is attempting to close the toilets and demean other public facilities such as refuse collection. Is not the wonderful work taking place in Norfolk and other areas undermined by aberrant councils?

Lawrie Quinn

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution to the debate. Perhaps hon. Members will recall the incident in my part of the world where Scarborough borough council tried to close public conveniences in the same way as my hon. Friend described. Famously, the local playwright, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, who was given the opportunity to comment on whether there should be public conveniences or extra grants for his local theatre, said he did not want to get himself involved in a debate that would consider the important question of luvvies or lavvies.

At the end of the day, public opinion will doubtless win through. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk well with their campaign to ensure that people see sense about how to spend a penny. [Interruption.] I think we will forgo that comment on rendezvous in public toilets.

To return to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), there was a lot of publicity during national parks week. The Association of National Parks commissioned public surveys, and the interest in national parks from the survey conducted by Meridian television that my hon. Friend has mentioned is supported by the national survey, which showed that 95 per cent. of people thought that national parks were an essential part of national life. For all of us politicians, a 95 per cent. approval rating of our work would be well received, but perhaps we can look to that only as a political holy grail.

The key point of the debate is to support the vital work within the national parks family and to further stimulate public awareness. That point was highlighted in the review of national parks authorities published last year. One strong recommendation was that the parks do a better job of promoting their activities. On the North York Moors national park, the parks authority, those who work in the park and the friends of the national park have taken up that recommendation and done a far better job of promoting their activities.

In my part of the world and in many national parks throughout the country, a crucial component is the management of natural resources within the parks. Fundamental to that is the participation of people who work in the agricultural industry and the industry itself. The industry defines, maintains and undertakes the important stewardship of the landscape.

Over the last bank holiday, I visited the Peak District national park and, without a doubt, the landscape has been worked to provide us with a national treasure and has the acclaim of being our first national park. From conversations with farmers in the Peak District national park, we learned that Parliament must closely monitor agriculture for the next 10 years, as the common agricultural policy mid-term reform and single farm payments scheme impacts on those vital landscapes and their communities.

I hope that everyone agrees that it is essential to sustain the farming communities in the national parks. They are some of the most isolated and hard-working communities and they receive very little reward. I know only too well from my constituency mailbag how much support we should give to those communities, and the work that DEFRA has embarked on is part of the process of encouraging farmers to make more of the benefits of national park designation. The park authorities want to work more with the farming community to help it become more sustainable, not only in terms of agricultural product, but in terms of the diversification of the activities that it is able to carry out.

The parks are addressing the facilitation of the nation's sustainable development agenda. That has been helped by one of the Minister's personal initiatives; the sustainable development fund strategy. If he will forgive me for saying so, it is a passion of his. It is an exciting initiative, which involves communities and businesses in sustainable development at a practical level, and instead of just talking about the topic, it is delivering practical results in the nation's national parks.

In the North York Moors national park, a small engineering company was supported in the development of a small, environmentally friendly boiler, which is now a leader in the world market. That all started because of the support and the considered judgment of the park authority. Through agricultural and industrial support, the national parks have become an exciting place to do business. Many other organisations could take a leaf out of the national parks' book and follow their lead. They are all about teamwork and partnership and ensuring that such engagement continues into the future.

My right hon. Friend the Minister is respected among the family of national parks, principally because of his personal interest in the national park movement. I have been pleased to welcome him to my constituency on the occasions when he has visited the national park that covers 60 per cent. of my constituency. I particularly remember the fine day when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the North York Moors national park. With typical style, we had a brisk ministerial moorland walk. The Minister impressed all who accompanied him on that day, not least the park rangers, who had allotted double the time we actually took to travel the route, which is a tribute to the years of training the Minister had on the slopes of Snowdonia. Without a doubt, on that day in North Yorkshire, he was not only well briefed but well booted. Many people, including rangers, still mention that day to me, and the way that he was able to get involved with discussions in the park.

For the record, we were also able to bring parliamentary colleagues from the national parks group to North York Moors national park in May 2003. There were many highlights to that trip, but one of the important things was the drive towards bringing sustainable tourism to the national parks in North Yorkshire. Last year, more than 8.5 million visitors spent time in the North Yorks Moors national park. Most would agree that that figure illustrates the importance of tourism to the area. Without a doubt, after the ravages of foot and mouth—which happily stopped halfway down my constituency, but none the less damaged many local businesses, many of which were linked to tourism—the North Yorks Moors national park sustainable tourism project allowed local businesses to understand what a special product they had and to develop the proposition that it is great to come to the North Yorks Moors national park.

The popular village of Goathland in my constituency is well known as Aidensfield in "Heartbeat" and it acts as a magnet for many people coming into my part of North Yorkshire. The special role that North Yorks Moors national park is able to perform in stimulating effective management of transport systems, effective promotion, and, above all else, a real partnership with the local community, allows us to look forward positively to the future.

I am conscious of the time. I want to allow many other colleagues to take part in the debate, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the tremendous work that has been done to debunk the ideas relating to social exclusion in national parks. People in areas such as Teesside, Humberside and other parts of West Yorkshire—people from ethnic communities in particular—have not felt that they would be afforded a welcome and hospitality when they visited a national park. The authority has done tremendous work in North Yorkshire and the Minister may recall seeing a presentation on it. It has made a huge difference and has made our national park feel like a national park, so Muslims from Teesside or Hindus from Hartlepool can come and enjoy the wonders of the fantastic moorland.

I want to mention a particular concern of mine that is exemplified by the ongoing debate about the future of RAF Fylingdales in the North Yorks Moors national park, which has made me particularly aware of the specialist and tremendous work that national park planning officers do. It gives me some concern that, as a nation, we are perhaps not sustaining and developing that particular group of professionals to allow them to undertake their specialist work of sustaining and keeping the national park together for the future.

I hope that the Minister will consider speaking to his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to examine whether there will be a development, both professionally and in terms of the training opportunities that can be afforded to that special group of people. Over the years, I have seen planning officers who have been trained up, and have become very effective in their role of working for local communities, but who have been almost seduced away from the delights of the national park movement towards private practice. That puts pressure on the ability of planning officers to work effectively for the future. The debate on RAF Fylingdales has shown me what an excellent job such people do in contributing to the viability of national parks.

There is so much that I could say, but I will finish with one final point. The Minister took over from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who set in train a debate about the future of national parks. At the end of 2003, an action plan for the review of the English national parks authorities was published. At the end of the debate, perhaps the Minister could take the opportunity to highlight where we are up to with the action plan, what has been achieved and whether there are any lessons to be learnt. Above all, what role can be played by local MPs, who serve these wonderful communities around the country, to keep the action plan alive and relevant and to service the needs of not only local residents but the nation?

Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair)

Order. Hon. Members will be aware that this debate will finish at 3.30 pm, and I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 3 o'clock. There are 35 minutes to call as many Back Benchers as possible.

2.25 pm
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) on securing a debate on this important subject. I am lucky that my constituency straddles the broads at the eastern side. As hon. Members will know, the Norfolk and Suffolk broads are the UK's premier wetland area and have been shaped and matured since Roman times.

Agriculture remains a crucial element in the economy of the broads, but is more important today for securing the landscape and wildlife. Tourism is now the major driving force behind the economy. I know that the Minister has visited the broads in the past couple of years and that he used to go on the broads as a child, so he is well aware of the area's importance and natural beauty.

The broads were finally established as a UK national park under the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, which was steered through the House by my predecessor in Mid-Norfolk, who is now Lord Ryder of Wensum. That legislation is tailored to meet the specific additional interest of protecting navigation on the broads.

The broads' boundary is tightly drawn around the rivers Bure, Yare and Waverley, and encompasses an area of about 301 km of mainly open, under-developed landscape of water, fens, marshland and woodland. It also includes many waterside villages and towns, such as Wroxham, Acle, Reedham and Brundle, which happen to lie in my constituency, as well as many others. It is a truly beautiful area. An extensive inland waterway system, comprising 190 km of navigable, lock-free rivers and permanently open water bodies is also an important part of the broads.

The Broads Authority has three aspects to its remit: first, conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the broads; secondly, promoting the enjoyment of the broads by the public; and thirdly, protecting the interests of navigation. One specific concern about the broads is the impact of climate change, especially the rise in sea level and the risks from flooding. Will the Minister comment on what additional action the Government are taking to protect the Norfolk broads from that growing threat?

Together with the important urban hinterland, the broads can facilitate growth and urban regeneration in that part of eastern England. Transport, including the road system, is absolutely crucial. The Minister will be aware of the vital importance to Norfolk of our main east-west road, the A47. Something that has particularly caught the local attention is the debate over the dualling of the so-called "Acle straight", the single-lane road between Acle and Great Yarmouth. The Highways Agency is due to report shortly on whether the road should be dualled.

One concern expressed by local people is that although the environmental impact is the main consideration, economic factors are not being considered at all. I spoke in a debate on transport in the eastern region the other week, supported by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright). I know that that issue is not the Minister's responsibility, but it reinforces what the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby said about the fine balance in areas such as the broads between economic aspects, regeneration, and the natural habitat.

Managing the habitat is incredibly important. The wetlands and hinterlands are crucial for birds and wildlife. We must also consider the management of predators, and how they can be contained and eliminated. There particular concern in several areas about foxes; without wishing to raise a fox hair, I ask if the Minister accepts the need to cull foxes, which according to the RSPB, are a threat to birds.

The total value of tourism to the broads was £146.6 million in 1998; more than 2.3 million visitors visit the broads annually. Boatbuilding and boat hiring are very valuable to the local economy. The hire-boat industry is the single most important provider of holidays in the broads; the number of licensed boats using the broads in any year is between 12,700 and 13,200, and 4,350 jobs in the broads area are dependent upon tourism. Other recreational activities include angling, sailing, walking and horse and bicycle riding. The economic aspect of a national park such as the broads cannot be over-emphasised.

The Broads Authority, which manages the broads, has an annual budget of approximately £4.5 billion and raises about £1 million in addition from external sources. It relies on a number of services provided by district councils, including public lavatories—not toilets, of course—and waste disposal. As the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who seems to be fascinated by the subject, said, we have a problem in that respect, which I shall mention briefly.

In the past few months, there has been considerable agitation in the broads area about the proposal by district councils—those that directly affect the broads and the hinterland—to close some, if not all, public conveniences. The hon. Gentleman is on record as saying that one district council in particular was being a cheapskate about the matter.

I did some factual investigation into the subject as it seemed to go beyond the national parks. I have received representations on the matter from the Broads Authority, the district council, the Broads Hire Boat Federation and from that most powerful of organisations, the Women's Institute of the village of Reedham. Quaver in your shoes, I say to the hon. Member for Norwich, North, at the thought of the WI intervening in this matter. There has been a lively correspondence in the local press about it and the Broads Authority will be discussing access to public lavatories and waste disposal at a board meeting on 16 July. Access to public lavatories on the broads and the removal of waste is very important not just for the environment but for local communities, business and tourism.

My concern in the debate is to consider the facts and to see what can be done to enlist the Minister's support where he is able to resolve the problem. He, and the hon. Gentleman, will be aware that district council funding for public conveniences is discretionary expenditure. Most district councils, especially those in Norfolk, are at a disadvantage because many of them have funds withheld by the Government and are facing problems in meeting their statutory obligations, let alone their discretionary obligations.

The future of public lavatories is a national problem and many councils throughout the country have already gone ahead and closed them. For example, Shepway has closed all 28 of its public lavatories, and South Devon district council has done the same. North Norfolk and South Norfolk district councils must also consider that solution. There is a financial problem connected with the issue, which I suspect affects the constituencies of other hon. Members whose constituencies cover parts of the national park. It will cost an,extra £100,000 for Broadland district council to modernise its public lavatories, including the provision of disability access. That appears to be a small sum of money, but translated into the council tax, it means an extra 3 per cent. It is not a small-change issue.

What is the solution? I hope that the Minister can bring some pressure to bear on his colleagues in other Departments to admit that this is a national problem, and that the decision on withholding moneys from district councils should be reversed. In particular, Broadland district council, whose policy is under question at present, should be given the moneys that it is due. I believe that the Broadland district council should continue to find local solutions to the problem of keeping those public lavatories open, such as joint financing arrangements with parish or town councils. Such arrangements already exist with two parish councils in my constituency.

Given that the Broads Authority has recently received extra moneys for tourism and planning, it might, at its meeting on 16 July, consider some form of joint financing with local district councils for public conveniences, because those conveniences are needed by local communities, and also come under pressure from tourism.

As far as waste disposal is concerned, I know that some boatyards are establishing their own local agreements with district councils for the emptying of skips. One of the problems faced by many of our district councils is that a large amount of fly-tipping occurs around the skips, which causes major problems for the environment, as well as encouraging the rodent population. I hope that the district councils in Norfolk that cover the broads area can continue to maintain a waste disposal service for the broads, which the Government will support, and that there will also be contributions from other stakeholders.

My constituents in the broads area are privileged to live in an area of great natural beauty, but many of them also make their living from the area. They also have to extend a welcome to millions of tourists every year. The Government, district councils and the Broads Authority must resolve a number of competing issues of which, at the macro level, there is the impact of tourists on the environment and, at the micro level, the opening or closure of public conveniences.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair)

Order. There are six hon. Members wishing to speak, and we are running out of time. I appeal to them to restrict their contributions to three or four minutes each.

2.32 pm
Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op)

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) on securing the debate. He is right that it is nearly four years since we last debated national parks, also at his instigation.

I am glad that he talked about the future of the national parks movement. I represent an area that does not yet have a national park, although a public inquiry is under way on the designation of the south downs as a national park. What is clear from the inspector's reports on the New Forest designation is his belief that area of outstanding natural beauty status is not enough to secure the protection that is needed for areas such as the New Forest and the south downs.

Reference has already been made to the widespread public support for designation in the area covered by the Sussex downs. There is public support because people see designation as a way of securing protection and conservation of a unique landscape through strategic planning. They also see it as a way of securing additional funding, through the EU or from the lottery, for example, to help with that conservation and protection. However, I want to mention one concern that is emerging in that public inquiry, although I would not necessarily expect the Minister to comment on it, because he is in a difficult position because of his quasi-judicial role.

Concern was expressed earlier about the narrowness of the boundary of the New Forest national park. There is concern that the boundary of the south downs national park might be more narrowly drawn than the Countryside Agency recommended.

It is well known that West Sussex county council is opposed in principle to the idea of a national park for the south downs. It has reportedly set aside a budget of £200,000 to fight designation. Its current tactic seems to be to suggest that there should be a south downs national park consisting of chalk landscape only. That would leave out many of those areas recommended by the Countryside Agency, which are important from the point of both landscape and history. There were 6,000 responses to the public inquiry into the south downs national park, compared with 420 for the New Forest; 90 per cent. wanted more land included within the boundaries rather than less. I do not necessarily expect the Minister to comment because of his role, but I flag up for his attention the genuine local concern about the possible spoiling tactics being adopted by West Sussex county council.

I have been asked, as have all hon. Members, to keep my comments brief. Support for the proposed designation grows day by day. My local authority has always supported it but other authorities have now become more sympathetic to the idea. I pay tribute to the work of the South Downs Campaign, which draws together nearly a hundred organisations including parish and district councils to put the case as strongly as possible for completing the work suggested in the Hobhouse report of 1947 to include the south downs in the family of national parks.

2.43 pm
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

I shall try to be brief but I want to cover a few points. I congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) on securing this important debate. He rightly referred to the Peak District national park, which forms a large part of my constituency and which the all-party group visited a few weeks ago.

I fully agree about the importance of national parks. Colleagues have talked about visitor numbers being 2 million to the broads and 8 million to the Yorkshire moors. The Peak District national park gets 19 million visitors each year. It was once described as the lungs of Britain because it is within an hour's drive of 60 per cent of the population. It sometimes seems that they do all come. That proximity brings a lot of problems, as well as enabling people to enjoy the beauty of the Peak district. People tend to come for the day and they do not necessarily spend much money while they are there. I was impressed when I visited the Eden project to see how it has encouraged people to stay overnight. Overnight stays in Cornwall have dramatically increased. Unfortunately that does not happen in the Peak district.

I thank the Minister for listening to the representations that a number of us made about the size of the Peak District national park. It is a unique national park in that it is made up of so many authorities. I realise that that might not be the case once the south downs authority is established. The all-party group visited Chatsworth, a fantastic house and beautiful building that is a very important part of the Peak district. However, I often make the point that if anyone tried to build Chatsworth today, they would not stand a cat-in-hell's chance. I do not think we would allow even the stables to be built, let alone the house.

That is part of the problem that I want to raise with the Minister; the question of building and allowing organic growth. I am very concerned about how house prices in the Peak district have rocketed in the past five years. I know that many areas face that problem, but for the Peak district, being so close to places such as Sheffield and Manchester and not far from Birmingham, it is especially serious.

I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on the subject. She replied: In carrying out its planning functions the National Park Authority must also have regard to the purposes for which the Park was designated, which include conserving and enhancing the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the Park. Nobody would disgree with that. It also has a duty to foster the economic and social well being of local communities within the Park. Many people who grow up in national park villages currently stand no chance of being able to afford housing within it, and the problem is becoming ever more serious.

We often talk about affordable housing, but affordable housing in the national park is more expensive because of planning criteria. I urge the Minister, when he meets representatives of the national park, to discuss allowing more organic growth. If local people want to build extensions to their house so that they can bring up families, that should be looked at sympathetically.

I could say a lot more, but because of the time constraints, I shall leave it at that. I hope that the Minister will consider the point. There is no easy solution, because of the complicated nature of the problem, but at the moment there is unnecessary restriction and too narrow a view taken on planning. None of us wants to see the national parks becoming the preserve of very wealthy people who can afford to pay huge prices for what are in some cases moderate houses. I urge the Minister to consider that. I accept that there are no easy solutions, but we need to address the problem seriously.

2.47 pm
Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab)

I will cut out the general material that I wanted to talk about and move straight to the issue on which I want to concentrate. I want briefly to put on record my concerns about some precious landscape between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales national parks. I know that the Minister is aware of the problem.

Cumbria has large tracts of spectacular landscape that anywhere else in England would be in a national park but in Cumbria are not. Some of the landscape is protected—as areas, of outstanding national beauty, for example—but other parts are not. With little effort, I could make the case for including the whole of north-west England north of Carnforth in the Lake District national park, but that would be pushing it a little far.

The landscape that I am concerned about is that found between the A6 and M6 north of Kendal, the Orton fells and the part of the Howgill fells that is not included in the national park. Those areas were recognised by Dower in 1945, when he put the Howgills on the reserve list for future national park status, and by Hobhouse in 1947, although he did not recommend the Howgills for national park status. He did that not because of the quality of landscape, but because of the exceptional quality of the landscape that was next to them.

I want to zero in on the landscape lying between the A6 and M6 that butts on to the Lake District national park; Westmoreland Borrowdale for want of a better term. The land is under threat, although it is an environmentally sensitive area, and its landscape quality is equal to that of the Lake District national park, and potential developments there could directly affect the visual quality of the national park itself. This stretch of Cumbria consists of parallel ridges running east-west and valleys, and it is outstanding walking country. It is virtually uninhabited and was beloved of Alfred Wainwright, among many others. It has been designated county landscape by Cumbria county council. At present, one of its ridges, the Whinash ridge, is threatened by a plan to place 27 wind turbines, some of the largest ever built, along it. It is such a huge development that it has to be treated as a power station by the Department of Trade and Industry. Incidentally, it would be nice to know from the Minister what consideration Ofgem, Ofwat and other bodies have to give to the needs of national parks.

That is a threat not only to the Whinash ridge and to the visual amenity of the area but to the visual amenity of large tracts of the eastern part of the national park. That is a problem right round the Lake District national park borders, where the fells just outside the park have attracted wind turbine developers as honey attracts files. For example, the Burlington wind farm on Kirby moor is now the visual southern end of the whole of Coniston water.

Of course, if the wind farm were to appear on the Whinash ridge, any case for inclusion of the area in the national park would vanish. I do not want to make the case for inclusion simply as a defensive move to prevent a wind farm, because the area should be included in the national park on its own merits, and there is widespread agreement on that. Certainly, the district and county councils are in favour, and the process could now be one of pushing at an open door, so far as local opinion is concerned. I know that the local Member, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), is of the same opinion.

There is an urgency to this matter, which I want to register. I am aware that the Friends of the Lake District have secured counsel's opinion from Robert McCracken QC to the effect that the Government could carry out a discrete area extension to a national park without opening the whole boundary to review, and the Minister and the Department have responded positively to that, which is great. The Countryside Agency board visited in early May and was, I under stand, impressed by the landscape, as are all of us. It has set up a working group to produce a report to the board in the autumn. That is all very promising. I hope that the Minister will keep his strong interest in this matter fresh and, in the nicest possible way, remind Pam Warhurst—if she needs reminding—of the urgency involved.

2.52 pm
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con)

As well as trying to be as brief as possible, I shall try to be as positive as possible. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who is at this moment having to debate a statutory instrument in another part of the Palace of Westminster.

The announcement that the New Forest is going to become a national park has made a small group of my constituents very happy indeed. That is the New Forest, East Labour party, the only group in my constituency who consistently wished for, desired and campaigned for a national park model for the New Forest. I pay sincere tribute to Mr. Peter Sopowski, the former chairman of the New Forest, East Labour party, and Mr. Alan Goodfellow, my former opponent at general elections, because they are the only people who have consistently wanted this solution. If it works out well, it will reflect great credit on them in the future.

Most other groups in my constituency and in the New Forest area as a whole did not want this solution. That does not mean that they did not want the New Forest to be protected, but they wanted it to be protected in the future in the way in which it has traditionally been protected in the past: through special legislation. They were concerned that if a national park model were imposed on the New Forest, it would lead to rigidity, bureaucracy and the overriding of the former, consensual way of running the New Forest by a compulsory way of running it. Everything will depend in the future on the sensitivity and self-restraint shown by the people in the national park authority.

The Labour Government have a democratic mandate to carry this proposal out. They announced before the last general election that they proposed to create a national park in the New Forest, and having won that general election, they can claim a democratic mandate for what has now been done. It was never the case that the public inquiry into the proposed New Forest national park would turn it down on the basis that a national park was not the best way forward for the New Forest. The purpose of that public inquiry, as I said at the time, was simply to see whether the New Forest measured up to the criteria necessary to become a national park, and of course it did.

However, after the general election, when I went to see the Minister's predecessor—who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—he made me this promise. He said, "Julian, there will be a national park for the New Forest, but we are open to persuasion as to how it might be tweaked and tailored to suit the New Forest's particular needs."

That is why, in the few seconds that remain to me, I want to express surprise that a site of special scientific interest such as Dibden bay has been excluded from the national park, whereas Fawley power station has been included. According to a quote from the Minister in the local press, that is because otherwise We would have a hole in the map just because there happens to be a power station there. I only hope that we do not, as a result, see a renewed assault on that triple SI, which only recently was, thank goodness, saved from port development.

Finally, I draw the Minister's attention to the press release from New Forest district council. The chief executive, Mr. Dave Yates, commented: The Inspector appears to have accepted that it would be a good thing if the development control arrangements within the National Park were delegated back to the local authority. However, we understand that the Minister has not made any final recommendation on this". I, for one, would take it as fulfilment of the promise made to me by the Minister's predecessor if he gave a positive response on that all-important concern.

2.56 pm
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab)

I do not speak on behalf of a national park—Vauxhall does not have one—but for right hon. and hon. Members' information, we have just reopened our public toilets in Kennington park.

I want to sound a note of slight discord in the debate and I am speaking particularly on behalf of many people who feel that national parks are not as welcoming and open to them as they are to others. Those are people who want to get involved in many different minority sports. I am all in favour of national parks being areas of quiet enjoyment and peace, but I have concerns where there are large areas of national park.

I am referring particularly to the Lake District national park, where there is a large number of lakes. It seems wrong that that national park has gone blindly down the line of trying to ban all water skiing and any use of the lakes by boats travelling at more than 10 mph. This issue is very important, and I have tried to secure Adjournment debates on it. Historically, Windermere, which is the largest of those lakes, has been a lake where water sports and fast speedboating could go on. It is a very large lake. In 1978, when a 10 mph speed limit was introduced on the other three lakes—Coniston, Ullswater and Derwent water—after the three-lakes inquiry, the agreement with the British Water Ski Federation was that Windermere would always remain a venue for water sports.

This has been a long saga, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows. There was a public inquiry, but a Secretary of State in the previous Government refused to accept its findings, because he felt that there could be a management plan that allowed all users of that large lake to work together. All the users in the area of the lake have got together and they all want a solution to the problem. I pay particular tribute to what the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, because the Norfolk broads have been an example of how, with good will and no political correctness, people can get together and work out how to allow water skiing, even on the broads.

I want the Minister to respond to this point. The issue will not go away. Let me explain the situation as from next year. Water skiing is not banned, but there is a 10-mph speed limit. That will bring on to the lake all sorts of other uses of the boats. It will put boats back on to the other three lakes. There was an agreement that the other three lakes would not have boats on them, but no one can prevent them from going back. Instead of that being an asset and something that will help the Lake District national park, we will drive away small businesses, tourists and people who have brought their families there; people who have been able to take part in activities on the lake with their young people and then go off and have peaceful enjoyment further into the national park.

That is a travesty. We should be reconsidering the issue and ensuring that our lakes and national parks are open for all people within reason. All reasonable people should be able to find a way to sort out this problem. Windermere is big enough for everybody.

2.59 pm
Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Lab)

I am grateful to have a chance to speak, even if it is just for a minute, as I am chairman of the all-party group on national parks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) on his contribution. It was comprehensive, but he missed one thing. On sustainability, there is an essential need for section 62 to be strengthened and re-emphasised and for all Government Departments and statutory bodies to be encouraged, if not obliged, to commit to park purposes. That would do away with the need for extra legislation.

I want to emphasise sustainability, particularly the SDF. The Minister himself, in his former capacity as First Minister for Wales, used Wales as a test bed for what has been a successful ongoing scheme throughout the UK. Just this morning, I received a document from my constituent Ridchand Blacklaw-Jones, who obtained SDF funding to examine local procurement of organic food in Pembrokeshire. Pembrokeshire has one of the largest areas of organic farming. I cannot go into the detail of what he has written, but it holds great promise for the national park and for farmers in it and wider afield.

Another element about which I hoped to go into some detail falls outside of agriculture. My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of SDF funding. The project on tidal energy, which is being funded by the national park in Pembrokeshire, also holds promise for Pembrokeshire and wider afield.

Finally, I wish to mention affordable rural housing in the parks, which has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). In my area, property prices have gone up by 100 per cent. in only three years. There is a wonderful economic vibrancy in the local community, which has had a drop of more than 90 per cent. in youth unemployment. That means, for the firs time in generations, that young people are able to stay in the national park where they and their families have been brought up and to keep the area vibrant. We do not want the national park to be a place just for people from the cities to play in or, after their working lives, to retire to with income that they have accumulated elsewhere.

Within that framework, it is important that we put in place the means for local people to find housing. Pembrokeshire and Exmouth are trying. I hope that the Minister will comment on that and efforts to make affordable housing available in UK national parks.

3.2 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)

I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) for obtaining this debate. Many important issues about national parks have been raised in the contributions of hon. Members. Many of those issues actually cross the boundaries of national parks, but national parks have been able to act as a test bed for them. National parks are important to this country not only in themselves but as models of good practice for other rural areas.

I was pleased that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) was able to catch your eye, Mr. O'Brien. I would like to pay tribute to the role that she has undertaken as chairman of the all-party group on national parks. Her energy and enthusiasm have enabled the group to stick together and do valuable work. She has indicated that she will lot seek re-election at the next general election, but I pay tribute to her work for that all-party group.

Members should remember that the national park movement was founded outside Britain, in America, by pioneers who had enough foresight to understand that, even in that huge country, the pressure of development could endanger and put an end to the qualities of the countryside that we so value. Indeed, several national parks in America are virtually uninhabited.

I went to Atlanta, Georgia, recently and was taken around the Martin Luther King area by national park rangers. I found that a little strange, given the tradition of national parks in America. That just goes to show how the national park movement is developing.

One great thing they have in America is wilderness and that is precious in this country also. The opportunity for people to walk in national parks knowing that they will not encounter elements of human development is what makes those areas so attractive. From a parochial point of view, I believe that any development of wind farms in national parks or development that encroaches on the visual aspects of national parks is entirely unacceptable. People go to those areas for recreation; not in the ordinary way but to recreate themselves and to get back the internal spiritual energy that they have lost because of their jobs and the pressures of work today. They can go to those areas, think about things, find themselves again and re-energise themselves for their tasks.

The unfortunate experience of foot and mouth disease showed without doubt how important it is to have access to rural areas and national parks. That was a lesson for us. We did not need the problems, heartache and heartbreak that the foot and mouth outbreak brought, but it taught us an important lesson. In the area that I represent there has been a greater coming together of effort and thought between the farming community and the community that is dependent on tourism and visitors than there ever was before the outbreak. I believe that the pressure and concern during the outbreak will stand us in good stead in future when more and more farming businesses become involved in tourism. One issue that will come out of the mid-term review of agriculture is that people will see that they have energies and skills that can be used outside food production. They can look after people in a huge range of ways by providing interpretation of the countryside and allowing them to take part in active holidays such as walking, climbing and horse riding. There will be more and more of that.

I was a member of a national park authority for more years than I care to remember and chairman for a number of years. The great challenge was always to obtain a balance between the national responsibility of national parks and the needs of local people by ensuring that they were not disadvantaged by other people benefiting from the existence of national parks.

Planning authorities in national parks are often criticised for being over-zealous in their approach and preventing developments that could take place without deleteriously affecting the purposes of national parks. It is important that a number of national park authorities have now won awards for their planning work and the national parks, building on those good practices, will be able to make great advances. National parks are at the forefront of innovation in terms of rural development and should not be afraid of being innovative in the way in which they operate.

I was pleased that the review of Welsh national parks—I believe that I can speak about those, Mr. O'Brien, as we are discussing national parks as a whole—recommended that there should be direct elections to national park authorities. I do not know whether the Minister, who represents a Welsh constituency but is responsible for English national parks, feels that he could possibly comment on such a matter, but the Welsh Assembly should not be afraid of that suggestion. If there were elections and candidates supported the purposes of national parks, they would receive a huge amount of support. Indeed, that would stimulate a positive and balanced debate about how national parks should be administered and run and where their future lies.

I believe that Britain plays an important part in the national park movement throughout the world. We have many lessons that can he learned about how to manage rural areas in which people live and farm intensively. I am sure that the debate will go on. We could do with a debate on the Floor of the House to give us more time in which to examine these subjects.

3.10 pm
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)

In the few moments available to me if I am to give the Minister time to answer the various points raised during the debate, I will touch on two or three of those points and remind him of the questions that we seek answered when he winds up the debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) on taking the initiative to call what has been an extremely useful and important debate.

It will be remembered that my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) raised two particular points. They drew a blind over the fact that the Minister, rather disgracefully, chose to announce the New Forest national park on the "Today" programme rather than in a statement to the House.

Alun Michael

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray

No, I will not. The Minister can answer in a moment. My hon. Friends raised—

Alun Michael

On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien.

Mr. Gray

Oh for heaven's sake!

Alun Michael

I want to make it clear that what the hon. Gentleman said is not true.

The Chairman

That is not a point of order.

Mr. Gray

The Minister will have the opportunity to respond more fully in a moment.

My hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East and for New Forest, West raised two particular points. The first is that, as the Minister finally delineated it, the New Forest national park is 38 square miles smaller than that which was proposed by the Countryside Agency. As I understand it, the Minister himself made that decision. It misses out such important places as, for example, Dibden bay—which my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East referred to—with some detriment to the value of the national park. The Minister might like to tell us why that is and what can be done to make sure that it does not happen again and make sure that suitable constraints are placed on areas such as Dibden bay so that they are looked after.

Two hon. Members—the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and one other—referred to the issue of wind farms. That is a particularly worrying matter in the context of national parks and the areas surrounding them. Conservationists are alarmed about planning policy guidance note 22. Local authorities will be unable to create buffer zones around national parks such as the Lake District, which the hon. Gentleman referred to.

As Ruth Chamber, the deputy chief executive of the Council for National Parks, said: This would be an outrageous and blatant disregard of the Government's statutory responsibilities to protect these areas on behalf of the nation". It is plain in PPG22 that buffer zones against wind farms may not be created in the areas surrounding national parks. That would have a particularly deleterious effect on national parks.

Nor may the planning authorities take any account of the cumulative impact of wind farms on national parks. We feel that that is also not right. The Minister might like to tell us fully what the policy he will adopt with regard to wind farms and national parks is.

A number of hon. Gentlemen and Ladies referred to farming. We forget too easily that farmers are the guardians of our landscapes and national parks as much as of anywhere else. If we allow farming to go the way that it appears to be going—particularly lifestyle farming—national parks will suffer as much as anywhere else. The Minister might like to touch on the Haskins review and how it will affect lifestyle farming, particularly in the uplands of various national parks.

Mr. McLoughlin

One of the decisions that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made is to change the designation as far as the new payments are concerned. That will have a serious effect in places such as Parwich. Farmers may farm in the same village but because one falls in a lowland area and one in an upland area or SDA—severely disadvantaged area—they will receive different payments.

Mr. Gray

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I think that the mid-term review, at least as it was handled in this country, did not take account of less-favoured areas. There would have been deleterious effects had that not been corrected. It would be interesting to know, in addition to Haskins, how the Minister feels that the mid-term review will affect national parks.

We know that the current Government funding for the national parks authorities is about £36 million. The Minister made it plain in a recent statement that funding would not be increased by any more than inflation. In view of the announcement yesterday, it may not even be by that much. Will the Minister clarify whether the inclusion of the New Forest national park will result in a significant increase in funding for national parks in general? If the inquiry into the south downs national park were to find in its favour, would he commit the Government to providing the extra funding necessary for those two national parks?

On the subject of areas that are not currently national parks but may become so, in the aftermath of the statutory instrument debate last week about two areas of outstanding natural beauty, the Chilterns and the Cotswolds, it has been made abundantly clear to me from both places that any subsequent move towards national park status would be deeply unwelcome there. Will the Minister provide some reassurance that that is not in the Government's mind, that the AONB boards he has introduced are as far as he intends to go and that there will be no Trojan horse for national parks following on behind?

I will not tempt the Minister into any commentary on the long-running public inquiry into the south downs; that one will run and run. However, he must at least acknowledge that the fact that the public inquiry is so long running means there is a diversity of opinions. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) told us, and he is quite right, that West Sussex county council are opposed to a national park. Its opinion must be taken into account; others are very much in favour of it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) reminded us with regard to the Peak district, we must take account of the fact that large numbers of tourists being attracted to an area such as the south downs has its downsides. It is good for the local economy, but it has its downsides. One problem that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East mentioned was that because the New Forest national park will be smaller than originally planned, it will concentrate tourist activity in a smaller area. That will have an environmental downside.

The Minister may like to acknowledge the diversity of opinion about the best way to treat the south downs should it become a national park or some sort of enhanced conservation board. They are difficult issues to which I do not have the answer.

Like the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), I am slightly reluctant to go down the easy route and say that all national parks are good things. They are broadly good things and we are broadly in favour of them, but there are downsides to them. We do not want to turn the whole of the United Kingdom into one great national park and say, "Isn't that marvellous?" There are definite downsides to parks; they remove authority from some local authorities and there are difficulties associated with them.

It is right to address those difficulties and consider such matters as water skiing in the Lake district and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Norfolk about public lavatories and waste disposal on the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. They may sound mundane issues, but they are very important.

Broadly, everyone in the Chamber would agree that national parks have an enormous amount to recommend them and that they go some way to preserving delicate and sensitive landscapes that deserve our enhancement and protection. However, we must be aware of the problems of low-cost housing, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire mentioned, and of water skiing in the north of England, and we must also be aware of the way in which we handle tourists. They are difficult issues that must be debated carefully. In giving the Minister extra time to reply to them, I look forward to his response.

3.19 pm
The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) for the large number of extra seconds that he has given me. I congratulate all Members who have taken part in the debate and packed so much into the time available. Like them, I wish there were more time because I would like to respond in full. I will do what I can to respond to the specific points that have been made and, where I am not able to do so, perhaps write to Members.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) on obtaining the debate and on championing his national park, second only to his championing of national parks in general. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence). In recent times she has been a doughty champion of national parks in general as well as those in Wales, and has been a leading influence in Parliament in raising issues that concern to national parks.

I congratulate the Association of National Park Authorities on the success of national parks week, which I hope will be the first of many celebrating our national parks, sharing them and exploring their potential. It was about letting the public know what their parks can do for them and what they can do for the national parks. One characteristic that the national parks have in common is that each of them is unique; when I visit them, people at each say that it they are different and special, which is true. They are all unique; the national parks are a very special family.

In his introductory remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) asked about the action plan that follows the review of national parks. We are making good progress on about 50 recommendations, in line with the action plan that I published last year. I am happy to update him and others on our progress.

Section 62 of the Environment Act 1995 is an issue that concerns my hon. Friend and I can tell him that during the national parks review in 2000, responses made it clear that not all public bodies are clear about their obligations to take into account national park purposes, a matter which has been referred to in the debate. As recommended, we considered the detail of the impact of section 62 and its meaning. I will write shortly to all the bodies that will be affected by the 1995 Act reminding them of their responsibilities, and asking them to confirm how they are carrying out those responsibilities. The national parks authorities report annually on the observance of section 62 in their own national park, which I hope will help to follow through the issue raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby suggested that there might be a drift away from national parks because the planning officers were recruited elsewhere. The main drift that I have seen is the Peak district national park's recruitment of a chief executive from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which showed its good judgment. All the national parks in England had planning delivery grants from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in recognition of their good planning practice. I am not aware of a specific problem; it has not been raised with me by any of the national parks.

As my hon. Friend said, rural regeneration is very important. I am pleased to have been able to bring together the regional development agencies, national parks in England and representatives of areas of outstanding natural beauty to talk about sustainable development and the interface between national park and RDA work. Each of the national parks can make a contribution to its region.

I welcome my hon. Friend's reference to the efforts being made to welcome ethnic minorities to national parks, and the Mosaic project has shown the way forward in that matter. The parks must be for everyone if they are to be truly national parks, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree.

My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) were right to suggest that I would not say anything about the south downs; it would be improper to do so until I have the report of the inspector who is conducting a public inquiry into the proposed designation. However, I assure my hon. Friends that all views will be taken fully into consideration. The same applies to issues such as the Whinash proposals, to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) referred, which will be the subject of a public inquiry.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) rightly pointed out that the broads are designated under separate legislation because of navigation concerns. However, I agree with him about their value; they are fully a part of the national parks family and share its rich diversity. The hon. Gentleman was right to refer to the importance of global warming and the potential impact on the broads, which illustrates why the issue is so important to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and such a high priority for the Secretary of State. I have insufficient time to deal with that matter and with the navigation issues, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman about them. Similarly I defer to his knowledge—and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson)—on the subject of toilets in the Norfolk area, except I would point out that considerable additional funds have been provided to local authorities, and those issues should be dealt with locally.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) rightly said that foot and mouth disease had shown how important access is to all of those in the country: those who earn their living in the countryside, those who live there and the farming community. It is worth celebrating the fact that the National Farmers Union has played a full part in the development of tourism and bringing people back to the countryside. There is an increasing sense of the importance of access.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the issue of direct elections, which is a matter for the National Assembly for Wales in relation to Welsh national parks. I must say that I am not attracted to the idea as far as my responsibilities are concerned. As most representatives on the national park authorities are local, and as the tendency in recent years has been to include parish council representatives, the need for those people to be rooted in the opinion of people living in the area is well catered for as far as the English national parks are concerned.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire for referring to the environmental development fund in Wales. I am pleased to say that the sustainable development fund in England, which has now been operating for two years, contributed to more than 300 projects in its first 18 months, and levered in about £13 million from other funding sources. I hope that it will go from strength to strength.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who is noted for her support for activities described as minority sports, is quite wrong in her criticism of the Lake District national park authority. The proposals, which were decided on some years ago, were considered carefully and at great length, and were confirmed by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I wholeheartedly agree with the policy that has been developed by the Lake District national park authority.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who has a talent for spoiling the party, was absolutely wrong to claim that I made any announcement on the "Today" programme. I did not. The first announcement relating to the New Forest was made to the House in a statement. I have made that clear.

Dr. Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. Following the Minister's example, it must be made clear that the Minister made a written statement without informing the hon. Members concerned that it was going to be made.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair)

Order. That is not a point of order.

Alun Michael

What the hon. Gentleman says is quite untrue. He knows that in advance of making that statement I undertook—and carried out the undertaking—to fax to his office a copy of the letter that had been placed on the Board so that all hon. Members directly affected heard about it at the moment when the decision was announced to the House.

Dr. Lewis

Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael

No. The hon. Gentleman has made enough misrepresentations. Perhaps he will stand up to make a point of order in order to apologise.

Dr. Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I have been accused of misrepresentation. I said that the Minister's office tipped off the BBC three days in advance of any announcement and did not tell the hon. Members concerned that any announcement was to be made.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair)

That is not for the Chair to decide.

Alun Michael

I was absolutely scrupulous in ensuring that the House heard about the matter before anyone else. The hon. Gentleman's canard is not justified.

I am very pleased that the Landscape Institute has recognised the national park movement as the greatest influence on the landscape of the UK in the past 75 years. During the past 50 years, the national park authorities have protected some of our finest landscapes and our most important natural and cultural heritage. This year, two more national parks will celebrate their 50th anniversaries, the Exmoor and Yorkshire Dales national parks. They are holding a series of events to celebrate that. I hope that many hon. Members will take the opportunity to take part in those celebrations.

It is worth remembering the roots of the parks. They were called for by the people and are truly for the people.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair)