Navigation Charges

Orders of the Day — Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:15 pm on 29th February 1988.

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Lords amendment: No. 4, in page 12, line 26, leave out "conservation" and insert conserving the natural beauty of any area".

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

With this we may take Lords amendments Nos. 5 and 17.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 correct imperfections in the original wording of clauses 13 and 17. The intention has always been to exclude from the authority's navigational revenue account expenditure incurred for purposes of nature conservation, but carried out in exercise of the largely navigation powers conferred on the authority by part II. The original imprecise reference to conservation has been replaced by the phrase "conserving the natural beauty of any area", thereby attracting the extended interpretation that clause 25(2) applies to the phrase wherever it is used in the Bill.

Amendment No. 17 makes a similar change to the wording of paragraph 3 of schedule 5, where the less precise phrase "nature conservation" was originally used.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

The Minister seemed to suggest that the amendment represents an improvement. He will need no instruction on definitions, but the word "conservation" is much more wide-ranging that the words "natural beauty". Some years ago I took through the House a Bill to protect the natterjack toad and the smooth snake. Few hon. Members would regard them as especially beautiful or as adding to the natural beauty of an area, but their protection was a necessary step in conservation. Conservation must mean the survival of the species. Whether or not they are attractive, they may have an important place in the natural order.

The replacement of "conservation" with words that seem to imply that something must be environmentally attractive is a dangerous step. I hope that the Minister will explain the advantage of the change, so as to make it acceptable to the House. The Bill is, by and large, not controversial, and it seems that their Lordships may have made a mistake, especially if they believe that, given recent decisions made in this Parliament, the House would retreat further from its proper commitment to the cause of conservation.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am sorry that this debate is delaying another, but that is not the fault of those of us who wish to speak. It is the fault of those who arrange our business, and I hope that the blame for any inconvenience caused to hon. Members will be laid at the door of those who decided the running order, and not aimed at hon. Members who wish to debate the amendments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) put his finger on an important principle that has run through the lengthy discussions inside and outside the House on this important conservation measure. I am sorry that the Minister had to move the amendment, because I understand that it was moved originally by the Government in the filled-up Bill stage in the Committee of another place and was not debated.

The Minister introduced the amendment as though it was a fair cop, saying that navigation charges should not go towards conservation. He is nodding his head. But not only navigation charges are involved here. Clause 14 deals with the authority's power to make levies on participating authorities. The amendment says that any expense incurred by the authority on conservation—as the Bill is worded now—must relate to preserving natural beauty. Those moneys will come from levies raised under clause 14, or any other funds which come from elsewhere. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that that is so. The amendment is much more important than it appears to be at first sight. I am sorry that it was not discussed in the Lords other than in Committee.

This is a controversial issue because the amendment will constrict the discretion of the authority in expenditure on "conservation". It will not be conservation; it will be conserving the natural beauty of any area". There is a big difference. I know that the Minister will say that clause 25(2) states: References in this Act to conserving the natural beauty of an area include references to conserving its flora, fauna and geological and physiographical features. However, the Minister and his hon. Friends have withstood any means of ensuring that the Bill is truly a conservation measure. I can prove that to the House in respect of what happened in the other place.

All the conservation interests clubbed together to suggest an amendment to this important Bill, to be discussed in another place. The amendment's importance can be judged by the fact that those bodies were the Council for National Parks, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Norfolk Naturalists Trust, the Ramblers Association, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, and the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation. They said: let there be at the end of clause 2(1), which sets out the limited functions of the Broads Authority, the following amendment: in such a way as to ensure their long term conservation"— that is, the conservation of the Broads. Most people think that that is what the Bill is all about and that the main object of the Broads Authority, to be set up under the Bill, is that very purpose.

The conservation bodies went to the other place and said, "Please write that in. The provision does not supersede the three purposes mentioned in subsection (1), but those three purposes should be handled in such a way as to ensure the long-term conservation of the Broads." But the Government said no. The Select Committee summarised their case thus: The Government argued that the proposed amendment was ambiguous. It appeared to give primacy to the needs of conservation, and would therefore fundamentally distort the careful balance, achieved by the Bill, of the three duties of the Authority. By giving greater priority to one particular interest, it would jeopardise the general agreement on the Bill"— hon. Members should notice these words— reached after lengthy negotiations. On the other hand, if the amendment was held not to give primacy to one interest, it would have no substantive effect. In any case, the special character of the Broads would be well protected by the actions of the new Authority in pursuing their three joint aims—there was no possibility of conservation being sacrificed to one of the other interests. Ministers had declared that the Bill did meet their objectives for the Broads. The Bill may meet the Ministers' objectives, but they are not the objectives that many other people have in mind. I suggest to the House and to all those who may be listening to or may read our debate that the fact that the Government refused that modest and constructive amendment in another place puts a question mark over the effectiveness of the Bill and the Act that it will become.

I shall not weary the House with many other detailed examples of the concern that is felt, but I shall refer to just two. In the third sitting of the Standing Committee, I moved two amendments. One was about water quality and flow. The Minister said that the Anglian water authority was not to be constrained by directions from him in respect of water quality and flow. We all know that the water quality and the water level are keys to the proper conservation of the ecology of the Broads.

On the same day, I moved an amendment to ensure that there would be proper control of the water level. The Minister said that we could not have that because it would rehybridise the Bill. So the fear of many people is that the Bill is an inadequate instrument for carrying out what most people want the Broads Authority to do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth said, one does not conserve only natural beauty, because if that is the criterion, the microscope and the test tube are not as important as they might otherwise be.

We fear that, if there is argument about the purposes of the Bill, and the powers that it gives to the new authority, the proper purposes of conservation will not be given the consideration that they deserve. It is a pity to end this important Bill's progress on a note of controversy. It is better, however, for there to be controversy here, and for the new authority to work properly and effectively, than for the reverse to happen.

I fear that the Act will not be a proper and sufficient trust deed for the trustees of such an important area, which is perhaps under commercial pressures like no other area of ecological interest. It will be a defective basis on which to carry out conservation. We hope, however, that the ladies and gentleman who are appointed trustees, will, through the good will that is necessary to run the legislation, make up for any defects in it.

Photo of Mr Michael Carttiss Mr Michael Carttiss , Great Yarmouth 10:30 pm, 29th February 1988

I respect the observations that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has made in Standing Committee, and on the amendment tonight. I must, however, take issue with his description of the Bill as an adequate instrument. I think that it represents a realistic consensus from within the county of Norfolk.

One of the problems in dealing with the environment of the Broads over recent years has been the difficulty of reconciling the vast range of conflicting interests. It is not simply a case, for instance, of conservation versus navigation. Although I came to the House determined to oppose the establishment of yet more quangos — to which status the Broads Authority is in every danger of descending — I believe that the Government have the right solution to a problem that we have tended to regard as local but which, as the House has rightly recognised, has national significance.

Those of us who represent the people of Norfolk — and who look to the Bill — have a responsibility to acknowledge that there is a wider national dimension to the issue. The Government have recognised it; the Lords amendment recognises it; and I believe that to go any further would be wrong. I hope that the House will accept the Government's stance, recognising in doing so that it would be wrong to give precedence to any one of the many conflicting interests in Norfolk.

I welcome the amendment, and hope that the House will accept it.

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South

I shall not follow the course taken by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Cartiss), which I thought more appropriate to a Second Reading debate. This is a rather narrow amendment. Let me make some specific points about it.

I understood the Minister to say that the amendment relates to navigation charges, replacing the words in the Bill— Expenditure … in connection with conservation, shall not be taken into account"— with the words: Expenditure … in connection with conserving the natural beauty of any area, shall not be taken into account". Does that mean that navigation charges will not cover the damage caused by navigation traffic? Damage to banks may not affect the natural beauty of the area, but may greatly affect the flora and fauna of bankside areas. Is not the intention of the amendment to limit expenditure chargeable to navigation interests?

The place of navigation in the objectives of the new authority has been subject to discussion throughout the many stages of the Bill's progress. The Government have continually refused to rank conservation above navigation. That attitude is likely to be borne out by the amendment. As Lord Melchett said on 1 February: this Bill was introduced because of widespread and long-standing concern about the deterioration in the conservation and amenity interests of the Norfolk Broads. It was not introduced because of concern about navigation or concern for some other interest such as agriculture in that area. It was introduced because of concern at the appalling loss of wildlife and loss of the natural beauty of the area." — [Official Report, House of Lords, 1 February 1988; Vol. 92, c. 903.] Whenever the matter was raised in the other place—I read the debates this afternoon—the Government had recourse to the argument about the risk of rehybridising the Bill. Changes that would have reduced the primacy of navigation were turned down because, the Government argued, the Bill might be rehybridised because not all interests had been consulted.

If the amendment is not the subject of consultation, presumably it also may rehybridise the Bill. It singles out navigation interests as exempt from a general charge of conservation when local authorities face a share of expenditure on general conservation—not conservation of natural beauty which, in the context of the amendment, seems to relate just to landscape. It does not relate to freedom from pollution or the conservation of habitat and flora and fauna.

I shall not make any general observations about the Bill. We in Norfolk have waited 40 years for it, so we must welcome it, but it is very far from what conservation interests in the county want. It tries to strike a wholly impractical balance between navigation, conservation and commercial and recreational interests. I hope that a future Government will redress that balance.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley , Glanford and Scunthorpe

Most of what I wanted to say has already been said, so I shall be brief. I want, however, to draw the House's attention to Lords amendment No. 17. Paragraph 13 of schedule 5 reads: The Authority may, for the purpose of nature conservation—(a) close to navigation any area at the edge of any waterway within the navigation area; or(b) restrict navigation in any such area to specified classes of vessel. The phrase "nature conservation" is to be removed and replaced by "natural beauty". As it stands, the Bill could protect a rare species of bird that is nesting next to a waterway because it provides a power to close that waterway. The amendment refers more to the natural beauty of the area, however, and does not take enough account of the rare species that are to be found in the area.

I take the point about conflicting interests, but we are aiming for a balance. In the original debate, the Minister said that the balance would be maintained by putting in the word "conservation", but it is now being taken out.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

My hon. Friend reminds me of a case which the Minister might like to consider. The bittern is an extremely rare bird which is found in the Broads area in small numbers. Unfortunately, it is rarely seen. It hides in the reeds. Because it is not likely to be seen, it could easily be argued that it is not part of the natural beauty of the broads environment and therefore the authority would not be able to close a waterway to navigation as schedule 5 suggests because that argument may be used.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley , Glanford and Scunthorpe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that illustration. The Norfolk Broads is the only known breeding area of the European crane in the United Kingdom. It is extremely rare. On my reading of the amendment, the criterion of protecting such species is lost in the Bill. I believe that a balance between the three main interests should be struck, but I believe that it is being upset by the amendment, and I shall certainly vote against it.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

With the leave of the House, I hope that I may assist Opposition Members.

The purpose of the amendments is to clarify exactly what is meant by conservation. We believed that the definition had been imprecisely drafted, and hon. Members will be aware, from studying the Bill closely, that by virtue of clauses 25(2), the words conserving the natural beauty of an area widen the effect of conservation rather than reduce those effects. They also cover flora, fauna and geological and physiographical features". Therefore, the amendments widen and define more precisely what conservation means—namely, concerning the natural beauty of any area. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) will be aware from the background notes and from our discussions that "conservation" in clauses 13 and 17 has always been intended to mean nature conservation. The definition in clause 25(2) is entirely acceptable to the Nature Conservancy Council and other conservation bodies that asked for the extended definition as in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the Countryside Act 1968 and The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

It would not be right and proper for me to comment on the other matters that have been raised with regard to primacy. These matters have been extensively debated and I do not believe that they arise again as a result of the amendments before the House.

Special reference has been made to bank maintenance. In general, bank maintenance is the responsibility of the Anglian water authority. Bank maintenance incurred by the Broads Authority for navigational reasons might be chargeable to the navigational revenue account. However, the special maintenance of banks — for example the regeneration of reed beds—would not, and should not, be financed through tolls on boat users. Clauses 13 to 17 seek to ensure that the navigational revenue account, and therefore tolls, have to cover expenditure incurred genuinely for navigational reasons. Such expenditure must be met by tolls, and that is the distinction that we have tried to make. I hope that I have assisted in clarifying that point.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords.amendment No. 5 agreed to.