Purposes of National Parks

Part of Clause 60 – in the House of Commons at 8:30 pm on 28th June 1995.

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Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment) 8:30 pm, 28th June 1995

The gap between the two sides of the House is narrower than it appears. For the most part, everyone is struggling to achieve broadly the same ends and the debate is around the best way to do that. On the comments of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) about the development of four-wheel drive vehicles, that seems to go to the heart of how I interpret the clause. The proposal is not about addressing the traditions in the countryside and things that have gone on over many years. Those would not change, because to change them would be a reversal, not a promotion of new activity. We understand that the proposal goes to the heart of the promotion of new activities.

There is a constant process—through new technologies, modernisation, mechanisation, the increasing wealth of individuals and their ability to buy four-wheel drive vehicles and the rest of it—of moving into uses of national parks and other parts of the countryside that did not exist before and that, unfortunately, are often noisy. The argument for quiet enjoyment goes to the heart of how we see the future development of the national parks in terms of the competing demands that are on them, and in terms of which competing demands the national parks should seek to promote.

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman or any other Conservative Member disagrees with that concern or that approach, but the disagreement comes down to how we deal with the amendment. In that respect, hon. Members and the Minister must understand that there is real concern among those who have promoted and supported the phrase "quiet enjoyment" that, until the past couple of days, Ministers seemed to be supporting those words, and accepting the amendments made in the other place, but now, at this late stage, have reversed that position after lobbying from some Back-Bench Conservative Members and others and a number of organisations. It seems that they are backing away more because of the politics than because of practicalities. No doubt we could argue all night about whether that is true, but that is our perception.

I believe that it should not be too hard to define, if not the term "quiet", at least the term "promotion" and what that means in terms of existing activities, and so on, both for the guidance issued by Ministers and the Bill. That is what the Labour amendment has sought to do.

Any rural Member understands the problems that can arise from the actions of those who have been described as the zealots. I understand that. One of the most appalling cases that I have seen in recent years was that of Corky the cockerel, which, extraordinarily, the courts decided against. Surely anybody in the countryside should expect those sort of noises in the early morning. In fact, these days one is more likely to suffer from the noise of large tractors. Nevertheless, that is an example of how matters can be pursued in the courts, and I understand that concern.

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In practice, it is unlikely that there would be many such vexatious cases, and I do not believe that the courts would be sympathetic to that. In any case, Ministers hold matters in their own hands. Through definitions in the Bill and in guidance, they can give courts a clear position on that.

There is a certain irony in the debate. Only yesterday, we were debating the cost-benefit clauses. The Opposition were arguing that that issue was not susceptible to proper definition, but Ministers were arguing that they believed that, in practice, such matters would not be taken to the courts and that, in any case, they could clarify the position in guidance. I disagreed with them last night, but I believe that this issue is susceptible of the sort of guidance and definition for which Ministers argued in yesterday's debate.

The nub of this issue and the reason it raises such concern and attention is that it deals with the future direction of national parks and the choices that have to be made. Ultimately, real decisions are made about the sort of activities that should go on in national parks. Those decisions often involve making a judgment about jobs and economic development for those within the community as well as the nature of the traditional environment and practices within a national park. They also involve making a judgment about destruction of the environment, including noise pollution and the need to respect and respond to the traditions of the community and new developments.

This debate is about showing the broad direction in which we want development to go. From the start, the national parks have been built around the peaceful enjoyment of the traditional qualities of the countryside and respect for the environment. I believe that the words "quiet enjoyment" are about that vision of the future for the national parks. Without arguing that Ministers are oblivious to that, I wish to tell them simply that I believe that they are wrong on this occasion. They failed to argue the case properly, and they should stick with their previous support for the amendment passed in the other place.