After section 65 of the Environment Act 1995 insert—
“65A English National Park authorities: general powers
(1) An English National Park authority may do—
(a) anything it considers appropriate for the purposes of the carrying out of any of its functions (its “functional purposes”),
(b) anything it considers appropriate for purposes incidental (whether directly or indirectly) to its functional purposes,
(c) anything it considers to be connected with—
(i) any of its functions, or
(ii) anything it may do under paragraph (a) or (b), and
(d) for a commercial purpose, anything which it may do under any of paragraphs (a) to (c) otherwise than for a commercial purpose.
(2) Where subsection (1) confers power on an English National Park authority to do something, it confers power (subject to section 65B) to do it anywhere in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.
(3) Power conferred on an English National Park authority by subsection (1) is in addition to, and is not limited by, the other powers of the authority.
(4) In this section, and in sections 65B and 65C, “English National Park authority” means a National Park authority for a National Park in England.
65B Boundaries of powers under section 65A
‘(1) Section 65A(1) does not enable an English National Park authority to do anything which it is unable to do by virtue of a pre-commencement limitation.
(2) Section 65A(1) does not enable an English National Park authority to do anything which it is unable to do by virtue of a post-commencement limitation which is expressed to apply—
(a) to its power under section 65A(1),
(b) to all of its powers, or
(c) to all of its powers but with exceptions that do not include its power under section 65A(1).
(3) If exercise of a pre-commencement power of an English National Park authority is subject to restrictions, those restrictions apply also to exercise of the power conferred on it by section 65A(1) so far as that power is overlapped by the pre-commencement power.
(4) Section 65A(1) does not authorise an English National Park authority to borrow money.
(5) Section 65A(1)(a) to (c) do not authorise an English National Park authority to charge a person for anything it does otherwise than for a commercial purpose.
(6) Section 65A(1)(d) does not authorise an English National Park authority to do things for a commercial purpose in relation to a person if a statutory provision requires the authority to do those things in relation to the person.
(7) Where under section 65A(1)(d) an English National Park authority does things for a commercial purpose, it must do them through—
(a) a company within the meaning given by section 1(1) of the Companies Act 2006, or
(b) a registered society within the meaning of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014.
(8) In this section—
“post-commencement limitation” means a prohibition, restriction or other limitation imposed by a statutory provision that—
(a) is contained in an Act passed after the end of the Session in which the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 is passed, or(b) is contained in an instrument made under an Act and comes into force on or after the commencement of section (English National Park authorities: general powers) of that Act;
“pre-commencement limitation” means a prohibition, restriction or other limitation imposed by a statutory provision that—
(a) is contained in an Act passed no later than the end of the Session in which the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 is passed, or(b) is contained in an instrument made under an Act and comes into force before the commencement of section (English National Park authorities: general powers) of that Act;
“pre-commencement power” means power conferred by a statutory provision that—
(a) is contained in an Act passed no later than the end of the Session in which the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 is passed, or(b) is contained in an instrument made under an Act and comes into force before the commencement of section (English National Park authorities: general powers) of that Act;
“statutory provision” means a provision of an Act or of an instrument made under an Act.
65C Power to make provision supplemental to section 65A
‘(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision preventing an English National Park authority from doing under section 65A(1) anything which is specified, or is of a description specified, in the regulations.
(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide for the exercise by English National Park authorities of the power conferred by section 65A(1) to be subject to conditions, whether generally or in relation to doing anything specified, or of a description specified, in the regulations.
(3) Before making regulations under subsection (1) or (2) the Secretary of State must consult—
(a) such representatives of English National Park authorities, and
(b) such other persons (if any),
as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(4) Subsection (3) does not apply to regulations under subsection (1) or (2) which are made only for the purpose of amending earlier such regulations—
(a) so as to extend the earlier regulations, or any provision of the earlier regulations, to English National Park authorities, or
(b) so that the earlier regulations, or any provision of the earlier regulations, cease to apply English National Park authorities.
65D Procedure etc. for regulations under section 65C
‘(1) The power to make regulations under section 65C—
(a) is exercisable by statutory instrument;
(b) includes power to make different provision for different purposes;
(c) includes power to make incidental, supplementary, consequential, transitional, transitory or saving provision;
(d) may, in particular, be exercised by amending, repealing, revoking or otherwise modifying any provision made by or under an Act passed before the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 or in the same Session as that Act.
(2) A statutory instrument containing regulations under section 65C may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(3) Subsection (2) does not apply to a statutory instrument that contains regulations only of the following kind—
(a) regulations under section 65C(1) that make provision for the purpose mentioned in section 65C(4)(b);
(b) regulations under section 65C(2) that make provision for that purpose or for imposing conditions on the doing of things for a commercial purpose;
(c) regulations made by virtue of subsection (1)(c) that do not contain provision amending or repealing a provision of an Act.
(4) A statutory instrument to which subsection (2) does not apply is subject to annulment by resolution of either House of Parliament.
(5) If a draft of regulations under section 65C would, apart from this subsection, be treated for the purposes of the standing orders of either House of Parliament as a hybrid instrument, it is to proceed in that House as if it were not a hybrid instrument.””.—(James Wharton.)
This New Clause confers new general powers on National Park authorities for National Parks in England, along similar lines to those conferred on other authorities by Chapter 1 of Part 1 of the Localism Act 2011
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment 51.
First, I should put on the record my gratitude and that of my colleagues for the representations made by hon. Members who were keen to see the new clause included in the Bill, and to support and empower their local national parks authorities to do the best job they can and to continue to contribute to the communities they represent. In particular, I am grateful to my right hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) and my hon. Friends the Members for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) and for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). I would like to add Councillor Gareth Dadd of North Yorkshire county council, who made strenuous efforts to convince us of the merits of these changes and kindly arranged for me to meet representatives of the North Yorkshire national park authority and National Parks England.
In light of this weekend’s flooding, I think it important to reiterate the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the statement that we have just heard, and I offer my sympathy to the people of Cumbria and other affected areas in recognition of the significant impact of what has happened there as a result of the unprecedented weather events.
Before speaking expressly to the content of the new clause and amendment, I would like to say a few words about the role of the national park authorities in water management in the context of what has happened this weekend, and about how the changes might assist them in further performing that role. Although national park authorities do not have responsibility for emergency planning, the planning decisions they make and the development control conditions they enforce can make a big difference to the demands placed on those who do have to respond during an emergency.
National parks have an important role to play in managing the water environment and helping with restoration work. For example, the floods of November 2009 caused severe damage to the rights-of-way network in Cumbria and the Lake District national park. Over 250 bridges were damaged or destroyed and 85 paths needed repair. The function-specific general power of competence that we are discussing with these amendments could be used to enhance the national park authorities’ ability to respond to flood emergencies by enabling them to enter into partnerships, to develop skills and capacity within small rural communities and businesses to assist with the responses needed, to develop specific skills to combat future flood management, and to adapt the network to improve flood resilience.
Given that national parks might cover one or more metro mayor areas—for example, the Peak District national park is partly in Greater Manchester and partly in South Yorkshire, two areas that might well have metro mayors quite soon—is there not a case for having some co-ordination for emergency planning to make sure that there is the same resilience and the same emergency planning in the different parts of the national park?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We want to see co-ordination, and there are already structures in place to deliver it and to ensure that different bodies work together to respond as efficiently and effectively as possible. From what I have seen happening in Cumbria and other areas over the weekend, a number of those bodies are working very hard to deliver for local communities. The hon. Gentleman puts an important point on the record. We absolutely want to see as much co-operation as possible, and we want to empower these public bodies to carry it out wherever possible. That underlies in many ways the purpose of devolution, so it is an apt time for the hon. Gentleman to put his comments on the record.
In the east midlands, there is the D2N2—Derby Derbyshire-Nottingham Nottinghamshire—which may or may not have a directly elected mayor. There is also the Sheffield city authority, which includes Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and various other district councils in North Yorkshire and indeed in North Derbyshire. In the middle of all that, there is Hardwick Hall and various other major buildings. What I want to know, now that the Minister has said that there should be the greatest co-operation, is how that can happen between the Sheffield people who are anxious to take over large areas of
North Derbyshire and D2N2, which is also part and parcel of the same area? My guess is that there will be many more situations like that in Tory shires. What is the Government’s policy?
Devolution is a bottom-up process; it is done by consensus. I know that the hon. Gentleman will have a significant opportunity further to discuss some of the relevant provisions today, but where we see bodies that have the capacity to co-operate, we want to empower them to do so. We want to give them the levers they need to deliver such things as better public services and economic development. The first step towards that is to confer the powers that the bodies will need to achieve it. What the amendments do is to start the process of empowering our national parks authorities so that they can not only contribute on flooding and resilience, but better the offer that they can make to the public to improve the work they already do so well.
New clause 7 confers new general powers on national park authorities in England, along similar lines to those conferred on, among others, fire and rescue authorities and integrated transport authorities in chapters 2 and 3 of part 1 of the Localism Act 2011. I should make clear to Opposition Front Benchers that those general powers are intended to enable a national park to do more and to do it better; they are not a back door to fracking or shale gas development, and will not affect the approach that we intend to take in that regard.
In England, our nine national parks include some of the country’s finest landscapes, beautiful vistas and exciting wildlife. They are part of our national identity. National parks protect those landscapes for future generations so that we can all enjoy them. They are the cornerstone of many rural businesses. The new powers for national park authorities will allow an authority to act as an individual could—with certain limitations—in relation to its functions. For example, a functionally specific power of competence will allow a national park authority to act through a company, and will allow authorities to trade in a broader way than they currently can.
National park authorities have themselves asked for that power, because they consider that it will enable them to act in a more entrepreneurial and innovative way. For example, they consider that they will be in a better position to enter into partnerships to support growth across our rural economy. Jim Bailey, the chair of National Parks England, has said:
“We are pleased to see the Government introduce this amendment. This will help National Park authorities to maximise opportunities to fulfil our statutory purposes”.
The measure will allow national park authorities to participate fully in devolution deals—an example is Northumberland national park authority's request as part of the north-east devolution deal—and to seek additional sources of funding to assist further their work in supporting rural economies.
It is important to note that a power of competence does not override existing legislation. National park authorities will therefore be bound by their statutory purposes: conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of an area, and promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the area. It is also important to note that the power will not be used by national park authorities as an opportunity to start charging for entry. As all but a very small percentage of land in national parks is owned privately rather than by the national park authorities, they could have no legal basis for charging.
Let me also make clear that the new powers will not be used to encourage or permit too much, or inappropriate, development. National parks are designated under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 for their natural beauty and opportunities for open-air recreation. Under the Act, they have the two statutory purposes to which I have just referred. The statutory framework of protection and consents will remain unchanged, and, in using their new powers, the park authorities will not be able to promote or permit activities that are incompatible with those statutory purposes.
The powers given to the Secretary of State, by regulation, to restrict the use of powers by national park authorities in a particular way relate solely to the new clause, and not to their existing powers. Other than those concerning the furtherance of national park purposes, which are retained, the new powers replace the existing general powers of national park authorities under the Environment Act 1995. The new powers are considered more extensive, but the old ones are being repealed to avoid overlap.
Amendment 51 is a minor and technical amendment to schedule 5. It contains consequential amendments to section 65 of the Environment Act.
We are making these changes in response to effective representations that we have received from a number of Members, and from National Parks England and national park authorities. I hope that they will be broadly supported by Members on both sides of the House.
Our national parks are precious national assets. Millions of people use and enjoy them every year. They are areas of protected countryside that everyone can visit, and where people live, work, and shape the landscape. We have 15 national parks: 10 in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland.
In his autumn statement, the Chancellor included devolution to national park authorities in England, allowing them to lend, invest, trade, and set up co-operatives with businesses. That is legally known as the general power of competence. However, we know what is driving this change: cuts made by this Government. Since 2010, national park authorities in England have suffered cuts of up to 40% in their Government funding. Indeed, Northumberland national park is already renting out its spare office space— vacated by staff who have lost their jobs—where an enterprise hub has been set up.
New clause 7 would amend the Environment Act 1995 to provide English national park authorities with general powers to do anything they consider appropriate in carrying out their functional purposes. The new general powers in proposed new section 65A are similar to those conferred on other authorities by chapter 1 of part 1 of the Localism Act 2011. The new clause only applies to English national park authorities.
Proposed new section 65B limits the scope of the general power of competence in several respects. It does not allow English national parks to borrow money or charge a person for anything they do other than for a commercial purpose. That immediately raises concerns. The coalition Government’s attempt to privatise our forests was met with a public outcry. That plan was rightly defeated. This Government have attempted to open up our national parks to fracking, again causing a great deal of concern among the public, who value our precious national assets and have no wish to see them opened up to commercial ventures in that manner. We need strong assurances that the character of our national parks will be protected and that such important national institutions are maintained for the benefit of the public. We need a cast-iron assurance from the Government that fracking is not going to be allowed in our national parks.
We need more details on Government funding of national parks. We need more details on what the national parks are actually planning to do with the new powers. We cannot allow the commercialisation of our national parks by the back door. The future governance and accountability of our English national parks is an absolutely massive issue, which deserves proper debate. It does not belong here, in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, inserted at the eleventh hour with no time for the weighty issues raised to have a proper discussion.
Given that national parks are local authorities for these purposes, will the hon. Lady reflect upon what is a complete and deeply misleading red herring that she raises? After all, the fracking matter has nothing to do with the role of local authorities of any kind—national parks or otherwise —in relation to a general power of competence. Should she not welcome the ability for national parks to enter into joint agreements, for example with their district and county councils, which is precisely what this provision is aimed at? She is actually setting up a complete Aunt Sally in this matter.
Red herrings, Aunt Sallies: I am merely expressing the unsuitability of the new clause in application to this Bill. It has been brought in at the eleventh hour with the minimum of notice. It raises huge issues. I do not think the general public would agree with the hon. Gentleman that the worry about fracking in our national parks is a red herring. I certainly got a lot of correspondence about it when the Government were talking about it a few weeks ago, and I think we need a proper debate.
I do not know whether I could be clearer on this: the debate around fracking is perhaps for another day, but let me be absolutely clear that these clauses will not be a back door to fracking. They do not affect the issue of fracking with regard to national parks. I would also add very clearly that this is something that has been asked for by national parks. I would be interested if the hon. Lady could tell the House how many national park authorities she has spoken to before coming to oppose the new clause and amendment.
The Minister makes an important point. The Government have not given us time to respond correctly. I have not spoken to any national park authorities because the Government have not given us time to consult properly on this matter. No reference has been made to the new clause before now. Today the Bill’s Third Reading debate will take place, and the new clause has been slipped in at the eleventh hour. The Minister is being disingenuous if he seriously expects us to have been able to do a thorough consultation with all the national park authorities in England. If that is his approach, he is trying to set us up to fail. We value our national parks, and we want to ensure that we have a proper debate on their future. That is what we are asking for here.
As the MP for the Northumberland national park, may I say to the hon. Lady that this issue has been ongoing for many months? The powers of competence that are dealt with more widely elsewhere in the Bill have been the cause of enormous concern to the national parks as they have tried to get themselves into the arena of discussion. It is a huge credit to the Minister that he has come up to the north-east and spoken to those in North Yorkshire and to some of my colleagues at the national park in Northumberland to ascertain just how important the new clause—which is just an extension of those general powers of competence—will be. I hope that the hon. Lady will talk to the national parks, because they are absolutely passionate to have this freedom to get on and expand what they do.
I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady does not agree with the cuts that have been made to the Northumberland national park authority. I am sure, too, that she would rather we had a proper debate on this matter instead of discussing a new clause that has been snuck in at the eleventh hour.
I understand that the hon. Lady has not spoken to the national park authorities, but that is not necessarily a reason to oppose the proposal. I have spoken to members of the board of the South Downs national park authority—Margaret Paren, who leads it, and Councillor Barry Lipscomb, who is a Winchester City councillor—and they very much welcome it. They think that this general power of competence will allow them to be full players at the table in the devolution bids that are so important in my area. I do not know what “Aunt Sally” means, although I remember her on the television, but this is nonsense. It is opposition for opposition’s sake. The Government should get with the plan here. Just because the Opposition have not talked to the national park authorities does not mean that they should vote against the proposal. I have spoken to the national parks, and they want this.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman believes that the Government should get with the plan. However, we are the Opposition. I am not opposing the proposal for opposition’s sake; I am opposing it because I think we need a proper debate on it. It could have a far-reaching effect on our national parks, which are loved and valued by the general public.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will not take any more interventions. I have already given way to hon. Members.
The national park authorities are one part of the equation, and, as I have already said, we have not had time to consult them properly because this proposal was brought in at the eleventh hour. Surely any reasonable person would want—[Interruption.]Conservative Members had prior knowledge of it. I am sure that every reasonable person would agree that we need a proper debate on such an important issue. The national park authorities are not the only stakeholders involved. The public are the real stakeholders. Millions of people use and enjoy our national parks every year, and they should have their say. They would not thank us if we allowed this measure in through the back door.
Neither I nor any of my team is opposing the new clause for opposition’s sake; we are opposing it because we have serious concerns about the way in which it has been introduced. We will not agree to such a huge change in the governance and accountability of our national parks at only a few days’ notice and without a proper debate. If the Minister thinks that we are going to let this go through without a proper discussion, he is very much mistaken.
It is totally inappropriate that the new clause, which could bring about major and irreversible changes to our national parks, should be slipped into the Bill in this manner. The national park authorities are there to protect the environment for the good of the nation and its people. I call on the Secretary of State to withdraw the new clause. It does not belong in the Bill. If a discussion is needed about the future funding of our national park authorities, so be it, but let us have a proper debate. Let us give our stakeholders, the people, a chance to have their say, and let us not try to introduce damaging changes to our national parks by the back door.
Ah, what a rich and delicious choice! I call Mr Robert Neill.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
That was without any doubt the least-informed speech I have heard from a Front Bencher in the whole of my career in the House of Commons. I am sorry to say that to Liz McInnes, but she has simply not read the new clause and understood what it is about. It extends the power of general competence that applies to local authorities, which her party supported as a welcome thing when I introduced it as a Minister, along with my colleagues, to local national parks authorities; it does not affect planning in any way whatever. I am horrified that an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman does not understand the difference between the role of a national parks authority qua local authority and its role as a planning authority, which is not changed in the slightest by any of this. The Opposition’s approach is therefore worrying.
As the shadow Minister would not give way to me for a second time, I wish to put on the record the fact, which my hon. Friend will confirm, that we did have advance notice of the new clause. I met the South Downs national park authority on
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The troubling thing is this: applications for fracking, licensing matters and all that regime are not governed by a power of general competence in the slightest. The new clause has no effect on fracking of any kind whatever, and I regret to have to say to the hon. Lady that to suggest otherwise is either wilful ignorance or a serious piece of misleading the public.
The new clause gives local authorities that are national parks the same powers to deal with things as their district councils and county councils have. The point has also been well made that it enables them to enter into devolution deals, which again I believe the Opposition supported. So far, they are against a power of general competence, which they supported when we brought it in, they are against devolution deals in national parks, which they have supported, and they have set up an Aunt Sally that has nothing to do with the case.
I appreciate that the Opposition Front-Benchers have been shuffled so many times that they probably do not have time to read an Order Paper nowadays, but the most cursory reading of the amendment might have given them some idea that their approach is totally off the case, it is against the views expressed by the Select Committee rightly and properly and it is against devolution. I am sorry to say that we heard a bizarre speech from the Opposition and they are taking a bizarre approach. If they divide the House on this, they are simply—
Is my hon. Friend aware that quite a campaign has been whipped up across the country about the possibility of fracking springing up in national parks as part of some dastardly plot by the Conservative Government to introduce fracking wherever they can find a national park? Does he think that perhaps the response from the Opposition is influenced in some way by that campaign?
I have always taken the view in politics that the further left you go, the greater the conspiracy theories get; I suspect that may have happened, perhaps with one or two honourable exceptions, to the Opposition Front-Bench team. But that has nothing whatever to do with what we are about. It has nothing to do with their ludicrous scare campaign. A simple amendment, whose principle was not objected to when the Localism Bill was brought through, is suddenly being seized upon for the most bizarre bit of political grandstanding by a bankrupt Opposition. The best thing they can do is find something to agree upon. Their approach would prevent a national park authority from entering into a joint venture with its district and county councils, although that is a perfectly sensible and reasonable thing to do. Anyone who speaks to people who have represented areas in national parks will know that one of their concerns was the inability to join up the service delivery between the national parks authority, the district council and the county council. That sort of thing was a regular issue upon the desk of any Minister.
The new clause enables that to be done through a simple, legal structure. It has nothing whatever to do with applications for planning permission for fracking and with the licensing regime for fracking. It is a sad and sorry day when an important and useful technical amendment is hijacked by one of the more bizarre bits of political boulevardiering that I have ever seen in my time in the Commons.
As chair of the all-party group on national parks, I do have some interest in this matter. Additionally, a third of Sheffield—the local authority in which my constituency is—is in the Peak District national park. The name “Sheffield” may conjure up past visions of lots of cutlery being produced, but much of it is very rural, very open and very beautiful.
I understand the concerns of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench about new clause 7, which is of some length and has been parachuted into the Bill right at the last minute. The Government had many opportunities to introduce it earlier, and to talk informally to my hon. Friends, which might have allayed some of their fears. In the end, though, it is the duty of the Opposition to oppose, and probably to be very suspicious of a Government who claim they have nothing but good intentions in proposing a four-page amendment.
Of course there is some suspicion, but let us look at what the national parks have been doing. They have told us at meetings that they would welcome the extension of the general power of competence to them—perhaps it was an oversight that it was not done in the first place. As I understand it, the new clause proposes that where national parks exercise functions in a national park area that are similar in nature to those exercised by a local authority in other places the local authority has the general power of competence, but a national park does not.
Everyone gets suspicious about fracking. Many people do not trust the Government on the issue. They think that, as the Government want to go fracking all over the place and national parks do not, the Government are probably happy to do it and have somewhat brought those suspicions on themselves. Perhaps the Government could make an absolutely clear statement that there is no way in which this proposed new clause gives any extension of planning powers or anything else that could possibly affect fracking in national parks.
I can assure the House that we had no idea that this new clause was coming. It is almost five pages long. The nub of our argument is this: the national parks should be single-mindedly protecting our environment, but this power of general competence allows them to engage in commercial activities to bridge the funding gap that the Chancellor has left them with. Does my hon. Friend not worry that that single-minded concentration on protecting the environment might be lost in the search for additional revenue as a result of the commercial powers that are being conferred on the national parks?
I see my right hon. Friend’s concerns in that regard, but the reality is probably that many national parks do look at ways to raise revenue to help support their budgets. I share his views that national parks are subject to cuts and that they are finding it more difficult to do the job that we expect them to do with their much reduced resources. I think that they will look at other ways to raise funds. That happens anyway. I am not sure whether this new clause widens that possibility greatly. I understand that it simply puts the national parks in the same position as a local authority to try to fulfil their functions.
I wish to clarify that this proposed new clause has no impact on planning as they would affect national parks. It has nothing to do with shale gas extraction, or fracking. I hope that is clear enough for the hon. Gentleman, and that it will give him some reassurance about our intention, which is to deliver on a request from the national parks.
I am aware that the national parks have been asking for it, and I accept the Minister’s statement. Will he think about the comments made by my hon. Friend Jon Tricketton fundraising and the extent to which the powers of general competence could be used by national parks in any way that undermined their primary purpose, which is to look after the national parks, their beauty and the environment while ensuring they are a place where people can live and work? That is an important function of national parks authorities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way again, and I can offer that reassurance. The primary purpose remains, as I said in my speech, that anything that a national park does must be in line with its statutory obligations. There is no legal basis for charging, and we are not looking to allow it. I hope that we might move to a position of greater consensus on the new clause, which I felt would be uncontroversial. I recognise the concerns expressed by hon. Members and I thank the hon. Gentleman for accepting my interventions and giving me the chance to put some of these matters to bed.
Order. Dr Lewis has for some minutes now been poised rather like a sprinter, but he suffers from one disadvantage relative to Peter Heaton-Jones, whose constituency houses Exmoor, namely that the right hon. Gentleman beetled into the Chamber a little after the hon. Gentleman. We will reserve the right hon. Gentleman as a specialist delicacy and reach him in due course.
As you correctly point out, Mr Speaker, one third of Exmoor national park is in North Devon, and a beautiful part of the world it is. Before I go on with my prepared remarks, which I admit are pretty much a verbal tourist brochure, let me say that I do not recognise a lot of what was said from the Opposition Front Bench about the new clause, particularly the comments about its being slipped in and about insufficient time being given to speak to national park authorities. I, in common with all my hon. Friends, I am sure, had no notice at all. I was first alerted to the wording of the new clause on Thursday afternoon, and since then I have had time to have a detailed email correspondence with the chairman of Exmoor national park, Councillor Andrea Davis, my office has spoken at great length to managers at National Parks UK and two hours ago I came off the phone from a lengthy conversation with the chief executive of Exmoor national park, Dr Nigel Stone. If I can do that, I am sure that with all the voluminous resources available to them, those on the Opposition Front Bench should surely have been able to make some cursory inquiries about what the new clause is all about. It appears that they failed to do so.
Having spoken to those people, I can say that it is the national park authorities and managers who want this to happen. Opposition Members do those national park managers a great disservice by alleging some of the things that they are. They imply that in asking for the new clause those managers will in some way use the powers for nefarious purposes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Opposition Members need to be careful about what they are alleging because in my experience national park managers have nothing but the best intentions for managing our national parks, particularly in Exmoor.
That leads me on to extolling the virtues of Exmoor and why new clause 7, in particular, will be so valuable. One third of the national park is in my constituency and it includes the beautiful, rugged coastline that not only provides opportunities for many leisure activities but is very important for our environment and ecosystem. In the conversations I have had with them, the chairman and chief executive of Exmoor national park have been absolutely adamant that Exmoor in particular would benefit from the measures included in the new clause. Let me give some specific examples of why they believe that it would be beneficial and why they welcome it.
First, there is great pressure on the provision of housing for local communities in Exmoor and other areas of North Devon. Until now, national park authority managers have been hamstrung in the conversations they have been able to have with developers to ensure arrangements for local, affordable housing. Nevertheless, the new clause is not a carte-blanche to say that all development will be allowed, and, as the Minister rightly said, nothing in it will allow that to happen.
Currently, it is difficult for national parks to enter into any sort of meaningful relationship with developers. For instance, they cannot set up a joint enterprise, and they could not engage with a developer who was seeking to undertake commercial activities in North Devon. The new clause will allow national park authorities to enter into an arrangement with a developer, so that land for commercial activity can remain in the ownership of the national park. That will mean that the park retains—and indeed gains—some financial advantage that has not been possible until now. I heard a sedentary comment from the Labour Front Bench saying that national parks want to make money, but what is wrong with that? What is wrong with national parks being able to raise funds to carry out further their excellent work? Opening the commercial world in that way to national parks can only be good for Exmoor.
Another example is visitor attractions. Every year, Exmoor enjoys a large number of visitors who come for its rugged beauty and for the coastland and inland moor areas. The new clause will allow national park authorities to enter into commercial arrangements to ensure that more people enjoy those visitor attractions. It will attract people to the area and ensure that when they are there they have the best possible visitor experience. That is enormously important.
When I asked the chief executive of the national park to sum up for me in two sentences why he welcomes new clause 7—indeed, it is welcomed by all national park authorities—he said two things. First, at a time when we all have to save money, it gives national park authorities more options to ensure that they are viable going forward. Secondly, the new clause will give national parks the power to make things happen in a way that has not been possible until now.
I warmly welcome the new clause. It is also welcomed by the heads of Exmoor national park—I have spoken to them about this issue in great detail since Thursday. All other national park authority managers welcome it, and I know that they have been in conversation with the Minister. I warmly welcome that because the new clause will be good for Exmoor, and good for the rest of our national parks.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for drawing such attention to the fact that I “beetled” into the Chamber, as you put it, rather late, and I apologise for that. I also apologise for the fact that unfortunately I am going to beetle out of it again rather early, for the same reason that I was late, namely Defence Committee business. I am delighted to have the opportunity of this small window to try to reassure those on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that they will take my reassurances seriously, as I was one of only three Conservative Members to vote against the scheme for privatising the forest estate, which Liz McInnes referred to in her remarks. I am not one to accept on trust everything about forests that the Government put forward.
Having said that, the Government deserve a big pat on the back for this measure. It is often said that the Government do not listen, but this is a classic case of their having listened. [Interruption.] I would be grateful if those on the Opposition Front Bench also listened for a moment, because I am directing my speech at them in an attempt to be helpful.
The chair of the New Forest national park authority, Mr Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, is a former official verderer of the New Forest and very highly thought of by all those who live and work in the forest and are concerned with its management and protection. He contacted me some time ago to ask if it would be possible to persuade the Government to include such a provision in the Bill in Committee. Sadly, that stage had just concluded, so it shows extraordinary flexibility and willingness to listen by the Government in general—and by the Under-Secretary in particular—to manage to include the provision.
I fully sympathise with the Opposition spokesmen, because new clause 7 is a lengthy provision, and it is their job to scrutinise measures, whether they are long or short, but particularly if they are long. I should therefore like to try to reassure them about new clause 7 by reading two brief extracts from a document supplied by National Parks England specifically for use in our debate. It says:
“National Parks England (the umbrella body for the NPAs) warmly welcomes the tabling of New Clause 7 by Ministers and hopes that you”— meaning me—
“will be able to speak in support of it at the Report Stage debate of the Bill on
It then gives a long list of the reasons why it supports the extension of powers, which are similar, it points out, to powers given to many comparable bodies. It ends by referring specifically to the new clause:
“New Clause 7 follows the legislative format established for other public bodies. National Parks England supports this amendment and would encourage MPs to speak in support during the Report Stage debate on the Bill.”
I understand the difficulty in which Opposition spokesmen find themselves, given that a clause of such complexity has been tabled at short notice. I hope that I have been able to reassure them that national parks themselves warmly welcome the clause. I do not think that it is a conspiracy. I have had occasion in the past to point out conspiracies when they crop up, but I do not think that this is an occasion for concern about conspiracies—on the contrary, it is an opportunity to congratulate Ministers, including the Under-Secretary, on listening, being flexible and making a change at, indeed, the 11th hour. That change deserves to be made if we are to show our trust in the judgment of the national park authorities themselves.
I do not intend to comment for long. I merely wish to record my thanks to hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. We began in a contentious place, but we have, I hope, moved towards consensus. I acknowledge the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, who has been vociferous in making the case and with whom I have exchanged a significant quantity of correspondence, for bringing this to the Government’s attention and suggesting that it be included in the Bill. The measure is welcomed by national parks and by many hon. and right hon. Members. I hope that it will be welcomed, too, by shadow Ministers and that we can move forward in a more consensual way in the rest of today’s debates. Regardless, I commend the changes to the House. They are welcome and they are important.