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Clause 57 - Members of National Park Authorities

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 30th June 2005.

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Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:00 am, 30th June 2005

I beg to move amendment:

No. 81, in clause 57, page 22, line 12, at end insert—

‘(ba)a specified number of directly elected members,’.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 82, in clause 57, page 22, line 18, leave out ‘and’.

No. 83, in clause 57, page 22, line 19, at end insert—

‘and

(c)directly elected members,’.

No. 84, in clause 57, page 23, line 10, at end insert—

‘(5A)After paragraph 3 insert—

“Directly elected members 3A(1)The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument make provision for and in connection with the election of directly elected members of National Park authorities. (2)Regulations under sub-paragraph (1) are subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”.’. Mr. Williams: I have pleasure in speaking to the amendment. Only my name appears on the amendments in this group, but I have all-party support for them. As the Bill progresses, I have no doubt that this matter will be raised again because there is real concern about the composition of national park committees. Hon. Members will agree that to some extent all forms of government are unpopular because unpopular decisions must be made from time to time and national parks are not immune from that. National parks are special-purpose local authorities and one expects local authorities to be directly accountable through a democratic process. That is one thing that national parks do not have and from time to time it creates resentment among the people who live in national parks.

3A(1)The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument make provision for and in connection with the election of directly elected members of National Park authorities.

(2)Regulations under sub-paragraph (1) are subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”.’.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I have pleasure in speaking to the amendment. Only my name appears on the amendments in this group, but I have all-party support for them. As the Bill progresses, I have no doubt that this matter will be raised again because there is real concern about the composition of national park committees. Hon. Members will agree that to some extent all forms of government are unpopular because unpopular decisions must be made from time to time and national parks are not immune from that. National parks are special-purpose local authorities and one expects local authorities to be directly accountable through a democratic process. That is one thing that national parks do not have and from time to time it creates resentment among the people who live in national parks.

The concept of national parks is welcomed generally by people who live in this country, but sometimes the people who live in the national parks do not share that great enthusiasm, as I am sure that the Minister is aware.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Labour, Sheffield, Hillsborough

There is a claim that there is widespread support for the amendment, but the Council for National Parks does not support the measure. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am well aware that the Council for National Parks—a voluntary, not a statutory body—does not support direct elections to national park   authorities. The national parks establishment itself does not support direct elections. However, that is no reason why the issue should not be considered. Although I welcome the opportunity to move this amendment, it has come a little early as far as I am concerned. I just have not had the time to do the work, although I intended to do it in this Session in order to try to achieve legislation along these lines. The national parks establishment is a well-organised body and I have no doubt that it will express its views on this matter.

I shall set British national parks in the context of the family of international national parks. The Minister will be aware that IUCN, the World Conservation Union, has categories for national parks throughout the world. Some involve areas of land that are wilderness such as the national parks that were set up in the middle of the 19th century by Americans who were far-sighted enough to see that the expansion of towns and industry was threatening the fabric of their fantastic landscape. Those people will go down as pioneers of the national park movement and we owe them a terrific amount. If it were not for their impetus, many outstanding landscapes would have been lost.

The categories go from I to VI. Category I is for strict nature reserves. It states that the land will have very few residents and that there will not be any intention in the future of encouraging people to live there. It states:

“Ownership and control should be by the national or other level of government, acting through a professionally qualified agency, or by a private foundation, university or institution”.

In other words, the private sector or private people will have very little impact on those areas. Clearly, in Britain—a relatively heavily populated country—we will not have the opportunity to establish national parks in that category.

It comes as no surprise that the British national parks are in category V. When people in Britain first saw that category, they were rather disappointed because they have a high regard for our national parks and the work that they do. However, the categorisation does not reflect a scale of quality or commitment; it just reflects the fact that national parks in Britain are where people live and that, through their endeavours, they have created the quality that we seek to preserve. Category V states:

“The area may be owned by a public authority, but is more likely to comprise a mosaic of private and public ownerships operating a variety of management regimes.”

When I was the chairman of the Brecon Beacons national park, I often made the point that although we had a budget of—at that time—about £2 million, the impact that the national park could make on that area of about 580 square miles was limited compared with what private individuals and private businesses could do. The role of the national park was not to run that area but to take initiatives, show opportunities and encourage. That is the role of the national parks in this country.

In Britain, we have a different sort of national park to those found in other parts of the world. When national parks were first set up, the committees or the authorities were composed in such a way as to   establish that the parks were of national importance. They did not have direct elections as other local authorities did. The two types of representatives who sat on the committee were those appointed by local authorities and those appointed by the Secretary of State in Westminster—for England and Wales, at that time. Since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly, the latter group have included those nominated by the National Assembly for Wales.

I think it was the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) who told me that in the national parks in his constituency, those appointed by the local authority were seen as having accountability through the democratic process. Of course, that does not always work and I shall point out one or two reasons why. First, people who put themselves forward for election to a local authority do not necessarily do so to contribute to the work of a national park. They may be interested in education, social services or a variety of other services delivered by local authorities. That is not true in all cases—I pay tribute to those from local authorities who sit on national park committees—but sometimes, in order to get enough people to sit on the committee, some of those who participate do not have a direct interest or an enthusiasm for contributing to the work of the national park. Just because someone puts themselves forward for election to a local authority, it does not follow that they have that necessary commitment. I am not sure how the legislation stands at the moment, but in the past local authorities have not even appointed people who were elected to those authorities. They appointed people from outside the authority for certain purposes.

People who live in national parks also take exception to the fact that some authorities do not appoint councillors who represent areas in the national park or live in the national park; they appoint councillors from outside the national park. It is not surprising that residents wonder where their representation, or the accountability, is on those bodies.

I know that in England parish councillors have a role and some are appointed by the Secretary of State, but there is another class of committee member appointed by the Secretary of State. I know that they are there to give reassurance that the national importance of national parks is reflected in their activity. By tabling the amendment, I am not saying that none of the people should be appointed by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales; I am saying that there should be a seasoning of the committee to include people who are directly elected.

What role would those directly elected people play? They would be people who actually wanted to sit on the committees of national parks and wanted to commit their time not to education or social services but to the role and function of national parks. They would be people living in the area who understood the reason why national parks had been established and were committed to furthering their purposes. They   would put themselves forward as people committed in that way with no other issues taking up their time. That seems a very good thing to me.

One may argue that those people could put forward their name to the Secretary of State, but some people do not want to have their membership decided on the basis of whether they are acceptable to the Secretary of State. They prefer to see whether their membership of the committee is acceptable to the communities in which they live and work.

There is another factor—whether people who live in national parks have the opportunity of contributing to the democratic process by selecting the people who represent them.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Labour, Sheffield, Hillsborough 9:15 am, 30th June 2005

In the Peak district, one of our prime residents is the Duchess of Devonshire. What would be the possibility of her being a directly elected member of the national park authority? Given her powerful status in the Peak District national park, how would that play in terms of democratic accountability?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I do not want to speak on behalf of the Duchess of Devonshire, but I know that the Duke of Devonshire was highly committed to national park purposes.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman a response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), which is that there was a contradiction in her intervention. If the Duchess of Devonshire were democratically elected, the people who elected her would have answered the question. They would have trusted her with a position on the board.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman anticipated what I was going to say. I was going to put in a caveat. One of my amendments states that the Secretary of State can by regulation determine the nature of the election and the composition of the board or committee that serves that national park. There may be something that rules out peers or peeresses from standing, but I would not welcome that. I would welcome the opportunity for anyone who lives in the national park to put their names forward. Whether they would be elected is another matter. It would depend on their commitment to that community and to national park purposes.

There is an argument that, because national parks are so important, democracy should not impinge on their functions in any way. However, one could advance the same argument for Cardiff, the national city of Wales, saying that it is so important that we should not have elections for Cardiff city council and that people should be appointed by the Secretary of State. The people of Cardiff would stand up as one to oppose that. It is not surprising that the people who live in national parks want the same ability to influence many of the decisions that affect their quality of life.

Therefore, the time has come to change the composition of national park authorities. The feeling that the purposes and functions of national parks will be let down because their activities will be badly influenced by democracy is a thing of the past. It has been shown to be a thing of the past by the newly established national parks in Scotland—Cairngorms, and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs—which were established about three years ago. In Scotland, 20 per cent. of the committees of the national parks are directly elected. That has been a huge success.

The early-day motion that I am tabling on the matter includes the name of a newly elected Liberal Democrat Member who worked for one of those national parks in Scotland. As an officer, he welcomed the fact that accountability had been introduced into the work of the national park.

When the elections took place for the Cairngorms national park authority, it was divided into five wards. There were at least four candidates in each ward. Six people stood in some wards. Turnout ranged from 48 per cent. to 66 per cent., which would, in today’s terms, be acceptable to Committee members. Therefore, the argument that democracy would not work and that strange people would be elected because people were not interested in participating in the electoral process has been absolutely hit on the head.

In summing up, the amendment would not introduce something revolutionary. It proposes something evolutionary in relation to national park purposes. It would ensure that national park authorities function better, better reflect the people whom they represent and bring in people whose commitment as a whole is to national park purposes. It would move the national park movement forward and do it no harm whatsoever.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I have been happy to allow the hon. Gentleman to range widely in discussing the amendment and, if other Members wish to follow in his wake, I would probably take the view that a clause stand part debate will not be necessary.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The amendments are interesting. As we are allowed to range a bit more widely, thanks to your latitude, Mr. Forth, I would like to speak about the proposed national park in the south downs, which highlights some of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman’s amendments.

It is proposed that a very large national park authority should take over some of the functions of the elected councils in the south downs. The proposed population of 130,000 would be much greater than that of any of the existing parks—three times that of the largest English national park. That would mean that the authority had to deal with 4,500 planning applications a year, nearly four times more than that of the Lake district, which currently handles the largest number. It would mean that the national park area contained 15 local authorities. Mr. Forth, I am coming directly to the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s amendments.

What is proposed for the south downs is a big transfer of power to a body that is in part unelected to deal with things such as the large number of planning applications. Under the proposed composition of the national park authorities as set out in the clause, two fifths of the appointees to the national park authority will be national appointees. That gives rise to two issues: first, the extent to which the national park authority will have democratic legitimacy in the eyes of local people, particularly when it takes decisions on planning matters; and, secondly, whether the proposed size of the national park authority is adequate to carry out all the functions.

The idea that a proportion of the national park authority members should be directly elected is attractive, given that a democratic deficit appears to lie at the heart of the national parks by virtue of the number of appointed members. However, if one then considers that 67 per cent. of Chichester district council’s area would lie in the proposed area of the South Downs national park, one has an odd situation in which the ability of most local councillors in the national park to decide on planning matters would be taken away, yet there would be provision under the hon. Gentleman’s proposal to elect new national park authority members. On the one hand, the existence of a national park in my area would take away the opportunity of people to elect councillors who have a say in planning matters. On the other hand, the hon. Gentleman seeks to give it back. That suggests to me that the proposal is something of a mess, and that the larger the national park, the more the mess.

Will the Minister address this specific issue? What is the appropriate size of a national park authority for an area such as the south downs? The issue was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on Second Reading in relation to the Peak District national park, which is one of the larger parks. It has been suggested that the proposed maximum membership of the national park authority for the Peak District national park should be 30 members. The Countryside Agency recommended in its advice to the Government, however, that a national park authority should have 46 members. The strong view of West Sussex county council is that, if the park authority is to handle properly the number of planning applications that local authorities deal with, a park authority of sufficient size will be important.

Will the Minister explain the current thinking about the relevant size of a national park authority should the decision be taken to go ahead with the park in West Sussex? I look forward with great interest to what he has to say about the proposal for direct elections, although I have a feeling that he will not be sympathetic. However, it is right to bear in mind that the creation of such parks has taken away much of the ability of local people to have a say about important matters. That has been thrown into sharp relief by the proposals in my area.

There is a difficulty with translating to England the experience of Scotland with its directly elected members, because I do not think that Scotland has parish councils. By contrast, in the proposed area of   the South Downs national park, for instance, there are 186 parish councils. There is a potential for confusion: the enormous amount of potential democracy that seems to be attractive in principle, is likely to create a tremendous mess in practice.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

Given the context, and your advice, Mr. Forth, about a stand part debate, I shall start by sketching out what the clause does. I shall try to do that briefly, and then to address directly the amendments tabled and the comments made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Herbert).

The clause improves the arrangements of the appointing of members to national park authorities, in order to make the system more responsive to local needs and more efficient. It has three elements. Subsection (2) allows more flexibility when setting the mix of local authority, parish and so-called national members on national park authorities. It specifies that the local authority and, in England, parish members together must always outnumber the national members, in order to enforce the issue of democratic deficit, which I will discuss later. Within that, the subsection allows the precise mix for each park to be set by secondary legislation, so that we can allow for differences in areas such as the Peak District national park.

Subsections (3) to (5) deal with the problem of interregnums, which was identified in the 2002 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs review of English national park authorities. Subsection (6) allows the national members to serve for up to four years at a time, thus putting them on the same footing as local and parish members. That is what we are setting out to do in the clause, and I hope that the Committee will support it.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire is a great champion of national parks and of the particular cause of direct election, about which he has spoken to me. I am sure that the Committee appreciates his commitment to and experience of national parks. He raises one of the old chestnuts of the national parks world: among the members of a national park authority, there should be a certain number who are directly elected to that position. I understand why he feels obliged to raise the issue again, but the fact is that the question of directly elected members for English and Welsh park authorities was debated when the existing legislation was enacted. The matter was looked at again during the English and Welsh reviews and it has never commanded general support, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough said. Neither the Association of National Park Authorities nor the Council for National Parks supports the idea.

National park authorities are unique bodies. We need to recognise that and devise our approach accordingly. They have many of the characteristics of local authorities, including being subject to most of the generic local government legislation, but they also have some of the features of a non-departmental   public body. That duality reflects their dual responsibilities. First, they serve the country as a whole. The parks are national assets, after all, and we should continue to celebrate the fact that we have national parks so that we can look after and enjoy them. Secondly, the authorities have a direct responsibility to those who live in the park, whom the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire speaks for so eloquently.

The current arrangements reflect the unique role of the national parks very well. At present, each authority has some members who have been elected to local authorities in the area, some members who have been recruited through a national competition, and in England, some members who have been elected to parish councils. That mix gives them the broad range of skills and expertise that they need and it ensures that they do not overlook their local or, crucially, their national responsibilities.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs raised the issue of the democratic deficit. In respect of the south downs specifically, I act in a quasi-judicial way regarding the public inquiry so I cannot comment specifically on issues relating to the south downs because that would prejudice that process. I know that that will frustrate him, but I am not in a position to comment on the situation. I shall try to comment on the principle of what he said about democratic deficit.

I would argue that no such problem exists. Elected members—those who have been elected to county, district, unitary or parish councils, or those elected as chairs of parish meetings—are in a majority at present and will remain so under the change envisaged in the clause. They can be replaced by their appointing authorities whenever they are re-elected as councillors and the so-called national members are recruited by an open competition done in accordance with the spirit of guidance issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

The current arrangements are clear, transparent and accountable. They ensure that each tier of local government, plus the national interest, is represented. That may well mean that a broader mix of interests will have a say in deciding planning applications than would be the case in a local authority, but that is appropriate given the dual nature of what national park authorities do. Of course, the statutory framework for planning, including the scope for appeals, applies just as much to decisions taken by the national park authority as it does to decisions taken elsewhere by directly elected local authorities.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs also raised the questions asked by the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire on Second Reading, to which I shall briefly refer. Clause 57 is not a ploy to allow smaller national park authorities. We are considering the mix of members, not the number of them, which will be set by secondary legislation. In addressing the mix, we will not do anything to diminish what I said earlier about ensuring that elected members are in the majority. The hon. Gentleman is   correct in saying that DEFRA consulted on a proposal in 2004, which would mean reducing the composition for the Peak District national park from 38 to 30 members; Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Lake District, the North York Moors and the Yorkshire Dales would be reduced from 26 to 22 members; and the New Forest and Northumberland would continue with 22 members. I can tell the Committee that I have decided that those reductions should go ahead from 2007. I have written to the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire to inform him of that because he raised the matter directly on Second Reading. I shall lay a statutory instrument before Parliament to achieve that in due course. I do not rule out further changes, but I have no plans at present to reduce the size of national park authorities further.

Returning to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, we have different arrangements in Scotland, Wales and England. That reflects devolution, and we should celebrate that. The arrangements in Scotland seem to be working reasonably well and I do not deny that, but Scotland does not have parish councils and the directly elected members are in lieu of parish council members in England.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:30 am, 30th June 2005

My understanding is that in England the representatives from parish councils are appointed by the Secretary of State anyway, so they are just another form of appointment by the Secretary of State.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

Up to a point I cannot argue with that, but they are there by virtue of their election to parish councils first and foremost. The Secretary of State cannot appoint someone who is not on the parish council in the national park authority area. We can argue about the semantics and the details of how that works, but they are there by virtue of their election and the fact that they represent local people in the park.

We have different arrangements, but the real test of the current system is whether it works and it seems to me that it does. The authors of the 2002 review certainly seem to think that it works. They said that they

“were not persuaded that directly elected members would bring clear benefits”.

The separate review of the Welsh national park authorities also found no consensus on this issue. The Welsh Assembly will consult later this year on possible changes to the existing appointment arrangements in Wales, where there are no parish councils.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire would not want this Committee in Westminster to impose a solution and to pre-empt the outcome of the devolved Assembly’s consultation. We in London should not impose a solution on Wales, and there can be no greater champion of that in the Committee than the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will make his case about direct elections as assertively to the review as he made it to the Committee today. I wish him all the best in what he has set out to achieve in this Parliament—direct election to national park authorities in Wales.

In short, I see no need for a directly elected component. To introduce one could unbalance the approach that has proved successful since independent national park authorities were established. I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

Thank you, Mr. Forth, for your tolerance. It was essential to put the amendments in the context of the way national parks work in this country and other areas. No one would be concerned about appointing a body to look after a wilderness, but it is appropriate to have an element of democracy in organisations that look after the affairs of people who live in national parks. The Minister said that this was an old chestnut, but even old chestnuts sometimes germinate, grow, flower and flourish. It is about time this old chestnut did exactly that.

The Minister said that the matter was considered as part of the quinquennial review of national parks in England, and it was certainly considered in Wales. This is English-Welsh legislation. The Assembly Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, Kirsty Williams, and I made strong representations to the review in Wales on direct elections. Surprisingly, the organisation that was established to carry out that consultation said that although there was no consensus, they could see many good reasons for direct elections and that the objections did not carry much weight. When the Minister in the Welsh Assembly responded to that, the Assembly Committee rejected his response and said that he should go away and think about it again. It was not referring to direct elections in particular; it was talking about the response to the quinquennial review. There is concern in Wales, and where Wales leads, I am sure that everybody else will follow, as they always do.

The fact remains that the limitations of the devolution settlement mean that the only way we will achieve direct elections to national parks in Wales is by primary legislation in this place. That is part of the reason why I tabled the amendment, although direct elections would work in England as well. The Minister says, “Why should Westminster dictate to Wales?” He will realise that I am not seeking legislation that will direct the Assembly in Wales; I am seeking legislation that enables the Assembly to do something, although the wording of the amendment may not carry that meaning. In a way, the amendment puts down a maker, but it is also a bit more than that. The time has come for people who live in national parks to have the power to elect their own representatives. I had hoped to unite the Committee on this issue, but I am afraid that I will have to divide it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 8.

Division number 3 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 57 - Members of National Park Authorities

Aye: 1 MP

No: 7 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 58 ordered to stand part of the Bill.