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Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am pleased to open today’s debate on the Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill. It is a short bill, but in my view it deserves something better than a 20-minute debate slot, so I am disappointed in the Parliamentary Bureau for not allowing it more time. We often have debates in the chamber that are far too long and in which members have to think of more things to say and are given extended times when they have little to say. Many people have put a lot of work into the bill; I hope that the Parliamentary Bureau will take account of that.
I thank the members of the Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill Committee for their considered scrutiny of the bill, all those who gave evidence orally and in writing, and—not least—the Parliament’s non-Government bills unit.
My bill simply provides for extension of the southern boundary of the Pentland hills regional park to include the whole of the Pentlands range. It would do nothing more than that; it is simply about drawing a new line on the map to include 100 per cent of the range instead of 45 per cent, which is the current position. If we were starting from scratch today, we would not call it a regional park if it were to include only 45 per cent of the range.
My bill would not change public access rights, place additional planning restrictions on landowners or farmers or place additional governance conditions on local authorities. The direct financial implications for local authorities would be de minimis. The financial memorandum says that the cost would be some £20,000 overall, across five local authorities, for consulting about the boundary.
The bill would provide a two year lead-in period, which would enable the five local authorities whose areas bound the Pentland hills to consult and agree on the new southern boundary. It would also provide them with an opportunity—no more than that—to look at the future management of the regional park and to investigate future funding options. The key word is “options”. There is nothing mandatory in the bill about financing. Any arrangement on financing the administration of the park would be—as it is now—contractual and therefore consensual.
The bill is simply about drawing a line on the map—nothing more and nothing less. That is what the bill committee was asked to consider, but did it do that? To be frank, the answer is no. The committee has reported on a bill that does not exist—a bill that would oblige local authorities to fund it. I ask members where that is in my bill. The bill that the committee reported on is, in the words of Ernie Wise, not the bill what I wrote, but one that the committee wrote for itself.
There was also criticism of my consultation, but the Government said that I had “consulted widely”. Perhaps I will get a moment to deal with that when I sum up.
It is three decades since the Pentland hills regional park was created. I do not think that we should wait another three decades before we complete the job and extend the park to include the whole range.
In the very, very brief time that I have to speak, I ask members to focus on the line on the map—nothing more and nothing less—and to support the bill at stage 1. The committee’s report does not deal with my bill. It deals with the bill what the committee wrote, not the one what I wrote. I ask members to read my bill and to support it.
I am pleased to move,
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill.
Before I set out the committee’s findings, I thank the committee members and clerks for all their help and support during the committee’s consideration of the bill.
In June 2015, an ad hoc committee was established to consider the Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill. As the convener of that committee, I am pleased today to share with members the committee’s scrutiny of the bill. I thank Christine Grahame for introducing the bill—particularly following her kind remarks. She prosecuted her case with her usual forensic rigour and passion. Because of her, the subject matter, which is relevant to a lot of people who live or work near the hills or who use them for recreational purposes, has had a very public airing.
The bill is also ground breaking in procedural terms, so let me explain how the bill has pushed the procedural boundaries. I apologise for the pun. Although it is a member’s bill, it has the potential to “adversely” affect
“a particular private interest of an individual ... or bodies of the same category or class.”
That aspect aligns the bill with private bills. Should such a bill have been introduced by the Government, it would have been dealt with under the hybrid bill procedure. We wrote to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee about that, and it confirmed that it will consider including that procedural point in its legacy report. The bill’s uniqueness and its potential to affect some individuals and bodies differently from others underpinned the committee’s approach to our scrutiny of it, which I will now set out. As has been mentioned, we have very little time today, so I will lay out the main considerations and conclusions in the short time that I have left.
Local authorities already have the legislative power to extend the park’s boundary under the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967. Local authorities, farmers and objectors told us that they are unaware of any demand to extend the park. Some people thought that a feasibility study should be carried out before potential legislation is introduced, and Scottish Borders Council believed that a study ascertaining the current park’s effectiveness should take place before its resource burden is added to. We concluded that a detailed feasibility study would be appropriate in order to identify demand before potential legislation is introduced.
We also inquired whether designation as a regional park would provide any additional protection. A number of formal designations already apply to the area: for example, sites of special scientific interest and core and promoted paths are currently managed and maintained by local councils. We were, therefore, not convinced that designation as a regional park would provide any greater protection against development, given that regional park status is, by design, light touch.
Section 3 concerned us greatly, because it would automatically extend the boundary of the regional park if local authorities did not agree a boundary within a two-year period. That would override section 2, which would require every owner, occupier and lessee of land to be notified of the extended area and would allow representations. We agree with the minister, who said:
“We should not dispose of the carefully thought through consultation procedures and arrangements that are provided for by the current legislation.”—[Official Report, Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill Committee, 19 November 2015, c 6.]
We concluded that the bill is a significant shift away from current safeguards.
The funding of an enlarged park was of concern, too. The member in charge of the bill argued that the boundary change would not cost, because it would be just
“a line on the map.”—[Official Report, Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill Committee, 19 November 2015, c 7.
However, the committee disagrees with that interpretation. With a bill comes the expectation that it will deliver something. For example, people living or working near and using an extended regional park would expect an increased ranger service and car-parking facilities. We concluded that an additional financial burden on top of local authorities’ existing financial pressures would be unwelcome and would impact detrimentally on the current operation of the regional park.
For those reasons, the committee unanimously recommends that Parliament not agree to the general principles of the Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill.
I thank the Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill Committee for its consideration of the bill, and I thank everyone who gave oral and written evidence. I also acknowledge Christine Grahame’s commitment to the issue, which has focused minds on the regional park’s aims, success and future challenges, so I thank her for all the work that she has done in getting the bill to this stage.
As I said when I gave evidence to the committee in November, although the Scottish Government recognises the geographical reason for wishing to extend the southern boundary of the Pentland hills regional park, I agree with the committee, which concluded in December that it could not support the general principles of the bill. Yesterday, NFU Scotland and Scottish Land & Estates, which represent farmers and land managers in the Pentland hills, said the same. I, too, cannot support the bill, and I will explain why.
First, the Scottish Government is not involved in the operation of regional parks, which are created, managed and funded by local authorities. Local authorities already have powers to extend parks’ boundaries if they so wish. My view, therefore, is that decisions on the Pentland hills regional park should continue to be made at that local level.
Secondly, the local authorities told the committee that they are not aware of any demand for an enlarged regional park. Indeed, the two councils into whose areas the park would be extended said that the southern Pentlands is a low priority in terms of pressure for outdoor recreation.
South Lanarkshire Council noted that the area is remote from its main centres of population. The Scottish Borders Council opposes the bill and said that an extended park would draw disproportionate resources from elsewhere.
Third, I have concerns about the procedures that are set out in the bill, because they represent a shift away from all the existing safeguards that are set out in the 1967 act and subsequent regulations.
Finally, I note that the lead committee, the NFUS and Scottish Land & Estates all say that the bill and its “line on the map” approach would create expectations and has therefore overlooked the funding requirements of an extended regional park.
For all those reasons, I cannot support the bill.
I welcome the opportunity to speak today as a member of the Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill Committee.
I am sure that everyone here today shares Christine Grahame’s passion for protecting the landscape of the Pentland hills for future generations. I confirm, as a member, that the committee also held that view.
I thank Christine Grahame for her efforts in producing the bill. I know as someone who has two bills under my belt—one successful and one not so successful—how much work is involved in bill preparation.
No one can fault Christine Grahame for her absolute passion and energy in getting the bill on the table. That involves the consultation side as well, and I echo the convener’s point about the support of the NGBU, which does a fantastic job in the Parliament.
As we have heard, however, there were a number of issues in which we did not share Christine Grahame’s views. There were questions about whether there is demand from local communities and local councils, and about what extra protection would be provided, which the convener already covered. I say, in trying to be as positive as I can, that if in the future there were to be a bill in which funding opportunities were made much clearer, governance issues were resolved and it was clear that there was widespread community, local authority and Scottish Government support, my personal view—I stress that it is my personal view—is that I would not rule it out, if those boxes were ticked.
The minister has been clear that there is no Scottish Government support for the proposal and the councils that gave evidence to the committee did not provide any positive evidence that the bill should go ahead. For those reasons, Labour members will not support the bill.
I praise, however, the work that Christine Grahame has carried out.
I cannot begin by thanking Christine Grahame for bringing forward the bill, but I congratulate her. It takes no little commitment and effort to bring forward a bill to this stage and, whatever the outcome, I am very happy to recognise that she has applied a great deal of both during the best part of two years that have passed since the proposal for the bill was lodged.
I also have some sympathy with Christine Grahame’s vision of extending the existing regional park boundaries as the bill seeks to do, in that there is a certain logic in assuming that a Pentland hills regional park should encompass the whole Pentland hills range. There, I am sorry to say, is where I think that the vision should be left for the foreseeable future—as a vision.
The bill does not seek to create an extended park or to establish the infrastructure to manage it. It seeks, as Christine Grahame has often reminded us, and has done so again today, to draw a line on the map within which an extended park could operate. The committee was surely right to look at what the consequences of that would be. Ms Grahame’s belief is that it would drive the five affected local authorities towards putting in place the necessary management structures and funding them to bring about a successfully extended park. So far so good, but the problem with that—this was made very clear to the committee—is that four out of those five affected local authorities do not want an extended park and that the other would not consider it at all unless sufficient funding were made available by the Scottish Government. In turn, the Government made it equally plain that it was not in its plans to do so.
Indeed, the minister pointed out in giving evidence that regional parks have always been the preserve of local rather than national Government. Traditionally, they have been demanded by local authorities and managed and funded by local authorities. It seems to me that it would be inappropriate for our national Parliament to impose extended boundaries on local authorities when they have shown no desire themselves to extend those boundaries.
If we were to agree to extend the Pentland hills regional park boundary, even if it was just a line on a map, we would have to ask ourselves what the consequences would be. In my view, an extended boundary would mean increased expectation, which would increase pressure on the park, particularly within the extended area; that increased pressure would lead to a demand for increased infrastructure and the funding to back it up, but we already know that that would not be forthcoming.
It is not just the local authorities that seem to be lukewarm, at best, about the proposal; there appears to be little, if any, demand for the proposal from the likely users of an extended park. I am sure that that is largely due to the success of the right of responsible access that was brought in by the Scottish Parliament back in 2003, which gives people access to all the land in Scotland. Indeed, we heard from land managers from the area within the proposed extension, who have already diversified into providing various services for walkers, cyclists and other access takers. They said that they had not experienced any pressure for greater access to the area beyond the existing park, which is another sure sign that the demand for an extension is not there.
The one and only witness who enthusiastically favoured an extended boundary was the chair of Balerno community council. I believe that Balerno is an area that is under increasing pressure from the existing park, but it is not actually included within Christine Grahame’s proposed extension.
We have a proposal before us that, if passed, would impose new park boundaries on five local authorities, four of which are opposed to them and one of which would consider them only if sufficient funding were available, which it will not be. There is little, if any, demand for the proposal from either the public or land managers; no feasibility or environmental impact studies have been carried out on the proposal; and I believe that it would be irresponsible for the Parliament to dictate to local authorities on an issue that has always been their sole preserve, even if it is just to put a line on a map.
I support the committee’s recommendations, and the Scottish Conservatives will not support the bill at decision time this evening.
A point that has not been covered particularly in the debate is one that the committee convener made, which is that the committee wrote to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee on the issue of the absence of bespoke standing orders.
The minister made the useful point that the Scottish Government is not involved in the operation of regional parks and that it believes that that should be done at the local level. It comes back to the issue of whether there is any demand for the bill. That is the key point, which was echoed by Alex Fergusson. I take his point that there is a certain logic in the Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill as an entity, but we have to consider whether there is demand for it from the five local authorities concerned, land managers and, indeed, local communities.
If the bill were to go ahead, we would need a full feasibility study and we would have to consider the aspects of competence and finance. I have nothing further to say on the bill, except to repeat that Labour members will not support it at decision time at 5 o’clock.
I have listened with interest to the contributions to the debate. The member in charge of the bill, Christine Grahame, described it as enabling legislation that would simply provide a line on the map. However, as we have heard, an extension of the park’s boundary would undoubtedly have significant implications for all the local authorities involved and for farmers and land managers, and it would create expectations about how an extended park would be managed and funded.
The evidence that was gathered by the committee shows that local authorities are not aware of a demand to extend the park. In addition, as I said previously, NFUS and Scottish Land & Estates reiterated yesterday that they do not support the bill, stating that it would create a public expectation that cannot be delivered and that the obvious funding requirements of an extended regional park have been completely overlooked. Indeed, on funding, I note the committee’s view:
“It is clear to us that there are financial pressures on the current management of the existing Regional Park and it therefore seems illogical to extend it thus requiring any available funding to be spread more thinly across an enlarged area.”
Extending the boundary of the Pentland hills regional park to include the complete range of hills might seem logical at first glance but, as I said in my opening remarks, the Scottish Government is not involved in the operation of regional parks and it remains our view that decisions on the Pentland hills regional park should continue to be made at a local level. That is why the Government cannot support the bill and will vote against it at decision time this evening.
I find myself in the unusual position of being in disagreement with my Government. It is a strange place to be.
I go back to that ubiquitous line on the map. Nothing in the bill—I repeat, nothing—obliges any local authority to provide any funding, with the exception of £20,000 divided across five authorities to consult on the extended boundary. The rest is fiction. The current financing by three local authorities is by agreement and contractual, and is very precarious. Over 30 years, the pressure on the Pentland hills has increased and it will continue to do so. Regional park status delineates a boundary only for administration purposes, protecting those hills, those who work in them day in, day out, and those who use them for recreational purposes.
We are all guilty at times of doing something only when it really needs doing. For example, most of us would not, by choice, defrost a freezer. Usually, we do so only when we find that the door will no longer close no matter what the physical effort. In the same way, there is a danger that discussions concerning the future of the Pentland hills will be deferred until we are forced into action, perhaps when the money from the existing three local authorities completely runs out. I hear what members say about local authorities having power, but they will not do anything. We know that they will not do anything; that is why they all object to it. The issue will be left to wither on the vine and they hope that it will go away. It will not go away, because I can assure David Stewart that if I am re-elected I am coming back with it.
The bill provides the impetus for change and would provide a chance—just a chance—to look at the future management and funding of the park. It is a pity that Murdo Fraser is not in the chamber, because he could tell members about some worthwhile points that he made in a recent BBC article about creating and preserving national parks. Much more humble is the regional park, but I agree with him about the important role of parks in conservation and I think that the bill goes some way towards achieving that, so I look forward to Murdo Fraser pressing his button to agree with me when it comes to decision time.
In conclusion, I want to leave members with the thoughts of Richard Henderson, whom I think the committee called to give evidence thinking that he would sabotage me, but who did completely the opposite. He said, and I paid him no money to say it:
“Can I say first that the bill is par excellence? It is aspirational legislation. As you have said, it says in effect, ‘This is a line. We want somebody to fill it in.’ There is nothing wrong with aspirational legislation. The regional park would not be being talked about at all if it was not for the bill.”—[Official Report, Pentland Hills Regional Park Boundary Bill Committee, 12 November 2015; c 16.]
What a lovely man. I could not have said it better myself.
I ask members to focus on that line on the map, nothing more and nothing less, and to support the bill at stage 1. Remember, it is the bill what I wrote, as Ernie Wise might have said, not the bill that the committee thought I had wrote.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. All members who spoke in the debate gave credit to Christine Grahame for the effort that she put into bringing the bill to this stage. She mentioned in her opening remarks the shortage of time given to the debate, and however much I might disagree with her I think that a 20-minute debate, following two years of hard work, hardly does justice to the work that she has put in, or to the work of the committee. I wonder whether you and your fellow Presiding Officers could ensure—even if it is in a legacy paper to the next session of Parliament—that the matter will be looked at, because the length of time that was given to the debate was almost insulting.
Thank you, Mr Fergusson. As a past Presiding Officer of the Parliament, you will be well aware that that is not a point of order. However, you have made your point. I am certain that you will be aware that that is a matter for the Parliamentary Bureau and the business managers to decide.