Norfolk and Suffolk Broads debate

11 am
 
Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con): I beg to move,
 
That this House has considered the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads.
 
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to his ministerial post. I suppose that he is now responsible for, among other things, pigs and poultry. I would like to think that his previous experience dealing with tribal factions in Iraq and Afghanistan was easier for him than dealing with European Union bureaucracy.
 
I am sorry that the Minister has been unable or unwilling, either by omission or commission, to speak with Rosa McMahon of the Eastern Daily Press, who has pressed his office on several occasions for an interview about the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. I hope that as a consequence of this short debate, he might feel able to talk to her about the matter.
 
I am pleased to see a number of my parliamentary colleagues in their places—my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), all of whom have an interest in the matter. As the Minister is no doubt aware, the Norfolk and Suffolk broads comprise an area of 303 square miles, 120 miles of navigable waterways, seven rivers and 63 broads. They are the largest protected wetlands in the country. A significant part of the broads pass through or by my constituency. Indeed, my predecessor, Richard Ryder, now Lord Ryder of Wensum, took through the original Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, which has since been amended.
 
I have secured the debate with two aims in mind. First, I want to press the Minister about the exact status of the Norfolk and Suffolk broads in their relationship with the national parks family. Secondly, I want to press him on whether his Department intends to resurrect the draft Governance of National Parks (England) and the Broads Bill, an England-only measure in the Queen’s Speech a year ago that would allow for direct elections to the authorities, particularly to the Broads Authority.
 
Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): Perhaps I might suggest that my right hon. Friend should press the Minister on a third point as well. The broads are exceptionally important not only to the east of Norfolk, but to Norfolk as a whole. Surely, we would like the Minister to help to promote Norfolk as an incredibly important tourism destination, of which the broads are a jewel in the crown.
 
Mr Simpson: My hon. Friend’s very good point leads me on to another. As I am sure that the Minister is aware, the broads are significant and different from the rest of the national parks. First, although the environment had a hand in their creation, they were largely created by man. We found out as late as 1963 that peat diggings in the middle ages produced what we now call the broads. Secondly, the broads must encapsulate a number of interest groups, including the people who live and work on the broads and in the surrounding area; the farming community; everyone involved in protecting the environment; and, not least, as my hon. Friend mentioned, some 4 million tourists who visit the broads and the rest of Norfolk each year. It is very important to get that balance right.
 
Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): There is a key distinction between the broads and other national parks. National parks take account of the Sandford principle, which balances the interests of conservation and natural beauty against enjoyment by the public, but if the two clash, conservation takes precedence. Since its inception, legislation governing the broads has been explicit about the fact that the interests of navigation must also be taken into account, so the broads can never be a national park in the same way as others are. Does my right hon. Friend agree that for the sake of tourism and the economy of Norfolk, that should remain the case?
 
Mr Simpson: My hon. Friend and I made that point in 2006-07 when another broads Bill was going through the Commons. He is quite right to say that the Sandford principle tries to balance the working side of national parks with the environment, but at the end of the day the environmental principle is more important. We have all been lobbied by people who are concerned that if the broads take the name of national park—which, it is argued, would not change the unique status of the broads—things would change. My hon. Friend is correct. The functions of the Broads Authority, which manages the broads, are:
 
“Conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Broads; Promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the Broads by the public;”
 
and
 
“Protecting the interests of navigation”.
 
That balance must be maintained. Over the past 10 or 15 years, perhaps understandably, the Broads Authority and others have attempted to rebrand the broads as a national park. Indeed, many members of the public may think that it is a national park. There has been some confusion in the minds of many who live and work in the broads and elsewhere in Norfolk about the status of the broads as a member of the national parks family, and whether that has legally changed.
 
Lord de Mauley, when he was a Minister, explained in a letter that the Broads Authority could call itself a national park, but that that would not alter the legal status of the broads. That is a fine piece of sophistry worthy of Charles Dickens, whose great legal battle of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce will be familiar to many. It is not simply a debating point, however; it is a point of law. As my Norfolk and Suffolk colleagues know, two people are seeking a judicial review—I will not go into details—of the rebranding of the Norfolk broads as a national park. I want to press the Minister for a precise legal view from the Department, which is responsible for the overall governance of the broads, in relation to the rest of the national parks.
 
Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I hesitate to interrupt my right hon. Friend’s flow, but I want to ask him one question before he moves on from governance. My constituency neighbours his, and it is said to be home to the gateway to the broads in Thorpe St Andrew, so urban problems arise as well as rural ones. The Broads Authority is also a planning authority. Does my right hon. Friend think that it has the capability and capacity to deal with planning matters and enforce decisions? The Minister has received correspondence from me on that point.
 
Mr Simpson: My hon. Friend raises a good point. The planning department in the Broads Authority has considerable powers, and I would like the Department to examine that. That leads me on to my second point, which is the governance of the broads.
 
Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I completely share his view that it is important to maintain the current balance of interests and that any rebranding must not disturb that in law. I want to raise with him the question of the draft Bill from the previous Parliament, because I am concerned about the legitimacy of organisations that have no directly elected people on their board. There was overwhelming support in the broads, and certainly in my constituency, for the idea that the local community should have a say through a directly elected person, or preferably persons, on the board of the Broads Authority. That has been the case in similar authorities in Scotland for some years, and the world has not caved in. Does he share my view that it is important for the draft Bill to become law, so that we have directly elected people on the board?
 
Mr Simpson: That is the second main purpose of this debate. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), was enthusiastic about the draft Bill a year ago, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk and I raised the issue back in 2007. The issue goes back some time. Basically, since 1988 there has been considerable local pressure for direct elections, and there is no doubt that the case was strengthened by the passage of the Broads Authority Act 2009 and the rebranding of the broads as a national park.
 
Last year’s draft Bill would have resulted in direct elections to the Broads Authority, amended the political balance requirement on local authority appointees and allowed for a wider range of parish representation. As the right hon. Member for North Norfolk suggests, the draft Bill’s aim was to improve local accountability without necessarily increasing the number of representatives. If I were being harsh, which I am not, I might argue that the Broads Authority is a quango, because nominees are nominated either by local councils or by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with the noble objective of having a cross-section of interest groups represented on the Broads Authority. Ultimately, those representatives are all nominated, and now is the time to consider how we could have a truly elected part—although not necessarily a truly elected whole—of the Broads Authority. The arguments against will be that party politics could come into it and that there would be questions about how to define the electorate, and so on. Those issues could be resolved, and it would be a cross-cutting exercise as much as anything else.
 
Importantly, the navigation element makes the broads different from other national parks, which means the broads might be better represented if there were local representatives with an interest in navigation. When we talk about navigation, we are talking about a wide remit. We are talking about tourism and the boating companies of one kind or another, and we are talking about people who sail. A lot of material is still shifted by boat on the broads. All those factors come together, making the broads different from, and unique among, other national parks.
 
I hope the Minister will be able to address those two specific questions. He will have a speech drafted for him by his DEFRA officials and by the Broads Authority, but he should work on the assumption—I am not being patronising—that my colleagues here know all the background detail. First, does his Department have a definitive answer to the business of the broads being a national park as a brand but quite different from the rest of the national park family?
 
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this debate, and I am grateful to him for emphasising that it is the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. I note that my colleagues have said that Norwich is the gateway to the broads or that Wroxham is the gateway to the broads; I would argue that Beccles is the gateway to the broads. Does he agree that, although conservation is vital, we have a tremendous tourism jewel that can play a vital role for our local economy? The Broads Authority should be working with local authorities, not just district councils but town councils, to make the most of those opportunities.
 
Mr Simpson: I agree with my hon. Friend. There are so many gateways to the broads that we could draw up a laundry list, but he is right to highlight that part of his constituency. As I have tried to say, there is always a balance to be struck, but that is addressed by the second issue I am raising with the Minister. Is his Department considering resurrecting the draft Bill? That would have a lot of support among Members of Parliament from Norfolk and Suffolk, and it would produce an interesting reaction from other national parks. At the very least, I hope he will say that his Department is open to considering the proposal and that we might have further debates on the subject. The bottom line is that it is necessary to have true participation not only by local people and local towns and villages but by local interest groups of one kind or another. As parliamentarians, we should be in favour of that proposal.
 
11.15 am
 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rory Stewart): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) for his contribution. Geographically, this debate represents a wonderful gathering of the many gateways to the broads, which seem to have more gateways than the fabled oriental city of 100 gates. We have here a great representation: North Norfolk, South Norfolk, North West Norfolk and Norwich North. We have a great Member representing Suffolk, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). Above all, at the centre of this debate about the broads is my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland. This debate is a good example of the way in which the public can engage with such issues.
 
We have talked about the broads in technocratic terms, but of course, above all, the broads are a living space—a space for the cure of the soul. They are a unique creation that, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, are an example not exactly of a national park but of somewhere where the Sandford principle—the principle that conservation should dominate over leisure—has been explicitly rejected by the Broads Authority because of the important fact of navigation. Underlying that is the deep history that he, as a distinguished historian, has raised, which is the artificial creation of the broads through the medieval peat works.
 
In a sense, this debate is not just an extraordinary gathering of different Members of Parliament but a representation of the history of our nation: from Boudicca and the Iceni to the appearance of the Roman vessels; from the movements of the sea 2,000 years ago to those medieval peat works and to the contemporary phenomenon of people moving back and forth and looking at butterflies and bitterns while enjoying their boats. As a Member representing a national park in the north, I have the unique connection of Arthur Ransome, whose Swallows and Amazons jumped from my constituency down to my right hon. Friend’s constituency in their boats.
 
The two specific issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members relate to the questions of governance, planning and the park’s status, which I will take in reverse order. The Department was asked for a formal statement, which I will read before using my limited time to talk about the context underlying that formal statement:
 
“DEFRA are clear that the broads is not a national park and the Broads Authority is not a national park authority. However, we do recognise the benefits of the powerful, international national park brand”—
 
I do not like “international national park brand” as a formulation—
 
“and the value that utilising it in the broads could bring. We are clear these proposals should in no way detract from the Broads Authority navigation responsibility.”
 
In other words, we absolutely acknowledge that, in the central features of the broads—the incredible combination of habitat, environment, leisure and a spectacular historical landscape—we have the essential features that we attempt to protect across the country, whether through our national parks or our areas of outstanding natural beauty. As Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I am proud to be responsible for the nearly 25% of the United Kingdom’s landmass that is protected in that way. Clearly, the broads must be included in the broad common sense of a protected landscape.
 
Mr Andrew Turner (in the Chair): Order. Would the Minister mind once in four minutes facing my way?
 
Rory Stewart: I am so sorry, Mr Turner; I apologise. I will stand back and face you when speaking. In fact, I will move my microphone to ensure that I am audible while doing so.
 
The central question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland raises is about the status of the park. Underlying the slightly technical response from the Department is a fundamental distinction between the broad philosophical arrangements of the Broads Authority, which are to protect the landscape, and the exact legal status. National parks were set up under separate legislation, and, because of the issues raised by the Sandford principle and navigation, the Department does not wish to imply that the specific legislation relating to national parks should control the Broads Authority.
 
Governance was the second issue raised; the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) particularly focused on it. It was addressed in a statement made by Lord Gardiner of Kimble in the other place. Lord Gardiner made explicit that the Government do not intend to bring forward the legislation necessary to enable elections to be held. I will explain, from the point of view of the Department, why that is our determination.
 
The determination was made for various specific reasons relating directly to the interests of the broads. One is that the number of people living within the Broads Authority area itself is relatively limited. When the Broads Authority was set up, a relatively narrow line was drawn around the edge of the authority. It crosses some population-dense areas, but the number of people who live within the authority and own boats for example—to address the question raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland—is relatively limited. Approximately 10,000 people currently have licences to operate boats within the Broads Authority, but only a minority of those live within the Broads Authority area itself.
 
Norman Lamb: I have two questions. First, for the avoidance of doubt, is he saying that the proposed rebranding of the broads will have no impact at all on the current legal status, which excludes the Sandford principle from the Broads Authority? I would like confirmation of that. Secondly, is he saying that the Government intend not to proceed with any legislation in respect of any of the national parks in England, thereby not following the route taken in Scotland where they have introduced direct elections?
 
Rory Stewart: I am saying both those things. Just to reinforce that absolutely clearly for the avoidance of any doubt, the broads are not legally a national park and do not come under the national park legislation, and nor will they. We are very comfortable with the broads describing themselves as a national park, but that is essentially to express in common-sense terms to the public that it is a protected landscape with many of the qualities of other national parks.
 
We are certainly proud of the Broads Authority. We do not expect it to be a second-class authority or its specific legal status to undermine the respect and the honour that we have towards it. It is not governed under the national parks legislation; it is governed under separate legislation, and that will remain the case.
 
The Government do not intend to bring forward the legislation that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned, and I shall explain why. It would not achieve the intention, which is to get more people involved in boats and navigation on to the board. We are achieving that at the moment. The two most recent Secretary of State appointments to the Broads Authority are of people who have licences. More than one third of people on the board are active users of boats and licence holders, and that is important. In so far as I am involved in Secretary of State appointments, I will endeavour to ensure that they include people who have an active interest in navigation as well as the environment.
 
Norman Lamb: Can the Minister explain two things? First, one year ago, under a coalition Government in which Conservatives were in the majority, the draft legislation was brought forward by his Department. His Department therefore must have regarded its merits and been prepared to take it through. It would be fascinating to get through a freedom of information request the advice that Ministers received at the time in favour of bringing the legislation forward.
 
Secondly, I know all the arguments against elections, but there still seems to be the prospect of some form of election, not only for local communities, but for other interest groups—wildlife, environment or anything else. That, I think, is the view of most MPs in the area.
 
Rory Stewart: I take that point strongly on board. The advice that I have received is that the democratic element on the Broads Authority is represented by the fact that the majority of people serving on the board are elected. Nine people have been elected as councillors. The two people who have been elected by the people with navigation interests are themselves elected.
 
The majority of the people on the Broads Authority are currently elected and they are balanced by a minority of Secretary of State appointees, which allows us to achieve exactly the right hon. Gentleman’s point; that would be more difficult to achieve simply though elections. It ensures that we have a broad range of people with both environmental and navigation interests.
 
Mr Bacon: May I assure the Minister that although I have had consistent pressure from my constituents on the issue of the broads for many years, that pressure has not been for elections? With respect to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who has now left the Chamber, I do not think that it is the most important issue. The pressure from my constituents comes from the constant concern about the chiselling away of the boating interest. A large number of jobs and the tourist industry depend on boating. In answering those points, can the Minister let me know whether he will accept an invitation to visit my constituency—in particular Loddon, which is, of course, the true gateway to the broads?
 
Rory Stewart: “My Father’s house has many gateways.”
 
The question about boating interests is important and we need to look at it very closely. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Broads Authority is the third largest controller of navigable waterways in the country, after the Canal & River Trust and the Environment Agency. We try very carefully to benchmark the charges imposed by the Broads Authority against those for comparable canals and riverways. At the moment, the charges—certainly for larger vessels—are considerably cheaper than those imposed by the Canal & River Trust, but we will monitor the situation carefully.
 
I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Secretary of State wants to make it clear that she is very much looking forward to visiting the broads herself—and, indeed, going through the gateway mentioned.
 
The right hon. Member for North Norfolk raised the question of planning, which is central. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has been particularly interested in planning around Thorpe island. She has worked closely with the Broads Authority to ensure that action to ensure that Thorpe island is a responsible, aesthetically pleasing element of the broads is carried through—something that I believe local residents are strongly in favour of. A legal review is in process at the moment, so I do not want to get involved in that, but my sense is that the authority is broadly sympathetic to the position of my hon. Friend. Indeed, I am proud that the authority has so far had a good record on planning approval—95% of plans brought forward have been approved, against a national average of 87%.
 
I conclude by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland for putting forward the nub of the issue, which is the balance between the different values of beauty, tourism and navigation. Nothing illustrates that more than what has been happening in Hickling broad. My right hon. Friend, who has a strong interest in military history, will have been moved by the use of Hesco bastions and technology from Afghanistan in the creation of new mud islands for bitterns. That has allowed us to dredge sustainably to provide access to navigation while protecting the habitat. The Broads Authority matters deeply to us as a breathing space and a cure for the soul.
 
Question put and agreed to.
 
11.29 am
 

Constituency Map

View Broadland in a larger map

Find your local Councillors

Enter your Postcode below for details of all your elected representatives: