Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I understand his concern for the welfare of his constituents. I am not 100 per cent. sure that this Bill would do anything in particular to facilitate the cause that he advances, but I am sure that he will find a way to raise the matter in Committee.
The Bill will establish a flexible structure of delivery that is both fit for purpose today and able to evolve to meet challenges ahead. It brings together the strengths of English Nature, the Countryside Agency's landscape access and recreation role and DEFRA's rural development service to establish a new independent and powerful non-departmental public bodynatural Englandas one integrated agency. In natural England we are, for the first time ever in England, uniting responsibility for biodiversity and landscapein rural, urban and coastal areaswith promoting access and recreation.
Our natural environment helps to make England what it is, from our beautiful coastlines to our historic dry stone walls and hedgerows. We have stunning landscapes, rivers and lakes, set in Shakespeare's "silver sea", a unique geodiversity and the flora and fauna that rely on this rich variety of habitats and ecosystems. The establishment of natural England will help to ensure that our distinctive landscapes and green spaces are the best they can be and that the habitats and ecosystems supporting our precious biodiversity are conserved and enhanced.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State's colourful description of the countryside, but 97 per cent. of the nation's wild flower meadows have been lost in the last 60 years. What measures in the Bill will ensure that that is addressed?
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one does not put absolutely everything in the structure of legislation, but the establishment of natural England should help to bring together many of the different concerns that are expressed and give a greater focus. If, as I hope, the House carries the Bill, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will find ways of drawing this matter to the attention of the new agency, although I doubt that he will need to do so, as it is exactly the kind of thing that will be among its major concerns.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend's glowing description of England's green and pleasant land could have been a description of High Peak, which, as the House will recognise, is the most beautiful constituency in England. As High Peak is mostly within the Peak District national park, will she assure me that the proposals in the Bill will enhance not only the way in which the national parks protect the environment, but the support that the national parks can give to the communities that live in them?
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Margaret Beckett: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend on his first point: the Bill will do nothing to hinderand, hopefully, much to assistnational parks. I share his admiration for the national park that he mentioned, which is also close to my constituency. The Bill will provide a means to express concerns about the interests of constituents and ensure that they are taken into account.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): The right hon. Lady did herself less than justice in replying to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) because one of the strengths of the Bill is the fact that it contains measures to deal with non-native, invasive species, which have a big impact on biodiversity. Can she give an absolute assurancemany people are concernedthat, when the changes are made, the independence and scientific integrity of English Nature, which is so greatly valued and has played such an important part in preserving this green and pleasant land, will in no way be compromised?
Margaret Beckett: I can give the hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance. I am grateful to him for his intervention and he will know that the issue was raised from the very beginning of our discussions. It was clear from the outset that there was great concern about preserving the reputation, strength and experience that English Nature brings to bear on so many issues. Part of the debate, both then and since, focused on the notion that the replacement body might be worse than English Nature, but I recall that exactly the same point was raised when English Nature was itself established and replaced its predecessor body. I give him the absolute assurance that it is no part of the Government's intention to weaken in any way the independence and scientific integrity that English Nature has brought to bear on its work.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I should like to take the Secretary of State back briefly to the Peak District national park. Much concern has been expressed about clause 57, which deals with the make-up of our national parks. It has been suggested that there might be a change in the representation of the parish in respect of the Peak District park. The Secretary of State knows that that park is unique in having so many local authorities making up its contributory members, so will she give an assurance that clause 57 will not be used to reduce local representation in respect of that and other national parks?
Margaret Beckett: I certainly undertake to reflect on the hon. Gentleman's point. We will look with great care into the issue. I fully understand his point and I am conscious of the great contribution that many local people have made to the Peak District and other national parks.
The new agency that the Bill seeks to set up will not be an arid, inward-looking body. Natural England will promote access and open-air recreation to help people to reconnect with our natural environment, to enjoy it, respect it and understand it and to make the health and well-being benefits of our environment available to all. The agency will work with partners at the national, regional and local level, reducing bureaucracy and
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duplication by providing a single source for its services rather than the present three sources, and it will also bring savings for the taxpayer.
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The Secretary of State mentioned that one function is to promote access. Another is to promote biodiversity and conservation. Those two functions can sometimes be in conflict, particularly in respect of off-roaders, motor cycles and so forth. What guidance will she issue or what other steps will she take to ensure that the interests of conservation and biodiversity are not damaged by the access arrangements?
Margaret Beckett: If it were seriously suggested that guidance was needed, we would certainly look carefully into it and I am sure that we will be able to debate the issue in greater detail in Committee. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, to which I would like to respond. Concerns were expressed from the outset that the function of protecting biodiversity must not be diminished. Those closely involved in the preparation for establishing the agencynot least the present chairman of English Nature, who has been good enough to act as chair of the joint group of chairs of the constituent bodieshave taken the view that there is merit in bringing together the access and biodiversity functions and that there is something to be said for having one body to decide on the difficult choices and balances that have to be made. I understand the concern. The argument about the best way to handle the matter is legitimate, but I assure the hon. Gentleman both that the Government have taken the issues on board and that there is great recognition of the sensitivities that he described.
The Bill will also establish the commission for rural communities. As we said only a few weeks ago in our rural manifesto, this Government have undertaken unprecedented investment in rural schools, transport, health care and policing, and to support small local businesses, particularly rural post offices. However, I am clear that a particular focus of the commission's work, as we develop our public services in rural areas, should be on analysing and advising on tackling rural disadvantage. Some rural areas are indeed relatively prosperous, but there are some considerable disparities in wealth between, and even within, different rural areas, with pockets of deprivation hidden among otherwise thriving areas. It is only right that scarce public resources are as far as possible targeted towards those people, businesses and communities that need them most. The Bill emphasises that focus.
Some who responded to the draft Bill in February were concerned that that emphasis could in some way skew the commission's work away from the needs of rural England as a whole. That is not the Government's intention. The commission's remit clearly covers all rural areas and issues, but it will have a particular regard to rural disadvantage and economic underperformance. That approach is rooted in the Government's and the Labour party's core values and we think that it strikes the right balance.