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Chris Huhne: I shall, if I may, address some of the issues arising from other provisions that have already been approved by the Lords.

The new clauses relating to the criteria for designating national parks have allowed for a satisfactory definition that gives us back the standard that had been established in this country for almost 60 years. The Liberal Democrats' only disappointment is that we are not discussing an amendment enabling local people to be elected to the boards of national parks, as an alternative to the Secretary of State making appointments. It is regrettable that neither the Government nor, it appears, the Conservatives could support such an amendment. However, in essence, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) has rightly said, the new clauses re-establish the status quo before the Meyrick High Court judgment, which ruled that the Hinton estate in the New Forest need not form part of the South Downs national park on the ground that it was not sufficiently natural.

6.15 pm

Amendment (a) would not allow a return to the status quo before Meyrick. Substituting "landscape" for "cultural heritage" would mean that national parks would be designated on the same basis as in the past. English Heritage estimates that the historical designation includes 11,000 listed buildings, 4,000 scheduled monuments and 30 registered parks and gardens. Although the parks and gardens might reasonably be regarded as landscape, I do not see how the monuments and listed buildings could be. Therefore, the amendment would be unduly restrictive, and inconsistent with the criteria used for the designation of national parks in the past. It would be regrettable to introduce that inconsistency now.

Amendment (b) is also unnecessary, as it would remove Natural England's ability to take account of the extent to which it is possible to promote opportunities for people to understand and enjoy a national park's special qualities. National parks are not wildernesses. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire made an interesting and perhaps Freudian slip when he suggested that wildness was involved. For example, the landscape around Chatsworth is outstanding and beautiful, but it could not be called wild.

National parks are designed to be resources for the enjoyment of all, and it seems odd for the Conservatives to attempt to deny it. That is why we support the Lords amendments.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I rise to support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I shall not get involved in the somewhat arcane discussion about what is natural and what is wild, as that has been discussed enough already. However, I want to explore the practical implications of changing how we designate national parks.
 
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First, I emphasise that the amendments made in the other place do not affect existing national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty. The Council for National Parks sent us a briefing that was helpful—although I disagree with much of it—in which it said that the amendments were "common sense" and designed to "protect our existing network" of national parks and areas of outstanding national beauty. However, that is not so: the amendments would change the rules of the game after the inquiry into the proposed South Downs national park has ended, but they do not affect existing national parks at all.

The retrospective nature of the provision, and the way in which it has been introduced, is to be deplored. It is the result of a court case, and although we may agree or disagree with the decision, the Government have determined, rapidly, to amend the application of the law. They have done that in the other place, without much debate. I was a member of the Standing Committee considering this Bill, and the issue did not arise, yet it has profound implications for the future designation of national parks.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government seem to be rushing? An appeal has been lodged, so would it not be better to see what the outcome is?

Nick Herbert: I agree precisely with my hon. Friend. An appeal is under way, and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire made the point very well that the amendment sits oddly with that fact. We should wait for the result of the appeal, and the amendment would throw the designation of the proposed South Downs national park into chaos and confusion.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) in his interpretation of what the Government are trying to do. The amendment does not restore the previous designation of national parks; it introduces a new form of designation. Areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks have always been seen as distinct. National parks were wilder and more remote areas, while areas of outstanding natural beauty were equally attractive, but more managed, landscapes.

This matter is of great importance to my constituency, as more than half of it lies within the South Downs area of natural beauty and well over half will lie within the proposed national park. The practical effect of the amendments is that a redesignation of the national park boundaries will be possible, after a long inquiry—91 sitting days and 23 visits—has already completed its business. If, as a consequence of the amendments, the national park boundary is moved south of Arundel, it may prevent the completion of the long-awaited Arundel bypass, with a profound impact on downland villages, which will continue to suffer a large amount of displaced traffic that cannot bypass Arundel on a proper coastal highway. The point is that local residents had the opportunity to make representations to the inquiry, based on their understanding of the law at the time, but that is now being changed, after the fact, with little debate in this place. That is wrong.
 
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My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is right: the problem is that cultural heritage is not defined in the Bill. The concept is vague and we do not know what it means. Although his amendment would not remove wildlife from the new criteria that Natural England will have to take into account, it would nevertheless introduce a new confusion. Traditionally, wildlife has been dealt with by different instruments—through sites of special scientific interest—and not according to national park designations. Inclusion of the proposed criteria would further muddy the water.

There are good reasons, to which the Minister will not be able to respond, why a South Downs national park is not the appropriate status for the area. It was already well managed by a joint conservation board and there have been three attempts to designate it as a national park. All failed due to the special nature of the downs, which are different from some other national parks. There is only limited open access; slightly less than 3 per cent. of the downs is open, compared with between 30 and 60 per cent. in other national parks. I fear that an attempt is being made to allow a designation of national park status that would not have been permitted under previous legislation, because the downs have always been regarded as unsuitable for that.

I yield to no one in my desire to ensure that the south downs landscape is protected. It is important and superb, described by Arthur Mee in his famous "The King's England" series of inter-war county books as

Everybody would agree with that. The problem is the basis for the protection of the downs, and there are long-standing arguments about the democratic deficit that will be caused by designating it as a national park. For instance, it will involve a large number of planning decisions—far more than in any other national park. Despite my commitment to the downs landscape, it is not appropriate to designate the area as a national park.

Local opinion is divided, but people are entitled to certainty. If they make representations to an inquiry they should know what the law is, and the House should not attempt to change the law retrospectively after the inquiry has been completed. That is important. If the amendment is accepted, the Minister should do the right thing and reopen the inquiry, especially if the area's status is changed as proposed. If there are new criteria, local authorities and local people should be able to make representations based on them. The Minister should then make his decision. It is wrong to make such changes so late, on the back of this Bill, simply because the Government disagree with the result of a court case that will sit uncomfortably with the decision that they want to make about national park status.

Jim Knight: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister is supposed to be speaking to amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 17.


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