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There will be debate, I hope, in Committee and in another place about the Broads Authority, which is a special statutory authority established under the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act, with a general duty to manage the broads for three major purposes: conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the broads, as I have described; promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the broads by the public; and protecting the interests of navigation. The first purposes are identical to those given to the national parks, and it is the third additional purpose that makes the Broads Authority’s responsibilities special. It is, as it were, a national park plus. The authority is the third largest navigation authority after British Waterways and the Environment Agency. I must apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who has been dealing with water problems all day, last night, the day
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before and so on. Water is suddenly at the top of the agenda, and inland water problems have risen high in the country’s political life.

British Waterways and the Environment Agency work with the authority through the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities—AINA—and the national park authorities. The authority is a harbour authority, too, and its navigation responsibilities, which are unique, include public safety provisions for navigation and for boats, and maintenance of the navigation system, including moorings, dredgings and markings. The authority is a local planning authority for the broads, with responsibility for planning, conservation, development control and enforcement. There are some problems, and we will take them on board, as people have quite rightly complained about the provisions of the Act, the number of members, who they are and so on.

In 1988 the authority comprised 35 members, but after four years of discussion and consultation, agreement was reached to reduce that to a more appropriate number. In June 2005 the authority comprised 21 members, who are charged with taking account of national and local interests while reflecting the authority’s particular duties and responsibilities. Ten members are appointed by the Secretary of State, nine by the eight local authorities in the area, and two by the authority from its statutory navigation committee. I shall talk later about the other organisations that should have an input.

The locally appointed members are councillors who have been elected locally and are an important link with the community, and the Bill does not include any proposals to change the overall membership. The authority is keen to engage with a wider group of stakeholders and local people, and it established a broads forum, which has been emulated by other members of the national park family. It is keen to continue to develop its role, and has recently included parish council representation. It has met the Norfolk County Association of Parish and Town Councils—I expect that many of my colleagues in the Chamber have done so, too—and it has undertaken to work more closely with them to strengthen the relationship with parish councils in the broads area.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): Many people—the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) is one—feel that there is a powerful case for town and parish councils being represented on the Broads Authority, and that those bodies should do more than work closely with the authority. Is there a reason why that cannot happen? Can the Bill be amended to facilitate that?

Dr. Gibson: A priori, there is no reason why the Bill could not be so amended, but the argument has to do with the role of the parish councils in the area covered by the Broads Authority. The authority performs some of the work of the parish councils, whose involvement in initiatives is therefore limited. However, that arrangement does not have to last for ever, and we can discuss the arguments for and against parish councils’ representation on the Broads Authority. At present the parish councils have a consultative input into the broads forum, but I am sure that we will examine later
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in Committee how many and which organisations should be represented on the authority.

I know, for example, that some people think that other bodies need to be included. In my opinion, however, the Broads Authority has been open to debate about these matters and I am not aware of any internecine warfare—indeed, it has been prepared to open its doors in order to strengthen the work that it does. Obviously, parish councils have a role in determining planning applications, and that might provide a model for wider consultation. Moreover, we must also bear it in mind as we make progress with the Bill that parish councils may have a part to play in organisations other than the Broads Authority.

The Broads Authority’s executive area is tightly drawn around the flood plains and lower reaches of three main rivers—the Bure, the Yare and the Waveney. Only 5,000 people live in the area covered by the authority, but it abuts the urban areas of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and it includes the River Wensum, which takes it right into the middle of Norwich. Most of the land in the broads is privately owned, and large tracts belong to wildlife trusts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust. The responsibility for, and involvement in, the area is therefore widely spread.

The navigation area under the authority’s responsibility is defined in the 1988 Act. It includes all the stretches of the Rivers Bure, Yare and Waveney, and their tributaries, that were in use for navigation by virtue of any public right of navigation at the time of the passing of that Act. It excludes the River Haven, which remains under the jurisdiction of the Great Yarmouth port authority. Breydon Water and the passage under the bridges over the lower Bure is the most dangerous part of the broads navigation, and visiting craft regularly have to be helped off the mud there and warned about the bridges. The Broads Authority patrols the area, and by agreement with the Great Yarmouth port authority, the Bill provides for responsibility for navigation in those waters to be transferred to the Broads Authority. That is one of the proposals that have emerged from the negotiations in respect of the Bill.

There are also problems with how the Broads Authority is financed. It has two principal sources of income. There is the national park grant, which accounts for two-thirds of its resources and income from toll payers, amounting to roughly £2 million in the current year. The previous Minister with responsibility for these matters recognised that the formula for allocating national park grant did not reflect the additional costs of managing a water-based protected area, and he therefore allocated an additional £500,000 a year over three years. That money has made a huge difference to improving biodiversity, implementing practical safety improvements and increasing the amount of dredging.

I appreciate the financing problems facing the present Minister in respect of British Waterways and other bodies, but I hope that he will be able to build that funding into the authority’s core grant in some way. I believe that there is some room for negotiation, however, and I stress that the additional money is very important for the future of the broads. The Broads Authority has achieved a lot in the past 20 years.
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Ironically, it came through the national parks performance assessment with flying colours. The people on the authority and their supporters are committed to improving the services that it offers.

People ask why we need a private Bill. I shall not give all the reasons why the broads region is not a national park. The area was missed out when those decisions were made because it was concluded that its allocation of responsibilities did not conform to the Sandford principle.

Following advice from various sources, it became clear that a private Bill would be the only way forward to tackle the important safety matters that must be addressed. The authority is following the path of many proposals made by British Waterways and the Environment Agency, which have given it a lot of help. The current and previous Ministers responsible in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have also been extremely helpful by ensuring that they and their officials gave good advice and assistance.

The main purpose of the Bill is to obtain new powers for the authority to improve the safety of those boating on the broads. The need for additional powers has been highlighted by the requirements of the port marine safety code and incidents such as the Breakaway V accident. We are grateful for the fact that there is not a history of a great many accidents on the broads—although we have no idea of how many near misses there have been. However, most people would agree that it is important that public safety be improved. There have been one or two incidents in which someone has drowned, such as that involving Breakaway V, which means that the authority has to take on several general provisions to improve safety on the broads waterways.

The Bill will give the authority the power to give general directions to all vessels, or particular classes of vessels, and to give directions to designate safe navigation routes. It will give the authority the power to give directions to regulate mooring in its navigational jurisdiction and the towing of vessels. It will allow the authority to give special directions to vessels in one-off cases and to designate the construction and equipment standards for vessels.

The authority’s intention, which is embodied in a formal legal agreement with national and local boating interests, is to implement the national boat safety scheme, which applies to waterways under the jurisdictions of British Waterways and the Environment Agency. Importantly, the Bill gives the authority the power to introduce compulsory third-party insurance for vessels. It allows the authority to require the licensing of pleasure boats and to regulate water skiing and wakeboarding on the broads better. It also gives the authority the power to deal with overhanging vegetation that causes a hazard.

I know that people think that regulations can sometimes be stuffy, and that there can be over-regulation. However, the same arguments were made about seat belts in cars—and I do not hear many people arguing against seat belts now, although there was a lot of argument when the seat belts measure was proposed. Who knows how many lives that has saved?
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A simple little Act made a big difference to public safety. The intention behind the Bill is to improve public safety.

It seems that there is a public right of navigation and that the public have the right to go where they like, so I understand people’s resentment of such a top-heavy management style. Even though I am not sure that that is how things will turn out, that is always what people fear. I realise that when a balance must be struck, we must strike it on the side of public safety, as long as we can make the argument that public safety is being improved. There are statutory and other legal restrictions on the way in which the public right of navigation can be exercised. Harbour authorities, of which the Broads Authority is one, have the benefit of statutory powers to enable them to control the way in which their areas are navigated.

It is important that the Bill’s provisions are reasonable and proportionate, and that they take proper account of individual rights. As legislators, we all know how hard that balance is to strike. I am a member of the Committee considering the Mental Health Bill, so I know that it is difficult to come up with a balanced black-and-white position on some issues—the line is often very wavy. However, it is right that the Bill makes changes, given some of the events that have happened. Although those events have not been major tragic incidents, they are sufficient to make one worried that such an incident could occur. It is our job to protect individuals who use the broads.

The Bill has come about through consultation exercises and agreements with boating interests. The authority consulted local MPs, Government Departments, the Environment Agency, the National Farmers Union and the Great Yarmouth Port Authority. The groups that have been spoken to include the Royal Yachting Association, the British Marine Federation, the Inland Waterways Association, the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association and the Broads Hire Boat Federation.

In all cases there is a written agreement about how the measure should operate and the consultation has allowed changes to be made to the original Bill. In a sense, that is a form of contract, so who cares whether it is legally binding? However, it is important to have that piece of paper in case anything goes wrong.

Norman Lamb: The hon. Gentleman asks who cares whether the agreements are legally binding. Many people care, because those pieces of paper ensure that the Bill’s powers, which seem at face value quite draconian, cannot be used or changed without the agreement of the parties involved. If those agreements are not legally binding, it will be a serious matter for the people who have raised concerns with me.

Dr. Gibson: I meant that none of us wants those signed agreements to go to court. Legal advice would be taken before they were signed so that both parties went into the agreement having decided that it was the best way forward, subject to modification if necessary. I hope that we would not then have to go to court, because that would make things hard and fast. As such agreements are not on the face of the Bill, they could be modified by mutual agreement, which is important. We can make things absolutely legally binding, but that could mean that everything done on the broads ended
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up in the High Court, which is the last thing we want when reaching agreement with yachting associations and so on.

We want people to feel that they have the right to explore the broads without a boat following them everywhere. We want them to have a sense of adventure, but with the knowledge that people who know what has happened and what could happen have drawn up agreements. I do not want there to be arguments about whether the agreements are legally binding; I do not know whether they are, but I do not want them to go before the courts. At present, things look good and there is agreement on both sides.

The authority believes that the provisions are reasonable and proportionate, and take proper account of individual rights. The Bill was built on a thorough consultation exercise and the agreement with boating interests has produced consensus and balance. The Bill’s objective of public safety is a legitimate ground for qualifying what might otherwise be an unhindered public right. I have already mentioned other restrictions on what people are allowed to do, such as seat belts and speed limits.

The other main object of the Bill is to modernise the authority by updating some provisions in the 1988 Act; they were relevant and important then, but the time is ripe to review and update them. The Bill would provide for the removal of the requirement for a separate navigation account dealing with navigation income and expenditure. The authority feels that the provision has proved administratively bureaucratic, and cuts across its aim for an integrated approach to the management of the broads. There will be a requirement that navigation expenditure be similar to navigation income—the toll that people pay for all the changes in navigation. There are arguments to be had about where the money goes, because the intentions of the Government and the authority are not necessarily the same. However, the authority can hardly be blamed for wanting more money from the Government for a separate account. Of course it may have to dream on, but we should support it so that it can ensure that navigation is safe for the public. The tolls will be minor—about £20 or £30 a year.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I am an East Anglian MP; obviously I do not have the same close knowledge of Norfolk as the hon. Gentleman and other Norfolk MPs, but I take a close interest in the area. The question of where the money goes is important. Can the hon. Gentleman give the House more explanation about how the authority envisages operating in the future without a separate navigation account? How will it ensure that the money paid by boat users is used not just for managing navigation but in ways that benefit them? As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is concern that some of the waterways are beginning to silt up and that not enough money is being spent on ensuring that navigation remains possible, so in the absence of a separate identifiable account, how will it be possible for people to monitor whether their money is going where they think it should?

Dr. Gibson: We do not know the final details at this stage, of course, so I can only propose what might happen. I believe that there will be a navigation officer
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and it may be possible to have an account associated with that individual, who could ensure that the money coming in from the tolls was used for navigation. What about money that is used for the environment? I know that some people believe that the dredging could be carried out in a completely different way for environmental purposes, which would save a lot of money. The apportioning of money for one cause or the other relating to all the different functions of the broads needs to be very seriously looked into—nationally, as well. The broads will benefit from that.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but my point centred on the issue of transparency. The question is whether, in the absence of a separate account, people who have paid the tolls or the taxes will be able to see where their money is going.

Dr. Gibson: Of course. That is absolutely the intention, and it has been the spirit in which the Broads Authority has done its work. It must have the support of the navigational interests on the broads, and that is the best way of doing it. Four major objectors have petitioned against the Bill, as the hon. Gentleman will know, but others may also be worried about where the money goes. Openness is the only assured way of proceeding. We need a separate account so that people can see annually where the toll money comes from, where it goes and so forth.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): I have been through this matter with constituents and with the Broads Authority in my office. We were given assurances—and it is stipulated in the Bill—that expenditure on navigation must be at least equal to or greater than the income from navigation. That provides a lot of comfort to those navigation interests, ensuring that the whole accounting procedure across the authority is much more transparent under these proposals than it has been in the past.

Dr. Gibson: I thank my hon. Friend and agree that it is much better. Again, I am fully aware that it has to be seen in practice. When the Bill reaches its final manifestations and sees the light, I hope that it will be very apparent that this is a major factor in selling the Bill to the people who use the broads—and to the few objectors. As I say, only four people have petitioned, but I am sure that others may not have got around to doing so yet. Obviously, there will be differences of opinion about where the money goes, how much is spent on dredging and on this and that. It all has to be seen in the open, and I see no reason why that should not happen. The Broads Authority has a tradition of openness and transparency. One or two people may disagree, but in general that is true of the Broads Authority, and I am sure that it intends to carry on in that way.

I mentioned that only four individuals have petitioned against the Bill, and it could be argued that that is four out of 10,000. However, I do not take the numbers per se as particularly important. Many other people want to use the broads, and will do so if they see this kind of transparency. Agreements have been reached with the national boating organisations, and the number of petitioners is a testament to the thoroughness of the consultation carried out by the
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Broads Authority. Nothing is ever perfect—but gosh, it tried really hard to get everybody’s views and attempted to meet them. This is not over yet—there is more to do—but the generality of the Bill is what is being presented here today. I believe that the consultation will continue.

To conclude, let me explain why I believe the Bill should receive its Second Reading and move on. Public safety is an amazing issue to highlight in the context of the beauty of the broads. It must be safe out there, to encourage young people to use the facilities. There have been precedents for some of the issues that we have debated and thorough consultation has taken place. This is not a major Bill in the sense of trying to turn the broads into a national park, or change the laws of the land to any dramatic extent.

Meeting the safety positions is a matter of urgency. The Department of Trade and Industry has been urging that. Sadly, accidents occur, but we hope that they will not be serious, like those that have occurred in the past. I would welcome the support of Members in making sure that the Bill progresses through its Second Reading and that we can examine some of the issues in more detail.

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