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4.30 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Madam Deputy Speaker, may I thank you, as the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, for allowing us to have this short debate this afternoon? My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon)—who sends his apologies for not being here because of a family bereavement—and I objected to the passage of the Bill, not because we wished to block or destroy the Bill, but because we received representations from constituents and other interests that involved having the Bill debated on the Floor of the House. As the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who introduced the Bill, said, it is important to have complete transparency and to raise some of these issues, not only because they are important to those of us who live in Norfolk and Suffolk, but because the broads have a national and, indeed, international reputation.

The nature of the Bill has changed from its original draft—something that the hon. Gentleman did not mention. The original Bill was intended to establish the Norfolk and Suffolk broads as a national park. It has evolved into a much more narrowly prescribed Bill to improve safety for people who are boating and to modernise the operations of the Broads Authority, as he mentioned. He quite rightly flagged up, in a very open way, that there has been some public concern and some opposition—certainly to the original draft Bill, which has quite rightly been modified as a result of consultation. Nevertheless, four individuals have petitioned against the Bill, one representative body is lobbying for an amendment, and other local concerns have been expressed.

It is therefore right and proper to have a debate to enable colleagues on both sides of the House to raise issues and to go for total transparency. Hopefully, some of the issues raised may result in the Bill being
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modified in Committee or in the other place. The Bill will go into Committee and then go to the other place, where Bishop Graham, the Bishop of Norwich, will introduce it. That will provide further opportunities for debate and amendments.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North emphasised the importance of the broads both locally and nationally. My interest is direct in that the broads cover part of my constituency, which includes the southern border of the Norfolk broads, the Rivers Yare, Bure and Waveney, and the magnificent Halvergate marshes. As a consequence of the great parliamentary reaper—I refer, of course, to the Boundary Commission—my current constituency of Mid-Norfolk will be divided and Norfolk will get an extra seat. The majority part of my Mid-Norfolk seat will become the constituency of Broadland, to which I hope my constituents might see fit to return me at a general election in the future. The name is directly associated with the broads.

The hon. Gentleman quite rightly emphasised that we face the issue of how to achieve a balance between all the competing interests that are involved with the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. The issues include the environment, wildlife, the people who work and live on the broads and in the surrounding areas, and the difficulty of maintaining a transport infrastructure that is able to compete with modern conditions. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I know only too well the problems with transportation and traffic in the small settlements of Wroxham and Hoveton, where there is a major river crossing. I remind hon. Members that although we are all supportive of public transport and many of us try to use it, in large parts of Norfolk and Suffolk the car is not a luxury but an absolute must for people to get around—to get to work, to hospitals and so on.

We have to bear in mind that considerations include the protection of endangered species and the maintenance of the broads, which were in serious danger of major deterioration some 20 years ago. A fundamental issue in which the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) and I are involved is the dualling of the A47 across the Acle straight; that is still under discussion. The project raises major concerns about the environment and whether it is possible to move drainage ditches, in which there are important species, to enable improvements to the road, which is a lifeline to Great Yarmouth. The improvements would prevent appalling accidents of the kind that have taken place there, in which cars have come off the road and people have drowned, sadly, in the ditches.

There are major issues involving farming, tourism, boating and sailing. It is reckoned that the holiday boating trade is worth about £146 million and employs some 2,000 people in Norfolk and Suffolk. Interestingly enough, the number of people taking boating holidays has halved in the past 20 years. In addition, we should not forget the threat from the sea. Any change in weather conditions or tides could have a catastrophic effect on the Norfolk coast. In 1953, the sea breached the sea defences along the north Norfolk coast. Many settlements were literally washed away and a number of people were killed. Global warming or the cyclical change in climate, or a repetition of the events of 1953, would result in a considerable part of the
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constituencies of many Members and friends present today literally disappearing.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North, quickly skated over the origins of the broads, and I can understand why, but it is actually an important subject. It is amazing to think that it was only in 1953 that the botanist Dr. Joyce Lambert came up with what has turned out to be the correct analysis of the origins of the broads. Through her research and the research of others, she proved that the broads are a consequence of peat-diggings in the middle ages that had been filled in with water. That challenged the accepted thesis that the broads were shallow water, and were relics of the great estuary of the Roman times—or, as one historian said, large puddles that were left behind as the sea retreated in the post-Roman period. That raises the important and interesting point that the broads are as much man made as they are influenced, developed and modified by the environment.

The Broads Authority came into being because of the need for an overall authority to co-ordinate issues to do with navigation, the environment and tourism. My predecessor, Richard Ryder, now Lord Ryder of Wensum, took through the Commons what became the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988. That Act set up the Broads Authority and provided statutory powers, including those relating to navigation. Crucially, the broads had not then been designated a national park, largely because of issues to do with navigation. In a strange way, the broads are a hybrid. I suspect that if one went out into Parliament square and asked 10 people whether they thought that the broads were a national park, nine of the 10 would assume that they were.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that, in terms of definition and under the Sandford principles, the broads are not a national park. The phraseology that many of us have used on many occasions is that it is a full and special member of the national parks family. I am sure that use of language of that sort can only emphasise the special nature of the broads. Does he agree?

Mr. Simpson: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I pay tribute to the interest that he took in the broads when he was a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I know that he went on holiday there as a child, and I remember that he also negotiated extra moneys for the Broads Authority. He is right to say that the broads are special and that they are directly associated with the national parks. We should emphasise that, in order to highlight the special nature of the area.

As the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, the impetus after 2001 was for greater co-operation between navigators and conservationists. This was reflected in what was originally the draft Bill entitled the Broads National Park Authority Bill that existed in 2006. That Bill ran into opposition for a number of reasons, not least because of the difficulty involved in using the term “national park”. As we have seen, it subsequently became much more narrowly defined as the Broads Authority Bill that we are debating today.

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I am not being pedantic, but I am grateful that it is called the Broads Authority Bill. At one stage there was a consultation, in which focus groups said that people did not understand where the broads were, and that it would therefore be best to describe them as the Norfolk broads. At that suggestion, the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) quite rightly threw his toys out of his cot on behalf of his constituents, pointing out that the broads are in Norfolk and Suffolk. That is right and proper. They overlap the constituencies of many of us who are sitting here today.

At the heart of the Bill is the importance of establishing a balance between work and life on the broads, and the environment. Many interested parties, including those who live and work on or near the broads, environmentalists and wildlife organisations, the local authority, the Broads Authority, the Environment Agency, the East of England Development Agency, other Government Departments and even the European Union have an interest in and an input into the area. I want to highlight a number of important issues to see whether the hon. Member for Norwich, North will be able to respond to them when he makes his concluding remarks, and also to put them on the table for further debate.

The Bill gives considerable powers to the Broads Authority in relation to navigation, the licensing of boats and the maintenance of vegetation, as well as improved regulation of water skiing and wave boarding. I showed the draft Bill to a colleague who said that while the powers might be necessary, they appeared quite draconian. There might be good arguments for having the powers, but it is right and proper that we should question and tease out the reasoning behind them, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk did in an earlier intervention. I have to say that I was not convinced by the answer that the hon. Member for Norwich, North gave to the hon. Gentleman at that point. I am sure that when we have regime change in the Labour party and the hon. Member for Norwich, North is called to the colours and takes his place officially on the Front Bench, he will be able to call on the ministerial box for help. I see that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is leaving at this point; he cannot bear the thought of that.

The original draft caused considerable worry to local boating and sailing interests. The hon. Member for Norwich, North was absolutely correct to say that a good, long dialogue had taken place between the Broads Authority, the British Marine Federation and the Royal Yacht Association, which culminated on 21 January with a written agreement—a concordat. I suspect that neither side is fully satisfied, but the agreement was welcome. There have been amendments to the Bill and further measures specified in a side agreement to protect the interests of recreational boaters.

However, there remain individuals who still have concerns about the powers that the Bill gives the Broads Authority. Those four individuals have petitioned Parliament. I do not want to over-egg this, but I expect that there are others who share their concerns but have not gone through the motions of petitioning Parliament. Can the hon. Member for Norwich, North tell the House at this stage whether the
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Broads Authority is taking into account the concerns of the four petitioners—Alan Richard Williams, Paul Derrick Howes, Mollie Yensie Howes and Peter Sanders? I know that there is a continuing debate, but I mention the matter on the Floor of the House because those four people have petitioned Parliament and their concerns need to be addressed.

Dr. Gibson: I shall make two points. The hon. Gentleman asked me about the legality of the process. I notice that leading counsel has advised the authority that provisions in the Bill are compatible with the Human Rights Act—I know that that is a special aspect of it—which has enabled the authority to make a declaration to that effect in the Bill. I am told that the authority has consulted the four individuals. They have not come to see eye to eye with each other on the matter, but they are prepared to discuss it further in the light of this debate, what happens in Committee and so on. I have read the petitions. Some of the points raised are genuine issues to which there are answers, but as to the outcome, I would not at this stage like to put my salary on it.

Mr. Simpson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. It seems that there is continuing dialogue and the petitioners may have some hopes that some of their concerns may be addressed. That may be done in Committee, but if not I am sure that those concerns will be considered in the other place as well.

When reading the Bill, I was struck by the increased powers given to the authority. There are numerous examples of inspection and enforcement by what is referred to as “an authorised officer”. Can the hon. Member for Norwich, North tell the House who those authorised officers are and what their qualifications are to carry out their duties? Will the authorised officers be part of the present staff of the Broads Authority, which I think consists of about 100 individuals, or will additional officers have to be recruited? For the sake of transparency, it is important that we have that information.

It is likely that the new powers and activities of the Broads Authority will incur greater costs. The hon. Member for Norwich, North made that point and was looking towards the Minister as he did so. I know that the Broads Authority has already made it clear in a briefing note for this debate that:

Additional moneys were granted by DEFRA through the good offices of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) in 2005, but 2007-08 is the last year of funding. Does the hon. Member for Norwich, North or the Minister know the financial consequences of implementing the Bill? It may be revenue neutral, but if there are additional costs, does that mean that savings will have to be made in the Broads Authority’s current budget or is it possible that it will get the extra resources to cover the implementation of the Bill?

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Finally, I shall deal with the management and accountability of the board. In many respects the authority is a hybrid because although it looks, acts and feels like a national park board—we have debated that—it has its own legislation because of the particular navigational responsibilities. It comprises 21 members—a mixture of local authority members, appointees of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and representatives of navigational users. Schedule 6 would amend the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988 so that:

On the face of it, that sounds perfectly legitimate as an attempt to make certain that all the different interest groups are on the board, have a direct input and can bring their influence to bear. As I understand it, the elected representative elements are in a minority, while the appointees, of one kind or another, form the majority.

In its own way, the new board is all very admirable, but as the hon. Member for Norwich, North pointed out, there is a concern that it will not include any representation from the Norfolk and Suffolk parish and town councils. All the other national authority boards have direct representation from parish and town councils. It is true that the new membership includes one elected member from each of the district and borough councils with parishes and towns in the broads area, but the Norfolk and Suffolk county associations, which have approached me and other hon. Members, do not feel that that gives the most local tier of local government the required mechanisms to feed in their views on the many aspects covered by the new Broads Authority, especially the newly acquired planning role.

Dr. Gibson: How does the hon. Gentleman envisage the relationship with the broads forum, which has input from parish councils and other groups? Does he think that it will feed into the Broads Authority or that never the twain shall meet?

Mr. Simpson: There is obviously a fundamental difference. The Broads Authority board has an executive function, while the forum is a kind of talking shop where there are exchanges of views but no executive function. In my view, and in that of several colleagues, that is insufficient. The map of the Broads Authority’s executive area shows that its boundary merely skirts some settlements, and the population included is incredibly small—about 5,000 souls—as compared with the Lake district and other areas. However, that is still a reasonable number of people. Moreover, at a time when local elections are going on and we are all continually saying that we must bring
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democracy down to the lowest possible level, we should be encouraging parish and town councils to participate in this.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is being very balanced in his remarks. He has referred to the difficulty of dealing with the broads as a national park per se because of the navigation interests, and he is grappling with the question of how to get parish representation, which, as he says, has been significant as regards other national parks that do not pose the constitutional challenge that the broads do by their very nature. This may be more of a subject for the Committee, but does he accept that it needs to be approached with care because the wish to involve a parish element needs to be dealt with in a way that does not create an imbalance with the other elements that are represented—for example, the navigation element, which he rightly pointed to as a complicating factor in the whole way in which the Broads Authority is established?

Mr. Simpson: The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. However, the Norfolk and Suffolk associations do not demand massive representation. Indeed, they believe that one representative for both Norfolk and Suffolk town and parish councils would give them collectively a direct voice on the management board of the Broads Authority. They especially emphasised the new planning powers. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the discussion may be for Committee, but I want to stress the point strongly in our debate today. I do not yet know the views of other colleagues, although I think that I know that of the hon. Member for North Norfolk. I hope that the Broads Authority and the Under-Secretary will take them into account.

I accept that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we do not want an imbalance. If one group in the broads forum gets directly on to the executive board, there is a danger of four or five other groups saying, “If they’re on, can’t we be?” However, it is important to bear it in mind that we are considering elected people.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although the area that we are considering has a population of roughly only 5,000 people, it covers many parishes. Furthermore, we are for ever trying to persuade people to stand for parish councils. Far too many are not properly contested. We want to take parish councillors seriously and give them more to do. We now have an ideal opportunity to take them seriously and give them a small amount of representation on an important body.

Mr. Simpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

I have tried to highlight three issues. First, there are the increased powers of the Broads Authority. I do not suggest that they are Machiavellian, but they are strong. The identity and qualifications of the authorising officers must be considered, and that leads directly to the budget and its management. Secondly, there are the four petitioners and the issues that they
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raised. Thirdly, I hope that the board will accept that the town and parish councils should have a representative on it.

The purpose of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk and I in blocking the Bill was not to prevent its progress but to hold a good-natured and informed debate—so far, that has happened—because we all have at heart the interests of making the broads safe for those who sail and play on them and getting the balance right between work, leisure and life.

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