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4.58 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, a large part of the broads navigation network lies in his constituency. However, the Bill is also important to my constituency because a large part of the southern broads system is in it, most notably Oulton broad and the River Waveney, which gives its name to my constituency. That is all in Suffolk, which is why there is a Broads Authority, not a Norfolk broads authority or the mouthful of a Norfolk and Suffolk broads authority.

We are considering delightful areas of natural beauty that attract many visitors, who form an important part of our local economy. The broads are also an important source of leisure activity for many of our local people. Oulton broad is often known as the urban broad—hon. Members should not be deceived by that, because it has a beautiful natural environment—because it extends into the built-up area of Lowestoft, which provides excellent public access to the whole broads network. It is perhaps a microcosm, showing how many activities can and do exist on the broads. Oulton broad has sailing, cruising craft and motorised craft large and small, and the great tradition of motor boat racing is represented by the Oulton broad motor boat club. Many years ago, motor boat racing for the Daily Mirror trophy at Oulton broad was televised, and it is still one of the leading venues for the sport in Europe.

Somerleyton—a delightful place—and Beccles quay are the two other main yacht stations and centres of boating in my constituency. All are linked by the navigable River Waveney. The Waveney is not navigable by motor boat or yacht as far up as Bungay, but Bungay is an important centre for canoeing. Last October we were delighted to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to Bungay to celebrate the opening of an important stretch of the river for canoeing. That provided a national example of what could be done in co-existence with the other important sport of fishing.

All those activities, throughout the broad, will continue to thrive with the Bill in place—none of them are threatened by the Bill. When the Bill proposals were first published, however, some of my constituents had concerns. I called a meeting between those constituents and the chief executive and chairman of the Broads Authority, and we discussed each issue painstakingly. We all ended up satisfied on every count. The scrutiny was particularly good, and perhaps even more detailed than could be done in the Chamber. Today, however, is a good opportunity for positive promotion of the broads in the House.

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My constituents’ concerns centred mainly on navigation interests. The Broads Authority undertook, however, to reach formal written agreements with the Royal Yachting Association and British Marine Federation, both of which must represent the interests of the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association. Those agreements were designed to give comfort to the navigation interests, and to require the Broads Authority to continue to consult the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association on all relevant matters. Those agreements are now in place, and I can see no obstacle that now stands in the way of the Bill.

The Bill gives new powers to the Broads Authority to remove some obstacles to navigation, such as the power to remove abandoned, stranded or sunken vessels if they become a hazard or a danger to navigation. For years we had one such hulk at Oulton broad, and everyone wanted it out of the way, but there were great difficulties in doing so. I am delighted that the Broads Authority will now have clear powers to deal with such matters.

The Bill also gives the authority the power to enter private land to cut back vegetation and trees that overhang the river and may affect navigation. Again, constituents who have contacted me welcome that. They have shown me pictures of the broads from the 1880s to the 1930s that show traditional open landscapes. Originally, the broads did not have overhanging trees. The trees have grown since and need cutting back occasionally so that people can enjoy the natural environment from the water, which is what the broads are all about.

Dr. Gibson: Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that the authority will not just go in and cut back trees without contacting the people on whose land those trees are growing? There will be consultation.

Mr. Blizzard: I would not expect anything less from the Broads Authority. That is the way in which it usually works. It must be empowered to take such action, because if a reluctant or unreasonable landlord is involved, the interests of many other people will be adversely affected.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk is right: there was great concern about the ending of the separate financial account for navigation. As I said in an earlier intervention, I am not so worried about that now. It was seen as a necessary procedure to protect navigation interests, but having discussed the matter I can imagine the separate account becoming siloed—almost sidelined. I understand that currently more money is spent on navigation than is raised from navigation income. The new format protects that. I am told that the Bill provides for navigation expenditure to be greater than or equal to navigation income, so I do not see how navigation can lose out. Indeed, the Broads Authority might decide to allow more money to be spent on it if the navigation account became part of a set of transparent accounts.

The key issue affecting the broads today is dredging. The problem of silt is becoming more and more acute, and it is my constituents’ main concern about Oulton broad, which is silting up badly. The amount of silt is
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increasing each year, and the broad is becoming shallower each year. So much of it is affected that boating is being restricted. Dredging is needed not just to enable people to enjoy the broads, but for the well-being of the natural environment of the broad and the sustainable management of its natural beauty and biodiversity.

We need two assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister. First, we need a statement about funding. As has already been pointed out, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) granted £500,000 a year for three years, which has made a real difference, but the formula allocation for the national park grant ought to reflect the higher costs of managing a water-based protected area with significant navigation, and I think it reasonable to ask for the £500,000 to be taken into the core funding of the Broads Authority area. I realise that there are financial pressures, but unless we can use that money to deal with the dredging problem, we will find it difficult to move forward. Indeed, we may move backwards.

The second issue does not directly concern finance, but relates to the definition of the dredged material in the context of its disposal. It should be possible to dispose of it locally to avoid incurring enormous, even prohibitive, costs in transporting it over distances. It would seem reasonable to deposit the material in the fields whence it has come, but under the European Union waste framework directive it is classified as waste. It must therefore be disposed of as waste, meeting the requirements of a number of regulations and requiring the establishment of a licensed disposal site. That too would involve considerable and probably prohibitive expense.

Last year I met representatives of the Broads Authority and a constituent with the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), and we examined the issue in some detail. It was established that this was an unintended consequence of the legislation, and that the framework directive was not intended to catch the dredged material. Indeed, so unintended was the consequence that had the legislation been in place when the Barton broad restoration project was carried out in 2000, the project would not have been possible. The fact that the Barton broad clear water 2000 scheme has been an outstanding environmental success shows how important it is to do something about the regulation. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset agreed to sort it out, and officials at the meeting confirmed that that could be done within the European Union system. However, we are still waiting for that matter to be resolved. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and he helpfully replied last August that revised guidance was being prepared, which I welcome, but he was not able to say when that guidance would be published. Is he able to tell the House today when it will be published? That is of urgent concern, because dredging is the key issue.

As has been said, the Broads Authority has a difficult job to do. It has to strike the right balance between conserving the natural environment and promoting and allowing public enjoyment. We must never forget that people live and work within the Broads Authority area—in my constituency and those of several other Members—and that they need to be
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able to carry out their daily lives in a reasonable way. I am concerned by some of the decisions of the planning committee of the Broads Authority. It sometimes seems to have a heavy hand, although at other times it seems to get it right. The new authority must make sure that it strikes the right balance.

I was one of those who hoped that the name could be changed to “national park”. I would have loved to have been able to say, “In our part of the country, we have the Broads national park.” We had a vigorous debate about the name when we thought that we were going to have a national park, and we rightly ended up with the proposal to name it the Broads national park. We do not have the “Cumbrian lake district” or “Devon Dartmoor”. Everybody knows where the broads are. I am disappointed that we were not able to proceed with the national park name, and to have included that in the Bill. I understand and do not underestimate the difficulties of reconciling certain matters with the Sandford principle. However, one has to remain optimistic, and I hope that we will return to the issue in the future; I hope that we will be able to create a Broads national park some day, because having a Broads national park in the heart of our area would be a great boost for us all.

5.12 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The broads are an important area nationally. They are important for their history, appearance and biodiversity, and for the opportunity that they provide for recreation. On that basis, they fully deserve their designation. The reason why the area is not designated as a national park has been dealt with. It is to do with the Sandford principle and the extra duty imposed on the Broads Authority for navigation. Other national parks have two duties: to conserve those elements that contribute to their designation and to promote the enjoyment and understanding of the national park. Under the Sandford principle, if there is a conflict between those two duties, the duty to conserve should have priority. Obviously, the duty on the Broads Authority in respect of navigation makes that a little more difficult than for other areas, although I am not convinced that that cannot be resolved.

I have visited the broads on several occasions, mainly as a member and sometime chairman of the Brecon Beacons national park. I attended national park annual conferences in the broads and enjoyed the whole broads area and also meeting the entire family of national parks. It became clear to me that the broads were a valued member of that family. I was most impressed with the work that it did with the university of East Anglia on developing management schemes to improve the water quality of the broads, which had deteriorated largely because of nutrification—the build-up of phosphates in the sediments as a result of intensive farming. The removal of silt and sediments remains an important issue, and one that must be addressed through dredging.

The Liberal Democrats broadly welcome the Bill in that it gives the authority increased powers to carry out both its conservation work and its duty in respect of navigation. Some people are concerned about certain elements of the Bill. The word “draconian” has been used on a number of occasions in reference to the
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power to enter land, to enter a vessel and to direct the master of a vessel to a particular course of action for that vessel, while the master remains responsible for it. Those issues can perhaps be overcome in Committee.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) made the important point that the Broads Authority and national parks in general should consult widely within the communities in which they operate. The perception from time to time of people who live in national parks and in the Broads Authority area is that the authority is not really accountable to the people who live there. Yes, it has a national responsibility because of its designation, but it also has a responsibility toward the people who live there and the local economy.

The perception to which I refer arises from the fact that no members of the authority or of national park committees are directly elected to the authority. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Norwich, North say that there should be more consultation. The suggestion, which also pleases me, is that members of town and parish councils be considered for membership of the authority. Every single national park in England has that system, and it seems to work well in building bridges and understanding between the town and parish councils—the real basis of the democratic system in this country—and the Broads Authority, which has to do a really difficult job in balancing the different and conflicting views.

Perhaps I might go a little further. I have long believed that an element of national park committees—and, indeed, of the authority—could be directly elected. The broads has a population of about 5,000, which seems a nice constituency to elect perhaps one or two members—or an element, at least, to be decided locally—to sit on the authority. That would make the authority more directly accountable to the people who live and work in the area.

This is not an entirely new idea; it has been adopted in the two newly designated national parks in Scotland. Scotland was very late in joining the national park family, but it is making a huge contribution to the development of the purposes of national parks. When direct elections were initiated in Scotland, people put their names forward for election—between three and five people stood for each of the electoral divisions—and people turned out to vote because they could see that the authorities were going to have a real influence in their lives and in the local community. I do not know whether any of these issues can be addressed at this late stage—be it in Committee, through secondary legislation or through a statutory instrument—but they are certainly worthy of consideration. Such elections would make the authority more accountable to local people and increase their trust in it.

We Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill, although one or two points need ironing out. I was responsible for setting up a management agreement for Llangorse lake—that work was on a much smaller scale than the Broads Authority—which is the largest freshwater lake in south Wales and for all I know is larger than any lake in southern England. I had to try to reconcile the different interests of the power-boaters, the water-skiers, the yachting fraternity, the canoeists and the
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conservationists. The lake is a registered site of special scientific interest, and a registered common, which made matters tricky.

In general, we support the Bill, but we feel that the opportunity should be taken to strengthen the authority and to make it more accountable to local people.

5.20 pm

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): Hon. Members may ask why on earth I am speaking in this debate, given that my constituency is in the middle of England and nowhere near Norfolk or Suffolk. My experience of the broads is also very limited and gained many years ago. However, I chair the all-party waterways group, which does not deal exclusively with issues concerning the canal network. Its remit is, if hon. Members will excuse the pun, a little broader. Indeed, the Broads Authority is an associate member of the group.

When we had a discussion about the prospects for the Bill some time ago, and how the changes necessary could be introduced, I was interested to learn that certain aspects of the operation of the Broads Authority are very different from my considerable experience of the canal network. I shall not comment on the geography, geology, flora or fauna of the broads, which have been more than adequately covered, because I am concerned about safety on the broads. I was surprised to learn that the Broads Authority cannot ensure that all craft have third party insurance. It is bizarre that there are no enforceable licensing arrangements for hire craft. Indeed, there is no national boat safety scheme.

With regard to inland waterways and the canal network, British Waterways has difficulties in enforcing the purchase of licences, but responsible boat owners do purchase them. Certainly, if I spot any boats that do not have a number, I tip the wink to British Waterways—

Dr. Gibson: Snitching.

Mr. Laxton: Yes, that is the word. I snitch because we need to ensure that income is generated for British Waterways and it is important that people license their boats. When one licenses a boat on that network, one has to provide an insurance certificate and a boat safety certificate. I am amazed that the latter does not apply to the broads. People hire boats on the broads for a week or fortnight. They take their families with them and most have a very enjoyable experience, but there should be an enforceable safety regime in place.

The boat safety system addresses the issues that one would imagine, such as whether the boat itself is safe, and it also addresses the storage of petrol, diesel or liquefied petroleum gas, whether such fuels could escape to cause a fire, and the heating systems on the boats. LPG has a very high density and if it escapes it lies in the bottom of boats. People can go to sleep at night and never wake up. On the canal network, there have been fires and explosions, and people have been seriously injured, and that happens even though British
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Waterways has a good mechanism for enforcing a safety regime. However, the Broads Authority has no such mechanism.

The word “draconian” has been used, but it is not draconian to have an enforceable licensing system with third party insurance and a boat safety regime. That is absolutely necessary, essential and crucial. For that reason, and for that reason alone, I sought to make a contribution in the debate and support my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who introduced the Bill. I certainly hope that it completes its Second Reading and finds its way into Committee.

I have listened to the debate with a great deal of interest, and changes may well be made to the Bill on representation—the way in which we deal with petitioners and so on. Those issues can be worked out in Committee, but it would be disastrous if the Bill did not end up on the statute book, as it provides statutory provisions for the Broads Authority, enabling it to deal with the three issues to which I have referred: third party insurance, the licensing of hire craft, and the equivalent of the national boat safety scheme. If that does not happen, a ticking time bomb is waiting for people who use the broads. Inevitably, an accident will happen, which will only be to the detriment of the Broads Authority and the people involved, as well as to the income generated and the employment provided in the locality. I am very supportive of this private Bill: I certainly hope that it will complete its Second Reading, that there will be no obstructions to its progress through the House or through the other place, and that we can get it on to the statute book as quickly as possible.

5.26 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I certainly welcome this debate, and I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on the way in which he presented the Bill and on his concise summary of its provisions.

I spoke in the 1988 debate, and served on the Standing Committee that considered the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Bill, which introduced the authority, alongside the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) who has since become Lord Ryder of Wensum. He piloted the measure with a great deal of skill and precision. Indeed, Colin, now Lord, Moynihan did a great deal of work on the Bill as a Minister on behalf of the then Department of the Environment. The Bill was much needed, as it was long overdue. I think that everyone agrees that it has worked well, but 20 years have elapsed and in that period a great deal can happen: priorities change, and habitats and ecosystems can change, too. Economic and tourism pressures change and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk pointed out, there are many competing interests, including the protection of endangered species and the way in which we balance the need to protect the environment with the need for tourism and economic priorities. My hon. Friend rightly discussed the threat from the sea and the pace of climate change. He mentioned the floods of 1953, and he could have mentioned, too, the floods of 1978, which in many ways were more powerful than the floods of 1953, but which, because of the improved sea defences, caused far less loss of life and damage to property.

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