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Nothing in the world stands still, and I entirely accept that it is important that we look again at what can be done to improve the existing authority, which is why I am satisfied that the Broads Authority Bill is needed. The hon. Member for Norwich, North has made it clear that it contains some very sensible provisions, and it is important that it goes into Committee. I, too, have been contacted about a number of issues. On the transparent use of funds, the point about accounting procedures is important. In the light of what has been said in our debate, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would give us more details about that in his summing-up speech, and more comfort that there will be full transparency at all times.

I, too, have been contacted by the four petitioners, who have contacted all the local Members of Parliament with an interest in the Bill, as well as hon. Members whose constituencies are in or near Norfolk. They have legitimate concerns and interests, and they deserve a full response. The British Marine Federation and the Royal Yachting Association have withdrawn their objections because concessions have been made, and we approve of that. Moreover, there is scope for amendments to the Bill when it is considered in Committee and another place. There will then be ample time to look at the concerns expressed by the petitioners, which are well constructed and carry substantial weight. I hope that the points made by the petitioners will be properly understood and that further concessions are made as a result.

I turn now to how the new authority will be funded. I share the concern expressed by several hon. Members this afternoon that the present funding arrangements will not prevent real problems from arising after 2008. The Chancellor is looking hard for savings in every Department, and the days of plenty are clearly over. Every Department is having to look at its spending commitments and I am worried that, in the absence of a firm promise that the new authority will be properly funded into the future, problems will arise with staffing and the proper financing of all of its functions. I hope that the hon. Member for Norwich, North will respond to that when he winds up the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk made several points about membership of the authority, and I certainly take on board the representations made by the Norfolk County Association of Parish and Town Councils and the Suffolk Association of Local Councils. They make a strong point, and I want to quote a letter sent to hon. Members with constituencies in Norfolk and Suffolk from Jack Sadler and Ian Wright on behalf of those organisations. In explaining the need for more community involvement at the local level, they say:

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk elaborated on those points, because it is very important to encourage localism. As well as district and borough councils, we need to get parish councils more involved in matters such as that covered by this Bill, because they operate at a level that is closest to the people involved.

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Moreover, as I said in a brief intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, the number of people in the area covered by the existing authority may be small, but the number of parishes is substantial. Parish councillors in my constituency tell me very often that they do not believe that they are taken seriously. They say that they do not have enough responsibility and that they do not believe that their views are listened to. It is for those reasons that fewer and fewer people are willing to stand as parish councillors.

In Norfolk as a whole, many positions on parish councils are not contested. In contrast, when I first entered the House, most of such elections were hotly contested: very often, the 10 or 12 places available on a parish council would be contested by as many as 15 or 20 people. However, such contests very much belong to the past now, and places in parish councils are often left unfilled.

I submit that we should take parish councils more seriously. We should use mechanisms such as this Bill to give them more power and responsibility, and more say in how organisations are run; otherwise, the future of parish councils will be very bleak, even though they have a great deal to offer. We are not asking for a great deal. We are simply asking for a representation of perhaps one or two parish councillors on the authority. I quite liked the idea of an election that was suggested by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). Given that there would be a total electorate of 5,000 or 6,000, it would be perfectly possible to elect one or two parish councillors. That would be a highly beneficial way of whipping up interest and additional involvement.

I hope that the hon. Member for Norwich, North will address two further points in his winding-up speech. It is proposed that Breydon water and the lower Bure should be transferred from the Great Yarmouth Port Authority. Has there been full consultation on that transfer and is that authority perfectly satisfied with giving up that particular responsibility?

The second point, which the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) mentioned—I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber, but no doubt he will be back in a second—relates to powers of access to private land to manage vegetation. Obviously, there has been full and highly laudable co-operation between landowners, be they private individuals or organisations, and the Broads Authority on the management of vegetation with equipment that is taken on to land. Is it really necessary for such extra powers to be included in the Bill? I am not aware that any problems have been caused by the denial of access. Perhaps the approach in the Bill is ultra-cautious, or maybe the provisions are a good idea because they have been included in the Bill in anticipation of future problems. Has the hon. Member for Norwich, North consulted the Country Land and Business Association, the NFU and the numerous organisations that own the land in question? If they are satisfied with those powers, I will also be satisfied.

No one doubts that the broads are a remarkably important part of our national and international heritage. They are of national and world importance. Anyone who has been to the broads and seen for themselves the huge skies, the stunning sunsets, the flights of widgeon and teal in the gloaming, or a
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wherry or a spritsail barge going away in the distance—in the future, they might hear the booming call of a bittern—can only have been enraptured. Those of us who represent Norfolk constituencies are incredibly proud of what the broads represent and the people who have worked in the broads in tourism and many other activities. However, we realise that action is needed to secure their future. I hope that that action will be achieved with the full co-operation and support of everyone involved.

5.38 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on his clear presentation of the Bill. I have enjoyed all the contributions to the debate so far. I endorse the compelling arguments made by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) in favour of the national boat safety scheme and the compulsory insurance and licensing of boats.

I agreed with virtually everything that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said in his interesting contribution. I was fascinated by what he said about the history of the broads and the fact that we discovered how they had come about only in the mid-1950s. When I visited the wonderful museum of the broads at Stalham Staithe, which I recommend to all hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Derby, North, I read about the history of the broads and the fact that a biologist, whose name I forget, discovered the real history of the broads and the cause of their creation.

I will not oppose the Bill due to the justifications for it that the hon. Member for Derby, North outlined. None the less, there are legitimate concerns, but I want to acknowledge the work of the Broads Authority. After the enterprise’s rather turbulent start, the authority has tried to achieve consensus, or at least to reduce the anxieties of the many people who had concerns. As we heard earlier, those concerns spread beyond those of the four petitioners who saw their objections through to the final stage. There is a danger that their small number means that their concerns could be dismissed, but those concerns are legitimate and they should be taken seriously.

I applaud the work of the Royal Yachting Association, the British Marine Federation and the Inland Waterways Association. They, too, have played a part by representing interests, in particular those of the boating community, in reaching legal agreements with the Broads Authority.

Much reference has been made already to the authority’s three duties: conservation, the navigation interest and tourism—or enjoyment of the broads. A conflict is inherent in the structure of the broads and those competing duties inevitably create tensions from time to time between people, primarily in Norfolk and Suffolk, who are particularly associated with one of the interests that the authority has a duty to protect.

There have been particular tensions between the navigation interest and the authority. The tensions have come and gone, or increased in intensity, but as I talk to constituents I find that some people feel that there
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has been a loss of trust in the authority. I do not seek to apportion blame and I do not want to dwell on the subject, but some people who hold the broads dear to their heart have lost trust in the authority. The conflict between the three duties means that such loss of trust is almost inevitable, and the tension inherent in the framework of the Bill has intensified anxieties about giving extra powers to a body that is unelected and so, in some senses, can legitimately be described as unaccountable. The authority includes representation from a number of interests, but its structure has no democratic accountability or legitimacy.

Now, as we introduce these new powers, would be a particularly poignant moment for the Broads Authority to reach out to the people who feel most concerned about the Bill, and to try to rebuild trust and create a good working relationship between all the interests on the broads. I am sure that other Norfolk Members would, like me, always be happy to facilitate discussion between the authority and people who have concerns.

I want to deal with the question of representation. I heard the response of the hon. Member for Norwich, North to my earlier intervention on that subject and I also heard what the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) had to say, so I understand that it is a complex issue. There is concern about the role of parish council representatives on the board and whether, because of the competing interests involved, they would tilt the balance too much in one direction. However, I have to say that we are talking only about one or two members, so, come on, there is no good case for failing to provide that extra legitimacy.

I would like strongly to endorse the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), which I was pleased to see supported by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). In particular, the idea of having a directly elected element on the board is important. It is interesting that the most recent additions to the national parks family have gone for direct election. That applies in Scotland, so would it not be great if Norfolk and Suffolk could lead the way in getting rid of the democratic deficit in England? It has happened in Scotland, so why on earth cannot we do the same in England?

If, as the Bill moves into Committee, the Broads Authority could seriously think about how to introduce such reform, it would send a powerful message about its willingness to listen and to take new ideas into account. If it is not possible to introduce that through the Bill, which would be sad, we should think about providing a means to introduce it at a later stage. I would be grateful if the Minister responded to that point in his summing up. If it can be done in Scotland, it can be done in England. It would give local communities within the broads area a direct voice on the management board of the Broads Authority.

Mr. Keith Simpson: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point, with a strong message endorsed by hon. Members associated with Norfolk. There are two parts to that message. First, we believe, in principle, that a parish or town representative should be on the board. That may be done by someone being drafted on
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in the old way. Secondly, the mechanism for achieving that is also important. That powerful message needs to be taken back to the Broads Authority, which must take it into account.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing that point and I would like to congratulate him, along with the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), on securing this debate. They were determined enough to have the matter debated in the House and it is right that we have had the opportunity to do so.

Before I lose the thread about the inherent conflict between the competing duties, I want to make a further point. One of my constituents argued that there should be a way of resolving those conflicts—and, ideally, that it should be built into the Bill. He made it clear that, because of the absolute importance of navigation to the future of the broads, he was not arguing for the Sandford principle. He nevertheless made a compelling argument that when there are three competing duties and potential for tension between those competing interests, there should be some mechanism for resolving the conflicts between those duties. I would be pleased to hear the hon. Member for Norwich, North respond to that point.

On safety, as I have already said, I strongly support the case for the introduction of powers to enhance safety on the broads. The tragic accident that we witnessed some years ago demonstrates the case for that. I have been asked—again, I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Norwich, North responded to this point—whether it would not be possible to achieve the same thing through byelaws, which have democratic legitimacy through elected councils.

I am afraid that I was not convinced—I do not think that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk was either—by the efforts made by the hon. Member for Norwich, North to respond to my questions about the status of the legal agreement. What we have is a Bill that, on the face of it, introduces draconian powers—there is no doubt about that—in terms of access to land, directing the master of a boat and so forth. Those powers are ameliorated and controlled by way of the legal agreement that stands alongside them. Many people who have concerns about the extent of the powers that the Bill introduces say to me, “If the Broads Authority is content to have controls and restrictions set out in a legal agreement adjacent to the Bill, why can’t those things be enshrined in the Bill itself to give satisfaction and reassurance to people?”

Dr. Gibson: May I attempt to answer that? It is quite complicated. I am told that, as soon as the Bill is passed, what are described as contracts will become legally binding. The reasons why their contents are not included in the Bill is that people may want to change certain aspects of those contracts without having to come back to look at the whole Bill again and without having this kind of session. That kind of agreement between two different bodies, whilst it is legally binding, is much better dealt with outside this kind of debate. I think that that was the intention in having the several contracts that have been drawn up.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and the reassurance, on the
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record, that the legal agreement is legally binding and is genuinely a legal agreement. That is quite important. I have heard it said before that it is a legal agreement, but as a lawyer myself, although I have to confess that my practising certificate has lapsed— [ Interruption. ] I am not a practising lawyer. As a lawyer myself, I am afraid that I do not yet understand the basis on which the agreement is a legal agreement. I do not understand the status of it as a legal agreement that can be relied on in court. I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says—nobody wants these matters to go to court—but one has to have a legal agreement to reassure people and to guarantee the rights of people who are concerned about potentially excessive powers.

Mr. Keith Simpson: Listening to the debate between the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Norwich, North, it seems to me that what we have is almost a memorandum of understanding, rather than some form of binding legal agreement. I am not being pedantic. I accept the fact that, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Dr. Gibson) suggested, this is something that will have to be pinned down. I genuinely cannot understand what may be the case at the moment, but, at some future point, the agreement surely has to be put into the body of the Bill.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful for that.

Dr. Gibson: I am not sure whether hon. Members have seen the agreements; I have had a look at them. I am quite sure that, in Committee, we can examine them in much more detail. I thought that perhaps the hon. Gentleman had seen them.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful for that. To answer the previous intervention, from the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, what we need is a legal opinion. We can have reassurances from the Broads Authority and from the hon. Member for Norwich, North, but we need a legal opinion that confirms how the agreements are legally enforceable. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) is seeking to intervene from a sedentary position, but I cannot hear what he is saying, so we will move on. [ Interruption. ] He is attacking lawyers. Well, what’s new?

I end this part of my contribution by making the point that those who have concerns refer me to the fact that common law rights freely to navigate tidal waters have existed for a very long time. People jealously guard their right to those entitlements, and with good reason.

I want to deal briefly with the navigation budget, and the concerns that have been expressed about it. As I understand it, the Bill will effectively merge the navigation account with the general account. Constituents have raised with me the real concern that there is a risk of the navigation budget being undermined once it is subsumed within the general budget. I shall read to the House a brief statement from a constituent, and I would like reassurance on the point that he makes:

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We want to ensure that moneys for navigation interests are not filtered away over time and used for other purposes. Of course, equal status is still being given to the navigation duty under the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, but given the amount of money that needs to be spent on dredging to maintain the navigable waters, it is critical that people have reassurance on that point.

Jamie Campbell, a Norfolk sailor from Gorleston, has launched a petition specifically directed at the issue of the dredging of the broads. He argues that the Broads Authority has failed to dredge the broads adequately. I am told that the petition has 1,600 names on it; I have not seen it, and I am not in a position to say whether the concern expressed in it is legitimate, but the fact that so many people have seen fit to sign it suggests that the Broads Authority needs to take that concern on board and address it, if it is to reassure people, particularly given that the merging of the two accounts has caused many people concern.

As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk raised the issue of the extent of the powers given to authorised officers, I shall briefly mention it, too. People have raised with me the importance of ensuring that those who exercise the functions are properly qualified, as the duties require a considerable understanding of the broads. It is important to those who care passionately about the broads that people with proper qualifications perform those functions. Will the hon. Member for Norwich, North, provide reassurance about how those functions will be exercised?

I reassure hon. Members that I am coming to the end of my speech, but I want briefly to mention the Sandford principle. When the Bill sought to create a national park, an awful lot of anxiety was expressed about the proposal, and about the implication that the Sandford principle would apply. That, of course, fed the anxieties of the navigators, because to them it seemed like another step in the direction of damaging or sidelining their interests. I am just telling the House how they perceived the issues. Obviously, they were enormously reassured when the plan to create a national park was removed from the Bill, along with the Sandford principle. However, some people remain concerned that the Sandford principle could, in some way or other, be reintroduced by the back door. It has been suggested to me that if at some future date the Bill’s name was changed so as to reintroduce the concept of creating a national park, the Sandford principle could be reintroduced. I do not think that that could happen, but I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Norwich, North, responded to that concern.

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