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The hon. Member for Waveney keeps disappearing just as I am about to refer to him. He is obviously outside the Chamber fuming about lawyers. He mentioned funding for dredging, and called for a specific assurance from the Minister that DEFRA would acknowledge its responsibility in that regard. In a sense, the principle has already been accepted, because funding for dredging has already been provided on a three-year basis. All that we need now is
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for that principle to be confirmed for the future, and it is important that the Minister should reassure us on that.

It has been important to have this debate, and I again express my gratitude to those hon. Members who have ensured that we had this opportunity. The Bill provides genuine, valuable additional safeguards to people’s safety and, for that reason, we should welcome it. That does not mean, however, that the concerns of those in my constituency and others are not legitimate or that they should not be properly addressed. I hope that we will receive reassurance on those points from the hon. Member for Norwich, North today and in Committee.

6.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): I congratulate not only my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on his excellent speech but every Member who has participated in the debate. Like the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for the way in which he has ensured that this important subject has been debated on the Floor of the House and had proper parliamentary scrutiny. The quality of the submissions that we have heard today and the detailed thought that has been put into them have proved him right in ensuring that we could have such a debate today—and, I hope, at a later stage, should we get a fair wind today to take the Bill up to the Committee corridor.

As the Minister with responsibility for the national parks and the broads, I should explain that the Government support the main aims of the Broads Authority Bill. Our report to the Committee will recommend two changes and highlight some areas in which we think that the Bill might be improved, but I am confident that there should be a satisfactory outcome in Committee, in line with the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has put to the House today.

The main aims of the Bill are to improve safety on the broads through a series of measures, including the licensing of hire craft and compulsory third-party insurance, as well as making improvements to the way in which the Broads Authority operates. The recent introduction of the boat safety scheme will ensure that vessels are properly maintained, as an MOT does for road vehicles. British Waterways and the Environment Agency already operate this scheme successfully, and I congratulate the Broads Authority on the measures that it is taking to bring the broads into line with other major navigation authorities.

Compulsory insurance will bring peace of mind to those who boat on the broads, especially those on lower incomes who might otherwise be fearful of having to meet the cost of any damage done to their vessel by uninsured users. DEFRA had considered including the boat safety and insurance provisions in the general directions powers in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, but I am told that time ran out before we were able to draft suitable clauses. It is gratifying that the Broads Authority Bill has provided another opportunity for the House to consider these issues so soon.

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The Broads Authority has considered whether the safety provisions could have been dealt with through byelaws. That would not have been possible with some of them—for example, the introduction of compulsory insurance—and, although the boat safety scheme has now been introduced through byelaws, this is a rather cumbersome way of dealing with changes to the standards, as it requires the byelaws to be amended each time.

I am conscious that following the authority’s extensive consultation on the Bill, there are a few individuals who still consider that the provisions are anti-libertarian and will infringe their civil liberties, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North pointed out, some people still do not like seat belts, despite the number of lives that have been saved since they were introduced. There was a general consensus in the House today that any restrictions on the individual’s liberty to navigate when and where he chooses must be reasonable and proportionate. I believe that the Broads Authority’s proposals meet that test.

I fully recognise the extremely difficult role that the Broads Authority has to play in trying to manage expectations from a wide range of people, all of whom think that their particular activity should have precedence over any other. The stark reality is that no one activity has precedence, and I applaud the Broads Authority for the excellent way in which it meets those expectations in general. It is a difficult balancing act to perform, and on the whole, although qualms have been mentioned in the Chamber, the authority achieves that balance remarkably well.

Although the Broads Authority is not a national park in the legal sense because it was not designated through the procedure outlined in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, it has an equivalent status, and it is a much valued member of the national parks family, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) so eloquently stated earlier. I can assure the House that the broads will not be changing their name. It is important that we continue to recognise their distinct status by giving them a distinct title.

Incorporating the words “national park” and “national park authority” in the names would wrongly imply that it was a standard national park and authority, exactly like the others. That is because national park authorities have two purposes—conservation and recreation. In cases of conflict, greater weight is always given to conservation, under the Sandford principle as enshrined in the Environment Act 1995. In the case of the broads, there is the third purpose—to protect the interests of navigation. We have heard much about the interests of navigation this afternoon. It is fundamental that we recognise that to introduce the Sandford principle would jeopardise the interests of navigation.

Each of the authority’s purposes is equally important. Hence the Sandford principle cannot apply, and it would be inappropriate for the Broads Authority to call itself a national park authority. But that does not make the broads in any way inferior—or, indeed, superior—to a national park.

Concerns have been expressed about the amount of dredging that takes place in the broads. My hon.
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Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) dealt extensively with that in his remarks. Some people consider that more dredging should take place. Although I welcome the implication that boaters are willing to pay more to navigate, the Broads Authority must strike a balance between the water depths that some users would like and the level of tolls that can be charged without driving boats off the system. The recently produced sediment management strategy and action plan provide a framework for the authority to manage its dredging responsibilities in the future.

The national parks and the broads are our “jewels in the crown”. They contain some of the most celebrated and iconic scenery and cover about 8 per cent. of the landscape. In 2005 the Landscape Institute voted the national park movement the greatest beneficial influence on the UK’s landscape in the past 75 years, so I am not surprised that any proposed changes to one of our internationally renowned assets should have generated such debate. However, I can assure the House that the proposed changes in the Bill make the broads a safer place. I commend the Bill to the House and I hope hon. Members will let it go forward to Committee.

I want to pick up on several points raised by hon. Members in the course of the debate. The hon. Members for North Norfolk, for Mid-Norfolk and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) talked particularly about parish representation. The Broads Authority has never included parish council representatives. It is reducing, at its own request, to 21 members. Nine are serving elected members from local authorities in the broads area, who might be reluctant to cede their seats to parish members; two are members of the navigation committee and therefore have their own incredibly important expertise in the context of the broads; 10 are appointed on the basis of open public competition and, vitally, represent our national interest in the broads. Those three groupings combine to make a very strong team. The national park authority performance assessment on the broads in 2005 commented that the organisation had made considerable strides in terms of strategy, planning and stakeholder buy-in, and that it should achieve considerable success in the future.

Of course, national appointments are open to all. If parish members wish to serve on the Broads Authority, they can always apply under the open competition that is available for those 10 appointed places. Several varying interests are represented on the authority at present. I will not name individuals, but if I allude to the range of expertise and experience that is represented, that will give the House an understanding of how important it is to have that variety of expertise available. We have a retired chief constable, a member of the National Farmers Union, a member of the Country Land and Business Association, a director of the Camping and Caravanning Club, and a magistrate. There are people with environmental and conservation expertise, as well as navigation expertise. By and large, the current structure works tremendously well.

Mr. Roger Williams: I pay tribute to the people who are appointed to the Broads Authority and to national park authorities; they bring huge expertise to those bodies. However, that does not necessarily meet the
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needs of the local community, who would feel that they should be directly represented on the board or committee concerned.

Barry Gardiner: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s view. I would point out to him, however, that when the House considered the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 it chose specifically not to go down the route of direct elections to national park authorities. In my own experience of matters that are open to public election, what invariably tends to happen is that party politics congregate around that election and can introduce an element which would be wholly unwarranted in such a situation. That may not happen, but then again it may. It is my preference, and one that the House has expressed on previous occasions, not to allow direct elections.

Norman Lamb: Would the Minister be prepared to consider the experience of Scotland, where such elections work rather well and have secured local communities’ engagement in national parks, with high levels of interest in taking part in the elections? That brings with it a greater accountability of the national park to the local community, which is one—only one—of the interests with a right to have a say. I am slightly alarmed that in talking about the dangers of electing people, the Minister appears to be presenting a case against democracy. Surely we should have a little bit more faith in the electoral process.

Barry Gardiner: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not wilfully misunderstand my remarks. It is clear that anyone can put themselves forward for appointment to the 10 places that are available on the Broads Authority. In the appointments procedure, people’s specific expertise in the local area as parish councillors can be considered. Local parish councillors can submit themselves to the board in the normal process. There is no bar to learning from experience elsewhere; the hon. Gentleman specifically asked about that. We should be always be open to that, and to appropriating that experience if it is suitable in the circumstances. I simply underline the fact that the House has already expressed the view that direct election to national parks would be inappropriate.

Mr. Keith Simpson: I do not want to prolong the debate endlessly but let me make two points. First, I do not believe—I accept that it is a matter of opinion—that party politics would enter the process or that, knowing our Norfolk neighbours, it would put people off. Secondly, there is an important principle to consider. Why should parish and town councillors but not district councillors be appointed? The matter should be revisited. There is a strong body of opinion in Norfolk and Suffolk on the subject, and it will not go away.

Barry Gardiner: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Roger Williams: The Under-Secretary says that the House decided against directly electing members to national park committees. That may be technically
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correct—I am not sure how the House’s proceedings are reported—but the decision was made in Committee rather than on the Floor of the House.

Barry Gardiner: I do not dispute that; none the less, this democratic body reached the decision that I described.

The hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk and for North Norfolk spoke about draconian powers, especially in the context of byelaws and the common law right to navigate freely. Of course such a freedom exists in common law, but it is legitimate for Parliament to legislate to restrict that right when it considers it appropriate, especially when it is necessary for the reasons of public safety that we have discussed this afternoon. It is accepted that legislation should provide for imposing limits, making regulations and so on. That happens frequently with the roads, and there is no reason for it not to happen on the broads.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) expressed his astonishment at the lack of safety enforcement powers. He made well the point that it is not draconian to have third-party insurance, to license craft or to insist on a boat safety system. It is right for the Broads Authority to have the powers to enforce that.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), like other hon. Members, raised the separate navigation account. He believed that such an account would ensure transparency, and ensure that all navigation income was spent only on navigation. I do not believe that we need a separate account to ensure that all navigation income is spent on navigation alone, but we all agree that it must be made absolutely clear and transparent that that should be the case. In passing, I also note that the safeguard of the navigation account was originally conceived for the benefit of non-boaters as much as for that of boaters. Clearly, some people wanted to be sure that boating was not being subsidised by rate payers.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk raised the financial consequences of implementing the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth identified £100,000 of the £1.5 million largesse for precisely this purpose, so the cost will not come out of the annualised grant that is the authority’s share of the national parks family pot.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk also referred to newly acquired planning powers. In relation to the authority, the planning service, which was previously carried out by other local authorities, has been brought back in-house, but the Broads Authority has always had the responsibility for planning. The reference may simply have been a slip of the tongue, but I thought it important to correct that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney referred to my visit to Oulton broad and Bungay in his constituency some months ago. I had a most enjoyable day, and came away with not only a better understanding of navigation and dredging than perhaps I had wished for hitherto, but an enormous respect for his detailed interest in and understanding of those matters. He has a compendious knowledge of dredging. In relation to funding, it is important for him
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to understand that we believe that navigation income must equal navigation expenditure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney asked specifically, as did several other Members, about consideration for funding for dredging alongside the share of the national parks pot to which I referred, much in line with the £1.5 million made available over the past three years. There is a case for dredging that is done for environmental benefits and biodiversity, and it is essential that we consider that. I am happy to give the commitment asked of me to the extent that, as part of the future comprehensive spending review round, we will consider separately the funding of dredging for environmental purposes and dredging for navigation purposes, which must be paid for from navigation income. We recognise, of course, that dredging for environmental purposes may have a beneficial effect on navigation, but we would look to do it for environmental purposes in the first instance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney also asked about the waste framework directive, the treatment of such dredgings as waste and the increasing costs that that imposes. We all recognise that the cost of dredging, disposal and recovery has increased by an average of about 50 per cent., and that of dredging and disposal at landfill by 235 per cent. over the past four years. That is why navigation authorities consider both the economic and environmental benefits when carrying out dredging.

A body under the august title of the wet dredgings group— [Interruption.] I was sure that someone would ask me whether we have a dry dredgings group, and I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that question. The wet dredgings group, however, has been considering the issue. I have asked that it report to me and the Minister with responsibility for waste, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare, by the end of next month. An informal consultation on proposals for exemptions from the waste management regime is ongoing. It will run until 8 June this year, and we may be able to make a clearer statement after that.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk raised the issue of Breydon Water and the lower Bure, and the agreement with Great Yarmouth port authority. We hope that a clause will be inserted in Committee providing for the authority not to set a date for taking over responsibility without written consent from the port authority.

6.25 pm

Dr. Gibson: I shall be as brief as possible. It is heartwarming to see so many Members here to debate a measure that I think will make a big difference to many lives. We may not be happy with every aspect of it, but in general we agree that people should be able to visit the broads, that beautiful part of the world, safely and enjoyably.

There has been full consultation about the transfer of Breydon Water and the lower Bure to the Broads Authority, and the authority has put in a great deal of background work, talking to organisations and so forth. For instance, it reached an agreement with Great Yarmouth port authority on the potential transfer of responsibility for navigation. No doubt that took a
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long time, but it happened, and it is now in the Bill. As for powers to enter adjacent waters, there have been a few problems with access, but there has been agreement following full consultation with the National Farmers Union. I have been assured that those agreements will be legally binding as soon as the Bill has been passed, although I hope that we will examine the details in Committee.

Norman Lamb: Will the hon. Gentleman explore the possibility of obtaining a legal opinion, so that we can understand the basis on which the agreements are legally binding?

Dr. Gibson: I am sure that we will do that. An opinion has been obtained by the authority, and sight of it can obviously be provided.

Transparency is everything in the Bill, not just in the context of what we are doing and why we are doing it, but in the context of the accounts. The transparency of the accounts has been guaranteed time and again, and I am sure that no national or local boating organisation would have agreed to or signed anything without that guarantee. We are not the fount of all knowledge, and the public and the organisations that are involved in these issues daily are as keen on openness and transparency as we are.

The authority has assured me that no increase in staff numbers will result from the so-called draconian extra powers—I shall omit the word “draconian” because I welcome the powers—and also that there will be no additional administrative costs, although we can probe those assurances in Committee. The authorised officers will be the existing staff officers. There will be no job advertisements, so the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) need not consult the Eastern Daily Press if, as we hope, he is knocked out of his seat at the next election. The Broads Authority has been the planning authority since 1989, so there has been no dramatic change in that regard. The authority has a great deal of experience and its planning officers will ensure that it continues to be used to good effect.

The Minister referred to money and to parish councils and so forth. I am sure that we will revisit those issues repeatedly, but please let us have no more talk of proportional representation. Let us simply talk about how we can secure a world-class Broads Authority, carrying out a management function that will preserve a part of the world that really needs to be preserved. We must never return to the position of a few years ago, before we started to legislate.

Norman Lamb: Can I tempt the hon. Gentleman into saying whether, in his personal view, it would be good if we could get representation from town and parish councils on to the board, given that we are talking about only one or two members? Also, what does he think about whether there should be direct election of members of the local community?

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