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7 May 2008 : Column 791

The Minister has an opportunity today to indicate whether he supports the principle. I suspect that we might risk entering into a long-winded consultation with all the other national parks before any decision is taken. I urge the Minister to consider whether it is worth experimenting in England. We have an ideal opportunity to do so through the Broads Authority, which can be distinguished from the national parks, because it is not in fact a national park. We can try the principle of direct democratic representation on the Broads Authority and see what lessons are learned in a few years’ time. At that stage it might be appropriate to extend the principle to other national parks. They might choose to proceed earlier than that. If they did so, I would be delighted. However, I do not want inertia on the part of other national parks to delay the opportunity to develop an important principle.

How can we achieve that? The first option, which I favour, is to achieve it through the Bill. I am told that it is impossible to amend the Bill at this stage to introduce direct elections. If that is the case, regrettably I must accept that. However, I should also like to ensure that the idea does not disappear into the long grass, never to be seen again. I want the principle to be pursued.

There are two other options that I should like the Minister to consider and respond to. First, is it possible by way of an order, rather than primary legislation, to introduce a principle whereby a proportion of the Secretary of State’s nominees would be elected by local people and would then become the appointees of the Secretary of State? Could we use the existing mechanism to introduce direct elections? The attraction of that option is that it could be done much more speedily than having to wait for primary legislation.

The other option is that which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) put forward in his intervention, whereby we use the opportunity of local government reorganisation, which we are told is likely to be imposed on Norfolk in a couple of years’ time, to introduce direct elections. Local government reorganisation would inevitably result in a change to the make-up of the Broads Authority board, because there will be fewer local authorities, and would therefore be an ideal moment. That would create a massive challenge for the Government, because it would require two Departments to work together, but I am sure that the challenge can be met and the opportunity seized.

In summary, the Bill contains important elements that should go on to the statute book. No doubt it will proceed to the House of Lords today, where it should be scrutinised. It is important that those who oppose it have the opportunity to continue their case, but let us use this opportunity to progress the case for direct representation.

Would a move towards direct elections provide an opportunity to streamline the board? I understand that the board is larger than those of other national parks, but that might not be the case. It has been suggested to me that a new board could be made up of 15 people, with seven being appointed nationally by the Secretary of State. The rest of the board could be made up of three representatives from local authorities, three directly
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elected representatives—one of those local representatives should, perhaps, be a direct representative of the parish councils within the area, because they have a stake—and two representatives of the navigation interest. That is one possible model. I do not particularly favour it, but it should be considered. We want a board that is workable and of a reasonable size, but we want the mix to be right. There should be local democratic representation, and other relevant interests should be represented.

It has been good to debate these issues further, and I very much hope that the Minister will give a clear signal that he supports the principle of direct elections to the board.

5.46 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has covered these matters in exhaustive, not to say exhausting, detail, so I shall try to be brief. I placed a blocking motion on the Order Paper because, like him, I thought that these issues should be aired. Matters that are important to our constituents should not simply go through the House on the nod.

I feel at best lukewarm about the Bill, partly because of the local government review, which has been mentioned. If restructuring is being considered, which it is—I hope that that does not happen, and I do not believe that it is inevitable—there is a strong argument that we should just wait to see what happens and incorporate the Bill into that. The authority’s composition is obviously going to change at some point, and Parliament will need to return to this issue either through that local government legislation or through other means, such as a specific piece of extra legislation, so there is an argument for waiting until then.

The Committee has done good and thorough work on the Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on that. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on promoting the Bill as he has done. I shall not oppose its Third Reading, and I think that the House should allow it to proceed. However, it is important that we allow the views of those who oppose it to be aired and placed on the record, not least so that if those views, however alarmist or lurid they might seem, should later prove to have been justified, there will be something to refer back to. If necessary, we could revisit the issue with new legislation.

It is worth stressing the point about national parks, because several hon. Members have talked about national parks as though the broads area were one, but it is not—as the hon. Member for North Norfolk correctly pointed out. There is a reason for that, which is clear from looking at the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and Lord Sandford’s review of national parks in the early 1970s. National parks have two basic purposes: conservation of the natural environment and providing the public with access to those areas. If there is a conflict between those aims—or, I should say, if it is not possible by skilful management to reconcile them—conservation should come first. However, the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988 makes it clear that there are three purposes for the authority:

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So, from the Act’s inception, it has always been agreed that protecting the interests of navigation was an explicit statutory principle that, because of the Sandford principles, excluded the possibility of the Broads Authority being a national park.

The central fear underlying the concerns that have been expressed to us and to the Committee by petitioners, is that, as a result of the Bill, navigation could be compromised and could end up taking a back seat to conservation and wildlife, when in fact the ever-present need to balance all these factors is precisely why the broads are not a national park.

Dr. Gibson: What is the hon. Gentleman’s view of the strength of the navigation committee to advise and to promote ideas about navigation to the Broads Authority?

Mr. Bacon: The navigation committee has an extremely important role to play, and I fear that the Broads Authority has not exactly covered itself in glory by the way in which it has proposed changes to the committee’s membership. In fact, it is fair to say that the Broads Authority was a little careless, to put it kindly, to have acted in such a way that it now finds that many navigators do not trust it. I know that the authority has gone some way towards allaying the navigators’ concerns. The hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned the Royal Yachting Association, the British Marine Federation and the Inland Waterways Association.

However, the hon. Gentleman did not mention the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association or the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club—and for good reason. Although discussions took place with the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association, it has expressed certain fears since the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire met. I should like to quote one of the petitioners, Mr. Philip Ollier, the executive secretary of the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association. In an e-mail this year, he wrote:

It is worth noting that that was written in September, after the Committee of the House had considered the Bill. Mr. Ollier goes on to say:

The charge made is that

A constituent of mine, Mr. Graham Trimmer from Poringland, has expressed his fears in even more colourful terms. Referring to the issue of public safety, he said:

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I have spoken to some of the people in my constituency who own boats, and some of them have told me that they would not be able to get a licence from the Broads Authority had they not already been through the process of getting a boat safety certificate.

These are examples of people’s concerns about the Bill. I fear that the way in which the authority has conducted itself—even to the extent of supposedly entering into legal agreements with the concerned bodies—has, in the words of the Committee, created a legal ambiguity, and perhaps created more problems than it has solved. When I first heard about the legal agreements that were being entered into, I wondered how it was possible to enter into such an agreement with a third party in relation to a Bill that had not yet been passed. I wondered what possible effect those agreements could have in law, in terms of the subsequent powers of the authority, given that the Bill had not yet been passed. Indeed, the Committee appears to agree about that. Paragraph 9 of its report to the House states:

I will not dwell on the issue of direct elections, as it has already been referred to, save to comment that it is a sensible principle to explore. Where an authority has planning powers, as this one does, it seems quite wrong that there should be no directly elected input if a way can be found to achieve that.

I fear that the authority’s approach has not enabled the House to give it the warm cross-party endorsement that it might otherwise have had, and serious concerns among our constituents remain. That said, there will be further opportunities in the other place. As the hon. Member for North Norfolk said, the ultimate test will be the behaviour of the authority in interpreting and using its powers in the years ahead. If the fears of the navigators prove justified, we will know soon enough, and we will have the opportunity to do something about it in due course.

5.55 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I will try to keep my comments brief. The Bill was blocked last year by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and myself—not to destroy it, but to enable the fears of some of our constituents to be aired on the Floor of the House. Many of the issues have already been well presented by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who steered the Bill through the Commons, and by other colleagues. I shall not go over all the detail again.

It is ironic that we are now 20 years on from the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Bill—I emphasise the term Suffolk—that was steered through the House by my predecessor, Richard Ryder, now Lord Ryder of Wensum. As a consequence of our previous debates, the first and now the second blocking motion, the work of the Committee and the Bill’s consideration in the other place, it is hoped that the relevant issues will be addressed. I remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the very nature of the Bill has changed. The original conception was to establish the broads as a national park, but that Bill had to be withdrawn for lots of reasons. One is that the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988 was legislation for navigation, so establishing the broads as a national park would cause all kinds of problems, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said.

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The Norfolk and Suffolk broads are a hybrid. That is the key issue; in many respects, they are a one-off. I shall not deal with detailed issues of navigation, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk has already done so. We aired those issues widely in our debate of a year ago. I want to touch on another issue that was raised then and has been raised again today by the hon. Member for North Norfolk—the whole business of having some directly elected members on the board. I am not going to go into the different permutations of how it might be done. I am almost surprised that an alternative vote system was not proposed, but the key issue is a matter of principle. Ironically, it is more important today than it was when we debated it in April. It is crucial, because local people feel that they should be represented on a board and able to affect their communities, their livelihoods, and the nature of the broads itself, directly.

Many of us were in Westminster Hall yesterday morning to participate in a debate that I was fortunate enough to obtain on flood defences in Norfolk. One of the issues raised there was that various Government advisory boards could put forward proposals that would have a direct impact on communities in north and mid-Norfolk. Ultimately, actions over the next 50 years or beyond could change the very nature of the broads, but I am not going to go down that path in any more detail. However, the fact that local communities feel they do not have a say is of fundamental importance, and all Norfolk Members seized upon that.

Two Members raised another important point. The boundary committee is looking into unitary authority reorganisation in Norfolk. The hon. Member for North Norfolk and my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) suggested that as a consequence of the committee’s work there could very well be changes in the make-up of local government in Norfolk. Interestingly, paragraph 3.1 of the proposals that will go before the committee later this week says:

The assumption that this will go through is a big assumption, not least because—this directly relates to the representation on the Broads Authority—there is no way in which the people of Norfolk can make their views clear about any possible reorganisation of local government in Norfolk. Consultations and stakeholders are mentioned, but there is no way in which the people can make their views clear. Whatever line one takes on whether there should be unitary authorities, it is unarguably the case that there has been no test of public opinion. That reinforces the view of many people in Norfolk that there should be directly elected representatives on the Broads Authority. I agree with the hon. Member for North Norfolk that all the advice we receive is that the Bill cannot be amended to provide for that. We know that the Minister will consider this issue, and, given that the Norfolk and Suffolk broads are a hybrid, I urge him to think of a way in which the natural concerns of Members and our constituents can be met.

Mr. Anthony Wright: Is there not an opportunity, however? The test will come on Friday when the Broads
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Forum meets to discuss this point. It will then have to be discussed in the other place, and this House could send a strong message to the other place that we have a watching brief on this particular point, and we hope that it will listen.

Mr. Simpson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment—he, too, has a direct interest in this matter—and he is right. There is no doubt that several Members in the other place will take note of this, and will raise it. The Broads Authority has had to take note of our previous debates, and I hope it will also take note of the issues we have raised today.

Dr. Gibson: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that although it is true that the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988 does not allow for direct elections, there are—I am told—provisions within it whereby local authorities can change, which would take away the heat about unitary status?

Mr. Simpson: Yes; as I have said, there are different permutations for doing that. One of the depressing aspects of the debate on this issue, dating back now over a year, is what appeared to be the reluctance of the Broads Authority to go down this path on the grounds that it would all be too difficult. That is key. The Broads Authority—and politicians in opposition and in government—ought to recognise the following point, in relation not only to this subject but to many others: the public are no longer prepared to have largely unelected bodies telling them what to do in matters that directly affect their local communities. They want direct representation on such bodies. I agree that we can look into how to achieve it, but that is the major point I want to put to the Minister. Although there are slight differences within the Norfolk political community about how to get there, we all agree upon that.

I recognise that the Bill will go through to the other place, and I hope that when the Minister winds up he will take note of what I have said and what colleagues have said, in the knowledge that when it reaches the other place, many of their lordships may display strong feelings about it.

6.4 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): It is both interesting and an honour to participate in this good and stimulating debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), on promoting the Bill, and the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), although he is absent. Obviously, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has been the most affected by this matter, but I took some comfort from the clarity with which my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) explained some of the issues.

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