HC Deb 12 May 2004 vol 421 cc441-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Heppell.]

5.47 pm
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con)

I am delighted to see the Minister in his place and to know that a west country Member will reply to this debate on Exmoor. I know that he has bicycled over most of the west country, so I am delighted to see him here.

I regard myself as an extremely fortunate man. Every morning in my Bridgwater constituency, I wake up, pull open the curtains and gaze towards one of the most beautiful places on earth—Exmoor. I am delighted to have a chance to talk about it this evening. Exmoor national park is 50 years old this year, during which time it has positively bloomed.

Members perhaps spend too much time looking back, but if I may indulge the House I propose to provide a potted history of the national park. Seventy years ago, one could hardly wander across Exmoor. Most of the land was privately owned and most of the owners preferred to keep it that way. By 1930—even then—there was growing political pressure to open up the countryside. New organisations well known to us, such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Youth Hostels Association, were flexing their then not inconsiderable muscles. America had already created its own famous national parks. Yogi Bear was already loose in Yellowstone park, so surely it was time for Britain to do the same.

In 1931, a Government inquiry recommended a brave new national authority. Eureka—what a splendid idea, and what a crying shame that it took another 23 years to create Exmoor national park. The snail's pace of British democracy is a maddening mystery to us all but, half a century later, there is a great deal to celebrate.

So, I give three big cheers for the rangers and the expert staff who make Exmoor's conservation their life, and their way of life. I give two medium cheers for the 26 members of the national park authority—someone has to do the job, and it does not make them rich. I also give a muted cheer for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, although I suspect that the Minister was hoping for more. However, there are no cheers at all for some of the crass decision making that mars the good name of what I believe to be the best place on the planet.

I have no desire to scare the House, but there is said to be a huge, horrible and hairy creature stalking Exmoor. The beast was always thought to be a myth, dreamed up to tell to tourists, but I am not quite so sure now. I think I have seen the beast in action, and I am afraid it is the beast of bureaucracy—a ghastly manifestation of officialdom gone mad.

If the House will indulge me, I should like to tell a real story of the moor and its wildlife, and of what happens when the beast appears. In this, I am indebted to a journalist called Annalisa Yard. She dug out the story, and her editor at theWest Somerset Free Press had what some would say was the courage to print it. It is a story about peaceful creatures and the wild beast of bureaucracy.

On Exmoor, we have all sorts of creatures—badgers, foxes, the famed red deer, Jacob sheep, alpacas, and Simmental cattle; one can even find the odd llama. There is a family of meerkats, a couple of kookaburras and an equally exotic mara. Not all can claim to be indigenousto Exmoor—it is not their natural breeding ground or habitat, but what the heck? They are not doing anyone any harm, and they should not attract the attention of the Exmoor bureaucrats, but some of them have.

This is the sort of silly issue that gives the Exmoor national park authority a bad name. The real beast of Exmoor is not a figment of the imagination, or an overweight wild cat—it is the legally empowered bunch of officials with the right to make rules. Those rules would have had the Porlock kookaburras packed off in crates and shipped off the moor for ever, all because they have been designated "non-native".

I live on the fringe of the moor, but I was born in Scotland; presumably, that makes me non-native too. I shall not even ask where the Minister was born. The sort of language being used is normally associated with radical extremists. One does not expect to hear it from the lips of people whose sole reason for existence, according to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of their area.

Fortunately, the bureaucratic beast of Exmoor did not get away with it this time, and thanks has to go again to theWest Somerset Free Press. Officialdom and its beastly rulebook said, "Kick the kookaburras out!" Exmoor authority members, however, voted for common sense. I wish them more power to their elbow—but how much more power?

One of the features of every national park, Exmoor included, is that it runs its own planning system. That makes sense in theory. If one wants to preserve the culture of an area, one has to set rigid regulations and leave it to officials, by delegated power, to give the final yea or nay.

However, officials are only as good as the rules they enforce, and that leads to a number of questions. First, what exactly is the kookaburra rule? Secondly, who approved it? Thirdly, how do we stop this nonsense in future?

I shall try to give some answers. Let me quote the rule itself: The Kookaburra is not indigenous to Exmoor and does not therefore contribute to the understanding or enjoyment of Exmoor". That is a matter of loose interpretation, not of hard fact. The rule forms part of the national parks development plan, so at some stage it must have come before members of the authority. Why did they not notice it?

How do we stop such nonsense in future? This is where the debate starts. The national park has many of the powers of a local authority and a fair chunk of public money. Exmoor national park does a sterling job and valuable work, very economically. Its annual budget is some £3.5 million, and tourism is booming. It deserves a pat on the back. Its members are dedicated and its aims are high. All that is good.

The national park's budgets have been cut, however, as the Minister knows. However, one cannot take the national park authority before the ombudsman in a claim of maladministration—I do not propose that in this case—and, like local councillors, its members are not legally liable for things that go wrong. National park authorities answer first to DEFRA and second to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, although, given his identity, it may be hard for them to understand the question. After 50 years, perhaps it is time for a little straightforward accountability.

Exmoor national park authority has 19 members who are drawn from parish, district and county councils—local people who know Exmoor like the back of their hands, and I can vouch for that. The Secretary of State, however, directly appoints seven others, and they are not locals at all. There is a bloke from Warwickshire and a lady from Wiltshire. I do not expect that they pop into Exmoor national park very often. The Government want to increase the number of such appointees from seven to 10, but surely it is time to insist that Government appointees are local people too.

Exmoor national park is a wonderful institution that has done a brilliant job over 50 glorious years. It has not done many things wrong, but in the light of some of the beastly bureaucracy it is a wonder that it has managed that.

5.57 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate and I apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality, who had an accident earlier this afternoon and had to be taken to hospital. I have taken his place at short notice.

The hon. Gentleman did not mention—so I must—that the creation of the national parks was one of the triumphs of the 1945 Labour Government. They were a victory for Fabian socialism and the belief that our finest landscapes are a national treasure for all to enjoy. Amid the many changes of the last decades, Exmoor and its fellow national parks have provided constant oases of calm and refreshment. It pleases me, as a Devon Member, to respond to the debate on a national park shared with the hon. Gentleman and his neighbours in Somerset.

What would have become of Exmoor if it had not been a national park? That is an interesting question, but it is impossible to know. The threats that seemed very real at the time of designation—from intensive agriculture or from large-scale conifer plantations—have happily been avoided, and Exmoor has been conserved for further generations. That conservation work includes caring for the park's 31 native mammal species, 243 bird species, 1,000 flower and grass species and 1,751 insect species. As recently as January, 33 hectares of the famous Tarr Steps woods have been declared a national nature reserve. The park authority has drafted a biodiversity action plan, covering seven habitats and seven species. In short, there have been real and tangible conservation achievements.

Of course, conservation is only part of what the parks are about. They have a second purpose: promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those areas by the public". In pursuing those purposes, they also have a duty to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within the National Park … and … co-operate with local authorities and public bodies whose functions include the promotion of economic or social development within the area of the National Park". Those words show clearly that the national park authorities are neither tourism authorities nor tourism promoters as the tourism industry might understand those roles, but that they need to be aware of the value of appropriate tourism in pursuit both of their recreational purposes and their socio-economic duty. Our national parks are major features of the tourism landscape; for example, when last measured, in 1994, Exmoor was attracting 1.4 million visitor days a year. A new survey is due to begin shortly and I am sure that it will show a significant increase.

The Visit Exmoor initiative, which is led by the park authority, with West Somerset district council and the tourism industry, will promote and market Exmoor, encourage sustainable tourism and improve the quality of the visitor experience. To take a specific example: the authority's water-powered sawmill at Simonsbath will promote the use of renewable energy as well as promoting tourism and will form part of the authority's sustainable countryside management initiative. It will truly be a multifaceted project.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater touched on planning, which is a key responsibility of the park authority. The Government are keen to see that the performance of national park authorities is consistent with that of other planning authorities. Key relevant statistics include the fact that, in 2004–05, all the national park authorities, including the Broads authority, are receiving planning delivery grant from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in recognition of their planning performance. Exmoor is receiving £76,353. Between 1997 and 2001, Exmoor received 1,645 planning applications of which 87 per cent. were granted. An analysis of the applications received from businesses on Exmoor in 2003 shows that of the 82 applications made, eight were withdrawn and only five rejected—an approval rate of 93 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman posed three questions, which he then proceeded to answer himself. Let me offer my answers to his points. First, he asked exactly what exactly was the kookaburra rule. There is no kookaburra rule, nor is there a meerkat rule or a llama rule; rather there are site-specific conditions, as are commonly attached to planning permissions, that address the specific circumstances of a particular site or application.

In 1983, in the case to which I think the hon. Gentleman was referring, a condition was imposed that no exotic animals could be kept. That condition, we believe, grew out of local concerns about allowing a public attraction to open at the site. Certainly, it is consistent with what we understand to have been the view of the planning authority at the time; namely, that the only way such a development could be justified at the location was if it were an educational facility which would relate directly to the national park purpose at that time, of "promoting the … enjoyment" of the park "by the public".

The hon. Gentleman's second question was, "Who approved the kookaburra rule?" As I have explained, there is no kookaburra rule, so no one approved it. However, the exotic animals condition was imposed by the then planning authority in the planning permission given to the centre in 1983. The line that the planning authority took on exotic animals has since been confirmed on three occasions. The first was in 1994 when, in addressing a request to relax some conditions at the site, the then planning authority confirmed that exotic animals should not be kept there and set a 10-year deadline for their removal.

The second occasion was in 1999 when a planning inspector came to the same conclusion. Most recently, the Exmoor national park authority has again come to the view that exotic animals should not be kept at the site, but they have extended the deadline for their removal to cover the lifetimes of the existing stock.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked how we could stop all this nonsense in future. It is not for me to second-guess the merits of individual decisions taken by local planning authorities, especially when they date back 20 years, and I am also mindful of the need to avoid any comment that might prejudice a future decision of the park authority or a legal challenge. However, in respect of the whole process, it seems to me important that we have a planning system which, within an appropriate national framework, balances the interests of applicants and objectors and allows for local concerns to be reflected in local decisions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that principle.

The hon. Gentleman touched on how an exotic species is defined, and posed the tantalising question, on which I do not offer a view, of whether a Scotsman on Exmoor might be thought exotic. As for animals and birds, it is self-evidently for the Exmoor national park authority, as the guardian of that planning condition, to specify its definition of exotic that is uses for that purpose. In practice, I understand that the species reported to the planning committee were a llama, two kookaburras, a group of mara, and a group of meerkats with their offspring, and that there have been other species in the past. For example, in the report of 1999, the planning inspector also recorded two pairs of wallabies and a pair of rhea.

One of the hon. Gentleman's conclusions seems to be that the Exmoor national park authority needs more local members. Perhaps it would be helpful if I sketched out briefly how national park authorities are appointed. Their members are drawn from three separate sources to give an appropriate mix of interest and expertise. The largest group consists of the councillors appointed by county, district or unitary authorities in the national park. The smallest group consists of the councillors, or chairmen of parish meetings, chosen by those parish councils with land in the park.

The third group consists of those members chosen by the Secretary of State. They are selected in full conformity with the Nolan principles, and in making their choices, Ministers try to augment or complement the range of knowledge, skills and expertise that is provided by councillor members. In many cases, the members chosen by the Secretary of State will have a local connection—indeed, that is a desirable trait—but they are primarily chosen to broaden the mix, not simply to replicate the local knowledge that is already strongly represented. In practice, five of the seven serving members on the Exmoor national park authority who were selected by the Secretary of State are based in either Somerset or Devon.

It is indeed true that the 2002 review of the English national park authorities recommended a rebalancing of the authorities so that Exmoor would in future have 10 seats for county or district councils, rather than 14 at present; five seats for parish councils, the same as at present; and 10 seats for the Secretary of State's choices, as opposed to seven at present, making a total of 25, as opposed to 26 at present. However, that is a proposal for the future and would require primary legislation. The only change that we would like in the short to medium term is a reduction in the overall membership proportionately to 22, and we shall consult on that more modest proposal in the coming months.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Six o'clock.