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National Parks (Grants)

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 19 May 1954

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10.31 p.m.

I beg to move.

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the National Parks and Access to the Countryside (Grants) Regulations, 1954 (S.I., 1954. No. 415), dated 30th March, 1954, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31st March, be annulled.
It is a peculiarity of the procedure of this House that if an hon. Member desires to draw attention to a valuable set of Regulations, or to secure some elucidation of them, the only way for him to do so is to move that they be annulled. He will know that, as in this case, the desire of hon. Members is that the Regulations shall be approved provided that we can secure, as I am sure that we shall, some elucidation from the Parliamentary Secretary about them.

The Parliamentary Secretary will agree that all who are concerned about the establishment of National Parks in this country, and who have taken part in the process for their establishment, are anxious because the county councils and other local authorities have not shown any great approval of the proposals of the National Parks Commission. I am glad to say that there are some exceptions, notably in my own county of Northumberland, where a desirable and commendable attitude has been shown, and where it is maintained that the proposals are not sufficiently extensive. That is an attitude that I am sure we all welcome.

But there are many authorities, particularly in the South of England, which are opposed to the proposals of the Commission. I regret to say that in some cases they have succeeded in limiting the development of the idea of National Parks. I am sure that one of the reasons for the opposition is because some local authorities fear the financial burdens which may be placed on them because of operations under the National Parks Act or the Town and Country Planning Act. We therefore welcome the introduction of Statutory Instruments of this nature, which tend to make clearer the financial provision which the Government are prepared to make available under the Acts to local authorities for the development of suitable works in National Park areas. I am one who hopes that this wider knowledge may encourage some local authorities to take a different view.

I am hoping that the Parliamentary Secretary will confirm that, broadly speaking, the effect of these Instruments, which I think he will agree is complex, is that where compensation payments have to be made to owners by local authorities in a National Park area in connection with the acquisition of land or loss of value of land, because of general access, or some other provision of that nature, such expenditure will rank for grant, provided it does not exceed the sum settled by the district valuer. That is the interpretation of paragraph 3 of the Regulations.

Paragraph 5 lays down a fairly lengthy list of different types of expenditure which will be approved generally by the Minister as ranking for grant. It includes expenditure such as that on providing accommodation as there will be in some National Park areas. For example, I understand that in the Peak District it is hoped to provide some extra accommodation which is needed, and this will be done in co-operation with the Youth Hostels Association. Such expenditure will be met, in part, out of Government grant.

Expenditure will be needed on the removal of derelict buildings and eyesores of one sort or another. That will rank for grant. So, in suitable cases, will the appointment of wardens. In the Peak District National Park also, I understand, some wardens have already been appointed for the purpose of assisting in the proper preservation of the area and in helping to provide for the protection of the land of farmers which, it has been rightly feared, might suffer damage. That type of expenditure will also be brought within the ambit of these Regulations; that is, I think it will be grant aided.

There is now one point about which I would ask; it is a point of which I have already given notice, and it is one which has already been raised in practice in some of the National Park areas. Is there any way in which the extra expenditure for the provision of underground electric cables can be met? Can that additional expenditure be met, or is it true, as I fear it may be, that that extra expenditure, if it has to be met at all, will have to come from the local authority concerned? That, I think all hon. Members would agree, would be most unfortunate, because there are some areas of the country, particularly in the Lake District, where we are anxious to see farmers and others enjoying the full benefits of electricity while, at the same time, we are also most anxious not to spoil the natural beauty of the areas.

In some of the areas it would be a great disaster if we had great electric pylons marching over the mountains. We want to avoid such a thing happening if we possibly can, and yet the extra expenditure on underground cables is particularly heavy; and local authorities may ask if it is fair that they should have to bear the whole of this additional cost for what, after all, is a National Park, and which is preserved not only in the interests of the people living in the area, but in the interests of the country as a whole. If this kind of expenditure is not grant aided, then could I ask if the Parliamentary Secretary would consider again the possibility of making available to the National Parks Commission a small sum of money out of which some of this sort of extra expenditure could be met.

This is one of the difficulties which arise in feeling the way in respect of the proper functions of the National Parks at the present time. Many of us have felt for some time that if the National Parks Commission could be enabled to use, for example, some of the funds which are available in the National Land Fund, of which some use is being made in other directions already, we should be very happy. I recognise that this matter is a little outside the ambit of the Regulations, and I am merely asking the Parliamentary Secretary to take it into account.

I assume from the provisions of the Regulations that the rate of grant will normally be 75 per cent, of the expenditure of the local authority on the specified items, but that in the special case of canals and waterways—I imagine that lakes might be included—certain expenditure can be approved up to the full 100 per cent., if the Minister so decides.

While the Government are, in this respect, fully carrying out the provisions of the Act, I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary that in some areas, such as in Merioneth and elsewhere in Wales, which have a very small capacity for raising finance, the remaining 25 per cent., in the case of the normal grant, may still represent a considerable burden. I am anxious that the Minister should examine other means of meeting the special cases which I fear will arise from time to time.

I move the Prayer, not with the intention of securing the annulment of the Regulations, but with the desire to have their valuable provisions expanded so that they will be more widely accepted by local authorities. The debate also gives the Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity to deal with one or two of the matters which I have raised in the hope that the National Parks Commission and the local authorities shall be given every encouragement to further the work which it is desired shall be done.

10.43 p.m.

I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary is here to reply to the debate. We regret that on most subjects he has unfortunate opinions, but we all appreciate his very progressive and helpful attitude towards this subject, and all who are interested in the National Parks appreciate the work that he is doing.

In so far as the Parliamentary Secretary cannot comfort my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) because of the provisions of the Act, I hope he will seek occasion to improve them. The Order makes use of the powers under Section 97 of the Act. When the Measure was discussed in the House there was criticism on this very point from both sides of the House. Hon. Members who were then on the Government benches felt that the provisions did not go far enough, and that many authorities would be prevented from doing what was required in respect of the National Parks, and many hon. Members opposite who were then on the Opposition benches believed that greater use would have to be made of the National Land Fund.

After all, the National Parks are a compromise. In a very real sense they are a national responsibility. There is the national element of the recreational facilities which they provide; the other element is the local authority element, and the Regulations deal with that balance. Many of us feel that, unfortunately, the Government cannot go far enough. We ask the Government to go as far as possible in making the best use of these Regulations.

I am aware that Mr. Arthur Dower, the National Chairman of the Youth Hostels Association, has recently written to the right hon. Gentleman and stressed again the importance of finance. He said:
"It is no exaggeration to say that no country in the world except us would be so illogical as to set up what it called ' National Parks' and then expect them to be financed primarily from the local rates and only secondarily and conditionally from national funds."
We are an illogical people. We tackle our problems empirically and then build upon foundations which are perhaps not so theoretically right as those of other countries; but in the end we probably get further. Having committed ourselves, I hope that we shall do all we can to go ahead and give the local authorities every possible help.

10.47 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Mr. Ernest Marples)

I am grateful, and a little astonished, that the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) should say that I am in any respect progressive. It is very nice to know that Members of the Opposition think that.

The House will have been grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) for moving the annulment of these Regulations, although he really wants the Statutory Instrument to go through. It gives me an opportunity of explaining and publicising the provisions of the Regulations. He has covered the ground himself adequately in a lucid and friendly way. I should not like to be drawn into a comparison between the relative enthusiasms of local authorities for National Parks. I should not, for example, like to compare Northumberland with Cumberland. Other people have done that, with disastrous results to their heads, in the Middle Ages.

I have a word of praise for all local authorities who support National Parks.

I hope that this debate will enable local authorities to have a wider knowledge of the financial provisions of these Regulations, which give effect to the grant provisions contained in Section 97 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949. There is an Explanatory Memorandum which hon. Members can obtain, and which sets out the detailed arrangements.

The purpose of the Regulations is to provide grants for the erection of buildings, for carrying out works for the provision in the area and in the neighbourhood of National Parks of accommodation, refreshments, camping sites and parking-places; for carrying out works for the improvement of waterways for the purpose of recreation; for the discontinuance or modification of uses of land and the alteration or removal of buildings in National Parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty; for the planting of trees, and the treatment of derelict land; for the provision of public access to open country in National Parks; for the acquisition of land for all these purposes and for the employment of wardens. The rate of grant is 75 per cent, for approved expenditure, except expenditure upon improvement of waterways, when it may be higher, up to 100 per cent.

These Regulations are simpler than was expected at one time and as generous as they possibly could be in the framework of the Act on the Statute Book. My right hon. Friend could not have made them more generous had he tried, because they get a flat rate of grant of 75 per cent, for all National Park authorities in respect of expenditure for which the Act provides that rate, that is, 75 per cent cent., as a maximum. So they get the maximum rate. That is instead of a rate of grant varying from 75 per cent, to 30 per cent, according to the financial position of the local authorities concerned. Therefore, to that extent my right hon. Friend has gone as far as he can under the terms of the Act.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East mentioned some special cases, and I am grateful to him for giving me notice of these cases. The first question was: would the extra cost of putting electric cables underground be grant-aided? Secondly, would expenditure on providing improved accommodation qualify for grant? Thirdly, I think, was the question: would there be grants for meeting compensation in removing eyesores?

As regards the first of these cases, there is no power in the Act to enable payments to be made from the Exchequer to regional electricity boards towards the extra cost of putting new electric cables underground. The boards can, and do in practice, pay attention to amenities, both in siting overhead lines, and, on occasion, in burying them in important places. Experience shows that much can be done in this regard by discussion between local planning authorities and the electricity boards. Planning control provides a means by which outstanding disputes can be brought, if necessary, before the Minister. I think the hon. Gentleman's remarks were slightly outside the Regulations, but I should like to see whether anything could be done, because, as the hon. Member for Sunder-land, North knows, I have this at heart just as much as the Opposition.

As regards the second point of whether expenditure on providing improved accommodation would qualify for grant, the answer is "Yes," under paragraph 5 (1, a) of the Regulations.

The third question is whether there would be grants-in-aid for meeting compensation for removing eyesores. The answer again is "Yes," under paragraph 5 (1, c) of the Regulations. It means that we have gone as far as we can under the existing Statute to meet the National Parks. It is rather important because we recognise the special position that National Parks have in the life of this country.

We have made the grant 75 per cent, and in exceptional cases relating to waterways, such as the Broads, where the salted and weed-choked waterways have to be reopened, we have provided for a grant which may rise to 100 per cent. This system recognises the need in these areas, and the national benefit which results, and I think we have given generous assistance to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the National Parks Act.

I hope, therefore, that with that explanation local authorities will be encouraged to make use of these provisions, that they will read carefully the Regulations and the Explanatory Memorandum, and that we shall be able to make our National Parks as attractive as countries overseas.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, North said that we are an illogical race. It was Disraeli, I think, who said, "This country is not governed by logic, but by Parliament" and I am glad to know that this Parliament will be unanimous in approving these Regulations.

10.55 p.m.

I have no National Park in my constituency, and see no prospect of one, but we shall contribute to the National Parks in the North of England. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would say how much this will cost. My constituents will have to pay for the National Parks wanted by the two hon. Gentlemen from the North who have moved and supported the Prayer.

This National Park is about 200 miles from where they live.

It is all very well, but we are always proposing new expenditure out of the Exchequer, and my hon. Friend has not said one word about what this is likely to cost. My constituents and I should like to know how much it will cost to walk along the Pennine Way from one end to the other. I do not think they are interested in the Pennine Way. It may be a very good idea for the people in the North of England, under the leadership of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) to walk along the Pennine Way, but I think we should have an indication of what this proposal is likely to cost.

My hon. Friend cannot speak again without the leave of the House, but there are not a great many hon. Members here and I dare say they will grant him leave to speak again in order to tell us what this will cost.

By leave of the House, may I tell my hon. Friend that expenditure on the Pennine Way would not come under these Regulations, because they are made under Section 97 of the Act, and expenditure on the Pennine Way would be under Section 98. I should be out of order were I to answer his question, but I do not think it will cost a substantial sum. So far expenditure on grant-attracting services has been very small. No claim for grant had been received before the Regulations were made. A few inquiries whether expenditure would be eligible for grant had been received, but they amounted in the aggregate to very little, probably not more than a few hundred pounds.

I should not like to commit myself without notice of the question, but I should think that £20,000, or perhaps a little more, would be sufficient to provide for the expenditure under these Regulations. That expenditure can provide very much happiness in places of great beauty. The expenditure is small and the attractions will be great. I hope my hon. Friend, who is so rightly assiduous in his campaign for economy, will agree that this is a modest sum in the circumstances.

The benefits provided in these areas, I think we shall all agree, except the hon. Baronet, are benefits that are enjoyed by people throughout the country, and perhaps more especially by those who live in London, where the demand for them has been the greatest. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will bear in mind the possibility of the use of the National Land Fund, and that we may be able to discuss that on some other occasion. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.