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National Parks in England

Volume 485: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2008

It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this subject and in particular to talk about my local national park.

This short debate could not be more topical. About an hour ago, the elders of Exmoor national park began a public meeting at their headquarters in Dulverton, just outside my constituency. They summoned the locals—I use that word deliberately—to hear a momentous decision. I suspect it was like a deferential scene from a Thomas Hardy novel with the toffs in charge and the madding crowd just waiting for the word from the room. Perhaps there was a waft of white smoke—I do not know.

The elders of Exmoor have generously changed their minds and turned one of their own ridiculous policies upside down in the face of enormous and immense public anger. A panel has been set up to sort out the situation with the property in question for the long term, as the Minister and I have discussed. I hope that that will benefit not only local people, but the wider population. It is lunchtime and I suspect that the whole moor will be talking about this matter. There is no such thing as a secret on Exmoor. I suspect that the elders are working up quite an appetite. They should be ordering large helpings of that rare local delicacy known as humble pie.

The park authority that—to put it crudely—governs Exmoor is reversing a decision to demolish an ordinary-looking bungalow and the barn that sits next door to it. This homestead, commonly known as Blackpitts, has become the recruiting and rallying ground for the park’s opponents. The decision to try to buy the house to knock it down turned not just a few, but hundreds, of ordinary and decent Exmoor folk into revolutionaries. They call themselves Exmoor Uprising. A few weeks ago, I presented a petition to the House containing just over 2,000 names. That is over 50 per cent. of the population of my side of the moor. Only 1 per cent. of those people came from outside that area. That indicates the strength of feeling among local people.

Why on earth should people sign up to defend a bungalow? Blackpitts is not special and I do not think that it ever has been. It was built a few decades ago as an ordinary working farmer’s cottage. Interestingly, the tin-clad barn is the last surviving herding house for shepherds from the great reclamation of Exmoor in the early 19th century. That little bit of history is thrown in at no extra cost. There is no mains water or electricity. The bungalow is pretty basic and not very pretty, but so what? It remains a genuine example of how life has always been on that beautiful but often bleak landscape. Without saying anything, Blackpitts tells us a truth: it is no picnic for farmers, it never was and it never will be.

I am embarrassed to say that the elders of Exmoor national park take a loftier view. They are not, by and large, ruddy-faced folk who get their hands dirty. I will quote from the park authority’s document with the great title, the official “Exmoor Landscape Character Assessment”. They want to preserve the

“Open Moorland and a strong sense of tranquility”.

It states that there are some areas

“where the only view is one of Moorland expanse; stretching out as far as the eye can see. These areas are the most remote—some of the few remaining places on Exmoor where a sense of wildness and solitude can truly be experienced.”

That, in a nutshell, was the problem with Blackpitts bungalow. It did not look wild enough. It was too much like a real house and it spoiled the solitude. Whoever wrote the “Exmoor Landscape Character Assessment” was more concerned with solitude than with somewhere for local people to live.

When Blackpitts bungalow finally came on the market, Exmoor national park dipped its hands into our pockets as taxpayers and signed a cheque for £235,000. It claimed that the bungalow was bought to stop creeping urbanisation. That is a bit hard to swallow given that Blackpitts is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest house is about five miles away. The authority was also on a promise from a charitable trust of £100,000 in its bank account if the bungalow was knocked down. Unfortunately, that was seen as a bribe by local people and was described as such in the West Somerset Free Press. I believe that the timing was bad, rather than anything untoward having taken place.

In the politically correct spirit of open government, the authority issued a consultation document suggesting all sorts of things that might be done with the place. However, it was pretty obvious that it wanted to flatten the property to re-wild the moor. On 2 September this year, by the narrowest margin, the elders got their way and won. The six Secretary of State-appointed members who have no knowledge of the moor and no background on the moor swung the decision.

Ever since then, re-wilding has become very popular on Exmoor because Exmoor itself has gone wild. The Revolting Exmoor Peasant Party was formed to save Blackpitts. The members chose a provocative name and I do not blame them. The name has now been changed to Exmoor Uprising. Their anger came from the heart. They felt that they were being treated like ignorant peasants by a remote park authority that cared only about a picture-book Exmoor and not about its people. They felt ignored and resentful. They live on the moor, they understand it and they love it. They also know it is not, and can never be, a museum. Part of the appeal of Exmoor is that some of the areas are rough. If the authority ever forgets that fact, it is in danger of presiding over a sterile, lifeless heritage site.

Exmoor Uprising had a point and it still has. Today that was proven. The national park authority has rightly done a massive U-turn and agreed to rent out and ultimately sell Blackpitts and not demolish it. That is for the benefit of local people. Surely the most important thing that any Government would want a national park authority to do is to represent and not resent the people within its borders.

I would like to say, “Hip, hip”, but I am afraid that it is too early to say “hooray!” There is a fundamental problem with the make-up of all national park authorities—even the best of them. Exmoor is not the worst, but it is certainly not the best. Not a single member of any national park is elected. The Government appoint people; half a dozen in the case of Exmoor. Some of them are well-meaning, but they include people from Oxford, Bristol, Swindon, Warwickshire, Exminster and Torquay. Presumably they enjoy the long car journeys to attend meetings. There is no accountability, no local interest and little or no local understanding. The democratic and geographical disadvantages of this system ought to be obvious.

National parks are responsible for planning decisions within their boundaries. That point causes problems because disgruntled locals cannot get their own back at the ballot box as there is nobody to vote for or kick out. Perhaps that matters less with big national parks. The bigger the park, the greater the chance that a few genuine locals will be picked to run things. Exmoor is a tiddler with a small population. Our authority is overwhelmed with bodies from everywhere except the moor that it is supposed to represent.

That simple fact is another cause of bitter discontent. Exmoor folk do not like being told what they can do by those whom they consider outsiders—I suspect that that is the norm throughout the national parks—and boy, does the national park tell people what to do, or rather what not to do. One reason why the population there is so small is that it is almost impossible to build new houses. The high-minded souls at the park’s planning department have developed an enviable reputation as a team that says no all the time, except to saving Cutcombe market on Exmoor, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), as a spokesman on agriculture, will be aware. It is right to save the market, but to do so, private housing must be built, breaking policies and smashing ideals to pay lip service to the rest of Exmoor. That cannot be right.

However, that is only following the high-minded ideals of the authority, which is chaired by a Liberal Democrat county councillor from far-away Crewkerne, on the other side of Somerset, who answers to the name of John Dyke. He is an ex-MAFF man, as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs used to be known. It has been suggested to me by unhappy moorlanders that a firm finger in that particular Dyke would not come amiss. Given that only about half the work force lives in the park, it makes one wonder what intent and aspirations the authority has to help the people of the park.

The problem is that Exmoor national park has what Rumpole of the Bailey would call considerable form. Memories are long in that part of England. Few will forget the park’s ill-conceived plan for a £2 million visitor centre. The authority wanted to stick it—I am not joking—in a massive bunker on the high coast road between Porlock and Lynton, a place way out of the reach of tourists where buses can hardly go due to the steepness of the hills. I am glad to say that common sense prevailed again because of the people of Exmoor, although not for long.

I must also bring attention to the situation of the kookaburras. Exmoor national park discovered that one of my constituents had a pair of those antipodean pets. Kookaburras, it was decided firmly, were not indigenous to Exmoor, so they were ordered to go. Again, common sense prevailed. The park saw sense and said, “No, we can let them stay.”

Another example is much more dangerous. A mire reclamation project has been undertaken recently to block a load of the mires—not far from Blackpitts, funnily enough—in order to turn them back into bog land, encouraging wildlife to increase and allowing people to see the bog as it should be, and possibly to sink in it. The problem is that locals remember why the mires were put there. They were put there after the Lynton disaster in the ’50s, when Lynton was swept away into Lynmouth. Those mires are now being blocked up. I do not ask the Minister to reply straight away on that, as more research is needed.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who is making a powerful speech in defence of his constituents. If I understood him correctly, he is saying that if the bogs are allowed to develop, there will be a risk of landslip. We saw in Boscastle the terrible tragedy that that can cause. Is he saying that that is likely to happen? If so, what sort of risk assessment has been done or ought to be done?

My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently on that situation many times in the House. We have discussed at great length how moors and uplands should be run. I thank him for his support. He is absolutely right. I know that he is concerned that the Environment Agency and bodies such as the national park should take seriously their responsibilities in that area. Boscastle is the most recent example of such a disaster; thank God nobody was killed.

The plan could unfortunately be the making of a new problem. Blocking the mires and holding back water was what caused things to go wrong in the first place in the ’50s. The water built up behind dams and came as a rush, and the whole centre of Lynmouth, which lies in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), went. I would like the Government to consider that carefully. I am happy to be proved wrong, but I would be frightened to be proved right. It should be considered.

In one sense, I sympathise with the authority, which has not been at it long. Exmoor was declared a national park about 55 years ago, but day-to-day control was handed to the authority only in 1997. However, it has yet to develop the courage and common sense to break free and think outside its own box. It seems shackled by the remit to preserve the pretty bits of Exmoor, but will not help the people of Exmoor. The trouble is that there is so much more to a vibrant economy than imposing rigid planning controls and revamping wildlife at any cost.

The truth about Exmoor is that it desperately needs tourism. It is our biggest industry by miles. Exmoor national park has failed dismally to understand how the wheels of local commerce turn. No industry can thrive without people to work in it, and local people have been victims of the authority’s well-meaning but misguided, almost godlike green evangelism. There are too few affordable homes and no real policy to build any at a sufficient rate. I am told that 450 people need homes, but that by the time a home is built for the 450th person, they will be dead. It is not working. There are also far too many busybody Exmoor interferences in legitimate plans for the mainstream tourist industry. It is so much easier to say no.

Exmoor national park authority costs taxpayers a little more than £4 million a year. Most of that money comes from central Government. A trickle filters through from the county council and district councils, but all that cash starts here in Whitehall and depends on the Minister’s Department. For that reason, I ask him to take a long, hard look at how his money—our money—is being spent.

It would not be unreasonable for the Government to consider withdrawing some of the national park boundaries in Exmoor. The two biggest places are Dulverton and Porlock. Will the Minister consider dropping those two outside the national park for a time? That would allow a democratically elected planning authority to consider social housing requirements, and would mean that the planning issues that matter to people could be discussed on a much broader front through an accountable body, West Somerset district council, which is under no overall political control.

Exmoor national park is treated with great suspicion by many, and that suspicion is slowly but surely turning into open contempt. Will the Minister give the people of Exmoor the will to survive, live and work on the moor without having to look over their shoulder at every stage of their life for a Big Brother that will say no because that is the easier way to do it and how the national park has conditioned itself to work?

I am pleased to respond to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing this important debate. It could not be more timely, as he said. He began by mentioning the novels of Thomas Hardy. At some point, we will probably exchange notes. My favourite is “The Return of the Native”, but this Chamber, far from the madding crowd, is an appropriate place to put concerns and issues on record, as well as some good news.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the fact that national parks across the country, whether in Exmoor or elsewhere, are living, working environments. That is absolutely right, and although national parks’ core principles include balancing the natural environment with working people, the focus should always be on the people who live and work there as well.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about economic importance. To turn away from Exmoor for a moment, a study commissioned by my Department in 2006 considered the economic impact of national parks in Yorkshire and Humber. It concluded that national parks make a significant economic contribution, with visitor spending of more than £400 million within the parks and a further £260 million elsewhere in the region. Fascinatingly, more than half the parks’ businesses felt that national park designation had a positive impact. We have no reason to assume that it would be different elsewhere. [Interruption.] Indeed. That situation is certainly true of national parks abroad.

I would like to make a couple of introductory remarks before I turn to the grit of this debate. I know that the hon. Gentleman shares with us the view that national parks play a key role in the delivery of the Government’s objectives, not least on issues such as landscape protection, climate change, recreation and public health. It is important that the park authorities, through their engagement with local authorities, regional development agencies and the Government office network, also do their bit to contribute to the local economy.

The report by the Campaign for National Parks in 2006, which I know the hon. Gentleman is aware of, found that the economic benefits that we have talked about came not just from the parks’ environmental quality but also from the parks’ designation, which attracts visitors and also businesses, helping those businesses to prosper. Next year, of course, we will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the enabling legislation, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

In passing, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the national parks is set to increase to £47.6 million next year, which is part of a rise of more than 70 per cent. in funding since 2001. The hon. Gentleman made the comment that we need to ensure that that money is being well utilised, and so on; he is absolutely right to do so. What also may be of interest to him is that the amount of grant aid paid to Exmoor national park authority will increase in 2009-10 to £3.96 million.

I will now turn to the grit of this debate, which is the very timely issue of Blackpitts. I certainly pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way that he has quite assiduously represented his constituents. In his own contribution, he paid tribute not to his own role but to that of the Exmoor “revolutionaries”, and that was right and proper. Their voice has been heard today by what he described as the “elders”, a subject that I will come to in a moment. I met with many of the “uplanders” from Exmoor quite recently at an event on the terrace here and it was very good to discuss with them a range of issues that affected them. I also have to say that I was impressed by their commitment to the place that they live and work in. As someone who is from upland valleys myself, what I always find in those areas is that there is a real attachment to the community and the place, which is a little bit like the Thomas Hardy-esque world that the hon. Gentleman referred to, except that it has moved on. It is a living, working environment and it is not all bleak and dire, much as I love walking on the higher hills of such valleys. We want to see those areas being dynamic and lively places.

I will now turn to the specific issue of Blackpitts.

I thank the Minister. I am really pleased that he has just announced that the increase for grant funding to Exmoor will go up to the level that he mentioned. That good news will be gratefully received on Exmoor and I thank the Government and the Minister for it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. It is certainly important that that increase in funding be well used.

As I said, I will turn to the issue of Blackpitts. As the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned, the national park authority acted within its powers in acquiring the property. It then looked at five different options and rightly decided to explore further those options, including the provision of alternative housing and demolition. The results of that further work were reported to the authority this morning and, in the light of that further work and the change in the economic climate, the authority has decided to adopt the option of retaining the building and offering it out to a tenant.

I will not comment any further on that decision except to say that, perhaps in response to “people power”, the “elders” whom the hon. Gentleman referred to have listened and responded in a good way. If I was the hon. Gentleman, I would be tempted to stand here and say, “We told you so”, but he is being far more gracious than that. Nevertheless, I think that many of his constituents and those who petitioned this place will certainly reflect that they were right all along. The decision is certainly an indication that, albeit with due people pressure being applied, the right result for local people can be delivered.

I will turn to the related matter of the accountability of a national park authority. I will begin by addressing the issue of direct elections, which is of interest to the hon. Gentleman. DEFRA has consulted on the principle of including some directly elected members on national park authorities and on the Broads authority. Anyone was free to submit views and a lot of views were submitted on this issue of including directly elected members. The consultation closed on 28 November. We are now evaluating the responses that we received—about 200 in total—and we expect to announce a decision on that issue some time in the new year. Undertaking that consultation does not imply that the Government are either for or against direct elections. It was simply the case that we thought—I think that the hon. Gentleman also reflected this view in his comments today—that it was timely to reassess whether or not our existing system remains the best approach. I am sure that we will return to that issue in the new year.

Another issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was affordable housing. Certainly the Government share the aspiration that everyone should have the opportunity of a decent home at a price that they can afford, in a place that they want to live and work in, and that goes for rural areas too. Affordable housing is an issue that we have at the top of our political agenda. The Prime Minister made a clear statement:

“Putting affordable housing within the reach of not just the few but the many is vital both to meeting individual aspirations and to securing a better future for our country”.—[Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1449.]

The hon. Gentleman will know that the causes and experience of a lack of affordable housing are similar in both urban and rural areas, but the solutions for rural communities must be tailored to take account of such factors as protection of landscape and the natural environment, and what are often higher unit costs of development, through reduced opportunities for economies of scale in rural areas, which is different from the situation in urban environments or on a large brownfield site. Furthermore, there must be building design in rural areas that complements the environmental qualities of the countryside, because we would not want to sacrifice what we feel is good about the rural areas that we live in.

I do not disagree with any of that. The problem is quite simple, that the pressure on local schools, shops, pubs and services in Exmoor is now acute because the population is getting older and older, local people cannot afford to buy and there is no chance of local houses being built. I think that the Exmoor national park authority built 15 houses last year; it will never be able to build enough houses to deal with this problem. Unless the Government can give some form of push on this issue, I do not see any other way of getting round the problem.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes on behalf of his constituents. However, it would not be for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to intervene directly in this matter. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that we must ensure that there is an adequate quantity of affordable housing, in rural areas generally and within national parks particularly, whether that housing is rented or for purchase. Somehow or other, we must work through the planning mechanisms to ensure that that housing is available, because people want to live and work in the communities where they have been brought up and where they see their future. However, there is no doubt that it is more difficult to provide that affordable housing in an environment that is of particular environmental value. None the less, those issues must be worked through and it is right that they are worked through within the national park authority plan and that representations are made in order to deliver that plan.

I want to return to the issue of local democracy. It may be helpful if I just spell out a little bit how the members of the national park authorities are currently appointed. They are drawn from three separate sources to give an appropriate mix of expertise and interest. The largest group of members is the councillors who are appointed by county, district or unitary authorities. The smallest group is the councillors or the chairmen of parish meetings, who are chosen by those parish councils with land in the park. The third group consists of those members chosen by the Secretary of State, in line with the principles of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. In making those choices, we try to complement the range of knowledge, skills and expertise that already exists, which is provided by councillor members.

In many cases, the members chosen by the Secretary of State will not have a local connection. They are primarily chosen to broaden the mix of members and not simply to replicate local knowledge or other knowledge that already exists within the membership. In the case of Exmoor, the membership consists of 12 county or district members, four members from parish councils and six Secretary of State appointees.

I want to turn briefly to the mires project. If necessary and appropriate, I will happily write on that subject to the hon. Gentleman. However, it might be worth saying that we currently believe that the rewetting of the bog helps to smooth out the flow of water; in other words, it makes floods less likely. I know that South West Water is involved in the project. However, as I say, I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with some detail on that issue.