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National Parks

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 12 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What arrangements they have in place to ensure that all government departments are committed to advancing the causes and specific purposes of the national parks, especially in the context of defence and planning policies.

My Lords, government departments have a statutory duty to have regard to the purposes of national parks and were reminded of that duty with the publication of Defra’s 2005 guidance note on the subject. As I have already said to the House, Defra will shortly re-send that guidance by way of a reminder. It is more important for government departments to have regard to the status of national parks than a specific responsibility to advance their causes.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I declare an interest as the vice-president of the Council for National Parks and president of the Friends of the Lake District. Does my noble friend agree that the vision and commitment of those who fought for the parks is more relevant than ever in our pressurised and stressed society? Does he further agree that they are literally the lungs and places for the physical and mental regeneration of the population? Is there not a danger that, because of other priorities, there could be a process of erosion and suburbanisation of the parks? Is it not essential that all government departments with any involvement in the parks have at the top of their priorities the preservation of this very special asset?

My Lords, I certainly agree—the whole House will—with the thrust of what my noble friend has said. The national parks are there as lungs for the nation and are vastly used by millions of city dwellers. That does not mean to say that development will not take place in the national parks. That will have to be sustainable and take account of the economic and social circumstances of people living in the parks. But the national parks are not under threat from either the Planning Bill, which the House will receive in due course, or from their use by the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, in some parts of the national parks the land has probably been better looked after from a biodiversity point of view by the MoD than it would have been if it were otherwise.

My Lords, is not climate change one of the main threats to national parks, particularly in relation to biodiversity? What is Defra doing to make sure that there are plans for adaptation of national parks—for example, of the Norfolk Broads, where there is a real threat of inundation by the sea?

My Lords, I do not have a specific answer for that but, if memory serves me right, I do not think the issue of the national parks was ever raised during the passage of the Climate Change Bill. I will see that it is raised in the other place and that we get an answer to it.

My Lords, no doubt the Minister is aware that our designation for national parks gives a very high priority to access and enjoyment and, as such, falls below the highest criteria for conservation considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and into a category that prioritises the preservation of the physical landscape. As the Government are issuing new guidance, as the Minister mentioned, will they consider establishing different criteria for different parks that take into account traditional activities as well as natural criteria?

My Lords, all we are going to do is re-issue the guidance note that was put out in 2005. I promised to do that in a recent debate on areas of outstanding natural beauty and it is important that that is done. National parks each have their own authority and their own planning rules. As I have said, developments are taking place that need to be sustainable and take account of the circumstances, both social and economic, of the individual parks. I agree with the noble Duke that it is not a one-size-fits-all situation but there are no plans for the issue of new rules specific to each national park.

My Lords, I am proud to declare that I am a patron of the Dartmoor search and rescue group, a bunch of volunteers who do outstanding work. I know the Minister comes down to the West Country every now and again, and I am sure he is aware that the Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Ministry of Defence work well together. Does he agree that it is imperative that our troops have a training area conveniently situated, like Dartmoor, so that they can have rigorous and realistic training?

My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble Lord says. He is right. Areas of isolation away from the main population are, almost by definition, in the national parks, particularly areas of Dartmoor. That applies also to the Lake District when it comes to low flying practice. I know people have been irritated by it in the past, but all that irritation stopped during the first Gulf War when they saw how vital it was. There is a disturbance factor but, as I have said, those areas are vital for the training of our troops before they are sent abroad. We have a small island and a large population, so it is right that we use those areas that are isolated. As I have said, the land and the biodiversity are probably better looked after, in some respects, than if the MoD was not using that land. That applies particularly to the Dartmoor area.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a resident of a national park for some considerable time. Does the Minister agree that there is special accountability, in a democratic sense, to local communities? Will he seek to ensure that the majority of members of national park authorities are directly elected from within the communities of those national parks?

My Lords, I have not come with any brief on changing the rules about the national park authorities. I know there may be dissatisfaction from time to time. I do not see national parks as a chocolate-box lid; they have to be vibrant and sustainable communities, otherwise they will decline. The national park that the noble Lord refers to is also one that is used by the military for training, to the great advantage of all concerned.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the president of the Cumbria Tourist Board. Does the Minister agree that at least as important as the policies that pertain to national parks is the manner in which they are applied—in particular, the overriding importance of sensitivity?

My Lords, everyone takes their own view on sensitivity. The park authorities have their responsibilities but, frankly, the sensitivity of the people who live in these areas is equally matched by the millions who visit and spend their time, leisure and finance in those areas. I am not going to put one above the other.

My Lords, perhaps the Minister is also aware that in Scotland rules for national parks have been drawn up that include local residents. Perhaps he could watch how well that works and see whether it has any application.