My Lords, the Defra grant for the Northumberland National Park Authority this year is £2.9 million. It is for individual parks to decide on their spending priorities. The Northumberland National Park Authority has decided to close this centre as part of a wider review of all its visitor services.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that disappointing reply. Is she aware that this well appointed centre, situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty, provides not only excellent car parking but the only public toilets for miles, a delightful woodland walk and a series of superb displays highlighting the history, geology, flora and fauna of the Cheviot area, displays of great educational value? Will she try to persuade Defra to think again and to try just a little harder to save this invaluable centre?
My Lords, I remind the noble Lord that it was not Defra that made this decision but the Northumberland National Park. It is of course of great regret to us when such closures take place. The park is working very closely with the Ingram village hall and the displays that the noble Lord mentions will in fact be moved there, as I understand it, so that they are still available to people. The park is also offering additional information points in local businesses such as shops, pubs and community centres. There will also be additional services offered by the park rangers. I would point out that on Hadrian’s Wall the park will have the great advantage of a new centre, The Sill, which is getting Heritage Lottery Fund money. It will become a major centre there and the noble Lord may wish to visit it.
My Lords, although there has been a consultation going on about this, and indeed about the centre in Rothbury, for nearly two years, is my noble friend aware that the final decision came as a great shock to many local people? Is she further aware that the Liberal Democrat-run county council has been extremely successful in reinvigorating the tourist information centres? I hope that, like me, she is rather surprised that the national park has not been able to reach a partnership working arrangement with the county council. Can she further tell me whether other national parks have closed visitor centres?
I have no evidence that any other centre in a national park has been closed. I have had a look at the tourist centres across the county. The noble Baroness is quite right that there are a number of other such centres, which are obviously very welcome. One would hope that they would work closely with the national park in this regard. The chair of the authority has not closed the door. He said:
“We are looking very hard at alternative ways of providing an effective visitor information service and have not closed the door to any new suggestions people may … put … to us”.
Therefore, I suggest that the noble Baroness gets in touch with him.
My Lords, I have not been to the visitor centre in question, but is this decision not very strange at a time when we are promoting tourism in this country, when local and public money has been put into the centre over quite a long time and when there are also facilities available from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other similar bodies? I went to a celebration—and indeed gave a speech, as your Lordships will understand—at the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon. That is kept going by the joint activities of local people and Cambridgeshire County Council. Perhaps a second reflection might be appropriate. I hope that the Minister will be in a position to push this forward herself.
I am sure that the authority will be looking very closely at what noble Lords are saying today and seeing what can be done to take this forward. This was a small centre, as I understand it, with two members of staff. The much bigger one is on Hadrian’s Wall. As I say, that is going to be added to and will become a centre of national significance. I am extremely pleased that that has been possible at this time.
Amid the plethora of new planning regulations and the rest, will the Minister assure the House that right across Government in all departments there is a commitment to the national parks because of their vital contribution to the spiritual and physical well-being of our nation, particularly our young people?
The noble Lord is quite right and I invite him to have a look at the website for this park and see exactly what it offers. With regard to the commitment, I point out that the park was given just over £3 million last year and this year it has been given £2.9 million, so that is not a huge reduction in what is going to the park. We are fully committed to supporting the national parks. We know how important they are.
My Lords, having been last week in both the Ingram valley centre and indeed the Rothbury centre, as I often am, I was appalled to think that there will effectively be no human face anywhere in the northern part of the Northumberland National Park. The place at Once Brewed on Hadrian’s Wall is something like 75 miles away and will do nothing to ensure that there will be anyone there to welcome people. Although the amount of money reduced seems small, it disproportionately affects the operations of the park, which is the smallest national park. Will the Government please think of ways of trying to assist the national park in rethinking this decision in order to have a human face somewhere in the northern part of the park to welcome people?
I remind the right reverend Prelate that how the national park decides to spend its resources is not a decision for Defra. I am sure that the national park will be listening. As I say, it is working closely with the Ingram village hall committee to try to ensure that information is available and it is doing a number of other things. I was also incredibly impressed by the number of volunteers who were involved in this park, as with others, and it may well be that some work needs to be done to try to see how that can be brought forward to make sure that there is the kind of coverage that the right reverend Prelate refers to.
The figure was £2.9 million.
I would like to clarify that last year the figure was over £3.1 million, this year it is £2.9 million and next year it will be £2.7 million. I realise that that is a reduction, but it is for the national park to work out how it is going to prioritise things.