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National Parks

Volume 826: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what support they will provide for the continuing preservation and maintenance of national parks, and in consideration of their role in fighting climate change.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The Government’s response to the Landscapes Review was accompanied by a public consultation. We will publish a response to the consultation shortly, setting out plans to support national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, including helping them deliver climate mitigation and adaptation. Our Farming in Protected Landscapes programme is a key delivery mechanism and provides funding for farmers and land managers to work in partnership with protected landscapes teams to deliver projects on climate, nature, people and place.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that national parks are flagship assets in the fight against climate change, but that that fight has been made much harder through cuts to funding of 40% in real terms in the last 10 years? Does he believe that the national park authorities and the AONBs together require fresh powers, as the Glover review recommended, and new funding in order to effect nature recovery and, crucially, increase biodiversity, and that farmers too need to be a properly effective ally in that fundamentally important ambition?

I entirely agree with the noble Earl about the value that our protected landscapes bring to our policies, not only on climate mitigation but on reversing the tragic decline in species. We have increased spending on areas of outstanding natural beauty by 15% this year. I concede that inflationary pressures are challenging for all protected landscapes but I urge him to look at the other areas of funding that we are providing. As I mentioned earlier, the Farming in Protected Landscapes programme has 1,800 projects, benefiting climate and nature right across our protected landscapes. Large amounts of our £750 million Nature for Climate Fund will be spent in our protected landscapes, because that is where 60% of our peat is and where 50% of our SSSIs are. That is where the focus of that fund will go. In addition to that, we have private and blended finance that national parks are very well able to get.

Does my noble friend accept that one of the difficulties at the moment is that the “have regard” clause is weakening the potential input that national parks might face? Could that be amended through the process of the levelling up Bill? What steps have the Government taken to lever more private funding to ensure that there are greater powers for water companies, for example, to fund nature-based solutions in future?

We hugely admire Julian Glover’s report and have already implemented large portions of its measures. One of those centres on governance, and that is where it will fit into our green finance strategy, which is about to be refreshed in March to bring in all the different players, and different parts of government, to make sure that we are responding to the huge potential that lies in ESG money and other offsets that can benefit our landscapes. These are the most treasured landscapes in these islands, and we want to make sure that they are getting the lion’s share of this kind of finance.

My Lords, I congratulate Defra on the Farming in Protected Landscapes scheme, which has worked extremely well. But the fact is that biodiversity in AONBs and national parks is no better than in the rest of the UK as an average, which is extremely poor compared with international examples. What is Defra going to do to improve the situation beyond that scheme to ensure that there really is a difference? Surely these days our protected areas should be better on biodiversity than the rest of the country.

Our ambition is to reverse any decline in species. We have policies that will see, across the country, an end to the decline of species by 2030 and an uptick in the populations that we see across our islands. On the particular point, we want to see 35,000 hectares of peat restored by 2025 and 280,000 hectares by 2050. AONBs and national parks will be fundamental to that, because they are where most of it lies.

My Lords, I declare an interest on national parks as in the register. Returning to the 40% cut in real terms that national parks have received over the last decade—at a time, I should say, when they have never been more popular or had more demand on their services—the Minister has talked about other funds that are going into the national parks, but does he accept that that is not core funding and is going to other organisations in the parks? It is the national parks themselves—the rangers, the services and the visitor centres—that are core to providing a good visitor experience and encouraging more people to go into the parks. Does he accept that we should be more ambitious about the role that national parks can play? If we are to do that then they will need more core funding, not the supplementary funding that the Minister is talking about.

I think national parks are very good at getting that money in, whether from the private sector or blended finance. There is a very good arrangement with Palladium called Revere, which sees some money going into supporting, for example, core personnel in national parks to do projects right across those parks. All areas of government have challenges at the moment, particularly in the light of inflationary pressures. The national parks have proved themselves very resilient. I want to make sure that we can find more for money for them in the future. That is a key part of our decisions into the next spending round.

My Lords, some of our national parks believe that they could better address climate and nature emergencies if they were added to the list of authorities which have a general power of competence under the Localism Act 2011. Can the Minister tell us whether His Majesty’s Government have any plans to bring that about?

I might have to write to the right reverend Prelate on that. As we look as implementing the recommendations of the Landscapes Review, and through the biodiversity duty that we are imposing on public bodies through the Environment Act, I think we will address that. I hope we are seeing the determination of this Government to tackle issues which simply did not exist when national parks were created 70 years ago. Climate change was not talked about then and biodiversity was stable or rising; those emergencies need to be reflected in the policies they take forward.

My Lords, national parks across the country are losing thousands of trees because of disease. In the Lake District, Forestry England is cutting down large trees in the Ennerdale valley and Whinlatter, across many hectares of land. What assessment has been made as to the impact on wildlife from this loss of trees, including red squirrel populations, and what plans are in place, including the timescales for replanting with native species?

I cannot give the noble Baroness an accurate assessment of what impact tree disease has had, or indeed Storm Arwen in Northumberland, which saw probably millions of trees blown down. Undoubtedly, that has an effect on wildlife, but wildlife can benefit from different ages of woodland being in a landscape. I hope the replanting schemes that are happening, whether because of disease such as ash die- back or events such as Storm Arwen, will see those areas planted as quickly as possible. It is not the national park doing that; it is the landowners and land managers within those areas, and Forestry England will be assisting them and giving grants for that to happen.

The Landscapes Review recommended that there should be an upgrade in the current duty to foster economic and social growth in national parks and AONBs. Please can the Minister confirm that the farming and other economic activities going on in those areas are not limited to tourism or sporting and other activities?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that it should not be restricted to what one might term the visitor economy. It is about keeping people living in these landscapes. It is about ensuring that they have the opportunities to conduct businesses of all kinds and that there are skills and opportunities for young people. When we talk about levelling up, I always feel that we should also talk about levelling out, into some of the more remote places, to make sure that the opportunities for families, young people and entrepreneurs exist in those landscapes as well.

My Lords, with climate change being the root cause of flooding of property in towns such as Keswick in the Lake District National Park, instead of imposing flooding remediation costs on property owners, why not amend the law by placing legal responsibility on companies such as United Utilities to more effectively manage their water assets, and for them to community block insure against the risk of flooding damage to residential, commercial and community assets in areas designated at risk from their companies’ operations? Flood Re is inadequate.

As the Minister who brought Flood Re into being, I think it has been an enormous success. I do not know the exact circumstances that the noble Lord is referring to in that part of the world, but there are a number of levers on United Utilities to make sure that it is fulfilling more than just its statutory duty to provide clean water and get rid of sewage. I will look into the matter and, if necessary, write to the noble Lord.