CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

NATIONAL PARK AUTHORITIES: FUNCTIONALLY SPECIFIC POWERS – 7 December 2015

Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill: New Clause 7

[Dr Julian Lewis rose –

Peter Heaton-Jones rose –

Mr Speaker: Order. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has for some minutes now been poised rather like a sprinter, but he suffers from one disadvantage relative to the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), whose constituency houses Exmoor, namely that the right hon. Gentleman beetled into the Chamber a little after the hon. Gentleman. We will reserve the right hon. Gentleman as a specialist delicacy and reach him in due course.

Peter Heaton-Jones: Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I have never felt disadvantaged by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). ...]

Dr Lewis: I thank you, Mr Speaker, for drawing such attention to the fact that I “beetled” into the Chamber, as you put it, rather late, and I apologise for that. I also apologise for the fact that unfortunately I am going to beetle out of it again rather early, for the same reason that I was late, namely Defence Committee business. I am delighted to have the opportunity of this small window to try to reassure those on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that they will take my reassurances seriously, as I was one of only three Conservative Members to vote against the scheme for privatising the forest estate, which the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) referred to in her remarks. I am not one to accept on trust everything about forests that the Government put forward.

Having said that, the Government deserve a big pat on the back for this measure. It is often said that the Government do not listen, but this is a classic case of their having listened. [Interruption.] I would be grateful if those on the Opposition Front Bench also listened for a moment, because I am directing my speech at them in an attempt to be helpful.

The chair of the New Forest national park authority, Mr Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, is a former official verderer of the New Forest and very highly thought of by all those who live and work in the forest and are concerned with its management and protection. He contacted me some time ago to ask if it would be possible to persuade the Government to include such a provision in the Bill in Committee. Sadly, that stage had just concluded, so it shows extraordinary flexibility and willingness to listen by the Government in general – and by the Under-Secretary in particular – to manage to include the provision.

I fully sympathise with the Opposition spokesmen, because new clause 7 is a lengthy provision, and it is their job to scrutinise measures, whether they are long or short, but particularly if they are long. I should therefore like to try to reassure them about new clause 7 by reading two brief extracts from a document supplied by National Parks England specifically for use in our debate. It says:

“National Parks England (the umbrella body for the NPAs) warmly welcomes the tabling of New Clause 7 by Ministers and hopes that you” –

meaning me –

“will be able to speak in support of it at the Report Stage debate of the Bill on Monday 07 December 2015.”

It then gives a long list of the reasons why it supports the extension of powers, which are similar, it points out, to powers given to many comparable bodies. It ends by referring specifically to the new clause:

“New Clause 7 follows the legislative format established for other public bodies. National Parks England supports this amendment and would encourage MPs to speak in support during the Report Stage debate on the Bill.”

I understand the difficulty in which Opposition spokesmen find themselves, given that a clause of such complexity has been tabled at short notice. I hope that I have been able to reassure them that national parks themselves warmly welcome the clause. I do not think that it is a conspiracy. I have had occasion in the past to point out conspiracies when they crop up, but I do not think that this is an occasion for concern about conspiracies – on the contrary, it is an opportunity to congratulate Ministers, including the Under-Secretary, on listening, being flexible and making a change at, indeed, the 11th hour. That change deserves to be made if we are to show our trust in the judgment of the national park authorities themselves.

[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (James Wharton): I do not intend to comment for long. I merely wish to record my thanks to hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. We began in a contentious place, but we have, I hope, moved towards consensus. I acknowledge the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who has been vociferous in making the case and with whom I have exchanged a significant quantity of correspondence, for bringing this to the Government’s attention and suggesting that it be included in the Bill. The measure is welcomed by national parks and by many hon. and right hon. Members. I hope that it will be welcomed, too, by shadow Ministers and that we can move forward in a more consensual way in the rest of today’s debates. Regardless, I commend the changes to the House. They are welcome and they are important.]