Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has covered these matters in exhaustive, not to say exhausting, detail, so I shall try to be brief. I placed a blocking motion on the Order Paper because, like him, I thought that these issues should be aired. Matters that are important to our constituents should not simply go through the House on the nod.
I feel at best lukewarm about the Bill, partly because of the local government review, which has been mentioned. If restructuring is being considered, which it is—I hope that that does not happen, and I do not believe that it is inevitable—there is a strong argument that we should just wait to see what happens and incorporate the Bill into that. The authority’s composition is obviously going to change at some point, and Parliament will need to return to this issue either through that local government legislation or through other means, such as a specific piece of extra legislation, so there is an argument for waiting until then.
The Committee has done good and thorough work on the Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on that. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on promoting the Bill as he has done. I shall not oppose its Third Reading, and I think that the House should allow it to proceed. However, it is important that we allow the views of those who oppose it to be aired and placed on the record, not least so that if those views, however alarmist or lurid they might seem, should later prove to have been justified, there will be something to refer back to. If necessary, we could revisit the issue with new legislation.
It is worth stressing the point about national parks, because several hon. Members have talked about national parks as though the broads area were one, but it is not—as the hon. Member for North Norfolk correctly pointed out. There is a reason for that, which is clear from looking at the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and Lord Sandford’s review of national parks in the early 1970s. National parks have two basic purposes: conservation of the natural environment and providing the public with access to those areas. If there is a conflict between those aims—or, I should say, if it is not possible by skilful management to reconcile them—conservation should come first. However, the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988 makes it clear that there are three purposes for the authority:
“conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Broads...promoting the enjoyment of the Broads by the public...and protecting the interests of navigation.”
So, from the Act’s inception, it has always been agreed that protecting the interests of navigation was an explicit statutory principle that, because of the Sandford principles, excluded the possibility of the Broads Authority being a national park.
The central fear underlying the concerns that have been expressed to us and to the Committee by petitioners, is that, as a result of the Bill, navigation could be compromised and could end up taking a back seat to conservation and wildlife, when in fact the ever-present need to balance all these factors is precisely why the broads are not a national park.
Dr. Gibson: What is the hon. Gentleman’s view of the strength of the navigation committee to advise and to promote ideas about navigation to the Broads Authority?
Mr. Bacon: The navigation committee has an extremely important role to play, and I fear that the Broads Authority has not exactly covered itself in glory by the way in which it has proposed changes to the committee’s membership. In fact, it is fair to say that the Broads Authority was a little careless, to put it kindly, to have acted in such a way that it now finds that many navigators do not trust it. I know that the authority has gone some way towards allaying the navigators’ concerns. The hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned the Royal Yachting Association, the British Marine Federation and the Inland Waterways Association.
However, the hon. Gentleman did not mention the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association or the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club—and for good reason. Although discussions took place with the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association, it has expressed certain fears since the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire met. I should like to quote one of the petitioners, Mr. Philip Ollier, the executive secretary of the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association. In an e-mail this year, he wrote:
“In September 2007, the Broads Authority Chief Executive brought forward proposals to alter the way appointments are made to the Navigation Committee”.
It is worth noting that that was written in September, after the Committee of the House had considered the Bill. Mr. Ollier goes on to say:
“Previously eight places on the committee were allocated to persons nominated by bodies representing the various navigation interests.”
The charge made is that
“The process will be open to manipulation by the BA Executive and follows similar changes that have been implemented to reduce the representation of navigation interests on the Broads Authority itself. Given the changes to the composition of the Navigation Committee, the assurances obtained in the negotiations about the Bill start to look less reliable.”
A constituent of mine, Mr. Graham Trimmer from Poringland, has expressed his fears in even more colourful terms. Referring to the issue of public safety, he said:
“the Chairman of the Broads Authority appears to suggest...that the Bill is only about public safety. This is a smokescreen, since adequate byelaws were enacted and came into force in April last year, allowing for the enforcement of a comprehensive boat safety scheme.”
I have spoken to some of the people in my constituency who own boats, and some of them have told me that they would not be able to get a licence from the Broads Authority had they not already been through the process of getting a boat safety certificate.
These are examples of people’s concerns about the Bill. I fear that the way in which the authority has conducted itself—even to the extent of supposedly entering into legal agreements with the concerned bodies—has, in the words of the Committee, created a legal ambiguity, and perhaps created more problems than it has solved. When I first heard about the legal agreements that were being entered into, I wondered how it was possible to enter into such an agreement with a third party in relation to a Bill that had not yet been passed. I wondered what possible effect those agreements could have in law, in terms of the subsequent powers of the authority, given that the Bill had not yet been passed. Indeed, the Committee appears to agree about that. Paragraph 9 of its report to the House states:
“It is our view that such agreements would not have any legal effect as they could not be seen to fetter the discretion given to the Authority in the legislation once the Bill was enacted.”
I will not dwell on the issue of direct elections, as it has already been referred to, save to comment that it is a sensible principle to explore. Where an authority has planning powers, as this one does, it seems quite wrong that there should be no directly elected input if a way can be found to achieve that.
I fear that the authority’s approach has not enabled the House to give it the warm cross-party endorsement that it might otherwise have had, and serious concerns among our constituents remain. That said, there will be further opportunities in the other place. As the hon. Member for North Norfolk said, the ultimate test will be the behaviour of the authority in interpreting and using its powers in the years ahead. If the fears of the navigators prove justified, we will know soon enough, and we will have the opportunity to do something about it in due course.