PROPOSED new powers for English national parks are “not a backdoor to fracking”, the Government has insisted.
Communities Minister James Wharton today set out plans to empower the authorities that run such parks to operate in a more entrepreneurial way so they can improve the work they already do.
But Labour has warned the powers could amount to the “commercialisation of our national parks by the backdoor”.
Mr Wharton said the powers, which were successfully added to the Government’s flagship Devolution Bill by 292 votes to 187, a majority of 105, will “enable national parks to do more and to do it better”.
“They are not a backdoor to fracking or shale gas development,” he said.
“That will not affect the approach we intend to take in that area.”
Mr Wharton said the powers will allow national park authorities to act through a company and allow them to trade “in a broader way than they currently can”.
“In England our nine national parks include some of our country’s finest landscapes, beautiful vistas and exciting wildlife,” he said.
“They are part of our national identity. National parks protect these landscapes for future generations for us all to enjoy.
“They are the cornerstone to many rural businesses.
“These new powers for national park authorities will allow an authority to act as an individual could, with certain limitations, in relation to the functions that an authority has.”
The new powers will allow authorities to pursue additional sources of funding but Mr Wharton said they will not allow parks to charge for entry.
However, speaking during the report stage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, Liz McInnes, shadow communities minister, raised serious concerns about the powers.
She said the change was being driven by Government cuts to national parks funding.
“We have seen the coalition government’s attempt to privatise our forests which was met with a public outcry and this plan was rightly defeated,” she said.
“We have seen this Government attempt to open up our national parks to fracking, again causing a great deal of concern amongst the public who value our precious national assets and have no wish to see them opened up to commercial ventures in this manner.
“We need strong assurances that the character of our national parks will be protected and that such important national institutions are maintained for the benefit of the public.
“We need a cast iron assurance from this Government that fracking is not going to be allowed in our national parks.”
She added: “We cannot allow this commercialisation of our national parks by the backdoor.”
Labour MP Graham Allen (Nottingham North) proposed amendments for a constitutional convention which were resisted by the Government.
But he praised the local government devolution proposed by ministers in the Bill.
Mr Allen said: “It would be ludicrous for England to go the way of Scotland where devolution has taken place down to Holyrood... but the sucking sound we hear is the sucking up of powers from the localities into Holyrood.
“We don’t wish to see that repeated in England and that does mean there has got to be a proper localisation of power if the devolution bandwagon and evolution is to continue.
“If we are devolving in England, if we have devolved in Scotland, if a majority of people’s votes in England do not count... perhaps what makes sense is to have a steady, careful, citizen-led convention which discusses all these issues.”
Liberal Democrat former minister Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk, spoke in favour of a renewed bid to give the vote at local elections to 16 and 17-year-olds.
“In this context I very strongly support the case for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to have a say, for goodness sake, in the election of their local councillor,” he said.
“I find it really quite extraordinary that the Government seeks to just oppose this so strongly.”
The Government successfully blocked such a move during the Bill’s committee stage.
But Labour is now seeking to get it back in.
The Government has previously said there is a debate to be had on the subject.
Mr Lamb said: “But how long does this have to take?
“Why can’t we simply accept the principle that 16 and 17-year-olds who can join our armed forces to defend this country, who can marry, who can, indeed, pay taxes on their income if they are in work, but cannot have a say in how, for example, those taxes are raised, the extent of them and in how they are applied.
“They ought to have rights as citizens as the rest of us enjoy.”
William Wragg, the Tory MP for Hazel Grove, spoke on an amendment in his name seeking to make it so that elected mayors would only be introduced in an area if approved by voters in a referendum.
He said his main concern was that “when new models of local government are seen to be imposed upon areas, even if more carrot than stick is used, there the danger lurks”.
Conservative Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) spoke in support of amendment seeking to allow the Government to make boundary changes to council areas if it receives consent from at least “one relevant local authority”.
But Conservative former minister Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) warned he was concerned by this proposal, noting Lincolnshire councils want to discuss ideas to devolve more powers within the present structure and proceed by consent.
He said the amendment risks “riding roughshod” over what people and councillors in the county want.
Sir Edward told the Commons: “They don’t like change in Lincolnshire and what they’re wary about is any device promoted in this amendment, and I notice quite unusually the Government appears to have accepted the amendment albeit in posing a sunset clause.”
He added: “What I think we’re worried about in a county like Lincolnshire, and I suspect in other rural counties, is we want to proceed by consent - which seems to me to be an admirably conservative point of view.
“Normally if you proceed by consent you have to deal with the tried and tested, you have to bring things forward with you and I think many people are scarred by the events of the 1970s where ancient counties were swept away.”
Sir Edward said the changes are now seen to be “fundamentally wrong” and unpopular ideas imposed by Whitehall, adding: “As a result of 1974 we created the ludicrous county of Humberside for instance, destroying Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire. What madness.”
Several Tories signalled they may vote against the amendment which would allow central changes to local authority boundaries, warning it could “spiral out of control” and anger local people.
Christopher Chope said ministers were going back on their previous assertions that any changes to council boundaries would be “bottom up” and driven by local people and argued that leaders would now be distracted by the measure.
The Christchurch MP said: “This is a sensational change in this whole Bill because up until now we have been told that the Government is neutral, it’s enabling councils to do what they want.
“And one of the consequences of this, if this goes through as the Government obviously want it to go through, is that between now and 2019 in counties such as Dorset, instead of getting on and running local services for local people, the councillors and their officers are going to be preoccupied with arguing the toss about new structures.”
Tory former minister Sir Greg Knight and party colleague Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) said the amendment could allow the Government to override opposition to boundary changes.
Sir Greg said: “If (this) is accepted, despite the promises from the minister, could this not be used as a lever against a recalcitrant council to say ‘well you better fall into line otherwise amendment 56 will be brought into play?’”
Mr Stuart said that when Hull City Council held a referendum on expanding its boundaries to include outer areas, there was a “Ceausescu-esque” rejection by 96% of voters on a 70% turnout.
He went on: “We should be remarkably sensitive to how strongly the population can feel about these things and expanding Hull isn’t an utterly absurd idea, it’s not necessarily evil.
“And yet when they were asked, the people who sit there quietly... 96% of three quarters of the population said no, no, no to the three questions asked.
“I just add that to the debate, just how sensitive we ought to be and how easily this thing can spiral out of control, cause political difficulty, real dissatisfaction.”
But Mr Wharton insisted the Government only wanted to proceed by consensus and that ministers want to see “economically sensible” areas of devolution.
The Communities Minister said: “I think it’s important to be clear that this is not about allowing areas to veto, but we want to give flexibility to build that consensus.
“The intention of the Government is to work with local areas to deliver economically sensible areas of devolution with structures that sit beneath them that allow those things to be delivered and that potential to be realised.”