Tuesday 12th January 2021

(2 weeks, 1 day ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Andrew Griffith Portrait Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to rise on behalf of us all in Parliament to commemorate the 10 years since the South Downs National Park, our nation’s newest, was recognised with that status. In fact, like Her Majesty, the park technically has two birthdays as the park authority came into being on 1 April 2010 and became fully operational on 1 April 2011.

As its name suggests, my constituency of Arundel and South Downs picks up a large swathe of the South Downs National Park, picking up the park at Pyecombe and Keymer and following its line north-west all the way to Selham and Graffham. That is a distance of some 34 miles, which is just over a third of the park’s total 87-mile length, as it stretches across three counties, between Winchester and the south coast at the spectacular Seven Sisters, which I note were celebrated recently in one of the Royal Mail’s latest national park stamps.

Like every 10-year-old, the authority does not get every single thing right, but we celebrate tonight its very many positive impacts, including a remarkable spirit of innovation and community. For that, I would like to personally commend chief executive Trevor Beattie, director of planning Tim Slaney, and director of countryside policy and management Andrew Lee for promoting and delivering such leading-edge work. Together with the park authority members, they have formed an effective and stable team, and it is very much their achievements that we recognise tonight.

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an important debate. May I recommend to him and to the House the strong collaboration that exists between South Downs national park and Public Health England on using the space and peace of our beautiful national parks as part of the social prescribing that GPs do? He will know that there is a wealth of evidence on the benefits of open space for not only physical health, but mental health. The South Downs national park’s most important days may just lie ahead of it.

Andrew Griffith Portrait Andrew Griffith
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I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, as a fellow representative of a constituency that contains part of the national park and as someone with personal experience in the space of healthcare. We have probably never needed those green spaces more than now to protect so many people’s mental health.

Before I move on, I should also acknowledge my predecessor, now appropriately enough the noble Lord of South Downs, whose tenure covered the birth of the national park, and his continuing support to me. I hope that with such passionate representation, and with voluntary groups such as the Friends of the South Downs and many residents in both Houses, the park never lacks for support or a national voice.

The South Downs is unique in many ways. Perhaps most graphically, it is the only national park that someone could be strolling through in less than an hour and half’s time from London, via the gateway stations of Pulborough or Amberley. Perhaps when the current restrictions are lifted, I will be able to invite you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and hon. Members to join me in doing that—I promise you that you will not be disappointed.

About 110,000 people live within the park, which is more than live in the Lake District and the Peak District combined. A further 2.2 million live right on its doorstep, with another 4 million within an hour’s drive. That position, right on the frontline of the over-developed south-east, makes it vital that the planning policy protections of the park are not eroded by this or any future Government. Indeed, if we are to avoid what I have referred to previously as the “Central Park effect” of intense development right up to the boundary, the planning system for national parks, which was set up 70 years ago in the context of some of the most remote parts of the UK, should now go further and establish buffer zones against development and green corridors for wildlife.

When we think of the South Downs, we picture the idyllic hilltops and ridges of the Chanctonbury Ring, Bignor hill or Devil’s Dyke, but we must not overlook the high streets and small industrial units in the park that are its beating economic heart, providing employment and a vital sense of community. I refer to high streets such as those of Petworth and Arundel, in my constituency, as well as those of Midhurst and Lewes, which are full of unique small businesses, retailers and food producers. They need our support, whether through sensible planning policies, exhortations to shop local or initiatives such as the one-hour free parking offered by Chichester District Council in Petworth.

But there is one more thing that we need to do. This came up today when I was glad to co-sponsor a Bill on the subject promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake): we must look again at business rates, which tax place rather than profit and discriminate unfairly between business models in spreading the burden of taxation. If the price of fairness is to replace business rates with a higher rate of sales tax, to me and many businesses across the South Downs that would be a price worth paying.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
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I was going to intervene on the ten-minute rule Bill, but I did not have the chance. One of the worries about scrapping business rates is that so many businesses do not pay VAT—for example, supermarkets, insurance brokers and travel agents. That would be a real problem: we would end up having a mix and match, would we not?

Andrew Griffith Portrait Andrew Griffith
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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I beg to differ. I do not want to turn this into a debate about taxation, but in my view it would be a simplification—business rates are highly complex, but the value added tax system is well understood and relatively simple in terms of compliance.

Another area of economic activity is the exceptional South Downs national park tourism offering. According to the South Downs National Park Authority, an astonishing 19 million visitors come to the park each year. Perhaps that is not so surprising when we think of the lovely picturesque walks through chalk hills and rural heathlands, the thousands of unique and artisan businesses, and the world-beating places to stay. It generates more than £350 million for the local economy, employing about 5,000 people—although, from my inbox during the pandemic, I believe that is a significant underestimate of what the sector contributes, because it does not lend itself to easy measurement.

If one thing keeps visitors coming back, it is our wonderful and diverse local country pubs. They are at the very heart of what community means to me. Some are literally centuries old, and never in their entire history of plagues and invasions have they had to face the unprecedented challenge of wave after wave of such Government restrictions. As well as making the case for continued support for hospitality businesses, one practical thing that I am doing is to produce a local guide to promote those vital establishments and, after this sad period of absence, to remind us all of their many and varied attractions. The park, too, is helping in the pandemic. Despite a limited budget, the park has established its own £375,000 covid recovery fund, with beneficiaries such as The Hungry Guest bakery, Sussex Lamb and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Pulborough Brooks reserve.

For more than 6,000 years, humankind has embraced the abundant natural resources that the South Downs has to offer. Farming started here in the bronze age and, with more than three quarters of the South Downs farmed and much of the remainder forestry and woodland, the park works closely with farmers, foresters and estates. I am told that there are more sheep than people, so it was with shared relief on behalf of local farmers that we learned of the new trade agreement between the UK and the European Union recently, with its tariff-free access to markets for Sussex lamb producers. I am grateful to my local farmers and the National Farmers Union for the constructive dialogue that we had locally. Our departure from the European Union to me should be a huge opportunity to transform British agriculture, including more domestic market share, raising quality and sustainability, and improving the profitability of food production.

The national park has six farmer-led farm clusters that cover two thirds of the park, with the excellent Arun to Adur cluster in my constituency. They have pioneered the approach of whole estate plans with larger rural businesses. That gives the park authority a solid platform on which to work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the creation and delivery of the new environmental land management or ELM scheme, whose success is so vital to us all. I know that the cluster would welcome the opportunity to work with the Minister and his colleagues to develop landscape-scale proposals and for our farmers to be involved in the national pilot to ensure that ELM recognises biodiversity and access, and enhances our cultural heritage.

It is not just farming. In recent years, the fertile soils of the South Downs have witnessed the growth of vineyards, producing a variety of internationally recognised outstanding wines. With soil composition and south-facing slopes similar to those of the Champagne region of France, viticulture in the South Downs is rapidly becoming the heart of British wine country. The many distinguished sparkling wine producers across the South Downs include Nyetimber, Wiston, Hattingley and Bolney. I recently had the chance to see winemaker Dermot Sugrue at work on the Wiston estate and, in what must be one of the only silver linings of that terrible year, he assured me that 2020 will produce one of the finest English vintages yet. Members might also be interested to know that, if their constituents visit and shop here for souvenirs, they can now purchase an English sparkling vintage from Digby Fine English, a producer of world-class English sparkling wine based in Arundel and the House of Commons gift shop official supplier. Buy now, as they say, while stocks last!

But if there is a single thing that excites me—and, I suspect, the Minister—most about the park, it is the contribution that it makes to nature and biodiversity. From the grazing marshes of the floodplains of the Rivers Arun and Adur to the lowland grassland on the slopes of the downs, the national park contains an amazing 660 protected sites of special interest and many internationally important habitats supporting rare and endangered species of plants and animals.

It is possible to spot iconic plant species such as burnt orchid, chaffweed and bulbous foxtail. Our heaths are home to adders, sand lizards and both the field cricket and the wart-biter bush cricket. Almost 40 different types of butterfly can be found within the park’s boundary, including the exceptionally rare Duke of Burgundy, which was recently found to be thriving on the Wiston Estate. The South Downs farmland bird initiative has helped a wide range of threatened bird species found on farmland across the South Downs, including the grey partridge, lapwing, yellowhammer and skylark.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is very generous with his time. I am a one-time resident of a lovely village on the Hampshire side of the South Downs national park. One problem faced by residents there is the appalling traffic and the pollution and noise, especially where traffic goes through ancient villages. Does he agree that Hampshire County Council and the Sussex county councils must do more to mitigate the effects of traffic pollution and noise?

Andrew Griffith Portrait Andrew Griffith
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I thank my hon. Friend for his timely intervention and for touching on a topic that is of concern to many residents. I not only hold out the prospect of increased police numbers helping to police and make more safe our rural roads, but thank the Government—although I will hold their feet to the fire—for their recent commitment to upgrade the A27 with a new route that will allow significant traffic that currently uses the national park to bypass it and proceed elsewhere.

Nature recovery through partnership working has been at the heart of the work of the South Downs over the last decade, from major projects such as being one of 12 DEFRA-funded nature improvement areas, to smaller nature initiatives in partnership with landowners and local communities. An example of the latter is Steyning Downland, which is run by over 100 volunteers. It carries out local ecology surveys and habitat conservation but also combats local loneliness, something that is close to my heart. It is one of many such schemes across the national park.

As part of the Environment Bill, DEFRA proposes that every part of England should be covered by a local nature recovery strategy. Five pilots are under way, but they are all based on county or unitary authority boundaries. I would like to see the national park given the chance to be at the heart of its own local nature recovery strategy, rather than an exclusively county-based approach. Will the Minister kindly give that her consideration?

On this 10th anniversary, let me conclude by looking ahead to what the park’s second decade might hold. First, I hope that it continues to be well supported by the Minister and her Department, in terms of both financial certainty and the strengthening of certain powers that will allow the park to carry out its tasks further. Secondly, I hope that the recent integration of the Seven Sisters country park, a major change in the national park’s operations, is successful and additive but does not detract from valuable work elsewhere. Thirdly, I hope, perhaps parochially, that we will see the long-awaited transformation of the derelict Shoreham cement works into low-carbon eco homes.

In its first 10 years, the South Downs national park has established itself as an innovative, partnership-based organisation where people and place come together. Tonight, we wish all involved well and express the hope that something that is so important to our nation’s future as our national park survives, thrives and has a second decade that is even more successful in achieving all its many goals.

Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
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It is a pleasure to see you again, Madam Deputy Speaker; I have not been in the Chamber for quite some time.

I very much thank my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) for securing this important and timely debate, celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the designation of South Downs national park—our newest addition to the national park family. How wonderful to have such a large chunk of this wonderful landscape in one’s constituency. Lots of people would covet that. I am very pleased to join in celebrating the anniversary and to share in the praise of this wonderful landscape. I join in thanking all those who have been involved in this journey to protect and improve the national park throughout the 10 years; my hon. Friend name-checked a number of the key people involved along the way.

While I am praising people for things in the countryside, I would like also to praise and thank all those who have worked so hard to conserve and enhance our beautiful English countryside, particularly all the volunteers who give so much of their time to look after our countryside. About 45,000 days annually are given by volunteers not just to our protected landscapes, but all over the country. Indeed, there are also a lot of education officers, who have been working to give over 10,000 school visits to national parks every year. That has obviously been slightly curtailed over the past 10 months because of the pandemic, but it has been really valuable work, giving our young people a much-needed brush with nature. Our national parks have played such an important role in bringing the countryside to so many people.

National parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are treasured landscapes in England. They are steeped in history and each has its own individual identity, which is what makes them so interesting. They also tend to have their own individual communities and heritage. A lot of that comes initially from the underlying geology. There is a lot of chalk in the South Downs, and that influences the biodiversity and nature to which I am pleased my hon. Friend referred. He mentioned wonderful creatures, such as—what was it? The wart-bitter bush cricket?

Andrew Griffith Portrait Andrew Griffith
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The wart-biter bush cricket.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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The wart-biter—it sounds horrible, actually. But the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, which he also mentioned, is very special. That is to be much valued, as is the entire landscape in the area.

The pandemic has highlighted the critical role that our national parks play in our health and wellbeing; I was really pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) raised that point. These landscapes have been so important for people getting out and about on their walks, and for public access. People are obviously being told to stay local right now, but these landscapes have been—and will continue in the future to be—important to our health and wellbeing. Indeed, I see the national parks playing a very important role in our new green social prescribing, which I know my hon. Friend was very involved in during his previous role in the Department of Health.

The leadership that the South Downs national park authority has shown in establishing its recovery fund of £375,000 to support local communities and businesses at this time has been really welcome, because this period has been very challenging for all the people living and working there. It has also done some very inventive and helpful things such as virtual festivals and other online work. All our national parks have joined the national effort to tackle this pandemic, and our heartfelt thanks go to all of them.

I want quickly to mention the recent landscapes review led by Julian Glover, who looked at all our protected areas, and set out his vision for the future role that national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty might play. The review highlighted the vital roles that these landscapes can play in addressing the twin challenges of nature recovery and climate change, and supporting the health and wellbeing of our communities. These issues are very much at the top of the Government’s agenda, and we agree that protected landscapes will be very important in the future. As we approach the 70th anniversary of the creation of Britain’s first four national parks, we will be looking closely at the recommendations of the Glover report, with a view to bringing forward some of them.

There are some really exciting opportunities for the South Downs going forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs has touched on some of them. Farmers working in this protected landscape will have opportunities through the new environmental land management schemes. He touched on the local nature recovery networks and we have national nature recovery networks as well—I take the points he made—but he did not mention dark skies, which I was surprised at. Did he leave something out of his speech?

Andrew Griffith Portrait Andrew Griffith
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If the Minister will allow me, I will be very happy to mention dark skies. As she knows, I hosted an Adjournment debate as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for dark skies on 14 December. As I suspect she was about to say, since 2016, the South Downs national park has been a member of the International Dark-Sky Association. It is one of the only places in the south-east from which one can see a dark sky and the Milky Way at night. That is very important to me and my constituents. I thank the Minister for raising an important topic.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I am very glad that my hon. Friend had that opportunity to intervene, given that the subject is important to him. I enjoyed speaking to the APPG recently. The South Downs is now famed for its dark skies. Given that it has so many people living near it, it is interesting that it still manages to have these wonderful clear dark skies, where we can see all the stars. There are five protected dark sky reserves across England—Exmoor, near me, a wonderful place, one of my favourites—Cranborne Chase, the Yorkshire Dales, the North Yorkshire Moors and the South Downs, which has recently become an international dark sky reserve, for which it is to be absolutely commended. It brings so many millions of people into touch with the magical qualities of seeing a clear dark sky, with the whole cosmos around. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the national park is within an hour and a half’s journey of London and other big centres. Many people will be able to benefit from that status.

My hon. Friend referred to one of the key roles of national parks, as local planning authorities. They can influence developments in their areas and act as statutory consultees. The South Downs must be commended for its handling of the West Sussex A27 Arundel bypass, which led to an interesting and successful outcome. The proposed new A27 would have involved building new roads in the park, but as a result of the intervention during the consultation process by the authority and other partners—the Environment Agency, Forestry Commission and Natural England—it will now go south of the national park, avoiding the degradation of natural beauty. That is only one of many examples where national parks have made key interventions to protect our landscapes and deliver their important statutory function.

My hon. Friend also touched on one other thing. With the Government having given the green light, I am pleased that the national park authority has taken responsibility for the Seven Sisters country park, named after the famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs, which are on one of Britain’s finest unspoilt coastlines and a haven for wildlife and migratory birds. The South Downs national park authority has ambitious plans to improve the country park by bringing in much-needed management and investment to increase the visitor experience, the condition of the site of special scientific interest and the long-term plans to develop community programmes for schoolchildren from urban areas. The investment will promote and increase opportunities for people to access and explore the landscape in myriad ways, including by canoeing, cycling and walking.

It is not possible for our national landscapes to thrive and be the heart of our nation without the right investment, which is why, in the Chancellor’s November 2020 spending review announcement for the next financial year, a commitment was made to invest more than £75 million in national parks and AONBs. The commitment represents £20 million in new funding for such landscapes and confirms the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the environment is a key part of our economic recovery plan, as clearly demonstrated in the Prime Minister’s recently announced 10-point green plan.

The 10-point plan will take forward so many measures and put climate change, nature restoration and the improvement of biodiversity right at the heart of all that we do. Indeed, we also have the green recovery challenge fund, of which £40 million has already been allocated to projects all across the country that will enhance nature and create more jobs. There is a huge opportunity there, and the second tranche of that fund, worth another £40 million, is about to open. Lots of non-governmental organisations and other organisations want to apply for that money.

Also on our environmental commitment, the Environment Bill is of course making progress through the House. It brings forward everything in our 25-year environment plan, including the commitment to protect 30% of the UK’s land by 2030. So much is going on in this space, and rightly so, because it is going to be so important for our future and our recovery.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this wonderful subject to our attention today and allowing us to share with him the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the South Downs national park. I again congratulate him and all those involved on their superb work. I am very much looking forward to coming to the South Downs—when time permits and we are able—to experience some of it for myself, to see some of those glorious creatures and perhaps, Madam Deputy Speaker, to pop into those pubs and sample that sparkling wine.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Yes, I am looking forward to the 2020 Nyetimber.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.