Lee Valley Regional Park (Amendment) Debate

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Lee Valley Regional Park (Amendment)

James Berry Excerpts
1st reading: House of Commons
Wednesday 22nd February 2017

(7 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Lee Valley Regional Park (Amendment) Bill 2016-17 View all Lee Valley Regional Park (Amendment) Bill 2016-17 Debates Read Hansard Text

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James Berry Portrait James Berry (Kingston and Surbiton) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 48(4) of the Lee Valley Regional Park Act 1966 to remove the power of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority to raise by way of levy on any local authority whose local authority area falls outside the area defined under section 2(2) of the Act; and for connected purposes.

Like so many people in this country, I love our parks and open spaces. I enjoy walking almost every weekend in the stunning parks we enjoy in south-west London. I doubt I can improve on the conclusions of the Communities and Local Government Committee’s excellent recent report on public parks, which said:

“Parks and green spaces are treasured assets and are often central to the lives of their communities. They provide opportunities for leisure, relaxation and exercise, but are also fundamental to community cohesion, physical and mental health and wellbeing, biodiversity, climate change mitigation, and local economic growth.”

I would be pleased to welcome any Member of this House to one of our excellent local parks in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames—to the ancient Fairfield in Kingston, Fishponds park in Surbiton, Tolworth Court Farm fields, Churchfields in Chessington, or Beverly park in New Malden, to name but a few. All those parks are open for the public to enjoy and are maintained with Kingston taxpayers’ money. The same is the case for virtually every park in the country: local taxpayers pay for their local park.

Lee valley regional park is different. It is paid for not only by local ratepayers but by the ratepayers of every single London borough, including my borough, Kingston upon Thames, which is about as far away from the Lee valley as one can get within Greater London. Let me be clear that I have no quarrel with Lee valley regional park; it is an excellent facility, enjoyed by many Londoners. My simple contention is that, at a time when councils are having to reduce their parks budgets, it is no longer justifiable for hefty sums to be levied on London boroughs to maintain a park that is miles away and seldom used by their residents.

The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority was created by an Act of Parliament in 1966, to maintain and administer Lee valley regional park, a 10,000 acre amenity that stretches from Hertfordshire to East India dock. Along with the counties of Essex and Hertfordshire, seven out of London’s 32 boroughs have parts of the park within their local areas. It contains several state-of-the-art Olympic sporting venues, such as the Lee valley white water centre and the velopark. The development of those facilities was partially funded by the Mayor of London’s Olympic precept, for which London taxpayers have footed the bill since 2006.

The funding mechanism for the park is set out in section 48(4) of the 1966 Act, which allows the authority to raise funds for the upkeep of the park by way of a levy on every London borough, as well as on three councils immediately outside London. This unusual funding model might have been appropriate in 1966—the House certainly deemed it so 50 years ago—but, like the England football team’s fortunes, the financial position of local authorities was rather more favourable in 1966 than it is now. Local authorities have had to make significant spending cuts following repeated reductions in their revenue support grant, and will continue to have to do so until the business rates retention model championed by my local council leader, Councillor Kevin Davis, comes into force.

Councils are having to retreat to meeting the increasing demand on statutory services such as adult social care, at the expense of discretionary services, including parks. The Select Committee’s report shows that 92% of local authority parks departments have experienced budget reductions in the past three years. Kingston’s Conservative council has rightly maintained parks funding, but that is a political commitment that the Conservative group made in the 2014 local elections, and comes at the opportunity cost of funding in other discretionary areas that other councils have chosen to prioritise. It is against that backcloth that there is increasing disquiet, particularly south of the Thames, at having to pay the Lee valley park’s massive annual levy.

The opportunity to introduce this ten-minute rule Bill is timely, because local authorities received their demand from the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority just before the recent recess, on 10 February. The 2017-18 levy is £10,186,900. I should point out that that is a small but welcome reduction on last year’s levy, but it is out of step with the reduction in funding for local authorities over the same period. The demand on my local authority of Kingston is £160,730. Over the same period, the council will spend £1.3 million on parks, trees and ground maintenance within the borough. The ratepayers of Kingston, of whom I am one, would rightly ask why, when their services are under pressure, they are being forced to pay a sum equivalent to 10% of the borough’s own parks budget to maintain a park 20 miles away that few of them use and that some of them would never have heard of until I made this speech today. I ask the same question of this House.

A number of arguments will be levied against me. The first is that Lee valley park is there for the enjoyment of all Londoners, so the cost should be shared throughout London. However, as one would expect, there is an uneven distribution of visitors, with the numbers coming from the contiguous boroughs far outstripping the numbers coming from other boroughs, particularly those south of the river. That is borne out by the visitor statistics for last year, which show that 605,000 visits were made by residents from Waltham Forest, in which the park sits, yet only 5,000 visits were made by Kingston residents, and just 4,000 by Sutton residents—the lowest figure other than that for the tiny City of London corporation area.

If we divide the relevant levy by the number of visitors from those boroughs, the cost per visit tells an interesting story. A visit from each Waltham Forest resident costs the local council 32p per visitor, which does not seem unreasonable. A visit from a Kingston resident costs my local council £32.15 per visitor, which I suggest is wholly unreasonable. But we are not the worst affected: a visitor from Sutton costs their council £46.92 per visit. The levy bears no relation to the number of visitors from a borough in the previous year; I suggest that even if my Bill does not proceed, the funding formula is in need of radical review.

Another point that might be made against me is that Lee valley park would suffer from a loss of funding from all London boroughs. Let me be clear: I do not want to see any diminution in the quality of the park. There are, though, many other funding models. The levy on the local authorities proximate to the park could be increased, although clearly that would not be popular with those authorities. The park could be funded by central Government, as royal and national parks are. Alternatively, the park could find ways to reduce its frankly very high outlay—its budget is twice that of the largest park in the country, the Lake District national park, which is 58 times the size of Lee valley regional park—or it could increase its revenue, including through the amazing sports facilities it has been gifted at the taxpayers’ expense. Lord True offered some suggestions to that effect in the other place last March. I do not pretend to have a solution for the park’s future funding model; that will be a matter for future debate and consultation.

It is my contention that the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority should have its statutory power to levy charges on local authorities outside the area in which it sits removed. That is also the contention of colleagues on the Government Benches who have kindly lent their support to the Bill, as well as of London’s Conservative council leaders and the Greater London Authority Conservative group in the London Assembly. Judging by reports on the “No To Lee Valley Tax” campaign run by the Newsquest and News Shopper titles throughout south London, a number of representatives from across the political divide agree, too.

The Lee Valley Regional Park Act passed through the House more than 50 years ago, when the financial position of local authorities was very different. In straitened times, when local authorities are being required to cut their parks budgets, it is simply not right that, year on year, vast sums are being levied by the Lee valley authority on boroughs such as Kingston, to pay for the upkeep of a park many miles away that is seldom used by the residents of those boroughs. I hope that Lee valley regional park has a long future, but not at the expense of taxpayers in Kingston or throughout London.