Friday, 14 March 2008

National Parks - 13th March 2008

Jamie Hepburn (Central Scotland) (SNP): I welcome today's debate. Scotland's two national parks are one of the Parliament's most significant achievements. The legislation that created them could only have been passed under some form of home rule. The Westminster Parliament would never have found the time, let alone had the will, for such reform. Of course, perhaps an independent Parliament would have allowed us to go further and faster in the establishment of our national parks—I mention that as a mere aside.

As David Stewart said, the existence of the national park concept is a tribute to John Muir, a Scot from Dunbar who emigrated to the United States of America. His campaigns led to the protection first of the Yosemite valley and then of other great wildernesses in the US. It is a testament to the Scottish Parliament that the ideas of John Muir in establishing national parks have been enshrined in his country of birth.

We have two national parks in comparison with the 12—soon to be 13—parks across England and Wales and the many areas of outstanding natural beauty that have been designated south of the border and which are afforded the same protection. It is perhaps ironic that Scotland, which has some of the oldest, wildest and most impressive landscapes in Europe, has had to wait so long for a protection regime that matches European and global standards.

When we appreciate those landscapes, we cannot express our feelings more clearly than with the old maxim that we do no inherit the earth from our ancestors, but borrow it from our children. That is why protecting the land within our national parks is so important. Our landscapes and wildernesses have a value in their own right. Even if nobody ever visited them, our national parks would still be important as our country's lungs, filtering our water and purifying our air. That they act in that manner as well as being visited by so many people hammers home their importance to our country. It is right therefore that we should bestow on them a level of protection and management. Doing so will ensure that short-term gain does not mean long-term overexploitation.

As the motion before us correctly states, we should commend the contribution of national parks

"to the greener Scotland agenda."

However, the contribution of the parks is much wider than that. They make a valuable contribution to the Government's aims for a fairer and healthier Scotland.

Our national parks can make Scotland fairer, because land is protected for future generations and is understood as being held for the common good. That is in keeping with the traditional understanding of land use and ownership in Scotland. The elected element of the national park boards is a commendable example of participatory democracy. It is a way of ensuring that the voice of ordinary people is heard at the heart of decision making. I am glad that there seems to be such uniform agreement on the issue across the chamber.

Our national parks can also make Scotland healthier, because of the opportunities that they afford for recreation, especially walking, which is one of the cheapest, easiest and most effective forms of exercise. There also provide a wide range of outdoor pursuits from skiing and snowboarding on the Cairngorms to windsurfing on Loch Lomond, in which I am sure Jackie Baillie affords herself the opportunity to participate at every chance.

Jackie Baillie: Absolutely.

Jamie Hepburn: I assure members that I do not engage in those activities very regularly. However, for those who do, national park status means that the potentials can be maximised at the same time as the activities' impact on the landscape and environment is carefully managed.

Our national parks contribute

"to the greener Scotland agenda."

because they act as exemplars of the changes that we need to introduce in wider society if we are to tackle the causes and mitigate the effects of climate change.

National park authorities should be ambitious in promoting the Government's green targets. They should make their parks as accessible as possible to public transport; they should demand the highest standards of energy efficiency in their buildings; and they should minimise and manage waste. In that context, I welcome the Government's commitment to a strategic review of the operation of and future for our national parks. I hope that some of the points that I have made will be considered in the review.

After five years of designation, the time is right to ensure that our national parks serve the purposes for which they were established. Discussions have taken place on the effectiveness of the national park boards. It is right that all aspects of their operation should be considered in the review, but the elected element of those structures is of the utmost importance. In that regard, I welcome the minister's conformation that he shares those principles. Given the questions to the minister on the subject, some members appear to have missed that confirmation. As I said, I welcome it.

Five years after establishing the national parks, the time is also right to consider their size. I welcome Mike Russell's announcement that the Cairngorms national park will include highland Perthshire. The people of highland Perthshire should be congratulated, not only on voting for the SNP, which won with 60 per cent of the vote in a recent by-election, but on the campaign that they have run to be included in the Cairngorms national park. I also pay tribute to John Swinney for the campaign that he has run.

I welcome the fact that the Government review will consider other areas that may be included in the existing national parks. I hope that the review will also consider other areas throughout Scotland that may be endowed with national park status. For instance, the regional parks that were established long ago could be considered for promotion to full national park status. I ask the cabinet secretary to consider that possibility in summing up the debate.

Scotland's national parks are part of a European and worldwide family of designated and protected landscapes. The European Landscape Convention of 2000, which the United Kingdom finally ratified in 2006, reinforces the global dimension. That means that we have a duty not only to Scotland's future generations, but to people throughout the world who benefit from our national parks as tourists, consumers of produce and suppliers of the technology and tools that are used in the parks.

We have a duty to preserve and enhance the natural beauty and resources of our national parks and all Scotland's designated scenic areas. Scotland's national parks are a major achievement of devolution and a major responsibility of the Parliament. I hope that the debate takes us some way towards exercising that responsibility. We must realise that, through the careful and strategic management of our finest resources, we are building a legacy that will outlast us all.

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