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Seizing opportunities for greener legislation

Bennett's Cross in Dartmoor National Park Bennett's Cross in Dartmoor National Park Shutterstock

Lord Norrie is an active champion of the natural world whose work for greener legislation is explored in his new memoir, Portals of Discovery (Book Guild).

"My interest in the environment started as a sheep farmer in New Zealand aged 19. When in the army, I was attracted by the unspoilt beauty and nature of Salisbury Plain. I remember the Burnt-Tip Orchids, Adonis Blue Butterfly, Stone Curlews and Wild English Partridges. I later set up a nursery and garden centre business, which naturally included trees and shrubs.

As a member of the House of Lords, I was keen to speak up on environmental issues in parliamentary debates. Inspired by the devastating impact the Great Storm of 1987 had on our countryside, I joined the House of Lords European Commission Environment Sub-committee, which undertook many important inquiries on environmental topics including rural policies, forestry in the UK and the tropics and management of hazardous wastes.

In our 1989 Report on Habitat and Species Protection, the Committee lamented the biological losses which were depleting our natural heritage. Such losses were occurring across Europe, which resulted in a torrent of environmental legislation in the late 1980s and 1990s that flooded into the UK and onto the statute books. As the proposal to introduce a ‘Habitats Directive’ gathered pace, our Committee was charged with scrutinising the proposed legislation.

As a Conservative, the question of whether legislation was ‘national’ or ‘European’ posed a dilemma for me. We are all concerned with habitat destruction and threatened wildlife; the question is whether protection policies should be implemented at national or community level. As an environmentalist, however, any insistence on better environmental protection – wherever it came from – was more than welcome.

In the 1990s there was a raft of environmental legislation on which I was active, including on the privatisation of the water, electricity and coal industries. My work on all these privatisation and deregulation bills had a common strand: the need I felt to establish statutory environmental safeguards and explicit environmental duties on the newly created public bodies. During these years of campaigning, “green” principles were of primary importance.

A new purpose for National Parks

I was involved with these and other environmental causes but my work on National Parks is amongst the most memorable and rewarding, as it helped to secure enduring protection for these special places and greater independence from local government.

An independent review of National Parks published in 1991 that had been led by the late Professor Ron Edwards, found that National Parks were in need of both greater independence and a new purpose.

I was delighted to join forces with the then Council for National Parks (CNP) President and world-renowned mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington, with whom I shared a keen determination to leave the National Parks with the most robust framework in law. We were soon to realise that this ambition would not be achieved without overcoming some major challenges – not everyone was convinced that National Parks needed new legislation, and indeed some camps were vehemently opposed.

Chris and I – together and separately – toured round all the National Parks in England and Wales. He spent much of his time appearing on TV and radio to argue the cause while I beavered away seeing the legislation through the House of Lords, firstly through my Private Member’s Bill, on which we secured government support, and then through the 1995 Environment Bill, which was largely based on my bill.

Working with Peers from all sides of the House, and charities including CNP and CPRE, we succeeded in leaving behind a legacy for the Parks that still holds firm today: new purposes; new independent bodies to run them and a strong consensus about their protection.

What next?

We are now in unchartered waters as the Government ponders how environmental and countryside legislation will evolve post-Brexit. Without the policy drivers provided by the European Union, there are understandable concerns that some of our most important protections could be lost or watered down.

As a lifelong environmentalist, I hold a more optimistic view, which is that we must seize this moment as an opportunity to make sure that the environment is centre-stage in government deliberations. We have done this before without the prodding of our European partners, through far-sighted legislation such as the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which set up National Parks, paved the way for the establishment of nature reserves and brought enhanced public access to the countryside. Similarly, and more recently, the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act brought stronger protection for our seas and the promise of a continuous path around the coastline of England and Wales.

Of course, none of these achievements would have been possible without the foresight, dedication and efforts of many of us in the voluntary sector. Our collective role in working for such protections has never been more important. I first encountered CPRE at an event organised by Professor David Bellamy where I learned about their important work lobbying MPs and peers. This work remains of critical importance, as CPRE’s members and local groups have a very important role to play in inspiring our politicians to act in the long-term and wider public interest.”

A version of this blog was previously published in CPRE’s members’ magazine Countryside Voice.

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Read the latest on our National Parks campaign


We must make sure that the environment is centre-stage in government deliberations.

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