A revolution in the way the North East’s 405-square-mile national park is managed was signalled in the Queen’s Speech with the surprise announcement that there are to be direct elections to the authority which runs it.
Northumberland National Park is currently administered by an authority with 18 members, including 12 councillors appointed by local authorities and six people appointed by the Environment Secretary.
But new laws set out in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech mean that National Parks are to have their own direct elections, with the winners serving alongside councillors.
Measures contained in the National Parks (England) and the Broads Bill are expected to be introduced in the New Forest first, and will then be extended to the 12 other national parks across England and Wales.
The Bill will allow the 2,000 residents of Northumberland National Park to directly elect some members of the park authority. Northumberland County Council and local parish councils will continue to appoint some members.
By law, the authority is responsible for conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area, and promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the park’s special qualities by the public.
Liberal Democrats welcomed the announcement. Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith said: “The National Park Authority has considerable powers, particularly in relation to planning, and this move to improve democratic accountability is good news for the people who live in the National Parks.”
Other proposals in the speech, which sets out the Government’s legislative programme for the next year, included requiring supermarkets to charge customers 5p for a carrier bag. Smaller retailers will be exempt.
A new Infrastructure Bill will make it easier to extract gas or other fuels from rock beneath people’s homes.
It means companies will not need permission from homeowners to carry out induced hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, beneath their properties.
But the move is likely to be highly controversial, with a recent poll finding that 74% of people opposed the move.
Labour MP Nick Brown, MP for Newcastle East, warned that the North East must not become a testing ground for fracking, saying: “I feel very strongly that the science must come first and the economic development afterwards. We need to be very vigilant on this issue.”
The Government said the centre-piece of the speech was a plan to create giant “pooled” pension schemes with the potential to boost people’s chances of getting a better retirement outcome.
Legislation will enable “collective schemes” that spread the risk between members and could offer them greater stability over the eventual size of the pension they will end up with, while limiting costs to employers because of their economies of scale.
Similar pooled schemes already exist in the Netherlands and a consultation into collective pensions.
In a joint statement, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, said: “The reforms we plan will be the biggest transformation in our pensions system since its inception, and will give people both freedom and security in retirement.
“By no longer forcing people to buy an annuity, we are giving them total control over the money they have put aside over their lifetime and greater financial security in their old age. It’s all part of our wider mission to put power back in the hands of the people who have worked hard – trusting them to run their own lives.”
Mr Brown said the Government’s programme had failed to tackle the most pressing issue facing the North East, the need to create economic growth and cut unemployment.
He said: “The key issue for the North East is a workable economic development plan. There isn’t one in the Queen’s Speech for us. The lack of jobs, unemployment, is our principal problem, and it’s just not addressed at all.”
A new Small Business Bill will make it easier for businesses to raise finance, according to the Government, and crack down on employers failing to pay the minimum wage.
A Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill will allow courts to take the context of a person’s actions into account if they are sued for negligence or breach of statutory duty.
Ministers say that the new law will provide some protection to “Good Samaritans” who fear being sued if they try to help others.
Washington and Sunderland West Labour MP Sharon Hodgson said the speech was the work of a “zombie government” and added: “Just over a week after voters showed their deep dissatisfaction with this Government, this Queen’s Speech gave ministers the opportunity to change course and to address the issues that really matter to people in my constituency, such as making work pay and tackling the cost of living.
“Unfortunately, all we got was a damp squib of a speech, full of rehashed announcements and unnecessary tinkering.”