HC Deb 15 May 1981 vol 4 cc1044-8

Amendment made: No. 32, in page 6, line 22, after ' 10.', insert— 'After section 49 of the Act of 1967 there shall be inserted the following section—"49.'.

Mr. Dewar

I beg to move amendment No. 33, in page 6, line 22, leave out 'or', and insert 'after consultation with'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 34, in page 6, line 28, at end insert— '(1A) Before entering into any management agreement, the Commission shall consult the relevant planning authorities. (1B) In this section, "the relevant planning authorities" include any planning authority for an area within which any land liable to be affected by the management agreement is situated'. No. 35, in page 6, line 28, at end insert— '(1A) Where, in the opinion of the Commission, it is necessary in the national interest that such an agreement be made and the relevant planning authority has not entered into such an agreement then the Commission may, after consultation with the Planning Authority, take such steps as are necessary to conclude an agreement.'.

Mr. Dewar

This is the last debate of any substance that I intend to initiate. I do not intend to intervene on Third Reading. I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) on the splendid progress of this measure. I have some reservations around the margin, and I believe that it would have been better as a Government Bill. However, the hon. Gentleman has done splendidly. He has conducted the Bill with great courtesy and persistence. He should be congratulated on controlling his Back Benches on Second Reading so that no one shouted "Object." That is usually a reflex action from Tory backwoodsmen. The hon. Gentleman is now at the point of success.

I feel strongly about these amendments. Clause 10 concerns management agreements and provides that a management agreement can be entered into with the owner of land by the planning authority or the Countryside Commission for Scotland. I have received a number of strong representations from the Highland region, which had caveats from the beginning. I have also heard from a number of others that this is a matter of some dispute and contention. If management agreements are to be entered into, whether they be for capital transfer tax exemptions or otherwise, they are the responsibility of the local authority. While there should be consultation with the commission, as has been provided for in the amendments, the final decision should lie with elected local authorities. That point was made earlier in the debate. On this occasion I have an unlikely ally in the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay), for which I am grateful.

I want to refer to a letter to the Scottish Development Department from a Mr. F. H. Orr, dated 3 April. It was addressed to the joint director of law and administration of the Highland council. That council had been arguing that under clause 32 of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill a similar right for England and Wales had been confined to local authorities, and had not been given to a non-elected quango. I mention that dreaded word "quango" for the first time. Mr. On said that we should not be bound by the contents of the English Bill, and that Scotland should look for its own solutions. I do not quarrel with that view. He made an important point, with which I am sure the Minister will wish to deal. He said: The Scottish provision which allows the Countryside Commission to enter agreements as a principle was the outcome of agreement of a working party which included"— and listed the distinguished and wide-ranging bodies that had been involved. He continued: They took the view that both local authorities and the Commission should have enabling powers That is embodied in clause 10. He continued: the latter"— meaning the commission— confining its use to agreements where a significant national interest was involved. There is no sign of any such qualification in the Bill. Such a qualification is not simply laymen's words, but is often found in statutes.

I draw the attention of the House to section 15(2) of the Countryside Act 1968, which states: Where, for the purpose of conserving those flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features, it appears to the Council expedient in the national interest to do so, the Council may enter into an agreement That is, in effect, a management agreement. The Act refers to the phrase "in the national interest". Mr. On believes that there is no doubt that that qualification should be included. It was also the view of the working party on whose findings the Bill has been built.

I am including such a provision in amendment No. 35. It is not included in the Bill. It should be included, and I wish to stress that. Mr. Orr said in his letter: We would expect the Commission to keep local authorities advised of any proposal to enter into a management agreement. That is a pious hope, although no doubt on many occasions it is justified. However, it is only a hope. There is nothing in the clause to provide that that consultation should take place. If there is to be any sort of involvement as a principle by the commission, the qualification "only where significant national interest is involved" should be included. The right to make a management agreement is wide-ranging. In Committee, the hon. Member for South Angus gave a number of examples of planning and compensation for planning that did not take place—for example, the regeneration of scrub land and drystone dyking.

12.30 pm

The hon. Member for South Angus said that the opportunities within the clause are limitless. That is right. They can involve land management and a wide range of matters that are normally the preserve of the elected council. If we are to have the commission making agreements off its own bat as a principle without any statutory duty to consult, and if the opportunities are limitless, we should try to limit them in the way that the working party wanted by putting in a qualification about the national interest.

The amendment is not designed to be hostile. Its purpose is to ensure that the commission operates within agreed limits, limits that are agreed by the working party and supported by common sense. I hope that it will be agreed that the amendment proposes a modest and sensible limitation in view of the Scottish Development Department's letter, the working party's report and the remarks of the hon. Member for South Angus about the scope of management agreements and their limitless opportunities.

Mr. John MacKay

I shall direct my remarks to the amendment that stands in my name, amendment No. 34, which tries to achieve the same result as the amendment of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) but in a slightly different way.

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) is no longer in his place. This is another issue on which the Highland regional council had much to say. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's two amazing outbursts this morning were just his ration for the week. He took up a great deal of the time of the House and I feel obliged to foreshorten my remarks due to his electioneering. I was rather insulted when he said that I was trying to face both ways between the conservation lobby and the farming lobby.

One has to take both positions into account in trying to find a compromise that satisfies both groups, legitimate interests. It is insulting indeed for a Social Democrat to accuse anyone of facing both ways when he must find it extremely difficult, when facing all different ways at one and the same time, to have the addition of a tartan version of the Social Democratic Party. I am happy to say that it is not to be found at the bottom of my garden.

In discussing management agreements we embrace a topic that is raised vis. a vis the Nature Conservancy Council and sites of special scientific interest. As I said on 3 March in an Adjournment debate, if we are to have conservation in rural areas it is important that some account is taken of the economic consequences of the activities of the NCC or of the commission. Management agreements are one of the ways in which the economic consequences can be taken into account.

Under the terms of the Bill, the commission can enter into management agreements with the owner of the land, whether he be an estate owner of the sort that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has decided to make his Aunt Sally to heip him win his next election as a Social Democrat, or an ordinary working farmer who finds that he is farming over land of special scientific interest or special beauty. The management agreement is the way in which to arrive at a compromise between the interests of the farmers and the interests of the conservationists. Whether the issue be beauty or scientific conservation, the planners should at least be consulted. That is what the amendment seeks, as does the amendment of the hon. Member for Garscadden.

I do not wish it to be thought that I think that the planners are necessarily correct. The most serious planning application refusal of which I am aware was in the Highland part of my constituency. The Highland regional council refused permission for an important development that would have brought employment and wealth to that part of the country. The whole operation was put in danger by that refusal. The NCC was not involved and it was not an area of scenic beauty, but the Highland regional council was involved. I am happy to say that the reporter on the appeal not only found that its judgment was sadly lacking but that its interpretation of the law was sadly lacking. I am not convinced that planners are necessarily always right on those matters. The Highland regional planners have made the biggest mistake which I have seen in my two years as the Member involved in planning matters.

Therefore, I hope my hon. Friend will accept that the planners have a contribution to make. It would help the Highland regional council if it felt that it would be consulted. I hope that if my hon. Friend is not able to accept my amendment or the amendment of the hon. Member for Garscadden, he will be able to devise an amendment which might be introduced in another place.

Mr. Rifkind

The points which have been raised in the amendment are important. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) probably has the balance right.

I propose to my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) that we might consider recommending acceptance of amendment No. 34. That amendment includes the planning authority and ensures that it is consulted on all occasions. I prefer amendment No. 34 to that of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), firstly because his does not deal with a situation where a number of local authorities might be covered by the area affected by a management agreement. In those circumstances, it is sensible that the Countryside Commission for Scotland should be a body which can initiate such an agreement. Unlike England, Scotland does not have a national parks authority. South of the border, that authority has the power to initiate management agreements wherever it thinks that those are appropriate. The nearest equivalent that we have is the commission.

If we ensure a statutory requirement to consult the local authority and if the commission wishes to introduce a management agreement, that gets the balance right and guarantees that the planning authorities are involved. It enables them to make such an agreement, and in other limited areas it enables the commission to make an agreement in consultation with the local authorities. That is fair to all parties concerned. I hope that the hon. Member for Garscadden will feel that that is a reasonable area of assurance to the local authority, that it must either directly or indirectly be involved whenever a management agreement has been reached.

Mr. Dewar

That is not what I wanted. The concept of what is necessary in the national interest is not included. That valuable concept came from the working party and was prayed in aid by the Minister's Department in correspondence. However, what the Minister is offering is better than nothing. It may even send the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) tramping home happily. Who am I to throw any shadow of spleen over his happiness? Therefore, I shall withdraw my amendment. However, I hope that the Minister will at least consider the matter before it goes to the Lords. There is some virtue in the points which I have made. I hope that he will not entirely close his mind to further thought.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 34, in page 6, line 28, at end insert— '(1A) Before entering any management agreement, the Commission shall consult the relevant planning authorities. (1B) In this section, "the relevant planning authorities" include any planning authority for an area within which any land liable to be affected by the management agreement is situated'.—[Mr. John MacKay.]

No. 36, in page 6, line 40, leave out `the Act of 1967 (which relates to access agreements)' and insert 'this Act'.—[Mr. Rifkind.]

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