HC Deb 04 July 1997 vol 297 cc589-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

I wish to raise the subject of the Sussex Downs conservation board. I hope that many hon. Members who are in the Chamber and many hon. Members who are not have visited the beauties of the south downs, along which my constituency runs for about 30 miles.

The Sussex Downs conservation board was established in 1992, by voluntary co-operation between the Countryside Commission and 13 local authorities. It looks after 400 square miles and 1,300 separate rights of way and footpaths.

I raise this subject for two fundamental reasons. One is that the board's six-year trial period runs out in the spring, and there was an urgent need to decide whether it could be financed for a time, pending any further decision to place it on a permanent basis. Secondly, I thought it was important to appraise, consider and discuss what this voluntary experiment has achieved in the management of the south downs.

I am pleased to say that the Government have agreed to reduced rollover financing by the Countryside Commission for the next three years, and I thank the Minister and her Department for that. On behalf of my constituents, I thank Lord Nathan, who is retiring as chairman, and his 29 staff and his board. It is felt overwhelmingly in West Sussex and East Sussex that an excellent job has been done for pretty modest expenditure.

The Countryside Commission undertook, or had undertaken, some professional research, which concluded that the new arrangement had delivered its objectives at very good value, that it had delivered integrated countryside management, and that it had worked extremely constructively in town and country planning in the local community.

Half of West Sussex is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, and half is not. What has been most constructive is that, although the board does not have planning powers within its AONB territory, it has a planning advisory committee and rights to attend and to be consulted. It has become the main giver of good environmental planning advice, not only in its castle but in the areas that border it. The danger of hostility being created between the two organisations has been avoided.

The House may wish to discuss AONB borders in future, but we certainly do not want rural areas that are non-AONB designated to be the butt of all environmentally damaging planning requirements.

The board has had the support of the community and the two county councils, and it is to be hoped that the county councils will be able to contribute in the new financing arrangements—together with the district councils—to help make up the shortfall caused by the reduced financing from the Countryside Commission.

The downs is an integrated community, with farms, villages and enterprises. It is not purely an environmental area, although it is enjoyed by some 30 million people per annum. With such a mix, it is vital that there is co-operation within the wider community, and that one achieves what one wants through persuasion and co-operation.

An interesting incident happened in the spring, when, owing to foolish common agricultural policy incentives, a farmer started to plough up land. Everybody interested in the environment was opposed to the farmer's actions, and the board was successful in collaborating with all interested parties in stopping them. The board even succeeded in having the sods put back. That proves that, in a difficult situation, a collaborative approach can be succesful.

We are to have three years of rollover, and there is great local relief and consensus that that has been agreed and that funding has been achieved. We are looking for the Hampshire downs to be incorporated so that it can become the South Downs board, rather than just the Sussex Downs. The board needs streamlining, as it has 36 members—arguably, too many.

We hope that the Government will look favourably on putting this succesful body on to a permanently financed basis. That is the crux of the issue. Whether that requires statutory measures or not remains to be discussed, but it probably will. Not only my constituents, but the overwhelming population of West and East Sussex support what the board has achieved and would like it to be permanently institutionalised as the right vehicle to manage all aspects of the beautiful south downs.

2.36 pm
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

I endorse the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight). A large part of the south downs lies in his constituency, and a large part of the rest lies in mine. The three-year rollover is very welcome, and we would like the Government to give more permanent effect to those arrangements. I should like that for three main reasons.

First, research from independent consultants for the Countryside Commission concluded that the board represented good value for money, and that it has had some success in providing integrated countryside management and influencing the town and country planning process. In that regard, the board has established an influential role in the process, which is strongly supported by the local planning authorities.

Secondly, the South Downs AONB management board has been approved, and its strategy has been well received nationally and locally. Thirdly, we need to look not only at the interests of the locality, but at the country as a whole. Millions of people come to visit the south downs, and their interests require resources beyond the scope of what local authorities can provide. I believe that the experience of the board shows that it is possible to achieve national purposes in landscape protection through locally determined and accountable mechanisms.

In wishing the Government to move towards a permanent arrangement beyond the three-year rollover, I should like to add that a consensus is now emerging locally that something along the lines of the present board should continue not only for the next three years, but as a permanent feature. I encourage the Government to move in that direction.

2.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) on his success in securing an Adjournment debate on such an important subject. It gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the work done over the past five years by the Sussex Downs conservation board, and to assure the House that this Government is serious about providing the most appropriate form of management and protection for the south downs in the future.

Fifty years ago, back in 1947, the report on possible national parks drawn up by the Hobhouse committee for the post-war Labour Government identified the south downs for inclusion in the national parks programme, but, when the national parks were being designated in the 1950s, under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the south downs were left out.

The reasons given then were the level of agricultural improvement that had already taken place on the downs, depleting the downlands, and the fact that those taking the decision considered that the wide and wild open spaces that were meant to become national parks, which they found in, say, the Lake district or Northumberland, were not to be found in the downs. Following that omission, we now know that 80 per cent. of the downland has been lost in the 50 years since that decision was made. We must do all we can to preserve and manage what remains.

After that disappointment, the south downs was eventually given the status of two, separate but adjoining, areas of outstanding natural beauty. The east Hampshire area was designated in 1961, and the Sussex downs area followed in 1965. Although, in the 1949 Act, no distinction is made between the level of landscape designation of a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty—they are both "equally beautiful"—in practice, the two designations have different results.

National parks receive a relatively generous level of public funding, three quarters of which comes from central Government through the system of national parks grant. Local authorities contribute the remainder, although that is specifically compensated through the system of standard spending assessments. The national park authority for each park is the local planning authority, and it has specific responsibilities to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the park and to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of its special qualities by the public.

Areas of outstanding natural beauty do not have access to core funding from national Government, although they may be eligible for some grants from the Countryside Commission and elsewhere. Local authorities have powers, but not duties, to look after them, so they tend to lose out to those areas of spending that local authorities have to pursue by statute in times of stringent financial control.

Unlike national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty do not have independent authorities created by statute. We shall certainly want to have a fresh look at the differences between the arrangements for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and to see whether there are some workable new solutions for particular areas that are under great pressure.

The pressures on the Sussex downs areas of outstanding natural beauty come from visitor numbers and from development. They were such that, by the early 1990s, the Countryside Commission and the local authorities in East and West Sussex decided to form a new experimental body to conserve the Sussex downs.

Visitor numbers in the area are greater than for most national parks, and the pressures are substantial. Therefore, the Sussex Downs conservation board was set up for six years. The local authorities in the area delegated their countryside management services to the board, and agreed with the Countryside Commission to fund it on a 50:50 basis for six years. We are having this Adjournment debate essentially because that period will end on 31 March 1998.

This year, the Countryside Commission is providing £640,000 for the conservation board. That is a substantial slice of the commission's national budget, and about 35 per cent. of what it has to spend on all the 37 areas of outstanding natural beauty in England. So the Sussex downs is being treated as a very special case.

Hardly anyone who knows about the activities of the board does not agree that it has done a very good job with the resources available to it. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs set out the board's achievements clearly, and described the level of local support for the activities that it has undertaken in the years of its existence.

The board has brought about real improvements to the planning and management of the downs, and has managed to strengthen local commitment by creating a stronger identity for the area. Among other things, the board has established and developed an integrated countryside management service and a volunteer ranger service. It has had some success in influencing development plan policies and development control decisions.

The board has produced a management strategy for the area, drawn up an annual work programme with its partners, and produced a landscape report which has been adopted as supplementary planning guidance. That is precisely the kind of innovation that the creation of the board was designed to promote. It is a source of satisfaction that a great deal of good work has already been done. That needs to be further developed, just as the future arrangements for the administration of the area need to be finalised.

The board last year carried out consultations with a wide variety of interested parties about its future, and there was unanimous support for its continuation, or its replacement with another body with similar or enhanced powers. It was remarkable, and a compliment, that no one who was consulted wanted to see the end of the conservation board.

However, there was not a consensus on the best administrative arrangements for the future. Although some of our major environmental bodies supported the case for a new national park, many local interests see the case for a continuation or enhancement of the existing conservation board. Both hon. Gentlemen essentially supported that.

The Government want to build on the success of the Sussex Downs conservation board over its first six years. As we promised before the election, we intend to institute a consultation process on the best way forward for managing the downs in the medium and longer term. That consultation will begin later in the year. One of the options is a new national park, but that is not the only option.

We shall seek views from local authorities, local landowners, environmental organisations and others who are interested, and will take eventual decisions in the light of the responses to our consultation. We want any successor body to bring in the Hampshire side of the downs, as well as that which is in Sussex.

We propose, more widely, to take a fresh look at which areas might be designated as additional national parks. In doing so, we cannot ignore the fact that national parks cost public money—a current average of about £3 million for each park—and we shall need to be clear about where any proposed additional resources are to come from if new designations are to be made.

The Minister for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), will meet the Countryside Commission next week to discuss all those issues.

The Countryside Commission intends to issue a separate consultation paper in September about a possible system for managing and funding a number of areas of outstanding natural beauty which are under the greatest pressure. That could provide a suitable model for the downs. The Countryside Commission's ideas also have resource implications which we would need to consider carefully.

It will clearly take a little time to carry out the consultation on the best way forward for the downs, and to establish whichever long-term arrangements eventually prove best. Therefore, with the Countryside Commission, the Government have agreed a further package of public funding for the Sussex Downs conservation board, which will be available to the board when the initial six-year funding ends next March. That was announced by both parties on 1 July. I believe that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs had applied for the Adjournment debate before that announcement, so I was glad to be able to satisfy him before we came to the Chamber today.

I understand that the interim arrangement has been accepted by the board as providing the necessary stability for it until long-term arrangements are in place. The Countryside Commission will provide up to a further £1,050,000 for the board over the period to 2000–01, by which time we hope that the future arrangements will be agreed and in place. We will work hard towards that end.

The further funding that the commission is to make available will be to fund specific projects which the conservation board will agree in a work programme with the commission. I have asked the Countryside Commission to keep me informed about how the programme is developing, and I am sure that it will be managed successfully.

We want the local authorities to go on matching the Countryside Commission funding, or better, and I understand that that has been agreed. The conservation board must also continue to work to raise funds from other sources. I make it clear that the extension of funding that we have agreed for the conservation board is a one-off extension. It must be followed by the correct long-term solution for the sympathetic management of the downs.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned ploughing up part of the downs, and he correctly identified the culprit: the common agricultural policy. The absurdities of that policy mean that an individual could get more than £300 an acre for ploughing up ancient grassland, and a mere £14 or £15 an acre for preserving it. While the common agricultural policy contains those absurdities, preservation will prove very difficult. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that suitable changes have been made to the flax regime in the common agricultural policy that have closed those loopholes. We hope that we will not face this sort of situation again.

I have explained that the Government are very appreciative of the efforts of the Sussex Downs conservation board in conserving the downs over the past five years. I hope the House will agree that the conservation board is a success story—and the Government intend to help make it even more successful in the future. The interim funding package that we have agreed with the Countryside Commission—which will make available more than £1 million—will provide the stability that the conservation board needs while we consult on the best long-term arrangements for the whole of the south downs.

I hope that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, and the many people who have shown an interest in the future of the downs, will respond to the consultation process and help us to fashion the most appropriate arrangements to deliver a long-term and sustainable future for this popular and beautiful area.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Three o'clock.