HC Deb 13 July 1999 vol 335 cc159-60
13. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

If he will make a statement on the future status of the Sussex Downs conservation board. [89488]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale)

We are still considering the former Countryside Commission's advice on the protection of our finest countryside, including the future status of the south downs and its conservation board. We intend to make an announcement soon.

Mr. Loughton

May I ask the Minister why it has taken so long to make a decision? It has now been 16 months since the lifespan of the Sussex Downs conservation board was extended. Will he or his successor remember, before arriving at a decision, that every local authority in Sussex and every Member of Parliament representing Sussex, with the exception of the Labour-controlled unitary authority of Brighton and Hove and the two Labour Members of Parliament, are in favour of retaining and strengthening the Sussex Downs conservation board, rather than giving away local democracy by opting for national park status?

Mr. Meale

We are aware of the deep feeling about the Sussex downs, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that there are different opinions on the issue. However, the reason for the Government's delay is that we believe in a working and living countryside, and we want to get the decision right.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

Does my hon. Friend agree that what is really important is not the future status of the Sussex Downs conservation board, which has not been the most proactive conservation body ever known to man, but the status of the south downs themselves? Popular opinion in Sussex, as opposed to Conservative-controlled local authorities, is overwhelmingly in favour of national park status for the south downs as the only sensible option to protect one of the most sensitive areas of our country.

Mr. Meale

My hon. Friend is quite right that opinion on the south downs is almost equally divided, and strong voices are being heard by the Government. As I said, we are committed to a living and working countryside, and the Government have already given an extra £2.5 million to areas of outstanding natural beauty. We intend to get our decisions right on the matter.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

First, I commiserate with the Minister on the fact that, unlike the Minister for the Environment, and despite a lifetime's effort, he does not rate a CIA file on his activities. It must be a blow to him.

Will the Minister explain why he is dithering so much on the question of the south downs? He cannot give a decision today, or even tell us when he plans to make up his mind. Will he at least give an end date by which he will have made up his mind, so as to end the damaging uncertainty that threatens the future of one of Britain's most important areas of natural beauty?

Mr. Meale

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we treat the matter extremely seriously. We are aware of the end date for the present funding arrangements for the conservation board, which is 2001. There is no way that the Government will put at risk either the work of that body, or the right decision on the future of the south downs and other areas. I can also tell him that we are working feverishly to reach a position from which we can make a long-term decision, and we are determined to get that decision right.