HC Deb 20 March 2001 vol 365 cc182-3
7. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

If he will make a statement about Government plans to give greater protection to areas of outstanding natural beauty. [152914]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 introduced provisions for the better management and protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty, including requiring a management plan for every AONB and providing an option for the creation of conservation boards. Planning protection for AONBs has been confirmed as being at the highest level, alongside that for national parks.

Mr. Edwards

I thank my right hon. Friend for all his efforts while piloting the legislation through the House, and assure him that it is greatly appreciated by all those in my constituency who live and work in the Wye valley area of outstanding natural beauty, and by people from all over the world who visit the Wye valley. Can he give some indication of the timetable for introducing the measures that he outlined?

Mr. Meacher

Yes. The main requirement relates to the introduction of the regulations that will govern the mapping process. I have already said that the mapping process must be concluded by 2005, although it is my intention that it should be concluded significantly earlier than that. It depends on the initial mapping exercise that the Countryside Agency is to carry out in the north-west and south-east of the country this summer. In the light of that, we will decide whether to proceed to open up areas of the country on a regional basis or by land type.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I welcome the Minister's reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards). Will he agree to give the same planning protection to sites of special scientific interest, including that which is identified along the line of the proposed pylons for which his Government have given approval and which go right through a SSSI? Will he agree to give SSSIs the same planning protection as areas of outstanding natural beauty?

Mr. Meacher

The CROW Act, as it is called—the Countryside and Rights of Way Act—provides greatly strengthened protection for SSSIs, not just for AONBs. The degree of protection compares with that given to grade listed housing. In other words, if damage is done, the person responsible for it can be taken to court, prosecuted and forced to return the site to a pristine condition at his or her expense. That is a clear protection, which has never existed before and now applies to all SSSIs.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

I welcome the speech that my right hon. Friend made earlier this month, particularly the creation of the pathfinder forces to be administered by the Tidy Britain Group, an organisation that has already shown extraordinarily good judgment by siting its national headquarters at Wigan pier. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the features that make our areas of outstanding natural beauty so attractive are the canals and rivers that flow through them? What plans does he have to extend part IV of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to include the banks, thereby giving authorities the ability to keep them litter free?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend makes a serious point. I am concerned at the state of many riverbanks, and the surface of rivers is often badly littered. There are disputes about who carries that responsibility. I am keen to introduce as soon as possible new regulations or legislation that will ensure that there are adequate powers to deal with the issue. I have already had it brought to my attention, particularly in regard to the Mersey basin, but it applies to many other parts of the country. River basins that are badly litter strewn must be cleaned up.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Has the right hon. Gentleman had a chance to think about access to the countryside, particularly to areas of outstanding natural beauty, and how that would impinge on the present problems that the countryside is experiencing as a result of foot and mouth disease? It is possible that the Prime Minister will soon call a general election. Rather than cutting and running with a general election, does the Minister intend to stay in his Ministry during the election to make sure that the problems in our areas of outstanding natural beauty, which are causing concern to my constituents, are dealt with by the Government?

Mr. Meacher

That question was rather silly and over the top. Of course there is a very serious point about access to the countryside during the foot and mouth outbreak. In a few minutes, I will make a statement about that. As we stated in the guidelines that we issued on Friday, there are many parts of the country, including areas of outstanding natural beauty, which people can safely visit, as long as they abide by the rules, which are to avoid all contact with livestock, keep away from farmland and, above all, strictly obey the "Keep out" signs.