HL Deb 04 April 1984 vol 450 cc771-89

7.29 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to protect existing areas of outstanding beauty, and whether they are satisfied that planning procedures are adequate, bearing in mind recent decisions in respect of Prussia Cove, Cornwall.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I begin with an apology on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Bullock, who has taken a deep and continuing interest in these matters and especially in Prussia Cove. The noble Lord is out of the country but his interest in the issue is undiminished. I should also mention the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, who cannot be here tonight but who would have added value to the occasion as a former chairman of Countryside Commission.

When we debate a topic in your Lordships' House it is always of value if we begin with a definition of what we are talking about. It may help if we use a definition already enshrined in legislation. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 puts it thus: The Commission"— that is the National Parks Commission— may, by order, made as respects any area in England and Wales, not being in a National Park, which appears to them to be of such outstanding natural beauty that it is desirable that the provisions of this Act relating to such areas should apply thereto, designate the area for the purposes of this Act as an area of outstanding natural beauty.

We also have the value of a policy statement from the Countryside Commission dated November 1983 which restates principles and objectives: The title 'Area of outstanding natural beauty' is a clumsy one for a simple concept. Areas of outstanding natural beauty are parts of the countryside of England and Wales which, while they lack extensive areas of open country suitable for recreation and national park status, are nonetheless of such fine landscape quality that there is a national"— I stress "national"— as well as a local interest in keeping them so. The purpose of designation is to conserve and enhance natural beauty, which includes protecting flora, fauna and geological as well as landscape features.".

The Secretary of State had this to say about that policy statement of the Countryside Commission: The Government believe that the present legislation governing the aims and administration of AONBs provides a sound basis for the further development of policies towards them. Like the Commission, we consider that the conservation of natural beauty should continue to be the primary objective of such policies.

May I say to the Minister that I appreciate the general care and concern for conservation that rests within the Department of the Environment. Its best intentions are often thwarted by uncaring and sometimes mercenary groups of individuals. But the public look to the Secretary of State as a court of last resort as well as a provider of constant vigilance to ensure that our heritage is not wantonly eroded. My concerns are shared by others—the Council for the Protection of Rural England. In the case I raise tonight, the CPRE's Cornwall branch has been outstandingly vigilant. In a letter to me dated 18th January, I was told: The inspector's individual view was in total disagreement with the previous decisions of the Kerrier District Council and with the provisions of the Cornwall County Council structure plan. It also ignored the clearly expressed public wish that this coastline should remain undeveloped. When we asked the Secretary of State to revoke this permission we then learnt that he will only exercise his default powers in the most exceptional circumstances and where damage to the wider public interest is involved. If the preservation of a beautiful sector of the English coastline does not fall into this category then we would like to know what does.

Let me say what a pleasure it is to note that the president of the Cornwall branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Lord Saint Levan, has decided to make his maiden speech in this important debate. So far as I am concerned, he will add authority to it. The national officers of the CPRE have supplied me with many illustrations recently and currently causing them great unease over the manner in which planning decisions are being taken at variance with the stated objectives of AONBs within areas of outstanding natural beauty. I simply mention them briefly: Beeny, near Tintagel, Cornwall; Branscombe in East Devon; Sussex Downs, where oil drilling is a problem; Newnham Valley, Kent Downs, where motorcycle scrambling takes place; and Leighton Hall, Arnside. I ask the Minister simple, straightforward questions. What faith can the public place in the Secretary of State that he always keeps in mind his duties towards AONBs in planning matters? And how does he ensure that local planning authorities are aware that he will not tolerate them ignoring their responsibilities, as has happened, I believe, at Prussia Cove?

The Ramblers' Association has expressed to me its concern that firmer policies towards AONBs must be developed. It is concerned about the inconsistency shown in protecting these areas. The ramblers want to see the role of the countryside strengthened with much more frequent reviews by local authorities and government of policy towards these areas. They want to see greater co-ordination among the interests in areas of outstanding natural beauty the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Countryside Commission, the CPRE, the ramblers and the public. The ramblers want to see greater levels of public finance made available to enhance and protect these areas. I am disturbed when I detect, perhaps even at Prussia Cove, that approvals are given or go unchallenged, sometimes because local councillors fear the cost to them of opposing such developments.

The site at Prussia Cove, Cornwall, from its descrip-tion and the pictures I have seen, is one of the loveliest parts of Britain. It has enjoyed the protection of designation as being within an area of outstanding natural beauty for more than 25 years. It has been subject to an Article 4 direction for 20 years. The issue I wish to raise with the Minister tonight is the present status of a field, a tiny part of a larger, lovely, unspoiled part of the Cornish coastline. I do so in the context of intense dissatisfaction with planning procedures and the fear that what has happened can happen again, not only in Cornwall but in other designated areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The question that has to be asked of the Minister is just what care or interest he takes to ensure that his approval of such areas is respected and whether he bothers to monitor what happens to them after designation? If he falls back on the defence that local people know best and that he does not like to interfere, he must remember that we are talking about Britain's heritage. Ultimately, I believe that the Secretary of State has responsibilities. We want to find out tonight what they are in respect of these areas.

It was as long ago as June 1974 that Mr. Solomons, the district planning officer of Kerrier District Council, said when refusing development: The site is shown as 'white' land in the county development plan and it is undesirable to permit the intensification of holiday units in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The access to the site is inadequate and although it is proposed that it should be improved, danger and obstruction would be caused to fast moving traffic on the county Class 1 road, the A394. That was stated 10 years ago. It was in August 1980 that Mr. Calder, the county planning officer for Cornwall, wrote after a refusal: The site is within the coastal belt where it is the policy of the county planning authority to prohibit all development except that which it considers to be of an essential nature". And he added: The development, if permitted, would result in undue detriment to the amenities of an area of great landscape value and an area designated as of outstanding natural beauty".

It was in March 1982 that Mr. Griffiths, the county planning officer for Cornwall, wrote: After being advised of the previous history relating to this site and the report that was submitted to the committee in October last year, it was decided that the district council should be advised that the proposal was in conflict with structure plan policy 13C relating to AONBs. This policy states that the preservation and enhance-ment of the landscape will be given priority over other considerations relating to development and the management of change. This proposal is therefore in material conflict with this policy and this would be a reason for refusing permission for this proposal.

It was in June 1982 that Mr. Solomons, the district planning officer of Kerrier council, wrote after yet another refusal: The stationing of tents and motorised caravans on this site is incompatible with the provisions of the county structure plan having regard to its location in an area of outstanding natural beauty and great landscape value. He also said: Tents and motorised caravans would be prominent and constitute an alien feature in the coastal landscape and would result in a more intensive use of the site to the detriment of the visual amenities of the area". Twelve months later planning permission has been granted to make permanent an annual temporary use, persistently refused, and with clear exploitation potential. It is in the light of that, of necessity, encapsulated history of refusals to consolidate uses on this field that I must ask the Minister a series of questions of which I have given him notice.

Does the Minister consider that the area of outstanding natural beauty containing Higher Kenneggy and the adjacent Prussia Cove has received the protection intended under that designation, together with the coinciding designations of an Article 4 direction under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971?

Will the Minister comment on this situation? Paragraph 13C of the structure plan states in designated areas of natural beauty: The preservation and enhancement of the landscape will be given priority over other considerations relating to development and management of change.

How in the face of that is it possible to approve that development? Is the Minister now aware that over the period September 1981 to September 1982 three separate applications were refused for non-compliance with the structure plan, by the district council and endorsed by the county council? Does the Minister appreciate that when an appeal was dismissed the inspector did so on two specific grounds relating to road, sight lines and unsatisfactory access to the beach—a beach reached by a ladder which the inspector declined to test or use?

Has the Minister studied paragraph 18 of the inspector's report wherein he said: I commend the council's general policy of resisting further camping and caravanning and chalet sites within an area of natural beauty and that it deserves support in the interest of preserving and enhancing the attractive appearance of those areas.

Against that background, can the Minister understand the cynicism and despair felt by thousands of local people—and I believe thousands elsewhere—that the inspector showed contradictions of mind-boggling inconsistency, only matched by those of the local and county council in failing to maintain and defend their own policies?

The Minister is aware that, by virtue of an earlier revocation, £90,000 was paid to new owners of a field, and that was an outcome of great satisfaction to thousands of local and countrywide users of this area. Can the Minister appreciate that they were shattered when this further consolidation of an annually renewable use was granted? What advice has the Minister for these and many others who fear that both structure plans and designations as areas of natural beauty can be set aside to cater for the expansionist plans of developers? Can the Minister acknowledge the difference between a farmer in situ expanding a use and a sale of land to others wholly for the purpose of gain and contrary to established planning laws?

What do I hope to achieve by this debate tonight? First, to alert the public to the insidious erosion of our heritage which is taking place under our noses. Secondly, to provide the Minister with the opportunity to answer for the unease that I have shown widely exists that when there is determination, coach and horses can be driven through hitherto otherwise solid protections for our heritage. Thirdly, my purpose tonight is to expose the miserable history of planning blunders at Prussia Cove culminating in a permission being granted by a frightened council, fearful that to refuse could land them with the bill, and a Minister who refuses to exercise his reserve power for fear that he will be faced with the bill. We know who has gained—the developer who bought the land. The nation is the loser.

The credibility of the whole network of protection for the countryside is also raised here tonight. I admit that the Minister has his problems and I do not flinch tonight from adding to them. However, I know him as a Minister who cares about the countryside. He has demonstrated that time after time in my short time in the House. He is also concerned about the credibility and the integrity of the decisions of his department. Tonight he has the opportunity to add to them, both by considering this wretched case and by acting swiftly and decisively to save the position at Prussia Cove— and the "Prussia Coves" of tomorrow.

I began my remarks with an apology. I conclude with a grateful, well-deserved acknowledgement. Michael Tunstall Behrens and his family have worked tirelessly to save this part of Cornwall from desecration. His family have maintained properties within this area for more than 100 years. No property has been externally altered since 1914–70 years. None of their land is used for chalets, caravans or tents. Their commitment has been total. They have been sustained in the knowledge that they have justice on their side. They have been supported by thousands in Cornwall and beyond. They have fought with passion and conviction. They deserve the goodwill of the Minister. In having the privilege of presenting their case in your Lordships' House tonight, I applaud their fight; they deserve our thanks and, I hope, those of the whole House.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Saint Levan

My Lords, I should very much like to thank the noble Lord for raising the question of Prussia Cove and whether planning procedures are sufficient to protect the beauty of the whole of Mount's Bay. I am talking about all the land between the Lizard and Land's End. Prussia Cove is an extremely important cove. So many coves in West Cornwall have been ruined in the last few years partly because of unfortunate planning developments and partly because, unfortunately, inshore fisherman can no longer make a living and the little cottages lived in by those fishermen have now been sold to other people.

The Prussia Cove decision was most unfortunate. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty subject to an Article 4 direction—an area specifically designated by the Cornwall County Council plan as an area that should be preserved. We all thought, after three planning refusals, that nothing more would happen. Then we had the inspector's report.

The inspector's report made the problem much more difficult. It is difficult to read the report and understand, as a layman, exactly what was intended. The noble Lord has kindly told your Lordships that I am the President of the Council for the Protection of Rural England in Cornwall and that we do care desperately about the conservation of these natural beauty spots. We are conservationists, but we are also extremely aware of other planning problems.

This planning report, which deals with the development which we opposed, does not seem to be clear. Some paragraphs of the report seem to be putting forward the submission of the developers; other paragraphs of the report deal with the submissions of the council; and other paragraphs deal with rather different planning considerations—for example, whether there was a road traffic problem, whether the pathway down to the coast was important and so on. But the most important part of the report—the part which said that this site could be developed—should have been given special prominence and special significance so that an ordinary layman would know what it meant and how it was going to affect future planning applications.

There are various questions that I should like to ask the Minister about the advice that is given to inspectors. If there are additional materials made available to inspectors on the conduct and presentation of appeals, are they made available to the public? If not, should they be? Is there any guidance given to inspectors as to the way in which they reach conclusions in their reports, especially where those conclusions may prejudice future planning applications? What guidance is given to inspectors on the presentation of their arguments, including, importantly, summary statements that the ordinary lay person can understand? From the national point of view, are there ways in which recent planning appeals affecting areas of outstanding natural beauty can be categorised and monitored so that a degree of consistency can be brought about as between one part of the country and another? Would a classification system for appeals of the sort described here be useful if the department as well as the ordinary members of the public wanted to know what was happening?

This is a particularly difficult case. We have an area of outstanding natural beauty. Behind it, a mile or two away, there is land that is not designated for building. Every developer will look at the Cornwall structure plan and see that there is some land that can be developed. Behind that land there are the beautiful Tregony and Godolphin hills of outstanding natural beauty, some of the land covenanted to the National Trust. About 10 miles away, on the other coast, there is St. Ives and another part of Cornwall.

I am very worried about one other matter. I am particularly concerned about the circular which the Department of the Environment issues to its planning authorities and planning officers Circular No. 22 of 1980 states that aesthetics are entirely a subjective matter. Planning authorities must not seek to impose their tastes on developers simply because they believe them to be superior. In Mount's Bay it is extremely important that aesthetics should be taken into account. In the last 50 years much has happened; many developments have taken place which I think nearly everyone would regret. In the future I very much hope that there will be a circular to planning authorities and inspectors stating that they should take a more positive approach to planning.

Perhaps I may give one brief example. I am very concerned about instructions given to planners about the colour of buildings. Many buildings in Mount's Bay are painted white because originally, in order to prevent damp, they were painted with lime. Afterwards some cottages were made to look very attractive having been painted with Snowcem. Now if one looks at the whole of the coastline of Mount's Bay one sees splashes of white all over this beautiful coast. I hope that planning officers will be encouraged to ensure that colours are natural and that buildings blend in with the countryside.

Other developments will take place in Mount's Bay which will be extremely important in the near future. The town of Penzance is an area of high unemployment. Unfortunately, the only place where new factories can be built is on the Eastern Green—the access to the town which is right on the coast. When tourists revisit historic towns in the South-West, they will find that nearly all the entrances to those towns are now lined with new developments. I accept this because obviously unemployment is an important factor.

Perhaps I may give another brief example. I live at St. Michael's Mount, which is a National Trust property and one of the most visited National Trust properties in the country. Every year over 170,000 people go round it and over one million people in this country who are National Trust members can visit St. Michael's Mount without spending a single penny. Marazion needed a new community association building. This was extremely important for the leisure activities of the town and it provided the unemployed with somewhere to go. Under the auspices of the Manpower Services Commission it was built by the unemployed. The building covers over 8,000 square feet. It could have been absolutely disastrous to the view that tourists had of the town from the Mount. However, we were very lucky. The community association in the village took enormous trouble to ensure that that building fitted into the skyline and that it was built of the right materials. Instead of having a large roof, it had a pyramid roof because that would not stick out too much. I am quite sure that the guides to St. Michael's Mount will point to this building and tell visitors to the Mount that not only does the building melt well into the landscape, but it is an enhancement; it is something to be proud of. Therefore, can the Minister introduce more positive planning and in a future circular give more detailed instructions in order to save the heritage coast of Mount's Bay?

7.55 p.m.

Lord Leconfield and Egremont

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Saint Levan, on a most interesting maiden speech. I hope that we may be able to persuade him to contribute to our deliberations in the future. For a few moments I should like to change the emphasis of this most important debate and perhaps broaden it by speaking on a matter of considerable importance to those who live in the south, and particularly the south-east, of England.

This matter has been raised in your Lordships' House before, but the problem has grown somewhat since then. Perhaps I ought to declare an interest. I come from the south-east, from the County of Sussex. I am president of the Sussex county branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. This debate, or a part of it, is especially timely from our point of view, for we in Sussex are faced with the prospect of a major oilfield on our doorstep. This has naturally stirred up a considerable amount of feeling in the county.

The two county councils—the West and East Sussex County Councils—have given planning consent to two companies to drill exploratory wells within their respective licence areas. Both of these proposed drillings are in designated AONBs—areas of outstanding natural beauty. It has been pointed out that the planning consents are of only limited duration and do not include permission to extract. But it is worth bearing in mind that once permission to explore for oil has been granted, if oil is then found permission to extract has always followed. This would seem to indicate that, to be effective, refusal has always to come before the granting of permission to explore. Therefore, if oil is present in commercial quantities on these two sites, they will almost certainly go on to become productive oil wells.

There is reason to believe that there may be a great many other places where oil is present in commercial quantities in the downland and high Weald areas of Sussex. The geological strata in the Humbly Grove field in Hampshire continue east through Sussex into Kent. Indeed, two more applications for permission to explore for oil are expected shortly for areas in the high Weald, a recently confirmed area of outstanding natural beauty.

There are, of course, problems, apart from the drilling of the oil wells. These include difficulties of transportation along minor country roads, the building of gathering stations—which. I understand, in Hampshire can occupy up to four acres—vast storage tanks, distribution points, and enormous initial disruption from the bringing in of material for construction.

I believe, for instance, to speak of transportation, that in parts of the Humbly Grove field there are up to 44 tanker movements a day. Your Lordships will be aware that the maximum size and weight of these juggernaut lorries have recently been increased to be in line with the rest of the European Community. It may be imagined how the country lanes of the Sussex countryside will cope with these brutes going along them 44 times a day.

Of course, the roads could be improved, but what a terrible effect such improvements would have on the character of the intimate and fragile countryside, the landscape of Kipling and of Belloc! An alternative to removal by tanker is to pipe the oil to a nearby gathering station; but even if this were done the gathering station itself is, as I understand it, a very considerable industrial complex. What we should perhaps be asking ourselves is: is this what we want in an area of outstanding natural beauty? If it is, what is the point of taking the trouble to designate such areas at all?

However, I do not want to be dogmatic. I understand and I accept that in certain areas of outstanding natural beauty, or AONBs, where the damage would be minimal, oil extraction is a possibility. But surely there are others where the landscape is of such a quality that it is of the utmost importance to preserve its character.

I return to the word "fragile", and all those who know the part of the world in which I am fortunate enough to live will, I think, agree that this is an apposite description. The countryside in the south of England, especially in the south-east, is of an intimate and fragile nature, easily knocked out of scale. Would it not be fair to ask, or to say, that in such an area of outstanding natural beauty there should be a strong presumption against oil exploration and development?

I understand that the Government are considering new guidelines in this delicate matter. At the moment the county planning authorities have to take decisions on individual single applications for one borehole without knowing the full extent of a possible oilfield. What I am asking for is—and I would be interested to hear the Minister's response on this point—that the oil company which makes the application should be bound to divulge the full extent of its knowledge at that time as to the possible amount of oil present, and the likely result of industrial works that will be needed to exploit this to the maximum. If this knowledge was to be forthcoming it would allow the planning authority in question to judge the best way to limit the damage caused to the surrounding countryside, the beauty of which led to its designation as an area of outstanding natural beauty in the first place.

One alarming point remains, and I should like to leave your Lordships with this by perhaps simply posing a question. Are the county councils equipped to deal with the exceedingly complex planning applica-tions and forecasts submitted to them by the oil companies? If they lack the expertise in the highly technical field of oil exploration to do this, how will they obtain it? I should like to hear the Minister's views on this. I understand that independent advice on such matters, if available, would be exceedingly expensive and possibly outside the range of local government departments, which, after all, these days, have to operate within extremely tight budgets.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I think there are three of us who would like to join in this debate whose names are not on the list, and from various hand signals around the Chamber I think I am going to go first. I should like to congratulate my noble friend on asking an important Question and say that I entirely agree with the case that he and the noble Lord, Lord Saint Levan, made about Prussia Cove. I have had some correspondence about the case which I read with great interest. It seems to me that the muddled planning history of this particular site provides absolutely no justification for the decision that appears to have been taken. In both this case and the case which the noble Lord, Lord Leconfield and Egremont, mentioned of oil exploration, there is a serious problem, in that the Department of the Environment have given people messages that they are not going to call in applications in cases where sensitive sites such as AONBs are at risk nearly as frequently as they did in the past. That is a regrettable line for the department to have taken. I have no doubt that that message has got through to local planning authorities, and that this is putting at risk a number of beautiful areas of our countryside.

I did not want to add anything to the two problems which have been aired already this evening, but to bring up a third problem—one which illustrates another threat to AONBs which my noble friend mentioned in introducing the debate; namely, the intrusion and noise and danger of motor cycles using areas of the countryside which have not been prepared for them; using green lanes and, in particular, using the Ridgeway, which is a designated long distance path designated for the use of walkers and horse riders as a place where they can get away from the noise and fumes of motor traffic, whether it is from cars or motorbikes. It is of course a very important part—indeed I would say the most important part—of an area of outstanding natural beauty.

It is also a route of enormous historical and archaeological importance, and one that it is important to preserve for those reasons, let alone the huge enjoyment that it would provide to walkers were it not for the extensive use which is made of the Ridgeway by motor cycles. The problem here is slightly different from the one that has been raised already this evening; namely, the need to persuade the Countryside Commission that they should implement a policy decision which they took some years ago to apply to the relevant government department for a traffic regulation order which would ban all vehicles from the green lane part of the Ridgeway apart from agricultural vehicles, emergency vehicles, and vehicles for the disabled. In other words, all legitimate use of the route would be able to continue but not motor cycles.

To give your Lordships a brief indication of the extent of the problem I should like to quote from a correspondent in a magazine called Motor Cycling, who wrote as follows: Thud, splat and here's another mean teen greenie bombarding its way through the slimy dales searching for grassy lanes like a busy wasp searching for something to sting. The pleasure which is looked for by people driving motor cycles along green lanes and in particular lanes which have been designated for people to walk is simply that: to churn through mud making as much mess and splashing as possible, and to make as much noise as possible. Indeed, correspondents in the motor cycling magazines sometimes complain that the bikes they have just bought do not make enough noise. In one instance of which I have a record the magazine provided some information about how a motor bike could be made noisier—the production model could be made noisier—without jeopardising the chances of passing the MOT test with it. It might be worth giving another quote, this one from The Sunday Times Magazine some time ago, where a person describing the joys of riding motor cycles in this sort of area said: The tougher the terrain and the worse the weather, the more fun it is. The great sensation of trail riding is the exhilaration of getting over the obstacles and the excitement of anticipating the hazards. Motor-cycles are noisy but trail riders argue their sport is not anti-social because they seldom meet anyone else on the green roads. I very much doubt whether that is so. It is certainly not the case on the Ridgeway. For example, the photographer and author of a book about the Ridgeway wrote: Sunday afternoons were regularly shattered by the horrible noise from the trail riders. You could hear them for miles before they appeared and miles after they disappeared. No trail rider who ever passed me cut out his engine or gave any sign of acknowledging my presence or right to walk the trail. I had to leap out of the way with my camera and tripods. That was the case some time ago. The fact that this problem in some respects is getting worse rather than better is illustrated first of all by an advertisement from Motor Cycle News of 28th March of this year, where the advertisement for the bike is headed, "A Thumper with more punch" a description which a certain walker on the Ridgeway may well feel is particularly apt: on 13th November last year, a Mr. Gavin Sellers was hit by a motorcycle, laid off work for six months and, as far as I can tell from a photograph of his leg injury, had about 20 stitches in his leg. Apart from the very serious injury which it caused him, that afternoon there were 100 motor cyclists using the Ridgeway for some sort of rally—indeed, as a race track—with the consequences for that particular walker that I have mentioned and a completely ruined day for all the others who were using the Ridgeway on that Sunday.

The Countryside Commission, who are responsible for going to the Government to ask for a Traffic Regulation Order, have taken the view that they needed to try voluntary restraint first. This seems to me to ignore the fact that the risk of one accident such as happened to Mr. Sellers is a risk which is not worth running in these circumstances. There seems to me to be absolutely no justification for allowing motor-cycles on this particular designated long distance route for walkers and for horse riders if there is a risk of this sort of accident happening, which there clearly is. It seems to me only a matter of time before somebody—probably a child—is killed on the Ridgeway as a result of motor-cycles going down it in this way. Those people on the Countryside Commission who have to take a decision on this—incidentally, a decision which is going to be taken tomorrow—will bear a very heavy responsibility—not if that happens, but, in my view, when, inevitably, that happens.

The Countryside Commission voluntary scheme has had some success in reducing the number of motor-cycles using the Ridgeway at times when it has been operating. Nevertheless, large numbers have continued to use the route and, as an article in Country Life this year stated, nearly one-fifth of the motor-cycle use was illegal: that is, unlicenced machines or under-age riders. The report which has been made on the voluntary restraint scheme states that the police clearly do not regard it as a priority to enforce the law against this very high proportion of motor-cycle riders on the Ridgeway who are breaking the law—no doubt not insured and, as a result, putting at even greater risk those people who may be injured by their activities.

This problem has been with us for a great many years and the Countryside Commission, as I say, apart from trying this scheme of voluntary restraint, has so far refused to go to the Government to ask for a traffic regulation order. I find this a quite incomprehensible state of affairs. The only argument I have heard from the Countryside Commission to justify their failure to go to the Government for a traffic regulation order is that they think they would be turned down by the Government.

My particular reason for wanting to raise this case tonight (as I say, the evening before the commission comes to a decision on these matters) is to seek an assurance from the noble Lord the Minister that the Government have not said anything to the Countryside Commission—as I am sure they have not—which would give the commission grounds for believing that they would be turned down if they asked the Government for a traffic regulation order on the Ridgeway given the fact that the voluntary restraint system has shown up a large level of illegal use there: a serious accident has happened in the last few months, and the level of use, while reduced during the periods of voluntary restraint, is still, in my view, quite unacceptably high for a route which is designated for walkers and horse riders.

The Countryside Commission also argued that, were the Government to turn down a request for a traffic regulation order, that would place them in a worse position than they are in now. That seems to me to be tantamount to suggesting that the Government are blackmailing the commission by saying, "If you apply to us for a traffic regulation order, not only will we turn it down but we will make sure that things are in a worse state after it is turned down than they are now". Again, I find it hard to believe that the Government could have said anything, whether by commission or omission, which would have given the Countryside Commission that impression. Again, I ask the noble Lord the Minister to give me an assurance that that is not the case.

I am encouraged to ask the noble Lord the Minister for this information because of something which his honourable friend, Mr. Waldegrave, the Minister at the Department of the Environment, responsible for many of these matters and countryside conservation generally, said recently in an interview with the CPRE—which has been mentioned at least twice this evening. It was that he saw the need for strict controls over such motorised forms of countryside recreation. He went on to say that nevertheless—and I would agree with this—room has to be found even for them somewhere. I am sure all of us would agree with that. The question is: should room be found for noisy motor-cycles many of which are being ridden by under-age riders with no insurance on a route which has been designated as being of national importance for people wanting a quiet walk, or a quiet ride on a horse, in the countryside? I am sure the answer must be no, and I hope the noble Lord the Minister will confirm this.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, the hour is getting late, and I promise not to detain your Lordships for more than two minutes. As a Cornishman, may I take this opportunity of congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Saint Levan, on his informative and persuasive maiden speech. He is a true son of Cornwall, and I am sure that we who have the privilege of being Members of your Lordships' House will benefit greatly when, in the future, he speaks to us on matters appertaining to Cornwall and the West Country.

Cornishmen will also be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for bringing this Unstarred Question before the House this evening. He has put many pertinent points before us tonight, and I hope that they will prove to be fully persuasive to all noble Lords. I hope the noble Lord the Minister, when he comes to reply, will take into account the many points that your Lordships have made for the preservation of Prussia Cove, for it is one of the most beautiful coastal places in Cornwall. In conclusion, I would plead with Her Majesty's Government not to allow this cove of peace and great beauty to be destroyed by development.

8.19 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord the Minister and to the House for not having put my name down on the list of speakers, but I was not sure whether I could be here this evening. However, I did receive correspondence about Prussia Cove at the time my noble friend put down his Unstarred Question some little time ago. I wanted to assure the House tonight that the points he has made are of very great significance, not only at Prussia Cove.

I am delighted, not only to be able to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Saint Levan, on his maiden speech, which was a helpful one—I hope we shall hear from him often again—but also to add my support as president of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales. We are two years younger than the CPRE, and we regard that organisation as our elder brother. A wrong decision at Prussia Cove could have considerable influence in undermining future decisions in other parts of the country. We have an area of outstanding natural beauty in South Wales, the Gower Peninsula, with a magnificent coastline. Great efforts have so far been made to protect it—on the whole successfully—but one decision of this nature could help to undermine future decisions. Then we have the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, also with very beautiful inlets and coves, comparable with Prussia Cove.

I am stressing to the Minister that this is not merely a local matter. It is a question of sustaining designated areas, whether they are areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of scientific interest or national parks. If these are not supported in appropriate circumstances, then wrong decisions have effects on other places. They set precedents which are highly undesirable, and from everything that I have heard I feel there is great danger, if the wrong decision is sustained at Prussia Cove, that it will have damaging effects in other places.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady White, is quite right in saying that this is not merely a local matter, and in the course of my speech I want to set this in the context of a much wider perspective. In that connection I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for providing this opportunity for me to restate the Government's policy on the protection of our areas of outstanding natural beauty. I am also grateful to the noble Lord for providing my noble friend. Lord Saint Levan, with a platform for his maiden speech—a thoughtful and most interesting contribution. I should perhaps say that the platform is a slightly more level one than my noble friend's more normal perch on St. Michael's Mount. At the moment I am unable to answer his detailed questions, but if I may I will write to him. On one of his more general points I would say that what is acceptable design in one area may not be in another.

My right honourable friend the former Secretary of State for the Environment outlined the Government's policy in a Statement he made in another place in July 1982. That was in response to the findings of a wide-ranging review undertaken by the Countryside Commission—the first major appraisal of these areas since designation first began in 1956. The commission is responsible for proposals for the designation of areas of outstanding natural beauty—a process subject to confirmation by my right honourable friend. As he said in 1982, the Government believe that the present legislation governing the aims and administration of AONBs provides a sound basis for the further development of policies towards them. Like the commission, we believe that the conservation of natural beauty should continue to be the primary object of such policies.

My right honourable friend the present Secretary of State for the Environment has recently demonstrated the Government's commitment to the role of AONBs in the planning system by confirming three new areas, bringing the overall total to 35. These include the Camel Estuary extension to the Cornwall AONB: the original area includes Prussia Cove, to which the noble Lord refers in his Question. The order designating the Cornwall AONB was confirmed in 1959, and with this recent extension the total area of this AONB is now 373 square miles.

The statutory purpose of designation is the preservation and enhancement of natural beauty. The Government recognise that these areas should be used also to meet recreational needs, but only in so far as recreational use is consistent with conservation, agriculture and forestry.

We have made it clear that confirmation of an AONB designation order carries with it a formal recognition by the Government that the landscape of the area is of national importance. That means we should not normally expect to see the siting in these areas of, for example, large-scale industrial or commercial development unless there was a proven and overriding national interest and no reasonable alternative site was available. In other words, the national significance of the beauty of the area becomes a factor—and in practice a very important factor—in the decision the planning authority has to take when an application for permission is made.

It is for the Government to see that the countryside is properly protected, so that, quite apart from other considerations, people may continue to enjoy the relief it affords from the day-to-day pressures of urban life. That inevitably involves a degree of classification and comparison. We must endeavour to quantify benefits which are largely subjective and which cannot be expressed as figures in a balance sheet.

That is part of the planning process. We live on a small and densely-populated island. Land is a limited resource which we must use wisely and with foresight if we are to accommodate successfully the many and often conflicting demands which society places upon it. It is the task of central government to provide a framework for achieving a balance between these various demands. But we can do so only in broad terms. We cannot devise a single national plan to cover all contingencies. It would be impossible to do that while retaining the necessary flexibility to respond to the individual needs of local circumstances. That is exactly what local authorities—in this case Prussia Cove and some of the others we have heard mentioned tonight—represented by their planning departments and, ultimately, their planning committees, are for.

Local conditions are many and diverse, even within the bounds of a unified designation system. Areas of outstanding natural beauty come in all shapes and sizes. Some are large, like the North Wessex Downs and the Chilterns; others, like Cannock Chase and Dedham Vale, are much smaller. Some, like the Quantock Hills in my part of the world, are compact and readily identifiable: others, like the Cornwall AONB, are fragmented. Some, like the Sussex Downs, are rich agriculturally, others, like the Forest of Bowland, are wild and remote. There is no single character, and there can be no single, all-embracing strategy.

The planning system needs to be flexible enough to combine the needs of conservation and the environ-ment with the need to provide for economic growth. Allowance can and must be made for industrial, commercial and housing development (including development to encourage the tourist industry n places like Cornwall). But Her Majesty's Government have made it abundantly clear that development has to be controlled and that this Government are strongly-committed to the preservation of the natural environ-ment, including areas which have been designated as being of outstanding natural beauty.

Your Lordships may know that we have made a special development order, which goes by the lengthy title of the Town and Country Planning (National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas) Special Development Order 1981. This limits the kind of development allowed elsewhere, without planning permission, under the general development order. For example, it means that householders and industrialists cannot make such large extensions to their premises in these areas without permission, as they can elsewhere.

The Government's job is to provide guidelines by which others, principally the local planning authorities, may formulate proposals for the shape of future land use. Under the development plan system, which we have heard mentioned tonight, county councils are responsible for preparing structure plans, and for keeping them under review. Both county and district councils may, where necessary, prepare local plans.

Structure and local plans set out the land use policies, including those to be applied within areas of outstanding natural beauty. They provide frameworks for development control and the co-ordination and direction of development. The procedures followed during the preparation or adoption or approval of plans enable the views of all those interested to be taken into account before the plans are approved or adopted. The structure plan at that stage has presumptions of various developments in various areas, and the interests of areas of outstanding natural beauty would already have been covered. Approval of structure plans by the Secretary of State, with modifications as appropriate, enables the Government to ensure that they are satisfied with the broad land use policies to be applied within these areas.

Perhaps this is an appropriate moment to say that where circumstances change the structure plan will have to be altered and the alteration approved by the Secretary of State. I am thinking particulary of recent interest in oil prospecting on land in East Sussex and the county council's proposals to alter the structure plan. My noble friend Lord Leconfield and Egremont raised this issue. As he fairly said, we have been there before: on 23rd November last to be exact.

It has been the policy of successive Governments over the years to give every possible encouragement to the exploration and proving of our indigenous mineral reserves. Oil and natural gas are no exception. It is only by determining the location and full extent of our indigenous hydrocarbon resources that we can make sensible provision for the future, and ensure that energy needs are balanced against environmental considerations. Successive Governments have also taken the view that individual applications for permission to explore for minerals should be dealt with on their merits, without consideration of the possible merits of further developments which may or may not occur. I think that the important thing for my noble friend and the House to realise is that there can be no presumption either way. In any case, a second planning approval would be necessary if further drilling were to be required, or to put up the oil tank farms or anything else which might be required for the exploitation, rather than exploration, of such a resource.

When it comes to the question whether particular developments should or should not be allowed in areas of outstanding natural beauty, as in the case of the caravan site at Prussia Cove, it must be for the local authority concerned to take a decision initially, bearing in mind the policy content of their development plans and other material considerations which, I must remind the House, have already been approved by the Secretary of State. One of those other considerations will be the national significance of the amenity value of the area. The Government would expect local planning authorities to attach greater weight to conservation objectives in the exercise of development control and other planning functions in areas of outstanding natural beauty than in undesignated parts of the countryside, but one cannot lay down rigid rules. The total area of the Cornwall AONB is 375 square miles, and it already contains much developed land. Total bans on development, regardless of local considerations, will be neither right nor practical.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment normally becomes involved only if a particular development is of such regional or national significance that he feels it appropriate to call in the planning applications as his own decision or, if the authority refuses the application, the applicant appeals to him against that refusal. I can tell my noble friend that my right honourable friend decided that this was not appropriate in the case of Ditchling Beacon. It would be possible further to tighten planning controls in these areas, but I am not convinced that we will be justified in so doing. Nor do I accept that the Prussia Cove case demonstrates the need for such a change.

Certainly there has been controversy, and the planning history of the site is complicated. This application concerns a re-application for planning permission to have tents and caravans which has been granted on an annual basis since the end of the second world war. In September 1981 the farmer put in his normal annual application and had it turned down, as were two further applications. It would be unprofitable to speculate why. We do not know what communications passed between the developer and the local planning authority in this case. At least, I do not know. If the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has evidence of such things, I should like to see it. He gave the suggestion—I would not put it any higher—in his speech that perhaps he might. All that I have to go on is paragraph 12 of the inspector's report. It says: The council stated that the structure plan policies normally only allow the development or extension of camping or caravan sites where, among other things, they were not within an area of outstanding natural beauty". I must disagree with the noble Lord when he asserts that this was the main reason, if (and I can only say "if) it was. The inspector considered it was fallacious. Otherwise, how could he have said, in paragraph 17 of the same report, that he considered the principal issues to be determined included whether the continued—I repeat "continued"—use of the appeal site would be unduly harmful to the visual amenities of the area. Then he concluded, in paragraph 23, that if certain conditions of access were improved there was in his view no reason why a permanent permission should not be granted. The appeal was, however, refused by the self-same inspector. There is nothing improper in the fact that once deficiencies have been rectified to the satisfaction of the local planning authority, a subsequent application should be granted by them, as indeed it was. It was a local matter determined by an appeal locally and within a proper interpretation of the structure plan, which, I have already said, took the fact of the area of outstanding natural beauty into account when it was prepared.

On the more general point made by the noble Lord—namely, that structure plans and AONBs can be set aside to cater for (I think he said) expansionist plans of developers—

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I appreciate the convention, and I did not wish to rise at all. I hope the noble Lord will understand that. Will the Minister not take on board the enormous significance of the translation from "temporary" to "permanent" in this instance; and, not only that, but that once a permanent permission has been granted it immediately provides the opportunity for consolidation and then, after consolidation, for expansion? A crucial aspect is the recommendation or the indication by the inspector that a permanent permission should be given—and from that has flowed a great deal.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I accept that there is a difference between annually-renewed temporary permissions and a permanent permission. How could I say otherwise? I think the point that I was trying to make was that these annual permissions had been going on for a very long time. The decision was that no permission at all could be granted unless access was improved. Access was improved; and the application was for a permanent permission for these tents and caravans. The local planning authority can only determine an application that is put in front of them. They saw no objection, in the light of the new circumstances, to refusing that application which was put in front of them. Equally, I do not see any reason why they should have determined it any other way.

I was going on to say that on the more general point made by the noble Lord, namely, that structure plans and AONBs can be set aside to cater for expansionist plans and developments, this case does not fit that comment; nor did any that I have yet heard of. The planning laws of this country are concerned with proposed developments themselves and not with the developer, whether expansionist or otherwise. On the expansionist point which the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has just mentioned in his intervention, I would say that the fact that there is now a permanent permission for a site which has been no different in size or scope or any other internal dimension since the war cannot constitute a presumption that any further development can go on.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Just you wait.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord says, "Just you wait". All that I can say is that if anybody puts in an application I should look very carefully at the planning authority. Every case must be decided on its merits and the history of this planning consent, which I believe to come out right for the reasons I have given, should not be taken as a precedent for future applications, whether in the immediate vicinity or anywhere else.

I must agree with the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, that the Ridgeway is a long-term problem which has erupted in your Lordships' House from time to time. I take the basic point made by the noble Lord, especially the noise and danger factors. I, too, should like to associate myself with his comments on the unfortunate man who had his leg broken as a result of being hit by a motor-cycle while he was walking on the Ridgeway. I really thought that the noble Lord went even stronger than I have heard him go for a very long time.

Over the last eight years or so, I have heard as many lunatic suggestions from him as he has heard from me. None, however, on either side has been quite as lunatic as that to which he has treated your Lordships this evening. He suggested that the Countryside Commission would not promote a traffic regulation order on the Ridgeway because the Government would turn it down. That strikes me as the most ludicrous thought for two reasons; first, it is pure speculation; and, secondly, no Government can be presumed to have a view until they are asked. I am sure that was the noble Lord's interpretation of the facts when he was answering from this Dispatch Box, as it is mine now.

Seriously, I am reliably informed that the Countryside Commission has at present set aside a traffic regulation order for the Ridgeway until experience has been gained of the voluntary arrange-ment which is now operating. Whether they change their minds tomorrow, of course, remains to be seen, and I do not think that anything we say in this House should attempt to pre-empt that decision.

Returning to the Question on the Order Paper, the Government's policy is to leave detailed planning control so far as possible with the planning authorities. We think it is right that, as representative bodies, they should answer to the local electorate for local decisions. Central control here would be unnecessarily bureaucratic and time-consuming. The general planning policy framework, including, as I have said, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the like within which local authorities operate, is laid down by the Government and applications for development with more than local significance can be called in by the Secretary of State for his decision. We believe that this strikes the right balance between the national and the local interests and that the procedures are indeed adequate.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, has the Minister any answers to the questions I asked during the debate, or is it his intention to reply to them? The Minister might recall that I gave him notice of those questions earlier, I understand the problems, but I should like to know whether I am going to get answers.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I did not intend to answer the points made by the noble Lord, point for point, because a good third of the questions that he asked I have already answered in the course of my speech, by pointing out that the actual planning permission for this development at Higher Kenneggy was as a result of a continued series of successful applications and not as a new development.

House adjourned at seventeen minutes before nine o'clock.