HL Deb 08 December 1998 vol 595 cc808-11

2.58 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will announce their decisions regarding future legislation for the protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest; and what is the proposed timetable for such legislation.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are still giving detailed consideration to the Countryside Commission's formal advice on protecting our finest countryside, including the future arrangements for areas of outstanding natural beauty. There is a great deal to consider but we hope to announce some conclusions soon. We are currently consulting on the protection of sites of special scientific interest and will consider those responses. We will look for a suitable opportunity to legislate once it is clear that that is required.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply and I remind your Lordships that I am chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. Perhaps I may ask the Minister for his department's definition of "soon", bearing in mind that his colleague in another place, Mr. Meale, recently said that an announcement on these proposals would be made "very soon". In the noble Lord's department, is "soon" sooner than "very soon" or later? Is there not now such a logjam on environmental proposals in the Department of the Environment that there is a danger of all legislation regarding the countryside being pushed onto the back burner? Would it not be sense for the Government to commit themselves to bringing in a Bill in the next Session which simply deals with the protected areas and protected wildlife, ANOBs and SSSIs? Such a Bill might well get all-party support, get through both Houses of Parliament very quickly and thus show in the millennium year that the Government are doing something to meet their commitment to environmental protection.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I note with interest and delight the noble Lord's offer in this respect. If it emerges in the next Queen's Speech that we are pursuing such a Bill, I am sure that it would receive substantial support in this House. However, some complicated issues are involved here. We are still making up our minds. The definition of "soon" as against "very soon" I will leave to your Lordships. But we would hope to make a decision "soon" subsuming "very soon".

Lord Bridges

My Lords, in considering this matter, will the Government, in the course of their review, examine the procedures being followed in the Department of the Environment for planning applications inside an AONB? At present, the procedure is that if such an application is made the Department of the Environment will not have anything to do with the consideration by the planning authority until that authority has decided that it is minded to approve. By that time, as I know very well from my experience in East Anglia, where a foreign developer is proposing to create a commercial airport within an AONB, the planning authority may have committed itself or may find it difficult to reverse its decision. Surely the Department of the Environment ought to have a constructive discussion with the planning authority to guide it as to its responsibilities, which, in the case which I mentioned, and as I know from my correspondence with Ms. Jackson, is not happening at the moment.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the prime responsibility in all these planning matters rests with the local authorities and with the authorities within areas of outstanding natural beauty. However, my honourable friend Dick Caborn, the Minister for Planning, is reviewing all planning processes. That will include those which apply to AONBs and other areas of outstanding natural interest.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his encouraging reply to this important question. Does he agree that some areas require almost instant attention and that some areas must be given priority over others so that these parts of our country can be saved by his actions?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's support. There are always priorities involved. Nevertheless, we are clearly committed to protecting and enhancing the beauty of these areas of our country and protecting the areas of special scientific interest. This has been shown in our approach to infrastructure developments and road planning where we have greatly reduced the number of such sites that will be affected. This is a difficult area. As I said in my first answer, we will be making an announcement soon.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, what steps are the Government taking on funding the AONBs so that they will not be relying on a medley of assorted partners to come up with what they think they might be able to afford?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am able to say that the new Countryside Agency, which is being created by the merger of the RDC and the Countryside Commission, will have an additional £2.5 million to spend on AONBs next year, which is more than double the amount available at present.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I wish to follow up the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, with regard to the quite astonishing proposal to convert the former RAF Bentwaters into a regional airport in an AONB in one of the most beautiful and tranquil parts of Suffolk. The council has been heavily lobbied by the commercial promoters. No infrastructure for transport by either road or rail is available in the area. If it were to go ahead it could be the end of the Aldeburgh Festival, one of Britain's major cultural events. In order to underline the Government's commitment to the protection of rural England in these special areas, will the Minister arrange for this application to be called in for determination by the Secretary of State in accordance with overall priorities for the country as a whole?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, what I can do is to note the noble Lord's remarks. However, were a decision to be taken for the site to be called in, it would not be appropriate for me to comment because the Secretary of State would then he acting in a quasi-judicial capacity.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that over the past 20 years astonishing damage has been done to large numbers of areas of outstanding natural beauty and to SSSIs? May one hope that the Government, when they complete their complex review, will be able to bring forward helpful arrangements which will meet general approval?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there has been damage to some SSSIs. We would intend that whatever new policy we come up with as a result of this consultation will address the worst of those problems and, it is to be hoped, all of those problems.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that when the Government do produce answers to these very difficult problems—I admit that they are difficult—they will also produce answers to the questions about the future status as national parks of the South Downs and of the New Forest?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, your Lordships may know that the Countryside Commission has given formal advice on that as well. In relation to the New Forest, it is proposing that it should indeed become a national park. In relation to the South Downs, it is suggesting that the conservation board, of which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is chairman, should be converted to a statutory basis. Ministers are still considering that advice.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the contributions of noble Lords this afternoon have only highlighted the dilemma facing the department at the moment? The Government have no overall strategy for the environment. Will the Government accept the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Renton that on this issue alone there seems to be unanimity around the Chamber and that some form of legislation should come through sooner rather than later?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I would refute the noble Baroness's original remark. The environmental strategy that we have adopted under my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been one of the clearest and most ambitious programmes that the Government have embarked on both nationally and internationally. I think that, in different contexts, this House acknowledges that. I acknowledge that there are some dilemmas facing the Government, particularly with regard to this area. We hope to resolve them soon and report to your Lordships' House accordingly.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, as my noble friend is such a nice, innocent and generous sort of chap, may an old, hardened politician like me caution my noble friend about accepting, against the background of the events of last week, any offer from the Benches opposite of all-party support on anything? Has he not noticed that the Cross-Benches are becoming rather crowded?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I appreciate that the context in which these measures may be brought forward next Session or beyond may be somewhat different. Nevertheless, I think that noble Lords here and in prospect will support the measures when the Government eventually come through with them.

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