HL Deb 09 July 1999 vol 603 cc1202-10

2.14 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Purposes of designation of areas of outstanding natural beauty]:

The Deputy Speaker (Viscount St. Davids)

My Lords, in calling Amendment No. 1, I should point out that if the amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 2 and 3.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, leave out lines 11 to 17 and insert ("of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the areas specified in subsection (1A).")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I thought it might make sense to attempt to redraft the purpose of the designation of areas of outstanding natural beauty. However, the point has been made to me—in Committee 10 days ago there was considerable discussion about this wording—that it might be better to stick to the original wording that was used to describe areas of outstanding natural beauty, the only difference being that after the 1949 Act the word "conserving" was put in the place of "preserving" by the subsequent Act. Having listened to the argument and to the points made by noble Lords in Committee, I have tabled this amendment, which I hope will win the support of the whole House. The amendment brings together in one place a clear statement of the purposes of designating AONBs. It merely restates statutory purposes. It does not seek to amend the existing definition of AONBs' purposes, but it provides a clear statement.

It is now 50 years since the 1949 Act was passed. When the Government bring forward their proposals on areas of outstanding natural beauty, which I hope they will do soon, they may consider at that stage that 50 years have passed and that perhaps it is time to reformulate the purposes of an AONB. I hope that the Minister, who is kindly listening to the debate on a Friday afternoon, will take this point back to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

One example that might be considered is the whole question of encouraging biodiversity and, in the case of the South Downs, the return of chalk grassland, which falls within the bailiwick of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That is a matter of substantial interest to us. Perhaps that kind of biodiversity should be one of the objectives of an AONB.

Mention of the South Downs reminds me that I think it is appropriate for me to remind the House of my interest in this matter. I have often declared in the past that I have an interest as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. In that context, I am delighted to see my predecessor in that post, the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, sitting in his customary place opposite.

It would be wrong to let this stage pass without reiterating that it is disappointing to many of us that so far the Government have not yet managed to make clear their intentions about. AONBs. I shall not go over the sequence of "soon'', "very soon" and "pretty soon" that we have been offered. However, last week I noted a strong contrast when, on the one hand, I attended the launch of the Countryside Agency, which had, as its slogan put out by Ministers, "Everyone's a Winner". A few days later I read in our local paper the words of the new chairman of CPRE, Sir David Ford. He said: I believe the countryside is threatened as never before. Outward migration from our major towns and cities is fuelling urban sprawl; the crisis of farming and changes in farming practices are damaging the landscape and the relentless rise in traffic on rural roads leaves people intimidated and fearful".

In answer to a debate initiated in another place last week by Martin Caton, the Member of Parliament for Gower, on the subject of the future of areas of outstanding natural beauty, the junior Minister at the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions, Mr Meale, said: I can assure hon. Members that the subject of the advice—which related to the future status of the New Forest and the south downs, as well as making recommendations for AONBs generally—is never far from my mind or that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State".—[Official Report, Commons, 30/6/99; col. 302.] If that is the case, it would be good to hear quickly what are the results of the prolonged thinking on the part of Ministers at the DETR.

I realise that this is not easy, and that there are complexities as regards planning and conservation issues, and about where the money will come from. However, I beg the Minister to take away that all of us involved with AONBs need a decision from the Government shortly. I beg to move.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, first, I give the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, an absolute assurance that we shall read and consider carefully his comments today and those of other noble Lords, as we have during the progress of the Bill.

Secondly, I assure the noble Lord that I do not intend to repeat all the disclaimers and caveats that I placed on record in Committee. That would detain Members of your Lordships' House unnecessarily. We are aware of noble Lords' concern about the need for a decision, but the decision must be made after all the circumstances have been carefully evaluated.

Finally, the Government are likely to prefer to maintain the words, conserving and enhancing the natural beauty", in the event of any legislation for which it would be appropriate.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Renton, I, too, declare an interest. I am a landowner and one who lives within an AONB. Having said that, I thank my noble friend for his sympathetic view on the debates that we had in Grand Committee. In particular, I thank my noble friend for trying to accommodate us as regards these two well debated clauses. However, as with other noble Lords, we are concerned that we should be unable to debate Amendments Nos. 2 and 3. We wish to articulate more carefully the description. Therefore, I agree with the Minister, although from a different angle, and cannot accept the amendment at this time.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Rotherwick, I find myself not entirely happy with my noble friend's amendment.

Clause 1 sets the whole tone of the Bill. The amendment does not give adequate recognition to those people affected by the legislation. The amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Rotherwick and myself are designed specifically to meet that problem. I do not believe that Amendment No. 1 is entirely satisfactory.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I feel that I should repeat what If said because I may have been misunderstood.

On Amendment No. 1, I said that the Government are likely to prefer to maintain the words, conserving and enhancing the natural beauty", should there be any eventual legislation.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, from the Cross Benches, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. In one sense, I do not mind either way. However, in a Private Member's Bill it probably makes good sense to stick to what we are used to, and to note what the Minister has now said twice. I support the amendment.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, the amendment has the general support of the Government. I listened carefully to what my noble friends Lord Rotherwick and Lord Kimball said. There are other amendments tabled in their names which will be discussed. Those amendments go a long way towards meeting the points they made in Committee. I hope, therefore, that they will not press their resistance to the amendment which restates the status quo as regards the definition of AONBs. I commend the amendment.

2.24 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

My Lords, the Question is that Amendment No. 1 shall be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion shall say "Content"; to the contrary "Not-Content". I think the "Not-Contents" have it. Clear the Bar.

Division called.

Tellers for the "Not-Contents" have not been appointed pursuant to Standing Order No. 51. A Division, therefore, cannot take place, and I declare that the "Contents" have it.

Amendment agreed to.

2.28 p.m.

[Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]

Clause 2 [Duty of certain bodies and persons to have regard to conservation and enhancement of areas of outstanding natural beauty]:

Lord Rotherwick moved Amendment No. 4: Page 2. line 3, at end insert— ("(e) any person owning or occupying the land in association with those other public bodies charged with the care of the area of outstanding natural beauty")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 8 and 12. The fact that this amendment needs to be moved shows that the Bill as it currently stands does not take account of the people. I cannot reiterate often enough that the countryside is its people; they have made it what it is in the face of enormous external pressure. The preservation of areas of natural beauty, like the future of the countryside as a whole, relies on the co-operation and good will of those who live in the countryside and who depend on it for their livelihoods.

The insertion of the amendment will ensure that in the provision for, and the running of, AONBs, the term "public body" in this clause will include: any person owning or occupying the land in association with those other public bodies charged with the care of the area of outstanding natural beauty". That is the recognition that when it comes to the day-to-day care of AONBs and their management, it is the owners and occupiers of the land who are the key element. It should be abundantly clear that without their inclusion and participation in the management, protection and development of AONBs, the Bill would be frustrated. Worse still, it would risk becoming a source of resentment and conflict. That is precisely the opposite of what we should be trying to achieve, which is partnership and consensus. It would be tragic if an arrogant attitude prevailed and the rights and the need of the owners and occupiers working with other relevant organisations were not recognised and protected by the inclusion of the amendment.

The aim of Amendment No. 8 is also to protect the owners and occupiers from the dangers of arbitrary interference into their land and livelihoods. It is an important consideration that while special designated areas are subject to greater restrictions on use, access and so forth, arbitrary interference is always minimised and, so far as possible, the rights of owners and occupiers are protected. We must ensure that those rights are respected by the Bill.

Moreover, it is simply a question of natural justice that owners and occupiers should be formally involved in the planning and care of AONBs. The amendment recognises that the involvement of the owners and occupiers in the management and protection of AONBs is of central importance in ensuring the success of, and strategy or plan established for, an AONB. Moreover, it will ensure that AONBs continue to be an integral part of the broader rural scene. If their natural link to rural communities is broken, they are in danger of becoming frozen at some arbitrary point in time and, far from being an asset to the local community, they could become a burden.

Let us not forget that it has been the hand of man with nature that has created most AONBs. One of the elements that has created and sustained that beauty is the living dynamic quality. Destroy that and something essential will be lost. Indeed, I should go so far as to say that the loss of local involvement at the formal as well as the informal level could sound the death knell of AONBs in the long term.

The key mutual relationship between man and his environment, in which different needs must be balanced and in which man must play an active, responsible role, is increasingly being lost, abdicated or impinged upon by political correctness and those who, while making decisions which impact upon the countryside, neither understand it nor rely on it for their livelihoods. That symbiotic relationship to which I referred, and the experience that goes with it, will be invaluable in planning AONBs and ensuring their future.

This amendment would protect the rights of individuals while ensuring that that invaluable source of wisdom is formally incorporated into the management structure of AONBs. We also avoid, by the amendment, further alienating rural people, something we cannot afford to do particularly at this difficult time for those in the rural economy, especially those involved in the farming crisis at present. I beg to move.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, in the past few years the attitude towards areas of outstanding national beauty has changed. Like my party, I have always been a supporter of preserving areas of outstanding natural beauty. Indeed, I declare an interest, as vice-president of the Council for National Parks.

The real menace to the countryside comes from the threat to farming, small farms and the businesses that depend on them. That is what we must fight against. There is not much sign of anyone doing anything about it. If the present situation continues, we shall, over the next few years, lose our English countryside. We might then become like America, where conservation areas such as national parks seem to be plucked out of nowhere, and are not part of the living countryside, as they are now in Britain. That is why I am inclined to support the amendments, and hope that they will be accepted.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, I understand and support the aspirations of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick. However, I wonder whether the amendments are technically the right way to proceed. I have some difficulty in equating a private person, even though he is in association with other public bodies, with the beginning of what will be new Section 87(A)(2), which states: For the purposes of this section "relevant authority' means". The various bodies are then listed, to which will be added "any person". That seems rather strange, and I wondered whether the Minister could advise us whether this is the right way to achieve the end sought.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I rise to support these amendments, and I bear in mind the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. I shall be interested in the Minister's reply. It is crucial that whatever management structure is set up under the terms of the Bill, it should encompass those who live and work in the countryside and have done so for years. The amendments specify that they should be consulted.

My noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley has highlighted the problem that we face. Many of us are involved in farming, and most of us know the dreadful times suffered by farmers. These amendments would reassure farmers who may feel that they are being bypassed or having imposed on them management structures over which they have little say, interpretive power or support.

With those few comments, I feel that it is important that we include all the knowledge, past wisdom and practical expertise which we have. It is important that we include young people involved in agriculture today, and indeed, those on tenanted land as opposed to owned land or land farmed as a family farm. Economic activity within AONBs is crucial for their future success. It is the balance of structures which leads my noble friend to move these amendments. I hope that the Minister will feel able to support them.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, it is my understanding that in moving Amendment No. 4, the noble Lord spoke to Amendments Nos. 4, 8, 11 and 12, and he has confirmed that. We are not sure what Amendment No. 4, as drafted, is trying to achieve. We can see the attraction of placing a duty towards AONB care on private citizens, but doubt whether that is a practical suggestion. It was not done in the 1995 legislation on national parks and would need careful scrutiny.

With regard to Amendment No. 8, the Government would want such bodies as the NFU and the CLA to be consulted, along with other interested groups. We should need to decide whether that needs to be stated on the face of any eventual government Bill. We would not accept that organisations, however important, should have an effective veto on setting up a conservation board. That is our understanding of the effect of Amendments Nos. 9 or 10 being taken together with Amendment No. 8.

Speaking to Amendments Nos. 11 and 12, in making his appointments to a conservation board., the Secretary of State would wish to ensure that a wide range of interests were represented. It is almost inconceivable that that would not include people making their living within the AONB, including the management of land. Equally, we should expect conservation boards or local planning authorities to consult widely on the review of management plans. The precise way in which those issues were reflected in the text of the Brill would require further government consideration.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their sympathetic comments. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I think that it is important that we do not lose sight of the balance of the Bill. It is rather too heavy on landscape and not balanced enough towards those who live in the landscape. I accept some of the points made by other noble Lords, but on the whole, I believe that the arguments which I made at the beginning are strong enough to convince me of the need for this amendment, which I commend to the House.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Chorley moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, line 24, at end insert— ("(1A) Subject to subsection (2) and in pursuance of its duty under subsection (1), every local planning authority whose area consists of or includes the whole or part of an area of outstanding natural beauty shall also seek to foster the economic and social well-being of communities within the area of outstanding natural beauty, but without incurring significant expenditure in doing so.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in speaking to this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 which are consequential on it.

At Second Reading, a good deal of reference was made on all sides to the need for a socio-economic clause. That was introduced in Committee and was supported from all sides. The Minister was supportive in principle, although as she said, she wished to abstain. Reading Hansard, it emerged that the Government felt that the phraseology used in the 1995 Act—I refer to the key words, "without incurring significant expenditure" in regard to furthering socio-economic issues—was the point of substance. We have tried to include that in the new version which is extremely close to the 1995 Act. I do not think that I need to go over the arguments again because there was wide support for the rationale behind the socio-economic case. I beg to move.

2.45 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I want to speak in support of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. During our debate in Committee, it was clear from all sides that there was a wish that there should be a socio-economic objective within the general objectives of areas of outstanding natural beauty. I certainly accept that.

Today, that is relevant in the case of the South Downs in which I am involved. We do not yet know what will be the effects of the South-East England Development Agency, a new body formed by the Government. Clearly that body has a strong idea of developing the economic success of the south-east of England. Our job, within the South Downs, is to see the economic success that we want to see reflected in the lives of those living and working on the Downs, be they farmers, foresters or craftsmen, working together with conservation.

The South Downs have a particular interest in this provision. The new chairman of the South-East England Development Agency, whom I have met—I was very interested in what he had to say—has said that his avowed intent is to put the south-east region of Britain into the 10 top regions of Europe. That is not a bad idea. In economic, employment and social terms and for those who live, work and farm on the Downs, that is very important. However, if we are to become like the silicon valley, we have to be certain that conservation and socio-economic development go hand in hand. There is a lot to be said for the development of light industry in and around a large part of south-east England, given its access to airports and to transport generally.

I know that my noble friend—if I may call him that—Lord Chorley, in tabling this amendment, listened carefully to the arguments raised in Committee. Therefore, I hope that the amendment, supported by everyone in principle in Committee, will receive the support of the House today.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, perhaps it would be helpful if I carefully repeat the Government's position. All advice that we have offered has been offered on the basis of what the Government believe would need to be considered were the policy outlined in the Bill one that the Government in the fullness of time wished to follow. That may be grammatically incorrect, but I believe the meaning is absolutely clear.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. From my point of view, as the prime mover of the Bill, I fully understand what she says. Her sentence was full of a marvellous amount of conditions. I congratulate her on it. We all appreciate that this, in many ways, is a trial balloon. We are setting down a template that we hope the Government will follow in due course.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the position of the Government on the Bill remains as stated in Committee.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I wish to support the amendment, as it goes a long way towards what we would like to see when trying to obtain the proper balance between landscapes.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps I may point out that no one should speak after the Minister on Report with the exception of the mover of the amendment.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, I think it falls to me to conclude this short, but interesting, discussion. Even though he was, apparently, somewhat out of order, I am glad that I had the support of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick. He got his word in anyway. I simply commend my amendment to the House.

2.50 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 5) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 15; Not-Contents, 2.

Division No. 1
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Rees, L.
Carlisle, E. Renton of Mount Harry, L
Chorley, L. Rotherwick, L. [Teller.]
Elton, L. Shaughnessy, L.
Hereford, Bp. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Lyell, L. [Teller.] Weatherill, L.
Montrose, D. Williams of Elvel. L.
Nathan, L.
Kimball, L. [Teller.] Kintore, E [Teller.]

2.59 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

My Lords, as it appears that fewer than 30 Lords have voted, in accordance with Standing Order No. 55 I declare the Question is not decided, and that further proceedings on the Bill stand adjourned.

House adjourned at three o'clock.