HL Deb 16 October 2000 vol 617 cc768-88

.—(1) Where it appears to the Countryside Agency (in this Part referred to as "the Agency") that an area which is in England but not in a National Park is of such outstanding natural beauty that it is desirable that the provisions of this Part relating to areas designated under this section should apply to it, the Agency may, for the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural, beauty of the area, by order designate the area for the purposes of this Part as an area of outstanding natural beauty.

(2) Where it appears to the Countryside Council for Wales (in this Part referred to as "the Council") that an area which is in Wales but not in a National Park is of such outstanding natural beauty that it is desirable that the provisions of this Part relating to areas designated under this section should apply to it, the Council may, for the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the area, by order designate the area for the purposes of this Part as an area of outstanding natural beauty.

(3) In this Part "area of outstanding natural beauty" means an area designated under this section as an area of outstanding natural beauty.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 523, 524, 532, 541, 544, 545, 547, 553 and 566. We now move to that part of the Bill which lays the basis for the Government's promises to introduce into the Bill provisions on AONBs. Amendment No. 522 and the other amendments in the group largely re-enact existing Sections 87 and 88 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 which set out the arrangements for designating AONBs and make reference to various functions of particular bodies in relation to them. The Government propose to consolidate those provisions in order to bring all references to AONBs together in this Bill and to update various references in the text.

We shall come on shortly to the Government's proposed new provisions for AONBs, which provide for a management plan to be prepared for every AONB and for the possibility of creating conservation boards. When these matters were discussed in another place, in response to amendments to the Bill tabled there, both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat Front Benches indicated their wish to see measures enabling better management of AONBs to be brought forward by the Government. We hope that there will be evidence of that previous cross-party support in our discussions on these three main groups this evening.

I wish to make clear that Ministers will not be commenting during this debate on the question of the possible designation of new national parks in the New Forest and the South Downs. We have asked the Countryside Agency to consider those possible designations, and it is doing so. The role of the Secretary of State is to consider designation orders if and when they are produced by the agency. Therefore, it would be invidious for me to make any substantive comment on those matters this evening. I thought I should make that point clear.

The effect of this consolidation is to continue with the arrangements laid down in the 1949 Act whereby AONBs are designated by the Countryside Agency, and now, in Wales, by the Countryside Council for Wales, and confirmed by the Secretary of State, or by the National Assembly for Wales, with appropriate arrangements for consultation. However there are two particular clarifications in the consolidation which I should mention.

First, subsection (1) of Amendment No. 522 states explicitly that the purpose of designating AONBs is the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty. That has long been the accepted purpose, but the 1949 Act referred to it in a convoluted way. Section 87(1) of the 1949 Act said that the then National Parks Commission, subsequently, the Countryside Commission, and, most recently, the Countryside Agency, could designate areas as AONBs if they were of such outstanding natural beauty that it was desirable that the provisions of the 1949 Act relating to AONBs should apply to them.

Among those provisions was Section 11 which, via Section 88, provided that local planning authorities whose area contained all or part of an AONB had powers to take all such action as appeared to them expedient for preserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the AONB. In the 1995 Environment Act "preserving and enhancing" was changed to "conserving and enhancing". So my point is that we are not proposing any real change here.

Secondly, we are proposing to take this opportunity, post-devolution, to make clear on the face of the legislation the fact that the Countryside Council for Wales and the National Assembly exercise in Wales the responsibilities exercised by the Countryside Agency and the Secretary of State in England.

Amendments Nos. 531 and 532 and the consequential amendments represent the various matters of interpretation, consequential and transitional provisions and repeals required as a result of Part IIIA of the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 522, Amendment No. 522A: Line 9, leave out ("and enhancing").

The noble Lord said: I am grateful to the Minister for setting out what this particular group of amendments is about. I wish really to speak to Amendments Nos. 522A to 522D but in doing so I crave the indulgence of the Committee because we are in a somewhat unusual situation.

The Minister has rightly signalled that the possibility of these amendments was mentioned in the other place. It would be true to say that there was general support for that and, indeed, there is general support here. I hope that no one will take anything that is said as being in contradiction of that fact. The fact is that AONBs have been in existence. They have been well administered and they work extremely well. Nothing that is said or done here will do anything to diminish their status or endanger the principles on which they are founded.

The fact is that in this group of amendments and the next we have 11 clauses, three schedules and 18 pages of additional legislation which have received no detailed consideration, apart from a general agreement on the principle in the other place, and there is no certainty that the other place would have agreed the detail.

Worse than that, although the potential for such amendments was signalled in the other place, they were not inserted into the Bill until after this Committee stage had begun. I believe that more than a simple Committee stage debate is needed to deal with the situation. These amendments involve a large slice of legislation. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry would say that these amendments form a Bill in their own right because 18 months or two years ago he introduced a Bill into this House that almost precisely paralleled them.

The Committee is not discussing just a series of amendments to a Bill, but a major extension to the Bill, which is perfectly appropriate as, when one looks at the Long Title of the Bill, one sees that it concerns a connected purpose of the Bill. However, I believe that some discussion of the principle behind these groups of amendments would be appropriate at this point. I hope that the Committee will indulge me, and other noble Lords, if we feel inclined to that view.

Such a debate is important because when this Bill returns to the other place, these amendments, including any amendments that we make to them, will be considered as Lords amendments. They will not go through the normal procedure of examination and cross-examination to which the other place would expose legislation; but perhaps the Minister will assure me that the authorities in the other place have in mind some special procedure under which these matters can be considered.

When the other place considers Lords amendments, particularly in the present circumstances, the fact is that one can expect them to be considered with the Whips heavily on and the guillotine well on its way down. Discussion will be severely curtailed. I do not say that to be particularly critical, but I believe that it is being somewhat cavalier with what I would describe as normal parliamentary procedure.

Amendment No. 522 encapsulates, in a sense, the principle of the matter. It brings forward the power not only to conserve and to enhance AONBs, but also to create new AONBs. That is a worthy purpose with which I have no quarrel. I merely add a word of caution. Already we have 41 AONBs in England and Wales. Two million hectares are covered by that designation—for those noble Lords who are old-fashioned that is 5 million acres; it is five times the county of Essex; and it is 14 per cent of the land mass of England and Wales.

With the start of the concept of conservation areas, we considered matters carefully in my county and produced a list of areas that were seriously worthy of conservation. They were outstandingly beautiful areas and merited every degree of protection that could possibly be given, but the domino effect came into play. People then thought that such protection was desirable, so there was great pressure for further areas to be designated. We finished up with 100 conservation areas and in the process we devalued the concept. I merely issue the warning that, if we are not careful and create too many AONBs, we shall devalue the concept and it will become meaningless.

I am bound to say that when I consider much of the scenery in Wales, I could create one AONB which would pretty well cover the whole of the Principality. That would be worth far more than some of the other areas in England that we have already protected. But that is a personal prejudice and nothing to do with the Bill.

So we need to be extremely careful. It is all very well to say that the new procedures being established in the Bill will apply only where they are wanted. I have already mentioned the domino effect. At present AONBs are brought into being by local authorities and are administered by joint committees. That has been done successfully for a long time. So I pay tribute to all their hard work. They do that work in conjunction with local conservation bodies.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

Perhaps I can correct my noble friend on one important point. I believe I am right in saying that the Countryside Commission, now the Countryside Agency, designates AONBs, and that designation is confirmed by the Secretary of State. It is not in the hands of local authorities. It is conservation areas which are proposed by local authorities.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My noble friend is correct as to the current situation, but originally the designation procedure was very different, even though I may not have got the facts precisely correct.

At present, joint committees of local authorities generally administer AONBs. We will be debating in detail in a little while whether or not a parish council is a local authority; it depends which Act we look at. But the Bill also gives the opportunity to establish conservation boards to look after AONBs. We have no problem with that in principle, if it is voluntary—no doubt the Minister will say that that is the intention. But the question arises as to what they are to do, and again the domino effect will come into play. When the law was changed with regard to polytechnic status, there was a tidal wave which swamped the title "polytechnic" and turned them all into universities in a matter of weeks. If we go down that road we need to recognise that we are establishing new, administrative superstructure which may well involve considerable cost without any real benefit.

National parks are an example of a parallel situation. Originally they were administered by local government and are now independent authorities in their own right. I have not heard any evidence that they are run any better than they were before. They are run well—let us not deny that —but they are not run better. So we need to be wary.

In relation to the constitution of these putative bodies, I was fascinated to see that, as the Bill is drafted, the Secretary of State will have the power to appoint 60 per cent of their members. These are local bodies dealing with local areas. The Minister and I have crossed swords before on who should control local affairs. But this is completely unreasonable. It is control freakery run riot. It is fair enough that local authorities should appoint 40 per cent of the members. But 60 per cent being appointed by the Secretary of State is not acceptable. I understand that he will consult all sorts of other people. But does he need to make the actual appointment? These are matters we shall question in detail when we reach the appropriate parts of the Bill.

We want to see AONBs continue as they have done; to be enhanced and embellished as a result of the willingness, co-operation and investment of local communities. If that is to be achieved, we must think carefully about the general issues behind the Bill. I hope that I have said enough in introducing the background to the amendments.

I want to speak to two amendments. The first removes the words "and enhancing". It is a probing amendment. "Enhancing" something is a subjective matter. I accept the Minister's comments about the wording of existing legislation, but earlier tonight we heard about the possibility of improving past legislation if it is not all that it might have been. I have no problem with conserving or preserving an AONB. However, no matter how many people agree to the "enhancement", some will find it inappropriate. Therefore, there is a potential difficulty.

The second amendment deals with expenditure and seeks to ensure that where such changes take place, the expenditure falls with the Countryside Agency for England and the Countryside Council for Wales, which I believe is appropriate.

I have said enough and I hope that the Committee will forgive me for having taken up time. That was necessary because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty

The noble Lord said a great deal but I am not sure how he intends us to proceed. He moved amendments to my amendment and cross-referred to many amendments which appear in or to relate to later groups. Perhaps for the convenience of the Committee, before moving into a general debate it would be better to have a little clarification.

Lord Dixon-Smith

I had hoped that I had made myself plain and I apologise if I did not. I believe that in respect of this part of the Bill we almost need a short Second-Reading-style diversion so that Members can let their hair down on the general issues before getting into too much detail on the amendments. The difficulty is that procedurally, in order to make my remarks, I have to rise and speak to the amendments. Having no flexibility, the difficulty is that if we do not have a debate on the principle there may be a danger that we might have to ask for a recommitment on these groups.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I am somewhat confused by his introduction to this part of the Bill. It seems that the Conservative Benches barely join with us in continuing to do what both our parties did in the Commons; that was, to press for the introduction of the legislation. We have been fortunate in your Lordships' House because we had a dry run for this debate when we dealt with the Bill brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry.

Like other Members of the Committee, at that time I received many representations about most of the issues which have been raised today by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and many of the issues we are about to cover. I am under the impression that the provisions introduced by the Government—we may need clarification of some of them—are broadly welcomed by members of the joint advisory committees of the AONBs and the Local Government Association. Local authorities which have AONBs in their area are very keen to receive statutory backing for the management and conservation of them. This is exactly the kind of legislation for which they have been asking to help to underpin the work undertaken. Therefore, I am very confused by the noble Lord. As we go through the amendments tabled by the noble Lord my confusion will continue. There appear to be a number of contradictions to which I shall turn as the Committee debates individual amendments.

My only worry about the Government's amendment in this part of the Bill—I am sure that it can be clarified as we go through it—is that there may be two tiers of AONBs. They became a different animal from national parks under the 1949 legislation. I refute the noble Lord's suggestion that since national parks have had their own authorities they have not contributed anything to their areas that local authorities cannot. I declare an interest in that my husband is chairman of one such authority, but even if he were not I would claim that national parks had contributed a great deal.

Lord Dixon-Smith

I did not suggest that they had not made a contribution. I said I had not heard that their contribution had been any greater than was already being made, which is a slightly different statement.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

It does not sound sufficiently different to me, but I accept what the noble Lord says. My worry is that, following the implementation of this legislation, there will be two tiers of AONBs: those with conservation boards and those without. That would be unfortunate. As the Committee considers these amendments my concern is to ensure that the smaller AONBs, which are unlikely ever to apply for conservation board status, are not disadvantaged by the legislation. That would be a retrograde step. We must look to the purpose of AONBs, not their size or how many local authorities are involved in their administration.

I disagree with the purpose of Amendment No. 522A. The purpose is to conserve the splendid landscape for which the AONB was originally designated and, where there is the opportunity, to enhance it. There is no reason why we must regard an area as a static museum piece. Enhancement may well be in the interests of the AONB: it may encourage more tourism. The AONB may decide to go down a number of routes for the purposes of enhancement, but to remove reference to enhancement at this stage would be a great mistake.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

I speak in support of Amendments Nos. 522, 523 and 524 and the new clauses that they introduce. As two noble Lords have already pointed out, I introduced a Private Member's Bill on this subject in the House of Lords a year ago. I found it easier to get a Private Member's Bill through a number of stages in the House of Lords than I did in my 23 years in the House of Commons. I have an interest in this matter, which I happily declare. I live in an AONB and am chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, which I believe is the only conservation board in existence. It is a voluntary arrangement between the relevant local authorities and the Countryside Agency. I also serve on the executive committee of the newly-formed AONB Association. Having made that long declaration once this evening, I promise the Committee that I shall not do it again in moving specific amendments in due course.

This is a red letter day for AONBs. I am pleased that, by and large, the Government have followed the commitments made by Michael Meacher, Minister of State for the Environment, in Standing Committee B on 23rd May. This is not exactly a new matter. It was first mooted in 1989 in the Smart Anderson report which was commissioned by the Countryside Commission. That report proposed improved management structures and funding for AONBs. It was in 1997 that the Countryside Commission issued a consultation paper on improving the funding and management of England's AONBs. It was a year later that it published its Protecting our Finest Countryside advice to government, which proposed improved funding and management of AONBs. It was essentially with its proposals, and with substantial support from the county council in which area my former constituency of Mid-Sussex used to lie, that I drafted and introduced my Bill a year ago.

For years there has been within the AONBs—I know this through our executive committee—a general feeling that more formal improved management, funding and effective statutory underpinning are needed. They want that without, in any sense, trying to do the work of local authorities in, for example, the minutiae of development control. We shall return to that issue later in the debate when we consider the detail of other amendments. There were and have been continuous worries about the AONBs, whether or not they were represented by a joint advisory committee. To a large extent those worries are being settled, I hope, by the legislation the Government suggest tonight. By and large the Government have got it right, except on funding, on local representation on boards and perhaps on management plans.

There is one area where I would correct my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith. He said that we want to see AONBs continuing as they are. Most AONBs do not want that because they think they are too insecure, whether or not they have a JAC—a joint advisory committee. They do not see where their funding will come from, because, when pressure on environment issues hits a local authority, one of the first things to be axed is the money available for the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty. That makes it extremely difficult for JACs to employ good staff. If they are unable to employ good staff, how can they help farmers, who desperately need help at the moment, on schemes under which they can add to their own bottom line by entering into stewardship or environmentally sensitive area schemes?

Therefore, this move towards the setting up of statutory conservation boards for AONBs and giving AONBs many more specific statutory responsibilities is what the AONBs want and need at the moment. It is on that basis that I speak in general support of Amendments Nos. 522, 523 and 524. We shall of course have detailed discussions about specific amendments shortly.

9.30 p.m.

Earl Peel

I have a great deal of sympathy for what my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said in moving the amendment. He said that what is required at the moment is some kind of Second Reading debate. We have in front of us a major piece of legislation that to all intents and purposes has been tagged on to the Bill at the Committee stage in your Lordships' House. I for one would find it quite difficult not to make some general wide-ranging comments on the implications of this legislation without taking it amendment by amendment. Therefore, with the leave of the Committee, I should like to say a few words in general.

I shall start by declaring an interest. I live in an AONB which has largely been well-run, but there are clearly opportunities for enhancement and improvement. I shall return to that in a moment. I must start by saying that I find it simply astonishing that such a major piece of legislation should be cobbled on to the Bill as this has been. It is surely true to say that there has been only fairly limited public debate on the whole matter of AONBs, either with local authorities, or, perhaps more importantly, with those local people whose livelihood could well be seriously influenced by the amendments.

I entirely agree with what my noble friend said. I am fully behind well thought-through, well resourced schemes for the further improvement of our countryside. Indeed, I am not in any way against the strengthening of the statutory base for AONBs and the production of management plans. But for the Secretary of State to give himself such wide-ranging powers as, for example, the creation of new conservation boards against the wishes of local authorities and to transfer any of the functions of local authorities, as stated in Amendment No. 525, to those boards is simply breath-taking. Furthermore—and let us make no mistake about this—the Government are setting about the creation of a whole new raft of national parks in virtually everything but name, and, as has already been pointed out by noble friend, the areas concerned throughout the width and breadth of England and Wales could be considerably larger than those covered by national parks.

Within the national park legislation the Secretary of State has the power to appoint 30 per cent of the board members. But later amendments give him the power to appoint 60 per cent of the members of the new conservation boards, all at the expense of local democracy. If anything is designed to get these new conservation boards off to a bad start, it is just that, because it will pit local people against the Government. That is not in anyone's interests.

I see from Amendment No. 527 that no such order will be made by the Secretary of State without being approved by resolution of both Houses of Parliament. Well, big deal! I can assure the Government that that really is no comfort to those many people who could be directly affected by the amendments and, thus, by this new legislation. Furthermore, there is nothing in the amendments to say that those living and working in such areas will be even consulted. They will not, as I understand it, even be invited to provide comments on any of the management plans.

Generally speaking, my view is that the countryside would be better served by conservation schemes—I appreciate that this is not just about conservation schemes—such as, for example, the environmentally sensitive area and countryside stewardship schemes, which are designed to meet specific requirements of the areas and are administered by existing government departments or agencies and therefore do not require the establishment of yet another tier of bureaucracy, with all the red tape and the nonsense that follow, never mind the cost. Furthermore, I see no reason at all why, subject to proper guidance from Whitehall, there should be any reason why planning matters should not remain with the local authorities unless, of course, there is general agreement among the local authorities that such a board would be a better mechanism for delivering the proper management of AONBs.

However, apart from objecting to much of the detail of the way the Government are approaching this delicate matter, in principle I object to the way that this major piece of rural legislation is being delivered. I should also add that if the Government believe that local authorities are in agreement with the government proposals, as laid out in the amendments, they should read my local newspaper as of last Friday. I should have thought that the most equitable and sensible way of dealing with this matter was to decouple this part of the Bill and to bring it back as a separate piece of legislation, thus allowing for full and proper consultation and debate.

I should like to add that I do appreciate the good intentions which lie behind what my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry is trying to achieve. What is more, I have no doubts about or objections to—why should I?—what he and others have achieved in the South Downs. However, the formation of the South Downs Conservation Board was achieved voluntarily, without diktat from the Secretary of State either in the formation of the conservation board or, indeed, as to the composition of the members of that board. That represents a world of difference between that situation and the possibility that exists in this Bill for the Secretary of State to ride roughshod over local opinion and the democratic process simply to satisfy his conservation credentials and his belief that forming another committee will be the way to deal with these problems. In my opinion, that is not the best way to move forwards.

I shall certainly support any amendment which would halt the compulsory removal of powers from local authorities to the new conservation boards against the wishes of local authorities, along with any amendment which prevents the Secretary of State from nominating the majority of board members. I shall also urge other noble Lords who believe that the objectives which lie behind the AONBs can be achieved without a complete takeover by central government to accept my noble friend's amendment.

Lord Bridges

Unlike other noble Lords, I do not feel that it is necessary to make a Second Reading speech, because I addressed this subject in my own contribution to that debate. However, we did not then have the benefit of the Government's proposals before us. I made it clear in my speech that, for me, this was the most important part of the Bill and that perhaps the most important part of that would be the way in which the local authority would be related to the new conservation boards and the management of AONBs.

I shall turn now to a particular point which arises on one amendment in this grouping; namely, Amendment No. 524. Subsection (4) states that, A local planning authority … shall take all such action as appears to them expedient for the accomplishment of the purpose of conserving … the area of outstanding natural beauty". Like the Opposition Front Bench, I do not like the word "expedient". It recalls that part of the Book of Common Prayer where those who are assembled are invited to pray for those causes which are thought important. The priest presiding over the service sums up by asking the deity, when two or three are gathered together in thy Name". to grant their prayers, as may be most expedient for them". In other words, this will be a very permissive affair. That is not the right way to approach it. The local Authority needs to play an important part in the management of the AONB.

Indeed, the absent part of this Bill at the moment would be met by the amendment introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, at an earlier stage. I believe that it was Amendment No. 453, which would place a duty on all public bodies to have regard to the objectives of the AONB. That is an absolutely cardinal point and I believe that we shall be returning to it later.

I speak from some experience, having lived in an AONB where the local authority chose to set its own judgment above that of the Government's own policies for the AONB. I wish to see that situation stopped. It is wrong. A general national approach should be adopted, with local arrangements to put it into effect. I shall make a few further comments on other clauses when we reach them.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I wish to make only a short speech. I should like to say, first, that my noble friends Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Peel have both said absolutely what was in my mind. I do not always find myself in the position of being able cordially to congratulate my own Front Bench, but on this occasion I do so without reservation. I thought that my noble friend made a wise and balanced comment on a Bill about which, I have to say, I am considerably worried.

I do not believe that the Minister has any right to protest about the Committee overlapping or infringing the limits imposed by the grouping. I think that the grouping in this instance is a mistake. The debate is about not only the Bill as a whole but the powers of central government. I remember that long ago when I was a member of a government—it seems ages and ages ago—I began to doubt whether we were really possessed of that monopoly of wisdom which governments seem to think they have. As time has gone on, I have seen government after government coming more and more to disregard local opinion, making life more and more difficult for local government and taking more and more power for themselves. Here is another Bill in which exactly that is being done. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith rightly pointed out, here we have 18 pages of legislation which, so far as I know, has been totally undiscussed in another place.

I think it is generally felt by some in another place that they enjoy absolute liberty to say what they like about your Lordships' House. There are many aspects of our affairs in which those in another place would be very unwise to press those comparisons too far; they might come off much worse than they expect.

I am not quite sure—I should like to hear the Minister's view—to what extent it is intended that areas of outstanding natural beauty can be almost automatically made into national parks or given the powers of national parks. The Minister shakes his head. I should be grateful if, when he comes to respond, he can make clear what is the position and what are the Government's intentions.

I pause to ask the Minister to what extent planning authorities will have the power to designate areas which they consider to be of outstanding natural beauty? Perhaps he will try to anticipate what the inhabitants of those areas are likely to feel. I do not know whether it has even occurred to the Government to think about the reactions of the inhabitants of such areas to any proposals which may emerge. The consultation on this part of the Bill has been somewhere between minimal and nil. Certainly I have not heard anything about it in my part of the world.

I have talked often enough in your Lordships' House and elsewhere about the powers of Secretaries of State. The Committee would be wise to be very careful in giving these sweeping powers to Secretaries of State on the basis that they are possessed of the wisdom and sense of fairness and justice that they think they possess. If one looks at the daily press and reads some of the utterances of those who occupy the position of Secretary of State, one finds it very hard to cling on to any rudimentary illusion that the holders of those offices are possessed of any peculiar wisdom.

I shall not trespass upon the question of conservation boards, except to say that here is one more instance of Secretaries of State grabbing more powers to themselves, satisfied always that they and their advisers are wholly competent to exercise those powers to the benefit of the nation.

I conclude on a minor note. I live in a village which is a conservation area. My neighbours wanted to pull down three or four not very large leylandii, which are a menace. They had to seek planning permission. That is a small example of the way in which we fetter ourselves with unnecessary, stupid restrictions. People ought to be paid to cut down leylandii.

Lord Marlesford

I agree with my noble friends Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Peel that the Government must expect to be subjected to something of a Second Reading approach to the proposed new clause. It is a major addition to the Bill. The clause as drafted has not been discussed in another place. I am not sure, given the use of the guillotine in another place nowadays, that it would necessarily have greatly benefited from such discussion. At any rate, the new clause has not been debated; therefore, it is right and reasonable that we should scrutinise it in some detail.

That said, I strongly welcome the government amendment. It is an important addition to the protection and enhancement—I am happy to emphasise the word "enhancement"—of the beauty of the English and Welsh countryside. I should also like to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry for the pathfinder role that he played in introducing his Private Member's Bill last year.

A point worth making is that, among the great reforms comprising the major achievements of the Attlee Government, along with the National Health Service came legislation for the protection of our countryside. The Council for the Protection of Rural England, of which I was lucky enough to be chairman for five years, had fought for such a measure since 1927. When those great reforms were introduced, the legislation provided for both national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. One important premise is not only sometimes forgotten, but is not always appreciated. In the hierarchy of protection— inevitably, if one is trying to protect the countryside there is bound to be a hierarchy because one cannot do everything at the same time—national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty were equal. There was no question of national parks being superior. The difference between national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty was that national parks were areas of wilderness. That made it easier to set up a particular form of protection and governance for them.

The result has been that over the years AONBs have been something of poor sisters to national parks. I strongly welcome this step—belated and slightly muddled though it may be—to provide added protection and an opportunity for AONBs to be protected. The pressures on our countryside are colossal. They come from central government, from local government and from development. There was a suggestion that local government is perfectly adequate to protect the countryside. However, perhaps I may give an example. We have only to think of the National Trust and Operation Neptune. Should we have preserved some 500 miles of our best coast without Operation Neptune? Half the local authorities, if they had had the opportunity of having those areas of coast, would have been only too glad to see holiday villages and chalets spread along their coastline. It would have brought in a large amount in rates.

I do not accept that local government is necessarily the best guardian of the countryside. I am a tremendous fan of the National Trust. I have no interest to declare, except as a humble member of it. I believe that what we have done is enormously important. I do not want to speak in detail about these amendments. I believe that we should consider them most carefully. However, I give a very strong welcome to what the Government are now doing. I hope that it becomes part of the Bill.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

I, too, compliment my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry on what, for him, is certainly a red letter day. At the risk of being designated a philistine in these matters, I must draw attention to the plethora of conservation areas that now exist and, indeed, to the danger that we depreciate the value of those various designations simply by multiplication. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said, there is a devaluation of the concept. We delude ourselves that designation of itself contributes to conservation. Our experience of SSSIs should surely disabuse us of that näve belief.

There has been reference to the numerous failures of the Countryside Council for Wales. I am sure that many of those failures have been due to lack of resources, but there are other reasons. We have over 1,000 SSSIs in Wales. A quarter of the entire country is covered by the environmentally sensitive area designation. There are about 50 national nature reserves, eight special protection areas under the EC birds directive, seven wetlands under the Ramsar Convention and two marine nature reserves, as well as three national parks and five areas of outstanding natural beauty. Indeed, there may be more. But, additionally, we are now greening agricultural grant schemes, both European and domestic.

A great deal is being done but, in my view, there is quite proper concern about this multiplicity of schemes and designations. I am sure that Members of the Committee will agree that what is important is that they should be meaningful. I wanted to make that point; I also wish to speak to a later grouping of amendments.

I am concerned about the power of local planning authorities to "enhance" the natural beauty of an AONB, as described in subsection (4) of the new clause inserted by Amendment No. 524. I am not the only one concerned about this; indeed, the Country Landowners' Association, among others, has also pointed out that here we have, a sweeping power for local planning authorities to take all such action as appears expedient to conserve and enhance AONBs". Precisely what action do the Government have in mind? Would it include rejecting any planning application that the authority felt did not both conserve and enhance the AONB?

I received CLA briefing only today. But my mind has already wandered to a scene in Anglesey—in particular to Malltraeth, better known perhaps as Bodorgan Marsh. I remember from my boyhood the natural sand dunes, which have been trucked away for the building industry over recent decades and replaced by pine forests managed by the Forestry Commission. The lovely sea sedge has given way to a thin skein of green pasture that is not required at a time of set-aside land.

I assure the Committee that we now regard such so-called "enhancement" on the part of local planning authorities as gross desecration of a natural landscape. I hope that in future we can protect our heritage from that kind of devastating enhancement. Frankly, with the experience that I have had, I am not sure that I can trust authorities of various kinds with enhancement in any true sense.

10 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

I support the important intention to introduce amendments to bring about much better management of AONBs. I do not intend to make a Second Reading speech. I was fortunate enough to be able to make a Second Reading speech over a year ago on the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry. I am sure that he did not consider that a fortunate occasion as I was responsible for introducing the amendment that stopped the Bill. However, he caused me intense embarrassment for when I moved a previous amendment I discovered that my Tellers had been persuaded not to support me. I was ruled out of time.

I do not wish to go through all my objections as I support fully what my noble friend Lord Peel said and do not wish to replicate it. I am a little confused as to what I should say at this point. I believe that Amendment No. 522A has been spoken to by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith. I am nervous of the word "enhancing". As someone who lives in an AONB, I want to see our countryside improved and sustained. That would be considerably better than enhancing it. After all, to enhance means to heighten, to intensify or to exaggerate. Much of the countryside in an AONB is man-made. It makes me nervous to think what an undemocratic body could do in the way of heightening, intensifying or exaggerating countryside. Surely it must be better to sustain and improve it.

Baroness Mallalieu

I declare an interest in that I live in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns. I warmly welcome the Government's proposal to include this provision in the Bill. In an ideal world it would, of course, have been far better if the matter had been considered in another place first and if we had had time to go through the measure clause by clause without the pressures with which we are undoubtedly now faced.

To those Members of the Committee who say, "Let us look at the measure and bring it back at some later stage", one can say only that we have waited a long time for such a measure. Given the legislative programme, to bring the measure back at a later stage would mean some years of delay. We cannot spare that time. In the area in which I live there is perhaps the greatest developmental pressure that there has ever been because of its proximity to London. There is increasing traffic and neglect of many woodlands. The rivers are much reduced in flow. There has been inadequate investment for many years in the rights of way network.

The decline in farm incomes means that there is a real loss of rural character. In perhaps five or so years, places such as the area in which I live, and which many visit and enjoy, could deteriorate into some form of suburb. In my area, the proposed provisions are greatly welcomed by people involved with the AONB. They feel that at present they possess Cinderella status. They hope that the provisions will greatly strengthen the position.

These measures have my total support. However, I ask the Minister to bear in mind two factors when he considers the later amendments. We are developing a conservation industry. It seems often to consist of people who are not necessarily connected with the area in which they operate. They may neither live nor work there. Sometimes their qualifications are questionable. But more and more we appoint boards of such people to take decisions which affect the lives of people who live and work in these places.

First, I have no doubt that the proposed conservation boards will be extremely beneficial. But I am troubled that the Government have the balance wrong. To take powers away from elected representatives, the local people, and give them to government appointees in the proportions proposed here worries me. That is my first concern.

Secondly, it is desperately important that we use these new powers not simply to be protectionist and to keep those areas looking pretty but to keep the local people there and working. That may mean adopting different approaches to planning applications. It may mean that in some circumstances we have to give greater weight to the needs of local people than perhaps those who wish areas to look pretty would choose.

Those are my two reservations. However, I hope that the amendments become part of the Bill. It is important that they are on the statute book as soon as possible.

The Earl of Selborne

I follow the noble Baroness in her reservations. I support in principle the concept that AONBs clearly complement the national park structure. It is important that we take this opportunity for legislation and support the Government's intention in that respect. However, we must recognise the essential difference between national parks and AONBs. I agree with my noble friend Lord Marlesford that they have equal status in law but they are not the same. National parks have to have an element of wilderness or public recreation of a nature which AONBs cannot provide because they tend to be more managed or settled countryside. For that reason, particular care must be taken to ensure that local elected representatives have the ability to influence the policies implemented to enhance or maintain the AONB.

I agree with the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that some of the measures—I refer in particular to the dilution of local representatives—could dilute local democratic accountability. I cannot agree with the concern of my noble friend Lord Marlesford—normally I follow him to the end—about local council propensity for building developments along the coast. We are in no position to say that we must replace local government by a more enlightened system. It seems a highly improbable concept. We must have confidence in local government. We can only guarantee that the socioeconomic provisions in the AONB are effective and relevant if we enhance the ability of local authorities to contribute to those AONBs.

There is no incompatibility. The joint committees are the creations of local authorities. The government amendments refer frequently to the need to consult local authorities. I hope that as we debate these amendments we are given some degree of comfort that where local authorities are less than enthusiastic about some of the measures the Government will give careful weight to those views.

Lord Hardy of Wath

I declare an interest, as the president of the Peak District, South Yorkshire and Sheffield branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The CPRE is very supportive of the amendments. However, I agree that democratic accountability is always important, particularly in more populous areas than the national parks. I hope that the Minister will take careful note of that point.

Lord Rotherwick

I meant to ask the Minister earlier why these large and important amendments have had to be inserted at this stage. Why could they not have been put in at the beginning?

Lord Whitty

The Committee has taken advantage of our flexible procedure. It is understandable that we should have something like a Second Reading debate on a group of substantial amendments, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, and others have said, have been introduced relatively late. I do not object to that, although I should like to get the procedure back on the rails and start talking about the amendments.

However, I resent the suggestion that we should not have tabled the amendments. That is difficult to take. There is enormous support across the country for amendments along these lines. There was consensus in another place that we should introduce such amendments. Ministers in another place were pressed to introduce them by the Opposition Front Benches, as well as by our own colleagues. There is widespread support among local authorities, contrary to what some noble Lords have said. The Local Government Association supports them, as do members of all parties. No doubt there are some reservations, as there are legitimate reservations in the Committee, but in general local authorities support the provisions. We have engaged in widespread consultation since 1998. It is a distortion to claim that the provisions would allow a domino effect, with areas slipping from nothing to being designated areas of outstanding natural beauty and then national parks virtually overnight without local authorities being able to intervene.

The amendments have been talked about for a considerable time. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, presented a Bill very similar to the amendments not long ago. I cannot resist saying that it might have got further were there not some disputes within his party on the issue. Nevertheless, there was considerable support for the Bill and there is considerable support for the changes proposed in the amendments.

We are not proposing an automatic transfer to AONB status or from AONBs to conservation boards. That will be only one way of administering AONBs and will not be universal. The provision will be subject to the situation within particular areas of outstanding natural beauty. Conservation boards will be appropriate for some areas, particularly where a large number of local authorities are involved, but they will not be universal. Some flexibility has been built in.

Conservation boards will also not transfer an AONB into a national park. They are not to be given planning powers. They are intended to be relatively light-touch bodies. They will be introduced in areas where there is strong local support. I refute suggestions that we are excluding local people, local government and local representation from the bodies. The boards are not intended to create a two-tier structure. The Countryside Agency is working with the Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to try to sort out the structure and funding. We certainly do not intend them to perform a number of the functions that have been suggested.

Earl Peel

I am sure that the noble Lord is right that there is no intention to do that, but does he agree that under the amendments the Secretary of State could impose conservation boards on AONB authorities and could, subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament, override any opposition that they expressed in consultation?

10.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty

Yes; the Secretary of State has that power, but not in the group of amendments that we are supposed to be debating now. However, that is subject to widespread consultation, which a number of the amendments stand to enhance. Conservation boards are likely to be appropriate only in some areas. They would not be imposed in most areas unless there was clear support for them. Therefore, the idea that the Secretary of State is trampling roughshod over all areas of outstanding natural beauty in the country and is opposing new structures without consultation is completely erroneous.

So far as concerns this particular group of amendments, I am truly amazed that we have had such a widespread debate. However, as I said at the beginning, this group—I start with Amendment No. 522 and refer also to the amendments to which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, has moved amendments—consists simply of consolidating efforts. Nothing in the amendments which are before us, and have been before us for the past hour and a quarter, change the situation significantly. They consolidate and clarify.

Among the matters which they clarify—I address the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord DixonSmith—are the provisions which refer to enhancing natural beauty. I say to the noble Lord, to the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, and to other noble Lords who have referred to not having "enhancing" in the wording that "enhancing" has been an aspect—albeit indirectly but clearly there—of AONBs since the 1949 Act when we started on this road. This group of amendments simply consolidates and clarifies that position and, in essence, puts those provisions into this Bill.

The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, would delete the word "enhancing", and that would take us back beyond 1949. I would not normally accuse the noble Lord, whom I know to be a forward-looking person, of taking us back before 1949 and before the basis on which our AONB mechanisms have run ever since. Therefore, I hope that he will not press that particular group of amendments.

A number of other amendments to amendments which I have already moved are to follow. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, or whoever is to speak from the Front Bench, is intending to take them severally. If that should be the case, we shall spend quite a lot of time on what essentially is a consolidating group of amendments. Some of the more fundamental issues which have been raised with regard to the creation of conservation boards and the powers of those boards arise in the next group of amendments. There are also several amendments in that group.

I believe that the difficulty with this group is that we have had our cake and eaten it, or, rather, are about to eat it, in the sense that we have had a Second Reading debate but will now deal with each of the individual groups of amendments separately. If that is the will of the Committee, no doubt we shall have to succumb to it and deal with the amendments as they arise. However, I would ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendments that he has already moved.

Lord Dixon-Smith

I am particularly grateful to the Minister for his tolerance and understanding in allowing this debate to wander across a fairly wide field. However, given the circumstances in which this major extension to the Bill has been brought before us, there was an inevitability about that. Of course, the Minister rightly said that no one should have been surprised that these amendments were coming. We were not surprised and we are not unwelcoming. However, the pressure to bring the amendments forward has been around for a very long time.

It is conceivable (but only just) that the amendments could not be designed for the Bill to be considered fully in another place. However, given the pressure, one might have thought that the amendments could have been designed in order to be available to this House so that we might have known by Second Reading what was coming. I accept that there is a procedural difficulty with that but the whole approach which brings forward these amendments in this way is out with normal parliamentary procedure as I understand it.

If that is the case, then I do not see why some marginal extension could not have been made so that the contents of those amendments were known when the Bill arrived in this House. That did not happen. Therefore, some flexibility at this stage was right and justified.

I am extremely grateful to all those Members of the Committee who have taken part in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, cited the support of the Local Government Association for these amendments. In fact, the detail of the amendments goes considerably beyond what the LGA conceives of as being appropriate because the LGA is quite clear that statutory planning powers should remain with local government and this Bill permits them to be transferred to a conservation board. That may seem to be only a small matter to some people but to others it is quite important.

There is no great difference between myself and my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry in relation to these issues in principle. I said in my opening remarks that the whole concept of AONBs has been good and successful and there is no intention to detract from that. If the situation can be enhanced, then that should be done.

There are points of detail in the amendments which require to be touched on and points of principle which required the sort of flexible debate which the Minister has so kindly allowed us to have.

I am grateful for the support of my noble friends Lord Peel and Lord Peyton of Yeovil. I certainly should not go along with my noble friend Lord Marlesford when he said that local government would allow the whole of the coast to be developed. Such a statement either reveals a prejudice or belittles local government. That is not the local government that I know.

We have had a very good and full debate. I shall not take up more of the Committee's time. It was important to have the debate and we have had it. We must consider properly the other groups of amendments to deal with matters of detail on what is an extremely important matter. I do not expect that we shall repeat the sort of debate that has taken place up until now. I am most grateful to those who have taken part and grateful also to the Minister for his tolerance. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 522A, as an amendment to Amendment No. 522, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 522B to 522D, as amendments to Amendment No. 522, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 522 agreed to.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 523: After Clause 71, insert the following new clause—