HL Deb 02 July 2004 vol 663 cc473-80

1.12 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16 June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in my remarks I shall also cover the subsequent order relating to the Cotswolds, because the processes are virtually the same for the two areas.

Today is the fruition of many years of hard work by the existing management bodies of the Chilterns and Cotswolds AONBs, their constituent local authorities, the Countryside Agency, officials from my department and many others. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 enables the Secretary of State to establish a conservation board for any area of outstanding natural beauty. This is particularly relevant where the constituent local authorities of that area ask her to do so. Following a review of their management structures, the Chilterns and the Cotswolds AONBs are the first to take this route.

It is expected that setting up a conservation board will increase management efficiency, raise the profile of the AONB and help it attract more funding for project work. The orders deal with the establishment, composition and administration of the boards, as well as their powers and functions. I shall attempt to highlight the most relevant parts of the orders. Each board will consist of members appointed by local authorities, parishes and the Secretary of State. The membership ratios are set out in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which require at least 40 per cent of board members to be appointed by constituent local authorities and at least 20 per cent by constituent parishes.

The size of each board has been dictated largely by the desire of each local authority to be represented. It is intended that both boards will establish an executive committee to reduce any possibility of unwieldiness. As a result of the requirements of the 2000 Act the selection process for only the parish council members needs to be included in each order at Schedule 2. That process is the result of lengthy consultation.

Once these orders have come into force, we will prepare a further order establishing a specific code of conduct for board members. In the interim, the more general provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 will apply. Membership of the board is unpaid. However, reasonable allowances are payable. Schedule 3 to each order sets out the procedure and timings of meetings. I would draw your Lordships' attention to the requirement that the first meeting of each board must be held within 80 days of the establishment date. It is intended that both boards will hold their first meetings before the operative date of 1 February 2005. This will provide an opportunity for members to get to know each other and elect a chair and vice-chair and, if the board wishes, determine the membership of any sub-committees.

The 2000 Act enables the Secretary of State to transfer any local authority functions relating to the area of the AONB to the board or to provide that those functions should be exercisable concurrently by the board and the constituent local authorities. In the case of these orders, the local authorities wished to have the powers exercised concurrently. A protocol is being drawn up between the local authorities and existing management teams to specify clearly in what circumstances each party will be responsible for which functions. Although not part of the order, that should provide clarity for the public and prevent confusion over responsibility.

It is not envisaged that the boards will exercise all of the functions listed in the order regularly, but their availability will help the boards fulfil their statutory purposes. The functions will include such actions as the prevention of damage to the AONB, signposting of footpaths and bridleways and the protection of ancient monuments.

Existing local authority staff engaged on AONB work will be transferred to the boards on their establishment date. A list of staff who will be transferred will be compiled by my officials with the help of the current employing authorities. The list will be definitive for determining transfers. Staff who are transferred will enjoy continuity of employment and they are fully protected by the terms of Schedule 4 to each order and, in any event, that is without prejudice to TUPE rights.

Financial arrangements are not specified in the orders as it was felt that including them might restrict the boards' growth and independence. Financial support will continue largely as at present, with funding supplied by the Countryside Agency—subject, of course, to any future announcement by the Secretary of State in light of my noble friend Lord Haskins's recommendations on the delivery of rural services. The only difference between the current funding situation and that for a board is that the board would be unable to recover VAT payments. The agency has agreed to increase its contribution to AONB costs to offset the increased costs of VAT to the local authorities. A board will have the power to borrow money without authority from the Secretary of State, pending receipt of expected revenue. It can also borrow money for any purpose relevant to its functions or the prudent management of its financial affairs with the Secretary of State's approval.

In my department's view, these orders comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. The establishment of a conservation board is the desired way forward in both the Chilterns and the Cotswolds. They are both extremely beautiful parts of England and there is an eagerness to see these orders progressed so that we can enhance the management of those areas and, therefore, I hope that your Lordships endorse the orders. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16 June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Whitty.)

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for moving the order and for dealing with the two orders at the same time, because the mechanics apply equally to both, so I have no difficulty with that. The only matter upon which I was reflecting was that it does not seem four years ago since we were debating at length that Countryside and Rights of Way Act. My only disappointment, which I shall record again, was the fact that honourable friends in another place did not have the chance to debate a single word of this particularly important section because of the guillotine that operated in that House. However, we support the orders. Anything that helps to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of these two wonderful areas is welcome.

I should like to ask the Minister one or two questions and I have read carefully through yesterday's Commons Hansard. As the Minister has said, the financial details are not specified in these statutory instruments, except that travelling, conference expenses and visits will be reimbursed. That is in order, but can the noble Lord put a little more flesh on that? What are the anticipated costs of establishing these two area boards and what are the costs likely to be for the next two years? That is not too much to hope for. Such guidance would be helpful to your Lordships.

As the Minister said, due to these changes, it is not possible to recover the VAT. What is the anticipated VAT expenditure figure? Will it be taken from the existing money that the Countryside Agency already has and allocates to the various AONBs, or will it be in addition to it?

I turn to the Explanatory Memorandum and look specifically at the make-up of the two AONBs. I understand that for the Chilterns board 15 local authorities are involved. Fourteen gave consent quite willingly, but one had reservations and gave its qualified support. For the Cotswolds board, 17 local authorities are involved. Thirteen gave their consent and four gave consent subsequently, with qualifications. What were those reservations? Were they expressed at district level, or were they parish queries? It would be helpful for the House to have a better understanding of that.

While I am dealing with the groupings laid down in the statutory instruments, particularly with regard to the Chilterns area, can the Minister explain why there is such a difference between the numbers of parishes within the various groupings? The reason is probably geographical. In the Chilterns, for example, group 1 will have one representative out of 10; group 2 will have one out of 20; group 3 will have two out of 50; and group 4 will have two out of 38. There is a big variation—50 compared with 38 for only two places. I suspect that some parishes may feel that they will not have the opportunity to be represented and I should therefore be grateful for clarification.

I should like to thank the Minister and to reflect on the debate we had during the passage of the CROW Act when we decided to let the parish councils elect themselves. We had a long debate on how that would be achieved. The procedure is unwieldy if one of the groups is 50-strong and presumably the cost must be borne out by the new AONBs.

I turn to a matter raised by my honourable friend Mr Clifton-Brown in another place yesterday. As the Minister is aware, the Cotswold District Council administers 80 per cent of the area covered by the Cotswolds AONB. Of that, it will have only one voice, equal to any of the other districts. However, the Secretary of State has the ability to appoint 15 out of the 40 places for the Cotswolds. Will the Minister, or whoever will make the nominations, consider the proportion when appointing people to fill those places that are in the Secretary of State's control? A large proportion appear not to be represented fully—I understand why and am not quarrelling with the decision—and I wonder whether it might be taken into consideration.

While I am on appointments, the Secretary of State has the power to appoint eight out of the 29 on the Chilterns board—I do not quarrel with that and 15 out of 40 on the Cotswolds board. Why are there so many? Does a laid-down proportion have to be appointed? Could not the Cotswolds AONB have been a smaller number? Obviously, eight out of 29 does not compare with 15 out of 40.

I want to turn to the overall costs, on which the Minister has touched, and to mention the review of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. I accept that the Countryside Agency has for this current year set aside some £7.9 million for the work of the AONBs. Can the Minister assure me that the costs allocated within that will not come from allocations to other AONBs which are not seeking this special treatment and that any extra money needed will be raised by the Countryside Agency in another way?

Yesterday, my right honourable friend James Gray pointed out that an increase of 20 per cent was required to set up these new AONBs. The Minister, Mr Bradshaw, challenged that. However, in the letter my right honourable friend received from the Chilterns AONB officer, dated 23 May, the costs were said to be "significantly higher" and nearer the 20 per cent quoted rather than the estimate the Minister had given. Has that been looked at since yesterday?

Finally, I turn to advertising for people who would like to be considered for appointment by the Secretary of State. I understand that advertisements have already been placed and that names have been received. I find that strange. We welcome these statutory instruments and I am sure that these statutory instruments will pass, but I must question whether it is right to advertise a post before it exists. I should like the Minister to comment on that.

We welcome and support the establishment of the Chilterns and Cotswolds AONBs and wish them every success in the future.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, we on these Benches are most supportive of these orders to set up the boards for these two beautiful areas of the countryside and I thank the Minister for setting out the proposals. I want to make two points, one of which arises from the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford.

I believe that the Minister will have difficulty in telling us how much the costs will be. I have been thinking about the costs and the enthusiasm or otherwise of the local authorities in being involved in the boards. I do not know these areas of the country particularly well and I do not know which authorities will be less or more enthusiastic. However, it would be understandable if the local authority presently covering the bulk of the area were less enthusiastic. It might see another body being involved in that part of the country which it has seen as its own.

I want to ask, therefore, whether the Minister sees these as slim or fat bodies. It is possible for them to be set up with great bureaucracies, several departments and so forth, or they can be set up with a slim operation and can contract with other bodies in the area—existing local authorities, voluntary bodies or other statutory bodies—to undertake certain work so that they do not have to set up shop themselves. It would be helpful to know which way they are going. Will they be set up as big businesses, or will they be co-operating with existing bodies using what is available?

I want to refer to the number of members of these bodies. I am aware that there can be sensitivities. In the case of the Chilterns, the principal local authorities together have a majority; in the case of the Cotswolds, they will be in a minority. If the numbers have been arrived at with proper local consultation, that is fine. But it would be useful to know that the measure is understood and welcomed locally and that, where one place has a majority, that is accepted. I can see that there are grounds for either viewpoint, but that is the kind of issue that can be raised at the start of a new venture and it is as well to be clear about whether it has been agreed locally. I am very supportive of the orders and wish them well in the part that they play in enhancing this part of our countryside.

1.30 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am grateful for the support of both Front Benches on the principle of establishing these boards. As the noble Baroness said, they were the subject of some discussion during the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill a few years ago, and therefore we are familiar with the subject.

A number of different questions were raised. In relation to the attitude of the local authorities within these areas, when we say that the boards were "supported with qualifications", those qualifications did not refer to the establishment of the boards but to aspects of how the boards would operate. The comments did not come from the parishes but from the districts. They were not related to matters which appear in the orders; they referred, for example, to the need to have an agreement on the protocol on current responsibilities, to which I referred in my opening speech. That is clearly a matter for the board to determine.

Those concerned wanted to ensure that the board did not have planning powers. In fact, the Act does not allow for the board to have planning powers, so that is all right. Concerns were also expressed about timing and funding, as one would expect. But there were no concerns about either the establishment of the board or the board structure.

With regard to the membership of the board, the Act provides some degree of flexibility. It requires—I remember this as part of the debate four years ago— that the parishes must account for at least 20 per cent of the total numbers and the districts and counties at least 40 per cent. Therefore, to some extent, the Secretary of State appointments provide flexibility. In the case of both the Chilterns and the Cotswolds, the composition was agreed with everyone concerned but, in the case of the Chilterns, the requirement is that the local authorities will account for 51 per cent of the membership. Both measures went through the same process of agreement with the authorities.

I cannot give an accurate figure for the expected cost because that will be a matter for the board to decide. The board and the local authorities will decide where some of the responsibilities lie and therefore to what degree a transfer of staffing will take place and so on. One would not expect the costs to be significantly higher, but that will depend on how much is transferred. It may well be that the estimate from the Chilterns officer is his best estimate at this point, but there is no figure for the ongoing costs. We think that the set-up costs may well be in the region of £400,000 per board.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, did I hear the Minister correctly? Did he say £100,000 for both boards or £400,000?

Lord Whitty: The figure is £400,000 for the set-up costs. Therefore, there is an immediate cost but the ongoing costs will be a matter for deliberation by the board itself.

As to covering the VAT cost, compared with what it paid to the management board, the Countryside Agency has agreed to raise 80 rather than 75 per cent of the costs. Broadly speaking, that would cover the additional VAT that would have to be paid by the local authorities. That will come from the Countryside Agency's budget and, while no money will be taken away from other AONBs, nevertheless, it is within the overall budget of the Countryside Agency. In future, that may well be delivered in a different way as a result of the Haskins report, but there is no implication that other AONBs will suffer directly as a result.

In terms of the representation of parishes, there is a slightly different approach in that, in the Cotswolds, the parish groups based on regions are divided up in a particular way. In the case of the Chilterns, the parish groups are based on the county areas, with the two largest county areas having two parish members and not one. However, one of those county areas is quite large in terms of the number of parishes that it contains. It is divided in that way via the higher-tier local authority rather than by the number of parishes. Again, that was agreed at local level.

Incidentally, the noble Baroness referred to the Cotswold district council covering 80 per cent of the area of the Cotswolds AONB. I do not think that that figure was corrected last night in another place. While it is by far the largest area, the figure is about 47 per cent rather than 80 per cent.

As to the Secretary of State's appointments compensating for the apparent under-representation in that regard, I do not think that that is appropriate. No doubt it is worth consideration, but the appointments made by the Secretary of State will be on the basis of individuals' merits and their appropriateness for the job rather than on the basis of representing a particular organisation or area.

The noble Baroness also raised the question of advertising for those jobs. It is true that advertisements have been inserted in the media and that applications have been sought, but it has been made clear that the process is subject to these orders going through both Houses of Parliament and that no appointment will be made until that happens. Therefore, the advertisements have been placed in anticipation of the decision. They do not pre-empt the decision and no decisions have been based on appointments.

I think that I have answered the majority of the questions unless the noble Baroness and the noble Lord wish to raise other points.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I needed clarification on the point concerning the Cotswold district and I am grateful for his explanation. The second point that I raised was whether the extra money came within the overall budget of the Countryside Agency, and I think that the Minister clarified that. I understood that £7.9 million had been allocated from the Countryside Agency's budget for areas of outstanding natural beauty. Is the Minister saying that that figure will still stand and that the extra money will come from another pot within the Countryside Agency?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we are talking prospectively but the Countryside Agency's budget is not fixed prospectively. I am saying that the money will have to come out of whatever total allocation the Countryside Agency has for future years or whatever changes of delivery follow from the Haskins report. But the money would not be taken from another AONB and put into these areas. Obviously the budgets may be adjusted for other reasons, and therefore I cannot give an absolutely clear answer to that point.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I may have blinked but I did not catch whether the Minister indicated that he had a view on whether the areas would have a slim or a plump operation. I think that that is an important point.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in general, the organisation will be fairly slim and, subject to a decision between the boards and the local authorities, there will not be a significant increase in the numbers of staff over and above the limited number already employed by the management boards and those transferred from local authorities who are already engaged in that way. It is not anticipated that we shall create a huge and growing bureaucracy; it is simply that we shall carry out the work more efficiently and comprehensively.

On Question, Motion agreed to.