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Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may seek to save my noble friend some embarrassment. It was not Robert Redgrave for whom he was mistaken but a gentleman by the name of Redford.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, the only comment that I feel able to make is that the noble Earl's successor in office would not be mistaken for Robert Redford.

As for the general thrust of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I fall back on my now well-worked formula, thanks to my noble friend: if there were to be a Speaker's Conference, I am sure that is one of the matters that could be looked at.

8 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am not sure whether or not that was a sympathetic answer. However, I was making a serious point in relation to questions of impersonation and the fact that in city polling stations it is relatively easy to impersonate because the chance of a presiding officer knowing individuals is remote. That is the evidence which is

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reputed to exist in the Glasgow Goven constituency. I say "reputed" because I only know of these matters from newspapers and do not have any knowledge myself, not having gone to the polls on polling day for reasons known to all your Lordships.

It is a serious problem and one day we shall need to consider giving that extra piece of armoury to polling station presiding officers to ensure that people are not voting for people who cannot turn up or imaginary people whom they have arranged to reside at certain addresses on 10th October who receive polling cards. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 54, as an amendment to Amendment No. 50, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 55, as an amendment to Amendment No. 50, not moved.]

The Earl of Balfour: My Lords, in relation to Amendment No. 50 I wish to make a technical point. Perhaps noble Lords would be good enough to turn to the schedule at page 10 of the Second Marshalled List. I should first like to refer to paragraph (g) and then to paragraph (f). Paragraph (g) states,

    "a reference to a person's entitlement as an elector to an absent vote shall be construed as a reference to a person's entitlement to vote by post on his own behalf"--

fair enough--

    "or to vote by proxy".

That seems to me to be a strange way of putting it. Perhaps it should be, "or to appoint somebody else to vote by proxy". I am wondering about that wording.

Paragraph (f) says,

    "a reference to a person voting as an elector shall be construed as a reference to a person voting on his own behalf".

That seems fair enough. I feel that the wording should perhaps be, "or on behalf of another person by proxy". That is my first question. It is a technical one. Will the Minister be good enough to look at that between now and Third Reading?

To save time I shall ask my second question. There is an interesting difference between the elections for the European Parliament and the elections for the Parliament at Westminster or local government elections. For the European parliamentary elections, no polling agents are appointed. That is an interesting difference. Will the referendum be similar to a national election or a European election from the point of view of polling agents? Perhaps the Minister can answer that question.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I give an undertaking to write to the noble Earl on those points.

On Question, Amendment No. 50 agreed to.

Lord Sewel moved Amendment No. 56:

[In the Title]:

Line 5, leave out ("the establishment of").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1408

Sussex Downs

8.4 p.m.

Viscount Mersey rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to give full support to the Sussex Downs Conservation Board in their management of the Sussex Downs area of outstanding natural beauty from April 1998.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I feel that I am uniquely placed and privileged to ask the Question. I live at Bignor, on the northern escarpment of the Downs. I was christened in Bignor Church in 1934. I expect to be buried there, as was my father and as was his father, near the Roman Villa.

The Sussex Downs area of outstanding natural beauty in which we live is 400 square miles. At its western end, where we are, it includes also the Weald up to the Surrey border and is 25 miles wide. But further east, where the River Adur cuts through it at Lancing, it is only three miles. It is only 50 miles from here. It is a rural sanctuary sandwiched between two urban developments. To the north lie London's outriders--Horsham, Crawley and Haywards Heath--and to the south lies a great ribbon of seaside towns--Bognor, Littlehampton, Worthing, Shoreham, Hove, Brighton and so on through to Eastbourne.

It was incursion from the South that first worried us. In the 1920s Peacehaven was built on top of the Downs where they plunge into the sea east of Brighton. The society of Sussex Downsmen tried to prevent further urban sprawl. Then followed various preservation plans. One idea in the 1950s was that it should become a national park. However, it was considered already too cultivated for that status: more redolent of Dartmoor or the Peak District. Instead it became one of 40 AONBs in 1965.

Sadly, that still did not provide sufficient protection. Indeed, it is reckoned that 80 per cent. of Sussex Downland has been lost to us over the past 50 years. That is why the Sussex Downs Conservation Board was formed six years ago, but as an experiment. It was a temporary measure and its remit runs out in April of next year. Happily, the Government have just given it a most welcome reprieve of a further three years, albeit with reduced funding. During those three years consultation should give rise to a permanent solution and the 64,000 dollar question is: what is that permanent solution to be?

The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, will, I feel sure, have read the adjourned debate in another place on 4th July moved by my honourable friend the Member for Arandale and South Downs and the reply of her honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. I must confess that I was encouraged by that reply. It seems that government recognise that the conservation board has worked well and that they believe in the maxim, "If it works, don't fix it".

I hope therefore that the board will be given permanent status over the next three years. That may require primary legislation and some alteration. But not, please, alteration to a national park. National parks are

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expensive--£3 million per annum per park. The Sussex Downs Conservation Board is cheap--only one-third of the cost of a park. It relies on a large body of voluntary staff, including 200 rangers.

Then there may be planning difficulties. National park policy can fight local authority policy. But with the Downs conservation board, such a fight cannot take place since all 13 local authorities are represented on it. Besides, the board gives planning advice only. Planning power still rests with the local authorities. Admittedly, the board is too big. It has 36 members--12 from district councils, 12 from county councils and 12 from the Countryside Commission. My solution is to remove those 12 from the Countryside Commission and substitute direct funding from the Department of the Environment for the commission funding. We would then have a democratically elected board of 24 people funded half locally and half nationally.

I must now mention the neighbouring East Hampshire area of outstanding natural beauty and suggest, as have government, that it should join the board which should then be renamed the South Downs Conservation Board. East Hampshire has another 150 square miles of rolling Downland stretching to Winchester. It is managed by three local authorities. If each put up two members, the board numbers would climb back again to 30. So that is my solution: a permanent board, including Hampshire, funded 50-50 by local authorities and government.

There are other solutions. Last summer a seminar was held at Sussex University. Six different solutions were proposed, ranging from a return to the pre-1992 position to a full-blown national park. The former is clearly not on and the latter, to my mind, is too drastic. But whichever solution we adopt, we cannot relax. A three-year reprieve seems long but it took the present board nearly three years from the date of its original legal creation until it was up and running. We must get moving now to guarantee preservation of this part of our heritage.

As I said, I am fortunate. I can just remember my uncle taking me to the top of Bignor Hill before the war and saying that on a clear day you could see the Isle of Wight. Nearly 60 years later, we have the same view, with Stane Street stretching away to Chichester. But to our east, others are less fortunate. There the AONB is narrower and the demands of expansion wider: not just demand for buildings, but demand for golf courses, football grounds and other recreational facilities which would destroy the fauna, the flora and the very essence of the South Downs.

Today, 32 million visitors enjoy this conservation area in happy harmony. I ask the Government to ensure that they continue so to do for many years to come.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Rea: My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, has performed a valuable service in bringing this Question before your Lordships' House. Both the residents and visitors to Sussex will be extremely grateful to him. Like, I suspect, many other noble Lords who are to speak, I have to declare an interest. My

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1410

house--or rather my cottage--is in Beddingham in East Sussex downland. I am also a member of the A.27 action group, which seeks to promote environmentally acceptable road developments in the area. So I suppose I could be categorised as a NIMBY (not in my back yard) but I hope to show that that is not my main concern.

I benefit not only from living in a beautiful, spacious landscape but also because the classification AONB and, with that, the eagle eye of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board ensure that any development that is allowed is in keeping with the environment so that its character is preserved; and preserved not merely for the benefit of those who, like myself, are lucky enough to live there but for those who make the 32 million visits per annum to the South Downs that the conservation board has calculated.

Close to my cottage is a public footpath, maintained incidentally by the conservation board. Sometimes quite large groups of people--walkers or joggers--pass by. We had a local marathon 10 days ago. Occasionally their conversation, as they walk along, disturbs the rural peace. But that is a small price to pay for the privilege of living there.

Noble Lords will remember that Voltaire once wrote to a certain Abbe le Riche, "Monsieur l'abbe, I detest what you write but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write it". It is fairly unlikely that I would give my life for walkers or joggers, but by supporting the South Downs Conservation Board and encouraging Her Majesty's Government to do so a little more generously in future than perhaps they have for the two years after 1998, I may be contributing to the future enjoyment by walkers and joggers of the South Downs, which I consider to be one of the lungs of London.

More disturbing than those who jog by are those who motor by--in my case one-third of a mile away along the A.27, the trunk road that passes through the South Downs. The white sound of tyres speeding over the road surface reaches noise pollution levels when the wind blows from the north. In the 18th report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution there is a map showing how between 1960 and 1992 wide streets of traffic noise, appropriately coloured white, have, along major roads, cut into and almost halved the tranquil areas of south east England. That is the current situation without any further development.

Trunk roads are the responsibility of the Department of Transport but the Sussex Downs Conservation Board has an important advisory role. The plan for upgrading the A.27 to near motorway standard from Folkestone to Honiton has been shelved. However, as I have discussed with my noble friend Lady Hayman, there is a particular scheme--the Weald and Downland DBFO, a privately-financed scheme--which, while including a much-needed bypass for Polegate, near Eastbourne, also proposes a monster, environmentally intrusive, split level roundabout with a through route for a much enlarged A.27 pointing directly into unspoilt countryside in the area of outstanding natural beauty. I should like to take this opportunity to express the alarm which this

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scheme is causing to a number of local and national organisations, including the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. I shall do this in advance of a visit by the South Downs Conservation Board. There are simple, much cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives which would still permit the much-needed Polegate bypass to be built.

Finally, while I do not expect my noble friend Lady Farrington to pre-empt the decision, which is imminent, on this and the other DBFO schemes, I hope she will draw these remarks to the attention of her noble friend Lady Hayman, who is the Minister concerned.

8.16 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Mersey on initiating this debate and I support the purpose of his Question wholeheartedly. In doing so, I, too, should declare a non-financial but highly involved interest in the subject, being a resident of the area for over 16 years.

The Sussex Downs is to me, and to many other people, the most wonderful part of England. It is so peaceful and beautiful to walk there at any time of the day and in any season of the year. I feel especially privileged to live in such a marvellous part of the country. I do not want anything to spoil it, ever.

This is not NIMBYism but a statement that embodies my strongly-held belief that the unique character of the Sussex Downs, giving, as my noble friend Lord Mersey said, some 400 square miles of rolling countryside offering peace and tranquillity just 60 miles or so from the capital city of this country, must be preserved.

The Sussex Downs Conservation Board has done a commendable job in achieving just that--preserving it. This fact, indeed, has been acknowledged by the Countryside Commission and by the Government. In a sense this debate is superfluous in asking the Government whether they intend to give full support to the Sussex Downs Conservation Board when the Government have already, in another place, in the form of words from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Environment in an adjournment debate on 4th July given that support to the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. I quote:

    "the Government are very appreciative of the efforts of the Sussex Downs conservation board in conserving the downs over the past five years. I hope the House will agree that the conservation board is a success story--and the Government intend to help to make it even more successful in the future".--[Official Report, Commons, 4/7/97; col. 594.)

But an endorsement from this House will not go amiss and will reinforce all that has already been said.

It is imperative that the board should continue to be both supported and encouraged. Encouragement is not in short supply at all; funds for the support of the board may be; and that is the subject that concerns me. The Countryside Commission has supported the board most handsomely in the past, allocating about a third of its total funds to the area. However, this contribution is going to be reduced over the next three years, leaving a gap to be filled from other sources. The local authorities have also supported the board, encouraged by the

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Government, and the Countryside Commission wishes to see full participation of all local authorities in the geographical area in the work of the board.

No one in this House is unaware of the strained financial resources of local authorities; so much so that it really is living in "Cloud-cuckoo-land" to expect the local authorities to increase their funding to make up the shortfall resulting from the Countryside Commission's reduced contribution. The Countryside Commission expects the board to increase income from other sources.

I have worked very hard over the past seven years or so trying to raise money "from other sources" for the arts and for charities. It is not easy. In fact I believe it is now even more difficult because would-be donors are inclined to think that they have been relieved of their responsibility since the introduction of the National Lottery.

Perhaps we can approach the National Lottery: it is certainly worth a try. But with the recent announcement that the Department of National Heritage is now to be renamed the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I fear that applications to the National Lottery, for a truly heritage project for which that department has responsibility might not be favourably regarded. I ask the Minister to allay my fears on that point and to give encouragement to the Sussex Downs Conservation Board to make such an application, supported by yet a further endorsement from the Government.

As a final point I would also like to ask the Minister if she can elaborate on the statement of her honourable friend in another place to the effect that consultation will begin later this year on,

    "the best way forward for managing the downs in the medium and longer term".

The specific questions are these: What is the time-scale for such consultation--for example, how long is it going to take? What other new assumptions are likely to be stated as a "given" in addition to the inclusion of Hampshire in the process?

8.21 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, I too would like to congratulate the noble Viscount on raising this important question. I believe that I agree with everything that he said. My only qualification for adding anything is that I, too, like so many of your Lordships, live more or less within the shadow of the South Downs, but perhaps rather less so than some noble Lords who are to speak later. For many years I have been a member of the Sussex Downsmen. Indeed I am now honoured to be their president.

I shall say only a very few words because I have almost lost my voice, which may perhaps be regarded as a good thing in a judge. But at least I shall be brief. A few months ago I joined with seven or eight others, including the chairman of the National Trust and the president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, in writing a letter to The Times calling on the then Government to do what is necessary to protect the great beauty of the South Downs. I cannot remember

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what word we used, whether we wrote "great beauty", "unique beauty", or "incomparable beauty". But we all agreed that it is one or other of those things.

Many noble Lords who have already spoken or who are to speak, will be as familiar as I am--perhaps more familiar--with the South Downs. The point that we tried to make in the letter is that the South Downs are not just a great joy for all of us locals, but their future is a matter of national concern, and that is the point I wish to make tonight.

That brings me to the conservation board. It has only existed for a mere five years and during that time it has not spent a great deal of public money--at least not by the standards that we are now used to. But I can say that every single penny that has been spent has been money well spent. If it does not sound too quaint to say so, on behalf of the Sussex Downsmen I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, and also my friend--if I may so call him--the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for all that they have done on behalf of the South Downs over the past five years.

To my mind it would be the greatest pity if what they have achieved were now to be thrown away owing to a lack of funds. The work of the board must be continued on a permanent basis either in its present form or in some rather similar form with marginally, but not greatly, increased powers. Above all, it must be made financially secure for the future. Having said that, I shall leave what remains to be said to those who follow.

8.25 p.m.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I should declare an interest as the chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I am the first speaker in my noble friend's debate not to live in the South Downs. However, when I was a child my grandparents lived at Arundel, and before, during and after the war I spent early formative years enjoying the Sussex Downs. I say at once that it is precisely the sort of area which CPRE in its first 70 years has been fighting to protect.

The noble Lord mentioned Peacehaven. I recollected that many years ago I became lost and found myself in Peacehaven. It was that experience which first stimulated me to take up the lance to protect rural England.

The plea that I wish to make is an unashamed one; that the body which must protect the South Downs must be adequate for the purpose. It has been pointed out that it was originally proposed by the Hobhouse Committee in 1947 that this area should be a national park. It was not made a national park, but it was made an area of outstanding natural beauty. I fear that that AONB is now rather a second rank status compared to being a national park. Indeed, much damage over the period since 1947 has been done by the ploughing up of large parts of the Downs.

Part of the Downs became an environmentally sensitive area in 1987. That is not enough although it is quite expensive. The cost is over £1 million a year compared to a budget for the South Downs as they are now of £1.3 million. The ESA is an expensive and not

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wholly effectual route to achieve the objective that we want. In 1992 we had the creation of the South Downs Conservation Board under the enlightened chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, who I believe is shortly to be succeeded by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry. Indeed, the place from which he takes his title is one that I have been fortunate enough to visit a number of times and to get to know the Downs even better.

But that board is financed by the Countryside Commission. For 12 years I was a member of that body. I know that it is not a satisfactory system for the Countryside Commission to be responsible for ad hoc temporary financing. The financing which is envisaged for the present is only a further three years from April next year.

I believe that there are two main reasons why the Downs needs national parks status, but that does not necessarily mean that they should become a national park. The first main reason is planning because one cannot trust local authorities on their own not to see land close to them and within their grasp as land to be developed. Secondly, it is necessary to secure proper funding with a 75 per cent. central government contribution.

I know that there are doubts about national park status for the South Downs. We have been round this track before with the Broads. There was much opposition to the need to replace the ad hoc body which was meant to look after them with the new Broads authority which was brought into effect by the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988. As a countryside commissioner I was required to talk to angry groups of farmers, boatmen and others who thought that the arrival of such a body would take away their freedoms and their admiral's flag on the Broads. (I know that that does not apply to the Downs). The Broads Authority has worked extremely well.

We now have the Environment Act 1995 which could be used to strengthen the protection of the South Downs. It could create a new body which could have the existing name: it would not have to be called a national park. It could have the same name as the South Downs Conservation Board and it is hoped that it could be under the chairmanship of my noble friend. Introducing that would be a relatively simple matter--not, as I understand it, requiring primary legislation. In the first instance, the Countryside Commission would be required to draw up a plan. There would then be consultation and, if agreed, it would be for the Secretary of State to designate the agreed area as such. My final appeal to the Government is that in this crucial and beautiful area the time has come to think of a permanent, rather than a temporary, solution.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, on raising this subject in the wake of the short debate in another place earlier this month. Unlike most of those speaking this evening, I do not live in Sussex; nor do I hold any position on the organisations or quangos concerned about the welfare of the Downs. But I have written a Guide to the South

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Downs Way, and during the year I spent compiling it the topography and ecology of the South Downs, as well as their history and literature, were never far from my mind. I have trudged all over them and ridden the length of them on horseback. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, has been disturbed by the conversation of my fellow walkers; he is fortunate not to have been of a previous generation when it was customary for ramblers to sing choruses as they walked. I suppose that I am speaking from the perspective of the 16 million or so people from beyond Sussex who visit the Sussex Downs each year.

When my book was first published in 1984 the South Downs Way was only in Sussex, but I extended my coverage to Winchester, recognising that the South Downs transcend administrative divisions, in contrast to the opinion of Hilaire Belloc who scornfully referred to the Hampshire border,

    "beyond which there is nothing".

Today I detect a general acceptance that the landscape that concerns us is that which falls in Hampshire as well as in West and East Sussex--in effect, the two adjacent areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Another point of general agreement is that the experimental Sussex Downs Conservation Board has done a good job. As an amateur in the matter, I particularly commend the voluntary ranger service. But it has to be seen as a temporary arrangement, and the Government are very sensibly setting up a consultative process to establish the best permanent solution for the future administration of the South Downs.

The consultation paper which was produced by the board earlier last year and which was, I believe, discussed in Sussex University, defines a number of options. These range from a reversion to the system before 1992 to an advancement towards a national park. The central issue is as to where the strategic planning authority lies. At present, the conservation board is merely an influential committee. I wish to add my voice to those who support the concept of a statutory authority, as did the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford.

The extreme pressures on the South Downs are likely to intensify as never before now that the economy is roaring ahead, and big tests are yet to come, such as the plans for the sports complex in Waterhall Valley. The chronic fragility of the landscape was dramatically demonstrated in the recent exploitations of the flax tax loophole--one of them, incidentally, on the Down from which the incoming chairman of the board takes his territorial designation--Mount Harry--and partly in a site of special scientific interest. Within those parts of the downs designated as environmentally sensitive areas, the take-up by farmers of compensation schemes for grassland has been uninspiring.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that a higher price must be paid for the preservation of the downland, and that it will have to come from government funding. The large sums involved, together with the desirability of incorporating the East Hampshire Downs, predicate the establishment of something equivalent to a national park, even if that particular designation is to be avoided.

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The co-operation of local authorities should surely be attainable within the provisions of the recent Environment Act. That of the landowners is also essential, especially because, without it, we are faced with the danger of extensive scrub reversion. I can think of no part of upland or lowland England where scrub reversion would be more deplorable than on the South Downs, whose appeal derives from their bare and sensuous lines, what W. H. Hudson memorably described as,

    "the solemn slope of mighty limbs asleep",

the result of centuries of shaving by sheep and plough. Clothed in a garment of wood and leaf, they would be scarcely distinctive or discernible.

What we must hope for is that they will be protected under a regime altogether more strict than that for ordinary AONBs, a strictness that must apply to visitors as well as residents, so as to recreate a sense of space and solitude such as is so sadly lacking elsewhere in south-east England today.

8.35 p.m.

Viscount Addison: My Lords, I should first declare an interest as vice-president of the Council for National Parks and of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. There is great concern among the 43 environment and amenity organisations that make up the Council for National Parks that the South Downs should deservedly be given the status equivalent to that of a national park. During the last week I was privileged to fly over the South Downs with the Hampshire police, so the Downs are fresh in my mind.

The Sussex Downs Conservation Board has been successful in generating a consensus that something needs to be done to secure the future management of the South Downs. However, the South Downs deserve a more unified, Downs-focused approach to planning, to countryside and recreation management, and to landscape enhancement than the board has been able to provide. The board has lacked essential powers and the benefits that a long-term approach can bring.

Therefore, I warmly welcome the Government's announcement of a consultation later this year on the best way forward for managing the Downs in the medium and long term. I should like to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, for an assurance that the consultation on the South Downs will genuinely explore all the options for the Downs, including that of awarding them national park status. I know that there is tremendous local support for a body with national park status to take over the management of the South Downs, building on the start made by the Sussex Downs Conservation Board.

The board was charged with reviewing the possibility of national park status for the Downs annually. Unfortunately, this has not happened and perhaps the board is not best placed to undertake such a review. I would also ask for an indication from the Government as to whether the consultation on the future of the Downs will be undertaken by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, in consultation with the Countryside Commission, as happened with the

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1417

New Forest consultation on national park status in 1992. If the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions were to undertake the consultation, this would avoid the consultation on the future of the South Downs being confused or subsumed by the Countryside Commission's forthcoming consultation on areas of outstanding natural beauty in general.

I understand that the Government are keen to have a permanent solution for the management of the South Downs in place before the end of the interim funding to the Sussex Downs Conservation Board; I share the concern expressed by the Minister for the Environment. I therefore hope that the Government will be able to tell us when the consultation on the future management of the Downs will start and finish.

I am delighted by the Government's commitment to designate more areas of countryside with national park status. I was involved in the national park-related clauses of the Environment Act 1995 and suggest that they have opened up some exciting possibilities for tailoring any new national park body to the special requirements of its area. For example, there is now some flexibility for tailoring planning arrangements to the needs of the area and also some flexibility as to whether the term "national park" needs to be used in the name of any new body. I hope that the Government will explore these options with regard to the South Downs.

8.39 p.m.

Viscount Hampden: My Lords, I should also like to congratulate the noble Viscount for introducing this important debate. I am totally opposed to the request of the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, for national park status, but perhaps he would expect that. I also declare an interest. My family has owned quite large tracts of the South Downs for many generations. I believe that Mount Caburn, an ancient hill fort behind Lewes, has been in my family since the 13th century. In the middle of the 17th century we moved southwards and acquired the parish of Beddingham where the noble Lord, Lord Rea, has his cottage. It does not belong to me any more. Thanks to a generous Act of Parliament, my great-great grandfather was voted an annuity of £4,000 for his 12 years as Speaker. The family was then able to buy further large tracts of the South Downs at £25 per acre in the 1890s.

Some of the beauty of the South Downs is pure nature and some is man made. I am afraid that my family has been responsible for some of the man made features around Lewes. One hundred and fifty years ago we went into the lime works business and clawed great chunks of chalk out of the Downs, dug clay from the marshland and built a tramway and a mining village. If I suggested today that I did any of those things everybody would come down on my head and say "No!". One hundred and fifty years later a number of these features are of great beauty. The disused clayworks is now a lake and is a sanctuary for wildfowl, owl, harriers etc. The chalkpit is a rather dramatic scar in Caburn and a place for picnics. I mention this because I believe that all planning must be for the long term and not just the short term.

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I refer to Mount Caburn to give your Lordships some idea of the management problems. It is an ancient monument. Members of the Institute of Archaeology are to visit it next week to do a dig. English Nature has claimed it as a nature reserve. It is home to a great many burnt-tipped orchids and other species. It is also a beauty spot for walking. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, has walked there with his team when writing his book. Arrangements must be made with the local authority to provide footpaths. When the wind is in a certain direction it is the only place in the south east of England where para-gliders can operate. I must have another arrangement with them for access to car parking. It is quite a trial although a great joy. I believe it is very important that a conservation trust like that presided over by my noble friend Lord Nathan can operate in the local environment with people who understand the problems.

I should like to end by referring to one matter touched upon by my noble friend Lord Gladwyn. He referred to scrubbing. This is a very important matter. It takes one back to agriculture. Farming on the South Downs is not profitable. One can just about make a living out of it--at least that is what one's tenants say. In the 1930s my family was unable to let the hill farms because sheep farming was so unattractive. This led to all of the problems referred to by my noble friend: scrubbing, ranching and the disappearance of partridges and other songbirds. It is enormously important that we take into account the agricultural interest as well as all the other interests.

8.43 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I should like to declare two interests in this interesting debate on the Question asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey. First, as some noble Lords have already mentioned, I have the great honour to have been elected by the South Downs Conservation Board to succeed the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, as chairman in due course. I, too, should like to pay tribute to the tremendous work of the noble Lord as chairman. He has put a huge amount of time into it. He has put in not only time but diplomacy and judgment. It is as a result of so much of his work that the board has been the success that it has.

My other interest is that Mount Harry is the territorial tag that is now attached to my name. It is one of the Sussex Downs that this evening we are talking about conserving. I assure the noble Viscount, Lord Hampden, that I have not been at Mount Harry for nearly as long as he has been at Glynde. It was not because of any flax tax that I chose this name. I remind the House that it was on Mount Harry on 14th May 1264 that Simon de Montfort beat Henry III at the Battle of Lewes. In January of the following year he summoned not just churchmen and lay barons but two representatives of each borough to form what was in effect the first truly democratic parliament in England. That is perhaps to be celebrated more in the other place than in your Lordships' House.

I should like to reply briefly to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, and my noble friends Lord Marlesford and Lord Addison on the question of

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1419

national park status for the Sussex Downs. I realise that this will be extensively debated in the months and years ahead. There is nothing wrong with that at all. However, having lived at Mount Harry for 30 years and been a Member of Parliament for Mid-Sussex for 23 of them, I see no sign whatever in Sussex of great support for national park status. I believe that your Lordships should bear in mind three factors. First, farmers and landowners are very much against it. They believe that they would lose a good deal of control over the use of their land. Secondly, the local authorities are against it. National parks are normally planning authorities. Therefore, local authorities will lose development control over land that is of questionable value in an area that is certainly subject to as much pressure as the Sussex Downs.

Within the conservation board there is a planning committee that carries out co-operative work between the board, the Countryside Commission and the local authorities. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, agrees that to date that has worked extremely effectively. Arguably, it is at least better than the national park system. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Sussex Downs are not wild wilderness country like most national parks; rather, they are rolling, gentle farm landscape surrounded by towns. Ten million people live within one hour's drive of the Downs. The beauty of the Downs depends not so much on the conservation board improving rights of way and visitor facilities as the care with which farmers and landowners have looked after and tended the land, often for many generations. It is very important that in considering the future of the Downs in the years ahead one works with the grain of what is reasonably received in Sussex rather than look at exemplars in other parts of the country which frankly may not be very suitable.

I should like to put two questions to the noble Baroness who is to reply. These matters were raised by her colleague in the other place in the debate on 4th July. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary said she understood that financing had been agreed between local authorities, the Countryside Commission and the board for three years ahead. This is simply not so. The Countryside Commission has made its proposals. They mean a reduction of about 50 per cent. over the three years in the money that has been received from the Countryside Commission in the past three years. One needs a clear view as to what the Government expect from the board in the years ahead at a time when the amount of money available from both the Countryside Commission and local authorities is likely to be severely reduced.

In the other place the Parliamentary Under-Secretary also gave the impression that measures had been taken to deal with the flax problem. Last Sunday I walked past that part of Mount Harry where flax was growing. The crop is coming along very nicely. The blue flowers are now on top of the plants. I should like to know the Government's precise proposals to deal with the flax tax or subsidy in the future. This is a matter of very great concern in many areas of the Downs.

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8.48 p.m.

Lord Nathan: My Lords, first I should like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, for introducing this wide-ranging debate. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who has already spoken is to succeed me as chairman of the board.

I declare two interests. First, I have lived in my present house in the AONB for some 45 years. Both my wife and I have lived on the margin of the AONB throughout our lives. I also declare an interest as chairman of the board effectively since it started in 1992. I believe that it has been a success. I say that because of some of the kind remarks that have been made. I am grateful to those of your Lordships who have made such remarks.

The Countryside Commission instructed consultants Green Balance to report to it--the consultants reported in September of last year--on the achievements and effectiveness of the board. In its report it said as to countryside management:

    "The Board has been remarkably good value for money achieving perhaps twice as many projects (of a greater size on average) as would have been expected".

As to town and country planning, it says:

    "It is doubtful whether the Countryside Commission could have spent money in any other way to influence the planning of the AONB to the same extent, so we conclude that the Board has provided value for money".

I hope therefore that the Minister in her reply will give an unequivocal, positive answer to the Question.

The idea of the board originated with the two counties, East and West Sussex, which, together with the eleven district councils falling within the AONB and the Countryside Commission, established the board by agreement between them that it should continue for an experimental period of six years from 1st April 1992 to 31st March 1998. The Department of the Environment gave it a fair wind. The counties between them undertook for the six years to provide funding of £600,000 per annum for that period to be matched by the Countryside Commission; that is, a 50/50 division.

AONBs are nationally designated, being of national and not only local importance. This is the context of the Countryside Commission's responsibilities. In 1990 the Smart Anderson Report was published relating to AONBs and the need to ensure that they were not merely second class national parks. The constitution of the board in 1992 was in part prompted as an experiment of national importance to test whether this combination of local and national membership, accountability and support would demonstrate a successful way forward.

In view of the comment that has been made, I should mention that the board has considered whether it should constitute itself, or arrange that it should be a national park. It decided against that, but the matter was carefully considered at the conference at Sussex University to which reference has been made.

The idea of funding for an interim period from April 1998 was to provide time for consultation and decision as to the permanent arrangements for

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administration of the AONB. The funding during this period must be adequate to keep the board in being and effective to carry out its core functions--countryside management and planning--pending the permanent arrangements coming into effect. The cut to just over 50 per cent. of previous support by the Countryside Commission presents the board with serious problems with which we are grappling. We can only carry on if the local authorities continue or increase their funding. I believe their enthusiasm is such that they will, even in these very difficult times for them. I hope that I am right. It will be essential that the Countryside Commission is flexible as to the rate of drawing down its funds (as it has indicated it will be) and as to the use to which its funding is put. The work programme for coming years earlier discussed with it will clearly require modification. The board will, as the Countryside Commission itself acknowledges, have to engage in securing substantial funds from elsewhere (itself involving time, effort and expenditure) to undertake the tasks which have over the past years given it its reputation as a trail blazer. By deferring new initiatives planned for 1998 and years following they may be funded by new money secured by our efforts, but this will take time, perhaps a couple of years or more.

In the meantime, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary in another place said that extensive consultations would take place as to the permanent future of administration of the AONB. Can the Minister give any indication of when and how the consultation will take place? I and, I am sure, my colleagues would like to take an active and constructive part in those consultations. We have recently heard much of "fat cats". The reduction in funding results, if I may be forgiven the personal paradox, in our being slim cats on a starvation diet.

8.55 p.m.

Lord Teviot: My Lords, following that amusing speech, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Mersey for introducing this debate. I must declare an interest in that for the past 20 years I have been president of the Sussex area of the Ramblers' Association. So I shall concentrate on discussing rights of way.

In the same vein, time permitting, I am a serious walker and, like many others, enjoy walking the paths in the splendid landscape of the South Downs. Effective management of rights of way is a priority for the now unified Countryside Management Service, given the large number of visitors to the area. As has been said, they number a staggering 32 million a year. Incidentally, that is more than to any national park.

The area is well managed. As the board has pointed out, it provides not just access, but spreads the pressure and reduces the conflicts between conservation and recreation. The board has made tremendous strides in survey and maintenance, upgrading rights of way. Unlike most other areas of the countryside, it expects to come close to achieving the Countryside Commission's objective of ensuring that all rights of way are unobstructed,

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1422

well-maintained and accessible by 2000. Keeping them in that condition under heavy usage is an ongoing task.

That does not come cheaply. The board spends £100,000 a year on that activity alone. The use of the South Downs paths is heavily on the increase. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I become anecdotal. Just a week ago last Sunday, I took part in an annual event sponsored by the Long Distance Walkers Association; 1,150 people took part in three events of eight, 15 and 27 miles. I chose the latter. I was out walking roughly between 8.30 a.m. to 4 o'clock in the afternoon. I must have been one of the vulgar people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Rea, referred. He would have seen me walking bare-chested and in shorts. I hope that I was not one of those awful people who made ribald remarks over his garden fence. Next year I shall take great care and be silent.

Whereas in the past on that particular walk one would have seen a few other people walking on some of the supposedly lesser-used paths, this time, happily, there were many people around. That was encouraging. One felt that the message had got through, but the paths have to be managed all the more.

Again, and rather more worrying, on the way home I drove past Ditchling Beacon car park, owned by the National Trust, which is just outside the conurbation of Brighton. There were cars littered all over the roads because the car park was full. There one saw different types of people pursuing their leisure activities. They have just as much right as walkers such as myself. Those people want to stop to read their books and perhaps take a gentle stroll, with or without dogs, along the South Downs Way. Why not? Everyone has to be catered for. One hopes that some people may be induced to patronise less popular sites to take the weight off places like Ditchling Beacon. Again that type of activity has to be managed.

Another point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hampden, related to clearing the scrub and all that sort of thing. That is done by the conservation board, but amateur groups must be encouraged. One to which I pay tribute is the Monday Club at Hassocks where those newly retired people who do not quite know what has hit them, before they come to the stage of not knowing how they found the time to go to work, are enjoying themselves going out together on a Monday to clear scrub, mend stiles or put down planks on muddy spots. I hope that other amateur groups may be encouraged to take part in such activities.

One is concerned that the reduction in funding by the Countryside Commission, particularly when it is tied to future projects, may lead to cuts in that and other essential core activities of the board. I am concerned too that uncertainties about the immediate and long-term future may lead to the loss of key members of the dedicated team of officers and staff that the board has built up over the years. I, like others, therefore very much welcome the statement made in another place by the Under-Secretary of State

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for the Environment, that the Government intend to initiate a consultation process on the best way forward for managing the Downs in the medium and longer term. I have no preconceived ideas as to what is the best way forward in organisational terms. But we are all looking forward to the noble Baroness's reply to the Question this evening. I hope that it will help to reduce the unease which is felt widely by informing your Lordships of the timing and procedure of the promised consultation.

9 p.m.

Viscount Gage: My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, for the debate. I agree with those noble Lords and, in another place, with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, all of whom have praised the excellent work of the South Downs Conservation Board over the past six years.

Like other noble Lords, I declare two interests. The first is contemporary. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rea, I am a member of the A.27 Action Group. I agree with everything that he said. I have an historical interest. Although I cannot compete with the noble Viscount, Lord Hampden, my family has farmed in East Sussex for over 500 years on the chalk farmland for which the area covered by the board is so well known. I have first-hand knowledge of the enjoyment that many residents and thousands of visitors gain from walking the South Downs Way as well as the complex network of maintained foot paths and bridlepaths in this unique countryside. The degree of respect shown by these people to the landscape, which is unspoilt and yet sufficiently close to London and other large towns to be accessible, has been achieved without the imposition of notices or signs in a low-key manner which enhances the enjoyment of visitor and resident alike. That is very much to the credit of the board.

The Downs are, and have been, under threat from a combination of over-exploitation for leisure pursuits, urban development and inappropriate farming practices. In my opinion, in recent years, these dangers have been kept under a reasonable and viable level of control by the board.

On the subject of planning, I have recently had first hand experience of the vigilance of the board in its policy of monitoring planning applications and the efficacy of its powers of veto. I can only assume that others are subject to the same rigorous and thorough screening process. My late father, once the father of this House, did a great deal singlehandedly to restrict building development on the Downs between the wars. I am sure that he would be delighted with this continued expression of his philosophy.

The Government have instituted a consultation process on the best way forward for managing the Downs in both the medium and longer term, and that consultation will begin later in the year. One of the options put forward is that the area should be made into a national park.

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In 1949 when the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed, the South Downs were excluded. The need for increased domestic food production and improved agricultural methods was imperative. It was discovered that the Downlands were both fertile and productive and accordingly over 50 per cent. of the area was put under the plough. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, said, unlike many national parks the South Downs does not contain "wilderness" but is a gently farmed landscape which has been maintained with care by generations of farmers and landowners. Although the agricultural landscape of the South Downs is changing and greater emphasis is being put on pasture rather than arable, partly as a result of pressure from the EU, agricultural farming remains very much a vital and successful element in the local economy of the area. The board has been responsible for pursuing a policy which balances the need for conservation and sensitive agricultural use and has gained the confidence of farmers and landowners as well as visitors who come to enjoy the beauty of the landscape.

The board has an exemplary record in managing the area and it is in that context that I can make the point that it is metaphorically a Rolls Royce in terms of its administrative success. It needs funding, not fixing. The administration of a new national park would be more expensive than funding the existing board and would rely on already overstretched central government resources. The input of the 11 regional authorities concerned would be removed and the danger of over-exploitation for tourism rather than the needs of the local community would arise. It could invite the danger of bureaucratic managers unfamiliar with the region who might introduce a surfeit of unnecessary signs and huts which would detract from the timeless beauty of our South Downs.

The South Downs Conservation Board has been universally supported and its policies have proved efficacious at both a national and local level. The time has come to provide the board with secure long-term funding from national sources to enable it to continue its excellent work in maintaining the unique identity of the South Downs.

When the Government undertake their new consultation process I am hopeful that the conclusion will be that it is desirable to maintain and support the existing board and possibly also to enlarge its field of influence to include the Hampshire Downs under its jurisdiction.

9.6 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords this has been a most interesting debate and we are all grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, for initiating it. It has been particularly interesting to hear from the once and future chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. I am particularly happy to hear from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, speaking on behalf of that splendid body the Sussex Downsmen.

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Like so many noble Lords, I must declare an interest. I live about 10 miles from the Downs in West Sussex. I walk there and draw refreshment from the Downs. It is a landscape of great integrity which has been preserved over the years with some difficulty. It has, of course, changed. Your Lordships will recall the famous Belloc poem:

    "The great hills of the south country They stand along the sea And it is there walking in the high woods That I would wish to be".

There are precious few high woods now. We all think of those wonderful beached whales, the Downs, with not many woods on top. So it is not a static landscape. It has changed and bears the influence of humanity on it and, as has been said, in many ways that has been to its benefit over the centuries.

The Downs are small in scale. When we talk about them, often foreigners are not ready to register how tiny they are. However, they appear large in the imagination. My wife, who is listening to the debate, grew up in the Downs near Goodwood. Such is the grip of that landscape on her imagination that she is notorious to her family for looking at mountains and landscapes ranging from the Dolomites to the Blue Mountains near Sydney and saying, "Just like the Downs!". They have such a grip on our imagination, which is why the debate is important.

As regards money, which has rightly preoccupied us tonight, we must recognise that there will be great pressure on the budgets of local authorities. The motivation exists and I am one of those who hope that East Hampshire will come within the remit of an expanded board. All the authorities, whether in Sussex or Hampshire, will continue to feel pressure. Understandably, the Countryside Commission feels great pressure as a result of the large share of its resources which the board has occupied.

The Question being asked is proper, but I am with those in the debate who have asked whether it is essential to go down the national park route. To put the question crudely to the Minister: could not the board have the money without the structure and status? That is not altogether a facetious point. It has been notable in the debate that most noble Lords who are associated with national organisations have seen a national solution. However, one of the great strengths of the board is that it came from the grassroots upwards; that it belongs to the locality, to Sussex, in a real way.

I hope that in looking at solutions in the process of the consultation, which has been properly offered, we can be flexible and recognise, first, that this is a special place. Secondly, we must build on the success of the conservation board rather than demolishing it and starting again. Thirdly, we must build on local support, which is the key to the board, and we must remember the principle that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Finally, can we not find a bespoke solution rather than one that is off the peg?

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9.10 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, in welcoming the interesting debate raised by my noble friend Lord Mersey, I must stress that as a good Scot I do not have an interest to declare. Unlike many noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, I do not live in the area. I do not have the correct territorial tag, unlike my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry. I have not run bare chested along the Sussex Downs, unlike my noble friend Lord Teviot. For a moment I thought that I had a friend in the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, until he admitted that although he has not lived there he has written a book about the Sussex Downs. Perhaps I am unique in the debate but the Minister may trump me.

I pay tribute to what has been achieved by the Sussex Downs Conservation Board under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan. He was a famous chairman in this House and his reputation as chairman of the conservation board has reached my ears in far off places.

I give a guarded welcome to the Government's announcement that roll-over financing will continue. However, I echo the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, and others. If the board is such a success story, which the Government admit, why are they cutting the funding and therefore jeopardising that success?

The board has been a great success. It has achieved its objectives; it has delivered countryside management; and it has had a considerable influence on town and country planning in an acceptable way. Furthermore, it has had an ability to work with local communities and local interests, deploying persuasion, building partnership and co-operation. As was said by the noble Viscount, Lord Hampden, it has produced a style of conservation that understands local problems. It has worked with the grain--a good expression used by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry.

The mechanism has been established voluntarily. The board has not sought statutory planning powers, but it has delivered on a modest budget. I hope that the Government will be prepared to retain it and to maintain it properly. Furthermore, I hope that they will be prepared to seek such solutions in other areas. As was said compellingly by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, this is a tailor-made solution that has been built from the grassroots up. It has been built on the circumstances and the agenda that have been recognised in the area. It has been built on partnership and not on prescription. Therefore, I, too, would welcome the Minister's assurance that such a solution should be the first priority in sorting out countryside management. We should not resort to more Draconian prescriptions unless the voluntary, tailor-made, grassroots approach has obviously failed.

The success with which the board has delivered its agenda as regards value for money is outstanding. It is vital that the lessons learnt are adopted by other bodies. Nevertheless visitor management can account for a considerable portion of resources. Building

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1427

co-operation and consensus and seeking agreement can also generate costs. Those are less in the long run than in the case of a prescriptive solution, but nevertheless it takes time and it requires input to gather people together and to establish common solutions.

We all know that resources are not unlimited; they are tightly constrained. I have some sympathy with the Minister and with the Government in that respect in that financing solutions to the problems of the countryside is not an easy matter. The problems and challenges will inevitably increase. As the years go by, there will be a greater need for countryside management, not less. There will be greater costs which will have to be met, not fewer. There will be more people, more houses and more areas which can be described--as did my noble friend Lord Mersey in relation to the Downs--as rural sanctuaries between urban surrounds.

I hope that the Government will consider not only the problems and solutions relating to the South Downs, but also will consider strategically the kind of funding mechanisms that may be needed in the next five to 10 years. As regards funding countryside solutions, the public sector is probably being squeezed to the hilt in terms of what the taxpayer and central government and local taxpayers and local authorities can fund. My noble friend Lady O'Cathain, referred to that famous label, "income from other sources" which is always mentioned with great optimism and hope. However, that income has been well exploited and is exhausted. Private sector companies are becoming more involved in the countryside. In Scotland, for instance, a major television company has just become involved in rambling and rights of way. Non-government resources are stretched but they will also seek to deliver as much as they can in this respect. There are one-off sources of funding such as the lottery and some European sources of funds.

I hope that the Government recognise that the issues that arise in connection with the South Downs will have to be addressed in many other areas of the United Kingdom. The one statistic which I think should provoke some lateral and strategic thinking in government is the fact that the South Downs attracts 32 million visits per annum. That is a source of potential revenue. I hope that government strategists will explore such avenues. I welcome this debate and the discussion of issues that it has stimulated. We look forward to receiving the assurances from the Government that various speakers have sought.

9.17 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am pleased that the House has had the opportunity today to consider the important question of the proper level of protection for the South Downs, and to pay tribute to the good work that has been done over the past five years by the Sussex Downs Conservation

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1428

Board. It was refreshing to leave for a short time the issues taxing the people living in Scotland and Wales and become English, as it were.

I want to assure the House that the Government have every intention of continuing to provide an appropriate level of financial support for the Sussex Downs Conservation Board from the public purse until we are in a position to establish a permanent solution for the sympathetic management of the South Downs.

As many of your Lordships have said, for the past five years the Sussex Downs Conservation Board has dealt with the problems of what is a special case among areas of outstanding natural beauty. In the early 1990s the Countryside Commission and the local authorities in East and West Sussex got together to form the new experimental body with which so many of your Lordships have been personally involved. They were prompted by extreme pressures which, in the case of the Downs, are greater than the pressures experienced in most of our national parks.

The Countryside Commission wanted to see whether a large area of outstanding natural beauty under severe pressure could be satisfactorily managed by a local authority joint committee. Accordingly, on an experimental basis, the Countryside Commission entered into an agreement with the local authorities to set up and fund the Sussex Downs Conservation Board on a 50:50 basis for a six year period. As your Lordships are aware, that period ends on 31st March 1998 and of course that has prompted a great deal of interest and concern about what should follow.

In paying tribute to the achievements of the board perhaps I may echo the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, and the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, who paid tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan.

There is almost universal agreement that the Sussex Downs Conservation Board has achieved a great deal during the experimental period, and has undoubtedly established a sound base for future and further work. Among its important achievements have been the establishment and development of an integrated management service and volunteer ranger service. It has also produced a management strategy for the area and a landscape report which has been adopted as supplementary planning guidance. Although the local authorities have not delegated their planning powers to the conservation board, the board has made good use of its right to comment on planning applications and I believe has had some success in influencing development plan policies and development control decisions. Certainly, an independent report commissioned by the Countryside Commission, which was delivered last year, concluded that the conservation board had brought about real improvements to the planning and management of the area. The importance of the local commitment and the sense of identity in the area have been echoed by many speakers in your Lordships' House today.

Before addressing the question of what happens after 31st March 1998, it is important to deal with

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1429

the key role of the Countryside Commission. It is important to bear in mind that the Countryside Commission habitually operates as an innovative body. It supports many experimental projects for a limited period in order for them to become self sustaining. It does not and cannot afford to allocate large amounts of its grant in aid for indefinite core funding of particular bodies. In the current year, 1997-98, the commission is spending £640,000 on the Sussex Downs which works out at about 35 per cent. of the total amount that the commission has to spend on all 37 areas of outstanding natural beauty in the country. The commission has taken the view that there are a number of other areas which are under pressures not dissimilar to the Sussex Downs. It recognises the importance of providing a reasonable level of assistance to as many of those areas as possible. From the beginning there has been a recognition by all concerned that it was a six year period.

Despite that, and although sufficient steps to secure the future of the conservation board after March 1998 have not been made over the past five years, neither the Government nor the Countryside Commission has been prepared to leave the good work of the board threatened. That is why we have agreed with the Countryside Commission a further tranche of funding for the conservation board of more than £1 million. Members of this House with a particular interest in the Sussex Downs will no doubt have been aware of the joint announcement by the Countryside Commission and the conservation board on 1st July. The commission will provide £1,050,000 for the board over the period to 2000-2001 to fund specific projects which the conservation board is to agree with the commission as part of an overall work programme. The commission will keep Ministers informed about the development of the work programme and the continued progress of the conservation board. We are determined that the future programme will be a success.

The issue of local authority funding is extremely important. It was raised by several speakers. The local authorities in the areas have made clear that they are keen to see an agreement with the conservation board and are committed to seeking agreement on that. After all, the two counties were keen to set up the board in the first place. Without an exceptional commitment from the local authorities, the position that we are in today would not be so strong.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, raised the question of Countryside Commission funding. I know that there has been some criticism in the press. It is undeniably true that the figure I mentioned--£1,050,000--divided by three, leaves a smaller figure per annum than the figure in excess of £600,000 which the commission has provided during the experimental period. There are two specific points to be made in response to that.

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1430

First, as I explained, the commission is contributing additional funding to the board by extending its support beyond the period originally agreed. That therefore hardly represents a cutback.

The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, asked whether there were yearly limits in relation to that funding. No, there are not, my Lords. It will be drawn on as it is needed to make progress on the work programme. We very much hope that the long-term arrangements that we shall develop will be in place by the third year.

In terms of reaching the stage of putting in place the results of the consultation, it is difficult to say anything about an outcome which would meet with the universal approval of the Members of this House who have taken part in tonight's debate. The Government are committed to instituting a consultation process on the best way forward in the medium and longer term. That consultation will begin later in the year. There is likely to be a special conference, in Sussex or East Hampshire as part of that process.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, raised the timetable for the consultation. The precise timetable and terms of reference are still subject to discussion by the department and the Countryside Commission. The mechanics of the consultation will be handled by the Countryside Commission, which is the Government's statutory adviser on these matters. The commission will liaise very closely with the department both in drawing up the consultation package and in the analysis of the response.

The noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, who gave us the opportunity tonight to discuss these matters, and the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, raised the issue of future membership. That is a matter for consideration during the consultation period. I have no doubt that a wide range of views will be put on what the future membership of a successor or continuing body ought to be.

It is extremely important, in response to detailed questions about the sorts of issues that will be raised and what the givens will be at the start of the consultation, to recognise and respect both the needs of the locals within the terms of reference and the cost on the public purse of any possible timetable. The Countryside Commission is expecting to report in the spring of 1998. That is our understanding at this stage, but, note the word "expecting", that is not definitive.

Among the important issues raised is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, who asked about clarifying the geographical coverage. It is clear that the South Downs extend into Hampshire as well as East Sussex. The Hampshire area of outstanding natural beauty is an important part of the framework of the area to be considered. We are keen to see a solution that will bring the management of the whole of the South Downs together.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, raised the issue of flax. In light of the time and the detail of the debate, perhaps I may write to him in greater detail. Officials at the DETR have been working closely with MAFF

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1431

and English Nature, in order to examine urgently a range of options, including the benefits and disadvantages of both voluntary and statutory approaches.

In conclusion, I thank all those who have taken part, particularly the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, for giving us this opportunity. My noble friend referred to the accelerated roads review; the outcome of that process or at least the 12 urgent programmes will be known before the House rises.

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The Government are committed to ensuring that the next phase of the project is successful, as the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, said, both for those who live locally and those of us who need the resource to be protected nationally. We need to ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, is able to walk without disturbing my noble friend Lord Rea, and that processes for the future protect this vital part of our natural heritage.

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