21 May 1999 : Column 537

House of Lords

Friday, 21st May 1999.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.


Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 11 a.m. my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on biotechnology. It is likely that the Statement will be taken after the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, in the first debate.

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty Bill [H.L.]

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Perhaps I may start by reminding noble Lords of my interest as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, in succession to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, whom I am delighted to see in his place. I should also like to thank Mr. Ollard, from the Public Bills Office; John Godfrey and Paul Amis, from West Sussex County Council; Ray Woolmore and Lynette Leeson, from the Countryside Agency, and our Sussex Downs officer, Martin Beaton, for the great help that they have given me in the preparation of this Bill. The hard work has been theirs. The errors of omission and commission have been mine.

Bill Bryson, in his well-received book on his last walking tour round England, wrote of his movement out of Broadway, that lovely town in the Cotswolds, on to the Cotswold Way. He wrote as follows:

    "The view from the top over the broad Vale of Evesham was, as always from such points, sensational--gently undulating trapezoids of farmland rolling off to a haze of distant wooded hills. Britain still has more landscape that looks like an illustration from a children's story book than any other country I know--a remarkable achievement in such a densely crowded and industrially minded little island ... It is easy to forget, in a landscape so timeless and fetching, so companionably rooted to an ancient past, how easily it is lost. The panorama before me incorporated electricity pylons, scattered housing estates and the distant sunny glints of cash and carry warehouses". Those sentences are in a sense a paradigm of the difficulties as regards some AONBs today, where necessary social and economic growth has to run parallel with necessary conservation.

The rationale for this Bill is that the national parks Act of 1949 designated areas of outstanding natural beauty but it left no one responsible for their management or funding. Consequently, over the past 50 years voluntary ad hoc bodies have sprung up which are concerned, and properly so, with their local AONB. Of those, we, the Sussex Downs board, are probably the

21 May 1999 : Column 538

most formal: a joint committee formed seven years ago by the local authorities and the Countryside Commission. Our original brief was for six years. Thanks to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, that was extended for another three. But even in that time our funding from the Countryside Commission was reduced and that of the local authorities was held at the old level. The board of which I am chairman will expire in April 2001.

Such short-term voluntary arrangements cannot be suitable for the positive and constructive development of landscape management. Working as we do with local farmers, for example, to remove 50 year-old scrub from a chalk escarpment, help them return it to grass, re-introduce South Downs sheep, get an ESA grant in the process, and perhaps a stewardship grant for access, requires a long-term view, a long-term plan and long-term funding.

I came to the conclusion that the present legislation was inadequate. I decided to introduce a Bill that confirmed the landscape qualities of national parks and AONBs as equivalent and that the policies for their protection against inappropriate development were in place. I have built on clauses drafted by the Countryside Agency which it placed before government more than a year ago. So far--and I know that the noble Baroness who is to reply will bear this in mind--neither we nor the agency have received any positive response. We had a promise, first, of a reply "very soon"; then a reply of "soon"; and my most recent letter from Mr. Meacher, the Environment Minister--a friendly letter--assures me that these matters are receiving "continuing consideration".

My Bill has three prime objectives. The first is to enable--that word is important--the establishment of statutory conservation boards. But that is done on an "opt-in" basis. It is not compulsory. It happens where the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the elected local authorities recommend to the Secretary of State that they want this done. It will be done on an a la carte basis; each will be considered on its merits, each individual conservation board perhaps having somewhat different powers and composition appropriate to its area. That is a point that is not fully understood in the briefing put out by the National Farmers' Union.

The second objective is to provide secure funding from central and local government. The third and most complex is to strengthen the protection given by the planning system. The second point, which is very important, is dealt with in Clause 3 of the Bill. New Section 88D gives the AONB conservation board the same legal powers relating to funding as those that apply to national parks. Subsection (1) gives AONB conservation boards the power to levy local authorities for their contribution. Subsection (2) gives the Secretary of State power to make a grant.

In practice, I believe that a conservation board will follow the same procedures as a national park and will prepare a five-year corporate financial plan. That plan will be approved by the Secretary of State of the Department of the Environment, who will also approve the authority's budget annually. In approving the budget

21 May 1999 : Column 539

the Secretary of State will determine the level of grant to be provided by the Government, which is currently 75 per cent. in the case of a national park, and the local authorities will provide the balance of funding. The AONB conservation board will have power to levy the local authorities for the balance of 25 per cent.

Dealing with the third point, planning is covered in detail in new Section 88C. Your Lordships will be relieved to know that I do not intend to go into all of the detail at this moment, but I hope that we shall do so at Committee stage. In general terms every conservation board will prepare an AONB management plan, and I certainly envisage public consultation in that process. Under Clause 4 the conservation board will be a statutory consultee in relation to development plans for AONBs but it will not be the sole planning authority. I suggest that this lies at the heart of the difference between super-conservation boards--a term that has become used in the local press in Sussex--and national parks. They are the sole planning authority. I believe that it would be not only a remote but an inefficient, expensive and unpopular bureaucracy if the South Downs AONB, which stretches nearly 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne and covers 16 local authorities, was the sole body responsible for development control throughout that area, where the 16 other local authorities would remain responsible for development in their particular areas not within the AONB. I believe that that would be an extraordinary additional piece of bureaucracy.

The same comment applies to the Chilterns AONB, which has four counties, and the Cotswold AONB, which has five counties and two unitary authorities in it. But the statutory consultee on development matters would be of vital importance in defending areas from major development threats, such as the plan to build 1,150 new homes in an AONB near High Wycombe. The statutory management plan would be of use in containing and managing pressures of tourism on famous and popular Cotswold villages and walking routes such as the Cotswold Way which I mentioned at the beginning.

Finally on planning matters, new Section 77(3A) in Clause 4 in effect requires the Secretary of State to call in a planning application if the conservation board decides, in view of its significance, to refer it to the Secretary of State. From experience with my board, I consider that to be necessary and that is why I put it in the Bill. But I appreciate that it is a step too far in the thinking of some local authorities. I hope therefore that it will be considered in detail at Committee stage, although I would welcome amendments.

The Bill has brought general support from a number of organisations and public bodies, for example the English Sports Council, the Association of AONBs and, in my own area, the Society of Sussex Downsmen. Others have criticised it. There are those who very firmly believe that at least in the case of the South Downs a national park is necessary and that the Bill does not go far enough because it is not the sole planning authority at development control level. Others, for example the CLA, may think that it goes too far.

21 May 1999 : Column 540

Perhaps this means that my Bill has got it about right, but from my experience of the conservation board I say to those who fear that it goes too far that we are not a distant, remote imposing body. For example, we work with farmers only when they want us to find positive solutions to land management problems.

We seek opportunities for more quiet enjoyment of the Downs, for example by promoting our scheme Take Your Bus For a Walk through leaflets distributed in places like Brighton. We are rooted in the local authorities, not imposed on top of them. For example, 24 of the 36 members of my board come from local authorities. But our experience has shown the need for greater co-ordination of planning and management policies in a multi-authority AONB, and that can be done only by new legislation. This is a probing Bill and its purpose is not only to put forward a format for super-conservation boards but also to get the Government to reveal their intentions. I very much hope that in replying to the debate the Minister will be able to give us a hint of that.

The current position of AONBs was very well summed up in the words of the Countryside Agency in one of its leaflets:

    "Perhaps most vulnerable of all are not the wild high places but the gentle smaller scale landscapes of England and Wales, hedgerows, spinneys and bluebell woods: heath, marsh and meadows". That is us. What will the Government do? I hope that we shall hear something about that today.

Finally, perhaps I may suggest to the Minister that if there is no time for a major countryside Bill in the 1999-2000 Session, as we are now being told by the spin doctors, why not introduce a short, specialised protected areas Bill dealing just with the AONBs and the sites of special scientific interest? It would be an important step forward for our environment in the new millennium. As a former Chief Whip I should do my utmost to see that it received all-party support.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Renton of Mount Harry.)

11.20 a.m.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page