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There appears to be a 50 per cent chance that a countryside Bill will be included in this year's Queen's Speech, unless, of course, the Minister can announce today an improvement on those odds. At present, AONB proposals are likely to be included in a broad-based countryside Bill that also includes clauses to protect sites of special scientific interest and to deliver the Government's access commitments discussed during the debate introduced last Wednesday by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn.
If a countryside Bill is not included this year, waiting until next year would be a very high-risk strategy. That is because next year is likely to be the last Queen's Speech of the Parliament, and the Session could be curtailed by a general election. It would require much effort to secure manifesto commitments to ensure the same content of countryside legislation in the next Parliament. Therefore, there are several uncertainties as to whether or not this Parliament will produce countryside legislation. The South Downs cannot afford to wait because of the pressures it is under from development and recreation. The crucial difference between AONBs and national parks is the legal power that national parks have to manage recreation and "to promote opportunities for public enjoyment and understanding of the special qualities of the area". That is of vital importance where the visitor numbers are so high and where there are major threats from commercial tourist complexes.
Whichever way you look at it, national parks enjoy a higher status of protection than AONBs. National park status using existing legislation--that is, the Environment Act 1995 and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949--provides a ready made solution that would deliver exactly what the downs need in terms of protection, status, guaranteed funding and a permanent body with planning powers.
As the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, said, the Sussex Downs and East Hampshire AONB covers an area that is almost exactly the same as the Brecon Beacons National Park, and it is larger than four other existing national parks. So the South Downs meet the criteria of the national park, and would benefit from the legal framework for linking recreation and conservation known as the Sandford principle.
The South Downs is an exceptional area, both in terms of landscape quality and the pressure that it is under, particularly from development. Those are important drivers in the need for the downs to be designated a national park and do not exist to the same
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I am delighted to support the measures being promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. When he was in the other place he represented the mid-Sussex constituency where I live. I shall not say whether or not I voted for him. His interest in areas of outstanding natural beauty is well known. His work as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board is much valued by all those who live in the area and who visit the downs.
I am often asked why I live in Sussex. The answer, apart from helping to make the county multi-racial, is the sheer joy I get from living in the vicinity of the Sussex Downs. When I was introduced into this House--I see that my noble friend Lord McNally who sponsored me at that time is present--I chose as part of my title Waltham Brooks, which nestles in the foothills of the Sussex Downs surrounded by Amberley on the one side and Pulborough on the other.
Not only Members of this House, but all those who are concerned with the preservation of the natural beauty of our countryside, welcome the Bill's proposals. At present, the Sussex Downs Conservation Board is the only such board in the country set up by joint agreement between local authorities and the Countryside Commission. If it is an example of what can be achieved in just one area of the country, it is right that we should support this measure, which could assist other such areas when it is enacted.
The one aspect of this country that is valued by most visitors is the natural beauty of our countryside. No matter which corner of the world one visits, the beauty of our land is always a talking-point. We should all be remembered for ensuring that future generations not only enjoy but also preserve that which is unique in our land. It is a legacy of which we can all be proud. The Bill helps towards that end.
No one can disagree fundamentally with any measures which call for stronger protection and better management of the areas of outstanding natural beauty. If there is a clear objective in the Bill, it is to conserve and enhance. It places the AONBs on the same plane as the provisions enjoyed by the national parks. Further, it is right that it puts an obligation on all planning authorities, at whichever level they operate, to promote the conservation and management of AONBs.
I particularly welcome the statutory basis on which the conservation boards would be established. The power to acquire land by agreement or compulsory orders is important. It is one way in which we can ensure that planning processes do not allow the gradual erosion of AONBs. The fact that the board would have statutory powers to make compulsory purchase orders would deter the increasing tendency to encroach on such land. The bottom line of what the noble Lord proposes
Of course, a long-term study of the relationship between AONBs and national parks is necessary. But in the short term the Sussex Downs Conservation Board has demonstrated what can be done. I support this measure.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I am a landowner and land manager, living and working in an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). Therefore, I am grateful for this opportunity to place on record some of the views which matter to me and which have an increasing importance in the governance of this country; namely, the countryside, its make-up, appearance and development, and the control of the lives of those who live and work there by those who often do not live and work there.
AONBs were defined and given protection as long ago as 1949. That does not seem to have been a very good year for statistics, but the population of England and Wales in 1951 was 44 million. Twenty-five years later that figure had risen to 52 million. Over the same period the number of private dwellings rose from 12 million to 24 million. In 1949 in the UK as a whole there were approximately 2.1 million private cars, while in 1997 there were 21.7 million.
In the face of these facts--a rise of nearly 20 per cent in the population but almost double the number of houses and a ten-fold increase in cars--it is surely appropriate that we continually monitor the protection that is afforded to the most beautiful parts of our country. However, I am loathe to add to the multiplication tables by approving a further increase, this time in the number of unelected, unaccountable and possibly unqualified people sitting on committees and wielding great power.
Our countryside has evolved over centuries and most of the beautiful bits are thanks to small numbers of people who live and work in a rural environment. Together they built the villages which sell our calendars worldwide and designed and developed the spar towns and medieval towns. For the most part they co-operated in the slow change from forest land and wild places to the cultivated and cared for landscape of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is surely remiss that apparently representatives of these people who have been so successful are not necessarily to be included in the suggested new area boards.
We have had compulsory purchase for a long time but departments, councils and so on which wish to exercise their rights have had to show just cause. What "just cause" could an area conservation board cite for buying land? Would it be one field, one view, an entire wood or even a village or small town? No landscape maintains itself. Our cliffs erode and ultimately fall into the sea; our mountains erode and slowly change shape; woods become overgrown and subject to devastation by high winds and mini-hurricanes; fields revert to nature and become the embrace of brambles, dandelions and
"conservation and enhancement of wildlife habitats and species". This Bill would, however, give to area conservation boards the power to disagree with one or more local authorities and refer them directly to the Minister. There are 40 AONBs, although I am told that at the present moment two cannot be found.
I have already said that it is appropriate continually to monitor the protection offered by an AONB, but I submit that area conservation boards, particularly as set out in this Bill, are too draconian a measure. Over the past six months in your Lordships' House we have had at least four opportunities to consider the hardships being visited upon those who rely on the countryside for their sustenance. Let us not add to their burden by setting over them bodies that will tell them not only what to do but what not to do and will demand payment for the privilege, in that,
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