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The Minister has rightly signalled that the possibility of these amendments was mentioned in the other place. It would be true to say that there was general support for that and, indeed, there is general support here. I hope that no one will take anything that is said as being in contradiction of that fact. The fact is that AONBs have been in existence. They have been well administered and they work extremely well. Nothing that is said or done here will do anything to diminish their status or endanger the principles on which they are founded.
The fact is that in this group of amendments and the next we have 11 clauses, three schedules and 18 pages of additional legislation which have received no detailed consideration, apart from a general agreement on the principle in the other place, and there is no certainty that the other place would have agreed the detail.
Worse than that, although the potential for such amendments was signalled in the other place, they were not inserted into the Bill until after this Committee stage had begun. I believe that more than a simple Committee stage debate is needed to deal with the situation. These amendments involve a large slice of legislation. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry would say that these amendments form a Bill in their own right because 18 months or two years ago he introduced a Bill into this House that almost precisely paralleled them.
The Committee is not discussing just a series of amendments to a Bill, but a major extension to the Bill, which is perfectly appropriate as, when one looks at the Long Title of the Bill, one sees that it concerns a connected purpose of the Bill. However, I believe that some discussion of the principle behind these groups of
Such a debate is important because when this Bill returns to the other place, these amendments, including any amendments that we make to them, will be considered as Lords amendments. They will not go through the normal procedure of examination and cross-examination to which the other place would expose legislation; but perhaps the Minister will assure me that the authorities in the other place have in mind some special procedure under which these matters can be considered.
When the other place considers Lords amendments, particularly in the present circumstances, the fact is that one can expect them to be considered with the Whips heavily on and the guillotine well on its way down. Discussion will be severely curtailed. I do not say that to be particularly critical, but I believe that it is being somewhat cavalier with what I would describe as normal parliamentary procedure.
Amendment No. 522 encapsulates, in a sense, the principle of the matter. It brings forward the power not only to conserve and to enhance AONBs, but also to create new AONBs. That is a worthy purpose with which I have no quarrel. I merely add a word of caution. Already we have 41 AONBs in England and Wales. Two million hectares are covered by that designation--for those noble Lords who are old-fashioned that is 5 million acres; it is five times the county of Essex; and it is 14 per cent of the land mass of England and Wales.
With the start of the concept of conservation areas, we considered matters carefully in my county and produced a list of areas that were seriously worthy of conservation. They were outstandingly beautiful areas and merited every degree of protection that could possibly be given, but the domino effect came into play. People then thought that such protection was desirable, so there was great pressure for further areas to be designated. We finished up with 100 conservation areas and in the process we devalued the concept. I merely issue the warning that, if we are not careful and create too many AONBs, we shall devalue the concept and it will become meaningless.
I am bound to say that when I consider much of the scenery in Wales, I could create one AONB which would pretty well cover the whole of the Principality. That would be worth far more than some of the other areas in England that we have already protected. But that is a personal prejudice and nothing to do with the Bill.
So we need to be extremely careful. It is all very well to say that the new procedures being established in the Bill will apply only where they are wanted. I have already mentioned the domino effect. At present AONBs are brought into being by local authorities and are administered by joint committees. That has been done successfully for a long time. So I pay tribute to all their hard work. They do that work in conjunction with local conservation bodies.
Lord Marlesford: Perhaps I can correct my noble friend on one important point. I believe I am right in saying that the Countryside Commission, now the Countryside Agency, designates AONBs, and that designation is confirmed by the Secretary of State. It is not in the hands of local authorities. It is conservation areas which are proposed by local authorities.
At present, joint committees of local authorities generally administer AONBs. We will be debating in detail in a little while whether or not a parish council is a local authority; it depends which Act we look at. But the Bill also gives the opportunity to establish conservation boards to look after AONBs. We have no problem with that in principle, if it is voluntary--no doubt the Minister will say that that is the intention. But the question arises as to what they are to do, and again the domino effect will come into play. When the law was changed with regard to polytechnic status, there was a tidal wave which swamped the title "polytechnic" and turned them all into universities in a matter of weeks. If we go down that road we need to recognise that we are establishing a new, administrative superstructure which may well involve considerable cost without any real benefit.
National parks are an example of a parallel situation. Originally they were administered by local government and are now independent authorities in their own right. I have not heard any evidence that they are run any better than they were before. They are run well--let us not deny that--but they are not run better. So we need to be wary.
In relation to the constitution of these putative bodies, I was fascinated to see that, as the Bill is drafted, the Secretary of State will have the power to appoint 60 per cent of their members. These are local bodies dealing with local areas. The Minister and I have crossed swords before on who should control local affairs. But this is completely unreasonable. It is control freakery run riot. It is fair enough that local authorities should appoint 40 per cent of the members. But 60 per cent being appointed by the Secretary of State is not acceptable. I understand that he will consult all sorts of other people. But does he need to make the actual appointment? These are matters we shall question in detail when we reach the appropriate parts of the Bill.
We want to see AONBs continue as they have done; to be enhanced and embellished as a result of the willingness, co-operation and investment of local communities. If that is to be achieved, we must think carefully about the general issues behind the Bill. I hope that I have said enough in introducing the background to the amendments.
The second amendment deals with expenditure and seeks to ensure that where such changes take place, the expenditure falls with the Countryside Agency for England and the Countryside Council for Wales, which I believe is appropriate.
Lord Whitty: The noble Lord said a great deal but I am not sure how he intends us to proceed. He moved amendments to my amendment and cross-referred to many amendments which appear in or to relate to later groups. Perhaps for the convenience of the Committee, before moving into a general debate it would be better to have a little clarification.
Lord Dixon-Smith: I had hoped that I had made myself plain and I apologise if I did not. I believe that in respect of this part of the Bill we almost need a short Second-Reading-style diversion so that Members can let their hair down on the general issues before getting into too much detail on the amendments. The difficulty is that procedurally, in order to make my remarks, I have to rise and speak to the amendments. Having no flexibility, the difficulty is that if we do not have a debate on the principle there may be a danger that we might have to ask for a recommitment on these groups.
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