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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I am somewhat confused by his introduction to this part of the Bill. It seems that the Conservative Benches barely join with us in continuing to do what both our parties did in the Commons; that was, to press for the introduction of the legislation. We have been fortunate in your Lordships' House because we had a dry run for this debate when we dealt with the Bill brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry.
Like other Members of the Committee, at that time I received many representations about most of the issues which have been raised today by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and many of the issues we are about to cover. I am under the impression that the provisions introduced by the Government--we may need clarification of some of them--are broadly welcomed by members of the joint advisory committees of the AONBs and the Local Government Association. Local authorities which have AONBs in their area are very keen to receive statutory backing for the management and conservation of them. This is exactly
My only worry about the Government's amendment in this part of the Bill--I am sure that it can be clarified as we go through it--is that there may be two tiers of AONBs. They became a different animal from national parks under the 1949 legislation. I refute the noble Lord's suggestion that since national parks have had their own authorities they have not contributed anything to their areas that local authorities cannot. I declare an interest in that my husband is chairman of one such authority, but even if he were not I would claim that national parks had contributed a great deal.
Lord Dixon-Smith: I did not suggest that they had not made a contribution. I said I had not heard that their contribution had been any greater than was already being made, which is a slightly different statement.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: It does not sound sufficiently different to me, but I accept what the noble Lord says. My worry is that, following the implementation of this legislation, there will be two tiers of AONBs: those with conservation boards and those without. That would be unfortunate. As the Committee considers these amendments my concern is to ensure that the smaller AONBs, which are unlikely ever to apply for conservation board status, are not disadvantaged by the legislation. That would be a retrograde step. We must look to the purpose of AONBs, not their size or how many local authorities are involved in their administration.
I disagree with the purpose of Amendment No. 522A. The purpose is to conserve the splendid landscape for which the AONB was originally designated and, where there is the opportunity, to enhance it. There is no reason why we must regard an area as a static museum piece. Enhancement may well be in the interests of the AONB; it may encourage more tourism. The AONB may decide to go down a number of routes for the purposes of enhancement, but to remove reference to enhancement at this stage would be a great mistake.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I speak in support of Amendments Nos. 522, 523 and 524 and the new clauses that they introduce. As two noble Lords have already pointed out, I introduced a Private Member's Bill on this subject in the House of Lords a year ago. I found it easier to get a Private Member's Bill through a number of stages in the House of Lords than I did in my 23 years in the House of Commons. I have an interest in this matter, which I happily declare. I live in an AONB and am chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, which I believe is the only conservation board in existence. It is a voluntary
This is a red letter day for AONBs. I am pleased that, by and large, the Government have followed the commitments made by Michael Meacher, Minister of State for the Environment, in Standing Committee B on 23rd May. This is not exactly a new matter. It was first mooted in 1989 in the Smart Anderson report which was commissioned by the Countryside Commission. That report proposed improved management structures and funding for AONBs. It was in 1997 that the Countryside Commission issued a consultation paper on improving the funding and management of England's AONBs. It was a year later that it published its Protecting our Finest Countryside advice to government, which proposed improved funding and management of AONBs. It was essentially with its proposals, and with substantial support from the county council in which area my former constituency of Mid-Sussex used to lie, that I drafted and introduced my Bill a year ago.
For years there has been within the AONBs--I know this through our executive committee--a general feeling that more formal improved management, funding and effective statutory underpinning are needed. They want that without, in any sense, trying to do the work of local authorities in, for example, the minutiae of development control. We shall return to that issue later in the debate when we consider the detail of other amendments. There were and have been continuous worries about the AONBs, whether or not they were represented by a joint advisory committee. To a large extent those worries are being settled, I hope, by the legislation the Government suggest tonight. By and large the Government have got it right, except on funding, on local representation on boards and perhaps on management plans.
There is one area where I would correct my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith. He said that we want to see AONBs continuing as they are. Most AONBs do not want that because they think they are too insecure, whether or not they have a JAC--a joint advisory committee. They do not see where their funding will come from, because, when pressure on environment issues hits a local authority, one of the first things to be axed is the money available for the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty. That makes it extremely difficult for JACs to employ good staff. If they are unable to employ good staff, how can they help farmers, who desperately need help at the moment, on schemes under which they can add to their own bottom line by entering into stewardship or environmentally sensitive area schemes?
Earl Peel: I have a great deal of sympathy for what my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said in moving the amendment. He said that what is required at the moment is some kind of Second Reading debate. We have in front of us a major piece of legislation that to all intents and purposes has been tagged on to the Bill at the Committee stage in your Lordships' House. I for one would find it quite difficult not to make some general wide-ranging comments on the implications of this legislation without taking it amendment by amendment. Therefore, with the leave of the Committee, I should like to say a few words in general.
I shall start by declaring an interest. I live in an AONB which has largely been well-run, but there are clearly opportunities for enhancement and improvement. I shall return to that in a moment. I must start by saying that I find it simply astonishing that such a major piece of legislation should be cobbled on to the Bill as this has been. It is surely true to say that there has been only fairly limited public debate on the whole matter of AONBs, either with local authorities, or, perhaps more importantly, with those local people whose livelihood could well be seriously influenced by the amendments.
I entirely agree with what my noble friend said. I am fully behind well thought-through, well resourced schemes for the further improvement of our countryside. Indeed, I am not in any way against the strengthening of the statutory base for AONBs and the production of management plans. But for the Secretary of State to give himself such wide-ranging powers as, for example, the creation of new conservation boards against the wishes of local authorities and to transfer any of the functions of local authorities, as stated in Amendment No. 525, to those boards is simply breath-taking. Furthermore--and let us make no mistake about this--the Government are setting about the creation of a whole new raft of national parks in virtually everything but name, and, as has already been pointed out by noble friend, the areas concerned throughout the width and breadth of England and Wales could be considerably larger than those covered by national parks.
Within the national park legislation the Secretary of State has the power to appoint 30 per cent of the board members. But later amendments give him the power to appoint 60 per cent of the members of the new conservation boards, all at the expense of local democracy. If anything is designed to get these new conservation boards off to a bad start, it is just that, because it will pit local people against the Government. That is not in anyone's interests.
I see from Amendment No. 527 that no such order will be made by the Secretary of State without being approved by resolution of both Houses of Parliament. Well, big deal! I can assure the Government that that
Generally speaking, my view is that the countryside would be better served by conservation schemes--I appreciate that this is not just about conservation schemes--such as, for example, the environmentally sensitive area and countryside stewardship schemes, which are designed to meet specific requirements of the areas and are administered by existing government departments or agencies and therefore do not require the establishment of yet another tier of bureaucracy, with all the red tape and the nonsense that follow, never mind the cost. Furthermore, I see no reason at all why, subject to proper guidance from Whitehall, there should be any reason why planning matters should not remain with the local authorities unless, of course, there is general agreement among the local authorities that such a board would be a better mechanism for delivering the proper management of AONBs.
However, apart from objecting to much of the detail of the way the Government are approaching this delicate matter, in principle I object to the way that this major piece of rural legislation is being delivered. I should also add that if the Government believe that local authorities are in agreement with the government proposals, as laid out in the amendments, they should read my local newspaper as of last Friday. I should have thought that the most equitable and sensible way of dealing with this matter was to decouple this part of the Bill and to bring it back as a separate piece of legislation, thus allowing for full and proper consultation and debate.
I should like to add that I do appreciate the good intentions which lie behind what my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry is trying to achieve. What is more, I have no doubts about or objections to--why should I?--what he and others have achieved in the South Downs. However, the formation of the South Downs Conservation Board was achieved voluntarily, without diktat from the Secretary of State either in the formation of the conservation board or, indeed, as to the composition of the members of that board. That represents a world of difference between that situation and the possibility that exists in this Bill for the Secretary of State to ride roughshod over local opinion and the democratic process simply to satisfy his conservation credentials and his belief that forming another committee will be the way to deal with these problems. In my opinion, that is not the best way to move forwards.
I shall certainly support any amendment which would halt the compulsory removal of powers from local authorities to the new conservation boards against the wishes of local authorities, along with any amendment which prevents the Secretary of State from nominating the majority of board members. I shall also urge other noble Lords who believe that the
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