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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Several Members of the Committee have implied that, under the arrangements whereby conservation boards might take on some of the powers of local authorities, matters would be worse for local people because there would be less accountability. If one asks local people who live in AONBs what kind of activities they are attempting to undertake and what difficulties they experience under the current arrangements, one example given is that they are trying to establish an economic development plan that ties in the production of local produce with the marketing of that produce. As matters stand, they may have to deal with five, six, seven or eight different local
The question has been asked whether there should be a straight transfer of powers from local authorities to conservation boards. We on these Benches would be the first not to wish to undermine the democratic accountability of local councils. However, if one looks at the situation from the point of view of those who are trying to exist and make a living at the same time as keeping their area's outstanding natural beauty truly outstanding, one sees that where they have to deal with many different local authorities, they have a considerable problem. They are hoping that the Bill will be able to overcome that problem. The point that the Minister needs to establish is whether the Bill will achieve that aim. Alternatively, will it undermine those districts and counties that already have plans of their own by taking away their functions?
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, touched on the issue of two-tier funding, which I believe I mentioned earlier and to which we shall return later when discussing the funding. At that stage I shall support the statements that he made.
The Earl of Selborne: I have to say that the points just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, really amount to a vote of no confidence in local government. One really has to decide whether the existing powers for local authorities to operate jointly in an advisory committee and to ensure that they present a face to the farmers, and others, who will use the new markets in such a way that they are user-friendly can be effective. The answer is that they can, because that is done in the best-regulated authorities.
Do we really think that giving the Secretary of State powers when he or she thinks it "expedient" to pass these powers on to a conservation board--the majority of whose members will be appointed by the Secretary of State--amounts to local accountability or an improvement on the situation? You only think so if you do not believe that local authorities can get their act together. That is why I say that what we have just heard from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench amounts to a lack of confidence in local authorities.
I start with the premise that it is possible for local authorities to work together; indeed, it will be possible for them to work concurrently with conservation boards. I do not oppose the concept of conservation boards in principle, but I certainly oppose the idea that the Secretary of State, when he thinks it expedient, should be able to move any powers--whether it is planning, transport or anything else--to these conservation boards. I believe that I am right in saying that the Bill of my noble friend Lord Renton, which we considered a year or so ago, had some sort of clause
Therefore, we have here some quite draconian powers that are given to the Secretary of State. This amounts to an assumption that local authorities, as constituted at present, will be so incapable of collaborating and so remote from those whom they seek to serve that it will be much better to move these functions lock stock and barrel to a conservation board, with the Secretary of State (and no one else) ultimately deciding that that is appropriate. That does not sound to me like a sensible way to proceed.
The Earl of Caithness: Perhaps it would assist the Committee if I were to speak to my Amendment No. 525CA, which appears on a separate piece of paper. It takes us back to the point of local consultation about the conservation boards. Indeed, it is a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, raised earlier in debate. My noble friend Lord Selborne raised it in connection with a previous amendment, and my noble friend Lady Hanham mentioned the matter just a few moments ago.
There seems to be some consultation about setting up the conservation boards, but before creating such an unelected and unaccountable quango, as the Government propose, it is desirable both in England and Wales that there should be contact with the interested parties; that is to say, those who live and work in the area. However, as I read the current proposals, there is no such provision. That is why I have tabled Amendment No. 525CA, which would oblige Ministers and the Assembly to advertise the proposals for an order to establish a conservation board. That would be done in local newspapers so that local people would have some imput into the measure.
While I am speaking to this group of amendments, I should like to mention Amendment No. 530 on the subject of finance. I believe that we come to the crux of the problem here. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry is looking into the future with rose-tinted glasses if he thinks that there will be more money available. The Minister said that there are proposals to increase the budget in the next financial year. However, I cannot see that continuing for ever. I envisage the conservation boards being established with almost the same powers as national parks but without their support and finance. One of the great flaws in the scheme is the financial flaw. Great hopes and great expectations have been raised, but there will not be the finance to see the scheme through.
Lord Whitty: This has been another wide-ranging debate. First, I shall make a few general points as a number of accusations have been levelled at the Government both in terms of procedure and what we have told the Committee.
The benefits of having a single board were ably spelt out when we discussed the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. I think that there is pretty wide support among local authorities for having such a body. That is not to say that local authorities do not have reservations. They want to be reassured that they will not be trampled all over and that the finance will be available. They also want to be reassured that they will have agreed any powers which are transferred to the body we are discussing. It is important to recognise that powers which are transferred will have been agreed locally. The views of local authorities must be taken fully into account in any such transfer. As regards planning--
Lord Greaves: I am grateful for that assurance. Will the Minister tell us exactly where it states in the amendments that, in effect, a local authority would be able to say no to any transfer of powers to which it did not agree?
Lord Whitty: It is probably not true to say that a single local authority would be able to do that. However, local authorities within an area could do so as the Secretary of State would have to take a view of the local authorities concerned. If there were six or seven local authorities and one objected, I concede that there may be a problem. However, the central point is that local authorities' views will be fully taken into account and transfers of powers will therefore be decided locally. There is no intention to transfer planning powers. Any powers which are transferred must be relevant to the role of the conservation agency and the AONB. There is not an open-ended ability to transfer powers from local authorities.
Lord Greaves: I agree with the comments made by my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer; namely, that it is obviously sensible for some powers to be transferred in some circumstances. However, in the Bill as drafted, what is to prevent the Secretary of State deciding to transfer, for example, development control powers? What is to prevent the Secretary of State overriding the views of local authorities in the area, or a majority of those views? Where is it stated in the Bill that that consent is required?
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