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The Earl of Selborne: It is one thing to support conservation boards in principle, as I certainly do, but it is quite another to say that measures proposed in these amendments, be they government amendments or those of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, are appropriate.
We have not fully discussed the requirement to ensure that the Secretary of State is not to use his powers to move statutory planning functions over to the conservation boards. The Minister has been frank and explicit which will reassure us. However, for those of us who, in the words of my noble friend Lord Renton, are slaying dragons that do not exist--it is our job to anticipate dragons that may appear--we should ask the question: if there is no intention to use the powers, why not say so? I hope that the Minister will reconsider that point. I also hope that the Minister will not be swayed by the arguments that conservation boards should have powers to levy funds from local authorities under terms set down by the Secretary of State.
I understand that the conservation boards want that because they find that they are unsuccessful in negotiating with local authorities. However, they must collaborate with the local authorities. If they find that the system does not work, it may be because they have not persuaded the local authorities of the wisdom of their expenditure, or it may be because there needs to be a better understanding among all parties. I simply do not believe that to take the matter out of local authority accountability and to give levy-raising powers to conservation boards will help local democracy one little bit, nor do I believe that it will help the conservation boards to acquire the support that they need.
Earl Peel: I entirely agree with my noble friend. Perhaps I can return to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Renton in relation to demons. It is all very well to say that local authorities or individuals have visions of demons, but they have to be dismissed if we are to go forward with any degree of confidence with regard to AONBs. My noble friend Lord Renton has
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: With great respect, I have not yet had a chance to speak to Amendment No. 539A. It takes up the point stressed by the noble Earl himself about more local authority representation on boards, with which I wholly agree. It is not a demon; it is a matter of numbers.
Baroness Byford: On these Benches, we support the second part of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry. I believe that it makes sense that the Secretary of State may make grants to the conservation boards for such amounts and on terms that the Secretary of State thinks fit. I had assumed that that would be done through the SSAs in the normal way. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that.
I do not follow my noble friend's line of thought on the first point in the amendment, that the conservation boards should be able to issue levies on councils. I have reservations in that regard. While I support the second part of the amendment, I struggle to support the first part for the reasons expressed by other noble Lords.
We are in a slight muddle. We have jumped and missed out swathes of amendments. My noble friend was quite right to move his amendment because that came in with the Government's amendment and I have no difficulty with that. But somehow we have jumped around. Is it possible to come back to some semblance of order and proceed from there? I do not mean to be difficult.
Lord Whitty: I heartily agree that we are in a slight muddle, though many of the amendments interrelate. My understanding is that I formally moved Amendment No. 525 and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, moved an amendment to it. We have spread ourselves rather widely since then, incorporating the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. We have been trying to put to rest some of the demons and, as the midnight hour approaches, I should perhaps try again otherwise they may come back to haunt us.
The worries of local authorities and others about the establishment of these boards fall under three headings: first, finance; secondly, how far consultation will go and who will be involved in the decision; and, thirdly, the powers to be transferred. On consultation, let me make it clear that the requirement on the Secretary of State under Amendment No. 525 to consult before making an order also implies a requirement on him to act reasonably in the face of that consultation. It would therefore be extremely unlikely and certainly subject to serious challenge were all local authorities in the area, or even the majority of them, to object to such a move and then the Secretary of State to impose it. It is intended to be a consensual arrangement to apply in areas where the majority of people already involved with conservation and AONBs want a new body to carry out the duties and
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for introducing a slightly corrective note in regard to people's apprehensions. By and large people are looking for measures to provide an option to establish such a board. But local authorities will be consulted and will not be able to be ignored following that consultation.
There is clearly misunderstanding in relation to the powers to be transferred. The powers involved relate only to the functions of the AONB management. The idea that wide-ranging powers, including full development planning powers, can be transferred is wrong. We are not talking about national park type powers; we are talking of the powers of the AONB management.
It appears that in relation to planning and other areas such as those raised by the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, greater clarity is needed. I shall certainly take away the view expressed on all sides of the Committee that the planning situation is not clear and perhaps look at one or two other areas to see whether anything can be done between now and Report to clarify the position. Clearly, it was the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and others that planning could be transferred wholesale under this provision. That was not the intention and if that appears to be possible, we want to ensure that that is no longer the case.
To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and the noble Baroness, some of the increased money for conservation to which I referred will come via the countryside agencies to the AONBs. We have already referred to the discussion taking place between the countryside agencies and the AONB committees. That money will not come via the SSA; it will be a specific grant either via the agencies or direct to the new board. I hope that clarifies the position. However, there is more money forthcoming and therefore some of the problems in relation to resources, lack of stability and lack of forward planning to which the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, referred, should be overcome by that provision.
However, it would not be helpful to take the noble Lord's other point in his Amendment No. 539A--I am not sure that I should refer to it at this time. I believe that the levy could undermine the essential requirement that the conservation board would need to co-operate in a constructive and pro-active way with the local authorities. There is the danger that local authorities would see the payment of the levy as handing over all responsibility to the board and therefore leaving all aspects of conservation to the board. We would rather that such a passive financial relationship, which might lead to resentment on both sides, was not the basis for funding. That should be as I have described.
I return to the only amendment to my amendment to have been moved. I have indicated our intention as regards planning transfers and said that I shall look to see whether we can clarify it. I hope that our intentions are clear and that that amendment will not be needed.
Lord Judd: As regards planning, my noble friend has listened patiently to an interesting debate on the other side of the Committee. However, will he assure some of us who are deeply concerned about the danger of erosion in AONBs that what matters above all is that where it is decided that there is an area of outstanding natural beauty there must be a management system dedicated to the preservation of that AONB as a priority above all else?
Lord Whitty: I believe that I can give that assurance, except for the word "a" in the sense that in some cases the local authority or authorities will be adequately carrying out that task--they may want to do so--and can be trusted in their present form to continue to do so. In other circumstances, we will need to create a new body and will want local authorities to act in conjunction with it. However, the responsibility must be undertaken and it is the Government's objective to ensure that that not only preserves but enhances the status and protection of AONBs. That is our objective and the other measures are simply means to achieving it. I hope that that is widely understood in the Committee.