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The Duke of Montrose: I am considerably mystified by some of the arguments put forward by the Minister. I confess to being the owner of a SSSI which was designated before devolution and presumably was part of the same legislation that we are talking about here. Under the management agreement, it was laid out that signs would be erected and the landowner agreed to the signs being erected. It sounded to me when the Minister quoted the number of signs that had been destroyed as if he was suggesting that the landowners were destroying the signs. In fact, if Natural England has the agreement of the landowner to put up a sign and the sign is destroyed, whether that is done under this legislation or through agreement with the landowner will not reduce the number of signs that are destroyed. That is vandalism by persons unknown whom we hope someone will try to find.
In some ways, this seems to be part of the whole tendency towards more heavy-footed government. At the moment, there is a possible problem with common land, but now that we are talking about the setting up of proper governing bodies for common land you would think that SSSI agreements would have a body with which they could consult about putting up notices. There might be an odd area in which the owner of the land was not known, but very soon there should at least be some body for common land in most areas. Our amendment is a halfway house, suggesting that agreement should be reached with the person with whom the SSSI has been set up. It might be a tenant; it would not necessarily be the owner. Making a blanket power that the government body can implement of its own volition without consulting anyone else is going a little too far.
Lord Bach: Of course there is no suggestion that landowners are destroying the signs. Others are doing so, and we need the power to act when there is no
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agreement in place. We hope that putting up the signs may prevent some destruction, because people will realise that if they are caught they will be punished.
The Duke of Montrose: I hope that they would receive punishment even now if they were caught. Maybe the Minister wants to introduce some special penalty. At the moment, the fine would merely be the value of the sign, which might not be much of a deterrent. We will probably come back to this at a later date. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"CRITERIA FOR DESIGNATING NATIONAL PARKS
(1) In section 5(2) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (c. 97) (criteria for designating National Parks), for paragraphs (a) and (b) substitute
"(a) their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, and
(b) the fact that, having regard both to their character and to their position in relation to centres of population, they afford, or could be used to promote, opportunities for open-air recreation and the understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities by the public,".
(2) Subsection (1) applies for the purposes of the confirmation or variation on or after the day on which this section comes into force of orders made before that day as it applies for the purposes of the confirmation or variation of orders made on or after that day."
The noble Lord said: This group of amendments is intended to reverse the recent Meyrick judgment. It serves to amend Section 5 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and its purpose is to re-establish the link, which we had always assumed to exist until Meyrick, between the purposes that national parks are expected to deliver and the criteria for choosing areas to become national parks. The Countryside Agency was nervous that the drafting could be interpreted to mean that all three of those criterianatural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritagewould have to be met before land was designated. The intention, and the current practice, is that wildlife and cultural heritage considerations are factored into the natural beauty assessment rather than being free-standing tests in their own right.
As a consequence of the Countryside Agency's view, which has some merit, we have put in train a new series of amendments to deal with that point. I wrote to noble Lords earlier today, and I hope that many of them will have received the letter. If not I can only apologise. I do not intend to move Amendment No. 305 or the other government amendments in this group at Committee stage. I will return with government amendments on Report.
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"CRITERIA FOR DESIGNATING NATIONAL PARKS
(1) In section 5(2)(a) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (c. 97) (national parks) the reference to natural beauty shall be construed as requiring a high degree of relative naturalness manifested by the physical beauty of the area in question.
(2) In section 5(2)(b) of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 after "afford" insert "at the present time".
(3) This section applies for the purposes of the confirmation or variation on or after the day on which this section comes into force of orders made before that day as it applies for the purposes of the confirmation or variation of orders made on or after that day.
(4) This section shall come into force on the day this Act receives Royal Assent."
The noble Baroness said: I am grateful to the Minister. I put on record that he told me earlier today that the Government were going to withdraw their amendments because there was a technical fault with them. My Amendment No. 306A is grouped, and I explained to the Minister that I would speak to it as it seemed to me that if the Government were going to reflect on their amendments and come forward with new ones it would be of benefit to them to hear some of the views that might be expressed around the Committee in anticipation of those new amendments.
The Minister has explained why he has withdrawn his amendments at this stage and that he will be bringing new amendments forward on Report. Mr Justice Sullivan, in the case of Meyrick v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ruled that the land at Hinton Admiral Park was unsuitable, and the New Forest National Park Designation (Confirmation) Order was quashed. The Minister has indicated that the department will appeal. Even so, it seems to be at best hasty and at worst rash to push through legislation in the way that would have happened if the Minister had not decided to withdraw his amendments. Unless the amendments are changed in a major way, that will still apply. Does the noble Lord accept that this could be viewed as a case of sub judice?
"It must be remembered that the question is not what factors should, as a matter of good countryside planning practice in the 21st century be taken into consideration in designating a National Park, but what factors may lawfully be taken into consideration under an enactment that is now over 55 years old".
Parliament had an opportunity to change that in 1995, but did not do so. Government Amendment No. 305 rewrites the legal basis for national parks, by changing both the criteria of natural beauty and open-air recreation.
The addition of the words "wildlife and cultural heritage" overturns the High Court decision. What is meant by cultural heritage? It is not defined in this Bill
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or the 1949 Act. What will it cover, and who will decide what is or is not relevant? Any Secretary of State could decide that anything counted as cultural heritage and could feasibly designate any area with an old buildingor in the case of the South Downs an Anglo-Saxon burial groundas a national park. Our Amendment No. 306A would ensure that no land would be designated as a national park unless it had already achieved a high degree of "relative naturalness". We have chosen the wording that Mr Justice Sullivan used in the Meyrick case. It is a tried, tested and, at the moment, legally binding position.
As the judge said, natural beauty is a relative concept. In the case of a national park, it is an extensive tract of land that is relatively natural. That will invariably include some more managed areas that would otherwise not have been considered as meeting the national park criteria, such as, for example, Chatsworth Park in the Derbyshire Peak District National Park, which is entirely surrounded by a very extensive area of moorland. In England, we have a spectrum of wild upland areas at one end, and intensively cultivated or managed land at the other. In the judge's ruling, it was clear that the law needs to include criteria for designating national parks of a high degree of relative naturalness. In other words, national park land should be that which has been least interfered with by man. It should be the finest landscape in the country.
The next part of our amendment would ensure that any recreational potential in the possible national park land was assessed on its present potential. The Government's amendmentwhich has not been moved, so it is quite difficult for me; but I hope that I am still in orderredefines the criteria for open-air recreation. It enables national park designators to consider land that could be used for open-air recreation. In current legislation, open-air recreation is only a part of the national park criteria if that recreation already exists. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what is meant by the fact that national parks,
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