|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
For reasons which no doubt at the time seemed sufficient, the 1949 Act failed to make anyone statutorily responsible for AONBs. Unlike the national parks they have no guaranteed source of funding. The welcome Bill of the noble, Lord Renton, proposes that local authorities should have a legal responsibility for the conservation and management of AONBs, which they might, if they wish, discharge through formally constituted conservation boards. This is good. The Bill also places on local authorities a duty to contribute to their cost. This is better. And it gives the Secretary of State power to contribute as well. This is best of all. The CNP welcomes these proposals, and looks forward to working with the new conservation boards, which can make a considerable contribution to safeguarding the countryside.
But lest it should ever be thought that the sun is shining, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to a few matters in which I consider that this excellent Bill is still capable of improvement. The most important is probably the omission, to which the Country Landowners' Association has drawn attention, of any mention of the social and economic characteristics of the AONBs. People live and work there. Economic and social considerations need to be just as much in the foreground in AONBs as in any other rural areas. Perhaps the Bill might be improved if it were to include a duty on local authorities and conservation boards to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities in AONBs, on the model of Section 62 of the 1995 Environment Act.
Might it not also be wise to reconsider the Bill's proposal that conservation boards should have compulsory purchase powers? Local authorities already have considerable powers in that area, and it is always a sensitive and contentious issue. I find myself agreeing with the CLA that no convincing case has yet been made for such a power, and the time is not ripe for doing something which it is not clearly necessary to do. It would be a work of supererogation, like over-egging the pudding, or taking a steam hammer to split a dried pea.
It might also improve the Bill if there were to be proper provision on the face of the Bill for public consultation over the proposed management plans. To do so would add a pleasing touch of transparency to the process, and encourage as many interested people as possible to participate in the consideration of matters which, in many cases, would be sharply relevant to their concerns.
AONBs have unquestionably proved their value since 1949, and the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, recognises their achievement. But, in the AONB nest, there is still one huge cuckoo, one anomaly, which has never been satisfactorily resolved. The noble Lord referred to it, and so shall I. Unfortunately, the Bill is sadly silent on the question of the South Downs.
The two adjacent areas, East Hampshire and the Sussex Downs, were first proposed as a national park as long ago as 1929 by the CPRE. It was 30 years later that East Hampshire was granted AONB status, and a further four years elapsed before the Sussex Downs made the grade. Yet in 1947 the Hobhouse Report had recommended national park status for the South Downs, and the Council for National Parks supported that recommendation then, and has continued to support it consistently and unwaveringly ever since. We have done so for three reasons. First, the South Downs have been subjected for decades to unrelenting development pressure on a par with that experienced by any one of the national parks, most of which lie in upland areas and further away from major conurbations. One has only to mention Twyford Down and the titanic struggle over the major road scheme there to realise the difficulties that have had to be faced. The demands on space made by the ever-expanding coastal towns have eaten up swathes of downs, and "as we speak" there are proposals to establish a major development in a disused chalk quarry. It is the serious, informed opinion of the South Downs Campaign Group that AONB status has done nothing to protect the downs from these developments. I quote from one of its submissions which states:
Thirdly, for the past 49 years it has been generally talked of in and around the South Downs as if it were a national park. Very many people think that it is. Only those who have to administer and defend it know (all too painfully) that it is not. In 1959, the then Minister for Town and Country Planning said:
Finally, perhaps I may ask my noble friend whether in winding up she can enlighten me by telling me and your Lordships how many AONBs there are in England. The Countryside Agency, the new statutory body with responsibility for advising government on issues relating to the environmental, economic and social well-being of the English countryside, states boldly, baldly and confidently that there are 37 AONBs in England. On the other hand, the Country Landowners' Association informs me in writing that there are currently 40 in England and Wales; 35 wholly in England, four wholly in Wales and one on the border in the Wye Valley. Somewhere, somehow someone has lost two AONBs. Perhaps I may adopt and adapt the words of Mr. Oscar Wilde: to lose one AONB may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.
Lord Jopling: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry on instigating this general debate on AONBs on the back of his Bill. I have a great interest in the subject because in a previous incarnation in another place I represented parts of two national parks and part of one area of outstanding natural beauty.
I begin by referring to the entertaining speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I wrote down his comment that national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty have existed without malice for all these years. However, I invite him to come to the north of England. I have been criticised by my former constituents for being much too friendly to national parks and their organisations; I have also been criticised by national park authorities for having on occasions been extremely rude about them. I always describe the two national parks, part of which I represented, as the Lake District National Park, which was on the whole tolerated by the people who lived in it, and the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which was generally loathed by the people who lived in it. Therefore, I suggest to the noble Lord that he might reconsider his comments. I have always tried to encourage those who manage national parks to create a better feeling among the people who live in them.
My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry referred at the end of his speech to the fact that he is a former Chief Whip. I hope that he will not mind that, having fulfilled a similar role, I begin by commenting on the parliamentary procedures for Bills of this kind. He will know that, given the rules in another place, his Bill can get on to the statute book only if no one says a single word on the subject and the whole Bill goes through another place entirely on the nod. I do not want to debate how many national parks and AONBs we have--let us settle for 40--but there must be many Members of another place who have a great interest in the subject. Frankly, they will not allow the Bill to go through without a single word being spoken.
Five or six years ago a Bill was introduced in this House dealing with the administration of the national parks. As I was the Member of Parliament representing parts of two, I made it clear that I was not going to have that Bill go through another place without saying a single word. The same will apply to this Bill. It may be that our procedures need to be examined, but that is a different matter. There is a concern that many people do not recognise the procedural niceties and assume that the Bill is a serious contender for legislation this year. Of course, it is not.
Secondly, I turn to AONBs in general and return to a point I made earlier with regard to the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, that there was no malice about them. I remember when a new AONB was proposed in my constituency in Cumbria at the top end of the Eden Valley. There was massive opposition not only from the Country Landowners' Association and the NFU, but from a whole raft of local organisations. It took a great deal of negotiation and trimming of the legislation and the area defined in order to obtain widespread agreement. To try to impose new rules on the countryside, which will probably be onerous on the people who live in there is not sensible, given the current major crisis in the farming industry, particularly in areas where the land is not of the best quality. The greatest difficulties are being experienced in those areas at the moment.
I do not want to speak for too long, but I should like to turn to a number of matters in the Bill. As A.P. Herbert said on one occasion, I know nothing about agriculture. Although I am a farmer and a former Minister of Agriculture, I am afraid that I have no knowledge whatever of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board or much knowledge about the area it covers. However, I am particularly concerned about the Bill and the reaction that it has brought from the Country Landowners' Association, of which I am a member. I am also a member of the National Farmers Union.
However, I have totally changed my mind. I see no need for, and I see no great advantage in, powers of compulsory purchase being given to such boards and organisations. I believe that at all costs that provision must be removed from the Bill. I am strongly opposed to it altogether.
In opening the debate, my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry talked about the landscapes of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty being equivalent. In some ways, that is true. However, I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, is to follow me and the other day I heard him make a speech in which he implied that private ownership of land, whether in areas like these or elsewhere, was not a good thing and that it was, to use the current "in" phrase of the new Government, the "people's land". I believe that is the view that he was trying to convey, and I reject that view absolutely.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page