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Lord Bridges: Unlike other noble Lords, I do not feel that it is necessary to make a Second Reading speech, because I addressed this subject in my own contribution to that debate. However, we did not then have the benefit of the Government's proposals before us. I made it clear in my speech that, for me, this was the most important part of the Bill and that perhaps the most important part of that would be the way in which the local authority would be related to the new conservation boards and the management of AONBs.
Indeed, the absent part of this Bill at the moment would be met by the amendment introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, at an earlier stage. I believe that it was Amendment No. 453, which would place a duty on all public bodies to have regard to the objectives of the AONB. That is an absolutely cardinal point and I believe that we shall be returning to it later.
I speak from some experience, having lived in an AONB where the local authority chose to set its own judgment above that of the Government's own policies for the AONB. I wish to see that situation stopped. It is wrong. A general national approach should be adopted, with local arrangements to put it into effect. I shall make a few further comments on other clauses when we reach them.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I wish to make only a short speech. I should like to say, first, that my noble friends Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Peel have both said absolutely what was in my mind. I do not always find myself in the position of being able cordially to congratulate my own Front Bench, but on this occasion I do so without reservation. I thought that my noble friend made a wise and balanced comment on a Bill about which, I have to say, I am considerably worried.
I do not believe that the Minister has any right to protest about the Committee overlapping or infringing the limits imposed by the grouping. I think that the grouping in this instance is a mistake. The debate is about not only the Bill as a whole but the powers of central government. I remember that long ago when I was a member of a government--it seems ages and ages ago--I began to doubt whether we were really possessed of that monopoly of wisdom which governments seem to think they have. As time has gone on, I have seen government after government coming more and more to disregard local opinion, making life more and more difficult for local government and taking more and more power for themselves. Here is another Bill in which exactly that is being done. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith rightly pointed out, here we have 18 pages of legislation which, so far as I know, has been totally undiscussed in another place.
I think it is generally felt by some in another place that they enjoy absolute liberty to say what they like about your Lordships' House. There are many aspects of our affairs in which those in another place would be very unwise to press those comparisons too far; they might come off much worse than they expect.
I am not quite sure--I should like to hear the Minister's view--to what extent it is intended that areas of outstanding natural beauty can be almost automatically made into national parks or given the powers of national parks. The Minister shakes his head. I should be grateful if, when he comes to respond, he can make clear what is the position and what are the Government's intentions.
I pause to ask the Minister to what extent planning authorities will have the power to designate areas which they consider to be of outstanding natural beauty? Perhaps he will try to anticipate what the inhabitants of those areas are likely to feel. I do not know whether it has even occurred to the Government to think about the reactions of the inhabitants of such areas to any proposals which may emerge. The consultation on this part of the Bill has been somewhere between minimal and nil. Certainly I have not heard anything about it in my part of the world.
I have talked often enough in your Lordships' House and elsewhere about the powers of Secretaries of State. The Committee would be wise to be very careful in giving these sweeping powers to Secretaries of State on the basis that they are possessed of the wisdom and sense of fairness and justice that they think they possess. If one looks at the daily press and reads some of the utterances of those who occupy the position of Secretary of State, one finds it very hard to cling on to any rudimentary illusion that the holders of those offices are possessed of any peculiar wisdom.
I shall not trespass upon the question of conservation boards, except to say that here is one more instance of Secretaries of State grabbing more powers to themselves, satisfied always that they and their advisers are wholly competent to exercise those powers to the benefit of the nation.
I conclude on a minor note. I live in a village which is a conservation area. My neighbours wanted to pull down three or four not very large leylandii, which are a menace. They had to seek planning permission. That is a small example of the way in which we fetter ourselves with unnecessary, stupid restrictions. People ought to be paid to cut down leylandii.
Lord Marlesford: I agree with my noble friends Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Peel that the Government must expect to be subjected to something of a Second Reading approach to the proposed new clause. It is a major addition to the Bill. The clause as drafted has not been discussed in another place. I am not sure, given the use of the guillotine in another place nowadays, that it would necessarily have greatly benefited from such discussion. At any rate, the new clause has not been debated; therefore, it is right and reasonable that we should scrutinise it in some detail.
That said, I strongly welcome the government amendment. It is an important addition to the protection and enhancement--I am happy to emphasise the word "enhancement"--of the beauty of the English and Welsh countryside. I should also like to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry for the pathfinder role that he played in introducing his Private Member's Bill last year.
A point worth making is that, among the great reforms comprising the major achievements of the Attlee Government, along with the National Health Service came legislation for the protection of our countryside. The Council for the Protection of Rural England, of which I was lucky enough to be chairman for five years, had fought for such a measure since 1927. When those great reforms were introduced, the legislation provided for both national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. One important premise is not only sometimes forgotten, but is not always appreciated. In the hierarchy of protection--inevitably, if one is trying to protect the countryside there is bound to be a hierarchy because one cannot do everything at the same time--national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty were equal. There was no question of national parks being superior. The difference between national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty was that national parks were areas of wilderness. That made it easier to set up a particular form of protection and governance for them.
The result has been that over the years AONBs have been something of poor sisters to national parks. I strongly welcome this step--belated and slightly muddled though it may be--to provide added protection and an opportunity for AONBs to be protected. The pressures on our countryside are colossal. They come from central government, from local government and from development. There was a suggestion that local government is perfectly adequate to protect the countryside. However, perhaps I may give an example. We have only to think of the National Trust and Operation Neptune. Should we have preserved some 500 miles of our best coast without Operation Neptune? Half the local authorities, if they
I do not accept that local government is necessarily the best guardian of the countryside. I am a tremendous fan of the National Trust. I have no interest to declare, except as a humble member of it. I believe that what we have done is enormously important. I do not want to speak in detail about these amendments. I believe that we should consider them most carefully. However, I give a very strong welcome to what the Government are now doing. I hope that it becomes part of the Bill.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: I, too, compliment my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry on what, for him, is certainly a red letter day. At the risk of being designated a philistine in these matters, I must draw attention to the plethora of conservation areas that now exist and, indeed, to the danger that we depreciate the value of those various designations simply by multiplication. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said, there is a devaluation of the concept. We delude ourselves that designation of itself contributes to conservation. Our experience of SSSIs should surely disabuse us of that naive belief.
There has been reference to the numerous failures of the Countryside Council for Wales. I am sure that many of those failures have been due to lack of resources, but there are other reasons. We have over 1,000 SSSIs in Wales. A quarter of the entire country is covered by the environmentally sensitive area designation. There are about 50 national nature reserves, eight special protection areas under the EC birds directive, seven wetlands under the Ramsar Convention and two marine nature reserves, as well as three national parks and five areas of outstanding natural beauty. Indeed, there may be more. But, additionally, we are now greening agricultural grant schemes, both European and domestic.
A great deal is being done but, in my view, there is quite proper concern about this multiplicity of schemes and designations. I am sure that Members of the Committee will agree that what is important is that they should be meaningful. I wanted to make that point; I also wish to speak to a later grouping of amendments.
I am concerned about the power of local planning authorities to "enhance" the natural beauty of an AONB, as described in subsection (4) of the new clause inserted by Amendment No. 524. I am not the only one concerned about this; indeed, the Country Landowners' Association, among others, has also pointed out that here we have,
I received CLA briefing only today. But my mind has already wandered to a scene in Anglesey--in particular to Malltraeth, better known perhaps as Bodorgan Marsh. I remember from my boyhood the natural sand dunes, which have been trucked away for the building industry over recent decades and replaced by pine forests managed by the Forestry Commission. The lovely sea sedge has given way to a thin skein of green pasture that is not required at a time of set-aside land.
I assure the Committee that we now regard such so-called "enhancement" on the part of local planning authorities as gross desecration of a natural landscape. I hope that in future we can protect our heritage from that kind of devastating enhancement. Frankly, with the experience that I have had, I am not sure that I can trust authorities of various kinds with enhancement in any true sense.
Lord Rotherwick: I support the important intention to introduce amendments to bring about much better management of AONBs. I do not intend to make a Second Reading speech. I was fortunate enough to be able to make a Second Reading speech over a year ago on the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry. I am sure that he did not consider that a fortunate occasion as I was responsible for introducing the amendment that stopped the Bill. However, he caused me intense embarrassment for when I moved a previous amendment I discovered that my Tellers had been persuaded not to support me. I was ruled out of time.
I do not wish to go through all my objections as I support fully what my noble friend Lord Peel said and do not wish to replicate it. I am a little confused as to what I should say at this point. I believe that Amendment No. 522A has been spoken to by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith. I am nervous of the word "enhancing". As someone who lives in an AONB, I want to see our countryside improved and sustained. That would be considerably better than enhancing it. After all, to enhance means to heighten, to intensify or to exaggerate. Much of the countryside in an AONB is man-made. It makes me nervous to think what an undemocratic body could do in the way of heightening, intensifying or exaggerating countryside. Surely it must be better to sustain and improve it.
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