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Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): Does my hon. Friend share my view that the recommendations from the Countryside Commission are flawed on three counts--first, the inadequate nature of the consultation process; secondly, the commission's failure to report accurately the response to that consultation process; and thirdly, the sheer lack of understanding of the criteria for national park status and the legal framework, as revealed in the report and recommendations?

Dr. Turner: I concur with my hon. Friend on all those points.

Time is running out, so I must try to conclude. We must ask, and the Countryside Commission must answer, one important question. As there is already legislation on the statute book to give the best possible protection and management of the south downs--which will give the body a status that will enable it to get funds from the European Union and other sources--why does the Countryside Commission recommend something that will require further legislation, will be exceedingly difficult to deliver and will provide a second-class alternative to national park status?

What I am about to say may also apply to the New forest. What is going on? Are we dealing with entrenched local interests--dare I say landlords? Is it a confrontation which, in a way, mirrors the confrontation between our two Houses? I suspect that there is slightly more to the Countryside Commission's arguments than meets the eye.

Mr. Loughton: On the point about consultation, I am not impressed by the fact that only several hundred people responded out of a 500,000 population in West Sussex, and the same applies to East Sussex. The Sussex Downs conservation board includes representatives from11 district councils, two county councils and the unitary authority. It has had an accountable and democratic part to play in planning.

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting taking powers from local authorities that are answerable to their electorates. Is he really saying that the views of the councils that did not consult do not matter?

Dr. Turner: I am not saying that the views of those councils do not matter, but surely the hon. Gentleman cannot criticise consulting the public and claim that consulting a committee provides the same democratic accountability. Clearly it does not. There were thousands of responses from the public, strongly--overwhelmingly--in favour of national park status.

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It is not necessary to take all planning powers away from district councils--that does not have to happen. It has been suggested that a strategic plan should be drawn up for a national park, to which all planning authorities should be party, and that the implementation of the plan should be delegated back to the local authorities; but that implementation must be consistent with the national park strategic plan that has been developed. So with respect, neither of the hon. Gentleman's points holds water.

The logic of national park status for the south downs is irrefutable. It is the obvious solution and it requires no new legislation. The alternatives not only require new legislation, but will ultimately provide an inferior measure of protection. The overwhelming interest that should be considered is the public concern to protect and manage the future of the south downs.

1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Alan Meale): My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) has been a tireless campaigner for national park status for the south downs. I congratulate him on securing this debate, and I am glad to have the opportunity to reply.

The Government are still looking very carefully at the options for the future sympathetic management of the south downs. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend by not being able to tell him and the House today of any final decision. However, we do hope to be in a position to say something very soon.

Ministers are thoroughly convinced of the merits of the south downs as an outstanding landscape of national significance. It is one which receives an enormous number of visitors annually and which is, to many people, quintessentially English. I am glad to have this opportunity to remind my hon. Friend and others of my recent visit to the south downs. Thankfully, it was on a beautiful day at the end of September. As the guest of the Sussex Downs conservation board, I was shown some of the most famous and popular sites for visitors, including Devil's dyke and Ditchling beacon. Indeed, from Ditchling beacon I discovered how it is possible to get a real feel of the rolling "whale backed Downs" and the mosaic of landscape laid out at their feet.

What was striking about the downs was how remote a feel there is in countryside that is in such proximity to coastal towns and communities. It is incredible to find oneself in such a wilderness only a short distance from coastal resorts. I have had a number of requests from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber to come and see more of the downs, and I intend to take up those invitations. Arrangements are in hand to do so.

I have had a number of meetings with those, from both sides of the national park debate, who are deeply concerned about the future of the downs.

When I visited the downs I had the benefit of having as local guides my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) and for Kemptown, as well as leading officials from the Sussex Downs conservation board. I also had a meeting in Brighton with representatives of the South Downs campaign group,

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which is the grouping of national and local organisations campaigning for a national park. I have since met again some of the interested parties at the Department in London and with several other people, including the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has also discussed the issue with many of those who have a particular interest.

I assure hon. Members that I understand how important the downs are as a recreational resource for their constituents and for many other people living in East and West Sussex, Hampshire and further afield, including the many who enjoy visiting from the London area. I have many times heard quoted the figure of 32.5 million visitors to the downs each year, which is more than twice the number visiting the Lake district. Whatever the accuracy of that figure, what is important is that we can be sure that the south downs, like a number of other areas of national beauty, are not only visited by an enormous number of people who come for all sorts of good recreational reasons, but enjoyed on a regular basis by those lucky enough to live nearby.

What most struck me, as a visitor to the area, is that so many people feel so strongly about the south downs. Whether they declare themselves as for or against a national park, they usually want the same things. Both those who are for and those who are against a national park want a level of protection against major new development that respects the importance of the downs as a nationally recognised landscape and a resource for recreation and for biodiversity. They all want a body that is able to work with others to achieve objectives in a recognised strategic planning framework; one that has an assured future and an appropriate level of funding; and one that is able to manage the downs sympathetically and look after the interests of both local people and the downs' many visitors.

I assure the House that the Government want those things too, and that we are going to deliver them. We want to make sure that we get the precise choice of mechanism right, because the solution must be a long-term one. That is why I am not yet in a position to tell the House which of the options the Government will finally back.

Anyone with an interest in this debate will know that earlier this year the Countryside Commission, as the Government's statutory adviser, advised against a national park in the south downs and in favour of establishing a new statutory conservation board. That recommendation reflected the commission's assessment of the suitability of the south downs for national park status, which it has maintained since the 1950s. It does not constitute a judgment on the quality of the landscape in the south downs, because the legislation does not recognise a difference between the quality of landscapes in national parks and those in areas of outstanding natural beauty, which is the designation that already applies to the south downs.

The recommendation reflects the way in which the Countryside Commission has applied the criteria in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. However, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown that, if we conclude that it is right to do so, we shall ask the commission to look again at the way it operates those criteria.

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I have heard criticism from some groups of the way in which the Countryside Commission carried out its consultation process about the south downs in late 1997 and early 1998. I have no wish to enter into the debate on that issue now; suffice it to say that the Government have listened to all the views expressed. My Department has received hundreds of letters since the Commission's advice was received. Brighton and Hove council should be congratulated on the consultation that it carried out locally, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. It is legitimate for him to say that, at least in his area, people can feel confident that the consultation was broad and varied.

The Countryside Commission's advice to the Government on protected areas contains a number of strands. It is not only about the south downs, important though they are, but about the way forward in the New forest, which we shall have an opportunity to debate tomorrow. It also contains a considerable number of wider recommendations about the protection, funding and management of areas of outstanding natural beauty. Hon. Members will understand that there is a lot of interplay between these questions, and that together they are of some complexity. Those considerations have meant that it has taken some time to move toward our conclusions. To put it simply, we want to get the answers right.

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