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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Northern Ireland

That the draft Local Government (Boundaries) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 22nd March, be approved.—[Mr. Watson.]

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 26 April, pursuant to Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions).



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Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watson.]

6.18 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): What I should like to do in this Adjournment debate is, first and foremost, to celebrate the quality of landscape and environment in the Gower peninsular, the first designated area of outstanding natural beauty in Britain and the area that I have the privilege to represent in this House. I also want to celebrate the beauty and diversity of the 40 or so other AONBs in England and Wales. I shall begin by focusing a little on the history of our AONBs, and then I shall look to the future.

Our story goes back to the period immediately after the second world war, and to the establishment of the Hobhouse committee that looked at the need to protect and enhance our most valuable landscapes and habitats. Hobhouse reported in 1947, and that report led to the legislation that became the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which established both national parks and AONBs. Even then, national parks and AONBs were accepted as being equal in quality and value to the nation, but they were deliberately treated quite differently. The decision to treat them differently came directly from the Hobhouse report, which stated:

Under the terms of section 87 of the 1949 Act, those conservation areas became AONBs. Even then, Hobhouse's belief that these areas required no positive management was mistaken, as became clearer over the following decades. Indeed, that is especially clear if one compares the history of the national parks with that of the AONBs. In practice the 1949 Act did little more than create the designation "area of outstanding natural beauty" and make consequential provision for land use planning arrangements. Indeed, considering the flimsiness of their foundation, the most remarkable feature of our AONBs between 1956, when Gower was designated, and the end of the millennium was how much had been achieved in resisting the worst excesses of exploitation and neglect, without proactive management and earmarked resources. That said, the history of countryside protection during that period was very patchy.

After a lot of lobbying, the chairman of the National Parks Commission, Mr. Strang, and his secretary, Mr.   Abrahams, signed Gower's designation order on 9 May 1956—50 years ago next month. We in Gower intend to celebrate that anniversary over the rest of the year.

So what is so special about Gower that led to it earning this early recognition, before other candidate regions? It is very special in many ways. Even though it covers only 72 square miles, its 23 miles of magnificent coastline are now designated as heritage coast.
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Geological variety has given us a matching variety in landscape. On the south coast, we have marvellous carboniferous limestone scenery stretching between Worms Head and Oxwich bay. By way of contrast, in the north we have salt marshes, dune systems and the Loughor estuary. In between, inland Gower is notable for its attractive wooded valleys and its large areas of common, dominated by sandstone heath ridges and, most especially, the soaring sweep of Cefn Bryn.

The Gower peninsula AONB includes 25 sites of special scientific interest, five candidate special areas of conservation, three national nature reserves, one special protection area, one Ramsar site, three local nature reserves, 23 Wildlife Trust reserves and 67 ancient woodland sites. It is also home to 83 scheduled ancient monuments and sites. Some 30 per cent. of the AONB is designated as historic landscape, and there are more than 100 listed buildings there. We have some 240 miles of public rights of way. All our beaches—they are beautiful beaches—passed the bathing water regulations mandatory and guideline standards. Last year, four Gower beaches got blue flags, and a further six got "green coast" awards.

We are also fortunate in that, in the years since the 1930s, some of the most valuable landscape areas in Gower have been acquired by the National Trust. Notable flora and fauna species on the coast include chough, peregrine and the rare yellow whitlow grass, which, I think, is still unique to Gower. The common land in the AONB also provides a valuable habitat for rare plants and animals, including southern damselfly, nightjar, black bog ant, marsh fritillary and the palmate newt. Growing on the commons we also find various heather species, royal fern, bristle bent grass, a range of mosses, bilberry, deer grass and three-lobed crowfoot.

During Tuesday's debate on the Commons Bill the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who will respond to this debate, highlighted the contribution that our commons make to national biodiversity. Gower is, literally, proof of that statement. Its commons are wildlife treasure chests, simply because they have not been agriculturally improved or subjected to regular pesticide or fertiliser treatment. However, they have come under various pressures in recent years, with different problems affecting different commons, such as increased use of artificial nutrients, over-grazing on some places and under-grazing on more, and land being torn up by motorcycle scramblers and other off-road vehicles. The Gower commons initiative has improved the situation enormously over the past five years, especially through the strategic placing of cattle grids to achieve better stock management.

So that is a brief picture of Gower in facts and figures, and although such a run-down can be pretty impressive in its own way, it does not really capture the unique quality of Gower, nor its clear and historical identity as a separate and special place. It is right on the doorstep of the old industrial city of Swansea, yet city residents and visitors alike almost all comment on the feelings of isolation and remoteness that they experience in Gower, despite the fact that they are rarely more than 20 miles from the city centre.
20 Apr 2006 : Column 334

Although close proximity to Swansea creates many problems and pressures for Gower, in conservation, environmental and socio-economic terms, the contrast with its urban neighbour is part of what makes Gower special. From the point of view both of residents of Swansea and Gower and of visitors, the relationship between rural Gower and urban Swansea can be complementary: Swansea provides an ever widening range of cultural, educational and leisure opportunities alongside Gower's contribution of rare natural beauty, fantastic beaches and splendid walks.

Over the decade since Gower's birthday, in a process that started slowly, about 40 AONBs have secured designation, ranging from the Solway coast to the north Wessex downs, from the Norfolk coast to the Cotswolds and from the Cornish coast to the Clwydian range—their beauty matched only by their diversity. Over most of the past half-century, however, our AONBs have struggled under the inadequacies of the original legislation, which failed to provide them with management and financial resources similar to those for national parks. The unfairness and impracticality of that situation became more and more apparent as the decades went by and it became clearer and clearer that AONBs were not just the little sisters of national parks; indeed, the Cotswolds AONB is larger than any national park and in terms of tourist numbers, the Chilterns AONB receives more visitors than most national parks.

The financial and legislative weakness of the AONB system came into proper focus only in the last few years of the 20th century, with the Countryside Commission undertaking a fuller review of the working of AONBs, the establishment of an England and Wales AONB association and the distillation of some clear reform objectives. Thankfully, at roughly the same time, a legislative hook came along—the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. Inside and outside Parliament, we campaigned for amendments to require statutory management plans for our AONBs and the Government accepted the principle and introduced the necessary changes, which is hugely to their credit and the most important change for AONBs in their 50-year history.

In recent years, we have seen a sea change in the status and professionalism of the management of our AONBs, which can and must be built upon. We have seen the Chilterns and Cotswold AONBs set up conservation boards under the powers provided to them in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, invaluable for AONBs that fall within a number of local authorities. The powers and responsibilities in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act have been backed up with financial resources—until now at least—through the Countryside Agency in England, superseded by Natural England, and the Countryside Council for Wales in my part of the world. The main funding vehicle in Wales that has benefited Gower is the sustainable development fund, which is being used to support 22 valuable green projects in the Gower AONB.

The word "partnership" has perhaps become too much a part of our conversations in this place and has been frequently used in the jargon of politics in recent years. But sometimes there are theories at the bottom of our jargon, and partnership really is the key to success for AONBs. That means, first and foremost,
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partnership at local level, involving local authorities and the local people who live in and around the AONB, encouraging them to maintain a sense of involvement and ownership, acknowledging that the aims of conservation and sustainability do not have to be in conflict with the needs of agricultural production or other forms of economic development, including tourism. That is not only possible but practical, as long as everyone recognises the exceptional quality of the landscape in which they work, although it also requires conservationists and environmentalists to acknowledge that sustainability does not mean petrification.

We also need an effective working partnership between the different AONBs in the country, with best practice actively disseminated and ideas readily exchanged. That is already happening through the excellent functioning of the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which goes from strength to strength, and which I am delighted to report is holding its annual conference in Swansea this year, so that it can take a leading role in celebrating the golden anniversary of Gower's designation. My hon. Friend the Minister has been invited and I hope that he and Carwyn Jones, his opposite number in the National Assembly, will be able to attend and can take the opportunity to go to Gower and enjoy its marvels.

There must be partnership between the AONBs, the responsible local authorities and the legislature and the Government, whether the National Assembly for Wales or Westminster and Whitehall for the UK. The all-party group on AONBs, which I chair in the House, plays a    small part in aiding communication between parliamentarians, the AONBs and Ministers.

Most people involved with AONBs believe the future is far brighter than it appeared even a few years ago, but of course that does not mean that we should take anything for granted or become complacent. That was brought home to me just last year when the Welsh Assembly Government, in a consultation exercise about local government powers, proposed that the requirement to produce management plans for AONBs should be removed, just five years after the CROW Act had introduced that vital measure. Thankfully, they were convinced that that would have been a very big step in the wrong direction.

Even now, the people who care about our AONBs still have their worries about future financing, when local authority budgets are squeezed; about the fact that AONBs are funded on an annual basis, when it would be more efficient to fund them on a three-year programme; about how AONB interests will be picked up in the new regional spatial planning strategies in England and the unitary development plans in Wales; and, perhaps most importantly, about the fragility of some agricultural sectors, recognising the importance for biodiversity of appropriate stocking levels, especially on the uplands. However, we can deal with all those things by working together under the new legislation.

As we said on the AONB association's display board that we put up in the Upper Waiting Hall when we were campaigning for AONB provisions in the CROW Bill,

Unfortunately, the photograph used to show the sun rising, which I did not see until the day, was of Worms Head at Rhossili in my constituency—of course,
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Rhossili is on the west coast of Britain and the photograph was actually of the sunset. That was an unfortunate mistake, but I was sure then, and am even more sure now, that that was not necessarily a bad omen.

I should like to finish, still on beautiful Rhossili, by quoting from the man sometimes described as the Gower poet, Vernon Watkins, the close friend of Dylan Thomas, whom Dylan believed was the better poet. It is an extract from the poem simply called "Rhossili", which conveys the awe and the inspiration that fine landscape and the natural environment can evoke in us:

It is that awe, that inspiration at the sight of outstanding natural beauty, that we celebrate above all at this year's anniversary in Gower.

6.32 pm

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