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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) on securing this debate on the good work done in our areas of outstanding natural beauty. He is a tireless champion of that work. He has spoken with such eloquence, and my Department certainly appreciates his work as the chairman of the all-party group. Clearly, like me, he is influenced in valuing our AONBs by the beautiful example that he has in his constituency. My constituency, based deep in Dorset in the south-west—a region blessed with numerous and varied outstanding landscapes—has persuaded me of the importance of properly conserving and managing them and of the important role that they play in society and the benefits that they bring.

I recall my holiday on the Gower peninsula with my family some 10 years or so ago. We spent a lovely week camping there, and we enjoyed the very special landscape, the magnificent coastline and the wonderful beaches that my hon. Friend has talked about. I like to think that I have the nicest constituency in the country, but perhaps I had better define that country as England and leave my hon. Friend to claim the same for Wales.

I also note my hon. Friend's interest in the Commons Bill. There may still be an opportunity for him to serve on the Committee that considers that Bill if he is enthusiastic to do so, and I am sure that he could let the appropriate people know of that enthusiasm if he is keen.
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to the National Association for AONBs for inviting me to the celebrations in July to mark the 50th anniversary of the Gower as our first area of outstanding natural beauty. I certainly intend to accept that invitation and I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with Gower. If I am given a choice between a conference and enjoying the landscape, I will certainly opt for the landscape.

My hon. Friend will, of course, be aware that my responsibilities extend only to those areas of outstanding natural beauty on the English side of the border and so I hope that he will forgive me if I concentrate on the English areas of outstanding natural beauty. I fully recognise that most of the issues of concern are similar in both England and Wales.

I thank my hon. Friend for his recognition of the high regard in which the Government hold AONBs, as well as our other designated landscapes, and of the increased funding that we have been able to provide for AONBs. Since 2000, funding for them from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has increased steadily, via the Countryside Agency, and last year amounted to more than £9 million. Additionally, and in keeping with a manifesto commitment, I introduced a sustainable development fund for AONBs last year amounting to £3.5 million. That equates to approximately £100,000 for each of the English AONBs. The fund aims to meet the purpose of AONBs by encouraging individuals, community groups and businesses to co-operate together to develop practical and sustainable solutions to the management of their activities. It is administered with a light touch by the Countryside Agency and I am sure that it will continue to be administered in that way by Natural England, its successor.

I am glad that AONB management plans, statutorily introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, as my hon. Friend reminded us, are providing a real focus for action and helping to facilitate co-operative working. I am pleased that I have avoided the use of the word "partnership", to please my hon. Friend. The preparation of those plans has demonstrated the importance of a whole range of partners coming together to contribute to the vision and the practical management of each AONB. In delivering the goals that the management plans have set, it is equally important to move forward with that co-operation.

In the new delivery landscape, it will be important for our AONBs to work even more closely with Natural England than they have been used to doing with the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the Rural Development Service. In the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, we took powers to enable the Department for Enivronment, Food and Rural Affairs, in suitable circumstances, to delegate delivery functions to AONBs, whether they are managed by joint committees or conservation boards. We also need to see AONBs aligning their actions with the priorities that are set out in the various regional strategies and frameworks, some of which my hon. Friend mentioned.
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As further evidence of the Government's commitment to our finest landscapes, I would point to the guidance that we produced a year ago drawing the attention of a wide variety of public bodies to their statutory duty to have regard to the purposes of AONBs and national parks when undertaking their own functions. I believe that that guidance has been generally well received. It has pulled requirements from a number of legislative sources into a single publication that has raised awareness of protected landscape issues and responsibilities to such landscapes. Previously, in some cases, that information was not particularly well known. Natural England will monitor how that works and will report on any significant problems.

I would also like to remind the House that the first two AONB conservation boards—for the Chilterns and the Cotswolds—were established in December 2004 under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. They can provide for a more joined-up approach for large AONBs that cross a number of local authority boundaries. Early evidence suggests that the conservation boards have hit the ground running and are demonstrating the benefits of their new status.

Landscape is always changing through a mixture of human and natural intervention. The pressures on landscape today are many and varied. They include the effects of climate change, social and economic developments, changes in farming and land management techniques, and people's increased mobility. My hon. Friend referred to some of the current and future concerns of AONBs. However, I can assure him that I remain committed to our finest landscapes and take every opportunity to defend them and expound their virtues when they are threatened.

The UK has recently signed the Council of Europe's European landscape convention, which aims to promote the protection, management and planning of all landscape—rural, urban and peri-urban. I hope that we will soon be able to ratify it. We do not think that that will require immediate changes to policy or legislation because the UK already has such a good record in the area. However, we will use the convention to help to guide future policy in the normal course of review, which can only help to raise the profile of landscape to the same level as other considerations in many areas of our work.

I said right at the start that I was already familiar with the benefits provided by our finest landscapes for the past 50 years. They not only possess intrinsic beauty in many varied ways, but provide the facility for many forms of recreation, such as simple relaxation and reflection, walking and riding—I remember getting very wet riding in the Gower peninsula on that holiday with my family—getting close to nature, or undertaking more vigorous pursuits. Those, in turn, provide unseen mental and physical health benefits. There are obvious physical health benefits of going to the gym, but the mental health benefits of combining that with getting outdoors among the trees and wildlife are much greater. That is why many thousands of visitors come to the areas each year and stimulate the local and national economies. Of course, our landscapes have been the source of inspiration for artists, poets—we just heard a
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wonderfully recited poem—and authors, both past and present. They also provide a living for those who work on the land.

I pay tribute to all those who work hard to maintain and champion the areas. I pay particular tribute to the work of the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials consult that excellent organisation frequently and have a fine
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relationship with its representatives—long may that continue. I will continue to champion AONBs and know that my hon. Friend will continue to do so. I look forward to joining in the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the first area of outstanding natural beauty designation later this year.

Question put and agreed to.

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