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Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty Bill [H.L.]

Second Reading debate resumed.

12.28 p.m.

Lord Chorley: My Lords, we return to another equally important aspect of the environment. I warmly welcome the Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, on his initiative. I assume that it has the support of the Countryside Agency since it so closely follows the model clauses that its predecessor body, the Countryside Commission, published last year.

I too have an interest: I am a vice president of the Council for National Parks and I also live in a national park. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, made quite clear the Council for National Parks' position on the South Downs and national park status. On this occasion I do not wish to enter into debate on that subject. My remarks today are purely personal.

I should add that the National Trust, which is a substantial landowner in almost every AONB, also supports this Bill. Although I suspect that it would tend to favour national park status for the South Downs, I pass that by.

A few years ago, when I was chairman of the National Trust, we were involved with others in an unsuccessful battle to prevent the erection of a wind turbine. The site chosen by the developer was almost on the edge of the Cotswold escarpment overlooking the Vale of Gloucester. The creature that was erected is about as big as the Clock Tower of Big Ben. When the noble Lord, Lord Renton, introduced the subject, he quoted from Bill Bryson on the Vale of Evesham; he might equally well have been as horror-struck as I was in looking over into the Vale of Gloucester. On the other side, it was literally yards--between here and the Throne--from a National Trust property, which was why we objected. There were also other properties. If ever there was a case of a prime site in one of England's prime AONBs being desecrated, that was surely it. One might have been forgiven if one had not felt that the site selected was deliberately chosen to show the contempt that some developers have for that statutory designation.

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I was, and I remain, staggered that we can allow huge industrial structures to be built on land designated by statute (even though the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, does not agree) as having equal landscape quality to that of national parks; nor is that an isolated instance. Noble Lords will have their own examples. There is already one wind turbine in the Forest of Bowland AONB. A huge wind farm of 34 turbines in the North Pennines AONB has recently been turned down by the Minister, I am glad to say--all the more power to his elbow--but a judicial review is being sought. There is the dualling of the A.303 through the Blackdown Hills; there is the case of the Twyford Down desecration; and there is the case of the future use of RAF Bentwaters in Suffolk, on which I suspect my noble friend Lord Bridges will touch. And so it goes on.

We really must do something to make the protection work, for which Parliament so wisely legislated 50 years ago. This year we are rightly celebrating the 50th anniversary of that Act. On the national parks front the Act has worked well; just think of the developments that would have occurred in our national parks without that Act. Let us not forget that the Act also introduced the concept of AONB designation for fine landscapes in identical terms to national parks. The only difference was that the national parks designation included the promoting of opportunities for understanding and enjoyment. But the AONB status has for us in the event been the very poor relation. It is therefore fitting and appropriate that in this jubilee year the Bill seeks to do something about the problem, or at least to draw it to our attention.

The weakness of the 1949 Act, as we have already been told, and I will therefore not labour the point, is that it did not give the planning authorities the duty to promote the conservation of those areas. With the benefit of hindsight that may now seem obvious. We all know the threats that have emerged and I have mentioned some of them. We discuss them frequently in this House and they are discussed in the Countryside Commission's excellent report of last year, Protecting our Finest Countryside.

We cannot legislate against every kind of landscape threat--for example, certain agricultural practices--but we can surely put the AONBs on a more positive footing. The Bill, I suggest, does this in the main by picking up the model clauses of the Countryside Commission's document. I will skip over some of the detail. One of the main features of the Bill which attracts me is in encouraging the Government to set up conservation boards and in giving such boards a degree of statutory status. The model is the Sussex Downs Conservation Board which, as we know, is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and of course sitting next to me is his predecessor, my noble friend Lord Nathan.

The noble Lord has taken us through the details clause by clause. I should like to comment on four points: first, the planning. This in a sense lies at the heart of the conservation board issue. The need for a coherent approach to planning, for a management plan, in each AONB, is manifest and the purposes are warmly applauded. Equally (if not more) important is making a

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conservation board a statutory consultee, which the noble Lord explained. The only question is: does this go far enough? The noble Lord said that, on the one hand, there are people who want more and there are people who want less. There is a balance to be struck there. For example, should the conservation board have the right of veto over planning approvals or should it have the right to insist on "call in"? That is something we should perhaps discuss when we get to Committee stage. I should be particularly interested to hear the comments of the noble Baroness the Minister.

A second point in relation to planning is the status of a conservation board management plan. In effect, how does it relate in legal or process terms to structure and local plans and the new development plan system? I am not a planner and I should like some guidance.

Secondly, there is the composition of the conservation board. I welcome the power given to the Secretary of State to appoint independent members. I should like to know whether the Government envisage that this would be done, roughly speaking, on a national park basis, which would seem to be the most appropriate.

Thirdly, I welcome the proposed powers of ownership and acquisition of land. On the whole, I am against compulsory acquisition powers.

Fourthly, I know and welcome the power of a conservation board to make levies to local councils and similarly for the Secretary of State to make grants. In other words, the AONB conservation boards will be put on the same footing as the national parks, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has said. The funding will be crucial and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kimball. Without funding the board would be a dead duck--it may be a dead duck anyway, but when we do something it does need to be funded.

I very much hope that the Government will give the Bill a fair wind, the more so because there is no certainty that there will be a countryside Bill in the next Session. Even if this Bill should fail--and I note the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling--I think it will have proved to be a useful exercise, a dummy run if you like, for government legislation. Many of us will remember, and the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, indirectly referred to it, how useful the noble Lord, Lord Norrie's, Bill was on national parks administration. It paved the way for the 1995 national parks provisions in the Environment Act of that year and it teased out many difficult issues. I suggest that this Bill can perform a very useful function in that respect too. I welcome the Bill.

12.40 p.m.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying that because of the addition of the Statement to today's business, it is conceivable that I might not be able to stay until the end of the debate. In which case, I sincerely apologise to the House, to my noble friend and to the Minister. I shall, of course, read the Hansard report of the conclusion of the debate if I am not able to be here.

In declaring my interest, which in a sense is fairly relevant to the substance of the Bill, I should perhaps point out that I was for 12 years a member of the

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Countryside Commission and a member for eight years of the Rural Development Commission. As your Lordships know, those two have been amalgamated into the Countryside Agency. Therefore, I am extremely conscious of the point that you must not separate the protection of rural beauty from the fact that people have to work and earn their living in rural areas. To me that is axiomatic. In the days when I served on the Rural Development Commission, a policy was adopted specifically so that there should be a cross-membership to bring both commissions together. Now they are together I should also declare my chairmanship, until last year, of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I am currently one of its vice presidents. I am a farmer in Suffolk and also president of the Suffolk Preservation Society.

What we ought to get clear, and clearer than has perhaps come through at present, is the relationship between national parks and AONBs. I should like to read from what I regard as the ex cathedra statement of government policy going back 50 years--as far as I am aware, it has never been changed--from the Countryside Agency's brief statement on the matter:

    "AONBs are the equal of our National Parks in terms of their landscape quality. They should enjoy the same level of protection". I regard that as being a statement of the statutory position following the designation of these areas. What we are talking about in this Bill is not the desirability of protecting AONBs, but the method by which they should be protected, whether or not we need a new form and another level of bureaucracy.

Although AONBs are in no sense, as I have just suggested, the ugly sisters of national parks, they are certainly the poor sisters. For the past 50 years, although considerable funds have always been made available for national parks, funds have not in general been made available for AONBs. That is an important point to remember.

Moreover, I start from the premise that you cannot rely on local authorities to protect landscape if they are just left on their own; it simply does not happen. Local authorities responsible for a particular piece of landscape should take into account their obligation to protect it. In the days when planning was a function of county councils rather than district councils--a change in the planning system which took place in the early seventies--there was more likelihood that the broader picture of conservation would be taken account of by county councils. Therefore, especially when an AONB is divided among a number of local authority areas, as many of them are, it is particularly helpful that there should be some sort of a body to take the responsibility for at least sifting through the planning process when it applies to AONBs, and certainly trying to take into account the statutory obligation to protect these very precious areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, mentioned the Bentwaters controversy in the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB, on the edge of which I live. That is certainly a good example. The developer has proposed a regional airport--it is extremely doubtful whether Britain needs another regional airport; certainly not in the South-East--and seems to have been able to persuade

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the officers of the Suffolk coastal district council that it is perfectly proper for such an airport to be situated in the middle of that particular AONB. In my opinion, the council did not begin to take into account the environmental dimension to this development application. If we had a different form of body which was responsible for this stewardship and protection, I believe that we would get a lot further.

I am not saying--indeed, I have never said--that these areas should become national parks. There is a difference. I do not believe that the national park model is necessarily right for all AONBs. When I was on the Countryside Commission, we realised the lacuna in protection which there was at that time for the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads and started to consider what to do about it. We decided not to make them a national park. I take the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, that it would not be appropriate to make the New Forest into a national park.

Therefore, in the case of the Broads, we came up with the proposal of giving the area its own protection body. It also had its own Act of Parliament. I agree with my noble friend Lord Jopling that there can be great opposition to some of these things. I know very well that there was huge opposition--that is not an understatement--to the establishment of the Broads authority. In fact, I had to go round trying to persuade people that it was a reasonable proposal. It is now working very well and is very popular. That is very much a case of combining the economic with the conservation. The biggest single occupation in the Broads is tourism--boats and all that. This had to be brought together with conservation. I strongly believe that we need new structures for such a purpose.

However, I am not sure whether my noble friend's Bill, on which he should be very much congratulated for bringing forward, is exactly the right way to do it. I certainly would go along with some of the suggestions that have been made as regards amendments which might be needed in Committee. In my opinion, it would be well worth while pursuing the matter further. I do not know whether, ultimately, what we are doing is acting as pathfinders for the Government to bring in a Bill to do the things that we decide we need, or whether we can carry it further through the Private Member's process.

I was a little puzzled by something that my noble friend Lord Jopling said, though no doubt the Minister will give us a view on it. I thought I understood my noble friend to say that a Bill originating here could not even be discussed in another place. I may be wrong on that, but that would certainly surprise me. If it is the case, I would agree with him entirely that our procedures need to be changed because that vitiates the whole working together of the two Houses which should be a central part of a bicameral legislature.

At any rate, I do not want to go further now other than to say that I welcome the Bill. I think, intrinsically, that it is right and that it would provide a new protection for very precious areas of our country. We must, by one means or another, fill the administrative gap which exists for such protection.

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12.48 p.m.

Lord Nathan: My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Kimball for what he said. I am delighted that he has come back to the Chamber to take his place so that he may hear my thanks to him for his kind remarks. I am extremely grateful to him. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for his kind words.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is no longer in his place. I say that because it seems to me that the National Parks Bill, with which I was to some extent connected and which was introduced into this House by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, was an experience which might conceivably be repeated in this case. It had the great merit of being considered in this House; it was considered in Committee and was approved by your Lordships. For the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, mentioned, it did not get any further, but it was incorporated in large measure as it left this House into the environment legislation of 1995. It seems to me that the discussion we could have both in Committee and today about this Bill may serve a useful purpose to the same end.

This is an important and timely Bill. It provides the framework for administration of areas of outstanding natural beauty which is presently lacking. As has been said, my experience derives from the privilege of being the chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board from virtually its beginning in 1992 for over five years until I was succeeded by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, in October 1997. The experience I had is relevant to my support for the main purposes of this Bill. I thought it might be of interest to your Lordships.

The board was constituted by an agreement between the 13 local authorities within which the AONB lies and the Countryside Commission, as it then was. Although named the Sussex Downs AONB, about one-third of its nearly 400 square miles lie in the weald to the north. In view of the discussion which has taken place, I thought it might be relevant to your Lordships if I refer briefly to the objects of the board as set out in that agreement. I shall not read it at length but it starts with the prime objective:

    "to protect, conserve and enhance the natural beauty and amenity of AONB". Subject to that overriding requirement, the second object is:

    "to promote the quiet informal enjoyment of it by the general public". The third objective has been the subject of some comment elsewhere. It is:

    "generally to promote sustainable forms of economic and social development especially working with farmers and landowners to encourage land management which supports the two objectives above". In that context the board has been active--I have been particularly interested in that activity--in the promotion of coppicing, which has made a considerable economic contribution in its initial stages and I am certain will continue to do so. Other economic activities are also being promoted by the board.

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I return to the history of the board. East and West Sussex County Councils transferred their countryside management responsibilities to the board and undertook to provide funding of around £600,000 per annum to the board to be matched by the Countryside Commission. The agreement was to be reviewed after six years. This period expired on 31st March 1998, from which time interim arrangements have been in force to continue for a maximum of three years; that is, until 31st March 2001. The agreement worked well and I believe that the board was considered a success. The 13 local authorities and the Countryside Commission worked together harmoniously and I was particularly proud of the fact that over the five years of my chairmanship we never had a row! However, from an early stage--a couple of years after we started--we gave thought to the precarious nature of our arrangements in the long term: changes in local authorities over the years might lead to a desire for withdrawal or cessation of funding which might bring the whole enterprise to an end.

I emphasise that, although during those five years we had local authority reorganisation resulting in radical alteration to East Sussex and the creation of Brighton and Hove unitary authority, adjustments were made to accommodate these changes in a harmonious manner, to the great credit of those concerned in difficult circumstances. The local authorities were also under much financial pressure during this period and yet they sustained and in some cases increased their financial contribution from 1st April 1998 to compensate for the reduction in funding from the Countryside Commission. But we foresaw from an early date that these uncertainties rendered long-term policies for the AONB difficult to implement, as well as appropriate staff arrangements. What was needed was a greater measure of security as to the existence of the board and its funding. This was the basis of our discussions internally and in due course with the Countryside Commission.

The board instituted a consultation and held a major conference on its future which resolved that the board should continue in its present form, reinforced generally on the lines of the provisions of this Bill. Subsequently the Department of the Environment instigated a further conference on the future of the board which was implemented by the Countryside Commission. The outcome was the same. We were of course aware that the Countryside Commission's prime interest was to innovate and promote new ventures rather than to provide ongoing funding for successful enterprises. After all, we had been the beneficiaries of its support for new ventures and had absorbed much of its available funds. That is why we got in touch with the Department of the Environment to secure funding direct from it on some more permanent basis.

We therefore envisaged that legislation was required for the benefit of AONBs generally, enabling the Secretary of State to establish arrangements appropriate to different AONBs--particularly where these were situated within a number of local authorities--and to provide for funding, both by local authorities and national resources, on a basis giving the security required. In addition to the Sussex Downs AONB--with which the Countryside Commission was keen to

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combine East Hampshire AONB--there are perhaps three other AONBs falling within this description. This Bill enables this aim to be fulfilled and is its main purpose. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, has given it much time and thought and it is he who has achieved this result. There are provisions relating to planning and other matters which clearly require detailed examination in Committee. I shall look forward to that discussion, but it is for another day.

I end by emphasising the great merit of leaving local authorities to create structures they consider beneficial, such as they did in the case of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. After all, they are the representatives of the people living within their areas. Such actions enhance and enlarge local authorities. However, AONBs are not only local but a national heritage enjoyed by those living far from them. The board had, according to estimates made by a university team, some 32 million visits in a year. That is why national resources as well as local funds are needed. This Bill enables this to be done without utilising the provisions relating to national parks imposed upon the area, thus diminishing rather than enhancing local representative authorities. I very much hope that this Bill will commend itself to your Lordships.

12.57 p.m.

Lord Monk Bretton: My Lords, I believe that it will be easier for me--and probably the best thing to do--if I start by saying rather simply that from our house there is a fine view of a substantial part of the South Downs. For much of my life I farmed in the low weald just below the downs, which is a completely different kind of countryside from the downs themselves. The contrast between the two is amazing. However, one field that I farmed came within the Sussex Downs AONB. I explain that quite simply by way of declaring an interest.

Of course, like most residents I have an interest in preserving my view of the downs. I am also a member of the CLA and the NFU. I am well aware of the importance of maintaining the economic viability of the area. I am really a local observer of what has happened in the area. Within the view that I described earlier, just within the AONB--two miles away--lies the house of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry. Everyone locally is immensely grateful to him for being willing to serve as the chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. They are also grateful to the previous chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Nathan--my university contemporary and friend--who has just spoken. There is no doubt that he did very well indeed when leading the board in its initial stages. He should also be congratulated on his skill in persuading my noble friend to succeed him as chairman. I am not sure how relaxing a sinecure he may have suggested it was.

It is no surprise that my noble friend Lord Renton has found it necessary to introduce the Bill. The Countryside Commission--now the Countryside Agency--has made us aware that legislation on this matter is needed and that the matter is getting more pressingly urgent. That urgency springs from the serious need to put the Sussex Downs Conservation Board on a firmer footing, as the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, said. As far as concerns

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myself and several other noble Lords who are in attendance today, the Bill has a somewhat local flavour. It concerns us first and foremost because there are not many conservation boards looking after AONBs; primarily, there is our board and the Norfolk Broads board.

The South Downs dominate our area--their striking beauty is admired far and wide--and the increasing pressure upon them as a result of a major population increase produced the need, first, for designation and, subsequently, for the formation of the voluntary conservation board. As a local observer who lives just outside the area of the downs, I can report that the board has done an awful lot of good. There have been no rows; it has been popular; and there is a universal view that something very closely along the same lines should continue but that its funding must be made more secure.

I trust that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Jopling that it will do no good to go beyond Second Reading. It is very important that we try to get the Bill into better shape now and that it goes on to Committee stage. The Bill may well be incorporated in other legislation in due course.

Nevertheless, the Bill needs modification. Many of the points about modification have already been mentioned, but perhaps I may say a little more in support of them. There is no mention in the Bill of a responsibility to have regard for the rural economy. That is a matter of great importance. A conservation board should have regard for the rural economy in order to preserve the good will of the people who live and work in its area and to encourage them to help. There is no doubt that they will help; after all, it concerns their homes and their environment too.

I should perhaps also raise the question of representation on the conservation boards. There is no provision in the Bill for direct representation by owners and other land managers. I believe that there should be. The Norfolk Broads board set a precedent in that respect. It has such representation.

I am doubtful about the powers in relation to land. I have no particular objection if the board needs to own land, but I do have an objection to the board having compulsory powers. I believe that it wants compulsory powers because there are areas on the downs which do not belong to anyone and it wishes to gain control over those. That is fine as far as it goes, but it is a cumbersome tool with which to purchase land. One should bear in mind that the purpose of the Bill is that other AONBs might want to adopt the same proceedings. I do not think that such a widespread power is necessary or should be given. After all, local authorities have that power--and local authorities are appointed, not elected, bodies.

I have not formed a definite view of Clause 4. I have heard the comment that the powers in the clause could well be unnecessary as local authorities, broadly, already have them. I shall need to consider the clause further. However, I should like to comment specifically on Clause 4(2), paragraph (b) of which relates to the power over adjacent areas. I do not think that that is an

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acceptable power to give to a conservation board. Perhaps I may explain. The view from our windows is over the South Downs ESA; superimposed on that is the South Downs AONB. The AONB is a larger area and provides the buffer that protects the ESA. I do not want anything in the Bill that would enable conservation boards effectively to increase the size of AONB areas. They should be designated in the way they always have been and not altered in that way.

I should like to stress particularly the kind of spirit necessary when a board is established in an AONB. It is most important that the matter is decided by local popular will. Only in that way will the local population carry a board forward well and with the enthusiasm that helps so significantly. I am anxious to ensure that the Bill does that.

1.8 p.m.

Viscount Addison: My Lords, I commend the way in which my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry has introduced both his Bill and the debate. I should declare an interest as a vice-president of the Council for National Parks and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.

We support the need for AONB legislation, which would provide for better management of AONBs. Indeed, the CNP signed the Wildlife and Countryside Link AONB paper. Better resources and management of AONBs raise the environmental stakes in the countryside generally and assist with the protection of national parks.

However, the area of the South Downs, which is currently an AONB, is a special case and its future could be compromised by dealing with it in this context. The current context is one of overwhelming support for national park status for the South Downs. A 1998 national opinion poll for the Ramblers Association demonstrated that, nationally, 77 per cent of those questioned felt that the South Downs should be designated a national park. A petition of 21,000 names in support of national park status for the South Downs has recently been submitted to the House of Commons. The Government have a manifesto commitment to designate more areas of countryside as national parks.

As early as 1947, when the Hobhouse Committee was formed, calls were made for the South Downs to be designated a national park. The level of public support for national park status for the South Downs is overwhelming and is on a par with the popular calls in the 1950s for the first 10 national parks to be designated. In today's world of competing priorities, it would be hard to replicate such grass-roots support for other countryside initiatives. The South Downs has been a missing piece of the jigsaw of the national parks family ever since the Hobhouse report of 1947 included it in its list of prospective national parks. Research has indicated that there is no popular opinion, either historical or current, that is pushing for national park status for any other area of outstanding natural beauty.

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