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Lord Monk Bretton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I may put a question. Would he

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prefer a conservation board or national park for an AONB? In the South Downs we would prefer a conservation board.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, having listened to the contributions of various noble Lords, it is probable that we have 40 AONBs whose demands are very varied. It may well be that great areas like the Sussex Downs should have purpose-built boards to deal with the problems specific to them rather than have the creation of one almighty body to deal with one area which is not appropriate to others. As a result, draconian powers would be given that were not appropriate to perhaps 39 other such areas.

1.27 p.m.

Viscount Hampden: My Lords, yesterday evening in order to prepare for this debate I climbed to the top of Mount Caburn, which is part of the Sussex Downs behind my house, in order to inspect a wonderful colony of burnt-tip orchids which are very good this year. Having done so, I looked across the Ouse valley and espied the proud escarpment called Mount Harry. Your Lordships will realise that the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, is not only a noble neighbour but, I hope, a noble friend (if I am allowed to address him thus from where I stand).

I must declare an interest in that my family estate is in the AONB in the Sussex South Downs. I strongly reciprocate the words of my noble kinsman Lord Monk Bretton in congratulating the Sussex Conservation Board on all that it has done under the former chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Nathan and the present chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry.

In addition to owning part of the AONB, for the past 20 years I have been the estate manager. Therefore, I have experienced the conflicts of interest and difficulties of managing an estate in an AONB. First, there is the conflict of interest related to transport. I totally understand that transport policy does not come under the auspices of the conservation board either as it exists now or as contemplated under the Bill. But there is a serious conflict between those who live in the AONB and want to enjoy it and those who want to get there. One of the reasons, but not the only one, that we are so against the idea of a national park is that designating the Sussex Downs in that way will bring in far more traffic than the county can possibly cope with.

There is a second conflict. In the village that my estate owns is a chalk pit whose use is almost ended. The local authority responsible for waste disposal keeps its eye on empty holes. There is a conflict between the local authority and everyone else. My personal conflict is that my trustees in London can see a large cheque arriving, and I can see an overripe tomato from a villager being aimed at my face.

The third conflict is between agriculture and those who want to anticipate the right to roam. I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep agriculture happy in the South Downs. I am proud of the fact that it was a steward of a previous Lord Hampden in the

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18th century, John Ellman, who perfected the breed of South Downs sheep which has been responsible over generations for keeping the Sussex sward in the beautiful state it is at present.

If one keeps politics out of the right to roam, there is no problem. I have lived there for 20 years and no person enjoying a walk on the downs has ever caused a problem. There was a mass trespass on my land last summer. A group of 40 people, having failed to breach the ha-ha at the Glyndebourne Festival visited me. I am sorry to say that all they managed to find was a Portaloo left from a wedding the previous evening. They relieved their frustrations in the Portaloo.

There is a possible conflict between the conservationists or the environmentalists seeking to look after the downs, and those wishing to pursue some form of leisure thereon. I mentioned the orchids earlier. They are part of an SSSI looked after by English Nature. There is also a heavy demand for paragliding over the same site. When hang-gliding started, it was a minority sport; and as the equipment was heavy, only strong men could climb the hill and use it. Now, paragliding is very much a developing sport and the conservation board is concerned about how we can control it.

A more terrifying leisure pursuit may be coming our way. I was telephoned a fortnight ago by London Weekend Television asking to do a documentary on a piece of my land which a man had identified as a perfect place to get into a spherical object and bounce down a hill. I gather that that pursuit is quite popular in California. The idea of spherical objects bouncing down hills, knocking sheep out of the way, and crushing the orchids and the cowslips is too horrific to contemplate.

I thought it right to give the House some idea of what it is like to run an estate in an AONB. I welcome the Bill and wish it all success.

1.32 p.m.

Viscount Gage: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for bringing forward this debate which will discuss the technical details he proposes to strengthen the South Downs Conservation Board's powers to protect and manage areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The downs are, and have been, under threat from a combination of over-exploitation for leisure pursuits, urban development and inappropriate farming practices. In my opinion, in recent years these dangers have been kept under a reasonable and viable level by the board. Other noble Lords have spoken in favour of the board. I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Addison that there could be a better way of managing the South Downs.

I declare an interest as our family have both farmed and let out tenancies on areas of the downland in question for 500 years. I should like also to mention the very considerable contribution that my late father, who was a Member of your Lordships' House for 60 years, played in conserving the South Downs between the wars. At that time there were no conservation boards of any description in existence. In 1934, he headed a private debate in this House to prevent Brighton Corporation's proposal for a race track; and, although

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his Motion was not carried, the fact that he initiated the debate alerted the county councils to the threats of development. The councils then made arrangements with the local landowners which resulted, according to the local county archivist, in 80 per cent of local downland being protected.

Noble Lords are aware that the threats to AONBs are as real today as then. They comprise new patterns of agriculture and woodland management, greater development pressure, and changing patterns of recreation. The realisation that no individuals could control that was apparent in the late 1940s when the possibility of national park status was discussed. One of the reasons for its rejection--I believe that it pertains today--was the fact that the downs are economically farmed and not "wilderness". Nevertheless, quite correctly, the AONB status was declared in 1966.

It is academic to discuss how the South Downs Conservation Board came into existence. It is more pertinent to describe the exemplary manner in which it carried out its duties, together with the input of 11 regional authorities. This team has been responsible for pursuing a policy which balances the need for conservation and sensitive agricultural use, and has gained the confidence of farmers and landowners, as well as all the visitors who come to enjoy the beauty of the landscape.

Thirty million visitors walk the South Downs Way, and all benefit from the outwardly invisible, but inwardly effective, control that the South Downs Conservation Board employs. The degree of respect shown by those people to the landscape which is unspoilt but close enough to London and other large towns to be accessible, has been achieved without the imposition of notices or signs in a low-key manner, which enhances the enjoyment of visitor and resident alike. This is very much to the credit of the board.

The details that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, proposes appear to the layman technical and unnecessary. On the contrary, in practice, these are only a logical development of the Countryside Commission's own recommendation in its pamphlet of 1998. The most vital of these issues is the agreement of permanent funding beyond the year 2001 coming direct from funding from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, rather than via the Countryside Commission. Secondly, the provision that disagreements between local authorities and the board would entail automatic referral would meet the objections of those critics of the South Downs Conservation Board who consider that their present powers to prevent development are less than those enjoyed by the status of "national park".

In short, those provisions would allow the continuance of the exemplary work which the South Downs Conservation Board achieves and, without giving the board carte-blanche authority, would enable it to continue its considerable but unobtrusive role in perpetuity for the benefit of all of us who love this particular part of England. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, succeeds.

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1.37 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, I put my name down to speak today because I have an interest in the Bill from my viewpoint as Opposition spokesman for tourism. I have taken the opportunity to speak from the Back Benches as we may do in opposition on a departmental issue that is outwith our own area of direct responsibility. I see few advantages of being in Opposition, but this is at least one of them.

I believe that my noble friend's Bill is defective in at least one respect. I believe that it should take account of the interests of those who live and work in AONBs, the role that they play in the conservation of those areas, and the need for economic activity in those areas. At present it does not seem to do so, as several noble Lords have pointed out today.

In its briefing, the CLA pointed out that,

    "The Bill as drafted focuses on conservation and development control without recognising that successful conservation depends upon profitable economic activity and viable rural communities". Social and economic considerations need to be just as much to the fore in areas of outstanding natural beauty as in other rural areas. Of course I support the importance of recognising the landscape value of these areas and ensuring that it is taken fully into account in planning policy decisions.

I note that the NFU favours a "living landscape" approach whereby sensitively designed farm diversification enterprises can proceed as well as routine agricultural developments. I endorse that viewpoint.

Farmers today are facing the worst crisis in British agriculture for about 60 years. When I was Opposition spokesman for agriculture last year I became keenly aware that tourism is indeed a vital source of income for farmers amid the industry's continuing crisis.

Gina Woodcraft of Farm Tourism 2000 says that letting a bed was once merely "pin money" for the farmer's wife. She says that now it is becoming a major part of farm income. The Government have made it clear that farmers must diversify in order to survive the changes which will be wrought by Agenda 2000.

Farmers already face enough obstacles when they try to diversify. I hope that, in responding to the debate, my noble friend can assure me that this Bill will not add to those obstacles.

The Deloitte & Touche Visitor Attraction Survey 1996-97 revealed that the biggest percentage growth was that registered for farm visits. Farm Tourism 2000 recently produced a survey sponsored by the EU, MAFF and the West Country Tourist Board. It reported that tourists who take B&B breaks on farms say that for them the traditional elements for agriculture are the most important reason for their visit. Farm visitors want proximity to livestock; they want to experience the "real" countryside, complete with the smell of manure and muddy fields and tracks. So the reason why tourists wish to visit farms can itself preserve the farm landscape.

Today, I should like to draw attention to three examples of best practice of farm tourism and to seek an assurance from my noble friend that the passage of

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this Bill would not in any way hinder the development of such businesses in areas of outstanding natural beauty. I am grateful to the Enterprise Agency for West Devon for its assistance. It has given me examples of two best practice farm tourism enterprises in its area.

The first is a 120 acre sheep/beef farm in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme at Jacobstowe. It has nine bedrooms and a camping barn which sleeps 16. It has grown from virtually nothing and is a thriving business. It has an ETB 3 Crowns--the Government are changing it from a tourist board to a tourist council--which is a highly commended award and it is AA listed. It even has its own website in this IT age. Currently it employs two full-time and up to 12 part-time employees throughout the year. The Enterprise Agency states that:

    "Tourism has been the salvation of Higher Cadham Farm".

The second example is a more modest business; that of Little Bidlake Farm at Bridestowe. It is a working dairy/beef farm which is family run. It takes four to five guests. That income is vital to their survival.

Those two businesses perhaps represent what is considered by the public to be the traditional type of farm holiday, a family break. But farm tourism can take many forms and be valuable in social as well as economic terms. Rural Britain is another country if you are an inner-city child who has never seen a cow. Noble Lords may have read of the charitable trust Farms for City Children. It was established by Clare and Michael Morpurgo in 1972. It aims to relieve the poverty of experience of young children from inner-city areas by providing them with a chance to take part actively and purposefully in the working life of a farm and conservation of the countryside.

The trust has three centres and the example I should like to describe is that at Nethercott Farm, Devon. It is a typical commercial Devon mixed farm with a herd of milking cows, a large flock of breeding ewes, pigs, poultry and horses. Its crops include barley, hay and silage. It is farmed by the brothers Graham and David Ward on a farm business tenancy. Already, plans are afoot to change to organic farming. The farms involve teachers and their children in the day-to-day running of the farm, providing a minimum of four hours tuition and activities each day. It is good for the children and it is also good for the farm.

Farms for City Children has a policy of setting its level of charges per child as low as possible in order to ensure that as many children as possible can attend. The other costs are made up by fundraising and occasional donations from local authorities. Farms for City Children has just been awarded a 1999 Education Extra Certificate of Distinction in recognition of the innovation and excellence of its out of school hours learning provision. The children live, eat, work and play together. The emphasis is placed on co-operation, teamwork and building confidence. I am told that they enjoy their week of what they call "muck and magic".

Are those three examples the kind of ventures which would have a place on land affected by the Bill? Other noble Lords will be able to refer to other types of business. I have kept in mind my responsibilities as spokesman for tourism.

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I also have in mind an amendment to the Bill which I believe would improve it. It has been mentioned by other noble Lords today. It was mentioned by the Country Landowners' Association. Unlike other noble Lords, I have no interest to declare. I belong neither to the CLA nor the NFU, and unlike other noble Lords I do not benefit from a wonderful view from my window. I am indeed a townie who benefits from enjoying the countryside in what I hope is a responsible manner.

The CLA briefing suggests that, as a minimum, local authorities and conservation boards in relation to AONBs should be required to have regard to the economic and social well-being of local communities in the areas affected. I hope that my noble friend will be prepared to accept that amendment at the Committee stage.

Growth is not incompatible with environmental issues. As regards the prosperity of rural areas, the key is to provide the environmental needs of most urban people. It is important that we do not become so restrictive in our use of land that planning will not be granted for businesses which are good for farmers, tourists, the local community and society as a whole.

1.46 p.m.

Lord Bridges: My Lords, I am not a vice-president of the Council for National Parks, but I am extremely happy to support the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. In my experience, the protection currently afforded to AONBs by existing legislation has been shown to be insufficient. I know the Sussex Downs pretty well, but my concern is for the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB, which I know much more intimately. Our AONB includes important areas of surviving sandlings, wonderful tidal estuaries, small rivers and bird reserves of international importance at Minsmere and Havergate Island. It also happens to include Snape Maltings, a concert hall with an incomparable acoustic which is host to a wide range of music and musical education. Quiet tourism is increasingly the main economic activity of the area.

All that is under threat from the proposal to create a civil airport with a disconcertingly large potential for growth on the site of a redundant USAF base. I refer to Bentwaters. I have spoken on this subject previously in your Lordships' House and shall refer to it only briefly in relation to this Bill.

The airport started life as a small RAF fighter base at the end of the Second World War. It is remote from any road or railway or centre of population. That was convenient for the original base, and it remains little changed. In 1969, the AONB was formally designated and the airbase was subsequently much expanded by the building of hardened aircraft and ammunition shelters in a NATO programme to provide accommodation for units of the USAF. Hundreds of houses were built on an adjacent site and were still being built when the Americans left at the end of the Gulf War.

After some havering, the MoD decided that there was no further military use for the base. That was more than six years ago. After three attempts, the base was sold to

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a foreign businessman for a sum believed to approach £10 million. I wonder why the amount and terms of such sales of public property are not announced. That has never been disclosed. Apparently, the buyer is mainly interested in turning his investment into a regular income stream and is anxious to promote as much civil aviation on the site as he can persuade the public authorities to accept.

The Countryside Commission, the Government's own agency, with particular interest in the AONBs and responsibility for them, has issued some formal advice. Its considered and consistent view has been that development of a site necessary for national defence should never be the basis for future development planning. Redundant sites should be fully de- commissioned and cleared, unless there is a national need for their continued use in developed form. The commission says that future use should be determined on the objectives of good conservation management and public access. It also states--this is the heart of the matter--that:

    "when military land is declared surplus, it must lose its status of 'national need' and should be treated in accordance with the Government's Policy Planning Guidance 7 and local development plans". In a separate publication, the commission says that:

    "the Government should insist on a return to greenfield status of the disused military base at RAF Bentwaters in the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB". That is from the Government's own responsible agency. We await the report of the recent local planning inquiry, to which those remarks were delivered, and the Government's reaction to it.

As I see it, the difficulty is how the national policy planning guidance is implemented in practice by a district council in a rural area encountering that major policy problem for the first time. The council is subject to local pressures, particularly relating to employment and to the desire for development as such. As people think that a large local airport would, as they explain it, "put Suffolk on the map", there are tendencies to diverge from the national guidance, formulated with a quite different set of local priorities. For their part, the Government genuinely believe in a "plan-led system", which delegates detailed policies to elected local authorities.

Not surprisingly, the result is a mismatch between policy formation at the centre and its local execution. An added complication may be the difficulty which a local council may experience in handling a wealthy foreign entrepreneur with access to firms of professional advisers in this country, skilled at bending, or at least interpreting, the planning rules.

It is clear to me that the system is not working as it should, particularly in relation to Policy Planning Guidance 7. In that case, no proof has been offered--as PPG7 requires--of the existence of a national need for this airport; nor has any serious effort been made to investigate alternative sites, of which there are some. The apparent unwillingness of the department to become engaged seems particularly regrettable and is leading to

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unfortunate consequences. I hope that when the noble Baroness replies she will be able to address that basic difficulty.

I believe I have said enough to indicate why I support the Bill in principle. The AONBs need greater protection and more resources in order to improve their management. Recently, in our AONB, I understand that the committee was obliged to cancel one of its twice-yearly meetings as the necessary funding had not been received from the county council. The Government's intentions may be good, but the means are scanty and the current result falls well short of what is desirable and necessary. I do not necessarily say that this Bill would solve all the problems that I have mentioned, but at least it addresses the difficulty, which I understand.

I had thought of concluding these brief remarks with some friendly advice to the noble Baroness who is to reply. However, on reflection, I realise that that may be the most dangerous form of advice for her to receive. So, in my closing words, I shall speak in the form of a friendly warning. Do the Government realise that if they allow the airport to go ahead they may be guilty of breaching the terms of the Ramsar Convention? Part of the site is designated under the Ramsar Convention. I am reliably informed that the heathland adjacent to the airport is about to be designated as an SPA and, therefore, there is the risk that the Government could end up in the European Court.

I have thought long and hard about the attitude of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions--and not, I hope, unsympathetically. It seems to me that it can be summed up in the phrase "watch and pray", or perhaps just "pray". I do not for a moment wish to minimise the power of prayer, but I believe that rather more is required on this occasion. I hope that it will be possible for the Government to approach this Bill in a positive way and to strengthen it, if they feel that that is necessary, in order to meet some of the deficiencies that I have pointed out.

1.54 p.m.

Earl Peel: My Lords, I too want to thank my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry for introducing this Bill and at least giving us the opportunity of discussing AONBs and their future.

I must declare an interest in that at the moment I live in a rented house on an AONB and I am attempting to build a house on an AONB. I can assure noble Lords that I have encountered the full rigours of the local planning powers. They do a very persuasive job. We have had our disagreements, but I am delighted to say that we have finally come to a satisfactory conclusion.

I wholly support the principle of improving the conservation status of AONBs. Indeed, I wholly approve of the principle of supporting the wider countryside. It undoubtedly has suffered over the years, largely due to unsympathetic support in various subsidy forms. None the less, we have much to do to redress some of the difficulties of the past.

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Whereas I entirely share my noble friend's enthusiasm to protect and enhance AONBs, I am far from convinced that the methods suggested in the Bill are the right way forward. My noble friend Lord Marlesford was right when he said that it is a question of determining how best those objectives can be carried forward. I entirely agree with him. However, I differ from my noble friend in the fact that I believe that the local authorities should at the very least be given the opportunity of seeing whether they are capable of carrying out any further duties imposed upon them as far as AONBs are concerned. It would be quite wrong to impose a new board without giving the status quo a chance to see whether it can work effectively. I believe that it can.

Clauses 1 and 2 impose a duty upon local authorities to have regard to the need to conserve and advance the natural beauty of AONBs. I have no problems with that, but it is easy to say that by having a further designation, a further committee or a further board, somehow we shall resolve the problems of land management and nature conservation. In reality, it does not work like that.

As I have said, having seen at first hand the stringent control exercised by local planning authorities, I seriously question whether they need any extra encouragement or support. At the end of the day, I would have thought that the Government's guidance through PPG7, if drafted correctly, should be able to direct local authorities to deal with those problems.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, made reference to PPG7. He asked whether any of your Lordships had a copy next to your bed. No, I do not have a copy next to my bed, but I have one in another appropriate room in my house.

With regard to the remainder of the Bill, I cannot support my noble friend. The prospect of yet another tier of bureaucracy being imposed on the countryside fills me with dread. Like my noble friend Lord Jopling, I live in the north of England, I have lived in a national park and I have experienced all the difficulties to which my noble friend referred. Such matters are not as easy as many noble Lords believe. The problems that local people have to incur when dealing with the various tiers of bureaucracy at times are most frustrating and difficult. Furthermore, they impose additional costs, burdens on the taxpayer, more red tape and, for those living and working in the countryside, even further delays in decision-making.

There is little doubt that in rural Britain at the moment we are at a watershed. Although farming is always likely to be a major economic force in most rural areas, it is unlikely to have the dominant role that it had in the past. There is plenty of evidence of that today. Landholders of all descriptions will have to diversify more and more and sensible and imaginative use will have to be made of redundant buildings.

Planning policies will be vital in ensuring that new enterprises develop and the rural economy is stimulated. That needs to be embraced enthusiastically and sympathetically and with real expertise. I acknowledge that in many cases in local areas that expertise is perhaps

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not as rounded as it should be. That needs to be addressed, but it does not require a whole new tier of bureaucracy in order to do that.

Yesterday I read a report in The Times that the Government are to encourage the development of run-down barns and farm outbuildings for light industrial use. That is a major change in policy and I welcome it. I am sure other noble Lords will agree that it is a sad sight to see redundant barns collapsing in the countryside without being put to any constructive use. I congratulate the Government on taking that positive step.

The difficulty is that there are already far too many delays and petty details getting in the way of progress. I cannot accept that yet another body on a further 13 per cent of land in England and Wales could possibly help. It can only hinder. In fact, if the Bill were to go on to the statute book there would be yet another body because I see that there will be an advisory council to advise the conservation board. Where will it stop?

My noble friend Lord Kimball gave us an illustration of all the various designations there are in the countryside. But on top of all those designations, in addition to local councils, we have the new regional development councils, the Ministry of Agriculture, the DETR, the Environmental Agency, English Nature, the Countryside Agency, English Heritage: all of those bodies have to have their say; they must all be consulted. As a result the process of getting anything done is cumbersome.

No one believes more than I do in the well-being of rural Britain. I despair at times at the demise of some of our most precious habitats and their associated species. But the dead hand of bureaucracy is in no way a remedy to overcome these problems. Of course there must be controls. Of course there must be site designations. But along with controls there should be incentives, and a lot more of them. English Nature, for example, has done some excellent work through positive management schemes with farmers and landowners, and the Countryside Stewardship scheme, although suffering a few problems at the moment, has great potential. And, of course, environmentally sensitive areas, which were introduced by my noble friend Lord Jopling when he was Minister for Agriculture, have been a huge success. This is the way we should be trying to develop the improvement of the countryside--not by imposing boards and councils but positive environmental schemes administered by those many bodies that already exist.

Far too much of our rural resources are going into administration. If we could take those resources and streamline them, the system would improve and we would have practical conservation schemes which would be implemented on the ground. That is the way to make progress and to start redressing the balance in the countryside in favour of environmental objectives, maintaining landscapes and promoting jobs.

I support the principle of improving the status of AONBs but I believe that we already have the mechanisms in place to do that. I should add that, if this Bill were to go further, it would have to include an equal status for the economic and social well-being of local

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communities, as identified already by a number of noble Lords. We managed to get it into the National Parks Bill in 1995. If it is good enough for the national parks, it is good enough for AONBs.

In conclusion, I cannot support my noble friend to the extent that I should have liked. But I hope he will accept my criticisms in good faith coming from someone who wishes only the best for the countryside. My noble friend once said that farmers are becoming disenfranchised by red tape. That is an apt way of describing the situation in which we find ourselves; I do not wish to see it get any worse.

2.5 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I welcome the spirit of this Bill. There is no doubt that areas of outstanding natural beauty need further protection. I do not wish to trespass into the "To be or not to be" question, as I now regard it, in relation to the South Downs. There does not seem to be a consensus even locally over whether it should be considered for national park status, so far be it from me as an outsider to comment on that.

However, above my village I can see three different AONBs--the Quantocks, the Mendips and the Black Down Hills. They are all extremely different from each other and are all, no doubt as are all AONBs mentioned today, equally worthy of protection. But the solutions for each one are very different. Where the Bill succeeds is in the spirit of further protection. As many noble Lords mentioned today, funding will be a key issue as to whether or not those areas can expect in practical terms to be able to implement the action that will lead to that protection. I should therefore like to highlight those areas of the Bill which, if it did proceed further, need considerably more thought.

In terms of funding, it is not enough to leave it to local authorities to decide whether or not they want to contribute to the funding of their AONB. The Minister's reply on 8th December in col. 809 was not very reassuring. I asked whether funding would be put on a more secure basis and he said that only an extra £2.5 million would be available this year through the Countryside Agency. That is very welcome, but it does nothing in terms of future security. Local development plans need to be put in place for funding to be secured. Management plans for all AONBs are absolutely essential and consultation on those plans must be very wide among those living and working in the AONBs in particular.

However, if the public are to be expected to come together in those areas and to work through a management plan which will be meaningful and implemented over a long time-scale, definite funding must be available. People will then be prepared to put in the time and effort to decide what they want to happen in an area because they will be able to see it come about.

The consultation needs to include those living and working in the area. However, nobody today has mentioned whether or not we have consulted all the various local authorities which have AONBs within

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their districts or counties on how they see this working. I think that two-way consultation is essential. By and large, many local authorities have done a good job for the AONBs. The boards have been mentioned, but there are other models of how the AONBs can be managed. Some areas have joint consultative committees; some have joint authority committees. There are elected representatives from the various authorities on those committees or boards. In addition, other people are co-opted who contribute substantially.

If this Bill progresses further, another change that I should like to see in the way in which a Secretary of State appoints people to the boards or committees. I do not believe it is appropriate that people are sometimes appointed who live 50 or 200 miles away from the place in question. I recognise that they are representing the national interest, but at the same time there must be a sufficient pool of people who could represent that interest living probably within the area or certainly locally enough to be a regular visitor to it and to converse with people from it on a day-to-day basis and not just when they make occasional visits to serve on the board. That change could be made for the national parks also.

The next improvement that I should like to see has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. I refer to the area of social and economic well-being. That clearly has to be a part of any plan or improvement to the way in which AONBs are looked after.

I turn now to the issue of development control or "planning" as it is commonly known. I do not believe that that can be delegated to a conservation board because it cannot be divorced from other local authority issues. If the AONB board is to have a say over planning issues, it will be considering those solely on their merits without looking at all the other relevant issues. By the time we have tied in all those other issues, such as housing and tourism, we shall have another whole set of mini-local authorities.

There are far more robust models for conservation boards which work with local authorities. We have such models in my own county, for example, where development control is, in effect, delegated to the planning officer in consultation with the parish council. The matter comes back to a committee of the local authority only where there is disagreement. That not only streamlines the process, but means that the parish or town council (in this case) or, in the case of the AONB, the conservation board, has far more influence over the outcome of the planning decision. That is absolutely right. I do not believe that merely giving them the status of a statutory consultee (by enhancing their powers) will create the sort of dialogue which will move this issue forward in the best way.

While we are in the area of development control with relation to AONBs in particular, I found it a pity, when I glanced down the written list from the Audit Commission of suggested indicators that should be applied to planning decisions under the new best-value regime, that I did not see the words "sustainability" or "environment" in any of those 10 indicators. As the Minister will know, the discussion as to whether or not

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there should be sustainability indicator in best value is something that concerns me very much at the moment. This is a good example of where it should be introduced. When the Audit Commission draws up a list of indicators that are important in planning terms, I believe that it should include that extremely important one.

Therefore, there are a number of major issues to be addressed should the Bill progress any further. Noble Lords have mentioned a number of matters which I shall not repeat except that I wish to refer to the phrase,

    "land in or adjacent to". We cannot have something which is not quite in or out. That needs to be made clear, especially in relation to planning issues. If there is to be a higher standard, it is only fair that applicants, who are perhaps thinking of starting a business or buying a house there, should know whether it is in or out of such an area. I do not believe that we can have,

    "land in or adjacent to", even though I understand the noble Lord's reasons for including that phrase.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred to tourism. Rather than simply being seen in terms of protection, this measure must be permissive in terms of enabling things to happen. However, I certainly share the nervousness of the noble Viscount, Lord Hampden, about spherical balls. I was reminded of that series on television called "The Prisoner". Some of your Lordships may remember that spherical balls bounced around to keep the "Prisoner" in.

However, I welcome the spirit of the Bill. I hope that there is a Committee stage because there are many matters which we could usefully discuss then. I hope that the Government will find time for that. to be done.

2.14 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry on introducing the Bill. Noble Lords may recognise that it is not my normal brief to speak on these matters. Sadly, my noble friend Lady Byford is not able to be with us today and I stepped into the breach only late last night. It is an extremely interesting debate. I may not be alone but I am, perhaps, fairly unusual in not having an interest to declare in that I am not a resident of the Sussex Downs; nor do I live in any other AONB; nor am I a member of the CLA, the NFU, the Ramblers' Association or practically anything else which has been mentioned.

Nevertheless, the debate certainly seems to have caused some controversy this afternoon. I must agree with my noble friend Lord Jopling that it is perhaps rather too controversial for a Private Member's Bill. Therefore, I wonder, to myself only, how much further progress it will be able to make. I am aware, as will be my noble friend, of the pitfalls that can befall a Private Member's Bill in another place if it does not receive complete support from all quarters.

On these Benches, we all agree that it is important to identify and care for our AONBs. Where I suspect some differ is as regards the approach taken in caring for

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them. A number of noble Lords have emphasised that the protective legislation needs to be strengthened. This Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry seeks to make new provisions in relation to AONBs. It is driven by my noble friend's knowledge, care and concern for the Sussex Downs which, until now, have been overseen by their conservation board whose role is to come to an end in 18 months' time.

I understand my noble friend's desire to protect such an area, but I suspect that this Bill raises implications for other existing areas of outstanding natural beauty which have been dealt with by other noble Lords.

As I said, the board of the Sussex Downs AONB has done a good job. It feels that the best possible use should be made of its legacy, and this Bill is its attempt to enforce the lessons learnt upon everyone else. Unfortunately for the board, it is one of those situations in which no one answer is right.

The implication that the other 30 AONBs in England and Wales are somehow failing to reach the highest standards does not agree with the reports and other material which I have received. It may even be that the imposition of a new organisation will, in some areas, so disrupt established effective ways of working that their performance would be impaired. Certainly the protection afforded to AONBs is overdue for review and it is likely that greater control of both the motor car and the heavy goods vehicle will be welcomed in much of our most beautiful countryside. Moreover, planning guidelines may well need to be strengthened to recognise the need for greater flexibility in providing jobs in our more rural areas, a subject which has been debated on several occasions recently by your Lordships.

However, the Bill does not mention those practical matters. Instead, it concerns itself entirely with creating a further layer of bureaucracy and proposes that even more unelected, unaccountable officials be appointed without parliamentary scrutiny by a Secretary of State who already has vast powers. Moreover, it fails to specify the conditions under which a conservation board will be established for an AONB, although there is a hint, in Section 88B(1) and (2), that not all of them will be so embarrassed.

I am further concerned that the Bill seems to cut across the Countryside Commission's programme of land management initiatives. There are a clutch of experiments using alternative mechanisms and approaches for long-term management of the countryside. They will run for between three to five years and it is intended that some of the results will shape government policy. Most importantly, it is expected that the successful land management initiatives will result from local people and land users working together to bring about the necessary changes and benefits. A typical LMI is divided into six sectors, each of which has two or three basic objectives. The latter vary from project to project, but the six divisions are: agriculture and the environment, farm diversification and business development, skills and training, inward investment, social needs and, lastly, family farms and new entrants.

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Access, conservation, planning and sustainability will all be covered more than adequately in all six. At the very least we should await the outcome of these trials before putting yet more legislation onto the statute book.

I endorse the general drift of Clause 1. Several noble Lords have emphasised that the protective legislation needs to be strengthened. Clause 3 proposes that conservation boards should have powers to levy local councils. The basic idea is anathema to me, but I am also concerned that the Bill makes no reference to how these sums will be determined. Will they be calculated under a national formula, or merely collected according to the system used by erstwhile de facto rulers of large areas of rural England? Clause 3(5) states:

    "A conservation board shall have the powers of ownership and acquisition of land".

Clause 4 introduces the management of one area having the right to determine what happens outside that area. Not even the European Commission has tried that one on yet. Several noble Lords have, indeed, dealt more than adequately with the substance of this part of the Bill. However, I repeat my concern that all these provisos will inevitably cost planning applicants a great deal of money and effort. That may well be fair enough where an application is rejected, but people already live and work in these areas, and development is an essential part of conservation. Not all applications would be turned down, but I should hate to see an exodus caused by excessive costs and bureaucracy.

The Bill seeks to preserve and protect areas of outstanding natural beauty. However, I fear that it does not fully consider those who farm and work the countryside. Areas of outstanding natural beauty do not just happen, they are the result of work and care by numerous farmers, whether land managers or tenant farmers. This week, again, the dire plight of farm incomes has hit the headlines. Surely whatever the Government propose to do about our areas of outstanding natural beauty, they must recognise that our farming community is going through a dreadful crisis. Additional restrictions, bureaucracy or requirements must be kept to a minimum if our farmers are to survive in world competition.

It is crucial that those who earn their living from the countryside should not be so restricted that they are financially unable to continue to farm our land. It is they who have created, kept and looked after our areas of outstanding natural beauty. I therefore look forward to hearing what the Government intend to do, and I hope that whatever direction they take, they will appreciate that rural areas must be allowed to grow and thrive.

2.22 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, and, like him, I should like to express my sympathy for the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is unable to be with us today. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, has been much involved in the current debate on the future of the South Downs. In his capacity as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board he

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is well qualified to speak on these matters. Along with the noble Lords, Lord Monk Bretton and Lord Dholakia, I pay tribute to his commitment to this cause.

The Bill's proposals clearly reflect a keen interest in the proper management not only of the Downs but of all areas of outstanding natural beauty. As has been confirmed today, there is a great range of expertise among noble Lords on many aspects of managing these beautiful areas.

I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to the debate. I was about to say that I was going to repeat the lack of interests of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, but was worried that the "s" might get left off. I, too, have no personal interests to declare but I share the interests of all in this country in the success of the work done within the areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The Government are firmly committed to protecting and enhancing our countryside. In response to my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris, I should say that there are 37 areas of outstanding natural beauty in England and four in Wales. I am advised that that includes the predominance of the Wye Valley being counted as in England because that is the larger part. No doubt there will be correspondence with the CLA to find the missing parts.

The same legislation, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, created both AONBs and national parks. We recognise the 50th anniversary of the Act as an important milestone. Many celebrations are taking place this year.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred to the fact that both national parks and AONBs have a high level of planning protection--the same or similar in almost every respect. But I can assure him and the noble Earl, Lord Peel, that we are looking carefully to see whether any clarification is required. We note the experience they have had. It is useful to remember that the legislation recognises no distinction in the landscape quality between the two national landscape designations of national parks and AONBs. Both are regarded as equally beautiful. The difference lies in the requirement for national parks to provide significant recreational opportunities. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said, they have been traditionally designated in our more remote upland areas.

The purpose of designating AONBs is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the landscape. They also play a big part in meeting the growing demand for visits to the countryside.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, referred to the issue of economic and social well-being within AONBs. Of course the interests of the local communities living or working in these areas are vitally important. As the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said, the contributions of farmers and other landowners towards maintaining the landscape are of particular importance. There are special considerations in AONBs because of the recognition that their landscapes are of

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sufficient importance to have particular value to the nation as a whole. As the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, said, we need to maintain a balance. The Government's policy towards the countryside recognises the need for living and working communities. I agree with the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, that we should not foster a chocolate box approach.

My noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris quoted from Keats. With regard to the countryside, it must live, evolve and change. It cannot be similar to Ode on a Grecian Urn, which reads:

    "Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave, Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare". We have to maintain the balance. While we recognise that the countryside is alive, it is not in a fixed, fossilised state. As the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, rightly emphasised, we have to do this in the context of proper protection. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, made an important contribution about the importance of economic activities, encompassing in particular tourism and farms and the need to give families access to this facility. I join her in paying tribute to Farms For City Children.

The Government intend to do more to provide a positive approach to the management and protection of AONBs into the next century. We have already started. As a first step, we have provided the Countryside Agency with an additional £2.5 million for work in AONBs and other similar landscapes this year. This more than doubles the former Countryside Commission funds available to them and will allow a considerable degree of progress in putting in place new management plans and new programmes and in helping to attract additional expert staff. Of course we will consider carefully the views put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, that a great deal has been achieved already through the enthusiasm and commitment of local people, by local authorities and by other local partners working together. I understand that 24 of the 37 AONBs in England currently have a management plan in place, and a great many have an AONB officer or a joint advisory committee set up by their local authorities.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred to the fact that AONBs are very different in size, nature and circumstance. As the noble Lord, Lord Nathan--and I add my tribute to the work that he did--and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said, there cannot be just one way of managing them or caring for them.

The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, contributed from the perspective of someone with a particular interest in aspects of such areas. Some of these lie solely within the area of one local authority which may be best placed to co-ordinate a management programme. Others stretch over long distances, such as the Sussex Downs, with considerable numbers of local authorities involved.

The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, referred to Suffolk. He referred to it very eloquently: I could close my eyes and picture the beauty of the Suffolk countryside. I know he

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understands that I am unable to comment on this planning application because at the moment it is sub judice.

I pay tribute to the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. It was a unique experiment set up in 1992 by the Countryside Commission and the local authorities concerned to show what could be done under one model to manage and protect an AONB. It has achieved a great deal, as the noble Lord, Lord Monk Bretton, said.

Unlike the national parks, there is no provision for a comprehensive set of powers and duties for AONBs, for dedicated statutory bodies to look after them or for an extensive system of central funding. The former Countryside Commission, now the Countryside Agency, recognised this last summer in presenting its advice to government.

Advice on the protected landscapes included proposals for the future management and funding of AONBs and consideration of possible national park status for the South Downs and the New Forest. In Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales has recently submitted advice on AONBs which is broadly similar to that provided by the Countryside Agency, except that it does not envisage statutory conservation boards.

The key recommendations advanced by the agency are similar in most ways to the proposals in the noble Lord's Bill. The agency's advice sought new primary legislation to strengthen the administration and management of AONBs, including a recommendation that local authorities should be required to pursue AONB objectives and to produce management plans and for all relevant authorities to have regard to the purposes of AONBs.

The Government, in considering this, have paid high regard to the advice that they have received, including the agency advice, seeking core management costs to be met by 50 per cent government grant, although Ministers have received a number of representations that central funding should be at 75 per cent, like the national parks. We will consider these points.

We have a great deal of sympathy with the overall objectives of the Bill. We share the same goal in wanting to achieve the best for the future. There are complex proposals involving significant implications for local government, the planning system, development control and financially. All these questions need to be considered properly. Ministers have been studying the advice that we have received on the options for change. I understand the impatience of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, but there are implications which need to be carefully balanced. We want to make the right decision.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, I can say that the proposed management plans require further consideration, as does the interplay as regards the system of statutory development plans. I believe that all speakers made clear that they support the Government's objective for simple and transparent procedures. We wish to ensure that planning guidance, as well as planning legislation, is clear and that the protection of AONBs is paramount within the system.

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On funding of the AONBs, to which many noble Lords referred, the Government are looking carefully at whether additional central funding is warranted in addition to the extra £2.5 million. We are considering further the views of the Local Government Association on the proposals within the noble Lord's Bill which would have implications for the RSG. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, I should point out that it is extremely important to note that the Government would not in any way want to accept any proposal which would take away the right of the Secretary of State to make the final decision as to whether a particular planning case should be called in.

On the question of the particular status of the South Downs, I think that noble Lords will see from today's debate that the Government are being offered a wide range of advice containing very strongly held views which are not always compatible. Indeed, as regards the conflicts that can arise, I have in mind the words of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, with his reference to what happened with the Eden Valley proposal. That is a very important consideration. I give way to the noble Lord.

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