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Baroness Mallalieu: I declare an interest in that I live in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns. I warmly welcome the Government's proposal to include this provision in the Bill. In an ideal world it would, of course, have been far better if the matter had been considered in another place first and if we had had time to go through the measure clause by clause without the pressures with which we are undoubtedly now faced.

To those Members of the Committee who say, "Let us look at the measure and bring it back at some later stage", one can say only that we have waited a long time for such a measure. Given the legislative

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programme, to bring the measure back at a later stage would mean some years of delay. We cannot spare that time. In the area in which I live there is perhaps the greatest developmental pressure that there has ever been because of its proximity to London. There is increasing traffic and neglect of many woodlands. The rivers are much reduced in flow. There has been inadequate investment for many years in the rights of way network.

The decline in farm incomes means that there is a real loss of rural character. In perhaps five or so years, places such as the area in which I live, and which many visit and enjoy, could deteriorate into some form of suburb. In my area, the proposed provisions are greatly welcomed by people involved with the AONB. They feel that at present they possess Cinderella status. They hope that the provisions will greatly strengthen the position.

These measures have my total support. However, I ask the Minister to bear in mind two factors when he considers the later amendments. We are developing a conservation industry. It seems often to consist of people who are not necessarily connected with the area in which they operate. They may neither live nor work there. Sometimes their qualifications are questionable. But more and more we appoint boards of such people to take decisions which affect the lives of people who live and work in these places.

First, I have no doubt that the proposed conservation boards will be extremely beneficial. But I am troubled that the Government have the balance wrong. To take powers away from elected representatives, the local people, and give them to government appointees in the proportions proposed here worries me. That is my first concern.

Secondly, it is desperately important that we use these new powers not simply to be protectionist and to keep those areas looking pretty but to keep the local people there and working. That may mean adopting different approaches to planning applications. It may mean that in some circumstances we have to give greater weight to the needs of local people than perhaps those who wish areas to look pretty would choose.

Those are my two reservations. However, I hope that the amendments become part of the Bill. It is important that they are on the statute book as soon as possible.

The Earl of Selborne: I follow the noble Baroness in her reservations. I support in principle the concept that AONBs clearly complement the national park structure. It is important that we take this opportunity for legislation and support the Government's intention in that respect. However, we must recognise the essential difference between national parks and AONBs. I agree with my noble friend Lord Marlesford that they have equal status in law but they are not the same. National parks have to have an element of wilderness or public recreation of a nature which AONBs cannot provide because they tend to be more managed or settled countryside. For that reason,

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particular care must be taken to ensure that local elected representatives have the ability to influence the policies implemented to enhance or maintain the AONB.

I agree with the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that some of the measures--I refer in particular to the dilution of local representatives--could dilute local democratic accountability. I cannot agree with the concern of my noble friend Lord Marlesford--normally I follow him to the end--about local council propensity for building developments along the coast. We are in no position to say that we must replace local government by a more enlightened system. It seems a highly improbable concept. We must have confidence in local government. We can only guarantee that the socio-economic provisions in the AONB are effective and relevant if we enhance the ability of local authorities to contribute to those AONBs.

There is no incompatibility. The joint committees are the creations of local authorities. The government amendments refer frequently to the need to consult local authorities. I hope that as we debate these amendments we are given some degree of comfort that where local authorities are less than enthusiastic about some of the measures the Government will give careful weight to those views.

Lord Hardy of Wath: I declare an interest, as the president of the Peak District, South Yorkshire and Sheffield branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The CPRE is very supportive of the amendments. However, I agree that democratic accountability is always important, particularly in more populous areas than the national parks. I hope that the Minister will take careful note of that point.

Lord Rotherwick: I meant to ask the Minister earlier why these large and important amendments have had to be inserted at this stage. Why could they not have been put in at the beginning?

Lord Whitty: The Committee has taken advantage of our flexible procedure. It is understandable that we should have something like a Second Reading debate on a group of substantial amendments, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, and others have said, have been introduced relatively late. I do not object to that, although I should like to get the procedure back on the rails and start talking about the amendments.

However, I resent the suggestion that we should not have tabled the amendments. That is difficult to take. There is enormous support across the country for amendments along these lines. There was consensus in another place that we should introduce such amendments. Ministers in another place were pressed to introduce them by the Opposition Front Benches, as well as by our own colleagues. There is widespread support among local authorities, contrary to what some noble Lords have said. The Local Government Association supports them, as do members of all parties. No doubt there are some reservations, as there are legitimate reservations in the Committee, but in

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general local authorities support the provisions. We have engaged in widespread consultation since 1998. It is a distortion to claim that the provisions would allow a domino effect, with areas slipping from nothing to being designated areas of outstanding natural beauty and then national parks virtually overnight without local authorities being able to intervene.

The amendments have been talked about for a considerable time. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, presented a Bill very similar to the amendments not long ago. I cannot resist saying that it might have got further were there not some disputes within his party on the issue. Nevertheless, there was considerable support for the Bill and there is considerable support for the changes proposed in the amendments.

We are not proposing an automatic transfer to AONB status or from AONBs to conservation boards. That will be only one way of administering AONBs and will not be universal. The provision will be subject to the situation within particular areas of outstanding natural beauty. Conservation boards will be appropriate for some areas, particularly where a large number of local authorities are involved, but they will not be universal. Some flexibility has been built in.

Conservation boards will also not transfer an AONB into a national park. They are not to be given planning powers. They are intended to be relatively light-touch bodies. They will be introduced in areas where there is strong local support. I refute suggestions that we are excluding local people, local government and local representation from the bodies. The boards are not intended to create a two-tier structure. The Countryside Agency is working with the Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to try to sort out the structure and funding. We certainly do not intend them to perform a number of the functions that have been suggested.

Earl Peel: I am sure that the noble Lord is right that there is no intention to do that, but does he agree that under the amendments the Secretary of State could impose conservation boards on AONB authorities and could, subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament, override any opposition that they expressed in consultation?

10.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty: Yes; the Secretary of State has that power, but not in the group of amendments that we are supposed to be debating now. However, that is subject to widespread consultation, which a number of the amendments stand to enhance. Conservation boards are likely to be appropriate only in some areas. They would not be imposed in most areas unless there was clear support for them. Therefore, the idea that the Secretary of State is trampling roughshod over all areas of outstanding natural beauty in the country and is opposing new structures without consultation is completely erroneous.

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So far as concerns this particular group of amendments, I am truly amazed that we have had such a widespread debate. However, as I said at the beginning, this group--I start with Amendment No. 522 and refer also to the amendments to which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, has moved amendments--consists simply of consolidating efforts. Nothing in the amendments which are before us, and have been before us for the past hour and a quarter, change the situation significantly. They consolidate and clarify.

Among the matters which they clarify--I address the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith--are the provisions which refer to enhancing natural beauty. I say to the noble Lord, to the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, and to other noble Lords who have referred to not having "enhancing" in the wording that "enhancing" has been an aspect--albeit indirectly but clearly there--of AONBs since the 1949 Act when we started on this road. This group of amendments simply consolidates and clarifies that position and, in essence, puts those provisions into this Bill.

The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, would delete the word "enhancing", and that would take us back beyond 1949. I would not normally accuse the noble Lord, whom I know to be a forward-looking person, of taking us back before 1949 and before the basis on which our AONB mechanisms have run ever since. Therefore, I hope that he will not press that particular group of amendments.

A number of other amendments to amendments which I have already moved are to follow. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, or whoever is to speak from the Front Bench, is intending to take them severally. If that should be the case, we shall spend quite a lot of time on what essentially is a consolidating group of amendments. Some of the more fundamental issues which have been raised with regard to the creation of conservation boards and the powers of those boards arise in the next group of amendments. There are also several amendments in that group.

I believe that the difficulty with this group is that we have had our cake and eaten it, or, rather, are about to eat it, in the sense that we have had a Second Reading debate but will now deal with each of the individual groups of amendments separately. If that is the will of the Committee, no doubt we shall have to succumb to it and deal with the amendments as they arise. However, I would ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendments that he has already moved.

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