Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Whitty: The measure states that local authorities must be fully consulted and that the

16 Oct 2000 : Column 805

transfer of powers must be agreed locally. As regards planning consents, there is obviously a deep misapprehension among the Committee that the intention is to transfer planning powers. We have always said that there is no such intention and that local authorities understand that. Those who advocate the creation of conservation boards understand that. I shall consider whether it is necessary to make that more explicit. However, I believe that we have made clear our intention in relation to planning powers. Indeed, one would have hugely more complicated provisions were one to be in the position of transferring planning powers. The simple ability to transfer any power would not cover the situation.

Lord Greaves: I am prepared to accept what the Minister says as to intention. The worry is that the precise wording of the proposed subsection (3)(a) appears to go far beyond what the Minister says. Will the Minister consider a change of wording, perhaps on Report, to allay those fears?

Lord Whitty: If that wording is not clear enough, I shall consider the matter further. But it is clear that no one has argued for the transfer of planning powers in the sense referred to here.

Funding is of central concern to local authorities. The conservation boards are not able to levy money. I said that the Countryside Agency is working with the AONB association on a fairer funding model for all AONBs. We have increased that budget substantially already via the Countryside Agency. Therefore, there are more resources available here. We hope to announce the increase shortly.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, there is no desire to create two classes of local authority. There will be no discrimination between those AONBs which decide, with the Secretary of State's agreement, to have a conservation board and those which do not. The allocation of such moneys would be via the Countryside Agency on the basis of need.

Although there may be some concern among local authorities, in principle they want these powers. I indicated that the reassurance is already in place to deal with the anxieties of local authorities.

The proposition has been around for some time. I do not accept any of the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. His analogy is interesting. We have had outside pressures to introduce these clauses. Having failed to pass the Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, last year, I can imagine the furore among all interested parties were we to allow again a piece of countryside protection legislation to go through without taking the opportunity to increase the provisions for the AONBs. I believe that we would be subject to considerably greater criticism.

As regards the point at which we have introduced the clause, it reflects a clear commitment made to the Front and Back Benches on all sides of another place

16 Oct 2000 : Column 806

that we would so do in this House. Convention means that we could not introduce the measure before Second Reading. We are, therefore, introducing it at the first possible opportunity.

As regards analogies to the 1974 legislation, I find it most unlikely that the then Conservative opposition had requested the then government to introduce provisions on tied cottages. However, in this case we face a united all-party request for these provisions. We have brought them forward so far as concerns this Chamber at the earliest opportunity. I believe that we have had reasonable scope for debate in Committee. No doubt we shall return to some issues on Report. At the moment, I hope that the noble Lord does not pursue his amendment.

Baroness Hanham: Would the Minister be kind enough to draw to my attention the provision in the amendments that says that planning powers will not be passed to the boards? The amendments say that any of the functions of local authorities can be passed to the boards. They do not exclude planning powers. If planning powers are not to be passed, that should be specified in the Bill. It seems that the powers to enable litter to be picked up, waste prevented and perhaps a road built are the only ones that will be passed. Any visitor centre to be built would require planning permission. Either the planning powers would have to be passed to the board or they would be kept by the local authority and the conservation board would have to make an application to it as the planning authority. That is an important issue. I should be grateful if the Minister would reassure us as to where it will be specified that planning powers will not, should not or shall not be passed to the conservation board.

Lord Jopling: I should like to say a few words about the Minister's response to my earlier remarks. I am sorry to say that his justification for the Government's handling of the legislation in this way tonight was pretty lame. The effects of the amendments on the countryside will be far greater than the example of the closed shop that I quoted earlier. However, I realise that the Government are intent on pushing the provision through within a few weeks of the end of the Session. I have made my point and I shall leave it at that.

I come back to remarks made by two noble Lords. First, my noble friend Lord Selborne made a point about last year's Private Member's Bill of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry agrees that it was on my initiative in Committee that he agreed to include a provision that such boards would be established only if there was general local consent. I remember talking to him about that and speaking about it in Committee. He accepted that point at the time. My recollection is the same as that of my noble friend Lord Selborne.

16 Oct 2000 : Column 807

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that he could see nothing that went further than the provision in Amendment No. 525 (5)(b), with regard to England, and subsection (6)(b), with regard to Wales, that there should be consultation with,

    "every local authority whose area consists of or includes the whole or part of the area of outstanding natural beauty".

I think I heard the Minister say that the Government were prepared to reconsider the issue in the next week or so, before Report stage. I am grateful for that. The most crucial aspect of my noble friend's Bill last year was that there should be broad local consent. That is also crucial for this Bill. We need to add a provision that the Government will proceed only if there is broad agreement. I do not know whether a figure such as two-thirds of the local authorities in the area should be specified, but there needs to be broad agreement that such boards ought to be set up.

I should have preferred to add a paragraph (c) to subsections (5) and (6) stating that consultation should also take place with more specified local people; for example, with regard to the farming industry and to any other organisations which appeared to have a crucial interest in the area. That may not be possible. However, I believe that it is absolutely essential that on Report we have an amendment which states that the order can proceed only provided that broad agreement is reached by the local authorities that the organisations should be set up.

11.30 p.m.

The Earl of Carnarvon: I wonder whether the Minister would consider bringing back on Report in both paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (3) some wording regarding the function of local authorities apart from planning. That would go a long way towards satisfying many people in local government who see a clash of identities between the board and the local authorities involved. That will obviously require some redrafting.

I find the words "so far as relating" difficult to understand without a reference to the function. It is the planning function which worries most people.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: Perhaps I may start by responding to some of the comments made about my Private Member's Bill which I introduced into this House a year ago and which, indeed, would have made rather more progress if it had not been so strongly opposed by some Members of my own party. That is something that is becoming a little familiar tonight.

First, I say to my noble friend Lord Selborne: yes, indeed, my noble friend Lord Jopling is absolutely right. After consultation with him, I included wording to specify that, before a conservation board is established with the agency, there should be consultation not only with the Countryside Agency but with affected local authorities. However, before making an order, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that there is a broad measure of agreement among those consulted that a conservation board

16 Oct 2000 : Column 808

should be established. It is possible that the Minister would like to consider adding wording along those lines before Report stage.

That said, I now want to speak to my own amendment--Amendment No. 536A--concerning finances. I believe that we have moved on to that subject. However, before I do so, I must repeat that I speak not only as chairman of, I believe, the only existing conservation board on which 14 local authorities are represented but also as a member of the executive committee of the AONB Association, which now contains every single AONB in England and Wales--41 if the Wye Valley is considered as one; 42 if it is considered as two, part in Wales and part in England. I know of no one on either of those boards who is deeply worried about the dragons and demons that some of my noble friends have been seeing in the past hour or so.

Of course, it is always possible to envisage that a great deal of power will be transferred by an over-mighty Secretary of State. However, the general feeling among AONBs all around the country and among joint advisory committees on which many local authorities sit is that this broad proposal by the Government is now a necessary step forward. It has been talked about for more than 10 years and it has been discussed in both Houses of Parliament.

I have sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, when he expresses surprise at some of the nightmares. Of course, as will any Minister, the noble Lord will reconsider the drafting in the light of what has been said. However, it is only fair to say that these amendments were published at the end of July. They have been available for the whole of August and September and up until now in October. I believe that they were published on 26th July.

The only worry that I have heard from either of the bodies on which I sit, one of which I chair, is that which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, outlined; that is, the worry about what will be the financing position of those AONBs which do not become conservation boards. Are they to be regarded very much as second-class citizens? If so, how can their position be improved? It is not that they do not want this legislation but they want to know how their position can be improved.

That takes me on to the question of finances, which is by no means the only issue which we are discussing at this stage. However, we have reached the point at which it is in order to discuss it. My noble friend Lord Caithness said he thought I was rather over-optimistic in thinking that there would be more money available. At the moment, the joint advisory committees have no security or certainty of any money at all. They have nothing. If they are funded by anyone, it is by the Countryside Agency in partnership with the constituent local authorities. The Countryside Agency may give them some money or it may not. But, as I said in my earlier speech, the worry that they all have is that, when the pressures are on local authority finances, one of the first things to be cut is the money for conservation, because, sadly, in the scheme of things, it is not the top priority.

16 Oct 2000 : Column 809

Under the financing which the Secretary of State proposes in this Bill, it is quite clear that there will be, as for the national parks, a regular contribution coming from the Secretary of State and the Department for the Environment every year. On that basis, staff can be hired; rangers and conservation officers can be employed.

In the case of my own board, to which one noble Lord referred rather kindly--and I believe it was the noble Earl, Lord Peel--our present position is that as of 1st April next year, which is only five months away, we do not know whether we shall have any money at all. We really do not know because our present arrangements with the local authorities and the Countryside Agency, as a generally successful voluntary conservation board set up by the local authorities and the Countryside Agency by agreement in 1991-92, come to a finality on 31st March, which is six months' time. As chairman, I am deep in negotiations to ensure that there is enough money for us to continue. That is precisely the course which Lord Nathan embarked upon three years ago when he wisely asked me to take over chairmanship of the board.

And so how can we, on the conservation board, with all we are trying to do on the South Downs, in terms of landscape enhancement, for example, in partnership with local farmers, employ good rangers and good officers when they do not know whether they will have a contract of employment with my board on 1st April? That is an essential point about why the AONBs, represented by their JACs or whatever--most of which have a majority of local authority councillors on them--so strongly support the proposals which the Government are now putting forward.

Therefore, I have tabled an amendment which deals with the financing--Amendment No. 536A, which is lifted from my Private Member's Bill--and it represents almost exactly the funding of national parks. Members of the Committee will know that the funding of national parks comes 75 per cent from the Secretary of State for the Environment. He looks at a three-year plan for the national parks; discusses it with national parks officers and the Countryside Agency; the three-year funding is agreed. The balance of 25 per cent is a levy on the local authorities.

The Bill as put forward by the Minister and the Government does not include that levy on the local authorities. A few moments ago, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that there was no intention of placing a levy on the local authorities. I believe that that is wrong, because, as so many of my noble friends have said, the local authorities need to be involved. I do not believe that all the money should come from the centre. If the local authorities are involved at the levy level of 25 per cent, that helps them to keep their finger on the pulse of what is happening. It is true also that he who pays the piper plays the tune and I should not like to see the local authorities totally divorced from the funding for the reason that many Members of the Committee have advanced in the last hours; that is, to

16 Oct 2000 : Column 810

make certain that the local authorities feel, to a large degree, that the conservation board is theirs, that it is part of them, not a foreign, alien structure. To make them pay part of the money is perhaps a funny way to do it, but I am sure that it is right.

Therefore, I hope that the Government, in reconsidering parts of this Bill, will reconsider the possibility of putting the funding of the conservation boards, if and when they are constituted, at the same level as the national parks, so that they receive 75 per cent from the department and 25 per cent as a levy from the local authorities. That works extremely well with the Chichester Harbour Board, in Sussex, which is financed on exactly that basis. The interest of the local authority is maintained and it has made the Chichester Harbour Board a successful authority. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page