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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, we like the idea that parish councils should be consulted, as specified in Amendment No. 230B. However, I believe that the amendment should say "and parish councils", instead of specifying "or parish councils" as an alternative. Perhaps the noble Lord would consider including parish councils in Amendment No. 231; and, indeed, in some of the other amendments that we shall be addressing at a later stage. In some of the more sparsely populated areas, I am sure that parish councils will be particularly relevant.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I acknowledge that these amendments are intended to require wider consultation when AONBs are being designated. As I tried to explain in Committee, the Government's proposals in this area follow the legislation relating to national parks in providing for formal consultation to take place only with the local authorities. The point here is that, in practice, the designating bodies carry out much wider consultation than is provided for in the statutory requirements. We would expect that to happen here.

In practice, if further AONBs are designated--which, of course, is far from certain--parish councils and anyone else with an interest will be able to contribute their views, which will be taken fully into account. There would almost certainly be a public inquiry to allow all views to be heard. However, I am against adding to the list of formal consultees because it would complicate the process and mean that certain others, who almost certainly would be consulted, might be omitted. We would then have the usual problems in that respect.

I recognise that the noble Lord modified his approach from the rather wider definition that was previously sought. But the current amendment proposing that,

should be consulted is flawed in that it does not cover seeking the views of individuals whose views might not be represented by these "representative bodies". This demonstrates again that it is better to have wide non-statutory consultation rather than attempt to lay down precisely who should be consulted. I hope that the noble Lord will agree with that approach.

Government Amendment No. 252 is included, not entirely logically, in the group we are discussing. This is merely a tidying amendment to the interpretation

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provisions in Clause 85. It provides that the definition of "natural beauty" provided in Clause 85 applies only in relation to Part IV of the Bill. This is because, where the expression "natural beauty" appears in other parts of the Bill, separate but consistent descriptions of the meaning are already provided there. I shall move that amendment when we reach it.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for her support in principle even if we are not absolutely certain whether we have the wording right. When one is in opposition one rarely has the wording right. However, when one is in government one has the staff to put the wording right. Usually between us we manage to get somewhere.

I heard what the Minister said in response to the amendment. I cannot say that I am particularly happy with it. However, I shall consider with care what he said. I doubt whether this is an issue of sufficient significance that we shall need to return to it on Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 230A to 231 not moved.]

Clause 78 [Functions of certain bodies in relation to areas of outstanding natural beauty]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 232:

    Page 53, line 4, leave out ("planning").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 232 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 233. We consider that the word "planning" should be deleted from subsection (4) of Clause 78. The provision in that subsection should apply to the whole of a local authority. I had assumed that that would be the case.

In Committee I said that the notices we were then discussing should be held by a local planning authority and was told firmly that that was not the responsibility of a planning authority. I query the reference to a local planning authority at this point in the Bill.

Amendment No. 233 seeks to substitute the words "a duty" for the word "power" in subsection (4) of Clause 78. We believe that "a duty" would be more appropriate. I support government Amendment No. 234 in this group. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, without seeking to curtail any debate it might help the House if I now say a few words about Amendment No. 234.

When the House considered in Committee Amendment No. 453 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, I indicated that we had sympathy with that amendment and would consider bringing forward an equivalent provision on Report. Amendment No. 234 is the resulting amendment. It will require public bodies when carrying out their functions so as to affect an AONB to have regard to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the AONB. As discussed in Committee and reflected in Clause 76, that purpose is the reason for

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designating AONBs. It can only be right that in carrying out their functions in or so as to affect AONBs public bodies should have regard to the purpose for which AONBs have been designated.

This clause is modelled on an equivalent provision introduced by the Environment Act 1995 which already places a similar duty on public bodies in relation to national parks and their purposes. It is appropriate that while the Government want to emphasise the importance of our AONBs and the fact that their landscapes are of equivalent quality to the national parks, we should adopt this duty which reinforces exactly that point.

I point out for purposes of clarification that the requirement to have regard to the need to conserve and enhance natural beauty in AONBs will of course constitute only one of the various statutory responsibilities placed on relevant authorities and will not override all the various other duties which public bodies and statutory undertakers operate under.

I shall respond to the amendments to the amendment and to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, at the end of the debate but I thought it helpful to state this first.

12.15 a.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the Minister for following up the promise he made to me in Committee. Amendment No. 234 provides that the public authorities concerned,

    "shall have regard to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the area of outstanding natural beauty".

Having moved to areas of outstanding natural beauty, perhaps it is appropriate for me again to declare an interest to the House as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, which is entirely within an area of outstanding natural beauty, and as a member of the executive committee of the Association of AONBs.

I am pleased that the Minister has brought forward this clause. It reflects existing legislation regarding national parks. It will help to ensure that areas of natural beauty enjoy the weight and recognition appropriate to their national importance. I cite those words from the briefing from the Council for the Protection of Rural England on the amendment. I do not always agree with the CPRE but on this occasion I strongly agree with it. With this clause in the Bill it will be easier for AONB authorities to enter into a constructive dialogue with a wide range of national bodies and statutory undertakers. I anticipate that the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, for example, will say that the words "have regard" should be substituted by the word "duty". In a sense I, too, prefer that. But I accept that the traditional wording in relation to national parks has been used. I am sure that it will reinforce the status of AONBs in a way that is thoroughly desirable. I welcome the amendment.

Lord Bridges: My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I address my amendment, Amendment No. 234ZA. The noble Lord, Lord Judd,

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has put his name to the amendment. He asks me to say that he strongly supports it and greatly regrets that he is unable to be here to speak in its favour.

I fully share what I believe to be the Government's intention to make this clause more effective and clear as regards protection of AONBs. I believe that it is not as effective as it should be and in its present form is seriously defective. As the Minister recalled, the Government announced at an earlier stage--I think during the passage of the Bill through another place--their intention to move an amendment in this House to improve the environmental protection of AONBs so as to give them a status similar to that of national parks. In its present form the amendment will not achieve its purpose for the following reasons.

As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, reminded us, subsection (1) of the Government's new clause is based on the legislation already in place in the Environment Act 1995 regarding national parks, with the words "national parks" removed and the word "AONB" inserted. This will not produce the required result since the national parks are their own planning authority. I refer to the recent Windermere case. All the statute need do in that regard is to recall to the national park authority the priority given on the statute to their environmental protection.

But that is not the case with the AONBs. It is the local planning authority which decides planning issues in the AONBs and the words in the Government's new clause do not bind the local planning authority. The latter is simply told to "have regard" to the purpose of the AONBs. As I shall explain in a moment, it may not regard that as a matter of priority.

Next there is a conflict between the side note in the Government's text, General duty of public bodies, and the wording of the clause itself. I take it that it was the Government's intention to create a public duty but those key words are omitted from the clause. I am advised by the Officers of the House that a side note has no legal effect. It is merely a guide to the reader of the statute. The amendment would transfer the words from the side note into the text of the new clause, rendering it more effective and apposite.

I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on 2nd November to inform him of my intention to table the amendment. He kindly replied in a letter dated 14th November, which was forwarded to me by fax and received here this afternoon. He writes that he cannot accept my formulation because,

    "the general duty to conserve and enhance",

AONBs belongs to many government bodies and cannot be addressed to local planning authorities alone. I used the phrase "general duty" because it appears in the side note to the Minister's amendment. If he can suggest another form of words that improves on "have regard to" but goes less far than a "general duty", I shall gladly consider it. The words "have regard to" on their own are inadequate.

The Government's new clause appears, to me at least, to be in conflict with their policy planning guidance on AONBs, which rules out any major commercial development unless it meets two tests:

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national need and the absence of any alternative site. If the Government's new clause becomes law in its present form, it will be seen by some, myself included, as weakening the current position, as defined in the policy planning guidance. That would lead to confusion and would be very undesirable.

Some noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, who has just spoken and whose opinion I greatly respect, feel that the amendment goes too far. I accept that planning authorities come in various sizes, political hues and attitudes. Many of them may be zealous in defence of their AONBs, but not all of them are. I shall illustrate that with a current important example that has guided my approach to the issue.

At the boundary of the Suffolk coast and heaths AONB and inside its south-western frontier is an archaeological site of national importance at Sutton Hoo. A substantial local farmer who works the fields nearby wants to build a new washing, cleaning and packaging plant for his vegetable crops, at whose cultivation he is highly proficient. He bought a small redundant military site nearby, previously used by the Royal Air Force for a ground approach radar, and made a planning application for a large new structure on it close to Sutton Hoo. The planning officers supported him. Indeed, they had suggested the site to him in the first place and commented favourably on it when it came before the planning committee. The elected councillors rejected the proposal, having been duly warned of its policy implications by the local inhabitants. Their decision is now being appealed by the applicant, whose formal grounds for appeal clearly show the support that he was given by officials in the local planning authority.

I do not expect the Minister to comment on the case and it would be improper of me to suggest that he might, but it is a serious current example of how the new clause might be interpreted by some local planning authorities, which might claim that, as well as having regard to the purposes of AONBs, they also had regard to their own priorities, including the misery of the local agricultural population and the need to provide further opportunities for an effective farmer. That is why the Government's test is dangerously weak and why I prefer my version. The Council for the Protection of Rural England, to which I have spoken recently and of whose Suffolk branch my wife and I are active members, believes my amendment to be an improvement.

It would have been better if the new clause had been before us in Committee, but it was not available then. I do not pretend that my version is the last word on the subject. No doubt expert draftsmen could produce a more refined text. If the Minister is prepared to consider my points, I shall be content to withdraw the amendment.

However, there is a significant issue here and I intend to pursue it further. I emphasise that in this context the phrase "have regard to" is too permissive. We want a form of words which calls on the local planning authority to give proper priority to the needs

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of the AONB, which this text does not do. This is a very important clause. I hope that the Government will be able to reflect again on what I have said.

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