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Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, in what he seeks to do. I certainly consider that the addition of the section on AONBs is every bit as important for the purpose of this legislation as the whole of the access section. I believe that it represents a major improvement to a Bill which, in general, I have always supported.
The AONBs owe much to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, who gave this matter a dry run a year or so ago. I believe that government Amendment No. 234 is good so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. I understand that the wording suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, is not quite acceptable to the Government. Amendment No. 234 states:
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I have been asked by my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy to speak briefly to Amendment No. 234ZB, if that is in order. Briefly, he says that Amendment No. 234 requires statutory undertakers, when exercising any functions in relation to land in an AONB, to have regard to conserving and enhancing its natural beauty.
Particular concern has been expressed by holders of electricity licences under the Electricity Act 1989 over the use of the word "enhance". It implies a positive obligation on licence holders to improve the appearance of an area. In many cases, that is likely to result in claims that the licence holders should remove electric lines or plants which are in AONBs or place such lines and equipment underground. My noble friend goes on at some length to detail his views. However, I believe that the Minister has an understanding of them.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for explaining the amendments to my Amendment No. 234. I start with Amendment No. 234ZA. Our amendment requires relevant authorities, in exercising or performing their functions, to have regard to the need to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of AONBs. The side note, as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, recognises, is not part of the Bill. However, it is intended to mean "a duty to have regard to". That is exactly what it means. It does not place a particular management demand on those
It would be unacceptable to do what Amendment No. 234ZA seeks to do by turning the duty to have regard into a general duty on relevant authorities to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of AONBs. While all Ministers of the Crown, public bodies and statutory undertakers should "have regard to" the reasons for which AONBs have been designated, they cannot all be made responsible for their active management, which is what Amendment No. 234ZA appears to propose. Those bodies all have their own existing statutory responsibilities, and they have a wide variety of degrees of influence or control over AONBs. Of course, they should have regard to the need to conserve and enhance natural beauty, but it would not be justified to give them a general duty to do so. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, will not pursue the matter.
Amendment No. 234ZB draws attention to the legitimate concerns of statutory undertakers. We believe that we have got it right in requiring the relevant authorities, which include statutory undertakers, to have regard to conserving and enhancing natural beauty. But our amendment does not go further and require them to take particular action to do so. I have heard the concerns which come from electricity companies and they are quite legitimate. The companies are subject to various duties, including the efficient co-ordination and economic supply of power.
Government Amendment No. 234 will have the same application to electricity companies acting as statutory undertakers as it will to all the other bodies to which it will apply. That is to say, in exercising or performing their functions the bodies must have regard to the question of conserving and enhancing natural beauty.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that for many years now Eastern Electricity has had a programme to put wires, not of the highest voltage, underground in designated areas including national parks, conservation areas and AONBs? The sad thing is that other electricity companies have been much less enlightened and have not yet followed suit. So rather than pandering to them, would not the Minister prefer to encourage those companies to follow the example of Eastern Electricity?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I would encourage any statutory undertaker to follow that example. I was very much in favour of a proposal for the Millennium Commission to spend all its money in putting cables underground. That would have made an irreversible change in favour of the natural beauty of this country. However, I am told that that would cost £100 billion, despite the substantial sums
Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said, our amendment does not mean--I say this to console the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in his absence--that electricity companies will be required to place their lines underground in AONBs.
I believe I heard a general welcome for Amendment No. 234, but I believe that we have got the balance right. As regards Amendments Nos. 232 and 233, I am a little surprised to see them because they would place a duty on local authorities to take such action as appears to be expedient for the accomplishment of the purpose of conserving and enhancing natural beauty. In Committee I explained that what is now Clause 78(4) is merely a re-enactment of the provision which we have had for more than 50 years in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. In Committee the Opposition Front Bench wanted to remove that power altogether. Now they want to turn it from a power to a duty. That is a 180 degree U-turn.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I believe that during the early stages we were concerned that there would not be enough funding for some of the things that the Government hoped to do. As the Committee stage continued it became clear that that would be so. Therefore, it is better that there is someone who looks and listens. We just wish to make sure that the boards have enough strength. That is why we tabled these two amendments. I believe that the noble Lord is pulling my leg slightly.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am, of course. I entirely accept and appreciate what the noble Baroness said. What is clear is that we are moving closer together. Let us compromise on the Government's attitude, which is a consolidation position. It applies what has applied to national parks for over 50 years.
Lord Bridges: My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words before we conclude this business in reply to what the Minister said about my amendment. I believe that he has misunderstood what I was trying to do. I noticed that he used a phrase which I saw in the letter to me from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, accusing me of saying that I was seeking to make all the public authorities responsible for active management. That is simply not the case. I am looking for a way in which we can have an effective partnership between central government and the local authorities, which the present text of the Bill does not provide. Therefore, I hope we shall hear more about this at the next stage of the Bill.