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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, on the last occasion the Minister stated that for certain reasons the Government are reluctant to incorporate this clause into the Bill. Members of this House will be pleased that the AONBs have finally received the recognition they deserve but concerned that a two-tier system between those which have conservation boards and those which have JACBs will not be developed. Both here and in the other place Members will remain concerned about the funding for AONBs and

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responses to management plans. We on these Benches will follow the way in which the Government respond to issues concerning AONBs of both sorts and, in particular, those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. I thank the noble Lord for raising those issues.

At both earlier stages of the Bill I raised the issue of MAFF and its approach to the hill farmers' compensatory allowance. MAFF steadfastly refused to consider that one of the criteria for enhanced payments should be increased access to farms in upland areas. At that time the suggestion did not receive much support from around the House. It would have been a good mechanism for ensuring that the difficulties which hill farmers face would be met by enhanced payments under the criteria already available, if they could have been extended. MAFF has some way to go to understand the wider concerns that affect AONBs and national parks and the way that those concerns can be met, and it needs to think a little more laterally. I believe that is what the noble Lord asks--that we may discover the reasoning behind its thinking.

It would not be right to press the amendment at this stage. If the noble Lord chooses not to do so, we shall follow progress on this issue by means of Questions from these Benches.

The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend in his amendment. I hope that he will persuade the Minister that, after having batted this back several times, it is now time to think seriously.

I was able to attend an exhibition on AONBs in the Palace of Westminster, which I believe is still there. Display panels demonstrate how government, in their different manifestations--whether the Ministry of Agriculture or the Forestry Commission--are able to respond, and would propose in future to respond, to the management plans produced within AONBs. The great virtue of my noble friend's amendment is that it places upon the Government a commitment to explain how they will respond. At the moment there is a feeling that the Government do not always respond as readily as one might wish.

The exhibition to which I referred displayed how the Ministry and the Forestry Commission can tailor their response to the AONBs with agri-environmental or other measures. It is no good saying that there are blanket proposals which apply to all AONBs. It is precisely that which must be avoided. We must have specific responses from the department responsible. I believe that the amendment would do just that.

Having heard my noble friend revert to this issue for the third time, I hope that the Minister will recognise that there is much virtue in encouraging the Government to be proactive in their response.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I too support this amendment. I was particularly interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said about it. I fail to understand why she did not press the point further.

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She said all the right things, as did my noble friend. I also have taken part in various committees at the edge of government and sent in reports. Having put in a great deal of work and then submitted a report, there is nothing more frustrating than not receiving a response which is objective and in the right timescale.

Clause 90 states quite clearly that a conservation board or relevant local authority,

    "shall send to the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales a copy of every plan".

What is the point of that if it is not going to be read? One assumes that if there is to be no response then it will not be read. That is a waste of people's time, energy and money. It is an excellent amendment. The fact that plans are to be sent to the relevant Secretary of State is right. It is bound to help the process in every way for the conservation boards and local authorities to receive a response from government. It would be very good discipline and a regulated communication. I am sure that it can only do good in the long run for the progress of conservation boards and AONBs.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will find me wise and understanding, but I regret that I am not entirely receptive to the way he has chosen, through this amendment, to address the relationship between the AONBs and the Government. I understand a number of his anxieties slightly better tonight than previously. This amendment wrongly states the relationship between government and AONBs.

I can certainly repeat the guarantees that I have given before in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and others as regards funding and not discriminating between the different types of management of AONBs. As regards the management plans, AONBs and national park management plans are essentially locally-owned documents. They are a product of all the local partners in that area. They need to include the local arms of government. That is the prime relationship with government, working with the Countryside Agency, the FRCA or MAFF. That ongoing co-operation is the important part of the relationship between the AONBs and government.

The noble Lord specifically mentioned MAFF. It will be heavily involved also in the help that it is giving through the England rural development programme and the equivalent arrangements in Wales.

The alternative way to relating to government--no doubt the noble Lord will regard it as a complementary method--would be to have a formal process of submitting a plan to the Secretary of State in a formal response rather on the basis of regional strategic plans and so forth. That suggestion implies that the ongoing co-operation at local level stops at the point where the plan is agreed. The Secretary of State is then written to and a reply awaited, which is either a formal ritual or it may be detailed.

Management plans for AONBs and national parks would contain far too much local detail for the Secretary of State, the Minister for Agriculture, to be the appropriate source for detailed comments. In

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practice, the Secretary of State will ask his local agents who are already engaged in, and are party to, the preparation and implementation of the plan. To divert them to provide the national response is a waste of time and effort.

Clearly, it is important that the centre has copies of the plan and can monitor the progress in each of the AONBs and intervene should something go wrong or if there is something which should be particularly encouraged or commented on. The idea of a formal response seems to me to cut across the co-operative response at local level.

I am not sure that I can find an equivalent circumstance in which the Secretary of State is required to comment on local plans in a formal sense. The noble Lord referred to the development process. It is even optional in the development plan system for the Secretary of State to comment. It is usual for the Secretary of State to respond because he may consider that there is a need to do so in individual cases. But it is actually optional, even at that level.

The community strategies, for example, which are in other local plans and are introduced under the local government Acts 2000 are perhaps more analogous. Under that legislation there is no provision for the Secretary of State to comment because they are locally-owned documents like management plans. The Secretary of State or the Minister will, of course, be able to make specific comments if he feels it appropriate to do so. But we would not wish to write that process into legislation as a requirement.

I was perhaps a bit slow last time and must choose my words carefully now. But the scales slightly fell from my eyes when the noble Lord, and to some extent the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, focused on the contribution of MAFF. I am sure my colleagues in MAFF are doing their best to ensure a positive and constructive engagement with that department. If the problem involves the relationship with a specific government department, I can undertake to take that back and try to ensure that such difficulties as those described by the noble Lord are addressed by Ministers and officials within MAFF. I am sure that MAFF will be prepared to address that issue sympathetically and on a partnership basis.

The issue of the relationship with MAFF is not directly related to the kind of process that is to be set down in the Bill. Various forums are raising those matters more formally with MAFF; for example, the National Rural Development Forum takes place next week. However, I undertake to the noble Lord that I shall raise it with the department myself. A positive and constructive engagement with MAFF and other government agencies is an important part of making these plans work and following them through. I would prefer that to be developed than to have the sort of ritual iteration that would be required by the amendment. However, I hope that what I have said meets the noble Lord's objectives.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be positive and

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constructive about this matter. I used those words "positive and constructive engagement" when I was a Minister. I hope that they sometimes forged results.

Noble Lords will be pleased to hear that I do not propose to go over the arguments again. The main problem, as the Minister said, is that this is a local product. No one locally has the funds and resources to deliver it. It goes back almost always to MAFF nationally. MAFF refers it to its regions; the regions say, "We do not have the resources. This is a problem for MAFF nationally".

However, I shall take up the Minister's suggestion. I should like to write to him and go into rather more detail on these genuine problems which exist in the present system and which we do not want to see continuing in relation to areas of outstanding natural beauty or future conservation boards. If in later years I find that the management plans are not being dealt with, I shall certainly aim to table a Question in that regard in your Lordships' House. That said, I thank my noble friend Lord Glentoran, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and my noble friend Lord Selborne for their support. Given the late hour, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 95 [Local access forums: supplementary]:

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