HL Deb 07 October 1986 vol 480 cc125-8

3.4 p.m.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government following the Huntings Report on changes to the landscape what action they are taking to conserve the landscape and countryside.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, the Government believe that landscape protection is best achieved by voluntary means and will continue to support the negotiation of management agreements between owners and occupiers of land, the Nature Conservancy Council and local planning authorities. To that end we have identified six areas in England and Wales for designation as environmentally sensitive areas under the Agriculture Act 1986, where farmers will be compensated for continuing traditional methods so as to maintain the natural beauty of their farms. We have also announced our intention to introduce a Bill to set up a new authority with comprehensive powers for the management of the land and water space of the Broads.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply and at the same time taking this opportunity of congratulating him on his recent appointment, may I ask him, in regard to the environmentally sensitive areas, whether he could indicate the time scale of progress which is being made in regard to these very important zones?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments of my noble friend. I am sure that he will not be in the House later this evening but by that stage many of your Lordships, in an enforced capacity, will probably have heard too much of my voice. To answer his supplementary question, consultations are in progress upon the matter of the environmentally sensitive areas. Two have already been announced in the last week in Scotland, at Breadalbane and Loch Lomond; five in England, namely, the Broads, the Somerset Levels and moors, the Pennine Dales, West Penwith and the eastern end of the South Downs. There is also one in Wales, in the Cambrian Mountains. The procedure is that, once the consultation period is complete, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will ratify his decision.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord on his appointment. May I ask him whether, if we are to have a new body dealing with the countryside, he will consider letting us know how many existing bodies are already dealing with this matter, so that we may judge whether we really need yet another?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am greateful to the noble Lord for his introductory comments. We are not talking about a new body, we are talking about a new sort of area. The existing bodies, the Countryside Commissions, the Councils for National Parks, the local planning authorities and, in special cases, the Nature Conservancy Council, will be the bodies concerned.

Lord Renton

My Lords, could my noble friend give your Lordships an undertaking that the green belt policy has not been weakened, and will not be weakened, under this Government? Could he also address his mind to a problem that was mentioned, I think in an article in the Daily Telegraph last week, to the effect that local planning authorities who had refused applications by builders for development had in some cases been disappointed and frustrated by the builders' appeals being granted where perhaps they should not have been?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I believe that this Government have a very good record on green belts. We shall be going into the question rather more fully when I answer the Starred Question of my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux on Friday. The Government are firmly committed to the protection of the green belts but, at the same time, we need to achieve that delicate balance between conservation and growth. Since we came to power, we have more than doubled the area of approved green belts and maintained the presumption against inappropriate development in them as provided for in the original Green Belt Circular No. 42 of 1955.

As far as are concerned changes to original plans submitted by developers, to which I think my noble friend was referring, if he has any particular cases in mind I shall be glad to look into them.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, may I add my congratulations to the noble Lord? Perhaps he will understand if I do not wish him complete success, but I wish him well. Does the Minister not agree that it is a little disappointing if the Government are going to concentrate simply upon the ESAs and ignore the rest of the country? Is he satisfied that the information upon which the Huntings Report is based (which goes up to 1980) was correct information, in view of some of the remarks made about the lack of quality of aerial photographs, etc? Also can he say whether the trends shown, whether or not they were correct, have been reversed in any way by a policy from the Forestry Commission during the last five years? The information for this report goes up to 1980, I understand.

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely correct. The report of course covers very much more than forestry, and, in fact, very much more than agriculture. It is a land-use report for the whole country generally and, as she says, goes up to 1980. There have been questions about the quality of the background information on which the report was based, and of course these are being investigated.

My noble friend in his original Question asked what action, following the Huntings Report, we were taking to conserve the landscape. One of the problems identified in that report was the loss of hedgerows, as the noble Baroness will know very well. But the grant-giving by the Ministry of Agriculture stopped on 1st December 1983, and it is this which has been blamed in many quarters for the removal of hedgerows. I would say that the situation has been reversed since that time because of course grants are being given for conservation purposes by MAFF. Therefore I do not see this as a problem, but in fact we shall need another report, in view of that fact that we are now looking at one report in isolation and bearing in mind that it relates to only a two-year period. We need another report in the fairly near future to be able to make comparisons.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the principle of the green belt is not necessarily weakened by ironing out many of the quirks that have been seen to exist with the boundaries as they now stand? It may well strengthen the principle if the obvious quirks, as I call them, are dealt with rather than if we look upon every appeal that is granted as being a retreat, when in point of fact it is really doing what is sensible in the changed circumstances of the time.

Lord Skelmersdale

I agree, my Lords; and this is why it is so difficult to understand the position taken by those people who regard the green belt as being, in their words, totally sacrosanct. Of course there must be nibbling on occasions, but the legislation provides that replacement land must be given in exchange.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the supplementary questions have addressed themselves so far, if I have heard aright, entirely to designated areas? Would the Government bear in mind, despite the importance of designated areas, (which I am among the first to recognise) the importance of consequentially not allowing the undesignated rural environment to be downgraded?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, the noble Lord makes a very valid point, and everything I have said about designated areas—incidentally, I have not mentioned sites of special scientific interest, but they would be included—is of course equally valid for the rest of the country.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that with the decline in the labour force in agriculture and the need to take land out of agriculture, there will have to be a change in the attitude of local planning authorities towards people who want to live and work in the countryside? Are the Government doing anything about this in order that we can maintain the population of the countryside, which is really the most important attribute that it has?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, great discussions are currently going on within Government on this matter. Every now and then little snippets about them get into the media. For example, the noble Lord will know there is a suggestion that there should be forestry on much of the surplus land. The noble Lord has his view on that, obviously, but, as I say, there is still much discussion going on, and I should not like to say exactly what will come out of it; undoubtedly something will, for the very simple reason that it will have to—otherwise we shall get derelict countryside areas.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, if it was considered so desirable that we should stop the clock in the milleniums with history at this particular moment when we have so many hedgerows which we so much love and want to maintain, can my noble friend say why there is no pressure to plant hedgerows on all the Downs?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am on record as saying that I do not believe in living in a country which has a "glass-case countryside" policy. I think perhaps that covers my noble friend's supplementary.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, can the noble Lord see ESAs being a success on a voluntary basis? It only requires two or three farmers in the middle of an area to stultify or nullify the whole thing.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, all I can say to that is that the Broads scheme has been an outstanding success.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that while there is much criticism of the Government's handling of green belt policy, the fact is that they deserve great credit, not least for the recovery of green upon colliery tips up and down the country in the Midlands, Yorkshire and Scotland? Nobody ever gives the Government any credit for that.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend; he is absolutely right.