HC Deb 10 March 1969 vol 779 cc1127-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I welcome this opportunity to raise a matter of considerable interest both to us in Britain and also to Western Europe as a whole. There is growing concern about the future of the countryside under all the pressures both of industry and of town expansion—road development, water reservoirs, modern agricultural methods and, indeed, our own presure as individuals and in our cars for week-end leisure and all the rest.

Realising this, two important conferences were held in this country, the last one in 1965, on the position of the countryside in 1970. It was an attempt to bring together people representing widely differing interests. We had the industrialist, the conservationist, the farmer, the walker and many others besides. That conference, like the first one, was presided over by the Duke of Edinburgh and an enormous amount of detailed preparatory work was done for it. Many reports of considerable value were prepared and presented and we owe a great debt to Max Nicolson and Mr. Boot, of the Conservancy, and to others of the Royal Society of Arts, and, indeed, to the National Parks Commission, for all the work they did in preparing that major conference. I had a part in looking after one section of one report on the question of the impact of leisure on the countryside.

There was no doubt that that conference gave a great impetus in speeding up the proposals for our own legislation, because the Countryside Act was modelled to some extent on recommendations made at that conference. Many administrative changes flowed from it and there was an immense mass of voluntary activity all over the country.

It was always intended that there would be an assessment conference in 1970 to work out what had happened in the intervening years and what action was still needed. Preparations are well ahead for that assessment conference, which will take place in this country in, I hope, the Guildhall, towards the end of next year. A great deal of preparatory work is going ahead for that conference, as it took place for the earlier conferences. I am glad to say that I have some part to play in some of the preparatory work for that, too. A great number of local exhibitions of nature weeks and Press, radio and television coverage have already been organised. Schools, colleges and universities are playing their part. The National Trust, which, together with Shell, recently announced its special Nature Trail scheme, which is to coincide with it, and women's institutes and other bodies are playing a big part.

Above all, we are stressing the ways in which we can get the widest possible participation of people in all these positive activities of all sorts, helping to clear up the countryside and to do practical jobs to demonstrate our concern for the countryside and our belief that we as individuals can do a great deal about it. Therefore, our object in all this is to get the maximum understanding and education about the problem plus the positive work that is going on.

In Europe and, indeed, over the whole world there is concern about exactly the same problem. The same factors operate in Western Europe, as I well know, as in this country. The Council of Europe has for many years had a standing committee on the conservation of nature and natural resources. Two years ago, that committee agreed to make next year European Conservation Year. This same committee was concerned with a water charter just a year ago, and this country played some considerable part in it.

It established a European Nature Information Centre which publishes some valuable documents and technical advice. I have a couple of copies with me. It makes an award of a European diploma for nature conservation, and I am glad to say that our own Peak District won that award just a year ago. A great deal is going on at the European level. That special committee is helping in organising European Conservation Year, and I am glad to say that Mr. Boot, of the Nature Conservancy in this country, is Chairman, and I have the good fortune to serve on that committee in Europe, too.

This European Conservation Year is to start with a major conference at Strasbourg in February next year. We expect to have there representatives from all Council of Europe member countries, and, indeed, from the rest of Europe as well, and there is every expectation that, as well, international organisations, Governmental international bodies such as the United Nations, and so on, as well as local authorities, and many international voluntary bodies, will also be represented.

The hope is that from that conference will emerge a declaration or manifesto both to warn people and Governments of the immediate dangers which the countryside faces, and also to outline some of the immediate steps and lines of action which can be taken to protect the countryside. The work of the conference is divided under four heads: the impact of urban conglomeration; the impact of industry; the impact of agriculture and forestry; and the impact of leisure activities of all kinds.

Already a great deal is being done, in this country and also throughout Western Europe, particularly Scandinavia where, I am glad to say, a great deal is being organised. They are planning, amongst other attractive activities, beacons along the whole coast of Scandinavia. Some may wonder whether they will add to pollution, which is another problem we need to face, but they are regarded as a symbol. Italy, Turkey, Switzerland are among other countries which are taking a particularly vigorous and active part, especially through schools and universities, in dealing with conservation in a very thorough manner.

I ask my hon. Friend whether he is satisfied that on the Governmental side we are really supporting this venture actively enough. After all, in Europe, we in this country are recognised as leaders in this field; this country has probably done most in Europe in trying to achieve this balance between the opportunities for new use of the countryside, and understanding of the countryside and its proper protection. It is understood that both through our legislation and through the great work of our voluntary bodies we in Britain have done more than any other country. Here is a very good opportunity for us to join with our colleagues in Europe to discuss together how best we can work on a European basis.

I should like to know what precisely the Ministry is doing to try to make sure that the necessary preliminary reports from Government Departments are being prepared in reasonable time. I believe that we should have had them through by now, but I think they are still to come, though I hope and believe that they are getting well forward.

Apart from that, what kind of financial provisions have been made to meet the modest demands we mean to make—that is to say, the demands or requests for support of publicity work in particular? What provisions have been made for this in the budgets of the Government Departments which are concerned—my hon. Friend's own Ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture, and, probably, the Ministry of Education and Science?

The Countryside Commission is playing a big part in the organisation of this work, and its Secretary is on the relevant European Committee, which I hope will be granted the modest extra finance required for this publicity work. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government should make clear to local authorities that they will play their full part in encouraging local schemes involving voluntary work, which is what we are after. I hope too that the Ministry are encouraging the issue of a stamp for this year. Many European countries are doing this, and I hope it will be accepted that it is desirable.

I hope that we shall soon decide whom we are recommending for the Board of Patrons. Norway and Sweden have notified that their Prime Ministers are acting as patrons. The proposals should have come through by January.

I hope that the Ministry of Education will send out a circular to schools, encouraging them to include this subject as a natural part of their curricula, and drawing their attention to the material which has already been prepared for their use. There are many ways in which the Ministry of Agriculture can help. The National Agricultural Land Scheme and the Agricultural Land Service will be able to co-operate if they receive the support of the Ministry of Agriculture.

There are many wider interests involved in conservation. It is not merely a European matter, but a world matter. The Inter-Parliamentary Union is also concerned, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) will have a chance to say a few words on this.

These problems are regarded as vital in Europe as a whole. We occasionally moan in this House about the activity or lack of activity of young people and the growth of cynicism. This is an issue which awakens the interest of young people, young scientists, youth hostellers, campers, canoeists, skiers and people who merely want to go out for some fresh air from time to time. There are people for whom the country is their life and their work, people for whom the wild places are still a great challenge and who demand that those wild places shall be preserved.

I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will make it clear that Her Majesty's Government welcome this important effort in this country and in Europe. Although we have not been able to extract the finance out of the Government for the exhibition we hoped to organise, nevertheless, I hope that they will do as they have done previously and at least make a contribution towards the running of the conference.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) on raising a matter of real importance. There are people who are preoccupied with looking back and others who must always look forward. But far too few people ever bother to look around them at the preventable harm which is done to our human environment.

One example is the preventable pollution of the air we breathe. The recognised effects of air pollution include damage to buildings, the aggravation of bronchial and other diseases and injury to vegetation, including agricultural crops. In economic terms it was estimated in 1954 that it cost Britain £250 million per annum. The Government now make a financial contribution to the cost of converting private and local authority-owned dwellings to smokeless methods of heating and cooking. Already such strides have been made in the London area that the winter smogs of a few years ago have largely been eliminated. Since October, 1965, annual tests on the roadworthiness of heavy goods vehicles have included a check of conditions causing or likely to cause the emission of excessive exhaust smoke. I welcome all these steps in a matter which I consider extremely important for the health of the people of this country.

My principal purpose in the debate is, however, to declare an interest in the matter on behalf of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Last November I had the honour to represent our British Group at an I.P.U. meeting in Bonn on the conservation of nature. That meeting considered every aspect of the conservation of nature and reached some very important conclusions. My fellow Parliamentarians from many countries were … convinced that the effective conservation and rational use of natural resources, soil, water, air, fauna, flora and minerals, and the protection of the human environment is vital to the survival of mankind. We noted the continuing growth of world population, the rising expectations of people everywhere, and their expanding demands on natural resources. We were also deeply concerned … that some of these resources are being exploited at a rate which cannot be maintained and that the quality of the human environment, especially of air and water, is being impaired by preventable pollution …". Moreover, it was agreed to express the hope that the industrialised countries, on the basis of their experience, would share their present scientific and practical knowledge in this field with the developing countries, would attempt to improve their knowledge and techniques, and would co-operate in joint endeavours to develop, restore and enrich natural resources. The meeting agreed to recommend to the forthcoming spring meeting of the I.P.U., to be held in Vienna, that all Parliaments should work towards the establishment of an international convention for the conservation of natural resources essential for man's well-being.

I am, of course, very conscious of the excellent work done by our country in helping developing countries in this important matter and I am sure that my hon. Friend will refer to this when he replies to the debate.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union has no wish to duplicate the work of other international organisations. I am sure my hon. Friends will agree that members of legislatures all over the world have a very special role in this field. Many organisations exist to influence legislatures and, as Members of the oldest legislature in the world, we must take the fullest possible part in the I.P.U.'s discussions.

The question of conserving the animal and mineral resources of the sea and sea bed is receiving increasing attention and is closely linked with those relating to national jurisdiction and international exploration and exploitation. But conservation is the most important question, for it will matter little that nations should argue over the ownership and exploitation of the wealth of the sea and the ocean floor if, at the end of the day, there is nothing left worth arguing about.

The main threat at present lies in the dumping of radioactive and toxic waste, which cannot be easily or safely disposed of ashore. In Britain the dumping of radioactive waste is fortunately subject to strict control, including approval of the precise site where dumping may take place. The dumping of toxic wastes is more extensive, and is subject to an informal agreement procedure operated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. This, problem also merits the closest attention of every legislator.

There are many other matters to which I should like to refer, but I am conscious that my hon. Friend wishes to make as full a reply as possible. I hope that he will note the interest of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in the conservation of nature and the human environment and will take a close interest in our future discussions on the matter.

10.50 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)

It is often a conventional cliché at this hour of the night to say that one is grateful to an hon. Member for raising a particular subject when in fact we all want to get home to bed. But I thank my hon. Friend very sincerely for raising this important subject, because we are approaching a year—1970—which may have important consequences for the future of the countryside in Europe by the decisions that are taken. Indeed, we may almost be saying whether there will be a future countryside as we have noted and loved it in the past. I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend, as I am sure will be the whole House and all those who are charged with the task of making the European Conservation Year. 1970, a success.

My hon. Friend has played a notable part—he was very modest in his reference to this—not only in the Council of Europe, but as chairman of a very important commission, as a member of the committee which is organising the event in Europe, and as a member of the body which is organising the European Conservation Year in this country. He speaks, therefore, with three interests and very considerable knowledge.

I think that we can take a little pride that the European Conservation Year idea, in part at any rate, stems from a report to the Council of Europe's Committee for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources on the success of the first National Nature Week and "Countryside in 1970" conference which was held here in 1963. This conference came about because of the deep fears—I do not think that that is too strong a word to use—expressed by many about the enormous pressures on our countryside and what was likely to happen if much greater attention and suitable action was not undertaken.

This was followed by a second conference in 1965 when various study groups reported. As my hon. Friend said, there is not much doubt that the 1965 conference gave a tremendous impetus to our own Countryside Act. It made it much easier. It drew attention to the perils and helped the legislation.

A third "Countryside in 1970" conference will be held in London in 1970 under the presidency of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, which will automatically become one of the major events of that important year.

The aim of the Year, as my hon. Friend has suggested, is to attempt to get united action, where possible, among the 18 nations of the Council of Europe on the exchange of information and to take steps which will make it possible for us to have a future countryside of which we can be proud.

My hon. Friend asked me three questions with which I will deal straight away so that they are on record.

I begin my preamble to them by saying that our record in this matter is very good in recent years. The Registration of Commons Act, the Countryside Act, parts of the Town and Country Planning Act and the Civic Amenities Act show our great concern and perhaps a degree of leadership.

It is very much part of my hon. Friend's query to know whether the arrangements in hand are making satisfactory progress. Although nature conservancy is a matter for the Department of Education and Science, I am replying to the debate because the Ministry of Housing and Local Government has been charged with the responsibility of coordinating the four reports on the subjects mentioned by my hon. Friend. The four papers are substantially complete. I have made inquiries about the content and quality of the consultations that have taken place and I feel that they will be a worthy national report of the activities in our own countryside which will be of considerable interest to our colleagues on the continent.

My hon. Friend asked me about publicity and finance. This is always a difficult matter, particularly at this time, but the Countryside Commission is coordinating a good deal of the publicity efforts—although there may have to be special efforts by the Department—and has set aside a sum of money for this purpose. We all hope that the sum might be larger, but I am satisfied that a suitable contribution will be made. Because of the growing interest shown by hon. Members of the importance of this, I hope that if at some later stage further resources are required they will be forthcoming. There is no lack of desire to do the best that we can within the limitations which economic conditions force upon us.

The third matter that my hon. Friend raised was about patrons. As he said, some countries have nominated their Prime Ministers, some have nominated their exalted titular personalities. Ministers are considering that matter now. We have a difficult choice to make because, as my hon. Friend knows, we have had very considerable help from exalted personages, and we have to decide in the context of the job to be done who should best represent us. The matter is receiving active consideration, and an announcement will be made in the near future.

In addition to the conference at the Guild Hall in the late autumn of 1970, there will be a number of other activities relating to conservation and amenity. These will be on a small scale by small authorities, and on a larger scale by the large authorities.

The Lindsey Project for the Improvement of Environment, which has been financed by Carnegie under the auspices of the 1970 conference, will present a report demonstrating how voluntary bodies as well as local and statutory authorities can work together to preserve and to promote a high quality environment. The need to get ordinary people associated with these activities is very important.

There will be two films. First, there will be "The Secret Highway", which is a plea for the maintenance of hedgerows, sponsored by the Soil Association and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. Secondly, there will be the "Shape of Britain", and for this we are grateful to the Shell Mex Company. The Automobile Association is sponsoring "Plant a Tree Day", and for a modest sum motorists will be able to make their contribution. They are sometimes blamed for spoiling the countryside. Here they will have a chance to help to enhance it. If all the 2 million members of the A.A. make a contribution, the scheme should be a great success. There will be motorised safari, nature trails in England, Scotland and Wales.

The Epping Forest Conservation Centre will be opening in the spring. There will be a nature photographic exhibition organised by the Royal Photographic Society and Nature Conservancy. There will be a number of other conferences, such as the World Wildlife Fund International Congress. I think that we shall have a great deal to show to all those who come here to see these things, as well as the contribution that we are making towards preserving the countryside.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) made a very important point. We are very glad that the I.P.U., which has such great influence in legislatures throughout the world, is concerned to play its part. I have noted what my hon. Friend has said, and I hope that he will realise that the Government will do all that they can to help the activities of the I.P.U.

I think that European Conservation Year 1970 may make a notable mark in man's endeavour to master mass materialism. The whole future quality of our environment may suffer damaging consequences because of the increasing pressures. I thank my hon. Friend for the part that he has played, both in the past, and tonight by bringing this matter to the attention of the public.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Eleven o'clock.