HC Deb 23 July 1973 vol 860 cc1355-62

It shall be a responsibility of the council to consult with any company or public corporation which is undertaking operations on land or within United Kingdom territorial waters in connection with the exploitation of the resources of the United Kingdom continental shelf, with the main purpose of conserving the environment when operations are undertaken for the construction of oil drilling rigs and production platforms.—[Mr. Douglas.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Douglas

I beg to move, That the clause be read a second time.

I do not claim any great expertise in parliamentary draftsmanship, so that if the Minister in any sense objects to the drafting of the clause I shall not resist that type of argument. Its intention, however, is quite clear.

The Scottish Under-Secretary of State said in the Second Reading Committee on 3rd July, as reported at column 488 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, that it was his right hon. Friend's intention that the Nature Conservancy Council should be consulted in matters associated with planning considerations on which its advice might be helpful. He said that on a particular line of argument which I was adopting in relation to operations connected with North Sea oil impinging on the environment.

1.30 a.m.

This clause goes a little further. It anticipates a situation where a planning application to develop particular sites has been successful. If I restrict my remarks to the situation in Scotland, I intend no disrespect to my English and Welsh friends who may be anticipating similar developments on land or in waters off the coast of Wales or the coast of England. I think it is right that the Secretary of State should consult the Nature Conservancy Council in connection with any planning application. In these planning applications the Nature Conservancy, as it is at present, might be called by the objectors, and it might be shown that a certain site was proposed to be developed with little or no detriment to the environment, or conversely that the environment would suffer considerable detriment. It might be to the detriment of a site of special scienti fic interest, or the flora and fauna might be disturbed. In these situations, although the Nature Conservancy Council would be consulted, it would not have a continuing role to play in conserving the environment if the planning application were granted.

I do not suggest that the Undet-Secretary should comment on a particular planning application-I am sure he will resist that temptation-but a certain planning application is being heard in Scotland at present. Let us take the situation at Dunnet Bay or Drumbuie. These are sites of particular interest in environmental terms, and I hope that if a planning application is granted severe restrictions will be placed on the developers. But it may be that a planning application will be granted and that these sites will be developed for industrial purposes. As I understand it, there is nothing in the present planning law or in the Bill that places an obligation on the Nature Conservancy Council to enter into a continuing relationship with companies or public corporations seeking to develop that type of site. We know that in Scotland the Secretary of State has given a general indication that there are 28 possible sites for such development.

It is very difficult for hon. Members who have not seen how these developments impinge on the environment to appreciate the effects. Those of us who have visited the site developed by Highland Developers at Nigg Bay have seen how such a development can impinge on the environment.

I am not suggesting that the damage done at Nigg Bay is irreparable. I am not suggesting that there is a mass undermining of the environment, but a colossal construction has been created. We should anticipate a proliferation of such developments, using not only iron and steel but concrete. I am talking about sites like Drumbuie, which require deep water and a considerable acreage of land for their production purposes. In the circumstances it is clear that there is a need to seek an assurance from the Government that great attention will be paid to the effect upon the environment of this type of industrial construction.

I know that in Scotland we are in the early stages of this type of development, and I want the Scottish economy to benefit fully from it, but this is a balancing situation. If I tilt the balance I have to tilt it on the side of conserving the environment. I see the Nature Conservancy Council as having a continuing role. In previous debates I have quoted an instance of writing into the Maplin Development Bill the role of an authority and its inter-relationship with the Nature Conservancy. Here I am seeking a continuing relationship between the Conservancy and these developers.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

With this new clause we can discuss Amendments Nos. 1 and 2.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

It is all the same to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it would be more convenient if those amendments were taken separately, because they cover different points.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

So be it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

My hon. Friend was right to remind us of the sheer size of these developments, both at Nigg and Graythorp, on Teesside, which some of us visited three weeks ago with the Science and Technology Committee. Not until one has seen the scale of this operation does one realise the potential threat to the environment—to use the term in its non-pejorative sense.

My hon. Friend was unduly modest about his drafting capabilities. Had I not known better and seen him at work on three Finance Bills, I might have thought at first sight that this was a superfluous clause, but a particular event which took place in the past fortnight proved how important consultation is. I refer to the announcement made two weeks ago, on a Sunday, that somehow or another licences have been granted to the Candecca Company, based in Calgary, to explore for oil in four counties —West Lothian, Lanarkshire, Dunbartonshire and Stirlingshire. At twenty minutes to two in the morning I shall resist the temptation to expand on what happened, but I ask the Under-Secretary whether he thinks it is satisfactory from the point of view of good manners and working with people that the convenor and his committee of a county council like West Lothian, together with the officials, should find out from the front page of a Sunday newspaper that licences for oil exploration have been granted in their area.

I put it to the Government, as I have done to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, that this is not the way to conduct the nation's affairs and get the necessary co-operation. Therefore the clause, concentrating as it does on consultation, is far from superfluous; in fact, it is necessary.

I should like to put a direct question to the Scottish Under-Secretary. It may be unreasonable, because I have not given him notice, but could he find out whether the Department of Trade and Industry ever told the Scottish Office that it would do this? I merely say that it was uncharacteristic. It is not natural for Scottish Office civil servants not to consult local authorities. They have a high standard of manners and, on the whole, people who advise the Minister are people of sensitivity and quality who would not behave in this way. From what I know, I cannot think that this was a Scottish Office decision. It seems to me to bear the trademark of one of these vast conglomerate Departments which, in the opinion of some of us, are quite out of control. T therefore ask this question: was St. Andrew's House told at any time that these licences were to be granted?

I shall not go over the answers given by the Minister for Industry. To cut a long story short, he seems to believe that this is the proper way to behave. From a parliamentary answer today I also discovered that these licences are exclusive. A fairly direct question asking whether they were put up for public tender was sidestepped.

It seems to me intolerable that, if one gives exclusive licences for oil exploration in the land area of Central Scotland, it is not done by any kind of public tender. We have the situation that licences are granted to a Canadian company whose name is not known to some of the senior executives of BP. BP may have an interest or it may not. The fact is that the area we are talking about is the heartland of the old Scottish Oil Company, which was one of the ingredients of BP. To behave like this to the established oil company of the area seems to me to be totally incredible.

We have the situation that a series of map references have been sent to West Lothian County Council without any explanation of whether drillings should or should not take place. It is far from clear what kind of planning permission is needed. Therefore, although I do not expect the Under-Secretary to have the answers to these questions on the top of his head at a quarter to two in the morning, I ask that he and his colleagues in the Scottish Office ask the Department of Trade and Industry what on earth it thinks it is up to.

Mr. Lawson

The Minister might say that to accept the clause would impose a heavy responsibility on the new Nature Conservancy. I put it to him, however, that the old Nature Conservancy, or the body which has existed up to now, has begun to act, and quite extensively, on lines such as those described in the clause. That has been welcome action, as I am sure the Under-Secretary will agree. Notably this action has shown itself in the whole of the Moray Firth—Cromarty Firth area and at Nigg Bay, of which my hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) has spoken.

The activity of the conservancy has been focused to a considerable extent not on what most people would think of as being the concern of the Nature Conservancy. Most people, I think, when talking of conservation, still think in terms of scenic beauty, whereas what the Nature Conservancy has been principally concerned about in the Moray FirthCromarty Firth area has been the low tide area, the flats, the shallow water, the waters upon which the migratory birds feed to such an extent.

What the Nature Conservancy has been trying to do in that area, among other things, has been to provoke a hydrological study of the area. There is no proper knowledge of how the shallows build up in one part and not in another. When dredging takes place, for example, it is often done without any knowledge of the effects that dredging of one area will have on the other areas.

There should be a proper hydrological study of the area and a hydrological model should be made. Certain areas may be dredged without causing any damage at all, but if dredging is carried out in one part rather than another irreparable damage could be done in vital areas. It must be remembered that this is one of the principal areas in Northern Europe for migratory birds. A little extra knowledge might prevent damage being done. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to accept the substance of the clause even if he cannot accept it in the form in which it now appears.

1.45 a.m.

The Under-Secrtary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) for presenting the clause and for raising this subject. I agree with the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) on the importance of this matter. I also agree with the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) that one has to appreciate the scale of operations involved in this new development of North Sea oil. It is easy to talk about them, but until one has actually seen them one does not realise what a large-scale operation it is and what a big effect some of these matters can have on parts of the country which are vital to many people.

I wholeheartedly agree that we want to see the new Nature Conservancy Council brought in at an early stage to give its views on all matters which may affect ecology in relation to oil development. It is desirable that this should be so and we shall do everything we can to ensure that this happens.

The Nature Conservancy has been increasingly brought into consultation in recent times on development proposals connected with North Sea oil. For example, there is a Scottish Office liaison unit on oil which brings together officers of local authorities, the Countryside Commission, the Nature Conservancy and other interested bodies for impact and appraisal meetings on individual projects. The Nature Conservancy is represented at the Environmental Forum chaired by the Director of the Countryside Commission and consisting of the main conservation bodies which meet regularly to consider the effects of oil and other major developments on the environment.

The Nature Conservancy is also concerned in a survey of Scottish coasts being carried out by the Scottish Development Department, which has commissioned a landscape architect for the purpose. The aim is to advise local authorities about the possible effects of development of their coastal areas and to take into account development plans and policies. The Nature Conservancy has also been represented at a standing conference on North Sea oil, of which I have taken the chair on three occasions, and it has made a useful contribution at those discussions. I understand that the Nature Conservancy is itself producing guidelines and advice for local authorities on the ecological factors to which they should have regard in considering the development of their areas. I consider that the new Nature Conservancy Council can be expected to carry on this work if it is given a statutory right to advise Ministers on nature conservation, taking into account possible ecological changes. It will have a locus to make its views known either direct to the Minister or, more practically, to the planning authorities to which powers are given under the planning Acts. The Secretary of State remains the final arbiter. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will take administrative action to ensure that the new Nature Conservancy Council's place in the planning machinery is made known to the planning authorities and to other interests. In this way I believe that the council will be brought into the planning machine, since all proposed development must come to the planning authorities.

The precise form of the clause is perhaps not the most appropriate way of achieving what we all want to achieve, because the critical point at which one can bring about the proper consideration of all these types of development is at the point where a planning application comes to a planning authority. It is there that it is possible to be sure that everything will be caught in the net. Therefore, rather than put, as the clause suggests, a responsibility on the council to work from the other end and try to keep sufficiently in touch with a multifarious number of different companies which may be involved in North Sea oil, so as to be able to give advice quickly—that is a very laudable objective which I would encourage—it is better to catch the matter at the point where the local authority has a planning application to consider. I therefore assure the House that we shall take steps to ensure that this is brought to the attention of planning authorities and that they will have the obligation to consult the Nature Conservancy Council.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised this important point. I will draw what the hon. Member for West Lothian has said to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and see that he is given an appropriate answer to the point he raised.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not like issuing a threat. I have not been to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the past three years, but I would welcome some explanation of what is happening. I am tempted prima facie to take what I consider to be the very serious step of referring this matter to the Ombudsman.

Mr. Younger

I note what the lion. Gentleman says. I will draw his point to the attention of the Ministers concerned and ask them to give him a proper answer.

I am entirely in sympathy with the object of the clause. It can best be achieved by the method I have described. I suggest to the hon. Member for East Stirlingshire that it would therefore be best for him not to press the clause, though I applaud his aims in tabling it.

Mr. Douglas

I welcome what the Under-Secretary said. Perhaps I expressed myself inadequately. If I interpret the hon. Gentleman's words correctly he rests his case on the existing planning procedures to catch any ill effects on the. environment. I argued that the clause would be post the granting of planning permission. We therefore need a continuing relationshiup between developers and the Nature Conservancy Council. I hope that what I have said will be noted by the Ministers, particularly Scottish Ministers. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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