HC Deb 16 June 1980 vol 986 cc1302-14

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

12 midnight

Mr. Delwyn Williams (Montgomery)

I find myself in the strange position of being a committed conservationist opposing a conservation measure. I hope to explain that curious dilemma. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the indiscriminate blanket conservation order proposed by the Nature Conservancy Council which, if approved, will affect no less an area than 53,000 acres in the counties of Powys, Clwyd and Gwynedd. The area affected is basically the Berwyn range of mountains and foothills and a large tract of land to the north and south of Lake Vyrnwy in my constituency.

The Nature Conservancy Council was established by the Nature Conservancy Council Act 1973. It is funded entirely by grants from the Secretary of State for the Environment, but, regrettably, its meagre budget bears no relation to the extent of its powers. Speaking as a countryman born and bred in a rural area, I know that the vast majority of farmers are conservation-minded. I would go so far as to say that the vast majority of people in this country are conservation-minded. It is right that we should be.

We, the human species, are the trustees of our land for the animal kingdom. In recent years, one has to say that the animals would have a substantial action for a breach of trust if they sought legal advice. Man daily destroys their interest by despoiling their natural habitat, by polluting the water on which they depend and poisoning, by chemicals, the grass and foliage on which they feed, and by a myriad of other mindless acts against which the animal kingdom fights to survive. For a long time, that fight has been a losing one, made more difficult by the failure of some species to evolve successfully in changing circumstances.

The Nature Conservancy Council Act was one of many measures taken to redress the worsening balance against nature. It was, and is, welcomed by all civilised people. However, the human indigenous species of upland areas struggle to survive as well in their native indigenous habitat. So, too, is the balance of modern life swinging against them, with increased costs, especially prohibitive transport costs, in remote rural areas. They struggle for a living, and now 110 families in the area concerned face a diminution in the value of their land and their expectancy of income as a result of this proposed, ill-conceived conservation order.

I understand that the council's argument is that the proposed site is of special scientific interest because of its bird life and botanical richness. The main birds are the hen harrier and the merlin. I accept that the hen harrier needs more land for its traditional prey of voles and small birds, but I do not accept that 20 pairs need 53,000 acres to support them. The hen harrier is not indigenous to the area. It is essentially a bird of the northern moorlands. It has been shown to be a resilient and adaptable breed. It has recovered to a great extent because its main enemy, the gamekeeper, is in more danger of extinction than is the hen harrier. Newly afforested moorland provides a valuable new habitat. It is estimated that 600 nests a year are constructed in this country. The hen harrier is also more numerous in other parts of Western Europe.

The merlin has a total Welsh population of about 150 pairs, representing a quarter of the British total. The Berwyn area contains 22 pairs. However, the merlin also occupied the Llanbrynmair moors and has shown that it can adapt to live in afforested areas. Many people feel that it faces a much greater threat from chemical pesticides than from loss of habitat. I do not wish to go into the merits of the argument tonight. Suffice to say that the area north of Moel Sych is sufficient for the birds of prey to survive. I urge the Minister of State to confine the area to the land north of Moel Sych.

The merlin is less feared by gamekeepers than the hen harrier, feeding, as it does, on pipits, twites and ring ousels, a piece of information, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am sure will rivet you at this hour of the night.

I think that it is accepted that the steady conversion of a grouse moor to sheep walk will aid the decline of the red grouse and the merlin, which depend on heather communities, but the good news is that the merlin and, in particular, the hen harrier are no longer the target of gamekeepers, who have been the greatest danger to them for a long time.

Other species involved are the golden plover, which has a population of over 30,000 pairs, so that it is not in any immediate danger, and the short-eared owl, which has only 20 breeding pairs in Wales out of a total of 1,000 pairs. Indeed, the increase in afforestation is on its side.

The plant species have already been dealt with by the special scientific site at Moel Sych. This was the justification for it—to protect hare's tail cotton grass, bog moss, cross-leaved heath, cranberry, and so on. I cannot think that they are entirely rare or absolutely unique to this area. The majority of them could be preserved in the area already designated and by "gem" sites.

It is absolutely vital that the Nature Conservancy Council gets the good will of the farming community. It may well be claimed that tenants and owners were consulted but, to put it mildly, the letter received by the farmers was completely misleading. If it tells the Welsh Office that only a handful officially protested, let it wait and see what happens when the true facts are known.

The SSSIs put constraint upon occupiers. They cannot affect grants. Indeed, for the Ministry to say that the task of the Nature Conservancy Council is purely advisory is to mislead farmers and tenants. At Bowness Common, in Cumbria, a raised mire caused the refusal of grants, which embarrassed the farmer concerned. Irrespective of the mires and the question whether an area is suitable is the inevitable delay and uncertainty while these matters are thrashed out. Initially, the Nature Conservancy Council was only consultative, but now other statutory bodies have to pay regard to what it says. For instance, grants to the Forestry Commission can be dependent upon the outcome. Indeed, in the Berwyns in the future capital grants on buildings, fields, drainage, fences, walls, gates, shelter belts, and so on can all be in danger of being prejudiced by this blanket order.

Already one-fifth of Wales is designated as an area of national park, an area of outstanding natural beauty, or an SSSI. This is over one-fifth of the land mass of my nation.

In its letter to the Farmers' Union of Wales, the Welsh Nature Conservancy Council spoke of coming to mutually acceptable arrangements with farmers, and talked of compensation, but the truth is that it has no money to pay that compensation. It speaks with a velvet tongue but does not have the bank balance to back up what it promised the farming community.

It is the struggling farmers of Mid-Wales who will pay the price of conservation for the majority of the town dwellers who come into our beautiful area to drink in the beauties of the countryside but who do not pay the price. If the Raynor proposals on agriculture are implemented, farmers in designated areas will be further discriminated against, in that the present prior approval system for capital grant-aided works in conservation areas will be scrapped, and in the future farmers will be obliged to secure the agreement of the relevant authority for their proposed farm works as a precondition of eligibility.

I know that Mr. John Hooson, the Welsh NFU chairman, and Mr. Julian Fenwick, the FUW chairman, are avid and practical conservationists. We are lucky to have them, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to respond in a positive way to their good will. I ask him to take such a course of action that we who live in Wales will continue to live in an area where we can still hear the mew of the buzzard and see the lofty eminence of the red kite and the merlin, and of all the other birds that enrich our heritage and that it is our bounden duty to protect.

We shall not see these birds if the farming community have this conservation order implemented against them. We depend very much on the farmer as the guardian of the countryside. If we militate against him by imposing an ill-advised statutory duty, what will he do? He will look at the birds, and if he is angry he will perhaps shoot them out of the sky. This will be a tragedy that I, as a conservationist, do not want to see. I implore my hon. Friend to take such a course of action in the future as will preserve the good will of the farming community—not just in Mid-Wales but in the whole of the United Kingdom. If the indiscriminate blanket conservation order is allowed to go through in my area it will be repeated throughout the United Kingdom and the loss will be to those who believe in conservation and to future generations. We shall lose that vital good will of the farmer, the farm worker and those concerned with the land.

There are grants available for such items as shelter belts, which can be obtained by any farmer. The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service will give him advice on where to plant them for the benefit of bird and plant life. If I do nothing else this evening. I hope that I shall succeed in bringing that to the attention of the farming community in the United Kingdom.

At the beginning of my speech I pointed out my terrible dilemma, namely, to speak against a conservation order. The order will militate against the interests of conservation. I cannot urge upon the House too strongly to take note that such blanket conservation orders do nothing but harm, and militate against those who so passionately wish to preserve our heritage for future generations.

12.11 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Michael Roberts)

I begin by saying that I am, as are no doubt a good many other hon. Members, most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Williams), for raising at this time the Nature Conservancy Council's proposal to schedule about 53,000 acres of the Berwyn mountain range in North Wales as a site of special scientific interest.

I welcome this opportunity, which not only allows me to discuss the proposal itself, as it affects that upland area of Wales, but gives me the chance to clear up one or two misconceptions over what is involved. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, the Nature Conservancy Council is the prime agency of the Government charged with the specific responsibility for nature conservation and for disseminating advice and promoting its understanding throughout Great Britain.

I do not think that it would be amiss if I were to remind hon. Members that the NCC was established by statute in 1973 to replace one of the then committees of the Natural Environment Research Council, and to be independent of that council. The legislation requires the Nature Conservancy Council to discharge several functions that previously had been the responsibility of the NERC, and among those, as right hon. Members will be aware, is the duty of notification under section 23 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. That duty requires the NCC to notify local planning authorities where it is of the opinion that an area of land is of special scientific interest, whether by reason of the flora, fauna or geographical or physiographical features to be found or seen there. In order that the Nature Conservancy Council could properly discharge that function it was given a specific power whereby research in relevant matters could be commissioned or sponsored, and that leads me to the subject of the matter that we are discussing tonight.

The matter that my hon. Friend raised has aroused the considerable interest not only of right hon. and hon. Members but of many individuals and organisations with an interest in land use. Not the least of those are the farmers, landowners and their representatives. I must not forget to mention the particular interest shown by those with conservation aspects in mind.

In view of the concern that prompted my hon. Friend to raise the issue—and I congratulate him on the depth of knowledge that he has shown—I think it only right that I should convey to the House my understanding of the background that preceded the NCC's recent announcement that it proposed to schedule and notify such a large area of upland Wales as a site of special scientific interest. It is a large area. If I may make a short digression, the Nature Conservancy Council has indicated that apart from the New Forest, with an area of 71,000 acres, and a few coastal sites such as the Wash, at 163,000 acres and Morecambe Bay, which covers about 73,000 acres, the Berwyn site is not only the largest in Wales but is probably the largest inland SSSI yet proposed for notifying in England and Wales.

Over a period of many years the Nature Conservancy Council has been under some pressure to give particular attention to certain areas of Wales that were of ornithological significance, and in particular the upland areas of the North and South Berwyns and an area of Llanbrynmair Moors.

In 1977, and after publication of its two volume "Nature Conservation Review", which, incidentally, describes and grades virtually all of the important conservation sites in England, Scotland and Wales that had been evaluated up to the time of publication, the NCC came under pressure from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to schedule certain areas which, after many years of investigation by its members, the society believed to be of significant importance to the conservation of certain species, particularly the predatory birds. The council considered the information made available by the society and compared and evaluated this against the findings of its own specialists, and a number of joint investigations were put in hand.

As a result of these ornithological investigations the council found that sources of potentially serious conflict between the competing interests of agriculture, forestry and conservation might exist. As soon as it reached these conclusions it decided that it would immediately discuss its findings with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and with the Forestry Commission. The first of a number of meetings between officials of the three agencies took place in October 1978 and the outcome, as my hon. Friend is aware, was an agreement that the individual interests would best be served by the commissioning of an independent appraisal of the problems likely to arise where their interests would come into conflict.

The appraisal began in December 1978, on the appointment of Mr. R. G. A. Lofthouse, a former chief surveyor of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with over 30 years of experience in agricultural land use problems, I should point out that the choice of Mr. Lofthouse was unanimous.

All parties acknowledged the urgency of the matter, and I think it a commendable achievement that Mr. Lofthouse was able to complete and submit his report, on what was indeed a complex matter, within 12 months of his appointment. The report has, of course, been the subject of a good deal of scrutiny and discussion and I believe that, as a result, a good measure of agreement now exists between the three agencies concerned. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that it is intended that this report will be circulated in the near future.

What is, of course, significant in all this is the commissioning of the report itself, which is the first major example in Wales of a concerted and determined attempt by the Government agencies concerned to achieve a balanced land use policy in order that sources of potential conflict are at least minimised, if not eliminated altogether.

As I have said, the special study began in December 1978. While it was in progress the NCC continued with, and I believe satisfactorily concluded, its scientific investigations and examination of the survey data that had been collected by the RSPB.

Now that it has satisfied itself of the scientific value and extent of the ornithological interest and other relevant matters, the council will, of course, be open to a challenge that it is in breach of its duty under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 if it does not schedule the area and formally notify the relevant local planning authorities of that fact. As a preliminary step, in February the NCC communicated its proposals to all the land user interests that it believed would be affected, and I understand that the only outstanding matters are the clarification of a few boundary positions that prevent formal notification being issued now. However, the NCC expects to be able to take this final step in the near future.

It is important that right hon. and hon. Members should know that the council does not lightly undertake the scheduling of an area of land as a site of special interest. The council has laid down a very strict and comprehensive set of procedures for its officials to follow. They are designed to prove conclusively the scientific value of the area under consideration, and its officials are required to be meticulous in their observation of those rules. They must obtain all information about the site from whatever sources are available—county trusts, local societies and perhaps other knowledgeable organisations and individuals.

Ownerships have to be determined and, if permission can be obtained, the site visited. Owners and occupiers of the land concerned must be informed of the purpose of the visit and of the statutory duty placed on the NCC. The value of the area must be assessed in relation to other sites, and if the site is then considered worthy of scheduling, officials seek the co-operation of the owners of the land by meeting and explaining to them the reasons for scheduling. Relevant Government Departments, statutory authorities and local planning authorities are also consulted before scheduling properly begins.

When the stage at which proper maps and schedules are available is reached, the NCC distributes copies to all known interested parties in order to obtain their further observations on the proposal. A period of at least three weeks is allowed for the return of comments before the final steps towards formal notification are taken, but the time can be extended if desired.

That is the position achieved by the NCC for its Berwyns proposal, and I am assured that its officials have made regular personal contact with more than 90 per cent. of those who are likely to be affected. A small percentage have, however, steadfastly refused to discuss any part of the matter. Scheduling is, therefore, a very full and careful process. It cannot be hurried, and several years may be needed for the detailed operations insisted on by the NCC.

The extent of the area proposed for notification in the Berwyns has drawn expressions of alarm from both farming and conservation interests. It would therefore be as well for me to mention, by way of information, the following facts : the area of land covered by the special study amounted to about 157,000 acres, and that encompassed the land of particular concern to the RSPB, which was about 67,000 acres, whereas the area proposed for notification is 53,153 acres in extent.

It has been made very clear by my hon. Friend and by the representations that my right hon. Friend and I have received that the major concern of farmers and their representatives—not only those affected by this proposal but generally—that their major concern is the effect that scheduling and notification of their land as SSSI may have on the successful outcome of an application for an agricultural capital grant to improve that land. Here, I should perhaps take the opportunity to make clear that notification of an SSSI is merely a statement of the scientific interest of the land concerned. No direct constraints are imposed on the owner, lessee or occupier as a consequence. It is only in cases of grant application that such notifications have any bearing, and then only if a conflict between the agricultural and conservation interests is not capable of being resolved by negotiation between the parties.

I think it worth noting that to date negotiations in which my right hon. Friend's agricultural advisers have been involved have, in the majority of cases, resulted in the resolution of potential difficulties. Each case is looked at on its merits and only rarely has a valid application for agricultural grant been refused solely for conservation reasons. There are currently 441 scheduled sites in Wales, covering about 446,000 acres. Only a proportion of this land, however, is classed as agriculturally capable of improvement and consequently the number of grant applications that have been made is limited. Even so, agreement was generally found.

Of the Berwyn area it has been estimated that between 30 and 40 per cent. would be excluded from grant considerations because it is common land, and only about 10 per cent. of the remainder is likely to qualify as being readily improvable in agricultural terms. The area of potential conflict between agriculture and conservation in the Berwyns would therefore seem to be relatively small, and the normal consultation process should prove adequate in the future as in the past.

My hon. Friend referred to the Government's proposal to abolish the present system of prior approval, and I think I should explain that what is intended is that the onus for any necessary initial consultations should be placed on the farmers in sensitive areas the consultations would of course involve authorities such as the NCC. If there is any disagreement it will be a requirement that the ADAS be brought into the consultation before work starts, and the aim would be that any mediation should be completed within two months.

If agreement is achieved, work could proceed; otherwise it would be for my right hon. Friend, as now, to consider the merits of the case in order to decide whether grant should be paid or withheld. In a case where there is initial disagreement a farmer would be advised that grant could be at risk should he proceed in advance of successful mediation or a decision in favour of his claim.

My right hon. Friend has responsibilities for agriculture, forestry and conservation in Wales but is of course required to consult the Nature Conservancy Council in all cases involving an application for agricultural grant for the improvement of land scheduled by the NCC as an SSSI. The decision on whether the agricultural interest outweighs that of conservation and, hence, whether grant should be paid is, however, his.

One matter apart from agricultural grants that I think I should mention is the fact that under section 15 of the Countryside Act 1968 the Nature Conservancy Council has the power to give financial support to those owners, lessees or occupiers who are prepared to manage their land in a manner that will be conducive to nature conservation. The amount of consideration paid in these circumstances would of course be a matter for negotiation between them.

It is apparent from his words tonight that my hon. Friend has a deep concern for the farming community. I therefore trust that what I have said has gone some way towards the alleviation of that concern. What I should like to stress, in conclusion, is that my right hon. Friend and I are looking forward with considerable interest to the developments that could arise from the widest possible consideration of the implications of the Berwyn mountains study.

As I have already said, within Wales my right hon. Friend has personal responsibility for conservation, forestry and agriculture—the three important activities with the major potential for conflict in a rural upland area. Actual conflict in these matters can be costly, time-wasting and conducive to disputes, so any new thoughts that can be applied to avoiding the chance of conflict before it arises are of the greatest interest to us and, I venture to suggest, of considerable interest for other parts of Great Britain.

I believe that the Berwyn mountains study might well be the beginning of that new thinking, directed towards a land use strategy that would reconcile the different interests on a basis of open agreement. It is certainly too soon in the day to be confident of the outcome, but I am quite clear that this is a most valuable fesrh approach and that with adequate good will from all sides it can be turned into an exciting new strategy model.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Twelve o'clock.