HC Deb 30 July 1981 vol 9 cc1185-258

'.—(1) For subsection (1) of section 22 of the Water Act 1973 (duties with respect to nature conservation and amenity) there shall be substituted the following sub-section—

"(1) In formulating or considering any proposals relating to the discharge of any of the functions of water authorities, those authorities and the appropriate Minister or Ministers—

  1. (a) shall, so far as may be consistent with the purposes of this Act and of the Land Drainage Act 1976, so exercise their functions with respect to the proposals as to further the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty and the conservation of flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest;
  2. (b) shall have regard to the desirability of protecting buildings or other objects of archaeological, architectural or historic interest; and
  3. (c) shall take into account any effect which the proposals would have on the beauty of, or amenity in, any rural or urban area or on any such flora, fauna features, buildings or objects."

(2) In subsection (3) of that section the words "not being land managed as a nature reserve" shall be omitted.

(3) After that subsection there shall be inserted the following subsections—

"(4) Where any land has been notified to a water authority under subsection (3) above, the authority shall consult with the Council before executing or carrying out any works or operations appearing to them to be likely to destroy or damage any of the flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features by reason of which the land is of special interest.

(5) Subsection (4) above shall not apply in relation to any emergency operation particulars of which (including details of the emergency) are notified to the Council as soon as practicable after the commencement of the operation.

(6) References in this section to water authorities shall include references to internal drainage boards and the reference in subsection (3) above to the water authority in whose area the land is situated shall include a reference to the internal drainage board in whose district the land is situated."'.—[Mr. Michael Roberts.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following:

Amendment (c), in line 8, leave out from ' 1976,' to first 'the' in line 9 and insert 'in exercising their functions with respect to the proposals have regard to the desirability of furthering'. Amendment (a), in line 21, leave out 'appearing to them to be'. Amendment (b), in line 27, at end insert 'or any operation to maintain existing works, that is to say, to cleanse, repair or otherwise maintain in a due state of efficiency any existing water course or drainage work, but excluding any operation to improve existing works, that is to say to deepen, widen straighten or otherwise improve any existing watercourse or remove or alter mill dams, weirs or other obstructions to watercourses, or raise, widen or otherwise improve any existing drainage works.'. New clause 14—Amendment to the Water Act 1973.

Government amendment No. 162.

Mr. Roberts

Subsection (1) of the new clause is in fulfilment of a commitment made by the Government in Committee to consider whether a balance can be struck between conservation and recreation in the duties of water authorities. It does not provide the same duty for conservation as for recreation. In the case of recreation, water authorities are required under section 20 of the Water Act 1973 to take steps to secure the use of water and associated land for the purposes of recreation. This is in recognition of the special position of the authorities as the owners of large stretches of inland water that are eminently suitable for water sports. It would be inappropriate to give them a similar duty to take steps in relation to conservation. However, the new clause gives these authorities, for the first time, a positive duty to further the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty and nature conservation in the course of their work rather than the more nebulous "have regard to" duty contained in section 22.

The new clause fulfils the undertaking given by the Government in Committee to extend the existing duty of' water authorities and Ministers under section 22 of the Water Act 1973 to give them a positive duty to further the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty and nature conservation when formulating or considering any proposals relating to the discharge of their functions, and also to require water authorities to consult the Nature Conservancy Council before carrying out works or operations in areas notified to them as of special interest.

To further conservation will be an objective in all the water authorities' works—albeit, a secondary objective. It is, however, a positive objective. I hope that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) will consider that the Government have met the spirit of the arguments put forward from both sides in Committee and that he will consider withdrawing new clause 14.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

I know that the House wishes to make progress but I have one point to raise on the recreational side. I appreciate what the Government have done to assist the determination of hon. Members to see that water authorities pay as much regard to the need for conservation in all their works as to provide for recreation. I would have preferred the words proposed by the Opposition in new clause 14, but I do not take issue with the Government on the matter. I express my appreciation for the Government's new clause, which will have my support. I shall not, therefore, move new clause 14.

I wish to carry out a promise that I made to the Sailboard Association that found some difficulty in persuading certain water authorities to make provision for it. I am glad to see that the Minister with responsibility for sport is present. I do not want an answer now, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take this matter on board and ensure that these increasingly popular pastimes—sailboarding is a very new one—can be facilitated.

I was informed of difficulties experienced with the Thames water authority and the Severn-Trent water authority. I have made inquiries from both those authorities. I find that the Datchet sailing club is concerned about the speed of yachts at the Queen Mother reservoir, which is felt to be contrary to the interests of sailboarding. This illustrates the need for harmonisation among yachtsmen, sailboardmen, rowers and anglers. I am pleased to learn from the Thames water authority that it is likely to make far greater areas of reservoirs available soon for sailboarding. I hope that this will facilitate sensible provision covering the whole water authority area.

I have been unable to make personal inquiries about the position within the Severn-Trent water authority. Some inquiries have been made on my behalf. I find that problems exist at Bartley reservoir, although sailboarding is allowed at Ogston, Foremark and Drycote. One problem is the fear of water authorities that people may pollute water that is to be put into the system for drinking purposes. One can understand such fears. Nevertheless, as birds cannot be prevented from flying over reservoirs, with the risk of pollution involved, I am sceptical of that approach. I hope that water authorities will enter into negotiations with the sailboarding and surfing organisations to see that the consumer is protected but also that the greatest possible use is made, wherever practicable, of reservoirs for recreation.

I thank the Government for meeting the Opposition on the conservation point. The conservation world, which attaches importance to these matters, has the assurance that statutory water authorities will take into account environmental and conservation issues as well as recreation issues.

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

Despite what my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) says about withdrawing new clause 14, I am disappointed that the Government have not gone further in making conservation equivalent to amenity and to recreation. The Under-Secretary of State talked of a positive duty. So far as I can see, the duty is permissive. To the best of my knowledge, it is more a negative rather than a positive duty. One has to ask what will be the immediate effect of the new clause.

Two water authorities, North-West and Severn-Trent, have a good record on conservation. The performance of other authorities is not particularly good. A number of land drainage boards have a decidedly bad record. More must be done. I suspect that the limitation that the Government have included in the new clause is based more on consideration of public expenditure than on anything else.

An enormous amount needs to be done not merely to conserve what already exists but, in a great many places, to improve the condition of streams and rivers so that flora and fauna, which are not now present, can develop. A stream called Gore brook passes through my constituency and also the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman). It flows through a number of public parks. The stream is the only bad part of those parks. The water authority says that it cannot do anything because its capital expenditure is devoted to a sewage pumping scheme higher up the stream. One is therefore faced with a situation of continued pollution of the stream.

I should have liked water authorities to be told that they must do a great deal more. The same applies to many country parks on the urban fringe. An example is the river Tame in Greater Manchester. The Civic Trust, local authorities, the Department of the Environment and the Countryside Commission have done a great deal of work in the country park but there is still flowing through it a polluted river that wrecks the whole concept.

In Committee, I spoke at some length about the Water Space Amenity Commission's guidelines on conservation and land drainage. On that occasion I said—and it is still true—that water authorities and drainage boards had not taken as much notice of them as they might have done.

Given that the new clause is approved, I hope that a great many people locally will ensure that their public representatives on the water authorities—and local councillors are in the majority on all water authorities—are pressed to do a great deal more than they are doing at the moment.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

I can only express my disappointment with new clause 30. I understand what the Minister is trying to do, but in my view the clause fails to come to terms with one specific matter which I raised in Committee and with an additional obligation which has been imposed on those engaged in agriculture. I referred to the first matter in Committee when I spoke about maintenance, and there was considerable agreement about it. Amendment (b) seeks to give substance to the amendment which I expected the Minister to draft in accordance with his undertaking to the Committee: I will look at this again to see if I can find a compromise amendment.

It seems to me that the Government's new clause does not constitute a compromise amendment. What is more, it is a positive rejection of the arguments which were advanced in Committee and which were given some credence by try hon. Friend.

In amendment (b), I have sought to set out a reasonable response to the criticism made in Committee by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) that there should not be a maintenance cloak for capital works. During his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman said: but not the maintenance cloak for capital works. We should want safeguards about that. Amendment (b) sets out a comprehensive list of capital works, and the definition of "capital works" has been drawn from a number of existing statutes, so that there is nothing new about it.

I should like to have seen "maintenance works" defined more clearly in the Bill so that the internal drainage boards, which are specifically drawn into the conservation orbit by the clause, were able to know exactly where they stood.

In Committee, my hon. Friend recognised the need to minimise the bureaucratic commitment of internal drainage boards. When speaking about the compromise amendment that he hoped to introduce on Report, he said: It would remove bureaucracy, paperwork and consultation in certain spheres of common or garden maintenance."— [Official Report, Standing Committee D, 10 June 1981; c. 642–3.]

Clearly, he recognised the need for this to happen.

But what exactly has the Minister in mind for safeguarding the internal drainage boards against the possibility of very substantial increases in the amount of consultation and bureaucratic paperwork which could be involved in abiding by the spirit of the new clause? As I said in Committee, the boards are not well endowed with staff. They are lean on the staff side. They do not have the resources to undertake massive amounts of consultation. Therefore, it is essential that they should be protected, otherwise all those who fund them will be burdened with additional costs.

The seemingly explicit exclusion of maintenance works indicated by the deliberate shift away from the undertaking given by the Minister in Committee has caused some concern in agricultural circles. Was it done with the agreement of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? What consultations were there between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry, and what is the view of the Ministry about new clause 30, taking into account the maintenance duties of internal drainage boards? I should also like to know who else was consulted. Were the Association of Water Authorities and the Association of Drainage Authorities consulted about this shift in emphasis away from maintenance?

The agriculture industry has been committed to expenditure in the form of increased costs to IDBs which those engaged in agriculture, as ratepayers, help to fund. They have a right to answers to these questions, and I look to the Minister to let the agriculture industry have answers, because they are important.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Does not what the hon. Gentleman is saying confirm what many of us said repeatedly in Committee, that there should have been an agriculture Minister present in Committee? The argument was not that the Opposition were hoping for two different policies but that the vicarious presence of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food rather than his physical presence led to a great deal of complication in the Bill which might not otherwise have arisen.

Mr. Shepherd

I shall not attempt to dispute w hat the hon. Gentleman says, although this is an environmental matter. But I had hoped that there would be a greater level of agreement. Certainly what I see as disagreement would not have occurred. I do not say that an agriculture Minister should have been present, although certain difficulties have arisen because there was not one present. However, this is a Department of the Environment Bill, and I should like to know what consultation there was and what happened behind the scenes about the agriculture industry, which is affected so vitally by an environmental decision. There is always an immense impact on agriculture arid other industries by environmental considerations. It is not necessarily pinned down to agriculture, because many other industries could have been and may yet be affected if the principle of conservation, and its enhancement, is taken yet further.

I turn to amendment (c). New clause 30 now puts a clear additional burden on water authorities to further conservation, and within the expression "water authorities" is now included the internal drainage boards. It is that aspect of water authority work on which I wish to focus.

A number of matters arise from the furtherance of conservation. First, why are only water authorities and internal drainage boards singled out for enhanced conservation duty? Local authorities—county councils and district councils—spend considerable sums on land drainage. In this respect, the GLC is a big spender as well. The local authorities are subject to section 11 of the Countryside Act 1968, which provides only that they "shall have regard", whereas the water authorities are now singled out for the additional duty of taking positive step; further to enhance conservation. There is a two-tier structure coming into this exercise between different types of authorities.

There is a difference between the water authorities and the IDBs, and it relates to how schemes are paid for and worked out. The positive obligation to further conservation will cost money, although it is difficult to quantify how much. It will depend on the scheme or the nature of the works involved.

After completion of any works, there can be three conservation states: a reduction in the conservation state, maintenance of the current conservation state, and an enhancement or furtherance of the conservation state. It is that last step which the Bill seeks to achieve.

There is a distinction between the facility with which a water authority and that with which an IDB can fund any increase related to the furtherance of conservation. Water authorities are large and multifunctional and therefore have greater flexibililty in their ability to divert funds from one point to another. The internal drainage boards are relatively small authorities with one function only. Their source of revenue is the drainage rate. It should be borne in mind that in many cases drainage rates are levied on buildings, including many dwelling-houses, and also non-agricultural land, and that a large part of those rates is collected by local authorities under section 81 agreements.

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The additional burden of IDB expenditure will therefore fall directly not only on farmers but on local non-agricultural residents. The former will have yet another cost to bear, and the latter may not easily comprehend why the drainage rate has to be increased. The increase in costs due to the furtherance of conservation will fall on local farmers and residents. The clause, as worded, is almost an open cheque book.

I shall quote the chairman of the parliamentary committee of the NFU, who said in a letter to the Minister: Under this clause, farmers effectively would have to contribute a part of their drainage rates to furthering the nation's conservation interest. This seems to be not in line with the spirit of the Bill which is that farmers, in the national interest, will be expected wherever possible to conserve sites of scientific or scenic importance, but in return that the nation will ensure that they are not financially penalised". The spirit of the Bill was frequently referred to in Committee, and it is something that we should take into account. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) underlined the point in Committee. He said: I have been fairly consistent in saying that if someone suffers physical or pecuniary disadvantage because, in the interests of the community, conservation should change the use of, or restrict activities on, land or water, the community should be prepared to compensate".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 19 May 1981; c. 122.] So there is a distinct agreement between the two sides about the spirit of the Bill. The Minister should bear that in mind when considering the consequences of new clause 30 as drafted. Certainly the wording of amendment (c) seeks to put the matter in perspective.

The preponderance of the works expenditure of an IDB is on maintenance and is therefore not grant-aided. If the Government cannot make funds available to cover the furtherance of conservation—something that is done for the nation as a whole—the consequence will be a reduction in the level of land drainage works commensurate with the increase, or, in the case of water authorities, perhaps even a reduction in sewage treatment works, which are urgently needed and which are rightly being called for by conservation interests worried about pollution of rivers and coasts.

These are important matters. In my opinion, new clause 30 does not pay adequate attention to what was said in Committee, to the commitments that were made there, or to the spirit of the Bill that conservation is for the good of the nation and for the heritage of the nation as a whole, and that therefore conservation costs should be borne by the nation as a whole. As the Bill is drafted and as new clause 30 is drafted, the consequences of the furtherance of conservation will fall on a small sector of the population. That cannot be right. I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on these important matters.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

First, I wish to endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks). His speech demonstrated the merit of new clause 14. I share his view that we should provide a higher priority for conservation. We have moved some way in that direction, and if we accept new clause 14 we shall be able to go further along that road.

I welcome new clause 30, and I hope that the Minister will allow us to accept it wholeheartedly by accepting amendment (a). New clause 30 is consistent with the Water Act 1973 and the Land Drainage Act 1976, although neither of those measures could be described as perfect. Nevertheless, the new clause is consistent with those defective measures. The new clause places a duty on the regional water authorities and the internal drainage boards to exercise their functions so as to further nature conservation and amenity. It removes the anomaly, which exercised our minds in Committee, whereby the regional water authority, but not the IDB, seems to have direct responsibility for nature conservation.

However, I have one reservation. I welcome the new clause's intention, but it is qualified by the words "appearing to them". It suggests that perhaps regional water authorities, but particularly IDBs, do not always have the expertise that is necessary to assess whether an operation is likely to be detrimental to a site of special scientific interest. The purpose is to ensure that the Nature Conservancy Council is able to advise regional authorities and IDBs whether an operation will damage an SSSI. The NCC is equipped to offer that expertise.

Amendment (a) would resolve that problem. It would remove the words "appearing to them", and that would place the responsibility of deciding whether an operation will be damaging fairly on the NCC, which is the best body to deal with the matter.

The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) was, as usual, extremely persuasive. We listened to him with great interest in Committee, where he made a useful contribution. The House, too, should listen to him with care. However, I am uneasy about amendment (b). Unfortunately, it could do much harm. The hon. Member referred to operations to improve existing works. However, he overlooked the fact that operations to improve existing works cannot and should not be charged to revenue account. Some of us are extremely anxious about the tendency of some authorities to carry out improvement works and thus escape some of the obligations which capital expenditure programmes would involve.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

I thought that I had made it clear that I was referring strictly to maintenance works and not to improvement works. I hope that the hon. Member will forgive me if I gave a false impression.

Mr. Hardy

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but there is a reference to "improve existing works" in amendment (b). That is why I regard the amendment as somewhat defective.

Over the past few years some maintenance works have been enormously damaging. Often they have been carried out at short notice. One can appreciate the difficulties of the authorities involved. Perhaps they have tried to keep teams of workmen employed in slack periods. Nevertheless, sometimes those rather hurried schemes have resulted in damage. For example, one local authority carried out what it described as channel maintenance to a stretch of water, and damaged a number of otter holes. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not approve of that. Such carelessness is possible.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to amendment (b), which reads: but excluding any operation to improve existing works". The improvement is there, but it is a specific exclusion rather than a maintenance. Perhaps I might put one question to the hon. Gentleman. If one removes a cupboard and finds cobwebs behind it, and in cleaning destroys the habitat of spiders, is one doing something wrong?

Mr. Hardy

I do not believe that I have any cobwebs in my cupboards—nor do I think that I have any skeletons there. I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Nevertheless, maintenance works are often carried out in ways which are dangerous or harmful. For example, an operation to maintain existing works can be as ecologically damaging as any major capital investment scheme. Herbicides might be used. Mowing might take place during the birds' breeding season. Trees and shrubs might be removed. Important parts of a site of special scientific interest might be cleared to allow a dredging machine access. All such activities require us to be particularly sensitive. That is why I support the Government. I hope that they will maintain their logical position in this matter and resist the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

The Minister might believe that new clause 30 supersedes and makes unnecessary new clause 51. He will recall that in Committee we were extremely disturbed about the Halvergate Marshes. New clause 51 is particularly relevant to that problem.

If the Minister maintains that new clause 30 does all that the Committee wished to be done and all that is embodied in new clause 51, I hope that he will be able to say that the Halvergate Marshes problem could be satisfactorily resolved by the application of new clause 30 and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be able to award grants for conservation purposes.

We shall be obliged if the Minister can say that the necessary powers exist in new clause 30 and that the powers in sections 7, 90 and 91 of the Land Drainage Act 1976 can be used. However, if the clause is added to the Bill it will require drainage authorities to further conservation, riot merely to have regard to it. In consequence they will have the power to spend some money, perhaps not much, on conservation. That will mean that the Ministry of Agriculture will have the power to grant-aid such expenditure.

That interpretation of new clause 30 is critically important, not just because it will shape the attitudes of the new water authorities and drainage boards but because the wording is copied from clause 39(2)(a). It should have the same impact on the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service as any proposals for farm capital expenditure. That is crucial. I hope that the Minister will explain how the provisions will apply to Halvergate.

I understand that at a recent meeting of interested bodies, including the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, an agreement was reached which will involve the IDBs in compensating farmers. The IDBs have been reluctant about this matter. The IDB in question seems to be hesitant about approving the arrangement. It says that it has no powers to pay money for such a purpose. The Ministry now takes the view that such expenditure is legitimate. I hope that the Minister can satisfy our anxiety.

Will the Minister confirm that, if an IDB is involved in a negotiated agreement and wants to pay compensation arising from the need to meet conservation aims and objectives, and if the compensation included in the cost-benefit analysis still enables the scheme to meet the Treasury discount rate of 5 per cent., under new clause 30 the IDB would be able to make such payments and that the Ministry of Agriculture, whether enthusiastically or not, would be able to provide the necessary grant aid?

I hope that the Minister will respond to those questions because they are important and deal with anxieties expressed in Committee.

Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)

The Halvergate Marshes problem concentrated our attention in Committee. It is relevant at this stage because we have approached a moment of crucial decision. The Broads authority has negotiated an agreement on the proposed drainage of about 5,800 acres of the Halvergate Marshes. The area to be drained is considered to be of national importance by the Countryside Commission. It is defined by the Broads authority as an area of grade 1 landscape value of distinct broadland character. The Broads authority has decided that the impact of the drainage would adversely affect the character of the area.

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For that reason the scheme was considered to be unacceptable by the authority. It argued that if the MAFF expressed the intention to provide grant aid for the proposal, it would have no alternative but to express views on the matter at a public inquiry. I support it in that.

Subsequently, the authority has sought to achieve, at regional level, a set of safeguarding measures that would retain a significant part of the distinctive character of the area. The authority has pursued the task of finding a safeguarding agreement in concert with officers of the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council. The parties that have engaged in discussions are the Lower Bure, the Halvergate Fleet and Acle Marshes internal drainage board, the National Farmers' Union, the Country Landowners' Association and officers of the MAFF.

The chairman of the Broads authority, in a letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, said that it had reached the basis of an agreement but that financial compensation was missing. The Broads authority, supported by the Countryside Commission, has offered £25,000 over 20 years towards securing the agreement. Its assessment and that of the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association is that a grant of between £50,000 and £75,000 per annum, appropriately index-linked, is needed. That was put to the Secretary of State for the Environment. The drainage board made its proposals to the MAFF on the same basis.

All the many interests involved have come together and produced a compromise, the success of which depends on whether the Government can provide financial assistance so that farmers are not deprived of a source of income of which they would deprive themselves if they entered into an agreement to limit their drainage rights. I hope that the Minister will explain the Government's attitude to the issue, which is of interest not only to the Broads but to the country as a whole and conservationists the world over.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

Can the Minister take notice of the Control of Pollution Act 1974? Many hon. Members have come under pressure about that part of the Act which deals with water pollution. The legislation was passed seven years ago. Little has been done about the implementation of that legislation. It is needed more now than it was seven years ago, since the quality of water in our rivers and streams is deteriorating badly. Do the Government intend to implement that part of the Act, and, if so, how long will it take?

Mr. Dalyell

A misunderstanding appears to have arisen in relation to amendment (b), and I shall confine my remarks to that. According to the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd), ratepayers to IDBs include people not involved in agriculture. He was worried about the additional cost of conservation that would be greatly resented by them. Surely the same is true when IDBs promote vastly expensive schemes. Conservation seldom costs additional money. It often saves money, as conservation in drainage is a case of "as little as possible".

The hon. Gentleman faces a dilemma. Maintenance works can be damaging when a capital scheme has not been carried out beforehand or when there has been a history of irregular or light maintenance works. The severity of treatment in such cases is frequently equal to that of a new capital scheme. That occurs primarily when regional water authorities adopt a watercourse as a main river, or where a capital scheme has not met the necessary cost-benefit targets. Maintenance works are frequently planned at short notice, to keep work teams employed through slack periods. Channel maintenance of areas in stretches such as the upper Severn division, without prior consultation, resulted in the removal of several other bolts. We hope that the Government will resist the amendment.

Mr. Michael Roberts

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) for his comments on new clause 30. We have taken note of what he said about the provision of sailing facilities by water authorities.

The hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) and Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) expressed disappointment that for conservation we had not matched, in the same words, the approach towards recreation. The House will appreciate that the terms used for recreation— May take steps to secure the use of water and land associated with water for the purposes of recreation"— are entirely appropriate because water authorities have control of most of the water. If we wish to ensure that water authorities take a positive step in the world of conservation, the terms that we use are appropriate to that. I hope that, on reflection, both hon. Gentlemen will feel that we have met the spirit of the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) referred to maintenance. He pointed out that I said in Committee that the Government intended to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy, and that I would consider whether a suitable form of words could be found that would solve the problem of defining what forms of maintenance could be excluded. We considered, as part of the solution, a form similar to that given in my hon. Friend's amendment. However, not only did that present certain legal difficulties; it left certain not wholly satisfactory positions uncovered. We therefore concluded that it would be inappropriate to amend the Bill.

I assure my hon. Friend that that does not mean that we propose to let the new clause impose an unnecessary burden on those concerned. We intend to initiate discussions at an early stage with the MAFF, the National Water Council and the NCC to clarify the best way in which the NCC can be appropriately consulted without any cumbersome paperwork and machinery. We shall then publish to those concerned guidance that may well draw on elements contained in my hon. Friend's amendment, and will specify the types of maintenance on which consultation will be necessary. We hope to operate administratively in the sense of the amendment but to consult as appropriate.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the Minister include in the consultations the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as it is directly affected, along with the NCC?

Mr. Roberts

I shall consider that suggestion.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. If he cannot be more explicit now about the legal difficulties, will he write to me so that I might understand what they are? At the moment I do not understand them.

Mr. Roberts

I shall certainly do that. The Government have introduced new clause 30 because, in the light of the debate in Committee, we concluded that water authorities should be under a positive duty to further conservation, rather than having a "regard" duty under section 22 of the Water Act 1973. Amendment (b) would defeat that purpose. It would put the matter back virtually to where it was. "Furthering" would be mentioned, but the duty would once again be principally to have regard.

Some are anxious about the effect of the new clause on IDBs. It does not require either the water authorities or the IDBs to do anything inconsistent with the Acts to which they already work, namely, the Water Act and the Land Drainage Act. On the contrary, it states so far as may be consistent". Nor does it break with the principle underlying the voluntary agreement that when a private farmer or another person voluntarily goes out of his way to fulfil a public conservation requirement, he should be recompensed by the public.

The bodies to which the new clause applies are all public bodies exercising statutory public functions. The new clause is acceptable in calling on them to exercise their functions in a way that furthers the conservation of natural beauty, flora and fauna where their work has any real implications in those terms. I believe that the House will agree with that approach and will not favour the amendment.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

I listened with interest to my hon. Friend's remarks. However, does not the position remain that in relation to IDBs a few will foot the bill for conservation for the benefit of many? The nation is not paying for the cost of conservation for IDB works. It will be paid for by the ratepayers who live within the local area concerned.

Mr. Roberts

IDBs will have to further the conservation interest. We regard that as proper.

Mr. Dalyell

Let us be clear that there are a number who do not benefit at all from drainage works but, nevertheless, have to pay fairly substantial drainage rates.

Mr. Roberts

I turn to amendment (a) in the name of the hon. Member for Rother Valley, which asks that the words appearing to them to be should be withdrawn. It is a nice point which hinges upon the ability of a water authority to know exactly which works or operations might destroy or damage any of the flora, fauna, geological or physiographical features within an area notified as being of special interest. Certainly, we should expect water authorities to know that. However, we cannot be sure that circumstances will not arise in which a misjudgment is made. It appears to be more sensible to provide that there should be a contravention of the Act only where there is a deliberate intent to destroy or damage. We should accordingly allow the water authority the defence that it carried out works or operations because it appeared to it that the works or operations were not likely to harm the interests of nature conservation.

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Mr. Hardy

No one wishes to put water authorities or drainage boards in the dock for committing offences that arose because they did not know what they were doing. We are trying to ensure not that the offence goes punished or unpunished but that it is not committed. It is less likely to be committed if the amendment is accepted. The purpose of the amendment is to make the NCC' s role more positive.

Mr. Roberts

We consider that we have made the right judgment. There is the recognition that the water authorities and the IDBs have to use their own judgment while meeting their obligation to further conservation.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley wanted an assurance that IDBs have legal power to spend money in pursuance of their existing conservation obligation and that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has power to grant-aid them. They already have that power. The new clause will give them a further obligation and the power to spend accordingly.

The right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) and the hon. Member for Rother Valley raised the important issue of Halvergate. My right hon. Friend and his agricultural colleagues are closely in touch with the current negotiations among the parties to find an acceptable solution to the conservation problems raised by the Halvergate proposal. It is recognised that it is an important issue involving the future of the Broads. They commend the activity of the Broads authority and the Countryside Commission and the co-operative arrangement, which they regard as offering the right sort of solution. All concerned are fully seized of the importance of the issues raised by the Halvergate proposal. I understand that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food feel that an agreed outcome may materialise very soon.

Mr. Ennals

I am grateful for everything that the Minister has said and for his welcome of the agreement that has been negotiated over several months with several authorities. A letter was sent to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from the drainage authority. It stated Almost all the landowners/occupiers in the safeguarded area have been contacted and have agreed in principle, subject to reasonable compensation for the restriction of land use, to sign these agreements. Discussions at local and regional level have failed to find a source of further funds necessary to secure the agreements and at a recent meeting of all parties in London, it was decided it would be appropriate to approach the respective Ministers. That which has been welcomed by the Minister can be achieved only if there is central assistance to enable it to take place.

Mr. Roberts

I wish to make no further comment save to say that my right hon. Friend and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are involved in discussions at this moment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

  1. New Clause 31
    1. c1198
  2. New Clause 32
    1. c1198
  3. New Clause 33
    1. c1199
  4. New Clause 34
    1. cc1199-200
  5. New Clause 35
    1. cc1200-1
  6. New Clause 49
    1. cc1201-18
  7. New Clause 5
    1. cc1219-39
  8. New Clause 6
    1. cc1239-41
    2. REVIEW OF LAW ON ABUSE OF THE COUNTRYSIDE 691 words, 1 division
  9. New Clause 8
    1. cc1241-4
  10. New Clause 15
    1. cc1244-6
  11. New Clause 18
    1. cc1246-8
  12. Clause 28
    1. cc1248-9
  13. Clause 29
    1. c1249
  14. Clause 30
    1. cc1249-50
  15. Clause 31
    1. c1250
  16. Clause 32
    1. cc1250-2
  17. Clause 34
    1. c1252
  18. Clause 36
    1. c1252
  19. Clause 37
    1. cc1252-8
    3. c1258
    4. BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE 34 words
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