HC Deb 03 March 1981 vol 1000 cc248-56

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

12.4 am

Mr. John MacKay (Argyll)

I should like to start by setting this debate in its geographical context. Crinan Moss is set in the estuary and basin of the river Add at the head of Loch Crinan in mid-Argyll. In geological time, it was formed by the outflow of Loch Awe through its south end. Now the outflow goes through the north end. In human time, it is an area rich in history. Prehistoric man has left his mark in the area with standing stones and cairns. More recently, when the Scots arrived from Ireland, they set up the kingdom of Dalriada centred on Dunadd Hill on Crinan Moss where the early kings of Dalriada were crowned.

Over the centuries, man has laboured around the moss to create good farming land, to such an extent that today it contains good acres of farming land. In fact, there are seven farms located around the area of the moss. One of them is the farm of Killinochonoch farmed by my constituent, Mr. Robin Rankin. This farm of 660 acres comprises rough grazing, arable fields and peat bog. I am sure the House knows the difficulties of hill farmers. Over the last few years, incomes in this sector of fanning have declined in real terms. The annual review of agriculture by the Government shows that incomes in this sheep and cattle sector declined by 46 per cent. Killinochonoch is no exception to this economic draught.

Robin Rankin decided that some economic use had to be made of the 150 acres of the 660 acres that are peat bog. He decided to plant trees—an excellent example of the integration of forestry and farming. Trees have already been planted on other parts of the moss which grow very well. Mr. Rankin applied to the Forestry Commission for a basis III dedication. In the course of the consultation, the matter reached the ears of the Nature Conservancy Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlton (Mr. Holland), who is the scourge of the quangos, might consider the Nature Conservancy Council a suitable candidate for both barrels of his double-barrel shotgun.

The Nature Conservancy Council already has a portion of Crinan Moss as a site of special scientific interest. At the head of Loch Crinan, the council has the Moine Mhor site of special scientific interest encompassing about 1,625 acres, partly sand brought down in geological time by the river out of Loch Awe, mud flats and also containing some 800 acres of the moss itself. These acres are drawn from Barsloisnach farm, Ardifuir farm and Barnakil farm. Half of that acreage is potential plantable land.

As a result of Robin Rankin's application and the indication of the Forestry Commission that he was applying for a basis III dedication, the Nature Conservancy Council has decided to extend its SSSI to cover the whole of Crinan Moss. An area of 20 square miles is to be encompassed by the proposal, involving seven farms. Although the owners were informed, if any of those owners had been tenants, there would have been no obligation on the NCC to inform the tenants of its decision to have an SSSI. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will note that omission from the ground rules of the NCC and see whether it can be put right.

The plans showing this proposed SSSI were drawn on a 1-in. Ordnance Survey map with a felt pen. The line indicating the boundary was, in reality, 200 yards wide, which showed a fair disregard for the farming problems of those whose land was crossed by the line. After some clarification, it is learnt that, in addition to the loss, the SSSI includes 116 acres of arable land, 60 acres of Killinochonoch itself and 50 acres of Drimvore. It also takes 140 acres of rough grazing and 815 acres of plantable moss. I am happy to see my hon. Friend here because I suspect that this is a forerunner to the debte on the wild life and countryside that we shall have when the Bill dealing with that subject comes from another place. Can my hon. Friend tell me whether he or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has any power to stop an SSSI? Is the Nature Conservancy Council answerable to anyone? Is there any appeal machinery, or can it designate at will?

To return to Killinochonoch, as I mentioned, 60 acres of that farm are arable and are within the SSSI. Indeed, three good fields are involved in this—I know, because I walked over them. My constituent, Mr. Rankin, asked the Nature Conservancy Council why it had designated those fields. The letter dated 11 February giving the reasons said: There are reasons for including your fields within the boundary of the SSSI which relate to the condition of the adjoining moss. It then went on to talk about other things. No other reasons were given. There are no reasons that I or my constituent can see why these arable fields should be included in this SSSI. What we are puzzled about is what this means in regard to normal farming operations on those three arable fields.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The hon. Member is raising a point of substantial importance. He is right in saying that it will come up in discussions on future legislation. As a matter of some importance, did Mr. Rankin ask for any extended interview with the Nature Conservancy Council, and was this granted or refused?

Mr. MacKay

Mr. Rankin has been having discussions with the Nature Conservancy Council for some time. Indeed, he is to have a meeting on the site a week hence. To be honest, he and I both think from the discussions he has had in the past that nothing much will come of that meeting. I should like to know whether he can, for example, plough, lime and fertilise these fields, or must he receive prior permission from the Nature Conservancy Council? If any of the operations he intends to do in these fields are eligible for grant from the Scottish Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, will he get the grant, or can the Nature Conservancy Council veto such grants? If the council can interfere with normal farming operations on these three arable fields, can it be forced to pay compensation for the loss of income?

Although Mr. Rankin has no rough grazing on his part of this SSSI, Barsloisnach farm has. If that farmer decides to improve his rough grazing, what will be his position in regard to liming and fertilising grants; or will he be prevented from carrying out the work?

The really important issue in this debate concerns the 150 acres of Mr. Rankin's farm which he wishes to plant and which is at the moment bog land. This is part of the whole moss on which there are some 815 acres of plantable land. On the bit that is already an SSSI there are 400 acres which are plantable. With a basis III dedication Mr. Rankin could expect about £200 an acre if he put this land up for sale, which would be a total of £30,000. If he were to plant it himself, it could bring the equivalent of £6,000 annually to his farm. This loss, either of capital or of capital asset, is intolerable. In addition, there is the loss to the nation of the timber that these acres and the other acres in this proposed SSSI could produce. For my constituency there is the potential employment that the trees grown there could give to the people.

Mr. Rankin is a reasonable man and he has offered to sell the 150 acres to the Nature Conservancy Council, but it is not interested. He has offered to lease it to the council, but it is not interested. He has offered to leave extra wide firebreaks to leave some of the moss intact, but the council is not interested. Indeed, I have to say to my hon. Friend that Mr. Rankin feels that the officials of the Nature Conservancy Council with whom he has dealt to date are neither interested in nor sympathetic to farming.

Can my hon. Friend ensure that if the Nature Conservancy Council proceeds with this SSSI it will compensate my constituent for the loss of money that he will suffer as a result, either of buying the land or of leasing it, both of which he has offered? If it is not prepared to do either, I suggest that it has no right to endanger Mr. Rankin's livelihood by sterilising his 150 acres. The Government must find some way of intervening in order to defend this individual against the actions of this public body.

It is not as if Argyll is short of a few odd acres of bog land. I am afraid that we have that in fair abundance. Nor is it as if this 150 acres were unique. As I mentioned, the existing site of special scientific interest covers 800 acres of moss elsewhere, which is in parts no different from the moss to be covered by the new site of special scientific interest. A portion therefore, would be preserved for future study. Indeed, Mr. Rankin is quite prepared to delay planting in order to allow the scientists to study the particular area that he intends to plant and to extract whatever knowledge they can.

There are other factors about the way in which this matter has been dealt with that concern Mr. Rankin and me. Consultations with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and with the district council planning authority were not as full as they might have been. For example, the Department was given two days to comment. It asked for an extension, which was granted. However, in the interim the site of special scientific interest was notified. Can my hon. Friend give the House some assurance that the Nature Conservancy Council will be obliged to give the Department sufficient time to comment and that it will listen to what the Department has to say?

I should not like the House to think that my constituent or any of the other constituents around the moss, or the many farmers who are affected—not just in Argyll but throughout Scotland—are against conservation. It is important that we should try to conserve the areas in our country that show the flora and fauna of our countryside. We must never forget that the most important aspect of conservation is that it is for homo sapiens, and particularly for the hill farmer variety of the species. He is having a difficult time, yet he is the backbone of our hill and uplands areas. It would be a great pity if in the pursuit of conservation we were to make life economically impossible for such people.

If I may slightly amend the words of Oliver Goldsmith, Ill fares the land, to hast'ning ills a prey, Where conservation accumulates, and men decay". It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of Killinochonoch farm, my constituent and his family and farmers in the generations to come could well be at stake as a result of the actions of the Nature Conservancy Council. The economic well-being of other farmers in a similar position could also be at stake. Out of 660 acres, 150 acres is not an insignificant portion of a hill farm. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) will be aware of that.

If the land is doing nothing and is at present useless, and if it could be changed into a reasonable capital asset for the hill farmer, it should be. I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that the Nature Conservancy Council pays proper compensation for its sites of special scientific interest, not just in this instance but in others. If it will not do that, it should withdraw its intention to declare Crinan Moss one. That would enable my constituent and other farmers to use the land as they see best, to capitalise on those acres and to sustain economic life through farming and forestry in mid-Argyll and in the rest of my constituency. Those who want to conserve these areas must face the fact that I and my constituents must live, work and have our being in the countryside. If there is great sterilisation of the areas that can be used economically, it can threaten the way of life of the fanning community on which this country greatly depends, not only for its food but for its way of life.

I hope that my hon. Friend will encourage the Nature Conservancy Council to be a lot more sympathetic in this case. I hope that it will remember that, while its members have nice comfortable jobs that are paid for by the taxpayer, my constituent has to live off the land. If the council prevents him from planting trees on that 150 acres, it will deprive him of a portion of his livelihood. Indeed, it may deprive him of a significant portion of his livelihood. If the council and, to a certain extent, we in this House, are to encourage that, they and we have to face up to the need for compensation for the farmers whose areas are so sterilised.

Mr. Dalyell

As this debate raises important and delicate issues of principle, some of us would like to put it on record that the officials of the Nature Conservancy Council with whom we have come in contact are genuinely interested in farming.

12.21 am
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Hector Monro)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) for raising at this time the question of the Nature Conservancy Council's proposal to notify Crinan Moss in Argyll as a site of special scientific interest, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way he has presented the case of his constituent Mr. Rankin of Killinochonoch. I hope that what I have to say will allay some of his fears and that he will also understand that there are quite a number of procedures yet to be gone through before any final decisions are taken.

I welcome the opportunity which this debate allows me to discuss not only the particular issue at Crinan Moss but the more general issues which it raises which are of concern to many people up and down the country. I hope that hon. Members will think it appropriate if I take time first to outline the statutory provisions by which the Nature Conservancy Council notifies SSSIs and the procedures and criteria which it adopts in so doing.

The NCC has a duty under section 23 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to notify local planning authorities where it is of the opinion that an area of land is of special interest, whether by reason of its flora, its fauna or its geological or physiographical features. There is no statutory obligation on the council to consult or discuss with owners or occupiers of land the notification of scientific interest, but the NCC has instituted procedures for discharging this function which include such consultation.

What I am saying, therefore, is that the actual legislation says that it can go ahead and designate an SSSI without having to consult anybody, but that is not the method by which it proposes to operate in the future and there will be substantially more notification and consultation. But, of course, the council must first obtain information about a site from whatever sources are available, and the value of the area is then assessed in relation to other sites.

The criteria which the council has laid down for its officials to follow in determining whether an area is of sufficient standard to warrant notification are, first, that individual biological sites should contain sufficient habitat to support viable populations of their characteristic species; second, that all main habitat types should be represented; and, third, that sites should as far as possible be evenly distributed throughout the country.

Hon. Members may like to know that the NCC is currently producing a pamphlet which explains the objectives and criteria behind site selection.

Mr. Dalyell

Will that be available, even in draft form, before we consider the countryside Bill in the Commons?

Mr. Monro

I cannot give a firm assurance, but I will certainly let the hon. Gentleman know. I would hope so.

The council having concluded its deliberations, a proposal then emerges and opportunity is provided to owners to comment on the proposal. Relevant Government Departments, statutory agencies and local planning authorities are also consulted at this stage. These comments are then taken into account by the NCC when it formally considers the case for notification of the site.

Following approval by the council—a decision which is certainly not taken lightly—the site is notified to the local planning authority and owners and others concerned are also informed. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll said that the tenant farmers had not been informed, but Crinan Moss has not yet been notified as a site. It is still in the consultative stage.

Those, then, are the fairly comprehensive procedures designed to keep all patties informed and consulted at each stage. I echo here what the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) said. The many officials of the NCC whom I have met are extremely helpful and courteous in trying to resolve, local problems.

I assure my hon. Friend, speaking as a farmer myself, that I well appreciate the difficult period that agriculture is going through, and I assure him that the economic repercussions of any decision are borne in mind. I am sure that in the discussions with his constituents this will have been one of the important topics considered.

I turn now specifically to Crinan Moss, and I want to set out the action and considerations undertaken in respect of this site. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I reiterate some of the facts which he has already outlined so clearly.

The NCC first became aware of an application to the Forestry Commission for a basis III forestry dedication scheme on about 150 acres of land at Crinan Moss as a result of a request for advice on the implications of the application from Argyll and Bute district council. The NCC field staff subsequently arranged to visit the site and conducted a survey of the area. This led to the conclusion by NCC officials that the area was of a standard of scientific interest which warranted notification as an SSSI.

Therefore, the NCC felt that it was its duty to inform the Forestry Commission of its opposition to the planting proposals because of the damaging effect which afforestation would have on the site, whose importance depends upon retaining the existing vegetation.

Subsequently, the NCC's assistant chief scientist, a very senior official of the council, visited the site in June last year. He confirmed not only that the site was of scientific interest but that it was of such a standard and rarity that it merited grade I status—that is, nationally important—in the list of key sites for nature conservation throughout Great Britain.

The site is an outstanding lowland raised mire—one of fewer than 10 examples throughout Britain which still exist in their natural form. Furthermore, the combination of this area and the adjacent Moine Mhor SSSI, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is the only known example in Britain where the complete ecological spectrum from saltmarsh to raised mire still exists.

In these circumstances, it is only fair to question why the NCC did not know of the existence of a site of such importance beforehand. I understand that in 1978 preliminary work on peatlands had indeed shown that an area extending beyond the boundaries of the existing SSSI required a full field survey, but, because of constraints on the NCC's financial and manpower resources, it had not been possible to accomplish this task. It is inevitable, therefore, that the NCC will on occasion—as in this case—discover the full scientific significance only as a result of consultation by statutory agencies on proposals for land use changes.

I come now to the detailed points which my hon. Friend has raised. He has pointed out that the landowner has offered to sell or lease to the NCC the land which was the subject of the basis III application. However, the NCC understandably felt that, until a full site investigation and, if appropriate, formal notification had taken place, it would not have been right to enter negotiations for the acquisition of the site.

I hope that during the forthcoming discussions between the NCC and the owners the possibility of management agreements over the land can now be explored. They can be very valuable to the landowner.

My hon. Friend has also raised issues of general concern arising from this case. He has voiced fears that the notification of large areas of the country will result in severe impediment to the expansion of agriculture and forestry in Scotland. I should add that there is no constraint at present on any action which my hon. Friend's constituent may take on the peatland or on his arable fields. The issue arises if it becomes an SSSI. He will then have to notify the NCC before either a forestry or a DAFS grant is available to him for agricultural or forestry reasons. That is when the financial hardship bites.

If the site is notified as an SSSI—and it is an extremely important site—the NCC will be able to discuss with my hon. Friend's constituent the various alternatives that are open—for instance, a management agreement to maintain the site in roughly its present state, in return for which the NCC would be able, subject to all the discussions, to pay an annual sum, such as it is permitted to do under the Act. Also, the NCC is entitled to use its powers of compulsory purchase. Or there can be a voluntary agreement to purchase between the owner and the NCC. However, that may not be what my hon. Friend's constituent wants. I appreciate that no one would want to lose part of his farm without giving careful thought to the economic repercussions of that step.

I do not want my hon. Friend to think that the NCC would want to come into the site and say"You are forbidden to take any steps, and no compensation is available". There are one or two methods that the NCC has at its discretion, and I hope that it will discuss them with my hon. Friend's constituent before any final conclusion is reached.

There is the other important issue that if Mr. Rankin continues with his request for a forestry grant or a DAFS grant for other agricultural purposes the final arbiter is the Secretary of State for Scotland. My right hon. Friend has listened to this debate and is aware of its significance to Mr. Rankin in Argyll and to other constituents of my hon. Friend.

I know that that final important decision takes place, because I have been involved in one or two cases in England with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in connection with agricultural and forestry grants in exactly the same situation. In every case, the issues have been laid clearly before Ministers and a decision has then been reached. So Mr. Rankin may rest assured that a number of important hurdles have to be crossed before he feels that he has a genuine grievance, and that his case has been given full understanding both by the NCC and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland and by Ministers who know a considerable amount about hill farming and agriculture and forestry generally.

I hope that what I have said will give some reassurance. My hon. Friend is to have discussions with the NCC tomorrow and with Mr. Rankin later this month. There is much to discuss. The matter is perhaps not as cut and dried as my hon. Friend thinks. There are alternative routes which may enable Mr. Rankin and the tenant farmers to receive recompense from the NCC for the denial of what they feel is their right to carry out genuine agricultural or forestry operations.

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

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to One o'clock.