HC Deb 29 October 1981 vol 10 cc1011-6

The Lords agree to the following amendment made by the Commons: In page 26, leave out lines 6 to 29 and insert—— (3) The owner or occupier of any land notified under subsection (1)(b) shall not carry out, or cause or permit to be carried out, on that land any operation specified in the notification unless—

  1. (a) one of them has, after the commencement date, given the Council notice of a proposal to carry out the operation specifying its nature and the land on which it is proposed to carry it out; and
  2. (b) one of the conditions specified in subsection (4) is fulfilled.
  3. (4) The said conditions are—
  1. (a) that the operation is carried out with the Council's written consent;
  2. (b) that the operation is carried out in accordance with the terms of an agreement under section 16 of the 1949 Act or section 15 of the 1968 Act; and
  3. (c) that three months have expired from the giving of the notice under subsection (3).

(5) A person who, without reasonable excuse, contravenes subsection (3) shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £500.

(6) It is a reasonable excuse in any event for a person to carry an operation if—

  1. (a) the operation was authorised by a planning permission granted on an application under Part III of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 or Part III of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972; or
  2. (b) the operation was an emergency operation particulars of which (including details of the emergency) were notified to the Council as soon as practicable after the commencement of the operation.
(7) The Council shall have power to enforce the provisions of this section; but nothing in this subsection shall be construed as authorising the Council to institute proceedings in Scotland for an offence. (8) Proceedings in England and Wales for an offence under subsection (5) shall not, without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, be taken by a person other than the Council. (9) A notification under subsection (1)(b) of land in England and Wales shall be a local land charge.

(10) A notification under subsection (1)(b) of land in Scotland shall be registered either—

  1. (a) in a case where the land is registered in that Register, in the Land Register of Scotland; or
  2. (b) in any other case, in the appropriate Division of the General Register of Sasines.
(11) Section 23 of the 1949 Act (which is superseded by this section) shall cease to have effect; but any notification given under that section shall have effect as if given under subsection (1)(a). (12) Subsection (1A) shall not apply in relation to a notification of any land under subsection (1)(b) where a notification of that land under the said section 23 has effect as if given under subsection (1)(a).'. but propose the following amendment thereto: No. 7, In subsection (3), line 1, after "land" insert "which has been".

Mr. Macfarlane:

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill):

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 8.

Mr. Macfarlane:

The Lords amendments clarify two points in the clause. The first makes it clear that once land has been notified as being of special scientific interest, in accordance with the new procedures agreed by the House, all owners and occupiers, including successors in title, will be required to give the Nature Conservancy Council advance notice of harmful operations. The second amendment makes it clear that the notice must be given in writing.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian):

Deeply concerned though I, along with colleagues, have been for the last nine months with the Bill, and deeply interested in it, may I be forgiven for saying that it will be thought a little odd by thousands of my constituents working in the truck and tractor division of British Leyland that we are discussing this afternoon relative minutiae of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill rather than the very serious, spine-chilling problems that concern the future of British Leyland.

Were there such a thing as gratitude in politics—and we all know that in British politics gratitude is a very rare commodity—the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) would have been allowed to finish his work on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, on which he has borne the heat and burden of 27 sittings in Committee, not to mention our activities on the Floor of the House. However, I suppose that Downing Street had to find ministerial niches—at any rate at Under-Secretary of State level—for those to whom it is obliged for party and personal services far remote from the Wildlife and Countryside Bill and that someone had to give way.

On account of the hon. Gentleman's helpfulness to the Opposition, and his stubbornness in combating what in our view was a less than helpful set-up at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, we regret that the hon. Gentleman is no longer on the Front Bench to see his task through. Nature in the raw, which we have so often discussed in Committee Room 12, is probably less cruel in selecting its victims and certainly less random than Downing Street. In the process of culling her Ministers, the Prime Minister set her sights on the wrong stag when she disposed of the hon. Member for Dumfries. There were many others in the ministerial herd whom we would rather have seen her get rid of. I hope that those remarks will be taken in a kindly spirit and as a "thank you" to the hon. Member for Dumfries.

The new ministerial team has to be asked a direct question on amendments Nos. 7 and 8, compared with which other matters are peripheral. Does the Minister have the authority from the Treasury to provide moneys for conservation agreements? Clause 28 explicitly asks for notification of the Nature Conservancy Council, and the only reason for this is that the NCC can enter into managerial agreements to solve problems. After clause 44 we discover that the level of management payments will be decided by Ministers. If we assume that 11 to 13 per cent. of sites of special scientific interest were damaged last year, if the Nature Conservancy Council is to react, what sums will be needed? The same point, incidentally, applies to the national park authorities.

Admittedly, we do not know how many SSI agreements will be entered into, but there are 3,800 sites. Is there a determination on the part of the Government to finance management agreements? Can we, arising out of these amendments, explore the nature of the bid placed by the NCC to the Department of the Environment in respect of the extra responsibilities that accrue to the NCC as a result of the provisions of clause 28 and of the Bill in general?

The Nature Conservancy Council's most recent surveys show that last year over 8,000 hectares of sites of special scientific interest were seriously damaged. About 50 per cent. of this resulted from agricultural and forestry operations. Even if we ignore the inevitable increase in the amount of SSSI land that will be threatened next year because of the incentives to plough up SSSIs under the new compensation system, about 4,000 hectares of SSSIs will need to be protected annually by the Nature Conservancy Council.

Most of the threats to SSSIs from agricultural operations will come in lowland areas, where the agricultural value of land is at a financial premium. Areas such as the north Kent marshes, the Somerset levels, the Nene washes and the Derwent ings are all prime SSSI grade 1 sites currently under threat. In these places an acre of land costs over £1,000, and the difference in profit between land managed for nature conservation and land under intensive agricultural systems is as much as £80 to £100 per acre.

It is the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which will be determining the value of the management agreements that the NCC will be forced to enter into under the new provisions, and we can be sure that they will reflect accurately the revenue that might have been earned had the land in question been converted for agricultural production. Given these sets of figures, it will be necessary for the NCC to be given at least £3 million in additional revenue if it is to safeguard SSSIs properly.

It is, therefore, of paramount importance that the NCC be given enough money to make its side of the voluntary system work. If it is unable to protect sites because it has not asked for enough money, or because the Government have not given it enough money, landowners will rightly be able to claim that it is not their fault that the provisions to protect SSSIs, and land in the national parks, are not working.

Additionally, it is essential that the NCC should not find itself in a position where it cannot object to a damaging proposal simply because it does not have sufficient funds to finance management payments. If this were the case, sites would be lost by default, without the conservation case even coming to the attention of Ministers. Unless the money is forthcoming, there is no conceivable chance of the voluntary system working. The Opposition's fear is that there has been an underestimate by Government of the finances required to protect sites of special scientific interest and national park land.

Specifically, is it true that the NCC has used the figure of £600 per hectare in calculating how much money it will need to purchase land to ensure the protection of SSSIs? If the £600 per hectare assumed cost is right, is this not a gross underestimate for the lowland areas where SSSIs are most likely to come under threat? I can accept that for a hectare of Crinan moss in remotest Argyll £600 per hectare is not unreasonable, even though my fellow countrymen—and the fellow countrymen of the hon. Member for Dumfries—might value their bog at a steeper price than £600 per hectare. Let us journey from Argyll to lushest, rich Norfolk. Who in their right mind will assess a hectare of Halvergate at £600 a hectare? I am told by Peter Melchett that in Norfolk the going price Ls at least £3,000 a hectare. What about the Nature Conservancy Council's book? Halvergate will be the great test case in assessing how compensation agreements will work in practice. At Halvergate 1,175 acres of SSSIs have to be protected. Halvergate alone will probably cost the Broads authority and the Countryside Commission a cool £1½ million at 1980 prices over 20 years. That is the financial lead that worries us.

5 pm

Does the Minister fully comprehend the mammoth nature of the task that is now being given to the NCC to finance SSSIs and to undertake the problem of renotifying owners and occupiers, involving one letter and possibly more to about 3,800 sites? Some of the sites will have to be revisited by a trained scientist. I understand that on average the NCC has little more than one person per area. There may be as many as 50 sites of special scientific interest in a county. It is possible that 50 to 100 persons will have to be notified on one site.

We return to the issue whether the NCC will have the wherewithal to undertake the task. Resources for the NCC are crucial to the Bill. All our work and its usefulness is triggered by the assumption that the NCC will have the resources for the task that we have given it.

We think that the written notice requirement in Lords amendment No. 8 is important. Without that provision farmers could say "I phoned your office the other day. The girl at the end of the phone said that she would give a message. Did she not pass on the message?" There must be no misunderstanding on notification. That is why we think that the Lords are right to insert the word "written".

It is the resources of the NCC that are the crucial issue. Yesterday my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett)—like my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), he has played a massive part in the Bill—asked about the NCC. His question appears in column 862 of Hansard of 28 October. The Minister replied that he would deal with the question of moneys. I asked him to comment further this afternoon. I think that this is the appropriate moment to insert that question.

Mr. Macfarlane:

I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for his support of Lords amendment No. 8. We, too, believe that it is important to insert the word "written". I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxieties on other matters. I agree that I said yesterday that we could discuss these matters more fully. Parliamentary Question Time does not always provide that opportunity.

It will come as no surprise to the House when I say that I do not speak on this occasion with authority from the Treasury. However, I hope that the issues that the hon. Member for West Lothian has raised will be noted in appropriate quarters. They embrace important aspects of this measure.

We shall be having urgent discussions with the interested parties in the near future. Those parties will include the NCC. On 18 September my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke at a national parks conference. On that occasion he was questioned about finance. At the same time in another place the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, referred to the financial issue at some length. He accepted that, as legislators, we must carry the tabs that follow from the legislative decisions that we ask Parliament to take. He added that the response had been intended to be encouraging.

I am unable to make detailed comments upon the statistics that the hon. Gentleman has produced. The presentation of those figures confirms that he has taken a diligent interest in the passage of the Bill. His knowledge of these subjects is inestimable. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not go into detail on the figures. I shall not be able to deal with land valuation in various regions of the United Kingdom. However, I shall consider the issue that he raised and communicate with him.

We are considering an important amendment. I confirm that we shall be having discussions with the NCC and other bodies to ascertain the estimates that they are making between now and next year. It is important to note that the funds for the NCC over the four years to date have remained at a constant level of slightly over £9 million at 1980–81 prices. Those funds have been supplemented by £4.6 million in 1978–79, £1.09 million in 1979–80 and slightly less than £300,000 in 1980–81 at 1980–81 prices. Those figures indicate that the funding has risen. I assure the House that there will be an urgent dialogue to ascertain the needs and requirements of the various organisations as we try to shape the way to implement this measure over the next few years.

Mr. Dalyell:

I ask for the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak again on the amendment.

I accept that the Minister is new in his job and will find it difficult to go into the detailed figures. However, will he confirm that the assumed cost is £600 a hectare? The areas that need the most protection are often lowland fertile areas, and £600 is an unreal sum at current land prices. One might get away with £600 in a remote mountain area, but such a sum would be unthinkable in areas of Norfolk and other similar areas. We are concerned with lowland and often extremely fertile agricultural areas, and it seems that £600 a hectare is not realistic.

I regret that the Minister does not have the authority of the Treasury. We promise the hon. Gentleman that our interest in the Bill and in the way in which it works will not come to an end this afternoon. Some of us feel that it is deeply unsatisfactory that some hon. Members sweat their guts out for honourable reasons—I include the hon. Members for Harborough (Mr. Fan), Gainsborough (Sir M. Kimball) and Hereford (Mr. Shepherd)—only to find that they are left with no positive assurances. We have made changes to the Bill and some of us will continue to monitor the consequences of our actions, perfect or imperfect though they may be, with not only the Minister's Department but the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and certainly the Treasury. I hope that the hon. Gentleman gets all the authority from the Treasury that he needs. It will be authority in a good cause. If the Bill does not work, the heritage will be greatly damaged and it may prove to be our last chance.

We shall monitor it. If it does not work, I make no off-the-cuff threat. The repercussion was spelt out eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), who is Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment. There are serious people in the House who, albeit reluctantly, might think that the only answer was a system of planning. This would be unacceptable in a number of quarters. However, that may be the alternative if we do not succeed in what we are doing.

Mr. Macfarlane:

I cannot give the assurance about the statistics now. I have indicated that I shall communicate with the hon. Gentleman. I give the assurance that the Government are grateful for the support that he will provide over the next couple of years in monitoring how the legislation is implemented. All Ministers within the Department of the Environment will do everything possible to make certain that the legislation works and will monitor it closely through the relevant agencies. It is a vital piece of legislation. There is still a great deal of work to do. We shall be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 8 agreed to.

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