§ 9.3 pm
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)
I beg to move,That the Code of Guidance on Sites of Special Scientific Interest, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved.The code has been prepared jointly by my Department and those of my colleagues responsible for Scotland, Wales and agriculture in accordance with section 33 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is intended to assist all those who exercise functions under sections 28 to 32 of the Act or who are affected by the exercise of those functions. The code will apply to England, Scotland and Wales. A separate Welsh language translation is also being prepared.
Hon. Members will remember that the concept of a code of practice, conduct or guidance, as it was variously called, evolved during consideration of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill as the cornerstone of the voluntary approach to the protection of nature conservation habitats. Subsequently, the compulsory elements in the Act were also extended and therefore the code was required to explain the various statutory provisions relating to sites of special scientific interest embodied in the Act in addition to providing guidance on administrative procedure and the importance of conservation of special habitats.
My Department prepared the consultation draft of the code with the valuable assistance of the Nature Conservancy Council, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and Timber Growers (Great Britain) Ltd., as well as the other Departments concerned, and I would like to take this belated opportunity to express my thanks particularly to those from outside Government for giving their time so readily in putting the document together. A public consultation exercise was then held from February to April this year. About 150 organisations were consulted and many of these made constructive comments and suggestions for changes, for which I am most grateful.
This enabled us to make a number of improvements in producing the text now before the House, which was finally laid on 5 July. I know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House, myself included, regretted that because of the pressure of other parliamentary business there was not an opportunity to debate this matter before the Summer Recess as we had originally hoped and as I indicated earlier in the year.
I shall now describe the content of the code and comment on some of the main elements. If successful in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at the end of the debate, I should like to make further comments on points that will undoubtedly be raised by hon. Members.
During the Committee debates on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services gave the following outline of what the code would contain:The code will govern procedure. It will stress the importance of SSSIs and the need for conservation, and outline the consultation procedures that owners and occupiers will be urged to respect. The code would govern the NCC's duty to notify sites of special scientific interest, the ways in which sites of special scientific interest are selected, the relationship between the code and existing consultation procedures, agricultural and forestry activities, agricultural and horticultural capital grant schemes, forestry grants, stressing the presumption that grants are put at 302 risk if prior consultation and agreement with the NCC is not reached before work is started, and the financial advantage that might accrue from SSSI ownership and management.—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 4 June 1981; c. 454.]
That is what he said. The version before the House today adheres closely to that initial concept debated so lengthily during the spring and summer of 1981.
This has been no easy task. The statutory provisions in the Act and the various related grant arrangements are themselves complex and it would have been of little benefit to anyone if these had not been explained comprehensively. Therefore, although the text attempts to convey the necessary information concisely and in layman's language, there are limits beyond which the search for simplicity can be pushed only at the expense of accuracy and reliability. I know also that the code may be longer than some people had hoped, but I can assure hon. Members that I have given much thought to this subject and that I do not believe that any significant reduction in the length of the code could be achieved without serious disadvantage.
The introduction to the code emphasises the importance of SSSIs and seeks to impress on all those who may be involved in SSSIs that their conservation and proper management is vital to the maintenance of Britain's diverse wildlife. The House may have noticed that Government Departments have been specifically mentioned. This is because I believe it is essential that, if we are to expect the private sector to co-operate with the voluntary spirit which is essential to the proper working of the SSSI provisions in the Act, Government must set the example.
The second section of the code deals with the procedure by which the NCC notifies SSSIs and deals separately with the provisions which apply to SSSIs already in existence before the passing of the Act and those which apply to new SSSIs. SSSIs notified before the passing of the Act—of which there are about 4,000—remain extant, but the NCC is now required to specify any potentially damaging operations on each site and to inform every owner and occupier of the location and scientific interest of the SSSIs on his land and to provide a list of these operations.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)
Will the Minister tell us specifically how many extra staff and how much extra money the NCC has to carry out this task?
§ Mr. Macfarlane
The hon. Gentleman will be aware from answers that I and my right hon. Friend have given in the past year that the grant to the NCC has been increased by some £600,000. It is, of course, very much for the NCC to decide how that money should be spent, but no doubt some of it will find its way into this type of preservation. The House will not expect me to anticipate further bids and what might occur in the next year, but at present the council's resources represent the better part of 550 working people within the NCC, and they are currently engaged in assessing exactly what the extent of the work must be. With regard to the dialogue between myself and the chairman of the NCC, the door is ever open for him to come and make bids and to tell us exactly what his problems are.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
Is not the NCC already the victim or about to become the victim of a Rayner exercise aimed at substantially reducing its staff?
§ Mr. Macfarlane
The current staff of the NCC is 535. It has been reduced from about 590 in the past two or three years. They have a great deal of work to do and it serves no good purpose for the hon. Gentleman to start making observations of that kind until he is absolutely certain of his facts.
§ Mr. Macfarlane
If I may proceed now, I shall listen to the points raised in the debate, but I have a number of things to say.
The code contains advice to owners and occupiers on how to proceed in the interim.
Turning to the new SSSIs, the Act now requires the NCC to give notice of its intention to notify a site and to consider any representations or objections before making a final decision. That is the essential difference between the old and the new SSSIs. As with the old SSSIs that have not yet been formally re-notified, so with the new SSSIs the code urges owners and occupiers not to carry out any potentially damaging operation during the proposal period.
Further paragraphs outline the way in which the NCC will go about listing potentially damaging operations, the registration of SSSIs as a land charge and the procedures to be adopted when owners and occupiers cannot be traced and when SSSI status is to be removed. A separate paragraph is devoted to statutory undertakers, whom the NCC will inform of SSSI details that may concern their operations.
The functions of the NCC are, of course, matched by the duty on owners and occupiers of SSSIs to consult the council if they wish to carry out any operation that might harm the site. Section III of the code deals with procedures for giving notice of intended operations, including the statutory obligations on owners and occupiers, and also the steps to be taken when farm capital grant or forestry grant is to be applied for. In the case of farm capital grant, the procedures dovetail with the arrangements that have been successfully operated by the agriculture Departments since October 1980. I should like to draw attention to two aspects of them.
First, the Act specifies in section 32 that the NCC is obliged to offer to enter into a management agreement where agricultural grants made under section 29 of the Agriculture Act 1970 are refused in consequence of an objection by it. The point here is that there are other similar farm capital grants—for instance, under EEC arrangements—that are not covered by that Act. To provide parity of treatment, the NCC has agreed that it will offer a management agreement where any farm capital grants are refused in consequence of its objection. Secondly, the procedures reflect a greater involvement for the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service in the process, which is in line with its commitment to further conservation.
Similarly in the case of forestry, although not required to do so by the Act, the NCC has said that it will normally offer to enter into a management agreement where forestry grant and/or felling permission is refused on conservation grounds.
The next section on information helpful to the NCC has been included to encourage owners and occupiers to assist in the NCC's need to have up-to-date information on the scientific interest of a site, on ownership details or on operations undertaken by third parties.
304 Section 5 deal:; with conservation options and explains the purpose of management agreements and the circumstances in which the NCC may, or is obliged to, offer them. Hon. Members will know that the Act also specifies that Ministers prepare financial guidelines on which the compensation provided by management agreements must be based in certain circumstances. A draft of the financial guidelines is at present the subject of a public consultation exercise. The closing date for receipt of comments is this coming Friday, and we shall of course need to study the responses with the utmost care.
However, we recognise the need to finalise the guidelines as speedily as possible. When that has been done sections 32 and 41 of the Act will be brought into force. In the interim, I know that the NCC has made arrangements to review the financial terms of any agreements entered into before the guidelines become available.
The final section deals with the provisions for special protection for certain areas—that is sections 29 to 31 of the Act—which allow for the making of nature conservation orders and provide for compensation or restoration in certain circumstances. Those provisions came into force on 6 September. The code explains the purposes of making orders, the details of how they will work, the circumstances in which compulsory purchase may be used—very much a last resort I hasten to add—and the procedure for making and advertising orders, for making representations and objections and for holding inquiries or hearings. Compensation arrangements are also explained, as are offences and penalties.
That, in brief, summarises what the code contains. It is a comprehensive procedural guide to that part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act which deals with SSSIs and the various associated administrative processes. Once it is approved the code will be printed and distributed free to all owners and occupiers of SSSIs by the NCC as part of its re-notification exercise. It will be available also through HMSO at a price of about £2.
SSSIs are a vital part of our national heritage and the observance of the voluntary arrangements embodied in the code as well as of the legal obligations to which it refers, is critical to their protection. I have no doubt that most of those who are privileged to have such a site on their land welcome the opportunity to cherish it. Failure to do so, whether deliberately or by inadvertence, will, I hope, be rare and should certainly be minimised by the code, which I commend to the House, as well as to all those owners, occupiers and agencies who may in any way be involved in the management and protection of those sites.
§ Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)
I am sure that the House will appreciate that by a quirk of the parliamentary timetable we have a little more time to debate the matter than we might otherwise have had.
§ Mr. Graham
That is right. There are present tonight a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House who served in Committee, and also others who have a strong interest in the subject. The House should be grateful for their presence.
Those of us who had the pleasure of helping to pilot the Bill through the House and who served in Committee will 305 have some abiding memories. One of mine is the deep and intense interest that was shown not only by individuals representing the conservation lobbies but by millions of other individuals. I have pleasant memories of the helpfulness of their comments, both in Committee and elsewhere. They demonstrated to me and to others who came rather late to that aspect of our work the vital interest, importance and value of the subject to millions of people. I thank those individuals and organisations, not merely for their help during the passage of the Bill, but for helping me to prepare myself for this debate.
Another of my abiding memories is the constant battle by those same groups and individuals, aided and abetted by my right hon. and hon. Friends, to press for greater statutory and legal protections, while the Government and those they listened to outside the House put their faith in voluntarism. The Government won, and tonight we discuss one of the first products of that victory—the code of practice for SSSI procedures. The Opposition will not oppose the passage of this code, but there are many questions that we want to ask.
One of the measuring rods was stated with clarity and simplicity in a definitive statement issued by the Nature Conservancy Council on 10 August of this year. When dealing specifically with its responsibilities for SSSIs, it said:The Act's effectiveness will depend upon the willingness of owners and occupiers to enter into management agreements and upon the NCC being provided with adequate funds to finance these.Many a weary hour was spent in Committee and on the Floor of the House in trying to persuade the Minister that voluntary action was not enough, even allowing for the good will of many landowners and farmers. We argued that the ultimate, sometimes immediate, force of law was the only way to safeguard our national heritage. The faith of Ministers in relying on a spirit of conservation overcoming the lure of filthy lucre, whether from the Common Market or direct from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, was touching in the extreme. Supported by virtually the whole conservation lobby, my right hon. and hon. Friends sought to strengthen the projected code of practice.
The Minister then in charge of the Act—the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), whom I am delighted to see in his place—waxed indignant in giving short shrift to what he regarded as the ludicrous assertion that such occupiers may take advantage of loopholes in the Act. He said thatamendment (c) to amendment No. 215 seeks to prevent a situation whereby the moment the NCC even hints that it is thinking of having an SSSI, out come the bulldozers and the drainage equipment and away we go …There is no evidence that immediately any farmer or landowner is approached his worst instincts are aroused.—[Official Report, 13 July 1981; Vol. 8, c. 922.]
I can understand the Minister having no evidence then, but he must have much evidence now. Under section 28(2)(b) the NCC must allow at least three months for consultation, and during that period there is no legal restraint on the destruction of the scientific interest of the site. That thwarts the intention of the Act.
What will the Minister do about such a situation? Let me give some examples that have been given to me, but they could well be queried by the evidence that the Minister possesses. I shall be delighted to listen to him.
306 My first example concerns West Sedgemoor in Somerset, which the Minister must know personally. Since 1978 this has been the subject of agreements between the NCC and MAFF, which made a number of capital improvement scheme grants. This spring the NCC, relying upon the powers in the Act and using the new procedures, began to designate this site as an SSSI. Almost immediately three landowners began damaging pump drainage schemes affecting 50 acres in the heart of the moor. That scheme, although opposed by the NCC, is now completed.
The farmers did not act illegally, but used the legal loophole that safeguard provisions do not apply until a site has been confirmed as an SSSI. Section 29—holding the fort for a further 12 months—was not in force, so it could not be used. How widely or sparingly does the Minister intend to support the NCC's request to invoke section 29?
The first test of the Minister's intentions in this matter will come next week when the Secretary of State has to consider the request of the NCC for the 12 months' procedure for Battersley Woods in Hampshire. From the consultations that I have had with conservation organisations I know that there is a suspicion—no more—that the Government intend to use the powers of section 29 sparingly. I hope not. Why legislate, create an impression of protection and of legal sanction and then run away? The power of section 29 is there to be used. I believe that any potential SSSI considered for designation must be eligible for section 29 protection. Will the Minister confirm and agree to that premise?
Ripon parks in Yorkshire is an even more breathtaking illustration of what is seriously amiss both with the spirit of voluntaryism and the effect of the legislation. Ripon parks is an area of ancient flower meadows managed by the Property Services Agency, which, as the House knows, is part of the Department of the Environment empire. It was to be one of the first for designation under the new procedures. When one of the three farms was to be relet in March 1982, the NCC requested that the reletting be postponed until the notification procedure operated. The PSA refused. The NCC wanted to talk to the prospective tenant and asked for his name. Again the PSA refused. Within days of the new tenant being in possession he was notified of the intended designation, but within a matter of weeks he had ploughed up 16 acres of the best meadow land and treated a further 40 acres with herbicides and fertilisers. It was legal and approved by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—it was an increase in the acreage of arable land—but disastrous for conservation. That land was particularly wrecked.
I have illustrations from a number of cases to which I am sure other hon. Members will refer. I merely mention them in passing—Walland marsh in Kent, Halvergate marshes in Norfolk, the Berwyn mountains in Wales, Derwent Ings in Yorkshire, Pevensey levels in Sussex, the Stort valley in Hefts and Essex and riverside sites in Norfolk and Leicestershire. I am told that there is grave danger and concern that the procedures which the code and the Bill are designed to protect are in serious danger because of the lack of effectiveness. The key to making the Act effective, as with much else, is the level of financial support. As the NCC is the chosen instrument, it is crucial that it is not only maintained and expanded, but is given specific grants to fulfil its responsibilities for SSSIs.
307 We all know that that task is daunting. The remit before the NCC is enormous. The Minister has been fair to the House. He has given the House a wide range, not only of that for which the NCC is presently responsible, but the additional duties that will fall on the NCC as a result of our debate tonight. The NCC tells us that if it does its job properly merely to carry out the additional duties it will have to visit and discuss matters with more than 30,000 people, which is quite beyond its resources.
The National Farmers Union, in a brief which many hon. Members received today, puts the dilemma fairly succinctly. It states:Farmers are highly sensitive to the receipt of legalistic documentation concerning their farms. Misunderstandings and loss of farming goodwill have already occurred where notifications from the NCC have not been backed up by visits to the farms by the NCC field staff with the ability to explain the Council's intentions to farmers and allay their fears. Whilst the Code should help here, there is no substitute for a dialogue between the NCC and the farmer on the farm; this may well mean that Government will have to find more resources to provide additional NCC staff if its own legislation is to be successful.In the long, distant days when the Government still required parliamentary support to get the Wildlife and the Countryside Bill on to the statute book, Ministers in both Houses gave assurances and tried to assuage any fears of inadequate financing with smooth promises that all would be well. In another place, Lord Avon, speaking for the Government, said:The point has been made repeatedly that the success of conservation work will depend to a large extent on the funds which are available and, especially, on the amount of money which is available to the Nature Conservancy Council.Later in the debate, Lord Avon said:The Government recognise that additional tasks will devolve upon the NCC as a result of the passage of the Bill through this House… I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will take these additional tasks into account when considering the NCC's future level of grant.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 1981; Vol. 419, c. 93-104.]
If that is to be taken as a manifest of the Government's intention, let us look at what precisely has happened. The grant for the NCC for 1981-82 was £10,047,000. Simply to allow for maintaining normal activities, this year's grant should have been raised to £10,670,000. The NCC asked that that be increased by between £950,000 and £1,130,000 to take account of its additional duties under the Act.
As the Minister has already said, the NCC received an additional £600,000, but, as Lord Avon said on 11 February in reply to a parliamentary question—and as the Minister has confirmed—the difference of £600,000 between the two figures does not mean that that sum has been allocated specifically for new responsibilities. The grant-in-aid will cover the whole range of the council's activities and it will be for the council to decide how to distribute the fund among them.
In the light of the range of additional duties and the considerable increase in staff required to carry out those duties, we are now being told by the Government that the additional figure is £600,000—a measly figure—and it is woefully inadequate, even before the NCC begins to look at the task.
The number of NCC staff is already fewer than is required to do the job. The Minister knows—as do those hon. Members who are interested—that there is a particular shortage of assistant regional officers and land agents, upon whom most of the SSSI work will fall. The 308 Minister also knows that there are no AROs in Lincolnshire or Warwickshire. Lincolnshire has lost 50 per cent. of its ancient grasslands in the last few years. Fifteen SSSIs are under threat from forestry operations.
The Minister knows that the chairman of the NCC has announced that if effective conservation is to continue under the new Act, at least an additional £20 million will be needed over the next 10 years. To treat the NCC in such a way is a lousy start to a dialogue between the Government and the NCC.
The hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro)—I am delighted to see him in his place—told the House on 27 April 1981 that every year, on average, at least 8,700 hectares of SSSI land were damaged and that at least 2,400 hectares were destroyed every year. Does the Minister really comprehend the money that will be needed by the NCC if it is remotely to arrest that vandalism and desecration of our heritage?
Taking the NCC figure that 12,000 acres a year need to be safeguarded, either by management agreements or outright purchase, and assuming £1,000 an acre for purchase and £80 to £100 an acre for management agreements, the :NCC will require almost £4 million for those purposes alone. What will happen? Without adequate finance, the Nature Conservancy Council will continue to refrain from objecting to all but the most serious threats and sites will be lost by default. There is anxiety and unease among conservationists that the NCC, faced with the real dilemma of committing huge proportions of inadequate funds to one or two very costly sites, has to forgo designations that it should pursue.
Will the Minister say something about the role of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Under the code, the Minister of Agriculture, in considering grant applications,has a duty to exercise his functions so as to further conservation of the special features of SSSIs so far as is consistent with the purposes of the grant scheme".The Under-Secretary referred to section 29 of the Agriculture Act 1970. The Minister can see the nonsense of the Ministry of Agriculture financially assisting farmers to destroy an SSSI with taxpayers' money, so will he get his Department to withhold grants for work on threatened SSSIs? Otherwise, the code will be a paper tiger.
I shall illustrate the dilemma that faces the Nature Conservancy Council. Walland marsh lies south of the village of Brookland on Romney marsh. It is a core area of 142 acres. There are unique flora and fauna that provide the habitat for nine bird species listed in schedule 1 of the Act, including the blacktailed godwit, the bearded fit, the Garganey duck and the white-fronted goose. Endeavours have been made for two years to obtain further grants from the Ministry of Agriculture to drain the land. The owner has presented the NCC with a choice, and has been very fair. The choice is either to purchase the land for £250,000 or to buy a three-year moratorium on draining operations at £23,000 a year, totalling £69,000.
I have serious questions to pose to the Minister. Will he tell the House the part played by his Department in subsequent developments? Did the NCC request additional aid towards either purchase or management agreement finance? In the light of previous ministerial assurances regarding moneys available for specific projects such as Walland marsh, what was the Minister's response? Did he in any way inhibit the NCC from using 309 its funds to purchase? I can envisage the abandonment of hundreds of SSSI designations, due to the NCC's being starved of funds.
Paragraph 6 of the code, referring to the notification of SSSIs after 30 November 1981, provides for notification to be sent tothe appropriate Agricultural Departments, the Forestry Commission, Water Authorities and, where appropriate, Internal Drainage Boards and other relevant bodies.Will the Minister assure us that among the other relevant bodies we are including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Council for National Parks, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the British Association of Nature Conservationists and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation. Are those the sorts of bodies that are likely to comment?
§ Mr. Macfarlane
The hon. Gentleman may have been reading the recent article in The Sunday Times on Walland marsh. It is untrue to say that anybody in the Government acted without consultation with the appropriate authorities. When the hon. Gentleman refers to the role of Walland marsh and the exclusive flora and fauna that it contains, I have to point out that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds disposed of that acreage some years ago, so that matter is not now of the utmost importance. That was the view of the NCC.
§ Mr. Graham
The Under-Secretary's information differs from what I was told while preparing for the debate. I will re-check my facts.
May we be told why there are no references in the code to the financial arrangements? The Under-Secretary referred to the consultation exercise that is taking place, but surely Parliament should have an opportunity to comment on the financial arrangements before they are put into effect. Consultations are taking place and observations will be made, but at what stage will the House have an opportunity to comment on the financial arrangements?
Rumour has it that the sort of compensation and other payments envisaged in the consultation paper will disappoint many people. There is a difference between what they were promised and what is now proposed.
If the voluntary system is to stand any chance of success, sufficient funds must be made available to the NCC. It needs more funds, because without them it is likely to fall on three fronts. It needs funds for the speedy notification of new and existing SSSIs. The original date for the completion of notification was December 1982, but I have been told that a more realistic date would be as late as 1984. Because more time is required to complete that exercise it will inevitably mean that important sites for SSSI status will be lost. I am told that voluntary bodies are having to purchase some sites to make sure that they are not lost to the public.
Secondly, the NCC needs additional funds to engage in adequate discussion and consultation with landowners wishing to carry out damaging operations. We have heard from the NFU about the value of such face-to-face consultation.
Thirdly, the NCC needs additional money for management agreements, payments of compensation and purchases with grant-aid by the council or other appropriate bodies. The NFU has said that where extra funds are required they must be made available.
310 This has been a disappointing beginning to a long-awaited renaissance in conservation. The Government must do better if they wish to retain the faith of the House.
§ The Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services (Mr. Tom King)
The hon. Gentleman will know from our discussions on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill that there are differences of opinion on the best way to proceed. However, I think that we all share the objective of protecting the environment and the countryside. That is dear to every sensible Member.
Will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that, while he may make fair criticisms, the Opposition will make every effort to make our approach work, in the interests of everybody in this country?
§ Mr. Graham
If the right hon. Gentleman is asking whether we want the code of practice to work, the answer is "Yes". To the extent that it is within our power to make it work we shall do so, but the Government have more power in that regard. Individuals may look for loopholes to exploit, but the key to success is the availability of funds, and only the Government can make those funds available.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Does my hon. Friend accept that it is important that the scheme starts off with a measure of Government generosity in cash terms, because that will win friends among all groups? If the scheme appears to be started in a spirit of meanness, it will destroy any hope of the voluntary code working properly.
§ Mr. Graham
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I accept that they are only the first faltering steps in the exercise of the guidelines, but discussions are already taking place with the NCC about future funding. I hope that in the light of those discussions and contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House this evening there will be more generous funding in the future. On that basis, the Labour Party not only does not oppose but welcomes the code as a first step towards the essential protection of our heritage.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) showed a great spirit of cooperation and rightly emphasised the importance of funding. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his presentation of the guidelines that will be so important in the future.
There is no doubt that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 has many important implications, has aroused much interest, and has strengthened enormously the legislation on wildlife and its habitat. It placed a substantial responsibility on the Nature Conservancy Council in relation to sites of special scientific interest. I must declare an interest, in that I am the newest member of the NCC, having been appointed only yesterday. However, I am speaking for myself, because I have not discussed with the council its past or future attitude to the guidelines.
The guidlines place a heavy workload on the NCC, especially for the next two to three years while the pre-1981 notification procedure is carried out. There is no doubt that the staff will be stretched to the limit during that time. The issue cannot be resolved by letter. It must be resolved by visits, discussions, subsequent advice and perhaps legal transactions. The staff will do its best, but we cannot expect miracles. The Act called for the code of 311 guidance, which is a culmination of the discussions between the Departent of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The result highlights the difficulty of transforming legislation into something warm and simple that the layman can read and understand. Perhaps when my hon. Friend the Minister has had more time and can deploy the financial guidelines, he can put both into a popular version for distribution to the public.
Wildlife and land conservation must proceed with mutual trust and confidence. At present, there is much good will among many conservation organisations, landowners, farmers and foresters. The attitude of the Government and the NCC to SSSIs must maintain that good will. I welcome the encouraging signs that I have received during the past two weeks in the form of briefs from groups interested in the debate. The National Farmers Union put forward a most encouraging brief in a spirit of co-operation that I wish to see developed, as did the Timber Growers Organisation (Great Britain) Ltd.
I hope that we shall see the same spirit of co-operation from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, from the water and drainage boards, from the Ministry of Defence, which seems to have a bigger and bigger impact the more one looks into the matter, from the Forestry Commission, and from the PSA. All those public undertakings, Government bodies and Ministries have to show the same spirit of co-operation as is being deployed by the Department of the Environment, the conservationists and the NFU.
There is much good will that should be tapped and brought together. This will mean a positive approach from Ministers and from the chairman of the NCC to keep together, and bind together these bodies to make sure that they co-operate. It is essential to the way that we proceed. The last thing that we want is to proceed by law suits, orders, and heaven knows what. That is no way to develop our interest in the countryside.
We do not want to put too much emphasis on the one or two bad cases that have received headlines. We have to look at the broad picture of thousands of SSSIs, all being managed extremely well, with the probability that they will continue to be managed extremely well. In many cases they have enthusiastic owners such as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services. He delights in having his SSSI, and that is so with the majority of owners who welcome the privilege of having an SSSI. There are a few irresponsible owners who bring the whole spirit of the legislation into disrepute. We must not overreact to those but bear in mind the thousands who are so helpful.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
If all SSSI owners were good, there would be no need for the legislation. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the real problem is that we have to deal with the bad ones rather than with the good ones who do not need legislation, and that the test of the voluntary code is not how it deals with the good but how it deals with the bad owners?
§ Sir Hector Monro
That is a fair point, but we should not brand all owners of SSSIs as black sheep. We should look at the totality and not be carried away by the one or two bad cases, in which the NCC and the Minister, if necessary, will take the appropriate action under the powers provided by the Act.
312 The Act has sharpened interest in conservation. That was intentional. The view of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was that if we brought in legislation it would focus attention on the countryside and on to what had been happening, and how he felt our policy should be deployed in the future. To that end, the Act has been singularly satisfactory.
As my hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the financial guidelines are as important as the guidelines we are discussing in the order tonight. They are complementary and essential to our reading of the Government's attitude in the future. The Bill originally talked of £700,000 additional expenditure to cover everything in the Act. We have heard tonight that a further sum of £600,000 has been made available. However, as we proceeded in the Committee it seemed that a larger and larger sum would become essential if the true spirit of the legislation on SSSIs was to be carried out.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to say a little more about how he sees the relationship between the NCC and himself in the spending of money on SSSIs, whether on management agreement, purchase or on other forms of grant that could be of assistance to maintain an SSSI in the condition that we all wish it to be.
If we are to retain the confidence of the conservationists and of the farmers, who largely own the SSSIs, we must be seen to be fulfilling the spirit of the Act. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rightly sheltered the heritage and countryside from any substantial cuts that have been necessary in public expenditure in his Department. I hope that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will see its way to assisting and playing its part in maintaining the countryside. We all want to see rural interests maintained. Maintaining the population in rural areas is an important part of Government policy.
I believe that we are very much on the right lines as set out in the guidelines but time, understanding and diplomacy will be needed if we are to get the best out of the Act and from the guidelines.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
Working as hard as the hon. Gentleman did last summer on what was then the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, is it not a matter of some regret to him that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not been more forthcoming? It was the Opposition's impression that something had been achieved in the way of MAFF money.
§ Sir Hector Monro
I have been away from the consultation and discussion between the Department and the Ministry for over a year now and it would be difficult to make the comment that the hon. Gentleman invites me to make. The guidelines have been published and the financial guidelines are under discussion, and this is the moment to raise an eyebrow when the question is posed whether the MAFF will participate in a way that relates to its responsibilities in promoting good will and continuing the high standards of the countryside that we all want to see. The future holds the answer to the case of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) as well as the present. I am fortunate in being in a better position now to watch what is happening than I was over the past 12 months.
We must give great credit to Sir Ralph Verney, his colleagues and his officials for an encouraging start. They 313 are informing owners of their rights and duties. They are entering into consultations and they will make decisions in the light of the finance that is available to them. I am sure that they will implement the guidelines with a light and friendly hand and very much in the spirit that we feel 314 should be displayed by the Nature Conservancy Council. We shall need co-operation and understanding in the countryside and not bitterness and controversy. Time is a wonderful healer. We will have that time if everybody is sensible. The future augurs well if we look to it with care and consideration. We must not rush our fences in the first year of the guidelines.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
I wish briefly to refer to the code of guidance for sites of special scientific interest as it is likely to affect Norfolk. I make no apology for that because few landscapes are suffering from so much wanton damage as those of Norfolk and none is under greater threat, especially sites of special scientific interest.
Norfolk has a most distinctive landscape. It is unique in wildlife habitat. The Norfolk Broads and the surrounding wetlands represent no less than one-fifth of the wetland habitats of Britain. The county has always been intensively farmed and heavily used for recreation. In the past 20 years commercial pressures have mounted to such an extent that wholesale destruction is now in prospect.
The attack on this irreplaceable national asset is being mounted by commercial and farming interests, massively subsidised by the taxpayer and, perhaps more alarming, by public authorities—for example, by the Forestry Commission, the Anglian water authority and the internal drainage boards.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) referred to some of the problems with the code. We know that when an SSSI is proposed there is a consultation period of at least three months before it can be confirmed by the Nature Conservancy Council's commission. During the consultation period the site can be destroyed by the landholder. There are examples of that in the Norfolk wetlands.
It is clear that the Secretary of State does not envisage the frequent use of 12-month stop notices and that he is likely to starve the NCC of funds to implement them. On the scale of compensation envisaged, the NCC will be able to save only a handful of sites on its present budget. That would be two or three a year out of the 4,000 in existence.
I raised this matter with the Minister during his speech. I should like him to confirm that the NCC is the subject of a Rayner exercise aimed at reducing staff. That is important as it cannot complete its work without the present level of staff. There is no guarantee that landholders will be refused agricultural grants for destroying SSSIs during the three-month consultation period.
The big issue in Norfolk is the proposed Halvergate scheme to drain 6,000 acres of the largest remaining wetland habitat in Britain around the Norfolk broads, much of it an SSSI. It is a matter of international importance. However, minor schemes that destroy SSSIs are going on all the time in the county. There is insidious destruction that appears to be uncontrollable.
In the past 18 months alone a list of SSSIs that have been significantly damaged was provided to me by the Norfolk Naturalist Trust, which includes Bridgham and Brettenham Heath in Breckland, which is a distinctive habitat, much of which has been preserved by the Ministry of Defence as a battle area; Horsey mere on the Broads, Winterton dunes, the Ant marshes, Boughton fen, Burntfen broad and the Dersingham bog. The damage has not stopped. About 1,000 acres of wetland around the Norfolk Broads have been lost in the past six months alone. There will be further losses on Sandringham Warren near King's Lynn.
The Anglian water authority proposes a flood protection scheme in the Waveney valley at a cost of £1W9 316 million, which will encourage landowners to improve the riverside water meadows and destroy a wealth of plant life around Geldeston. The planning officer of Norfolk county council has said that no study of the environmental impact of that scheme has been carried out.
The Anglian water authority proposes to deepen the bed of the River Wensum near Fakenham and so improve 1,200 acres of grazing. Virtually all the cost will be met from public funds, 22 per cent. by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That is the main viable trout river in Norfolk and one of the only two rivers in the county that support a small population of otters. It is in an area designated to be of landscape importance. The otter population would be eliminated and there would be a severe effect on angling. The Norfolk county council planning officer said that there would be a severe effect on the landscape.
All that destruction is paid for out of public funds. It is all based on the bogus premise that anything that improves agricultural profits is all benefit and no cost. None of those schemes has been considered from an environmental point of view or subjected to environmental impact analyses.
I now come to the present cause cèlébre of the Norfolk landscape, which is the Halvergate levels. It is an important test case for the operation of such legislation. It is an area of 5,800 acres of grazing marsh south of the river Bure in east Norfolk. Post war, the ornithological interest of the area has been reduced by more efficient drainage in 1947, but it is a site of European importance for wintering wildfowl. Much of it is an SSSI.
The Lower Bure, Halvergate, Fleet and Acle marshes internal drainage board, a remarkably unaccountable quango, wishes to carry out further drainage improvements to convert those 5,800 acres to arable and improved grazing. The cost would be £2.3 million, of which £850,000 would be available initially as grant in aid. Those levels are the largest single block of grazing marsh left in Broad land. Their destruction threatens the policy of the Broads authority of maintaining tracts of grazing marsh because of their scenic and scientific qualities. The public subsidy to the farmers concerned would amount to £1,700 per hectare.
The Countryside Commission has said that the proposed scheme would havean unacceptable impact on nationally important landscape".The Countryside Commission called for a public inquiry into the grant applications. The Broads authority called for a public. inquiry. My colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals), and I have asked for a public inquiry. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has consistently refused any such public inquiry. In my view, a public inquiry on the matter is absolutely essential.
The director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England said:the most extraordinary feature of this huge drainage proposal is the ease with which massive sums of public money can be made available for the promoters of it… The public could well end up paying for the destruction of one of the key landscapes of the Broads in a scheme which could well bring no public benefit".At the moment, the Broads authority is hoping to pay compensation to farmers for not draining less than one-fifth of the total area of the Halvergate levels. It has in mind £35,000 a year. The farmers want £65,000 a year index-linked for ever.
317 In recent months, the IDB has removed one section of the levels amounting to 1,300 acres from its proposed scheme. So much for the need for the scheme in the first place. Meanwhile, the president of the Association of Drainage Authorities—whoever he is—has confidently promised that the scheme will go ahead, with heaven knows what authority.
The director of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England estimates that if the Halvergate scheme goes ahead, a further 18,000 acres of wetlands in the Broads will be drained. To safeguard the most valuable of those on the present scale of compensation on the Halvergate model would cost £1 million a year, and that is for just one part of the wetland area around the Broads.
§ Mr. Macfarlane
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. I understand his anxiety following some of the rumours and observations that have been made in recent months about a matter which clearly concerns him and certainly concerns my right hon. Friend and myself. I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that for the purposes of this debate the main area of contention does not include the SSSI which we are discussing this evening.
§ Mr. Garrett
Does the Minister mean the main area of contention of the scheme that I am describing?
§ Mr. Garrett
Some of the SSSIs in the general area have already been destroyed. Let me give an example. Recently, since the passage of the Act, one farmer in the Halvergate area drained 40 acres of grazing land, although 22 acres of it were in a site of special scientific interest. That is vandalism against which we have no redress.
Let me give another example of this uncontrolled destruction. Martham broad is not only a site of special scientific interest; it is a site scheduled under the RAMSAR convention as being of international importance. It is one of only three remaining broads not to have its water quality impaired by a smothering of its aquatic flora by iron ochre and silt. During 1980, 500 acres of pasture were drained, damaging the Broad's water quality. Now—and I mean now—the owner wishes to double the capacity of the pump, and the local IDB is willing to bypass the broad and save it from destruction only on payment of £11,500 by conservation interests. How can the Government stand by and witness such a threat to a site which has been scheduled as being of internatonal importance, as well as being one of national importance?
§ Mr. Dalyell
It is profoundly depressing, because in Committee I and others ground on and on—in my case, for one and a quarter hours, briefed by Mr. Long, Peter Melchett and others. The Minister remembers very well, because he had to bear the brunt of it. At the end of the day we were promised that something would be done about it. It is very depressing to find that 15 months later nothing whatever has been done about it.
§ Mr. Garrett
My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) is quite right. It is depressing to a lot of us in Norfolk.
§ Mr. Garrett
I shall not give way.
The county of Norfolk is being reduced to a grain prairie by this so-called improvement. Half the county's hedgerows were destroyed between the end of the war and 1970. Today, two-thirds of them have gone. In these most important areas of special scientific interest around the broads, on breckland and in the county landscape, this code of practice gives insufficient protection.
So far we have had a good-mannered debate. In my opinion, a Cabinet of rich farmers have no interest in safeguarding the environment and landscape of our country. Perhaps I am being unfair. The party of property interests has little interest in safeguarding the environment. There is a growing sense of outrage among my constituents, the people of Norfolk, about what is being done to their landscape. We do not believe that the code will protect it.
§ 10.9 pm
§ Mr. John Farr (Harborough)
I welcome the code which has been introduced tonight. I apologise to the House for being late and not hearing what the Minister said when he opened the debate. I welcome the code and the voluntary system. The voluntary system has been decided upon after extensive consultation in Committee and the other place. The country wants the system to be given a fair chance of success. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) nodding assent, as I knew that he would. To do that, the Act must be properly funded.
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on his appointment to the Nature Conservancy Council. I am sure that the House agrees with me. From our knowledge of his activities during the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, when he was such a distinguished Minister, we are certain that the NCC has gained a valuable colleague who will assist materially in its discussions.
The implementation of the Act must be properly funded. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries has touched upon the present inadequate funding. The hon. Member for Edmonton mentioned other problems relating to funding. Due to the hiatus between the passing of the Act in 1981 and its full implementation, there have been one or two worring cases where the Nature Conservancy Council does not seem to have been prepared to use its powers to the full. It may be that the NCC's reticence is due to its lack of funds. I shall not go into the details of the examples which have been mentioned, but I do not believe that the NCC was asking for an excessive amount when it requested an extra £950,000 to £1.13 million.
I do not regard the extra allocation of £600,000 that it received to cover its new activities as adequate. The NCC desperately needs more money to support three major phases of putting the Act into effect. First, it has the mammoth task of informing all owners and occupiers of existing and new SSSIs, which must be done without delay and if possible completed within 12 months. That involves over 4,000 sites and 40,000 individuals and is fundamental to the effective working of the SSSI system. I understand that the NCC has about 100 members of staff only available for that work. At the first sign of any slippage in the field, I hope that the NCC will return to the Secretary 319 of State and ask for extra funds to enable it to employ staff to complete the essential work. Without it the system will be meaningless.
Secondly, there could be a flood of responses to the notification process, not all menacing. There will be many genuine attempts by owners to co-operate. If the voluntary approach is to work, long and detailed discussions may be needed which will require tremendous perseverance and time. It is no use writing to an occupier or sending him a form to tell him that he has an SSSI on his land. He must be visited, and the complex system must be explained. Even those of us who were on the Standing Committee do not fully appreciate it. Extra staff will be needed.
Thirdly, when the voluntary agreements have been reached the NCC must have adequate funds for compensation payments. It must not be deterred from seeking agreement because of lack of resources. If adequate funds are not available, the voluntary system will fail, to our deep regret.
I hope that the NCC will keep the Government informed of its problems. Every time that its resources are insufficient to fulfil a particular need or to safeguard a site, it must tell the Government.
§ Mr. Graham
In Committee the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) gave a categoric assurance that if the NCC needed funds for specific projects the money would be available. Perhaps requests have not been made. The NCC may be in the dilemma of trying to keep itself or the Government out of trouble by going through the exercise of deciding whether to ask for more money. I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that when the NCC decides that a site should be designated and requires additional funds it should have the courage to ask the Government.
§ Mr. Farr
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. The NCC would be failing the country if it did not go to the Government. It has a duty to do so. It would not be discharging its obligations unless it notified the Minister right away.
I hope that the NCC will make itself heard. It should let the Government know every time that resources are needed to safeguard a site or when it has insufficient staff to put in train the new duties that the Act has thrust upon it. I believe that if it approaches the Government it will have the full support of the House and the country.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
I apologise. I was caught napping and the Minister's speech was well under way before I realised that the debate had started.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on his appointment to the Nature Conservancy Council. I hope that he will be a tower of strength on the NCC and persuade his former colleagues to provide adequate funds.
Everything that needs to be said has been said by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) who made a first-class criticism of what many of us feel are the weaknesses of the code of guidance in an Act that we all greatly welcomed. But there are loopholes that still need to be closed.
One alarming loophole is the three-month provision under section 28(2)(b), and this needs to be dealt with.
It is nonsense that we should be ploughing up pasture land at a time when we have just had a huge harvest. We 320 are exporting grain crops. There is a grain mountain in Europe. We have almost excessive production. I gave up farming some years ago. I am the idiot who sold his farm for £200 an acre only to see it sold some 10 years later for about £1,500 and acre. At the time I gave up farming, corn yields amounted to 30 cwt to two tons an acre. Now the figure is between four tons and five tons an acre. It is now possible to produce species of barley and wheat which will mean even higher yields. We are talking in terms of six tons, seven tons and even eight tons an acre. Is there really a need to plough up all this pasture land?
I have recently spent a fortnight in the Alpine region of Yugoslavia. I welcomed the sight of small farmers coming out with their scythes to cut pasture land. The wild flowers are still present. It is marvellous to see them. It is a way of life that takes one back in time. I wonder why we are going ahead at the present pace and destroying our pastures and wetlands. I do not believe that we can control the pace. There is a need for legislative powers if we are to save our countryside. Over the last 10 years, the Isle of Wight has changed out of all recognition. Fields of heavy clay which I never expected to be ploughed up are now producing corn. Cattle are hardly to be seen in many areas of the countryside. I am sure that the same applies in many other parts of the country.
There is need to look again at a system that encourages farmers to plough up land through grant aids and drainage schemes. Discussions should take place between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the whole question of grant aid to see whether there should not be a change of emphasis. The figures for compensation payments will be traumatic. One area in Kent that has been quoted is likely to cost up to £100,000 a year for about one quarter of the area of a site of special scientific interest. Huge sums of money are involved. There has been mention of figures of up to £1 million. I do not believe that any Government can face such compensatory amounts. It is becoming ridiculous.
A change of attitude is needed in many areas. Time is not on our side. The old time farmer has gone, to be replaced by huge fanning companies operating on institutional money. The reason in known. With huge bank overdrafts that have been costing 15 per cent. or more, the farms have to be efficient. They are efficient. We are possibly the most efficient agricultural nation in the would, certainly the Western world. One has however, to count the cost. I question the necessity for this approach in view of the enormous production that has been achieved.
I welcome the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the code of guidance. I hope that it will succeed. I welcome the attitude of the National Farmers Union. It is right in wanting to see people co-operate, but the NFU itself has been let down over straw-burning. The code on straw-burning does not work. There is need for much greater penalties if the few remaining hedgerows in vast areas of corn-growing land are to be preserved.
There is need for serious consultation between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on grants. It is nonsense to encourage people to carry out all this work, to drain land and to bring it into cultivation. It is no longer necessary. In war time, it was necessary. It is not necessary now. With those words, I welcome the code and hope that it will succeed.
§ Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)
It is just like old times to see so many of the hard core of the Committee on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill and to participate in almost a continuation of those discussions.
I certainly add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on his appointment to the Nature Conservancy Council. That is a very wise appointment indeed. The way in which he conducted our proceedings when he was in charge of the Bill made it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that he had enormous interest and sympathy for the countryside as a whole.
I reaffirm my belief that the Wildlife and Countryside Act is a good Act. It has been woefully misinterpreted out in the field by those who perhaps have a bigger axe to grind and would have liked more from it. Nevertheless, it was a hard-run, hard-fought compromise between all the interests that looked towards the land through different spectacles seeking different things from the land. I believe that we achieved a very fair balance between all the conflicting interests.
The code of guidance that has now emerged to deal with SSSIs is part of that Act—a manifestation of its voluntary spirit. I wish it to be clearly understood that I want the voluntary side of the Act to work, and I was glad to note the assurance given by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham), leading for the Opposition, to the effect that he, too, wanted the voluntary side of this to work. I believe that if we all want it to work it stands a very good chance of working, but this requires one intangible factor that has been the common thread of our debate today—that is, good will.
We may approach good will in a variety of different ways. It may be approached cynically or naively, but at the end of the day, whether countryside conservation is dealt with by the full force of compulsion and law or by the voluntary spirit, it revolves around good will. Without good will, we get nowhere.
The hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), when he intervened in the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries, said that the test of the code would be whether it dealt with the small percentage of baddies, regardless of the great magnitude of goodies. Here I make an observation which I hope is not too cynical. Regardless of whether there is law or requests for a voluntary spirit, there will be a percentage of baddies. It is rather like the preservation order put on an Elizabethan house. Once the house has been knocked down, the person responsible can say, "Fine me if you like, but it cannot be put back up again." We have seen the baddies at work from time to time against legislation relating to the preservation of structures.
That is not to say that we should therefore go only for compulsion. It means that we must maintain an open mind and try to create circumstances in which good will prevails rather than compulsion and ill will. I see good will as a two-way process. A key factor in the establishment of good will must be the attitude adopted by the NCC. I have no reason to believe that the council has been anything other than entirely sympathetic and empathetic hitherto. Nevertheless, the NFU refers in the brief that has been quoted to the fears that are felt when an official-looking 322 document drops through the letter box and makes itself felt over breakfast, and the fear that it excites that "they" are going to come and interfere with the person's land.
The NCC therefore needs to think through its basic approach to landowners. In referring to landowners, I do not wish to talk about the PSA, the Forestry Commission or the Ministry of Defence. There is no earthly excuse for any of those bodies taking the kind of action that a number of hon. Members fear. Those bodies have no pretext whatever for not understanding what this is all about. I refer to the honest, hard-working landowner or tenant of agricultural property, who can be forgiven if, from time to time, he expresses fears about what the NCC might do. A correct approach by the NCC is important to deal with that problem.
A sensible request has been made for popular versions of the code of guidance and the financial guidance. I do not want to appear patronising, but it should be written in simple terms. I would appreciate that so that I could know exactly where I stood in words of one or two syllables. There is nothing wrong with writing simply. Various agencies have run campaigns against gobbledegook, and this is an opportunity to show a lead. I do not regard the code of guidance as gobbledegook, but it is slightly fearsome.
The other half of the good will relates to finances. There is a saying that money cannot buy happiness; it cannot buy good will either, but it certainly helps. If the money is right, the good will will flow more easily. One cannot put a finite bound on the sum at this stage. It can be conjectured about or projected about, but until we operate this part of the Bill it will not be clear how much money will be required. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister for an assurance that it will not be left for the NCC to make a bid, but that in a spirit of co-operation and harmony between the Department of the Environment and the NCC the whole progress will be kept under constant review so that the necessary moves can be made in advance to correct what might go wrong, rather than waiting until it has gone wrong.
That not only relates to the resources of the NCC—an aspect on the menu tonight; it is reflected in the outcome of the present consultations on how much compensation is available for management agreements. The two cannot be taken side by side. I want a continuous review of the expenditure needs of that section of the Act.
I wish to add my two bits to the debate about the background against which the Act has come about. During the course of our discussions there has been immense wailing and gnashing of teeth about the loss of SSSIs. With 1,000 years of agriculture behind us, it is possibly a miracle that any SSSIs are left. That makes it all the more important that we take steps to create a climate in which the will and wish to preserve SSSIs continue.
I noted the remarks of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) about the ploughing of arable lands, the increase in the crop yield and so on. The right question to ask is why it is all necessary. Why does an area of land that was hitherto unattractive become attractive if a certain investment is made, even more so if that investment carries with it an immense interest burden and the costs related to it? We need look not much further than the agriculture White Papers for the last five years, which have shown a steadily decreasing level of gross farm incomes. Therein lies the key. If we squeeze the return
323 from the land, the landowner and farmer will seek to broaden the base of their operations to compensatee for their loss in margin.
It is of little consequence that we happen to compound this felony by having grants for this and that. We cannot then complain that it has all been done at public expense, because we took our dividend by not paying the proper rate for the food that we have eaten. Therefore, we pay dearly in another direction and we have been paying dearly in the destruction of SSSIs and in creating a climate where SSSIs have come under threat.
We must recognise that we as a country, people and Parliament have a responsibility. It is no consolation to me that the tempo of the increase in the destruction of SSSIs possibly increased while the Labour Government were in power and pursued their agriculture policies. Labour Members should pause to reflect that, despite all the justifiable concern they now show, they may have created the climate for the destruction of SSSIs.
I look forward to the successful operation of the Act.
I look to Ministers to shout from the rooftops that it is a successful Act that will benefit the countryside and everyone who wishes to have access to it. I look forward enormously to the development of good will that will sustain the voluntary spirit that we enacted.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
The second paragraph of the draft code states thatThe conservation and proper management of SSSIs is vital".Everyone is urged to co-operate, and so they should, but the Government should provide a better example.
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) that we cannot expect miracles. Even though much has been achieved in the generation of good will and in stimulating co-operation between conservationist and farmer, the fact remains that much damage has been done since the Act was before us last year. The situation in East Anglia is starkly horrific. Even though much has been achieved, and even though the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) was right to talk about the need to stimulate good will in agriculture, the changes that have taken place both in agriculture practice and possession are significant.
In the past, a farmer may have geared his activities to serve not merely his own generation but that of his grandchildren. Today, agriculture activities may be geared only to next year's balance sheet, because those who make the decisions may live 500 miles away.
§ Mr. Colin Shepherd
The point I was trying to make was that the pressures we have put on agriculture have given rise to this stress.
§ Mr. Hardy
I accept that. However, I want to talk about the code and not about agriculture. That is another subject, and it is perhaps a pity that we do not have a full day for debate.
The code is satisfactory as far as it goes, but it contains deficiencies, particularly in the operation of the 1981 Act. Widespread concern is developing in response to some of the outrageous destruction. There is a growing suspicion that the Government's commitment is rather more cosmetic than it should be. That was described in what The Sunday Times referred to last weekend as "a fiasco".
The problem relates to the establishment and safeguarding of the SSSI' s. When a new SSSI is proposed, 324 three months is allowed for consultation. We forecast difficulties about this in Committee, but our forecasts were rejected. In practice, that three months has allowed some—I accept that it is a minority—irresponsible individuals to destroy the site. The Minister must assure responsible farmers and conservationists that that damage cannot be tolerated. I hope that before we end this debate tonight, we will have had some assurance that the amending Bill to close that loophole will pass through the House in the next Session.
My next major point has already been referred to, but it is worth re-emphasising. It relates to the 12-month protection which is supposed to be given under section 29. It is obviously implicit that, if negotiation fails, the NCC should have the long stop capacity to purchase. That means that the NCC has to possess a capacity to purchase but, sadly, the Government have denied the NCC: that capacity. Perhaps the Government could reconsider that position urgently They have given an extra £600,000, but that is one penny per person per year, and it is not as generous as it could be, particularly when set against the sort of expenditure that Halvergate Marshes and the like might command. I accept that there will be costs. I recognise that, since the Act, there may have been inflation in the level of management payments but, unfortunately, it is now suspected that the NCC simply cannot afford to pay and, because it cannot afford to pay, it may not be taking the necessary steps to secure the protection of valuable sites which could then be destroyed legitimately. Therefore, to balance this, the NCC does need adequate funding. It would be wise as well as aesthetically pleasing—indeed, it may be actually economic.
Does the Minister accept that it would be sensible and a saving to withhold agricultural grant in the subsidy of destruction during consultation periods? Nor is it reasonable for the Government to pay grant for destruction of a site if the NCC approach is rejected by an irresponsible landowner—rejected against the advice of the National Farmers Union and the Timber Growers Organisation (Great Britain) Limited and every responsible organisation. Indeed, if an agricultural grant is approved to destroy a site where irresponsibility has been displayed, the Government can only be seen as providing a reward for irresponsibility and an open invitation to flout the spirit of the Act and the wishes of Government and Parliament. I hope that there can be an early resolution of such anomalies and that the Ministry of Agriculture can display the responsibility that some people in the Department of the Environment may have long wished to display. That would certainly help to generate the good will to which the hon. Member for Hereford referred. I am well aware that in my constituency good farmers are deeply offended by the actions of the irresponsible minority. They become very angry when the irresponsible individual gets away with it and gets the whole of the farming community a bad name.
Conservationists believe that the Government are not yet fulfilling their legal obligations to assist conservation under the Agriculture Act 1970. The Minister is aware of those obligations and I certainly hope that the Minister can, over the next year, ensure that those obligations are more closely observed than what has happened in Norfolk suggests has been the case in the past few months.
I shall not bore the House by repeating the list of sites that have been damaged and destroyed in the past year or 325 two, but I wonder whether the Minister can ascertain before the debate ends how much has been spent by the Ministry of Agriculture in the destruction and damage of the sites that have been mentioned during the debate. It would probably make the amount of money available to the NCC appear rather absurd. It might be useful if we could tot up how much we have spent since the Act became law in destroying the sites that it was supposed to have protected.
I believe that the NCC has no resources left with which to implement any further this year section 29 of the Act. Indeed, I believe that the shortage of resources was known when the Minister ratified the Berne convention earlier this summer. Ratification against that background is an example of an unacceptable inconsistency.
The Minister will recall the blocking of my Hedgerow Bill earlier this Session. There has been reference in the debate to the hedgerow needs. I have had no previous opportunity to make clear that many people in Britain believe that the Government blocked that Bill at the behest of the National Farmers Union. Many people blame the farmers for the blocking of that Bill. I have felt extremely sorry when people have complained to me that the farmers were behind the blocking of the Bill. The Minister is clearly aware that the National Farmers Union did not persuade him to block that Bill. The NFU did not act in that manner. It is wrong for the Government to let the blame lie at the door of the NFU for that blocking. The Minister needs to redeem himself and the position of his Government in regard to the protection of our national heritage.
The story of one SSSI causes concern. There is an ancient woodland called Weldon Park Wood. The experience of that site does not justify a great deal of optimism and it would be helpful if the Minister were to explain the position. The owner of the site asked permission initially to fell 40 acres of the 129 acres in the wood. The NCC objected. Eventually the Minister and a colleague in the Department or in the Government went to the wood to resolve the difficulty. I believe—and I should be grateful for the Minister's further explanation of the matter—that, far from the owner of the wood being given permission initially to fell just 40 of the 129 acres, he was given permission to fell two-thirds of the wood—a great deal more than he had asked for in the first place.
A few months ago their Lordships said that no further erosion of our broadleaf woodland heritage should occur. It is extraordinary that a decision of the sort I have just mentioned should have been made at a time when we are seeking to promote the good will that everyone in the House wishes to see.
There is growing concern throughout the country. Areas in various parts of Britain have been referred to, and only this afternoon I was told of fears concerning Monewden Meadows, Rookery Farm, Coombs Wood and Bulls Wood in Suffolk. Examples can be found throughout Britain. We gave them in Committee and I hope that we shall not be giving them in 12 months' time.
The one advantageous position is that the conservation bodies, the land-owning bodies and the farming bodies are now forming an alliance. There has been reference to the briefs of the NFU, which wishes to see the NCC having 326 sufficient resources with which to set up a proper dialogue. There has been reference to the Timber Growers' Association (Great Britain) Ltd., which is to back the Act and hopes that the NCC has the resources to operate effectively. The arguments of those bodies and of conservation bodies such as the RSPB and the RSNC are almost coalescing into a form of unity which five years ago would not have been imaginable. I do not particularly wish to see—as a politician I say it without absolute sincerity—an alliance forming between all those bodies in opposition to the present Government's policy. I do not particularly wish to see Britain's natural heritage becoming a football, but I am convinced that we need very soon to see a demonstration by the Government that they understand and care for the national heritage.
Throughout my years in politics I have observed the Conservative Party pretending that it understands and knows and is concerned about the countryside and the rural areas of Britain. What is happening in those areas illustrates that that is a pretence. In the best interests of this country and of the leisure that our unemployed population needs, the Government must do much more to make this land fit to live in. Some of us fear that the heritage that we knew will not be available to our children, let alone to our grandchildren. The obligation that the Government appeared to be accepting when the Bill went through last year has already been substantially betrayed.
§ Mr. John Watson (Skipton)
I am surprised that no one has yet said that this is a rather good code. It cannot have been easy to strike the ideal compromise between the conflicting interests, but the code is a good attempt. I do not know who in the deeper labyrinths of the Department of the Environment was responsible for the drafting, but he has done a good job. He has achieved the necessary tone of co-operation, and it is particularly commendable that there is an element of personal involvement by the NCC staff.
I add my voice to those of the hon. Members who have said that we must have an early resolution of the financial question. One of the most crucial paragraphs in the code is No. 27 on management agreements which states:Where an agreement is made…its financial provisions will be in accordance with guidelines to be given by Ministers".The small print at the bottom of the page says:The guidelines will be published under the title 'Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—Financial Guidelines for Management Agreements' .Until we know precisely what the guidelines will be and how much money is on offer it will be difficult for us to judge the weight and authority that the code, good as it is, will carry.
I mention the financial aspect not only because the present financial uncertainty is making the NCC hesitate before offering farmers management agreements, but because a number of farmers are aware of the financial uncertainty and are consequently reluctant to accept the management agreements that are offered to them.
One of my constituents has an 80-acre field near the village of Arncliffe. It includes about 30 acres of bracken and my constituent wanted to spray the bracken earlier this year to eradicate it and make the land more suitable for grazing. Virtually all the 80 acres is an SSSI, because it possesses a particular plant. I do not know it—doubtless it is small and very beautiful—but it does not grow anywhere else in England or Wales.
327 When my constituent told the NCC that he intended to spray the bracken, it asked how he intended to do so. He replied that as it was a large area, with a one-in-two gradient, he would use a helicopter. The NCC said that that was an inaccurate method of spraying bracken and that some of the spray might damage the rare plants.
The farmer was co-operative and asked what method the NCC would suggest. The council replied that backpack spraying would be more accurate, but it offered him a management agreement. The farmer wondered whether he should accept the offer and the doubt that he expressed in a letter to me runs to the heart of the concern about the financial provisions of the code. He said:The point is if we do enter a management agreement with them will the NCC have sufficient funds to pay each year on the nail? Reports are that they are behind on other management agreements. If there is any doubt please advise what steps the Government is taking to rectify the position. Giving such bodies increased powers without the wherewithal to back them up does not seem to be good legislation.I found it rather difficult to answer that letter and I hope that I can give him a slightly more convincing answer as a result of what my hon. Friend the Minister says in reply.
The management agreement and the provision of funds was not the only solution offered. I was impressed by the suggestion that volunteers with back-pack sprays should carry out the work. That would be inexpensive and might be a suitable alternative to helicopter spraying. I suggested that volunteers might be used for the purpose and for some days it was apparent that the NCC believed that I was asking for volunteers to fly the helicopter. With the patience obviously reserved for the thickest of Members of Parliament, the council explained delicately that, although one must not extinguish such enthusiasm, some tasks are best left to the experts. The NCC has a considerable pool of enthusiastic helpers and a greater use of their services could get over the need to spend too much money or to offend farmers by the defence of an SSSI.
I welcome the code. I hope that the funding can be clarified in such a way as to encourage voluntary participation.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)
The Minister who introduced the debate regretted the fact that we did not have the opportunity before the Summer Recess to debate this matter. I regret the fact that we must debate the code in this short time, because, having spent so long on the legislation last year, the Government and the Opposition should have been able to find a full day for a debate on the entire Act and not just on this code. Many people wish to find out what is happening about the marine nature reserves, sheep-worrying, moor-burning, straw-burning and footpaths. I hope that in the new Session we can have a full day's debate.
I also deeply regret the fact that no representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is present tonight. We made the point repeatedly throughout our debates that the Ministry should be represented, because, though most of us believe that the Department of the Environment has its heart in the right place, we doubt whether the heart of the Ministry is in the right place. We are also worried about money. Most of us believe that it would be difficult for the Department of the Environment to obtain from the Treasury more money for conservation areas, but the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food already has the money that it now spends on agricultural 328 grants, which should be redirected towards conservation. We have not got across our message to some people in the Ministry.
One question that I wish to have answered is: how many officials has the NCC? We are worried about that and about how much co-operation there is between NCC and Ministry officials. There is nothing worse for a farmer in a marginal area who is trying to improve his income to have one set of proposals from the Ministry and then to be told by the NCC that the proposals are not ideal. The two groups of officials should co-ordinate their activities and ensure that they do not put forward conflicting proposals. Ministry officials should not say that the Department of the Environment deals with conservation and that the Ministry is worried only about producing as much food as possible, although it may mean surpluses.
I have already discussed staffing levels. We must have replies about whether the Rayner review is continuing and whether the NCC is to have the staff to carry out this voluntary code. We must stress that it is the approach to, and discussions with, farmers that will be the making or breaking of the code. However carefully the code is written—I accept that it is well written—what will win the minds and heart; of the farmers is the approach of the officials.
The Minister said that the code was to be translated into Welsh, which is good news. However, I hope that he will assure us that there will be enough Welsh-speaking NCC officials to go into the marginal farming areas of Wales, speak to the people in Welsh and make it clear that they understand the problems of the farmers there. If they cannot do that, they will have little chance of winning the confidence and co-operation of those people. It is important that we have the staff, and that they have the time to do the work efficiently by word of mouth and do not have to rely on sending out letters and copies of the order.
We want a clear statement from the Minister that NCC action will meet the needs of the moment and not just meet the available funds. The fear is that the NCC will not make proposals because it feels that the money is not there. The proposals should be made, and it should then be made clear that the Government, and not the NCC, are restricting the proposals, because they believe that there is not enough money to carry them out.
One of the most disturbing things came out in the earlier part of the debate when we were talking about West Sedgemoor and one or two other areas. The Minister seemed to be mumbling that the areas involved were small. All too often when we have been discussing SSSIs the argument has been that it does not matter if only a small part of the site is to be developed. It has been this small, piecemeal erosion of some of these sites that has done most of the damage. One little piece is taken and then another and another. Once a site begins to be eroded in that way, it is difficult to stop and say that that is enough. An argument can always be made for taking away another little piece.
There are three other sites about which I should like a reply from the Minister, if not tonight, perhaps in a letter. Two are in Wales and one is in Cumbria. There is a site in Rhos-Derlwyn Fawr in Ceredigion, Dyfed, which is an area of valley mire with old grazing meadows rich in wild flowers, including orchids. The site was identified by the 329 NCC before the 1981 Act came into force, but notification was delayed until the new procedures were operative. The owner had agreed that nothing should be done to it.
Unfortunately, the owner died, and his heirs called in the Welsh branch of the NFU. A meeting was arranged between it and the NCC's officer, which the union subsequently cancelled. The NCC then discovered that 26 acres of the site had been ploughed and harrowed, before any further discussions could take place. The farmers' union should say why it gave that advice in this isolated case of its not backing up what is being said nationally.
Another example is at Comins Capel in Betws in Dyfed, where an area of acidic heath and marsh was notified. This August, an area was ploughed up and rotovated without any consultation, just before the three-month period came to an end.
Another area was at Salta Moss in Cumbria, which is one of the last remnant areas of bog on the southern shore of the Solway. The area was renotified by the NCC as an SSSI in the summer. The owner was specifically requested not to plough, drain, rotovate or re-seed the moss. He almost immediately informed the NCC of his intention to improve part of the moss—approximately 10 acres. Soon after the expiry of the three months' notice, during which the NCC sought an agreement, the owner rotovated an area of the moss, thus destroying its interest. The action was not illegal but demonstrated clearly the inadequcies of voluntary methods to safeguard these sites.
I shall give the Minister the details of those sites, but it is important that he answers, either in this debate or in correspondence, all the points that have been raised by my hon. Friends about specific examples. There is growing evidence that the voluntary code does not work for difficult sites. Clearly, the vast majority of farmers want to co-operate, and the procedure will give them some compensation, but we must protect the difficult sites, the ones where there are no co-operative farmers. That is where I and many other people in the country are afraid that the voluntary system will not work, and where we shall need compulsion to deal with the small minority of people who do not believe in voluntary co-operation.
§ 11.7 pm
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
In a country such as ours, with its diverse natural habitats, it is difficult to generalise about the situations in which there could be a conflict of interest between conservation and farming. However, if the Government take the somewhat partial view that the Minister expressed in opening the debate, that all those who own a site of special scientific interest regard it as a great privilege, they will fail to understand some of the pressures which lead to conflict.
The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) injected a note of greater realism into the discussion, when he spoke of the difficulties experienced by the farming community in loss of income. He said that last year incomes in real terms were below those of 1976, and that it was exceedingly difficult for young farmers to acquire tenancies. Those economic and agricultural facts are the background to some of the pressure which builds up in certain areas. It is not cupidity or the profit motive. In many cases, it is loss minimisation, or profit necessarily released to sustain an enterprise that is under pressure. I 330 dare say that there are places where there are rolling acres of corn prairies, as described by one hon. Member, but even in such areas I am sure that the cupidity of the farmer has not caused the confrontation.
In trying to make the Wildlife and Countryside Act work in my constituency, there is much evidence that the problem that the Nature Conservancy Council faces is essentially one of inadequate resources. The cases in which there have been direct conflicts between the NCC and local farmers have not all involved great absentee proprietors. Some of them have involved small crofters, who found, when trying to realise an asset—for example, in trying to sell it to an incoming forestry company—that there was doubt about the status of the land, and certainly there was doubt about the amount of compensation which would be offered for land notified as a site of special scientific interest.
With the best will in the world, there has been an unhappy relationship between the Nature Conservancy Council and crofters and farmers who have been affected by notification. There is the example of Armadale in my constituency, where a piece of land suitable for forestry was designated and notified. There is also the example of the island of Huna off the coast of Caithness where there were extremely bad relations between the local small fanner and the NCC. I have no doubt that these examples—I could list a number of others with which the NCC is familiar—are illustrative of a problem that will not get better unless the Government are a good deal more forthcoming than they have been hitherto about the manner and quantity of compensation that they have in mind—I know that consultations are in progress about this—and in giving assurances that management agreements will be fully compensated financially.
When the Bill was introduced I think that we all wanted to see it work. It had broad support. However, in its first year of operation it has satisfied neither farmers nor conservationists.
§ Mr. Maclennan
The right hon. Gentleman is clearly a Pangloss if he thinks thatall is for the best in this best of possible worlds.He is unduly complacent when a responsible newspaper such as the Sunday Times refers to the Bill as a fiasco. The language that I am using is moderate by comparison and he should welcome such moderation. We had evidence throughout the debate from both sides of the House of land that it was desirable to protect not having been protected and of farmers incensed in West Sedgemoor and in many other areas by the operation of the Act.
Money is crucial to the success of the Act. If the Government cannot give greater assurances tonight than they have given hitherto, they should not express astonishment when difficulties are not resolved by the operation of the Act. We all want to encourage cooperation. The Government are not alone in wanting to do that. However, we all recognise that co-operation will not be forthcoming unless there is adequate financial compensation for those who are, in the Minister's word, "privileged" to own sights of special scientific interest.
The code is relatively complex, but it is comprehensible. I think that it will require close study by those who are affected by it. I doubt whether a popularised version will necessarily convey the code in its entirety. In putting complex concepts into simple language we can mislead 331 people. However, if it is possible to convey the intentions behind the code more simply, I shall very much welcome that approach.
If a site appears to be threatened by development that the NCC regards as being of high national importance and it does not consider that it has resources within its allotted budget sufficient to deal with the threat, it is right that the matter should be ventilated openly and that the Government should be openly approached. If an art treasure is about to be sold out of the country, the Government are notified and procedures operate to enable the Government to decide on behalf of the nation whether special funds should be made available.
With regard to the natural habitat of wildlife, a comparable financial procedure ought to be devisable by the NCC and the Government that enables them to make a special case for a specially important piece of land. I hope that the Government will give some thought to that.
I add my voice to those who have already mentioned the staffing of the NCC. That is an increasingly serious concern of the council, as well as of hon. Members and of farmers who have had difficulty in getting visits. The staff know that an axe is hanging over their heads, so they rush in to do something while they still can. If the Government are seeking to put financial pressure on the council to reduce its staff when its responsibilities are enormously increased, will they reverse course?
§ Mr. Maclennan
Let us hope that the Minister is a little more forthcoming in his reply than he was in his opening remarks. We all want the Act to work harmoniously to enable farmers to earn a reasonable living in a time of great difficulty for many of them, particularly in the marginal and less favoured areas, where some of the most important sites are.
§ Mr. Macfarlane
The debate has been useful, constructive and interesting. Not surprisingly, it has ranged well beyond the issue that is before the House. I might be debarred from acknowledging all the points that have been made, because of the lack of time and the content of some of the observations, which were wide-ranging, but I undertake to look at all the comments and observations and to respond as quickly as possible.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham). I did not concur with everything that he said, but he demonstrated his versatility on environmental affairs, in deputising for his right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman).
We are considering the approval of the draft code of guidance. I believe that I am right in concluding that while the draft may not meet hon. Members' wishes in every respect, on balance there has been a welcome desire to approve the document so that without further delay it can be printed and issued to everyone who needs it. I was grateful for the assurances by Opposition Members, although they were doubtful about certain developments over the past year. My Department is looking at all the problems and emergencies that have occurred over the past 12 months. That is one of our most important and urgent priorities.
The point made by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) needs clarification. He said 332 that we had upset the farmers and that we had not been welcomed by the people and interested parties. The document that I had, which was sent to certain Members of Parliament by the National Farmers Union, stated that the NFU has accepted the overall package. It has declared its intention to use its best endeavours to secure the successful implementation of the operation of the new procedures. In particular, that involves the encouragement of farmers to sign voluntary management agreements to ensure the conservation of sites of special scientific interest, subject to appropriate financial recompense, and the code should prove to be of assistance in this process. It concludes by saying that the NFU believes that the new system promises to be successful in protecting the nature conservation interests of the SSSIs, while at the same time giving a fair deal 10 the farmers concerned.
Many hon. Members have received the document. It shows that there is a broad welcome from the farming fraternity and a host of other interested organisations.
The hon. Member for Edmonton raised several points and I shall do my best to acknowledge them. He referred to West Sedgemoor and a number of other SSSIs. Many are awaiting decision and formal completion by the interested parties and the NCC.
With regard to West Sedgemoor, one has to remember that 50 acres out of 2,500 acres are involved. The hon. Gentleman referred to Battersley Common and a section 29 order. The NCC's proposal is under urgent consideration. The three months' period from the owner's notification of intended operations expires on Friday 23 October. I shall reach my decision before that date.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the level of damage to SSSIs, which I believe he said amounted to 8,700 hectares every year. If I may correct him on that point, the NCC did not say that 8,700 hectares were damaged every year, but that it found that 8,700 hectares had been damaged in 1980 from all causes, of which about half was due to agriculture. It should not be assumed that that rate of damage will continue. Much must have been due to ignorance, which it is the purpose of the new guidance and procedures to remove.
§ Mr. Graham
I quoted from the speech of the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), in which he said that, on average, that was the loss every year. I have not referred to Hansard, but I shall look at that again and engage in correspondence.
§ Mr. Macfarlane
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is important to have those points on the record. Obviously my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) never makes mistakes, and there has to be a typographical error somewhere. I cannot imagine that it is up there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries talked about the renotification process and 1984. I understand that most sites will be renotified before the end of the present financial year. In a few cases survey work could not be carried out this year, and will be undertaken in the spring of 1983.
Broader questions have covered many aspects of the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the protection of SSSIs. Anxiety has been expressed by many Members about cases where, despite those provisions, harm has been done to a site. Hon. Members are worried also about the fact that resources allocated to 333 the NCC may be insufficient to enable it to secure the maximum benefit for conservation from the Act. My door and that of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services are always open to discuss such matters with the NCC. We have regular discussions with Sir Ralph Verney, and there are visits to all parts of the country to discuss such matters with NCC officials. There is no doubt that the NCC will make further bids, and we shall listen to the claims that it makes upon resources.
I share the anxiety about the cases in which, even though no offence has been committed, the spirit of voluntary co-operation, which underlies the provisions of the Act, has been flouted. The cases where damaging operations are being carried out on land on which the NCC has publicly stated its intention to notify an SSSI are especially worrying. That is contrary to the advice given in the code. I hope that its publication, through this guidance, will minimise cases of that sort. It is important for the long-term success of the Act that they should be minimised.
I believe that the Government can count on the support of all responsible organisations in encouraging the observance of voluntary restraint in such cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries has great expertise in the subject, and he has had experience not only as a successful sportsman but as one who is interested in the countryside and whose experience was hewn during the passage of the Bill about a year ago. We welcome his wise counsel on the NCC. I am grateful for his contribution and for the fact that his experience and expertise are held in the highest regard outside the Chamber. He talked about the value of voluntary cooperation, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd), for Skipton (Mr. Watson), and for Harborough (Mr. Farr).
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries referred to the encouraging signs, which was in stark contrast to what was said by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), who was kind enough to send me a note to say that he had to leave the debate early. I am grateful for that courtesy. He mentioned the Rayner review, as did the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) and the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett).
There has been much speculation about the objectives of a Rayner review. The terms of reference require the staff needs of the NCC to be examined, but they in no way prejudge whether the number of staff should be cut or increased. It is a question for the taxpayer of value for money. I have the highest regard for the NCC's competence, after my contacts with it over the past 15 months. It has a great deal of work to do over the next 12 months.
The NCC's morale and determination to implement urgently and competently the vital work for our countryside and heritage is impressive.
§ Mr. Macfarlane
It is part and parcel of the regular system of review. We have had long discussions, and the chairman of the council fully understands the urgency. We want to get on with the overall work that is needed.
334 Having mentioned the cases where there is damage to existing SSSIs, I point out that checks carried out by the NCC during the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill show that in 1980 15 per cent. of all the SSSIs suffered damage, due in about half of the cases to agricultural operations, but no similar study has been conducted since the measure became law, although the subject has been in the limelight, and if the number of cases reported to me is anything to go by, the position has been much improved. A number of cases that do not hit the headlines are being resolved satisfactorily at local level and discussions on several potential management agreements are proceeding smoothly.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley referred to the visit that I made with the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to Weldon Woods in Northamptonshire. That was not the first time that Ministers had visited sites where there had been a dispute and ministerial interest was necessary. The site was part of a scrub woodland, a relic of the ancient Rockingham forest. It was the subject of a felling licence application by the owner.
As a result of NCC objections the case came to Ministers for decision under the informal administrative arrangements. It was decided that the owner should be allowed to fell part of the wood and return it to agriculture—it is cheek by jowl with an old American air force runway from the 1939–1945 war—and by appropriate husbandry to regenerate the remainder and another part of the woodland. The objective is mutual cooperation among all the interested parties. That case is again an example of the voluntary factor at work.
I do not wish to go into details of particular proposals, as time is short. In all cases where an objection is raised by the NCC, my colleague in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I consult together and give the fullest consideration to the council's views as well as to those of other parties. I cannot undertake that in all cases the objection will prevail. That would reduce Ministers to the status of rubber stamps.
I deal next with finance for the NCC to enable it to back up its objections. For the current financial year the NCC's allocation is 11¼ million. Despite the severe restrictions on Government spending, that is an increase of about £600,000 in real terms over the previous year's allocation. That is not the only sum available for the consequences of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. If the council wishes to devote more of its allocation to that purpose—as I said, it has a continuing programme of site protection—it will meet with no objection from me. We shall shortly be considering all allocations for 1983–84. My colleagues and I will consider carefully all available evidence and information about the likely trends in activity under the Wildlife and Countryside Act in reaching a decision. In particular we shall take note of the points made in the debate.
I shall read the debate carefully and reply to all the points that have been made. The code is essentially about providing a framework for drawing together all those who have an interest in, a responsibility towards and a love of our wildflife and countryside. The whole object of the legislation is partnership and communication. Neither the Act nor the guidance should be seen as a vehicle for exclusive bureaucracy. This was the general wish, I believe, of those who took part in the lengthy debate in the spring and summer of 1981.
335 It is easy for people or organisations to make destructive comments and to endeavour to make political capital. At the end of the day, what is needed is the determination of everyone to make the guidance and the Act work. We cannot have rigorous and punitive measures through legislation. It has to be a matter or partnership and good will. That is what the great majority of the people of our country want. We shall do everything possible to ensure that the legislation—the very first of its kind—works effectively to safeguard our country's precious heritage.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Code of Guidance on Sites of Special Scientific Interest, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved.