HC Deb 19 November 1987 vol 122 cc1189-90
6. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the take-up in the first series of environmentally sensitive areas.

Mr. Gummer

In the eight environmentally sensitive areas introduced so far in the United Kingdom there have been over 1,600 applications and formal inquiries. Those cover 60,000 hectares, or 150,000 acres. In England alone we have already achieved three quarters of our long-term target for the first series of areas.

Mrs. Bottomley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the success of the environmentally sensitive areas policy is in large part because it depends on co-operation and voluntary effort rather than on compulsion and coercion, and that many regard it as one of the most encouraging initiatives in the conservation of the environment for many years?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right. I recently attended a conference of environmentalists from all over the world at which it was widely said that our ESA proposals were the most encouraging concepts for the protection of the environment in the past 20 years. The reason is that it is a voluntary system, because it brings farmers in not as antagonists but as the operators of the protection of the environment. That is extremely helpful, and that is why we intend that the second series will spread the ESA attitudes to an ever-wider area of Britain.

Mr. Hardy

The ESA concept is commendable, but is the Minister aware that there is continued destruction of habitat in those areas and elsewhere, not least through the continuing destruction of large lengths of hedgerow, and that throughout that period of serious destruction the Government have maintained a most obstructive view to any attempt to secure protection'? Is that obstruction to continue?

Mr. Gummer

I find that an odd question when, in the environmentally sensitive areas, we are encouraging farmers to look after the land in the most environmentally satisfactory way. One thing that we are doing is protecting the hedgerows. We now give grants to people to look after their hedgerows. To suggest that the Government are in some way obstructing that runs totally contrary to what the Government have done. We have moved from a position that obtained some years ago when people were given money to pull hedgerows up to one where we are now giving money to people to keep hedgerows. That is an entire change and cannot be called obstructive.

Mr. Charles Wardle

If farmers on that part of the Sussex downs designated as an ESA are encouraged to convert arable land to grassland for sheep grazing, will my hon. Friend bear in mind the question of access to the downs and the possible danger of dogs worrying sheep?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right to point out that there is a real, and increasing, problem in which various perfectly proper desires come into conflict one with another. It is not just a question, on the one hand, of farmers trying to look after the land properly and, on the other, of those who wish access wanting to get on to that land. Environmentalists are concerned to retain the sort of environment that is natural to particular parts of the country. With the local authorities, we will have to work out ways in the ESAs of ensuring that we do not get the sheep worrying that we might otherwise have.