HC Deb 29 July 1988 vol 138 cc857-64

2 pm

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

Almost everyone in London, and many beyond, know that as one crosses the river Thames from Hammersmith into Barnes there is a complete change of scenery, with wider tree-lined avenues leading to the open spaces of Barnes common and, further on, to Richmond park and Kew gardens. Only seven miles from Westminster, Barnes richly provides proof that Richmond upon Thames deserves to be known as the borough where the countryside comes to town. It is the balance of our love and respect for the environment, for green open spaces and for wildlife that makes Richmond and Barnes such a joy both to live in and to visit.

Barnes itself still possesses a village atmosphere in an ever more frenetic world. Although blighted by the incessant misery of aircraft noise, few residents know of a more pleasant urban environment. We fiercely hold on to our metropolitan open land and, in spite of high density housing, relief is at hand through the natural environment, with the river Thames on two sides, Barnes common in the south and Barn Elms reservoirs to the east. It is Barn Elms reservoirs about which I wish to speak, not only as the Member of Parliament for Richmond and Barnes but as a vice-president of the London Wildlife Trust.

It is a great delight to have as the Minister responding to the debate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), who understands and appreciates the special nature of Richmond. I warmly thank her for being here today and congratulate her on her recent appointment. I apologise to her for her baptism of fire and having to answer two Adjournment debates in her first few days as Minister, particularly as her first debate was at 4 o'clock this morning. In spite of it, she is looking lovely.

Barn Elms comprises nearly 70 acres of reservoir, split into four almost equal quarters, and approximately 80 acres of surrounding land, including filter beds, allotments and recreational open land. It was declared a site of special scientific interest in June 1975 as it was decided by the Nature Conservancy Council to be one of the most important wintering sites in the London area for tufted duck, smew, pochard and other species. Between 1986 and 1987, the London Natural History Society recorded no fewer than 35 different species of bird in the area putting it sixth in greater London or 11th in the whole London Natural History Society recording area. In records taken since 1947–48, counts of national significance have also been recorded for gadwall and shovellers—the latter have greatly increased in numbers recently—in addition to pochard and tufted duck. It is a site that is loved by local residents and bird watchers alike. It would be a tragedy if it were to be filled in, bulldozed and turned into a housing estate of some 6,000 houses, totally changing the nature of Barnes. A site of major natural historic importance would be lost.

How does that fear come about? At present the site is controlled by Thames water authority, which has plans to terminate its interests at Barn Elms on the completion of the London ring main. As with any other public body, it has a duty to maximise its assets. A large site close to the centre of London must be a tempting prize. It would be harder, although admittedly not impossible, to achieve if that beautiful area retained its SSSI status. But that seems to be in danger as the number of birds seems to have fallen in recent years.

What are the reasons for the recent reductions in bird numbers? There are possibly four, but none is conclusive. It has been suggested that Thames Water, in managing the reservoirs, has introduced chlorinated water which has changed the birds' food source. That might have helped to accelerate a decline, but while the addition of such water has been recent, there is no proof that the decline in bird numbers corresponds with the first such introduction.

The second reason is possibly the activity of fishing in the immediate area. But fishing takes place during the summer months mainly when the ducks are more likely to be absent, and peak numbers of birds occur during winter months when it is the close season for fishing. It could well be, however, that the artificially introduced fish are competing with the birds for the same food source. Therefore, it is not conclusive that fishing is causing a deterioration in the number of birds, but there may be some related reasons which contribute to the reduction.

Another reason is that the River Thames once possessed rich food resources, but has become, as we all know and welcome, much cleaner. That can be shown by the appearance of salmon as high as Teddington in recent years. All Members of Parliament know that the Thames is much cleaner, but perhaps it is not generally known that the summer recess, which we shall enjoy in a few minutes' time, started because the river was so polluted and smelly that Members of Parliament could not stay here through the warmer months, so Parliament went into recess until the cold months arrived in the middle of October. The river is now clean and there is no smell, but we are fiercely proud of our tradition of a 10-week holiday. While the river is cleaner, food stocks will have declined and that could be a reason for the lack of numbers.

My conclusion is that none of those factors is likely to be of itself a conclusive reason for a permanent decline in bird stocks. Therefore, the numbers are as likely to be cyclical and are in any event only just below those used by the Nature Conservancy Council for judging SSSI status.

The current criteria for creating an SSSI in areas of water such as this are not officially published, but are generally known as threefold. First, the site must be of national or international importance, with its population of one or more bird species breeding, malting or wintering. Secondly, the site must have recent records of at least 70 breeding, 90 wintering or 150 passage species of birds. Thirdly, the site must have a total of more than 10,000 waterfowl, not including coots and grebes, regardless of the species regularly present. Clearly it is difficult for any urban site to qualify, but it is specifically because this is an urban site that the criteria should be widened.

At the third meeting of the RAMSAR convention, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory, the proposal for an addition to the criteria for identifying wetlands of international importance was made. The international criteria are published and there are three. A wetland should be considered internationally important if, first, it regularly supports 20,000 waterfowl; secondly, it regularly supports substantial numbers of individuals from particular groups of waterfowl, indicative of wetland values, productivity or diversity; and, thirdly, where data on populations are available, it regularly supports 1 per cent. of the individuals in a population of one species or sub-species of waterfowl.

Again, Barn Elms could not possibly qualify, certainly on the first or third of those international criteria, although it may do so on the second. The proposal was serious and far more interesting. It was: A Wetland should be considered internationally important if it is both a good example of the type and characteristic of its region and, either, offers special opportunities for promoting research, understanding and appreciation of Wetlands, open to people of several countries, or, is the source of past environmental or archeological information of international significance. As it is in the centre of London, the site offers unique opportunities to promote research, understanding and appreciation of those lovely birds. The site is in the middle of the largest area of population in the country and is the closest to the biggest international airport in the world. It is precisely because it is unique in being in London that the Wildfowl Trust in Slimbridge has shown a great interest in the site.

Just six weeks ago, the Wildfowl Trust stated that it was examining the possibility of establishing a Wildfowl Trust site near London and, on hearing that the Thames water authority had plans to terminate its interest at Barn Elms, wondered if it could become involved in the development plans there. Of course, matters are at an early stage, but surely, if the Wildfowl Trust is showing an interest, it must be at least an important site. The fact that the trust considered opening a second branch shows that the site has crucial importance to those who know and understand ducks and birds generally.

I believe that the trust's view is proof positive that SSSI status should be retained and that the reservoirs should not be compared to other reservoirs outside London but should hold unique importance in their own right. There is little doubt that the local authority, under any political party that wanted to retain control, would refuse planning permission for residential or commercial use, not only because it would change the nature of Barnes entirely and would cause massive transport and environmental difficulties, but because the people of Richmond believe that this facility is what is wanted and needed desperately as an island in the middle of urban sprawl.

To have a Slimbridge in central London would not only introduce thousands of tourists to the work and wonders of the Wildfowl Trust, but would also be of tremendous educational benefit to children and adults alike. Tourists coming into London might be introduced to the Wildfowl Trust and then travel westward to Gloucestershire to see the original Slimbridge. It would therefore be an introduction of international significance.

To lose the site as an SSI would be not only an uncivilised act of material vandalism but a disaster to the local environment. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider what Barnes would be if a large housing estate were built on the site at Barn Elms. The only exit from Barnes to the north is Hammersmith bridge, which has a severely restricted weight limit. A new crossing over the Thames would be needed—perhaps two new crossings. Already one has to wait up to half an hour to cross Hammersmith bridge on an ordinary morning. If the population of Barnes were doubled, the environmental considerations would be grotesque.

I fully recognise that removing SSSI status does not automatically mean that development will occur, but it would be one step on the road to development. To build a housing estate on the site would not, as some might say, be of benefit to those who cannot afford houses in the area. Houses built there would be extremely desirable and extremely expensive because of their riverside site, so I do not believe that development would benefit the local people or anybody other than those who can already afford expensive houses in the capital.

To summarise, we in Richmond believe that the criteria for judging SSSI status should be refined to take into account both the numbers and rarity of the birds recorded, which would better reflect the sites. The London ecology unit, under Dr.. Dave Dawson and his excellent team, further believes that the geographical position of the site should be a criterion for its selection as an SSSI to ensure that no large areas of the country are left with their best sites unrecognised. Dr. Dawson also believes that Barn Elms reservoirs have not been evaluated correctly according to the Nature Conservancy Council's own published criteria because they may form one part of a series of wetlands, each part of which is required to conserve nationally important bird populations, and because an inappropriate area of search may have been employed when selecting London SSSIs for bird populations. Fluctuations in the number of birds on the reservoirs suggest that it would be prudent to allow a margin for future changes as none of the reasons for decline seems permanent.

When an SSSI is threatened with denotification, a formal consultation procedure with the local planning authority and certain other interests such as landowners provides an opportunity for any representations or objections to be made in writing to the Nature Conservancy Council within a period of not less than three months. These are then considered by the NCC in deciding whether to withdraw the proposal. I hope that the Official Report of this debate will be regarded as a written representation and a contribution towards the debate on whether Barn Elms should retain SSSI status. On environmental, conservational, educational, recreational, national and international grounds, I beg that Barn Elms should retain its designation as a site of special scientific interest.

2.16 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) for his kind words about my new appointment. As he rightly said, I last spoke from the Dispatch Box at about 4.50 this morning, although in parliamentary terms that was yesterday.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the clear, articulate and forceful way in which he has represented the interests of his constituents. As he well knows, I have personal knowledge of the area and am well aware of the concerns of people in the Hammersmith bridge area about their environment. My hon. Friend referred to the fear that if the necessary steps are not taken the area may end up being developed. I assure him that that is a very premature fear at this stage, although it is entirely understandable and right that people living in or near areas of wildlife interest wish those areas to be properly protected and looked after. That is especially true in urban areas, where opportunities to see and enjoy wildlife are greatly valued.

It is important to consider the particular site in the wider context of the overall objectives and arrangements for the SSSI system. My hon. Friend has presented many of the details very thoroughly, but I hope that he will bear with me if I go over some of the points. My hon. Friend also presented some proposals of his own as to the way in which the arrangements could be modified. I shall certainly study all those points in great detail and pass them on to the relevant authorities. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that there is no real prospect of such modifications being introduced in time to alter the situtation with regard to Barn Elms.

I pay tribute to the Nature Conservancy Council for its work in advising the Government on nature conservation in Great Britain which is widely respected. This is a growing area of public interest and concern. In a fast-moving world with more development and a greater threat to the environment, whether from excessive agricultural, urban or industrial development, all of us inevitably appreciate sites of special scientific interest and ways of protecting the natural heritage which is one of our richest and most diverse natural resources. In view of my new responsibilities, it is an honour and a privilege to have a particular interest in this area, which has been a prime concern of mine for many years.

Although SSSIs have existed since the enactment of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, it was the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—the cornerstone of our conservation policies and a great milestone in the development of care for our environment —that provided for the establishment of a new type of site of special scientific interest. The 1981 Act established a system of comprehensive protection for SSSIs against specific activities that the Nature Conservancy Council considered would be harmful for the conservation interests of the area. The NCC is required to notify owners and occupants of any land that it considers to be of special interest because of its flora, fauna or special features, and to advise owners or occupants of any potentially damaging operations, which are then subject to certain restrictions.

The NCC has had to renotify about 4,000 old-style SSSIs. This has involved a detailed review and reassessment of the scientific interest of all these sites in the light of changes that have occurred since they became SSSIs. Some, inevitably, are now less significant, while others have assumed a greater importance because of the inevitable movements and changes in the pattern of our native wildlife.

Before commenting in more detail on the background to the Barn Elms site, I should explain that it is the prerogative of the NCC to decide on the basis of scientific facts whether a particular site merits SSSI status. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may make representations to the NCC on particular sites if he considers it appropriate to do so. I can assure my hon. Friend that we have examined most carefully the background to the proposed denotification of the Barn Elms reservoir. I regret to say that we can find no reason to question the NCC's view in this instance.

The Barn Elms reservoir was originally notified as an SSSI in 1975. At that time, it was the most important wintering site in the London area for waterfowl, principally tufted duck and pochard. My hon. Friend has given an admirable description of the various forms of wildlife to be found there. In addition, it was a large winter gull roost.

When the scientific interest of the site was reassessed following the enactment of the 1981 Act, the NCC concluded that, for several reasons, there had been movements of waterfowl to other similar habitats in the area. Again, my hon. Friend gave a clear analysis of some of the reasons that were thought to be responsible for the movement of waterfowl. These included the loss of feeding grounds on the River Thames and changes in the management of the reservoir. The fact remains that the populations of these species has declined sharply since the site was first notified.

The NCC's decision to denotify the site was influenced also by the existence within the greater London area of a further 12 reservoirs supporting larger and more significant waterfowl populations than the Barn Elms site. In fact, the site is now ranked 13th out of 16 sites in the greater London area for its waterfowl population. The range and diversity of waterfowl species supported by reservoir sites in the London area would not be affected by the denotification of Barn Elms.

There should be no automatic assumption that denotification of the site will lead to a decline in its continuing wildlife interest, let alone the premature fears to which I have already referred that development might inevitably take place there. I understand, contrary to my hon. Friend, that the Thames water authority, which currently owns the reservoir, has no present plans to dispose of it. Even if it should decide subsequently to do so, I can reassure my hon. Friend that a change of ownership will not necessarily threaten the wildlife interest. The existing designation of the reservoir as metropolitan open land will help to ensure that the interest is maintained.

There are alternative ways to protect the site, including a number of steps that could be taken by the local authority, which I have considered in some detail. The local authority could follow the example of many other sites throughout the country that have been designated as local nature reserves which are owned or leased and managed and protected by the local authority or by local conservation groups. I know my hon. Friend's constituency quite well and I can imagine that a great deal of local resourcefulness and initiative would be displayed in such a situation.

If the water authority decides that Barn Elms reservoir is no longer required for operational purposes, it could still be managed positively for wildlife benefit by the local authority or a conservation group. The NCC is well able to assist with such arrangements as a result of its expertise and professionalism.

Alternatively, the site could become a reservoir under the control of a national conservation body such as the Wildfowl Trust. My hon. Friend has mentioned that prospect and I share his opinion that the location of Barn Elms makes that a promising idea. I understand that the trust has plans to establish a reserve in the greater London area and has looked at a number of possible sites, one of which is Barn Elms reservoir. I believe that the trust expects to make its final selection towards the end of the year.

Whatever the future ownership of the site, any proposals for a change in its current use would have to be considered in accordance with the guidance given in circular 27/87 entitled "Nature Conservation". That reinforces the advice given to local authorities that they should take full account of the needs of nature conservation not only in determining individual planning applications but in formulating general planning policies. An awareness of conservation should be built into the whole range of their activities affecting the use of land.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend that, even if the site should eventually be de-notified as an SSSI, there are a number of other ways of protecting its wildlife interest.

There is no doubt that the Government have demonstrated their commitment to conservation and wildlife in a number of demonstrable ways. Our record is a good one. We have, for example, increased the resources made available to the Nature Conservancy Council by some 170 per cent. in real terms since 1979—it has increased from £7.9 million to £38.95 million in the current year.

Our approach to conservation is based on the voluntary principle enshrined in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. We believe that effective conservation can be achieved only with public consent, co-operation and support, and it is clearly most important that public confidence in the system should be maintained. That requires that NCC decisions on SSSI notifications should be seen to be based on an objective, dispassionate assessment of the scientific evidence in each case. In the Barn Elms case, that assessment led the NCC to the conclusion that the site was not, unfortunately, a sufficiently good, representative or unusual example of its type to merit SSSI status.

Having carefully considered the background to the case, I am satisfied, in the light of the NCC's assessment of the decline in the wildlife interest of the site, that the NCC was right to implement the de-notification procedures.

I cannot give any guarantees as to the future of the site, but a number of possible options may be followed. I have asked the NCC to discuss those possibilities with my hon. Friend, Thames water and the local authority in more detail. I hope that my hon. Friend will follow up that invitation.

The NCC will, of course, consider any representations or objections received before deciding whether the de-notification of Barn Elms should be confirmed. They have already received a number of such objections which will be rigorously considered by the NCC governing council after the deadline of 9 October. I understand that they expect to announce their final decision towards the end of the year.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising a matter of understandable concern in his constituency. I hope that the debate has served to allay the fears of his constituents about the future, to clarify the background to the question, and to make some helpful suggestions to be followed up. His constituents can be assured that as long as he is their Member of Parliament they will not want for a more able advocate of their interests.

It being half past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At about 12 minutes past 11 this morning, I took possession of a document which gives graphic illustration of very serious defects now present in the No. 1 reactor at Trawsfynydd, in north Wales. I considered it so serious that I contacted my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and engaged the services of an independent engineering consultant who specialises in these matters. The defects relate to cracked welds, cracked nuts and sections of degraded metal that have fallen into the reactor and have not been removed. I shall be brief——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. What is the point of order for me?

Mr. Cook

As this is a very serious matter with grave potential consequences for Trawsfynydd, and as there are similar reactors at Bradwell, Hinkley, Dungeness, Sizewell and Hunterston the same defects could be present in those reactors. My point of order is this: in view of the fact that some Government Department must have knowledge of this, have you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had a request for a statement to be made on the matter before we go into recess for 12 weeks?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have had no request from anyone to make a statement.

Mr. Cook

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Because of the special circumstances of today —we go into recess until 19 October—do you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have any advice that might enable me to take this matter further?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I can only suggest that the hon. Gentleman pursues the matter directly with the Government Department concerned. There is nothing that I can do about the matter this afternoon, nor have I any responsibility for it.