HC Deb 25 April 1991 vol 189 cc1264-7

7. (1) If any owner, lessee or occupier of the land to which the order applies is aggrieved by an order which has taken effect and desires to question its validity on the ground that it is not within the powers of section (Special powers of SNH to seek habitat management orders) or that any of the requirements of this Schedule have not been complied with in relation to it, he may within 42 days from the date of the giving of the notice under paragraph 6 make an application to the Court under this paragraph.

(2) On any such application the Court may, if satisfied that the order is not within those powers or that the interests of the applicant have been substantially prejudiced by a failure to comply with those requirements make such declaration as seems to the Court to be appropriate.

(3) Except as provided by this paragraph, the validity of an order shall not be questioned in any legal proceedings whatever.

(4) In this paragraph "the Court" means the Court of Session.'.

Mr. Galbraith

The new clause and the new schedule are long and complex but deal with a fairly simple point. A major issue throughout the passage of the Bill, and one which was dealt with extensively in Committee, was sites of special scientific interest and in particular the designation and various appeal procedures involved. However, now we are taking the matter further and considering what happens once a site has been designated.

Some sites of special scientific interest require maintenance or they deteriorate and lose their scientific interest. In its last report, the Nature Conservancy Council detailed such sites. In the year from 1 April 1989 to 31 March 1990, one site was lost—it suffered damage that resulted in the denotification of its SSSI status. In that year, three sites were partially lost—part of the site was denotified—and, in 35 of them, long-term damage occurred—there was a lasting reduction in the special scientific interest of those sites. Overall, 261 sites suffered damage from which they could recover. That shows the scale of the problem. Because SSSIs can deteriorate, some require positive management.

I do not know how many of those sites were in Scotland. The Minister may be able to get the answer to that question swiftly, so I shall talk for a few minutes if he wishes to obtain assistance. How many of the sites that were lost, partially lost or suffered long-term or short-term damage were in Scotland? Classic examples of SSSIs include the chalk downs and Wiltshire downs, where the SSSI sites lose their scientific value unless there is persistent sheep grazing. If the owner no longer wishes to graze sheep there, the area is overcome by scrub and its scientific value is lost.

The new clause would allow Scottish Natural Heritage to restore the designation of an SSSI that is in danger of losing its designation either through neglect or change of purpose of the land. There are two caveats to that. It can be used only on a designated area and where a land management agreement with the owner has been sought. If those two criteria are fulfilled, Scottish Natural Heritage can move in to preserve the sites.

I think that most of the examples are in England. I am not sure whether there are many in Scotland, although there has been a suggestion of one in the outer isles. The important principle set out in the new clause gives Scottish Natural Heritage a power to protect SSSIs that it would not otherwise have. It would be an important extension of the conservation principle in Scotland, and I hope that the Minister will look favourably on the new clause.

Mr. Dalyell

I have two questions of the Minister, and I gave him notice of one of them on Tuesday.

The Carver report strongly recommended that, in the new era, the future of nationally relevant databases and methodologies, such as the national vegetation classification and the biological record centre at Monkswood, should be assured. What steps is Scottish Natural Heritage taking, through the Joint Nature Conservancy Committee or otherwise, to ensure that the landscape and people of Scotland continue to benefit from that expertise? We are not marketing such factors, and we should be holding them in trust. I gave the Scottish Office 48 hours notice so that it could give a considered answer.

Secondly, I think that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has been in touch with the Minister's Department this morning. It takes the view: With regard to the Minister's statement that 'specified types of development' is not an adequate phrase to include in legislation, the RICS is not convinced that the phrase is sufficiently inadequate as to render the amendment undesirable. The alternative phrase 'such types of development as may be specified by the Secretary of State from time to time' may, however, meet with the approval of the Minister and the Parliamentary Draughtsman and the RICS would be happy to see its proposed amendment reworded accordingly. At some stage—I think that this is the right one—I should like the Minister to comment on that point.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I welcome the opportunity to debate the role of sites of special scientific interest in habitat protection and the principle upon which the safeguarding of sites is based. The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) has proposed a far-reaching step—in effect, to compel owners and occupiers to pay for the management of their land for nature conservation purposes, determined by the Secretary of State for Scotland in consultation with Scottish Natural Heritage.

While hearings and appeals to the courts are built into the procedures set out in the amendment, and objections to the costs in the new clause, it is difficult not to interpret these provisions as being peremptory to owners and occupiers. The House will appreciate that that flies in the face of our well-established procedures—based on the voluntary principle—for site safeguard. The whole basis of the voluntry approach to nature conservation management would be undermined if we not only told people how to manage their land in SSSIs but forced them to pay for that work.

The second reason for resisting the new clause and schedule is that the voluntary approach has stood the test of time in Scotland. Notification, allied with provision for the negotiation of management agreements and the procedure for making nature conservation orders, provides the opportunity for disagreements to be overcome. The fact that the last-resort powers of making nature conservation orders have been used so infrequently—in Scotland only 10 orders have been made when almost 1,300 SSSIs have been notified or renotified since 1981—provides ample proof of that point. In addition, the new procedures that the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland introduced early this month for SSSIs should bring about a considerable reduction in the number of disagreements.

We are not convinced that any benefits would accrue from the new powers. I believe that they have the potential so to undermine the present system that they would hinder rather than further the management of land within SSSIs in a way that is sensitive to nature conservation interests.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for having given me notice that he would raise a matter in relation to the Carver report recommendations. I am aware that steps have been taken to secure the future of nationally relevant databases and methodologies, as he would wish. I can assure him, however, that the Carver report recommendations were fully implemented by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. All existing databases, methodologies and research contracts have been inherited by one of the new conservation bodies of the Joint Nature Conservancy Committee, as appropriate.

Nothing has been lost in the process. The Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland has taken over data and contracts relevant to Scotland. These will, in turn, be transferred to Scottish Natural Heritage. Great Britain, United Kingdom and other international matters will be dealt with by the three new country agencies, acting through the Joint Nature Conservancy Committee.

Only a few days ago, I was at the headquarters of the Countryside Commission for Scotland, at Battleby. The offices there, which are being converted, will be of assistance to the JNCC staff in the future.

The hon. Gentleman also raised a point about clause 2, about which we had a useful discussion in Committee. I should emphasise that we are aware of the concern expressed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Scotland that development in designated areas should be of the highest standard. That is entirely proper. Our answer is that the RICS's concern is already taken account of as regards national scenic areas and SSSIs.

There are no areas designated under the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967 or the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Accordingly, there is no need for clause 2(2) to refer to those enactments. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman will be able to assure the institution that we are not trying to avoid the spirit of its proposals, since the essence of its concern has already been met. The present arrangements are satisfactory and will be carried forward to Scottish Natural Heritage when it comes into operation.

7.15 pm
Mr. Galbraith

I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. He seems, however, to be slightly confused. He referred to the powers of last resort and nature conservation orders, but they are designed to deal with damaging activities on a site of special scientific interest. The new clause deals with the matter from the point of view of neglect. The question is not what a landowner may intend to do to a site but what he or she may fail to do. If a landowner were willing to enter into a land management agreement, it would cost him nothing. Therefore, the Minister's objections to the new clause are not well founded.

I accept his statement that the attempt to deal with these matters by agreement has worked reasonably well up to now. I should not like to interfere with that arrangement. However, this would be a reserve power, to be used in exceptional circumstances when a site of special scientific interest was endangered through neglect. In those circumstances, a land management agreement could be offered to the owner. If he refused the offer, only then would this reserve power come into effect.

Having heard the Minister's reassurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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