HC Deb 29 June 1994 vol 245 cc801-2
6. Mr. Austin-Walker

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many sites of special scientific interest are currently at risk from proposed developments.

Mr. Atkins

My right hon. Friend maintains no central record of development proposals. Local planning authorities are statutorily required to consult English Nature over planning applications which are likely to affect sites of special scientific interest. All relevant considerations are taken into account at this stage in the planning process.

Mr. Austin-Walker

Undoubtedly, the Minister is aware that some 300 sites of special scientific interest have been damaged in the past two years, and that the National Audit Office, in its report last month, says that the damage is understated? Can the Minister give an assurance that when the habitats directive is implemented and the special areas of conservation are designated, that will not lead to an erosion of the already inadequate protection of those sites of special scientific interest that have not been designated? As 160 sites are threatened by the Government's roads programme, before the Secretary of State leaves office, can he give an assurance about the future safety of Oxleas wood?

Mr. Atkins

We are proud of our record on sites of special scientific interest. A suggestion by any Labour Member that there has been substantial damage is at complete variance with the facts. We are talking about a small number. Since 1987, only one site has been lost completely; of the other existing sites, less than 3 per cent. have been damaged, and that damage will be restored in time. The hon. Gentleman asks a sensible question about the eventual transposition of the habitats directive and what it will do. I can certainly give him the assurance that he seeks.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Has my hon. Friend noted that Ashenbank wood in the parish of Cobham in my constituency is a site of special scientific interest and stands directly in the route of that very large project, the high-speed rail link? Will he, together with his colleagues at the Department of Transport, ensure that the environment is safeguarded at that point?

Mr. Atkins

My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for his constituents' interests. If he would like to talk to me after Question Time, I am sure that we can arrange to discuss the matter so that I can do what I can to help.

Mr. Chris Smith

Is not it scandalous that no central record is kept by the Government of potentially damaging developments at the most precious ecological sites in this country? How can the Government possibly be proud of the fact that more than 300 SSSIs have been damaged in past two years? When on earth will the Government come forward with proper proposals to implement the European habitats directive? Will it be a half-baked, inadequate attempt which is brought in at the last possible moment, as so often is the case under this Government?

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Gentleman is using synthetic indignation. He knows full well that the Government's record on SSSIs, on the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and on a variety of other environmental activities is far better than that of his party and of the Labour Government. What is more, the hon. Gentleman knows that environmental groups do not think that the Labour party's policy stands up to ours.

Mr. Waterson

Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to discuss with the Secretary of State his visit to Beachy Head in my constituency, a very well-known SSSI which, until relatively recently, was threatened by a massive over-development sponsored by the Liberal Democrats majority on the, borough council?

Mr. Atkins

My right hon. Friend tells me that he went to the edge, looked over and decided that he was very much against what was being suggested. I will take on board what my hon. Friend says and endeavour to ensure that what he wants happens.