HC Deb 09 March 1995 vol 256 cc529-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]

7.47 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

When Madam Speaker allocated the debate—the last this week, and at an earlier hour than many of us anticipated—it was assumed that it would be a debate about the national, not the natural, heritage. As the national heritage nowadays appears to be largely focused on gambling, it is perhaps not surprising that, at the beginning of the week, I was approached by several organisations concerned with gambling. I was relieved to be able to correct their impression.

The debate may be rather more important. The House might care to consider also that, although there is a special care and a justified concern in the House about cruelty to animals, and that was demonstrated last Friday, there should be slightly more anxiety about the survival of a whole species rather than simply cruelty to a few members of that species. That is what the real anxiety is about—the survival of a species and the habitat on which that species may depend.

I sought this debate to give the House an opportunity to consider and have on record comments with regard to European Nature Conservation Year 1995. I attended the Council of Europe Assembly in January, where I presented a report on behalf of the Environment Committee to launch that desirable campaign. I was grateful that the report was unanimously approved there.

This debate allows me to ask the Minister to explain the Government's approach to the campaign and ascertain what official action is being taken and what support the Government are providing. I know that a major aim—perhaps the major aim—of the campaign is to promote wider public awareness of the need for conservation of our natural heritage, and I hope to show, in my relatively short speech, how essential that awareness is. The Minister may then care to comment on the case that I shall present.

In 1975, my private Member's Bill became the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975. At the outset, the then Secretary of State, Tony Crosland, ordered that every school should receive a poster illustrating the 20 species of flora and six species of fauna included in the schedules to the Act.

In January, I saw some posters that had been produced by the nature conservation department of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. There was a display of photographs that could make an enormous impact, and the poster embodies a selection of those photographs. Will the Minister take a leaf out of the book of the Department of the Environment in the 1970s and provide one of those posters for each school in Britain? If the aim is to promote awareness, no better step could be taken.

That awareness is needed is adequately revealed by a recent publication produced on behalf of the voluntary bodies concerned with nature conservation. As the Minister will be well aware, I refer to the document entitled "Biodiversity Challenge". It is the work of a team drawn from the voluntary organisations, and not only presents an analysis of conservation need today, but proposes action that should be taken to halt the decline. I shall demonstrate the fact that there has been decline and theie is an acute need for action.

"Biodiversity Challenge" presents an agenda to protect our natural inheritance, and proposes courses of action that can deal with the serious problems. The study is to be welcomed, not least because it is highly responsible but especially because its approach is practical. It demonstrates that the plans for action that it contains have been costed. It shows how much could be achieved and spells out what the costs would be.

Much needs to be done, and we can now see how much can be done for relatively little expense. Will the Minister recommend those proposals to his colleagues in the Treasury with more confidence than might otherwise be the case, because even people employed in the Treasury must have regard to what this country will be like next year and for the next generation?

Action is certainly needed. In the past 25 years, 70 species of British fauna and flora have become extinct, at least in these islands, but some were found only in these islands. So the loss is not merely ours but international. Some of those vanished species may have passed unnoticed, but their loss should not be dismissed lightly.

Shoreham has been in the news recently. A great deal of attention has been focused on the traffic in animals destined for slaughter from that port, but little attention was paid to a vanished invertebrate that lived by Shoreham—I refer to Ive11's sea anemone, a tiny fawn and rose-spotted 12-tentacled creature. It was seen near Shoreham for the last time a few years ago but has now vanished, and the world will probably never see it again. Those who wish to see it will have to look at a picture.

"Biodiversity Challenge" illustrates case after case of that kind. I believe that the Minister's constituency is fairly close to Hampshire or Dorset. A plant that may be found in his constituency is the early gentian, which may be about to disappear. "Biodiversity Challenge" offers a plan that might save it, and the Minister will have constituents who would wish that plant to be saved and may be concerned about retaining an adequate genetic balance in these islands.

"Biodiversity Challenge" lists all the species that have become extinct this century. We can thus see clearly how the pace of decline has accelerated in more recent years. The threat of further losses is severe for, today, many species are endangered. This century, we have lost 49 species of lichen, 53 species of fungi and 13 species of wild flowering plants. Those include the peach-leaved bellflower, summer lady's tresses and lamb's succory, which are no longer to be found in our country.

It is not only flora that have vanished. The opossum shrimp has gone, as have four species of spiders, three species of butterflies, including the black-veined white, the large tortoiseshell and the large blue. I included the large blue in my private Member's Bill in 1975. It was on its last legs then, and one hoped that the gesture might help, but it died out in 1979. An attempt has now been made to reintroduce it, and I hope that it will meet with success. Although I may criticise alien importation, the species being reintroduced is from the same genetic species, so it should be all right.

Eleven species of moth have disappeared in the past 30 years, including the marsh dagger; the feathered ear, which is associated with our county, Mr. Deputy Speaker; and the Lewes wave. Interestingly enough, the last Blair's wainscot was recorded in 1966. Its remaining site on the Isle of Wight was destroyed by burning and draining. What a pity that the Blair's wainscot did not have its home in constituencies where it might have been more cordially regarded, and where we might have been able to guarantee success. The Essex emerald disappeared earlier in the decade, largely due to lack of grazing, but work on sea defences may have been an important factor.

This century, 41 other species of insect have become extinct in Britain, including a dozen types of solitary bee. Many people may not be concerned about the extinction of insect species, but their loss can affect the food chain. However, millions of people are interested in angling, and the burbot, a species of fish, has vanished. One hopes that angling organisations will co-operate with the voluntary sector with a view to arranging to restock. Yesterday, I mentioned that matter to Lord Mason of Barnsley, who, with his interest in angling and his noted energy, may be able to help in that direction.

I referred a moment or two ago to the 1975 Act, which contained one schedule listing 20 species of endangered flora and six species of endangered fauna. The large blue butterfly has disappeared, despite legal protection, and the last mouse-eared bat expired in 1991.

The most vulnerable species in the schedule of the 1975 Act was the lady slipper orchid. There was only one plant left in 1975. There is still only one plant left today, and it is in Yorkshire. In fact, it is Yorkshire's best-kept secret, and those people who know where it is will not tell anyone else. One can guess the penalty of indiscretion—we would have no lady slipper orchids at all. I am delighted to learn that Kew gardens is living up to its splendid reputation and may produce a few more lady slipper orchids to guarantee the species' survival.

The first species to he protected in Britain were birds, seals and badgers. Birds are held in high regard by millions of our citizens and by some Ministers of the Crown who prefer birds of the feathered variety. Ministers frequently list birdwatching among their hobbies. Therefore, I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will respond to the voluntary sector's call in "Biodiversity Challenge" and thus secure the survival of some birds which are currently in serious danger of extinction.

The pine marten is extinct in Britain, and it is just hanging on in Wales. Its remaining stronghold—if that is the correct term—is Scotland. I hope that the proposals in "Biodiversity Challenge" for the retention and safeguarding of certain habitat will help to restore that species to England, so that it is not restricted entirely to the woodland areas of Scotland.

Some people may say that it is no good crying over spilt milk, that we should not spend money preventing the extinction of species and that we must expect reality. Certain changes in habitat may be unavoidable—for example, climate change and the effect of global warming—but I believe that the British population are concerned about the issue, and that they want the Government to address it as a matter of priority.

Parliament recognises that we are part of Europe. Although some hon. Members may not care to hear about it, Europe has begun to take a quite serious view of the wildlife issue. The European Community has issued directives, not least in regard to the protection of birds, and the Council of Europe has been concerned about habitat for a long time.

When I came to the House in 1970, I already had an amateurish interest in conservation. I pursued the establishment of the Badger Act 1973 and the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975. However, I quickly recognised that there is little value in protecting a species if we allow the habitat upon which that species depends to be destroyed. I therefore took the view—over the years, the Council of Europe Assembly has adopted it also—that our priority must lie in protecting habitat.

I presented a report on that matter on behalf of the Environment Sub-Committee, which I then chaired, and that led to the Berne convention on wildlife and habitat. I was delighted that the British Government were one of the first to sign, ratify and implement that convention which formed a major part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Government acted swiftly on that occasion, and one hopes that, given the increasing challenges posed by the pace of change, they will maintain their commitment and accept that they have an obligation to ensure that this matter receives the same priority.

Many species are at risk today, largely because we have lost 60 per cent. of our lowland wet grassland, more than half our sand dunes, 60 per cent. of our fen habitat and 95 per cent. of our raised peat bog. Coastal lagoons have been reduced to an area of just 1,300 hectares. Ancient broadleaf woodland, which once covered huge areas of our island, has shrunk, and today covers only 300,000 hectares. The remaining Caledonian forest has been reduced to 12,500 hectares.

Limestone pavement has been reduced to 2,000 hectares—largely as a result of theft, sometimes by people who would be astonished if one accused them of that crime. Only 57,000 hectares of heathland are left on our island. Those remaining areas of habitat are not sufficient to guarantee the survival of scores of species, especially if that habitat is not managed properly.

"Biodiversity Challenge" lists plans for action in each of those habitat categories. It also demonstrates which endangered species will benefit and how that will be accomplished. The proposed plans seem eminently sensible and I hope that each set of plans for the respective habitat groups will be regarded seriously. We need to recognise decline and vulnerability. Far be it from me to advise the Government on how to restore its popularity, but I cannot think of anything that would attract large numbers of people back to the Government's corner faster than the recognition that they are concerned about the environment and about the future of this island.

As Government Members claim to be interested in wildlife, birdwatching and so on, I think that I am entitled to remind the Minister that eight bird species have suffered more than a 75 per cent. decline in their number since 1970—the corncrake, marsh warbler, red-necked shrike, common scoter, tree sparrow, grey partridge, wryneck and roseate tern. Only one quarter of their number that existed in 1970 remains today.

The decline is more extensive in well-known species. Some 16 species have lost between one half and 75 per cent. of their populations since 1970. They include: the skylark, linnet, song thrush and turtle dove. The decline continues. I said recently that it would be extremely sad if children who were studying English poetry read the poems of Clare or Shelley about the thrush or the skylark and had to ask their teachers or parents what a skylark or a songthrush was.

The natural phenomena of these islands have inspired British music, literature and art in all its forms. It would be criminal to deny ourselves and the next generation that source of future inspiration. The danger that species of that kind will disappear is sufficient to justify my suggestion that the Minister should, if necessary, take on the Treasury with a little more vigour than might have been shown previously.

Some people believe that, if a species is endangered or if it disappears altogether, we can simply bring in another species from overseas, and that it is all very well to import alien species in order to enrich the variety of wildlife in Britain. However, I think that it is timely to remind the Minister not to allow alien importation unless it has been considered very carefully. Some people brought in Japanese knotweed, and that was disastrous. Others brought in mink and allowed them to escape, and they have had a savage effect on nature in many parts of the country.

We should consider others that are causing distress in the Yorkshire dales. Many people there were aware that the Atlantic crayfish was a useful part of the there natural phenomenon. The species is in decline in Britain partly because of pollution, but now it is under severe threat as a result of the marked competition from the American signal crayfish.

We need to recognise that there has to be care about importation. I believe we could certainly justify the movement of some pine martens from Scotland if their habitat can be securely safeguarded in England. There is no problem about that. There is certainly no problem about the carefully prepared reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. That bird became extinct in 1916, but it has now been reestablished. The numbers may not be excessive, but the re-establishment seems to be secure. I hope that the large blue butterfly can also be restored to Britain. Care and consideration are required.

The Minister will probably confirm that some of the commitments and obligations to which I have referred were certainly reinforced, if not originated, by the Rio agreement, and we would be fulfilling some of the obligations which stem from that conference. For that reason, I suggest that we give some priority to the need to secure and properly manage areas of lowland heath. If we did, we would actually be securing the future of 12 threatened species, and we would enhance the areas involved. That approach would provide a very real recognition of the work of a number of wildlife trusts in several counties.

Perhaps the most significant plan of action is that referring to the Caledonian forest. The cost of implementing the proposed 10-year programme would be £700,000 a year. The envisaged programme would not only secure the 12,500 hectares of Caledonian forest that remain, but would add an additional 5,000 hectares. It would cost £700,000 a year, but it would provide jobs. If one provides jobs, one secures contributions from the individual employments and the savings which accrue if they do not remain unemployed, so £700,000 is certainly not an unrealistic figure for a result which would transform many areas and would give us cause for pride internationally. As the Minister will be aware, the Caledonian forest in these islands is of international conservation significance.

Safeguarding the limestone pavements to which I have referred would ensure the survival of a number of species including the Lancashire whitebeam and rigid butler fern. I would prefer species unique to Britain to survive rather than people to be allowed to take more limestone pavement to enrich the rockeries in their gardens. Several other species would be safeguarded by that approach.

The voluntary bodies have analysed the need and the nature of the action required for each of those habitats. They demonstrate what can be achieved, and the benefit could be of historic proportions.

As a Member of Parliament representing South Yorkshire, I should refer to the lowland raised bogs. In South Yorkshire, at Thorne and Hatfield moors in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes), two insects, the ground beetle and the mire pill beetle, are not found anywhere else in the world. I know that people are not particularly fond of beetles, although one Conservative Member breeds worms, but not many us share her taste or her political views. Those two species are the only ones in the world; they are found in the Thorne and Hatfield moors and represent a further argument for ensuring that that habitat deserves some priority.

There are a number of studies within the biological diversity. I shall refer to four of them as examples of the plans which the document provides. The freshwater pearl mussel is in the IUCN data book as extremely endangered species internationally. It is still to be found in some waters in Britain, and we have an obligation to ensure its survival. It can be achieved at very little cost. It requires some monitoring, and perhaps an improved provision of special sites of scientific interest status where its main breeding potential exists.

The southern damselfly is known in 18 localities in west Wales, Anglesey and the New forest, and is another species which the Minister might care to protect. It is globally threatened. Its breeding sites need to be protected and SSSI designation could be a considerable help. In respect of the freshwater mussel and southern damselfly, the designation of SSSIs involve remarkably little cost are once again represent scope for successful confrontation with the Treasury.

I mentioned the burbot a moment ago. The sturgeon is extremely rare in serious decline throughout Europe, and we need a European initiative to ensure that that important fish survives. The first step is not expensive. We need adequate funds to ensure proper study of the movement and the prospects for the sturgeon in Britain. Millions of anglers in Britain might welcome that involvement.

The corncrake was once an extremely common bird in the cereal areas of Britain. Its decline has not been sudden; it has continued for a long time. In 1993, there were just 478 active male corncrakes. Unfortunately, apart from a few in Fermanagh in Ulster, the rest are now restricted to the Scottish islands. Perhaps it could be introduced to protected grasslands areas in England, but only when we are satisfied that the habitat can securely sustain the species.

If we are to see an end of decline, or at least a beginning of the end to decline, we have to recognise that the disappearance of species is extremely important. At the moment, and inevitably, concern for conservation is still seen as a matter for the Department of the Environment. As it is the job of the Department of the Environment, other Government Departments tend to ignore it. I hope that the Minister will recognise that and insist that other Government Departments are aware of their responsibilities.

Conservation is a matter for the Department of Transport, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Trade and Industry in particular, and those Departments must be aware that they cannot leave it all to the Department of the Environment; they have to give some attention and priority to the matter. They have to look at their wider responsibilities.

The rural White Paper is due in the summer. Heaven knows, rural life needs to be considered and sustained and rural services need to be regarded. I hope the Minister can assure us that conservation needs will loom quite large in that report and in the consideration which Ministers will give it. After all, conservation is essential for rural life.

I suspect that calls for the wider view would be endorsed by the Government's employees or advisers. Many who are employed in the public agencies—one can think of each of them—are far more knowledgeable, and perhaps far more concerned than most of us, perhaps because they have an almost daily exposure to the factors of need. The calls which I endorsed this evening originate from those who are responsibly involved in our large conservation voluntary bodies. They have professionally observed the disappearance of much wildlife and damage to much of its habitat, and believe that, if there is to be a future cause for inspiration in our culture, steps must be taken to ensure that the genetic inheritance of these islands is secured. ENCY 95 could serve a useful purpose in propelling understanding, and if there is understanding there will be strengthening of intention, and greater priority and urgency will be attached to implementing recommendations and fulfilling commitments that our sense of responsibility to the present and to future generations demands.

I trust that I have not spoken too long but that the Minister will recognise the seriousness of those matters, as millions of people do. I hope that his remarks will give them some encouragement.

8.20 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) for allowing me to contribute to his Adjournment debate. He put the case well. It is a happy coincidence that his debate occurs on an evening when it is possible to exceed the usual half hour. I welcome the presence of my hon. Friends the Minister and the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope).

First, I must declare an interest as adviser to the International Fund for Animal Welfare and to its founder, Brian Davis. That is not relevant to my remarks but a matter of record.

I first became aware of rare species in my early teens when, not a quarter of a mile from this place, I was shown a rare spider sitting in a hole in a brick. A few years later, between school and university, I stood in for the director of studies of a grammar school for three weeks while the director, Mr. John Bechervaise, went off on an Antarctic relief ship. In his absence, I read the diary that he had kept when he led an Australian Antarctic expedition. During the long winter, he observed a small jar of earth with a microscope. His tales of the life within that small amount of earth measuring no more than 12 sq in extended almost to the galaxy of species spoken of by the hon. Member for Wentworth.

For a year, I had responsibility, as a Northern Ireland Minister, for the environment and agriculture, when I was well advised by voluntary groups and civil servants. I am not sure that there are many or any corncrakes still in west Fermanagh. The corncrake does not always remain in fields set aside for hay because it finds an easier life in the fields designated for silage. Unfortunately cutting silage also cuts up the corncrake.

Habitat is rightly identified by those who put forward a biodiversity challenge. One day, we will need to go broader in protected areas. As someone who has heard the corncrake, I would strongly recommend some way, especially in these days of set aside and extensive agriculture—that is, of low inputs—of offering up more of west Fermanagh to non-silage fields. The advantage otherwise to the individual farmer might be surrendered, provided that compensation is generous. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will put that point to his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office.

In Northern Ireland, the research advice that I received was that less than 2 per cent. of bovine tuberculosis cases might come from badgers. It is believed that most transmission is by cattle nosing each other over fences, and that double fencing would make it possible to keep particular herds of cows or beef apart. It is sad to continue gassing badgers, particularly in south-west England, on the evidence of inadequate research. Thousands of badgers are killed that way each year, but that appears to have no effect on tuberculosis among herds in the south-west. Gassing badgers should be reviewed, but that matter goes beyond habitat.

It is important to use advice from nature organisations in helping to re-establish the red squirrel in areas where it has lost its prominence. The red squirrel is still seen on the Isle of Wight, but I would like to see more of that species in England.

Mr. Hardy

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that ill-considered reintroductions of the red squirrel to any part of the country should be avoided, unless it is reasonably certain that it will survive?

Mr. Bottomley

I agree. The otter has returned because the environment changed. It can travel enormous distances. The otter population was seriously declining in the early 1950s, when I first saw an otter. In fact, I pretended to see one, but my sister did so, in Shropshire. If the environment is protected or improved, species re-establish themselves. Of most importance is that they do not die out or fall further behind in the struggle to survive.

The hon. Gentleman made important points about the skylark and songthrush. No one who has heard a skylark would say that it should he lost from this country. It unites our history and much of our cultural inspiration, be it music or poetry, and is a strong part of country life.

Referring again to Northern Ireland, Strangford lough is an amazing place. There is an enormous change of water twice a day through a narrow strait. When large-bottomed trawlers passed through, virtually everything was scraped away. That may be tolerable in some marine areas but not in one unique in the United Kingdom. I did all that I could to ban those trawlers from the lough. If people tell the Government, "There is a major problem and if you wait too long, it will be too late," the Government have a responsibility to react.

It is really a question of building effective alliances, and I add my support to the simple request of the hon. Member for Wentworth for a way of getting a good poster into all schools. Most of the 14 million children in this country are at school. If they can be sensitised to part of their heritage, they will carry on the work long after we are forgotten. There will be continuing interest not just from those who live in the countryside but those in towns and cities. The battle cannot be won only by people who live and are interested in the countryside. It must be a national effort. The Government are right to take an interest. They have done many things better, but there is more to do.

People who tend urban gardens often want to enrich the soil. If they continue to do that using peat, they will in effect rob one the country of one of its irreplaceable habitats. I hope that gardening pages will support what has been said in the House today and will recommend that gardeners find other ways of enriching their soil, rather than destroying a scarce part of this country's heritage.

8.29 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

This has been an educational debate. It has been educational for me because the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) have much greater detailed knowledge of species than I have. I am grateful to them, and especially the hon. Gentleman, for giving me the opportunity to explain some of the important developments that are taking place in the conservation of the natural heritage.

Over two years ago, more than 150 Heads of State and Government recognised the importance of conserving the earth's flora and fauna by signing the convention on biological diversity at the earth summit at Rio. That fact was mentioned by the hon. Member for Wentworth. By signing the convention, the Government demonstrated their determination to play a full part in halting the global loss of animal and plant species and genetic resources. We followed this up with the UK biodiversity action plan, which was published in January 1994. The UK is one of the first parties to produce an action plan for biodiversity alongside its sustainable development strategy.

The action plan sets out a strategy for the conservation of the natural heritage for the next 20 years. For the first time in a Government paper the plan draws together existing instruments and programmes for nature conservation and commits Government to a forward strategy and performance targets. A vital part of the strategy will be schemes for the conservation of certain endangered wildlife habitats and species of animals and plants. The aim of the schemes will be to preserve and, wherever possible, enhance the range and biodiversity of naturally occurring wildlife in the UK.

Again, we are the first country to have given a commitment to produce specific costed targets for key species and habitats. We are working closely with the voluntary conservation sector in developing the targets, under the umbrella of the biodiversity steering group, which is chaired by my Department. We shall publish the targets for consultation by the end of the year.

The commitments to forward action are comprehensive and cover protected areas, the wider countryside, threatened species, public awareness, local initiatives, support for biodiversity overseas and better access to biological information and data.

I think that it will be agreed that the initiatives build on an already excellent record for nature conservation. The Government have had active policies for the conservation of nature for many years which have enabled us to protect endangered habitats and species and meet all our international conservation obligations. They are implemented mainly through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the network of sites of special scientific interest, of which there are now over 6,700 in the UK. The Act gives strict protection to 167 species of plants and to 94 animal species. There is a regular review of the schedules to the Act to ensure that they reflect the needs of the threatened species.

We believe that the policies are working. There are many exaggerated claims about the loss of SSSIs, but in recent years the numbers of them and the area of land that they cover have increased substantially, while within the SSSIs the rate of habitat loss and damage through development and inappropriate management has declined significantly. Importantly, we believe that most of the damaged sites will recover their special interest. The Government have shown themselves ready to address problems where they have been identified, and the measures that are being taken by English Nature and under agri-environmental initiatives should further reduce the incidence of avoidable damage in future.

Statistics are needed to highlight the important issue and help both policy makers and the public to understand whether environmental quality is generally improving, and whether our development is sustainable. In November 1993, the Department published the results of the countryside survey 1990, which is the most comprehensive survey of the countryside that has ever been carried out. The UK is the first country to carry out such a survey, based on the integration of remote sensing and field survey data at a national scale.

The primary aims of the survey were to provide information on the stock of land cover, landscape features and habitats in Great Britain in 1990, to identify change in these by reference to earlier surveys and to establish a new baseline for the measurement of future changes. Not all the changes that the survey reported were positive. For example, it showed a 23 per cent. reduction in the length of hedgerows between 1984 and 1990, and there was a decline in the diversity of plant species in arable fields, grassland and woodland.

The countryside survey 1990 is part of a framework of research that is geared to understanding the effects of land use change and improving access to information on the countryside for policy purposes. It is planned to use this approach as a basis for regular reporting on the state of the countryside, with follow-up work on the causes of the changes reported in the survey and their significance for wildlife and biodiversity, as well as a full repeat survey in the year 2000. To improve access to the results of the survey and other information about the rural environment, the Department has developed a computerised countryside information system, which is now available as a commercial product.

The Government's nature conservation advisers—English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales—base their conservation activities on working together with landowners and occupiers, and with local communities, to preserve and enhance wildlife habitats and species. I note the possibility that was referred to by the hon. Member for Wentworth and my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham of providing posters for schools. I shall certainly examine that.

From my own experience, I share the concern of the hon. Member for Wentworth about the introduction of alien species. As my accent makes clear, I come from a country which suffered from the massive introduction of English species such as rabbits, hares, pigs, cats and dogs—

Mr. Peter Bottomley


Sir Paul Beresford

And people, not convicts. Someone's geography is a little inaccurate. The damage to the natural habitat was considerable.

It is because of the success of conservation of the natural heritage in the UK that we depend on the support and commitment of those who own or work the land and on everyone who enjoys our natural heritage. While recognising the need to provide for man's needs—economic, social and recreational—it is important to promote an understanding of wildlife and an awareness of the threats to it, especially to those species or habitats that are threatened or are declining.

The emphasis on understanding and local involvement is a central theme of European Nature Conservation Year 1995. The UK is playing a full part in marking it. The hon. Member for Wentworth has rightly signalled it as a key initiative with its theme, "Look to the future, look after nature". The UK is represented by English Nature on the Council of Europe's committee and ii is co-ordinating a myriad activities across the UK. The UK programme is planned to provide a wide variety of events and projects. The wildlife trusts are playing a central role by providing a local telephone advice service throughout England and co-ordinating a massive appeal called "A Million for Wildlife". The trusts are looking for I million days of volunteer action, and are raising £1 million to help local wildlife in 1995. There are many more initiatives.

European Nature Conservation Year emphasises sustainable management to improve biodiversity as a key principle. We know that truly natural environments have become increasingly rare. Nature has adapted to our management of the land, and much of the natural diversity nowadays is dependent on the continuation of traditional techniques of land management. It is this biodiversity that gives us the variety and character of the landscape that we value so highly.

The aim is not to make conservation of our natural heritage and economic activity mutually exclusive, but to ensure that man's activities are undertaken in ways that do not threaten our natural heritage, and wherever possible in ways that support it. The right sort of economic activity can sometimes protect or even enhance the environment. Good examples are the progressive reforms of Europe's common agricultural policy, which through agri-environmental programmes and environmental cross-compliance have enabled the Government to promote nature conservation in the wider countryside. We have done this by introducing schemes such as environmentally sensitive areas, the countryside stewardship scheme, nitrate-sensitive areas and the habitats scheme, which assist farmers to manage their land in ways that contribute to overall conservation goals outside protected areas.

The planning policy guidance note on nature conservation was published last year. It gives the most up-to-date guidance to local planning authorities and developers on the Government's policy on conservation of our natural heritage and development control. This specific PPG reiterates the prime Government objectives for nature conservation and also gives a full explanation of the implications for planning authorities of the new habitats regulations that implement the EC's habitats directive. The directive will play a significant part in our strategies for nature conservation in the medium and long term, which are being delivered through the biodiversity action plan.

The habitats regulations complement the strategy and broader initiatives for the wider countryside. At the same time, they make a significant contribution to the directive's aim of helping to ensure biodiversity through the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora throughout the European Union, an aim which the Government wholeheartedly support. The habitats regulations also give legal effect to habitat protection under the EC birds directive, introduced by the habitats directive. Special protection areas, designated under the birds directive and special areas of conservation designated under the habitats directive will together contribute to the European Union network of sites to be known as Natura 2000.

The Government have made significant progress on the classification of special protection areas under the birds directive. In the past year, 23 SPAs have been classified in the UK, bringing the total to 102, covering more than 323,000 hectares. The Government are committed to an accelerated classification programme and further sites are in the pipeline.

Our commitment to the voluntary approach to nature conservation is reflected in the implementation of the habitats directive. We are committed to consultation on the sites proposed for designation under the directive. Advice from the statutory nature conservation agencies about which sites merit designation under the directive is currently being considered. The Government's proposals will be published shortly and a full and thorough public consultation at national and local level will begin.

In the coastal and marine environment, the Government have taken initiatives aimed at enhancing the effective co-ordination of policies for the coastal zone in England. December saw the launch of the coastal forum, chaired and serviced by the Department of the Environment. The forum provides for an exchange of views on coastal issues and builds on existing liaison arrangements at regional and local levels. Policy guidelines for the coast are also in preparation and will draw together in convenient form guidance that is already provided on coastal issues. A best practice guide will highlight good practice and clarify how different elements of coastal zone management plans interact, and a review of byelaw-making powers relating to coastal management is also under way. Last year, the Government also announced the rural White Paper, which will cover the issues of living in, working in and enjoying the countryside. The White Paper, which will be published in the middle of next year, will present a coherent view of Government policy for the countryside and will demonstrate the integration of rural concerns, across all Government Departments, which impact on the English countryside. There is no formal consultation, but we have written to 420 organisations, seeking their views, and so far have received 362 responses. The aim is to ensure that the resources that go into the countryside are used to the optimum effect, based on principles set out in the sustainable development strategy.

The sort of things that the paper will look at are: the impact of the common agricultural policy on the countryside and the Government's objectives for its further reform; making provision for necessary development and finding ways of providing that in a sensitive, well-designed manner; the dynamic relationship between towns and cities and the countryside; the sophisticated nature of economic activity in today's countryside and the importance of encouraging further economic development and diversification; the strengths of localism, including resistance to uniformity, the recognition of local identity and the role of local government; strengthening policies to respond to the decline in biodiversity and to protect and enhance the wider countryside as well as the most valued landscapes and habitats.

The White Paper is not about quick fixes or instant initiatives. It is intended to develop a long-term, strategic framework for the future of our countryside. Ministerial colleagues from my Department and from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have almost completed a series of seminars around the country to listen to the views of local representatives.

I believe that tonight I have briefly outlined a wide range of initiatives, from the biodiversity action plan to the rural White Paper, which demonstrate that the Government are taking a strategic view of the conservation of the natural heritage, which will take us forward positively and sustainably into the next century.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Nine o'clock.