HC Deb 10 June 1998 vol 313 cc1079-81 3.36 pm
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to require the owners and occupiers of land notified as sites of special scientific interest who commit an offence under section 28 of the Act to restore that interest of the site lost, damaged or degraded as a result of the offence or offences. Sites of special scientific interest are the foundations of wildlife protection in Great Britain. Introduced in their present form by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, their purpose is to give special safeguard to the most valuable parts of our much reduced, but still rich, natural heritage. I am sorry to have to tell the House that they are failing adequately to protect Britain's finest wildlife sites.

SSSIs contain Britain's finest and most precious examples of wildlife habitats, landscape and geological features. English Nature describes them as the core of our nation's national heritage. There are about 6,000 sites in Britain today. I had the good fortune to visit an SSSI in Cornwall two weeks ago. Marazion marshes is a reserve of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and home to 1,314 species of plants and animals. In fact, it is the largest remaining reed swamp in Cornwall, and, as such, a key area of biodiversity. Apart from plants and birds, more than half the British species of dragonflies are recorded there.

It concerns me greatly that that site is one of the lucky ones. When the RSPB took over management of the reserve, the reed bed had dried out and wildlife interest was being lost. The site is now voluntarily managed, with the co-operation of a sympathetic landowner. Other sites are not managed so sympathetically and are allowed to degenerate, with the resulting loss of wildlife interest.

Statutory nature conservation bodies have to date reported a total of more than 2,120 cases of loss or damage of SSSIs in England and Wales in the past six years alone; yet there have been very few prosecutions. When there have been prosecutions, the fines levied have been disproportionately low.

Kernick and Ottery meadows—which is also in Cornwall—is a grassland area which was notified as an SSSI in 1992. Although part of the site had been ploughed, English Nature believed that it was capable of recovery. Nevertheless, despite SSSI notification, the ploughed area was drained, reseeded and planted with linseed for fibre flax production. English Nature took no action. Protection of the remainder of the site under a nature conservation order has not prevented considerable damage—such as drain installation, damage to hedge banks and grubbing of valuable scrub. Again, English Nature took no action.

If I had more time for this motion, I could detail horror stories from across the country.

The problem is that penalties for damaging SSSIs are painfully lacking and do not constitute any real deterrent. Currently, a landowner planning to conduct a potentially damaging operation must give four months' notice, giving the conservation agency a chance to persuade and to negotiate a voluntary management agreement. Agencies also can offer payment to compensate landowners for any profit lost by not developing a site.

If a landowner does not give due notice and damages a site, he or she is liable to a fine of up to £2,000. However, in practice, fines have varied from only £200—for lime spreading—to £1,500, for extraction of sand and shingles. It is notable that, despite many offences, there have been very few convictions for damaging SSSIs. Fines do not provide an adequate deterrent.

Understandably, statutory nature conservation bodies see little point in pursuing expensive court cases. If they win a conviction, damage to the site remains, and the bodies have little means to repair the damage. In contrast, contravention of a tree preservation order can result in a fine of up to £12,000; and damage to a listed building is punishable with a maximum 12 months' prison sentence and a fine that takes into account any benefit accrued to the offender because of the damage. Clearly, unscrupulous landowners have merely to consider the risk and to take their chances. Many landowners are effectively smashing and grabbing.

Legislation must be strengthened if the SSSI network is to have any real chance of safeguarding our most precious wildlife resources. Landowners who damage an SSSI should be made to restore the site at their own expense. That is the aim of my Bill.

Currently, only in limited circumstances do courts have power to compel a landowner to undertake restorative measures on an SSSI that he or she is found guilty of damaging. Experience has shown that issuing a nature conservation order—creating what has been termed a "super-SSSI"—is of limited practical use. Although such orders allow courts to order an offender to take restorative action to reinstate a site's interests, such action is not commonplace. Since the 1981 Act was passed, the power to impose such orders has been invoked in England on only 26 occasions. Moreover, no restoration orders have ever been issued.

My Bill would give courts the power, under section 28 of the Act, to place restoration orders on offenders who damage standard SSSIs. I believe that that would be a just power to give to the courts. Such power would provide a better deterrent—avoiding damage in the first place—as the cost of restoring sites can be extremely expensive, and an incentive to statutory nature conservation bodies to pursue offences through the courts. It would also be consistent with the "polluter pays" principle.

I realise that it may not always be reasonable or practicable to restore a site to its former condition. My Bill proposes that, in such cases, courts should be given discretion in requiring restoration of sites to an appropriate specified condition.

I am delighted to be able to inform the House that yesterday, with the RSPB, I met the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), and she has promised that the aim of my Bill has been drafted into the Government's planned consultation document on the environment.

I want our children and our children's children to have the same opportunities that I had two weeks ago to visit and experience areas of great natural beauty. Of the cases that I have mentioned, Marazion marshes were lucky; Kernick and Ottery meadows were not. We must not leave the future of those recognised sites to the haphazard and uncertain hand of fate.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Candy Atherton, Jackie Ballard, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Mr. David Drew, Ms Julia Drown, Ms Tess Kingham, Mr. David Prior, Mr. John Randall, Dr. Phyllis Starkey and Mr. John Austin.