HC Deb 12 June 2000 vol 351 cc766-72 Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mike Hall.] 11.40 pm
Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

In 1970 there were twice as many skylarks in Britain as there are now, four times as many turtle doves and 10 times as many tree sparrows. Many of the reasons for the devastation of much of our wildlife are unknown, although agricultural intensification, decreased ploughing, fewer hedgerows, the impact of the common agricultural policy, pollution and pesticides have been cited as causes for the chronic decline of our natural heritage. The number of water voles has decreased by some 90 per cent. in the last seven years; perhaps Ratty from "The Wind in the Willows" will be extinct within 10 years.

You, Mr. Haselhurst, might ask, "Who really cares?", and I would say that many millions of people care about this issue. I am unusual in that I have been involved in environmental movements and I started a business that contributes to the continuation of the endangered loggerhead turtle by funding a hatchery. It contributes also to the protection of the endangered Lammergeyer bearded vulture. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more members than the Labour party, and the alliance of conservation groups, including Friends of the Earth, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Woodland Trust, has millions of members. Almost everyone, if asked whether they care about the future of the beloved sparrow, would say yes.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill is essentially about the enjoyment of our countryside and its protection for future generations, as well as the protection of its biodiversity. Rights of access bring with them responsibilities for the protection of the countryside and indigenous species. Much has been done in biodiversity action plans, albeit on a voluntary basis, to help that process.

At the Rio summit in 1992 the biodiversity convention was signed by 150 countries, including the United Kingdom. That gave rise, in 1994, to the UK biodiversity action plan, and we now have in place 391 species plans, such as those for the water vole, the skylark, the tree sparrow and the greater horseshoe bat. There are also 45 habitat plans, such as the one for ancient hedgerows, which house endangered species. Those plans have been challenged by new CAP regulations on the size of fields that are eligible for grants. Some hedgerows are threatened but some are protected, as are lowland heathlands and upland oak woods.

That process is organised by a partnership of councils, conservationists, non-governmental organisations, the business community and well meaning members of the public. They have worked well in many cases to help to protect various species and habitats, but that is not true in all cases. Being ethnically Welsh, I have some empathy for Wales. The Countryside Council for Wales has devised 222 biodiversity action plans, but 120 of those are not being progressed because there are no funds. The simple reason for the absence of those funds is that biodiversity action plans do not have the legal status and teeth to gain the statutory priority that would provide them with that funding.

Biodiversity in Wales is obviously important to people in England and throughout the United Kingdom—we share our natural heritage and have a duty to protect it—but there is a strange situation in London. The only person in Britain with a statutory duty to protect wildlife through biodiversity action plans is the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who is Mayor of London. That obligation is provided by section 352 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which says that the mayor has a statutory duty to publish a biodiversity plan for London. Therefore, he has the right to call for adequate resources to protect biodiversity in our capital against the forces of commercial development, be they retail, traffic or council economic or planning gain.

I would say, Mr. Haselhurst, that what is good enough for London should be good—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made that slip twice. The correct term is Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Davies

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I suggest that what is good enough for London is good enough for the rest of the nation, in terms of biodiversity and the value that that has for us all. Indeed, that applies not only to the adult population but to my young family—daughters aged five and three—which looks with glee at sparrows and other wildlife that is perhaps endangered by pollution and pesticide. Like me, my family does not want a future in which such birds and others are systematically and chronically eliminated. However action may not be taken on other threatened aspects of biodiversity as people are less emotionally inclined to them.

There is a system of sorts in place and we do not want to displace the voluntary and partnership system. However, I suggest that statutory underpinning would not do so. It would ensure that the means of change—largely through the voluntary and charitable sectors—could be strengthened rather than displaced. Time is running out for certain species in certain areas, cash is needed and there are glaring regional differences. I have referred to the Countryside Council for Wales, but there are many more examples of the need to take action to fulfil our international biodiversity obligations.

Part of that process constitutes the second part of the debate—recognition of local sites of particular interest and incorporating our biodiversity priorities in local authorities' planning framework. As well as some 5,000 sites of special scientific interest, there are many thousands more wildlife sites of special interest, only half of which are properly looked after. I call for a duty to be put on local authorities to establish a system of common standards by identifying such sites and taking them into account in the planning process. Such sites can benefit from agri-environmental grants, but the issue here is the public interest rather than the commercial benefit of the site owner.

London already has a voluntary wildlife site system in place and all but two London boroughs—I know something about this, having been leader of Croydon council—use a system developed by the London Ecology Unit whereby wildlife sites are adopted in the unitary development plans for individual authorities. There is an opportunity for all London to have the biodiversity action plan underpinned by such sites, among other things, so that vulnerability to developers would be reduced. A local authority would be duty bound to take account of the impact on those sites when considering development applications. Therefore, the forces of scrutiny and public focus would help to counter-balance the enormous commercial pressure for redevelopment on sites in London. That is happening. It has been suggested that local sites should be incorporated more widely than London so that our wildlife can be preserved.

I know that the Government are sympathetic to those ideas. I know that they have discussed biodiversity action plans and local sites during the Committee stage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. I hope very much that, on the basis of that discussion, the discussion we are having tonight and the wider discussion throughout the British public—which, by means of extensive media, is being transmitted to millions of members of various organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—the Government will consider tabling amendments, perhaps when we are discussing legislation from the House of Lords, aimed at protecting endangered species. I feel that this is something that the public expect and deserve—as do our many species.

11.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies) has raised an important issue. As he says, we debated it during the Committee stage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. I said then that the Government were happy to consider, although without commitment, the question of a form of statutory underpinning for the biodiversity action plan process on local wildlife sites. No doubt we shall return to the subject later this week, when the Bill is debated on Report. In the meantime, it may be helpful for me to remind the House of a number of aspects of the biodiversity process, some of which my hon. Friend has mentioned.

Through an enormous effort of co-ordination, led by the United Kingdom biodiversity group—a partnership involving Government Departments and devolved administrations, local government, conservation and land management organisations, business interests and nature conservation agencies—we now have, as my hon. Friend said, 391 species action plans and 45 habitat action plans. That is part of our commitment to implement the United Nations convention on biological diversity, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory.

The priority species and habitats selected for attention are those which are most at risk of disappearance or decline. Each plan identifies the current threats, and specifies the action to be taken and the agencies—public, private and voluntary—that will take it. Specific time-limited targets are also set.

I am pleased to say that there is a special plan for the water vole, in which my hon. Friend takes a particular interest. The organisations taking the lead in implementing the action plans have just completed a comprehensive reporting exercise that indicates progress so far, and the obstacles that remain. Although we still need to complete analysis of all the data, it is interesting to note that the water vole action plan suggests a continued loss of populations, but has also found previously unrecorded sites. Although populations are still declining and will take some years to recover, the overall rate of decline may not be as severe as was first thought. We cannot drop our guard, but progress is being made.

My hon. Friend said that resources were a problem. Resources are always a problem in almost any area one cares to name, but implementation of the biodiversity action plan has been a priority for my Department's funding of English Nature. We have given it additional grant of more than £11 million over two years, of which about £3.3 million was to be directed specifically towards implementation of the biodiversity action plan. Some of that is given in grants to voluntary bodies which, as I have said, are significant partners in the process. Because many of the plans will be implemented through agri-environment schemes, the additional £1 billion over seven years announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the end of last year, which will be directed to such schemes, will give an enormous boost to the biodiversity process. The application of the schemes is being increasingly targeted towards biodiversity priorities.

I cannot comment directly on the situation in Wales, to which my hon. Friend has referred, as the funding of the Countryside Council for Wales is a matter for the National Assembly. However, I understand that the council is taking action on all those species and habitat action plans on which it is identified as a lead partner and which are particularly important in Wales. That is a pattern similar to English Nature's priorities. There have also been increases in the gofal, the Assembly's agri-environment initiative.

I assure hon. Members that, throughout, Government, Departments have agreed to focus on biodiversity through the adoption of a biodiversity checklist. That is a means by which Departments will consider the implications for biodiversity and for the management of their own estates of their policies and programmes, and report annually in the green Ministers' report.

Local government plays an important part. We are keen to see local biodiversity action plans extended throughout the whole of England. At present, they cover only about half the country's area and are patchy in their quality and reach. We will in many cases rely on those action plans to help us to deliver national targets. More effort is needed for two-way communication between the players at national and local levels.

The question posed by my hon. Friend is whether any of that would be better or more effective if statutory bodies were under a legal obligation to deliver. That is what the Government are considering in the context of amendments that have been tabled to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. In deciding the way forward, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and I certainly do not want to put at risk the successful voluntary partnerships that have already grown up around the biodiversity process.

My hon. Friend mentions the question of placing a duty on local authorities to adopt and to maintain a system of local wildlife sites. Again, we have undertaken to consider that in the context of amendments that have been tabled to the Bill. I am well aware of the importance of local wildlife sites which are not SSSIs. Local authorities already have statutory powers to establish local nature reserves and to collaborate closely with the wildlife trusts to identify and to help to manage other sites of local conservation importance.

That is why my Department set up a local sites review group with a broad range of representatives from central and local government, statutory agencies, sectoral interests and voluntary conservation organisations. The group considered the identification, protection and management of local sites. There was no clear consensus on the issue of a statutory basis for local wildlife sites, but there was a large degree of consensus on many other issues—for example, a clear framework for the identification of sites, associated support and advice and funding.

I want to put the debate in the context of the enormous wildlife conservation measures that the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill already promotes and which have been widely welcomed. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government have given priority in the Bill to providing for better protection and management of SSSIs—some of our finest and most precious areas for wildlife.

Four thousand or so of those sites have been designated by English Nature. It comes as no surprise that the majority of the biological SSSIs contain habitats identified as priorities under the biodiversity action plan. However, the conservation status of those sites needs improving. Part III of the Bill builds on existing provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, introducing a number of fundamentally new and enhanced measures.

Most significant is the fact that the agencies will be able to refuse consent for damaging operations. They will be able to deal with the more significant problems arising from neglect and poor management through improvements to their powers of entry to land and compulsory purchase. Increased penalties for damage and a new offence of intentional or reckless damage by other persons should send a clear message that damage to those precious sites is wholly unacceptable. Public bodies should lead by example. They will therefore, for the first time, be under a specific duty to further the conservation and enhancement of SSSIs.

A revision of planning policy guidance note 9, on nature conservation, will complement the strengthened regime in the Bill's provisions and deal with biodiversity in the wider countryside. Current legislation protecting threatened species wherever they exist is strong and has done much to further their conservation. However, it can make a real difference only if the laws are effectively enforced, and if the penalties for breaking the law are meaningful and provide a deterrent.

Wildlife crime is lucrative and increasingly well organised. Hence the Bill introduces tougher penalties for wildlife offences, including the option of a prison sentence of up to six months for such offences. We are also increasing fine levels, so that criminals could be looking not only at a jail sentence, but, on top of that, a fine of up to £5,000. My hon. Friend will be aware of all that because, like me, he served in Committee on the Bill.

Mr. Davies

Will my hon. Friend consider sympathetically the idea that the Bill should enable the prosecution not only of companies, but of directors who cause damage on those sites? Will the Government also consider allowing actions to be brought not only through the Crown Prosecution Service, but directly by individuals?

Mr. Mullin

I cannot immediately recall whether the House will be considering any amendments to that effect in the near future. However, if there are such amendments, I am sure that they will be given due consideration.

The Bill strengthens police powers in a number of ways, including powers to require samples to be taken from wildlife specimens for DNA analysis.

Taken together, the actions clearly demonstrate the Government's determination to enhance the legal protection of wildlife in England and Wales. Whatever decision is made on whether to underpin biodiversity action plans in statute, I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the Government are taking quite significant action to ensure the future of our natural heritage.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Twelve midnight.

Back to