HC Deb 14 June 2000 vol 351 cc1036-8 8.30 pm
Mr. Mullin

I beg to move amendment No. 275, in page 35, line 28, at end insert— '(1A) Subject to subsection (1B), upon receipt of a notification under subsection (1), each Council notified shall, in turn, notify—

  1. (a) the local planning authority in whose area the wetland is situated;
  2. (b) every owner and occupier of any of that wetland;
  3. (c) the Environment Agency; and
  4. (d) every relevant undertaker (within the meaning of section 4(1) of the Water Industry Act 1991) and every internal drainage hoard (within the meaning of section 61C(1) of the Land Drainage Act 1991) whose works, operations or activities may affect the wetland.
(1B) The Nature Conservancy Council for England and the Countryside Council for Wales may agree that in a case where the Secretary of State notifies both of them under subsection (1)(c), any notice under subsection (1A) is to be sent by one or the other of them (and not both), so as to avoid duplicate notices under that subsection.'. The amendment responds to a particular point that the Opposition made in Committee. They said that we should ensure that the relevant owners and occupiers, local authorities, the Environment Agency, relevant undertakers and internal drainage boards should be properly informed of the designation of Ramsar sites.

Mr. David Heath

I do not want to put the Under-Secretary off his stride, but I want to ask a simple question. Proposed new subsection (1A)(a) mentions "the local planning authority". Should I be concerned that that is expressed in the singular? In Somerset, a site could fall under the jurisdiction of several local planning authorities.

Mr. Mullin

All planning authorities are covered. The hon. Gentleman should not be concerned; I do not like him to be concerned.

The amendment would achieve its objective by placing a duty on the conservation agencies to carry out the same procedures to inform relevant parties as those that already exist for sites of special scientific interest—and are reflected in schedule 8—when they are notified by the Secretary of State of the designation of a Ramsar site. We have used that approach, which is the same as for sites designated under the European birds and habitats directives, because the detailed information on owners and occupiers will be held by the conservation agencies in connection with SSSI notification.

Several queries were raised in Committee about Government policy on Ramsar sites. We have concluded that we should publish a policy statement to set out our commitment to the Ramsar convention and explain how it will relate in future to our obligations under the European directives and the Bill as it applies to all SSSIs. The statement is in preparation, and I hope that we shall be able to publish it later during the Bill's passage.

Mr. Green

I am glad that the Government took some notice of the amendment that we tabled in Committee on the importance of Ramsar sites and the way in which they should be recognised. However, the amendment is inadequate and does not cover our concerns and those of many knowledgeable bodies, including, most notably, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The Under-Secretary knows that amendment No. 275 is not as strong or wide ranging as the amendment that we tabled in Committee. It will not fulfil the aspirations, which I hope that the Government will outline in their policy statement. I am glad that such a statement will be produced soon. I am sure that we all look forward avidly to reading it. However, the information is not new. In Committee, the Government said that they intended to publish a policy statement highlighting their commitment to protecting and managing Ramsar sites on a par with sites that form part of the European Union's Natura 2000 network…—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18 May 2000; c. 741.] They may not be the same words as the Under-Secretary used tonight, but I suspect that they are startlingly similar.

The Under-Secretary argued, especially in Committee, that most but not all sites are already protected under the European birds and habitats directives and that most Ramsar sites in this country will be SSSIs and will therefore benefit from the existing provisions of the Bill. He said that additional regulations were unnecessary, but he promised to give the matter further thought. I assume that the amendment is the fruit of that thinking.

To some extent, the Under-Secretary's analysis is correct. Most Ramsar sites are designated as special protection areas under the birds directive, or special areas of conservation under the habitats directive. That means that they are already subject to a high degree of protection. However, that applies only to the Ramsar interest, which is also the designated interest of the SPA or the SAC.

The interest leading to designation as Ramsar sites may be different, and regulations may be necessary to establish, for example, how that special interest should be judged in terms of the planning system and how it should be balanced with other special interests of sites that have more than one specific interest. Relying on SSSI provision fails to recognise the international importance of Ramsar sites. We believe that only the introduction of regulations such as those that we proposed in Committee will achieve the Government's stated aim that Ramsar sites should be protected on a par with the Natura 2000 network.

Let us consider a specific example. The north Norfolk coast is internationally important for a range of coastal and freshwater wetlands. It is home to globally important populations of nesting terns and the bittern, which is increasingly scarce. Those species and the habitats on which they depend are protected by SPA and SAC designations. However, there is a wide range of other habitats and species, such as the plants and invertebrates, associated with the wet flushes along the spring line. They are part of the notified Ramsar site.

Those marshes are threatened by permanent tidal flooding as sea levels rise. The shingle bank that currently protects them will not be sustained for much longer. The Environment Agency plans to build a new sea defence, which will result in a loss of some freshwater wetlands, which will become brackish. Since the site is an SPA and an SAC, the Environment Agency intends to recreate it nearby. No such requirement exists for the Ramsar interest, which, despite being of international importance, is wholly dependent on the SSSI provisions for protection. We need an amendment that recognises international obligations under the Ramsar convention and elevates them to equal status with SPAs and SACs.

There are 136 designated Ramsar sites in the United Kingdom, of which 66 are in England and 10 are in Wales. Many important sites need and deserve greater protection than they will receive, even under the amendment, from the Government. I therefore urge the Government to reconsider yet again before the Bill goes to another place.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 276, in page 35, line 40, leave out "this Act" and insert— 'the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000'.—[Mr. Meacher.]

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