HC Deb 14 June 2000 vol 351 cc1027-9
Mr. Meacher

I beg to move amendment No. 274, in page 35, line 11, at end insert— '(3) After section 15 of the Countryside Act 1968 there is inserted—

"Compulsory purchase

15,A.—(1) The Nature Conservancy Council may in circumstances set out in subsection (2) acquire compulsorily all or any part of the land referred to in section 15(2).

(2) The circumstances are—

  1. (a) that the Nature Conservancy Council are satisfied that they are unable to conclude, on reasonable terms, such an agreement as is referred to in section 15(2), or
  2. (b) that they have entered into such an agreement, but they are satisfied it has been breached in such a way that the flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features referred to there are not being conserved satisfactorily.

(3) A dispute about whether or not there has been a breach of the agreement for the purposes of subsection (2)(b) shall be determined by an arbitrator appointed by the Lord Chancellor.

(4) Where the Nature Conservancy Council have acquired land compulsorily under this section, they may—

  1. (a) themselves take steps to conserve the flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features in question, or
  2. (b) dispose of the land on terms designed to secure that those flora, fauna or features are satisfactorily conserved.

(5) In this section, "Nature Conservancy Council" means the Nature Conservancy Council for England as respects land in England, and the Council as respects land in Wales."'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 46, in schedule 8, page 77, leave out line 18.

Amendment No. 47, in page 77, line 44, at end insert— '; or (c) where subsequent notification under section 28(1) has been given and confirmed under section 28(5) in relation to an area of land previously notified under section 28(1) then the previous notification shall cease to have effect.'.

Government amendment No. 216.

Amendment No. 95, in page 84, line 31, leave out "them to".

Government amendments Nos. 282 and 217.

Amendment No. 96, in page 87, line 6, leave out "them to".

Government amendment No. 290.

Mr. Meacher

I shall deal first with the Government amendments. Amendment No. 274 parallels the changes that we have made in clause 60 to enable the conservation agencies compulsorily to purchase land that is outside a site of special scientific interest for the purposes of conserving the site's special features. However, the power cannot be exercised unless the agencies have tried, and failed, to make an agreement as to the management of the land or there has been a breach of such an agreement. An example might be the need to protect a water source that feeds an SSSI habitat.

As with compulsory purchase order powers generally, we would expect these powers to be used only in exceptional circumstances, where other avenues have failed. Their use will follow extensive discussions with the owner or occupier of the land to secure the action necessary to protect the SSSI and, if agreement cannot be reached, there will be a voluntary offer to purchase the land. Only if that process fails, and only where action is essential if an SSSI is to be appropriately conserved, may the agencies take compulsory purchase proceedings. There is a full and appropriate balance between private and public rights.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Will the Minister confirm that the reference in subsection (5) of the amendment to the Council as respects land in Wales refers to the Countryside Council for Wales? If so, the amendment should state that.

The amendment applies to clause 60, which brings into effect schedule 8. I may be ignorant and innocent, but I have read the Bill closely over the past two days, and I cannot see in the clause a reference to the powers of the Countryside Council for Wales as regards SSSIs. It appears that the Nature Conservancy Council will report to the National Assembly; surely that cannot be the case. Will the Minister reconsider the drafting of the Bill to ensure that CCW's legal remit is fully taken into account?

Mr. Meacher

On the first point, the wording is a reference to the Countryside Council for Wales. If I can give more precise information about the second, technical point during the debate, I shall certainly do so.

Government amendment No. 216 ensures that parts I and III are consistent. This matter was discussed in Committee, and we agree that there is a case for removing the unilateral test of reasonableness—which members of the Committee will remember having anguished debates about—which is implied by the inclusion of the words "to them". We also want to ensure that both parts use similar terminology.

Government amendment No. 282 addresses the situation where an SSSI is landlocked, by which I mean that there is no access to it by routes that are open to the public. However, if the agency needs to take action in relation to that SSSI for its statutory purposes—in this case to carry out works in a management notic—it cannot do so without the agreement of the owner of that adjoining land. The land adjoining the SSSI may be in the same ownership, or it may be in other ownership or occupation, in which case the SSSI owner will no doubt have negotiated formal or informal access arrangements with the adjacent landowner, in order to enjoy rights of ownership.

Government amendment No. 290 deals with compulsory purchase and Crown land. The Bill extends the circumstances in which the agencies can, exceptionally, exercise powers of compulsory purchase of land, to include the acquisition of land notified as an SSSI.

8 pm

I shall deal equally briefly with the Opposition amendments. I am happy to say that we are prepared to consider further amendments Nos. 46 and 47. Amendment No. 46 would allow the conservation agencies to vary the area of an SSSI, using the procedures of notification under section 28A of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It should be noted that they have already been given power to denotify a site or decrease the area, where the special features no longer exist, and to vary the matters mentioned in the notification, including a list of operations likely to damage the site, and a statement of the council's views about management.

Amendment No. 47 attempts to deal with renotification of sites. I was aware that the agencies would welcome a facility to vary, by increasing, SSSI boundaries. Perhaps surprisingly, that is not at present specifically allowed for in the Bill. My officials have been actively discussing this situation with the agencies, and exploring how it could be achieved. We said that we would do that, and I am about to explain why were are still doing it. Again, it is not as simple as it looks. We need to ensure that the procedures allow for the right people to be notified of the changes, and that there is proper publicity and the opportunity to make representations. Provided that the arrangements prove workable, the intention is to return with an amendment in another place, but we do not believe that the proposed amendments fully meet the requirement. They have some technical deficiencies and, if we can overcome them, we will introduce an amendment in another place. I trust that that is acceptable to hon. Members.

Mr. Paice

I shall be brief because I am pleased to note that the Minister has heeded the advice that we gave him in Committee. Government amendments Nos. 216 and 217 achieve exactly the same result as we were trying to achieve with amendments Nos. 95 and 96. I could chide the Minister slightly. I seem to recall that, in Committee, he was adamant that it was perfectly reasonable that it should be up to the authority to decide whether something appeared to them to be reasonable. By making the changes that he has now made, he has, I am pleased to say, accepted the advice that we proffered him. I am grateful to him for taking the matter away and having a rethink about it. Therefore, we shall support his amendments.

Mr. David Heath

I shall continue with the good wishes. I am grateful to the Minister for the consideration that he has given to amendments Nos. 46 and 47, which are in my name. They deal with an issue of some concern to the conservation bodies. Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman has the matter in hand. He is looking carefully at it. On the basis of his assurances that the matter will be dealt with again in another place, there is no need for me to pursue the matter further.

Amendment agreed to.

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