HC Deb 15 March 2002 vol 381 cc1125-32

'In the exercise of any function under this Act a person or body must have regard to the desirability of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development.'.—[Mr. Meacher.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.35 am
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It genuinely gives me great pleasure to be present for the Report stage of this Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I offer him my congratulations—as I did on Second Reading and in Committee—on bringing the Bill so far.

As I outlined in Committee, legislation for the marine environment is a complex matter. In addition to the important issues of conserving nationally important species and habitats, a wide range of other interests need to be taken into account in any legislation. The amendments proposed by the Government strike the right balance; they will protect the marine environment while taking into account other legitimate interests and users of the sea.

It is thus appropriate that the new clause concerns the application of the principles of sustainable development. The provision sets out a responsibility for the nature conservation bodies, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the National Assembly for Wales and any other bodies exercising functions under the Bill to take proper account of the need to achieve sustainable development.

The need for sustainable development is central to all Government policy. In May 1999, the Government published "A better quality of life: a strategy for sustainable development for the United Kingdom", which brought the environment, social progress and the economy alongside each other at the heart of policy making.

Achieving sustainable development is all about recognising, evaluating and taking into account the costs and benefits of actions on the economy, the environment and people's livelihoods. The application can sometimes be fraught, but that is the principle. The new clause would ensure that such a balance was struck when any bodies exercising functions under the Bill made decisions that could affect nationally important species and habitats.

Many activities, such as shipping, fishing, offshore minerals exploitation, sustainable energy and coastal zone development make use of our seas and shores. The new clause would ensure that, where those activities affect protected sites, Departments and other bodies carrying out their functions under the Bill—such as establishing management schemes or confirming site notifications—will have regard to the benefits of permitting sustainable use of marine resources and other social and economic uses of the site, as well as securing the conservation of the marine environment.

The new clause would help to ensure that protected sites will not lead to a series of no-go areas for development. In the confirmation of sites, in giving advice to competent marine authorities about potentially damaging operations, in making byelaws and in establishing management schemes, it is important to act proportionately. I realise that not every measure to protect marine sites will be justifiable when all sustainable development objectives are taken into account. However, in the marine environment we are dealing with risks in areas where our knowledge of the likelihood of impact is limited or where there is continuing scientific uncertainty. Therefore, we will need to adopt a precautionary approach that is consistent and in line with the Nice European Council resolution on the precautionary principle. That is very important.

We believe that the inclusion of the clause would introduce a degree of consistency between the process of selection for sites under the Bill and that for sites of special scientific interest on land. I shall repeat those words several times this morning, if I catch your eye. Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the confirmation of sites on land, the conservation agency is placed under a duty by section 37 of the Countryside Act 1968 to have due regard to the needs of agriculture and forestry and to the economic and social interests of rural areas. The clause would ensure that similar concerns relating to the marine environment are taken into account.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

I thank the Minister and his Department for the constructive way in which they have examined the Bill and tabled helpful amendments and new clauses. However, I require confirmation of a few matters relating to one or two of them. On the new clause, can the Minister confirm that the proposed duty to have regard to the desirability of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development would not lead to nature conservation interests' being overridden by other interests? Secondly, if a marine site of special interest was notified and a development issue subsequently arose on that site, would the proposed development influence the decision whether to confirm the marine site of special interest?

If the Minister would satisfy me on those two points, I should be happy to accept the new clause.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I, too, welcome the new clause because, as the Minister says, it places on all competent marine authorities, when carrying out any function under the Bill, a duty to have regard to the desirability of achieving sustainable development.

I have a long-standing interest in the potential of the renewable energy industries to contribute to our nation's efforts to achieve sustainable development. I have had some concerns about the Bill's potential for creating an extra hoop for the wind industry to jump through. I believe that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) recognised the concerns of the wind energy industry and I know that since Second Reading he has met the British Wind Energy Association to seek to provide additional reassurance, but I believe that the clause will assist, in that it will help to ensure that genuine, sensible economic development can still take place in the right circumstances, in suitably protected marine sites of special interest.

I did not hear the Minister make any specific reference to the offshore wind industry and I hope that when he replies to the debate he might allude in a little more detail to how the clause would provide additional protection against further delays in considering consents for offshore wind farms to go ahead. I say that against a backdrop of some concern in our country about whether we shall meet our CO2 reduction targets for 2010.

I know that the Minister has heard of the survey by Cambridge Econometrics, published on 4 February, which implied that if current trends from 2000–01 were to continue, by 2010 CO2 emissions would be only about 6.5 per cent. below 1990 levels. There is a concern that if the sustainable energy industry, such as offshore wind generation, is not helped to grow, our wider CO2 emission targets might not be achieved. I am sure that the whole House would recognise that that would be a tragedy. The potential for the Bill to place that extra hoop—that extra delay—on the consents process for offshore wind sites is a concern of the industry and should be addressed.

9.45 am

Will the Minister be able to guarantee that when the sites are being designated there will be a consultation process with the offshore wind industry? When sites of special scientific interest—the land-based equivalent of MSSIs—are designated, the selected area must contain more than 1 per cent. of the British population of a specific species. On Second Reading I flagged up the concern of the British Wind Energy Association that many of the identified 18 offshore wind farm sites—the list was compiled just before the last general election—fall within areas that could conceivably be designated as marine sites of scientific interest. Members of the wind energy industry will have to collect data on much of the marine environment before a bid for an offshore farm can be granted and they are concerned that, because of the lack of data about the wider marine environment, a site might be deemed to be a very important marine site of scientific interest and therefore an application for a offshore wind farm would be denied.

Can the Minister tell me what the clause could do to help on carbon capture and sequestration? He will know from his involvement in the recently published energy review that there is growing industrial interest in removing carbon dioxide from fossil fuels before they are released into the atmosphere—sequestering the carbon in deep repositories so that it is locked up and is not released into the atmosphere. That process offers a series of benefits to the coal industry and other fossil fuel industries, enabling them to continue to produce and to provide jobs for this country while not continuing to damage the environment.

Two necessary steps have been identified for carbon capture and sequestration. First, the carbon dioxide must be captured; then it must be transported to a geologically appropriate repository. I raise that issue at this stage because the United Kingdom has many potential CO2 repositories under the bed of the North sea, so there is a concern that the Bill might, down the line, stop sensible development of carbon capture and sequestration. I realise that there is a need for research and investigation in other forums on whether carbon capture and sequestration can genuinely help the achievement of our carbon dioxide targets, but I hope that the Minister can give some reassurance that the Bill will not build that additional delay into the system. That would cause problems.

I welcome the new clause; it is a sensible addition to the Bill. I believe that much further work is necessary by the Minister's Department and the Department of Trade and Industry to reduce the time that the planning system requires for consideration of wind energy sites both on land and offshore, and I seek an assurance that, just as we have begun to shorten the likely time scales for granting an application, the consents process for offshore wind energy sites will not suddenly be extended by the Bill. I believe that the clause may help in that regard but I seek reassurance from the Minister to that effect.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I seek reassurance from the Minister about what I perceive to be some of the nuances implicit in the new clause. For example, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the legislative provisions that pertain to SSSIs and national parks. He will be aware that his Department is dealing with the order to designate a large part of my constituency as a national park. He quoted the law pertaining to that, which says that due regard has to be taken of the needs of agriculture, forestry, economic and social interests of the area. In the new clause, the maritime equivalent of that provision is that account should be taken of sustainable development.

Will the Minister confirm that he includes in sustainable development the maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth? That concept comes from "Achieving a better quality of life: Review of progress towards sustainable development" in the Government's annual report 2000, and it seems to involve a rather stronger requirement than that used in the legislation that relates to land.

There is another significant difference between the Countryside Act 1968, to which the Minister referred, and the new clause. That Act, as amended by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, states: it shall be the duty of every Minister, and of the Agency, the Council, English Nature and the local authorities to have due regard to certain things.

The right hon. Gentleman's new clause would merely require them to "have regard to". The word "due" implies the need for a balance; leaving it out implies an imperative. Am I seeing a conspiracy where none exists? Am I placing too much emphasis on the word "due"? I ask for the Minister's reassurance.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I come new to the Bill, not having had the opportunity to serve on the Standing Committee, but, as the Minister knows, I do not come new to the subject, having debated it at length during the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and having promoted thoughts similar to those of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), whom I congratulate on having brought his Bill this far. I also congratulate the Minister on the amendments that he has tabled, which clearly show a constructive attitude to the Bill. I do not intend speak at length today because I want to ensure that we consider the various amendments before us so that the Bill can make further progress.

I understand some of the rationale behind the new clause; it is roughly analogous to the equivalent provisions in the arrangements for the notification of SSSIs on land. I share the view of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) that the principal objective must surely relate to sustainable energy production at sea, and I should be grateful to the Minister if he would confirm that in relation not only to producing energy from offshore wind, but to the other means of producing energy at sea that may exist.

Clearly, a balance often has to be found between competing environmental protection measures, irrespective of whether we are talking about species protection— which is, in essence, what we discussing in the Bill—or about other environmental protection issues and encouraging sustainability.

We shall return to this issue later, but I hope that clear guidance will be given on how this new clause and others should be interpreted by the competent marine authorities, the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales. For example, I should be interested to know how the Bill will apply to artificial reefs, which may also be considered in this respect. So long as we do not lose the spirit of species conservation that is inherent in the Bill and the protection of SSSIs in the interests of general development, which should take place only if there is a clear environmental advantage and that balance has been properly assessed by the competent authorities, there seems to be no reason why we should not accept the new clause.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I shall speak for just a few moments. I welcome the new clause, with the caveat mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I understand all too readily the need and the importance of meeting a high proportion of our electricity generation requirements from renewable energy sources, including wind energy.

As chairman of the sustainable development committee of the 43-country Council of Europe, I know that It is carefully considering the problems of ensuring sustainable development, which is vital to the future of our planet. There can be sustainable development arguments on both sides of any environmental issue. Therefore, to echo the words of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), close consultation and careful analysis are vital before resolving such matters one way or the other.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

I had not known of the hon. Gentleman's role in the Council of Europe. Is he aware that the Minister for Industry and Energy, when speaking at a parliamentary renewable and sustainable energy seminar just 10 days ago, highlighted the fact that two thirds of onshore wind energy projects granted funding under the non-fossil fuel obligation have not gone ahead because the planning applications have been rejected? Should not that provide a powerful caution for us when considering the implications for offshore wind or wave and tidal power, to which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) alluded?

Sir Sydney Chapman

Unfortunately I was unable to attend that meeting and I was aware that two thirds of planning applications for onshore projects had been rejected. We will need to provide every possible encouragement to renewable forms of energyif we are to meet the target, to which the Government are commited, of 10 per cent. of our electricity needs coming from renewabale sources by 2010. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point.

I conclude by simply reiterating that sustainable development policies are essential. Sometimes, there are good reasons on both sides of an argument when assessing the environmental needs, and we must be very careful and intelligent, and adopt a joined-up approach to the decisions that we will have to take.

Mr. Meacher

There is general agreement on both sides of the House about the importance of sustainable development. I was asked how exactly that concept will be applied, which is not an easy matter to consider, but I shall try to provide the assurances that were requested.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) asked whether the nature conservation interests would be overridden if a development issue arose on a site before the notification was confirmed. The answer is that the notification of the site will have identified features of special interest and that the confirmation of the notification will have regard to the wider interests of sustainable development.

The important point is that the scientific value that the conservation body has identified will be of particular importance in that decision. Obviously, such decisions will have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, but I hope that that provides appropriate assurance. The identification of such a development interest will certainly not readily or automatically override the conservation interest. However, as in so many of these matters, it is all a question of making a judgment about the balance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) raised some pertinent issues about offshore wind energy. Such issues are precisely why the new clause was introduced. Of course we recognise the importance of renewable energy considerations, which are of themselves of considerable environmental benefit, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) said. The need for offshore wind energy will be a major factor in deciding whether it is necessary to build wind farms in a marine site of special interest.

10 am

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West that there will be full consultation on the criteria for site selection, including with offshore wind energy bodies. I can confirm that in achieving our Kyoto targets, the

development of renewables—in particular, both offshore and onshore wind energy—is important. The target is 10 per cent. by 2010. As we have achieved only 3 or 4 per cent. of that, we have a long way to go and wind is clearly an important factor.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

My right hon. Friend is obviously aware that the energy review recommends adopting a 20 per cent. target, which I hope will be accepted. Does he understand that the wind energy community is sensitive about the issue, partly because it recognises that we need to move away from the shallower sites that have been designated for wind energy farm development thus far to deeper waters, on which we have less marine data? That sensitivity is exacerbated by the fact that the Ministry of Defence has understandably ruled out areas that could be suitable for wind farm development because of the implications for radar.

Although the wind energy community welcomes the new clause, will my right hon. Friend reassure it further that there will be detailed consultation on future development—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. That is an extremely long intervention. I think the Minister has got the drift.

Mr. Meacher

I certainly have and I will try to make my answer shorter than the question.

I am just as concerned about the development of offshore wind energy as I am about the conservation of genuine sites of national conservation interest. The question is how we achieve that, which is what the clause is all about. We acknowledge the sensitivities of the wind energy community, especially with regard to moving sites further offshore and to the decision by the Ministry of Defence. However, I believe that it is possible to reconcile the different interests, and we must try to do that. It is not a case of one interest overriding the other. We have a strong interest in wind energy in the United Kingdom. We have, I think, about 35 per cent. of potential wind energy generation within the European Union and we have exploited only a tiny proportion of that. It is in the interests of the Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that that is developed further.

Tony Cunningham (Workington)

In support of what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) said, will the Minister bear in mind the problem caused by delaying the process? In the areas around my constituency, it is only possible to build a wind farm in the summer. A planning delay could put a scheme back 12 months because construction might not start until the following year. That is a serious issue.

Mr. Meacher

I understand that, but it depends on when notification was made in the first place. I can give my hon. Friend the strong reassurance that the Government and the confirming authority—the Secretary of State—have no intention or desire to delay the process to secure procrastination. That is not in our mind at all.

My response to the point raised by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is that we need to achieve a balance, a word that he used. Of course sustainable development includes high and stable levels of economic growth, but they should not be to the detriment of nature conservation. The key consideration is that we strike the correct balance. I recognise that it is easy to say that in the abstract. In those cases in which it is difficult to reconcile different interests, we have to make the best judgment possible. That is not intended to interfere with or deter in any way the achievement of high levels of economic growth, and that includes those that can be achieved in the marine environment. That is what sustainable development is all about.

I also assure the hon. Gentleman that "have regard to" is appropriate to the new clause. I do not see a difference between that and "due regard". The hon. Gentleman was generous enough to say that he was perhaps a little over-concerned, and I think he was right.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) also referred to the importance of offshore wind. I accept that we should try to give as clear and detailed guidance as possible on the interpretation of the general principle behind the new clause. We are trying to do that in other ways, not just in the marine environment. I take his point about artificial reefs. With regard to the notification of a site, that is obviously one factor to which the conservation agencies will draw the attention of the confirming authority.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet re-emphasised the importance of renewable energy. From an environmental point of view, conservation is not our only consideration; we are also extremely anxious to develop renewable sources of energy. With those reassurances, I hope that the House will accept the new clause

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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