HL Deb 12 February 1981 vol 417 cc285-340

3.28 p.m

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Avon.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[THE LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

The Chairman of Committees

The first amendment that I have to call is a manuscript amendment, No. 374A, in substitution for Amendments Nos. 375, 398, 402 and 403.

Lord Melchett moved Amendment No. 374A:

Before Clause 26, insert the following new clause:

("Orders designating certain areas of special scientific interest

.—(1) In the case of any land which is designated by the Nature Conservancy Council as a Site of Special Scientific Interest under section 23 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 the Secretary of State shall, after consultation with the Nature Conservancy Council, by order apply subsection (2) to that land; and the provisions of Schedule 10 shall have effect as to the making, confirmation and coming into operation of orders under this section. An order made under this section may be amended or revoked by a subsequent order so made.

(2) The owner or occupier of any land to which this subsection applies shall not carry out on it any operation appearing to the Secretary of State to be likely to destroy or damage its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features and specified in the order applying this subsection to the land, or cause or permit the carrying out of such an operation, unless—

  1. (a) one of them has, after the commencement date, given the Council notice of a proposal to carry out the operation, specifying its nature and the land on which it is proposed to carry it out; and
  2. (b) one of the conditions specified in subsection (3) is fulfilled.

(3) The said conditions are—

  1. (a) that the operation is carried out with the Council's written consent;
  2. (b) that the operation is carried out in accordance with the terms of an agreement under section 16 of the 1949 Act or section 15 of the 1968 Act.

(4) A person who, without reasonable excuse, contravenes subsection (2) shall be liable—

  1. (a) on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum;
  2. (b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both.

(5) It is a reasonable excuse in any event for a person to carry out an operation if—

  1. (a) the operation was authorised by a planning permission granted on an application under Part III of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 or Part III of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972; or
  2. (b) the operation was an emergency operation particulars of which (including details of the emergency) were notified to the Council as soon as practicable after the commencement of the operation.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move manuscript Amendment No. 374A. I know that it is customary for manuscript amendments to be read in full when they are moved in this way, but I hope that noble Lords will excuse me from that rather onerous task if I briefly explain how it comes about that I am moving a manuscript amendment.

What happened was that late last night somebody noticed that the Marshalled List which we have been working from since the amendments were first marshalled had the first three amendments which we were to deal with today in the wrong order. That is why the Fifth Marshalled List has the amendments out of numerical order, Amendments Nos. 376 and 376A coming before my Amendment No. 375. In order to avoid everybody having to change the order of proceedings which we were prepared for, in particular those noble Lords whose amendments were accepted—namely, the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, the noble Earl, Lord Avon, on behalf of the Government, my noble friend Lady David and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who have their names to Amendment No. 375—it was agreed that I should move this manuscript amendment, which has the effect of altering Clause 26 as it would be altered if my Amendment No. 375 and the amendments consequential on it, which were Nos. 398, 402 and 403, were carried. In other words, the purpose of the manuscript amendment (for which I apologise to your Lordships) was that the Marshalled List was altered very late in the day, but none of us knew until rather late this morning, and it was felt to be simpler for everyone concerned if we could keep to the order that we were all expecting.

Having explained that technicality, I should like to move on to explain the purpose of these amendments. We now start Part II of this Bill and I should like to say a brief word about the importance of wildlife habitats before turning to the effect of the amendment. In Part I of the Bill, which we have now debated in your Lordships' Committee for a number of days—more days than most of us care to remember, I suspect we have taken a number of steps to stop the killing of protected and rare birds and animals. We have taken various steps to prevent rare birds and animals being killed by all sorts of different means—bows and crossbows and catapaults were under consideration. We have taken steps to protect the structures and the places used by wild animals for protection or for shelter, and in Part I of the Bill we have taken a number of other steps to protect particular species and plants. But without the adequate protection of habitats where wild animals live and breed and feed none of the measures in Part I of the Bill will achieve the objects which we all hope they will achieve. Without the protection of habitats where wild animals live this Bill is in effect of little value, at least so far as Part I is concerned.

I think there is fairly widespread agreement—and certainly in the weeks leading up to our debates on Part II today from a number of sources there has been widespread agreement—about the importance of taking further steps in addition to those already included in the Bill to protect habitats. In a recent leading article in The Times it was pointed out that it is changes in farming itself which have done the damage to sites of special scientific interest. The leading article goes on to say: At present these sites are being destroyed at a frightening rate". In a speech last year on 25th November, the Minister, Mr. Monro, said: In September last year"— that is, 1979— I signed the Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats in Berne. This accepted a fundamental obligation to safeguard natural habitats".

Later in the same speech the Minister went on to explain how the provisions currently in the Bill would operate. Having, incidentally, in the previous paragraph in his speech, acknowledged that the otter in Scotland was being protected under this Bill, something which was welcomed on all sides of the House, the Minister went on to say that the most likely reasons for the otter's decline were the depredations to its river habitats; but he then went on in the very next paragraph, explaining how this Bill would protect habitats, to say that there would be new measures to protect particularly important habitats, but, he said: These will only be applied to a comparatively small number of sites".

I had come today, as no doubt had many other noble Lords, prepared to talk about a rate of loss of sites of special scientific interest of about 4 per cent. or 5 per cent. a year. I even had a graph which somebody kindly prepared for me, which showed that, at that rate of loss, by the year 2000 we should have lost over half of the existing sites of special scientific interest. But that information—and I hope a lot of your Lordships' prepared speeches, and I certainly hope the Government's prepared response to these amendments—is now redundant, because yesterday the Nature Conservancy Council, the Government's official advisers on nature conservation, announced that in a survey last year they had found that the rate of loss and damage to sites of special scientific interest was dramatically and appallingly higher than anyone had previously suspected.

We knew, when people spoke of an average loss or damage of 4 per cent. a year, that things were very bad and that that average hid some much worse figures in particular counties. Certainly in Norfolk, where I farm and live, our experience was that the rate of loss was a good deal higher than 4 per cent. in recent years; but the NCC's survey in 1980, for which they currently have the results for 20 counties in England, shows a rate of loss or damage on average of 10 per cent. Ten per cent. of the sites of special scientific interest in this country in 1980 were seriously damaged or lost, in the words of the NCC and, most dramatically, in Dorset 32 per cent. of the sites of special scientific interest—one-third—were seriously damaged or lost. The figure in Northamptonshire was 17 per cent.

That rate of damage to the cream, the top layer, the most important, the most significant nature conservation sites in this country is a catastrophe. It is appalling. I do not think anybody was aware that this was going on to such an extent. The Nature Conservancy Council are, first, to be congratulated on doing this survey work and producing it in time for it to be considered by your Lordships when we debate Part II; and, secondly, they are to be congratulated for saying as firmly as they have done that the provisions which the Government are proposing in this Part do not go far enough. Now that we have the information which the NCC released yesterday we can see why that is so.

This is not something which happened last year or which is decelerating, or anything of that sort. There are two incidents which are actually occurring at the moment which will give noble Lords an idea of the problem. Sixty acres of a 450-acre Grade 1 site of special scientific interest at Horton Common in Dorset has already been destroyed. It is still in fact being ploughed at this moment. That is in an area where half the heathlands in Dorset, intact in 1960, have now been destroyed and most of what is left of the Dorset heaths, which have suffered a massive decline since the war, is severely fragmented. Horton Common, the one that is currently being ploughed up, is one of the few remaining areas large enough to support viable populations of the wildlife which depend on heathland, such as the silver-studded blue butterfly, the Dartford warbler, the smooth snake and the sand lizard. To some of these species your Lordships have given what I would call nominal protection in Part I of the Bill, but unless we get Part II right those species will disappear.

Also in Dorset, another Grade I—top grade—site of special scientific interest at Slepe heath, on which the Nature Conservancy Council were negotiating to make a national nature reserve, is going under the plough and is to be planted with conifers. By a somewhat ironic chance the Nature Conservancy Council's regional office is a couple of hundred yards away from that site.

The figures that the Nature Conservancy Council have revealed are a national and international scandal. The Minister said at the Berne Convention that it implied a fundamental obligation to safeguard natural habitats. There is no hope of carrying out this international obligation without immediately stopping the catastrophic destruction of our sites of scientific interest; and that is what this series of amendments would do. They would ensure that an order-making power which is provided in the Bill would be applied to all sites of special scientific interest after the Minister had consulted with the Nature Conservancy Council. Without a measure of that sort in this Bill I believe that we shall have wasted the many long hours that we have spent on Part I, and we shall have no hope of stopping what I have called the catastrophic destruction of sites of special scientific interest. I beg to move.

Viscount Thurso

The Nature Conservancy Council are remarkably good at feeding to the media such statistics as they feel may help their case. They did it to me not so very long ago, by feeding a story to the media about a site of special scientific interest which lies upon my land at a time when it was still being considered under appeal procedure by a forestry advisory committee; it was still in the process of appeal procedure and about to come before the Secretary of State. I feel that one cannot let this spate of statistics go by without some comment, because I have an interest in this.

Upon land which I own or manage on behalf of members of my family I have no fewer than eight sites of special scientific interest, one of which is about 6,500 acres in extent. On my own land 30 per cent. of the land which I own consists of sites of special scientific interest. If I put together the area occupied by sites of special scientific interest upon land I manage, it is something like 0.2 per cent. of all the sites of special scientific interest in the British Isles, in number that is, not necessarily in area—although it may be quite high in area, having one site which is 6,500 acres in extent. This site of 6,500 acres is in fact part of a larger site of 13,500 acres in extent, affecting two of my neighbours as well, and it is designed to preserve 1,000 acres of bog.

If we are to preserve habitats, there is one habitat in which I am extremely interested; that is, the habitat of the native Highlander in Scotland. There is a feeling very much abroad in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that proper development and proper land use are being inhibited by the imposition of the title of sites of special scientific interest upon land without any questioning before bodies which are accountable publicly or have to budget publicly for their actions.

In looking at these amendments which we shall be considering from now on, and when we come later to an amendment which I shall move myself, I think that we should bear in mind that sites of special scientific interest have never been proved ever by public debate. The idea of a site of special scientific interest was that the Nature Conservancy Council would look at land which it considered might be of special scientific interest, and would warn planning authorities that a special scientific interest might exist, in case somebody desired to carry out a development upon it. They are not nature reserves. If we want to protect the habitats of special flowers, plants, birds, animals, rocks or whatever, we must create nature reserves; we must do the thing properly. We must go for co-operation with the people who have to live and work and have their being in these areas. In the creation of a site of special scientific interest nobody asks permission to walk upon your land to look for it; nobody tells you about it until it has been so declared by the Nature Conservancy Council—and by that time there is no appeal against it.

I feel we must be exceedingly careful as to how we deal with the status of sites of special scientific interest. This is not to say that I am in any way against the preservation of habitat. I believe this to be truly important and I believe that it will only be successful if it is done with the full co-operation of the people who live upon the land to be so protected. I feel that we must in this Bill see that we create a climate in which there will be understanding and co-operation, and not a climate in which people sneak upon your land, declare that you may no longer do something to which you have a right, declare things about your land which devalue it in cash terms, and then create this situation against which you have no appeal. We must look exceedingly carefully at these amendments. It is not just a simple way of protecting habitats. To protect habitats we must get the real and genuine co-operation of the people who live in the country areas, and this the Nature Conservancy Council are not doing today.

The Earl of Avon

The aim of the amendment is to require owners or occupiers of land which forms part of a site of special scientific interest to notify the Nature Conservancy Council of any operation specified by an order made by the Secretary of State. Currently more than 3,800 sites would be involved. As your Lordships will be aware, the Government's proposals on Clause 26 encompass a wide range of powers, including substantial cost implications for the most threatened and important of these areas of special scientific interest which have been identified by the Nature Conservative Council—I mean, Conservancy Council—as requiring super protection. To apply this concept of super protection to all the 3,800 or more sites of special scientific interest would be a draconian measure. It would also mean that both the physical and financial resources of the Nature Conservancy Council were so strained that the whole object of the Government's intentions might well be jeopardised.

In effect, the result could simply be that, with a considerable waste of staff effort and bureaucracy, protection would effectively be offered only to those most threatened and important, which is precisely what our proposals set out to do without the staff increase and bureaucracy. There is absolutely no point, by passing this amendment, in giving the impression that all sites of special scientific interest will be given the full protection offered under this clause. The result would simply be the giving of a false impression to those throughout the country who could expect such an amendment to be fully honoured in practice, and this the Government do not think would be the case.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, produced some statistics, on which the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, commented. We, of course, have also seen these statistics provided yesterday by the NCC. They refer, I must say at once, to damage on sites of special scientific interest and not "of". We have as a Government not yet had time to analyse the actual effect, in terms of percentages, of losses of sites of special scientific interest or land area. I think it would be premature to comment further on these figures before we have analysed them further. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and we ourselves all wish to safeguard natural habitats. What we feel about it is that there is a difference of degree in the measures which need to be taken.

I would correct one impression that the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, gave which is that the Nature Conservancy Council sneaks up on people. That is an unfair remark, if I may say so. Wherever possible, they do seek permission.

Viscount Thurso

May I tell the noble Earl that they have never yet asked me for permission before declaring a site of special scientific interest.

The Earl of Avon

I am sorry to hear that. As we are coming to this question later in the debate, I hope the noble Viscount will be pleased by what we are proposing.

If I may return to the amendment, another more minor reason for seeking its rejection lies in something which we believe is incorrect. It is incorrect to refer to land "designated by" the Nature Conservancy Council as a site of special scientific interest. Land is not designated by the Nature Conservancy Council. What happens is that local planning authorities are notified by the NCC of land which for the time being is not managed as a nature reserve but is of special interest by reason of its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features. These sites are commonly known as sites of special scientific interest, but that is not actually a statutory expression.

I hope that your Lordships will not feel carried away by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, as regards this particular amendment. We in the Government believe—and we shall explain why in a little more detail when we come to later amendments—that the policy in Part II is the correct policy. I very much hope that this amendment will not be accepted.

Lord Melchett

The noble Earl, in a slip of the tongue, which he corrected, referred to the Nature Conservancy Council as the Nature Conservative Council. I do not think that that is an unfair description as far as many of the voluntary organisations in this country are concerned. They have tended to look upon the Nature Conservancy Council as taking a very conservative line in these matters. It has been cautious and it has in many areas taken enormous trouble—most of the voluntary organisations would say far too much trouble—to try to reach agreement with landowners over the designation of sites of special scientific interest. Often that procedure has led to those sites being destroyed while the negotiations were still going on. That is in total contrast to what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, had to say about his own experience. In all the cases that I have heard of over the past few years the complete reverse has been the case—the Nature Conservancy Council has delayed designating sites, while destruction has gone on under its nose, in an attempt to reach a compromise or agreement.

I would simply say to those who have suggested that it is a compromise and agreement that are wanted, that that is the system that operates at the moment. The Nature Conservancy Council and nobody else has any legal powers to stop this rate of change. Compromise, agreement, getting on with landowners and not upsetting anybody is the order of the day at the moment. It is under that system that we have lost sites of special scientific interest, at the rate last year of 10 per cent. If that is the system which noble Lords think so marvellous then they must explain those figures or say that they do not mind them, that they are quite happy, and that that rate of loss does not matter to them. I cannot believe that that would be seriously suggested.

The noble Earl on the Government Front Bench said that this amendment was a draconian measure. I suggest that when the Government have had time to study the Nature Conservancy Council's figures they will come to realise that draconian measures are what are needed in the face of these massive losses. The noble Earl said that there was a difference between us in the degree of how far we wanted to go in the Bill. There may have been a difference in degree before yesterday, but now that we know that the rate of loss is so much more serious than we ever expected, I would hope that the Government would reconsider their attitude and—if they want seriously to honour the Berne Convention—take steps to protect all sites of special scientific interest.

The noble Earl has pointed out one technical error in the amendment. We have a number of other amendments down to this clause which I hope the Government might be able to respond to a little more favourably than they are obviously prepared to respond to my amendment. I intend to come back to this matter at the Report stage unless the Bill is amended substantially in the meantime or unless the Government change their mind, as I hope they will, when they have had a chance to look at the Nature Conservancy Council's advice to them. It is scientific advice. The Nature Conservancy Council's figures, as I understand it, are not checked by the Government. The Nature Conservancy Council offers scientific advice to the Government and the Government can accept it. That is the advice they have been given. I hope that when they have had a chance to look at it they might be prepared to come a little nearer to what I am proposing in my amendment. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 [Orders designating certain areas of special scientific interest]:

3.54 p.m.

Lord Craigton moved Amendment No. 376:

Page 23, line 37, at beginning insert— ("(A1) The Nature Conservancy Council shall serve on every owner and occupier of any land which in the opinion of the Council is of special interest by reason of its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features a notice specifying—

  1. (a) the nature of that special interest; and
  2. (b) any operations appearing to the Council to be likely to destroy or damage such interest;
and the notice shall have effect as from the day on which it is served.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 376 and, with the approval of the Committee, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 379, 384, 386, 390, 391, 394, 397, 399, 404, 407, 413, 415, 417 to 420 and 423. My noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa apologises to the Committee that he is not present. He is in the Falkland Islands, where he has a long-established appointment, and he has left me to move for him the amendment which bears both our names. I have listened to the two Front Bench speeches and I hope that on this occasion I have, as it were, a middle way that will be acceptable to the Minister.

I shall not repeat the points made so admirably by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, about the condition and the need at the present time. It was only this morning that I, too, learnt to my horror that sites of special scientific interest are being destroyed not, as I thought, at a rate of 4 per cent.—which is bad enough—but at an estimated 10 per cent. I sympathise with the Minister. Of course he cannot accept without inquiry the correctness of those figures. However I am quite sure that it will not be 4 per cent. but much nearer 10 per cent., if the figures prove to be at all accurate. In the light of that information, Part II of the Bill is now clearly inadequate. I am glad that we have received the bad news in time to do something this afternoon to try to stop the rot.

I shall illustrate my amendments in two ways: first, I shall show how, if they are accepted, the new procedure would work; and secondly, I shall explain the effect of and reason for some of the more substantial amendments that are involved. Under the new procedure, all owner-occupiers are to be notified that some land under their control is an SSSI and that certain specified operations might cause damage to the heritage value of that land. That is a long-felt want which farmers and all concerned will appreciate. This is not the first time that we have heard it said in this House that farmers do not know enough about the SSSIs on their own land. This time, if my amendment is accepted, they will know all about them officially.

Supposing, having had a notice, the owner wishes to undertake an operation that would cause damage to his site. He will have been told what would cause damage in the notice. His plans will have been drawn up on the understanding that implementation may be delayed. Indeed, he may have been discouraged from developing his plans because of the constraints involved in the notification process or because he had no wish to damage the national heritage. In the end he notifies the NCC of his intention. The NCC considers the implication and chooses to offer a negotiated agreement. It is hoped that such agreements will be commonplace and that most problems will be solved at this stage. Perhaps, however, negotiations drag on and on and it becomes apparent that no agreement to manage the area for conservation can be reached. In the light of that, the NCC may make an application to the Secretary of State for an order prohibiting the intended operation. The Secretary of State will deliberate and may decide to make the order under Schedule 10. What happens then? The owner may take no further action. He may say: "It is not worth my while". He may agree to a management arrangement or he may offer to sell the land to the NCC. In all cases, Clause 27 compensation applies. That is the plan.

How do the amendments achieve that moderate and workable solution while retaining so much of the present Clause 26? My Amendment No. 376, enabling the NCC to advise all owners, is new and very much overdue. Amendment No. 379 deletes the opinion of the Secretary of State because SSSIs are decided by the Nature Conservancy Council under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Acts. The present provision in the Bill limiting just a few sites to special protection is one of the most objectionable to all shades of conservation opinion and should be done away with. The Minister's new amendment in changing "national interest" to "national importance" seems to be even further restrictive than the Bill as printed. The conservation world considers that this is probably the most important point to be dealt with since the Bill was printed.

The six amendments, Nos. 384 to 397, provide for the new situation in subsection (1). In Amendment No. 399 the obligation on the Nature Conservancy Council to decide whether or not the farmer can go ahead and alter an SSSI is reduced from three months to four weeks. That will be welcomed by the farming community and I am told that there are good agricultural reasons for this.

I am sure that the new subsection (5), which is Amendment No. 404, is an improvement on the present one. With our wording, if an agreement is hanging fire, the Nature Conservancy Council can get an order made by the Secretary of State to prohibit work on a permanent basis, with compensation. But the order can be revoked. Under the present subsection (5) if the agreement is hanging fire, the only recourse is compulsory purchase or to let the site be destroyed. Amendment No. 407 is consequential, although if it is agreed I am not happy about the drafting.

Amendment No. 413 is very worth while. We suggest that whatever is worth retaining on an SSSI should become a local land charge. Without such a provision a new occupier would not be bound by the Nature Conservancy Council notice unless the NCC wrote to him again. This provision is very necessary because there are cases where a new occupant has done work—perhaps drainage—on an SSSI for which the previous owner has been refused grant application. Furthermore, much administrative work would be saved. The last six amendments are consequential. I have made my case. I think that we have a moderate, middle way approach, and I very much hope that the Minister will say that he can accept these amendments, or accept this approach in principle and include it as an amendment at the Report stage. I beg to move.

Lord Middleton

I share the concern of many noble Lords, that existing site protection may not be effective in preserving the dwindling number of places that provide habitats for wildlife species. Their concern is based on much knowledge and expertise—especially that of my noble friend Lord Craigton—and also on the amount of damage that is already reported to have taken place in declared sites. That some damage has been done is not in dispute. Reluctantly I have to support the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in saying that a contributory cause has, in many cases, been the failure of the Nature Conservancy Council to provide information as to the nature of the conservation interest in many sites. Therefore, I welcome the first of my noble friend's series of amendments for what it will do to rectify that situation.

I do not like his other amendments, for reasons which I shall explain. It is now being suggested—and we have heard this dreadful story from the noble Lord, Lord Melchett—that 10 per cent. of SSSIs are being damaged each year. On the face of it, these figures are appalling. But when we look into actual cases of alleged damage, the issues, the reasons and the responsibilities are never clear-cut. I mentioned the doubts that arise in one's mind when one delves, even superficially as I have done, into what precise damage is being done to sites; not in order to minimise the danger to habitats but to shine, as it were, an amber light before we get carried away (as my noble friend Lord Craigton would have us do) into enlarging the scope of very restrictive legislation which creates new criminal offences. That is just what the Government's Clause 26 does. I make no complaint about it. It enables the Secretary of State to make an order in respect of any land where certain criteria apply. These criteria are pretty wide, either as drafted or if the wording is altered, as it probably will be in a later amendment.

Restrictions of future use of the land by owners and occupiers will be set out in the order. Any contravention will be an offence, carrying penalties of up to two years in prison. This is stern stuff, and rightly so. But is it desirable or practical automatically to extend here and now this new statutory procedure to all 3,816 sites?—as, broadly, would be the effect of my noble friend's amendment and also that of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, to which we shall come later.

One difficulty is that the Nature Conservancy Council may well have been over-enthusiastic in the past about designation. I know that my noble friend Lord Avon does not like the word "designation", but he knows what I mean. The NCC appears to acknowledge this by the process of review which is now taking place. Therefore, the label, "SSSI" already may not be appropriate to all our existing sites. I am sure that the desire to provide better and wider protection is prompted by the limited number of Clause 26 orders proposed for selection by the Government and also by the unsatisfactory current designation procedure. As to the limited number proposed, I can very well understand the Government's policy, which was explained to us just now by my noble friend Lord Avon. There are just not sufficient resources available to apply more widely the Clause 26 order procedure. When we consider the manpower and the financial requirements that would be needed, the sheer volume of public inquiries, management agreements, compensation payments, compulsory purchases, and so on would be overwhelming. The Government's way must surely be the only practical way forward.

Once Clause 26 is enacted in its present form, or near to its present form, I wonder whether there will be any need for restrictive legislation to cover all sites, as is envisaged by my noble friend Lord Craigton. As resources become available it would be perfectly possible for the Secretary of State to cover more sites by Clause 26 orders. The very fact that the power is there would be a very useful and, I think, effective back-up where any site may be under threat. In my view, this back-up power, coupled with better designation procedure, should be enough to be effective in securing the degree of protection which we all want to see.

As regards NCC procedure, I am not convinced that it is necessary to provide for it in the Bill, as the first amendment of my noble friend would do. I believe that it could be done administratively. But however it is done, owners and occupiers must be told—and I think that this is the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso—specifically and clearly what is being protected and what operations would damage the site. No doubt they will also be told about Section 26 of the 1981 Act, as it will be, lurking in the background. I am sure that the provision of information will go a long way towards ensuring willing co-operation from owners and farmers. I am sure that the owners' and farmers' organisations will do everything in their power to assist, educate and encourage their members, who are very much more conservation-minded that than they are given credit for. That kind of improved practice by the NCC, coupled with the creation of as many Clause 26 orders as can be coped with, would constitute a more realistic and practical conservation programme than is proposed in this group of amendments. With the possible exception of Amendment No. 376, I hope that the Government will resist my noble friend's group of amendments creating super-special sites and extending the Clause 26 procedure to all the others. I think that the Government have it about right and deserve the Committee's support. That I shall certainly give, if necessary, if it comes to a vote.

Lord Underhill

As reference has been made to an amendment in my name, I wonder whether it might be convenient if I speak to that amendment during this debate in order to avoid going over the ground on two or three occasions. The important point about Amendment No. 377 is that it brings in the national nature reserves, which none of the other amendments does. I am sorry that I was not present to hear my noble friend Lord Melchett move his amendment, but I was engaged in a Committee upstairs. From what I have heard, I think that my noble friend undoubtedly explained—and I think that everyone accepts it—the threat that there is to a great number of SSSIs which are designated by the Nature Conservancy Council.

But we also want to bring in the question of the NNRs. The Nature Conservancy Council has said that quite a number of these are at risk. According to the NCC, half of the 167 nature reserves will be at risk within the next 10 years—and we may not get another Wildlife and Countryside Bill before that expires—and 15 per cent. are under imminent threat. We have to keep in mind that only 35 of the reserves are owned by the NCC and therefore fairly safe.

On Second Reading the noble Earl, Lord Avon, was able to assure the House that the Government only had in mind dealing with some 40 to 50 SSSI sites, and yet the figure was given of a total of 3,816. So we have the situation where only some 1 per cent. of the sites are going to be given adequate protection. I am sure, as I said on Second Reading, that there is absolutely no reason whatever why this country should not give the same consideration to the heritage of our wildlife as we do to the heritage of our buildings. Moreover, in a way it is more serious because once you damage the wildlife habitat that has been built up over centuries, you and I will not see them replaced, and maybe many generations will not see them replaced. What we are discussing is of the greatest importance.

Amendment No. 377 says that all sites, SSSIs and NNRs, must be brought within the proposed protection of subsection (2) of this clause. While I should prefer the amendment which we shall move in my name, No. 377, I can understand and appreciate the approach made in the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton. It is a great improvement on the Bill in so far as all sites designated by the NCC as of special interest shall have the relevant notice served on them in the first instance. Where the amendment does not go far enough is because any subsequent action will depend upon the Secretary of State, though admittedly after consultation with the NCC. But if the Minister repeats today what was said on Second Reading—that the Government have in mind only some 40 to 50 sites—then we have something over 3,700 SSSIs which are not in here as well as the balance of the NNRs which are not owned by the NCC itself. The Government amendment is only a slight improvement, if that, upon the dubious proposal in the Bill.

The points of Amendment No. 377 are, first, that all sites are brought within the desired protection. That is, all SSSIs and all NNRs which are designated as such by the Nature Conservancy Council will be brought within the provision of subsection (2). The noble Earl said that we obviously could not deal with all the 3,816 sites, but that will be covered by the second part of the amendment, which provides that the Secretary of State may, after he has had consultation with the NCC, exempt from action under subsection (2) any areas of land which he feels do not come under the three criteria laid down.

Therefore, the important part of the amendment is that in the first instance there will be no argument at all: every single SSSI and every single NNR will come within the protection of subsection (2) unless the Secretary of State considers that any one of the three criteria does not obtain, and that will be agreed after consultation with the NCC. Therefore, I believe that Amendment No. 377 is the one which gives the greater protection, bearing in mind what I have said already—that if we miss the opportunity in this Bill I doubt whether I shall be speaking to your Lordships trying to move an amendment to a future Bill that comes up some decades ahead.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Renton

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill—and I am sure all your Lordships agreed with him—said that this was perhaps the most important clause in the Bill. It is indeed so, because arrangements which have existed since the 1949 Act and which attempted to protect the habitat have completely broken down. We have had a lot of evidence about that. I do not wish to add any examples except two rather telling ones from my former constituency of Huntingdonshire, because I know it so well. There, in Huntingdonshire, 88 per cent. of all hedgerows have been destroyed in the past 30 years. That must have had a tremendous effect on the habitat of wildlife and small birds. Another example is that 31 years ago we had a wood at the side of a fen where the swallowtail butterfly flourished. But an over-zealous river authority decided to lower the level of the water table, and that destroyed the vegetation on which the swallowtail butterfly depended and we have never had it since. Something must be done.

We are on the fifth day of Committee but I hope nevertheless that we shall take a bit of time to try to get this right. The Government's purpose is clearly expressed in subsection (1), but clearly from the remaining subsections there are anxieties on both sides of the fence both the owner-occupers and the preservationists, and the RSPB, of which I happen to be a member—about the way in which the remaining parts of the Government's clause will work.

I was gratified to hear my noble friend Lord Middleton say that he at any rate supported Amendment No. 376 moved by my noble friend Lord Craigton. That clearly must be right because we ought to give the owners and occupiers the earliest opportunity of being brought into the picture, of making representations and so on, instead of the Nature Conservancy Council, splendid people though they are, starting off by simply making an order and then, without the owner-occupier really getting seized of the matter, perhaps the thing could have gone too far. Therefore, I should have thought that Amendment No. 376 must commend itself to your Lordships.

I do not, however, agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Middleton when he tends to accept the view that to deal somehow with the 3,800 existing sites, which we are told are rapidly being destroyed, would be a draconian thing to do. Somehow we need to have those sites studied further. With those that are worth keeping, preserving, doing something with, bringing within the new procedure, that should be done.

Perhaps it is my own fault, but I have not picked up exactly what the Government's attitude is with regard to dovetailing the existing fact of those 3,800 sites with their proposals for declaring future sites to be of scientific interest in future. But this somehow has to be done. We cannot just say, "No, we will neglect the existing sites, and whether we start again or not does not very much matter". We have to build on what is there while giving a good opportunity to the owners and occupiers.

I very much fear that, taking the Bill as a whole, and this clause in particular, we are going to place an enormous administrative burden on the Nature Conservancy Council. It is a burden which they will no doubt willingly try to bear, but to the extent that we make it obligatory for them to have dealings or consultations at an early stage with those who are going to be affected by their decisions, then we shall indeed be lightening their task. It is for that reason that I hope that your Lordships will give sympathetic attention to all of the amendments moved by my noble friend Lord Craigton, although it may be that there will be disagreement on some points of detail in them.

Baroness White

I was deeply disappointed by the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Avon, because he did not seem to appreciate the full gravity of the position in relation to sites which have, after all, been examined with some thoroughness by the Nature Conservancy Council. There can of course always be differences of view as to the relative significance of various factors, but I will quote from a speech made in the other place last June by a Junior Minister at the Welsh Office because in Wales we have at the moment an important exercise on the Berwyns where the Nature Conservancy Council wishes—we all tend to use the word "designate" because it comes readily to the lips—to designate a major site of special scientific interest. The colleague of the noble Earl in the other place said: it is important that right honourable and honourable Members should know that the council"— the Nature Conservancy Council— does not lightly undertake the scheduling of an area of land as a site of special interest. The council has laid down a very strict and comprehensive set of procedures for its officials to follow. They are designed to prove conclusively the scientific value of the area under consideration, and its officials are required to be meticulous in their observation of those rules".—(Official Report, Commons, 16/6/80; col. 1310.) That I believe to be true. There may always be exceptions, but knowing with some intimacy the work of the Nature Conservancy Council, at least in the Principality of Wales, I would support that as a general description.

I warmly support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, because it is totally undesirable that anyone should suddenly wake up, so to speak, to find he has a designated site on his land. I cannot understand how that ever occurred, but I accept what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and others have said, and it has arisen in the area in Wales I have described, the Berwyn Hills. On the other hand, one must put the other side of the picture, and I take the liberty of again quoting from the speech of the Welsh Minister in another place when he said in relation to this exercise: I am assured that its officials have made regular personal contact with more than 90 per cent. of those … in the area … who are likely to be affected. A small percentage have, however, steadfastly refused to discuss any part of the matter".—(Col. 1311). That is one of the difficulties we face—the fact that there is always the minority, the odd man out, the awkward customer.

We had an instance reported in The Times this week of the intention of Mid-Suffolk District Council to put a tree preservation order on a woodland of centuries' growth, but the gentleman concerned, the farmer or landowner, said, "This land is mine and I can do what I like with it", and he brought in the chain saws on Sunday afternoon and cut the lot down. We know that the great majority of farmers and landowners are conservationists at heart; they are the closest to nature of anyone you can find. But there is always the person who spoils the game, and that is why we must have legislation, regulations and so on.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

The noble Baroness has quoted a case about which I know nothing. Nor do I suspect she knows the details of this farmer in Suffolk. She is talking about having statutory controls to stop that. In that case they had them but they did not work. I am absolutely in agreement with her in suggesting that what he did was terrible, but the controls did not stop him, did they?

Baroness White

Because the controls were applied too late; the order was available on Monday afternoon and he cut everything down on Sunday. That happened because the persons in the locality had not woken up quickly enough to the possible threat to this area of woodland, and it had not of course been designated as a site of special scientific interest. Had it been, then conceivably even he might have recognised the situation and not carried out the destruction for which he was responsible.

I repeat, the vast majority of such situations can be settled by negotiation and discussion, by some give and take, and we in the Principality are trying very hard indeed to secure the acceptance of this concept by a bringing together under what is called the Loft-house pattern—after the name of Mr. Lofthouse who will be well known to some of your Lordships, who was called in for consultation on the Berwyns. That involves bringing together the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture (which in our case is the Welsh Office Agricultural Division) and the Nature Conservancy Council, and discussing the matter on a tripartite basis to try to get rational agreement on land use; and sites of special scientific interest are one example of intelligent and concerned land use.

I was also disappointed at the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and I would remind him that I am a member of the Country Landowners' Association and a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and I hope he is too. His attitude is that we can say, "We can catch up later on. We do not have the resources to do a thorough job now, but as resources become available we will catch up". We cannot catch up later on in the majority of these sites of scientific interest. If you destroy a raised bog, you destroy it; you cannot put it back. If you plough up a chalk downland, you destroy the habitats of all the creatures great and small on which this noble House spent so many hours when discussing Part I. It is pointless to have wasted our time on Part I if we do not have adequate provisions under Part II and I hope noble Lords in all parts of the Committee appreciate that.

That is why I find attractive the proposal of my noble friend Lord Underhill, and we want to be sensible about this. Obviously it does not mean we can rush out and do things with, say, 3,800 sites next week. On the other hand, the concept of the Government—that we can do anything approaching meeting our responsibilities to future generations by selecting some 40 or 50 super special sites—is incredible. For anybody with any real sense of the natural inheritance of which we in this country have been so proud (think of our natural history writers, of Gilbert White's Selborne, Richard Jefferies and the rest of them on whom some of us were brought up) to suppose that by selecting 40 or 50 special sites we shall save our British natural heritage is really flabbergasting. How, by saying that, can any responsible Government really believe they are doing their job properly? They cannot.

Therefore, as I say, I am very much in favour of the amendments standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, particularly his proposals aimed at trying to get reasonable co-operation. As I say, in 95 per cent, of cases, if the matter is properly discussed and explained, co-operation can be secured. I say that with a proviso relating to where someone is prevented from carrying out operations. I know this is a difficult point, but there are compensation arrangements. The amount of compensation is so derisory at present that unless one can make certain that there is some rationality—that has been one of the great weaknesses of the NCC in the past—unless one can be sensible and responsible, the negotiations will be much more difficult; and that I grant.

I believe that this is a great occasion for this noble House to rise to. As the discussions on Part I of the Bill dramatically indicated, we have among our Members many noble Lords who are very knowledgeable indeed about our natural heritage. I am sure that the great majority of noble Lords in all parts of the Chamber, whether they be landowners, farmers, or merely those who love the beautiful things that are still left, will want to rise to this occasion. This is probably the most important part of the Bill. There are others, but I believe that Part II is what really matters.

Therefore, I can only hope that we shall have a far more imaginative response from Her Majesty's Government than has so far been indicated. I hope, too, that those, like the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, who speak for the country landowners will recognise that there are other interests in life that matter, even over and above possibly maximising the production of food. One has to strike a balance; but these sites are relatively small in relation to the total of land in our countryside. They matter very much indeed. Let us be quite sure that we try to reach the right decision on this matter.

4.32 p.m.

Lord Gibson

I want to give general support to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton. There seems to be some confusion about how special scientific sites are actually designated. I do not think that they are designated as such. Some noble Lords who are present are on the Nature Conservancy Council, while I am not, but I understand that the council simply tells a planning authority what it regards as a site of special scientific interest, and the planning authority then has to observe that before giving planning permission. But, of course, all those changes which take place outside of planning control are not affected.

It seems to me that the problem lies in trying to get serious and adequate protection for sites which have been agreed by all seriously-intentioned and reasonable people—especially those most closely affected—as being in need of protection. We cannot claim that conservation is always paramount—if it were, the site in question ought to be a nature reserve—but it should be given due weight. It seems to me that the Government's proposals are inadequate in that they would lead to the selection of a few super-sites. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, takes the matter further, as far as I should want to go, and above all, Amendment No. 376 takes care of the essential point which emerged from what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said; namely, it is quite wrong that owners and occupiers should be in a position of suddenly finding themselves subject to SSI control—or however one wishes to describe it. They must be adequately consulted early enough and they must be given adequate appeal procedures. That is envisaged to some extent in the Bill; Schedule 10 relates to appeal procedures. But it is essential that there should be time for negotiation of management agreements—I believe that this is the key to all progress in this area—which lead to the balanced management to which several noble Lords referred on Second Reading. We need a system of control which encourages agreements of that kind, but in my opinion one cannot have them without a stick in reserve, and a carrot.

The National Trust, with which I am connected, as some noble Lords know, has 200,000 acres of SSIs—nearly half of the trust's total holding. We try to arrange with our farm tenants management agreements which preserve the nature conservation value of this very large area, and we nearly always get them, but in our case we have the reserve power of being the landlord. If you are not the landlord, you must have the reserve power by law. I think that we are doing what the Bill seeks to achieve for the country as a whole, but the law will need to be strengthened rather more than the Government's proposals at present envisage if the objective is to be achieved, and for that reason, I commend the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, to the Committee.

Experience has taught us the value of scientific observation of the results of different courses of action on our properties, and that we try to inject, as it were, into the management agreements which we make with our tenants. As I say, I think we need a carrot and a stick. The Government say that they have no money and that they are setting up a framework for the provision of money when it can be afforded. So in effect they are providing the framework for the carrot, but hardly any stick. The stick is being provided only in the case of a very small number of sites. I feel that that is not really quite good enough, and I plead with the Government to think again between now and Report, so as to strengthen the degree of protection for sites which have been agreed by means of an altogether more consultative process than exists at present.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

I should like to support my noble friend Lord Craigton in his Amendment No. 376, and I also wish to say that I have great sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said. I had a SSI notice served on me some time ago, but I knew nothing about it. It so happened that I was quite pleased, but had I not been pleased it would have been extremely aggravating for me. I happened to learn about it because merely by chance I saw a map showing that quite a lot of my land in Scotland had been declared a SSI. I should have thought that out of common courtesy, apart from anything else, the landlord and the occupiers ought to be informed in such cases.

During the course of my life I have seen natural and semi-natural woodlands virtually disappear from the hills. I remember one wood in a beautiful glen, Glencannel. It was a small wood of about 30 acres, and it has to all intents and purposes disappeared. That has been due to over-grazing by sheep. I know of several natural woods that due to that cause have to all intents and purposes disappeared. The old trees—birch, ash, hazel, even oaks, sometimes—are blown down and there is no further natural regeneration because of the sheep.

If you farm the land yourself—I farm some of mine, but not all if it—you can control that situation, but if you have tenants, especially in Scotland, you cannot control it because you have no power over them. They can have the farm tenancies for many generations, right down to a great-great-great grandson—in fact, forever. They can have them for 1,000 years. If we are to stop the destruction of our natural and semi-natural woodlands, I cannot see how it can be done unless we use the stick. One does not like using the stick, but I think it is necessary in many of these cases.

I do not wish to detain the Committee, but may I say that I hope that when a SSI is declared for the avowed purpose of protecting the flora, and fauna in particular, that will not mean that thousands of people will appear and walk all over the land and destroy the flora and fauna. How are the SSSIs going to prevent that? I do not know how you can prevent it. Are those responsible for the SSSIs going to allow notices to go up saying, "Please do not stray from the path"?

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

May I help the noble Viscount? The position will not be changed from what it is at the moment in any way. The landlord, the owner of the land, has the right to have his land respected. The fact that something is an SSI has no effect whatever.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

I am talking about Scotland at the moment, but I think it will be difficult. Regarding trees again, in many areas in the Western Highlands the only parts in which you can see natural trees is in the burns and in the ravines, because the sheep cannot get down to eat them. But I will leave that. The other thing I was going to say my noble friend Lord Denham has just driven out of my mind. Yes, I remember. If the Government keep Clause 26(7) it will mean that in fact it will be very little use having SSSIs at all, surely, because farming and forestry operations do not come under planning permission. You could really drive a coach and four through the Bill regarding subsection (7) of Clause 26, and I hope something will be done about that. I think I am right in saving that; it appears to be a great loophole.

The other matter is that, surely, regarding farmers, the whole thing is compensation. When we come on to Clause 27, providing farmers get adequate compensation I am sure there will be no trouble, they will be perfectly satisfied. I am all for having a great number of SSSIs. Even with 3,800 only 5 per cent. of the country is covered, so it is really not so disastrous. You are not going to get a vast amount of food out of 5 per cent. of the country. A lot of that goes to afforestation, anyway. In the EEC we have far too much food as it is which goes at knock-down prices to Russia. So that is what I think, with due respect. I farm, but I think farmers are making too much of a fuss over this, and I heartily support my noble friend. Also, I have a sneaking sympathy—no, not sneaking; I have a great sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said.

4.43 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

I cannot follow the noble Viscount in all his obiter dicta, but I would leave it to the noble Earl, Lord Avon, who is to reply to us, to deal with subsection (7). I think there is a point which needs answering there which is not for me to answer. I am obviously in the very fullest support of this amendment, but I want to give the Committee a little sense of proportion about this There are 3,900 sites, with an acreage of just over 5 per cent. of the whole nation's land—not cultivable land, but land. Of these, only 3½ per cent. are in danger of any kind from agriculture; others are sites with ruins, mountain tops or things of that sort. So we are speaking of 3.5 per cent. of the nation's land being protected in order to preserve the national heritage, which is a very small figure. Farming has got to go on and has got to develop—and, having brought up my children entirely as a professional farmer with small capital, I know the difficulties—but there must be some room for some small areas which are protected.

I will give your Lordships an instance here from some of the figures I have been given. For example, in Wiltshire, on the chalk grassland 28 out of 50 (that is to say, 58 per cent.) of downland SSSIs have been damaged by agriculture, and "damaged by agriculture" means damaged by better farming. Make no mistake about that: we are deliberately asking the farmer to farm in a less modern way. In other words, the reasons given here are conversion to arable—that is ley farming (long live Sir John Stapleton and our past!)—and the improving of grazing by fertilisation. These are things which every good farmer does, and, nowadays, there are very few farmers who do not. When I started farming just after the war it was exceptional either to plough up old pasture or to use enough fertiliser, but that is done now, and it is done everywhere. What we are asking is that in certain designated areas, chosen by people who know what they are talking about, this should not be done except by arrangement and agreement with the Nature Conservancy Council.

The figure is extremely low when you come to think of it, and in nearly every case agreement can be arrived at; but there must of course be compensation, and we shall discuss that under the next clause. I remember ploughing up land for the first time. It was a fearful sweat, and if somebody had come to me and said, "Look here, I will pay you so much an acre not to do this for good reasons", I should have accepted that—for one field, of course. So I think it is very important that farmers—and I have particularly in my mind the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, who is a farmer and who seems to express the bitter side of the farmer rather more than makes me happy—should realise that they are being asked for very little and that they are being offered compensation for what we ask of them.

Following this up, the Government, in relation to our total number of SSSIs, are speaking of doing 1 per cent. of the total number. There are 3,900, and they are speaking of doing 40 SSSIs and giving them special attention. It really is totally ludicrous. My noble friend Lady White said the last word on this, and I will not say it again. They are not responding to the need; and there is no reason to hold back the safeguards for which the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, has provided. In particular, Amendment No. 376, which the CLA has agreed to as well, I am glad to say, makes absolutely certain that the people concerned, the owner and occupier of the land, are informed before anything is done and the thing discussed with them. Of course, this ought always to have happened, and the fact that it has not (if it has not, and we are told it has not) is a very bad thing.

I have very little to add to those two main points. I feel one thing about the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton. In so far as we could remove imprisonment from one of the sanctions, I should be strongly in favour of it. I rather believe there may be legal difficulties in doing this, but I am glad he said that. If you are dealing with a farmer who is making a certain amount of money I do not mind having very high fines, but imprisonment seems to me totally unsuitable. Amendment No. 413, asking that the order should become a local land charge, is, of course, absolutely vital, because otherwise it will change hands and it goes.

We have had so much support here. I suppose a number of noble Lords opposite are very much larger land-owners than Lord Gibson's organisation, which has got only 200,000 acres, but I only hope that they manage their estates, especially in Scotland, where many of them are a great deal larger than that, as well as he does. What we have been offered is totally unacceptable, and I very much hope that the noble Earl will have something better to say to us.

The Earl of Onslow

The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, in his remarks cast a certain aspersion on some of the accuracy of the damage report figures. That is what I understood him to say. I was going to give your Lordships two or three examples. Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge has already nicked the one about Wiltshire; on the upland heaths Galloway has lost 90 per cent. of its rare breeding waders and birds of prey since the 1950s. Your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology said that between one-third and one-half of our ancient deciduous woodland in Britain has been destroyed since 1947, a loss equivalent to that of the previous 400 years; Horton Common is being destroyed by a farmer today despite objections by the NCC, in particular.

Broxhead Common is one of the few places near where I live where the Dartford warbler nests. If anyone goes and nicks a Dartford warbler's egg, they will be subject to special penalties. However, a sports club applied for planning permission to put up a pavilion, which they did, and a car park, which they did, and found that it was not necessary to apply for planning permission to make some playing fields. The DoE told them that this was the case. The plateau above the slope was an area of original heath-land justifiably designated by the NCC as a site of special scientific interest. It was also a nature reserve under Section 21 of the 1949 National Parks Act. The bulldozers arrived before the Secretary of State had taken cognisance of the fact. The trees and the gorse were smashed down, piled up and burned. The fire was left unattended, the sparks flew and the resulting fire spread throughout the Dartford warblers' nesting area, incinerating the SSSI. I do not think that any of the careless contractors will be subject to special penalties. They did not nick one egg. They burnt the whole place down.

This is possibly using slightly colourful language, but I have a suspicion that the situation is so serious that we perhaps need colourful language to bring the points to your Lordships' attention. I have the further suspicion that this Government, excellent though they are in many ways, are not quite giving this matter the sympathy which I think has been shown to be needed on all sides of the Committee.

4.52 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

This is an emotive issue and one must analyse the practicalities of the amendments on the Marshalled List. The amendments in the name of my noble friends Lord Buxton and Lord Craigton, maintain two tiers of SSSI—super and ordinary—but with both having a higher level of protection than is currently envisaged in the Bill. With respect to my noble friend, I do not call that the middle ground. The first question which must be asked is this. Have the NCC the manpower, finance and expertise—

Lord Melchett

Can the noble Earl explain how the amendments create two tiers of SSSI? I understood Lord Craigton to say that his proposals affected all SSSIs; in other words, procedure for notifying change to the NCC applied to all.

The Earl of Caithness

I believe that there are two tiers of SSSI but at a higher level than at the moment; in that my noble friend Lord Craigton envisages a super SSSI where there would be a complete ban on all agricultural operations—

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge


The Earl of Caithness

I will take advice on that.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

I believe the noble Earl is wrong.

The Earl of Caithness

I shall be happy to have a look at it, but the point I am making is still a valid one. The first question is whether the NCC has the manpower, finance or expertise to control the production of food and the livelihood of, perhaps, thousands of farmers on about 1.5 million acres in this country. The answer is, surely, no. Despite the hopes that they might be able to do it, I do not believe that they can. If the answer was yes, then the structure of British farming as we know it today would have to change. I do not think this is the opportune moment to arrange for such a change or to take the debate on it a stage further. There is no question that certain sites must be protected. The farmers themselves would be numbered among the most dismayed if no increased protection were given to our most endangered animals and plants.

The answer as to which sites should be protected was given to noble Lords by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, on the first day of the Committee, on 27th January, when he said (in column 653): I do not think the fact that animals are disappearing in one area in an island like this is very important provided that there are plenty of them elsewhere". I agree with him. I believe we ought to preserve the rarest animals and plants and that these should be afforded special protection where necessary in order to secure their survival. I think that this is provided for by the Government, also taking account of the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Onslow. It appears to me that the Government, with their own amendments, have now achieved the right balance. I understand that some 50 sites are under consideration at the moment for special protection but the wording of the Government amendments does not prohibit an extension of the special protection, where finance and manpower are available, to all NCC Grade 1 sites, which number about 600.

There is an aspect which has not been touched on yet and that is the advantages which can be achieved for tax relief where one has a site of special scientific interest. Under Section 76 and 77 of the Finance Act 1976, the Treasury may give relief from tax to any land which, in the opinion of the Treasury, is of outstanding scenic, historical or scientific interest. The exemption is conditional on the owner giving an undertaking to maintain the land and preserve its character and to secure reasonable access to the public. The statutory machinery is already in existence, ready to be used. Nevertheless, doubts linger in the mind of landowners because the Treasury interpretation of that statute does not give an unequivocal assurance that relief will be granted to owners of SSSIs. I feel that the decision whether or not a piece of land is of special scientific interest is a matter for the NCC and that the Treasury, having taken the advice of the NCC, should accept it and be prepared to grant tax relief automatically.

Lord Melchett

I agree with the noble Earl, but does he not think it more likely that the Treasury would take another line? The last Government pursued this with them vigorously. If Lord Craigton's amendment is accepted and all owners of all SSSIs have to notify the NCC when they are going to make a change, then the Government's proposal, which the noble Earl has said would only affect 40 or 50, seems to me to give the Treasury a perfect argument, which they will exploit to the full, for giving tax relief on that 40 or 50 only.

The Earl of Caithness

I will read what the noble Lord has said. It would help if the NCC told the farmers where they were designating land and also what the farmers were supposed to protect. As was stated on many occasions at Second Reading, the countryside is ever-changing. It is not something to be preserved in a glass case. Our heritage, which is so important to us, is best managed by mutual agreement and by a good understanding between the NCC and the farmers. I believe the Government have got it right. I think it is a fair balance. I think that one is already seeing, notwithsanding some remarks made earlier, an improvement in the state of our wild life due to this happy arrangement.

Lord Burton

I sympathise and agree with the intention of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Craigton, but it may have the reverse effect from what he and many others desire it to have. It seems that if you implement the last words of the particular amendment: the notice shall have effect as from the day on which it is served", then you are showing the stick straight away. There is nothing in this, as the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said, about consultation. Had the position been as Lord Donaldson has said, that there was persuasion (and I shall not go into compensation now; but it is a type of persuasion) then this would be a different matter. If you suddenly get a notice out of the blue which tells you that you may not do something, then immediately you say: "Why not? This is ridiculous. I have not been asked. So far as I know no one has looked at my ground". It is the wrong way to go about it. The Government's attitude is much more correct; it gives a much better chance of having persuasion and having discussion.

Lord Melchett

I do not want to keep bobbing up and down. I have a nasty feeling that the noble Lord is confusing my amendment with Lord Craigton's amendment. My amendment would stop people doing things straight away. The amendments we are now discussing simply mean that the landowners would notify the NCC if they intended to do something. Then there would be an opportunity, as the noble Lord is saying, for negotiation and discussion. Under the Government's proposals there would not because the NCC would not know that these changes were taking place; they would simply carry on except on the 40 or 50 selected sites.

Lord Burton

The noble Lord, with due respect, is wrong. The amendment clearly says: The Nature Conservancy Council shall serve on every owner and occupier of any land … and the notice shall have effect as from the day on which it is served". There is nothing which says that there should be prior consultation.

Lord Melchett

But that notice does not stop the landowner doing anything. The noble Lord needs to look at the set of amendments together. It is a later amendment which says that if any of these operations in the first one are contemplated, then the landowner should notify the NCC and discuss that with them. This amendment does not stop the landowner doing anything. That comes in a much later amendment and is only when the Secretary of State makes a decision to that effect.

Lord Burton

I do not know whether the noble Lord heard what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, had to say. We do not get a warning; suddenly a notice appears. It says you will get a notice. It does not say that there will be prior consultation. You get the stick straight away.

Lord Melchett

If I may say so, the noble Lord is misleading the Committee. That is not what this amendment does. This amendment simply says that the NCC must notify the owner of operations about which the owner should consult the NCC before going ahead. That is not the big stick.

Lord Burton

May I move on to what the noble Lord, Lord Gibson said; this matter can be looked at again. The problem seems to arise where there is no planning control. So far as I can see, there is no great difficulty where there is planning control because before anything is done the planning committee will be consulted and the NCC will have their say before the planning committee. The problem arises—if I understood the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, correctly—where there is no planning control, such as in ploughing up some ground or blanket planting of an area of ground. Some of us have complained bitterly about the Forestry Commission doing this. There is no planning control on that. Also, for that matter, in some cases destroying a natural area.

There should be some control on this, and perhaps the Government can look to see whether an amendment could be put down to make it possible to bring in some control where there is no planning permission. If there is planning permission, I can see no difficulty in this amendment.

5.5 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, called for a sense of proportion on this matter. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, called for colourful language. Personally on this particular amendment I would prefer a sense of proportion to colourful language. I think that a sense of proportion requires facts, and facts are hard to come by. I find it almost impossible to recognise the NCC that I know in the description of what goes on in Wales given to us by the noble Baroness, Lady White. But in the Highlands of Scotland we have a very different situation. There is already in the Highlands 1 million acres of SSSIs. That is in the seven crofting counties. It is widely said all over the Highlands that the NCC intend to expand that until 8 per cent. of the whole area of the Highlands is under an SSSI.

It is also widely said that they intend to make the entire coast of the Highlands of Scotland an SSSI. That may be rumour. But that is the kind of impression they are putting about. What I know as a fact from talking to officers of the NCC is that they are deliberately creating more areas of SSSI in order that some of them may be lost. There is something wrong here. We cannot assume that every area that up to now has been designated as an SSSI—certainly in the Highlands—is the only area that is of special scientific interest. We must assume that some of this has been put down in order to make sure that there is no encroachment upon some other area.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

That is not a damaging statement; but the statement that the noble Viscount made before is a very damaging one. I want to be sure that I heard him right: that the NCC are deliberately creating more SSSIs than they need in order to be able to give some back. That is what I understood. Did I misunderstand the noble Viscount?

Viscount Thurso

This is what I understand from my conversations with officers of the NCC.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

May I repeat that I think that that is a very damaging statement to make in this Committee without written evidence of a very clear kind.

Viscount Thurso

I will give some evidence which shows the extent to which they throw blankets around areas. Again, I refer to an area which is on my ground. At the centre of this area is about 1,000 acres of flat blanket bog. This is the area which the NCC consider should be preserved. Around it they have thrown an area of about 12,500 acres. They have done this, they say, just in case anything happened to the hydrology of the area that might damage this wet bog in the centre. Yet, all over the area are sheep drains that were put in at the time of my great grandfather. There are other sheep drains that were put in with Government grant under the Hill Farming Act scheme. They now want to prevent these drains being kept clean in order to preserve an area that has successfully been a bog throughout the lifetime of these drains.

It may well be that there is some remote, interesting reason why this great waste place should be preserved. I personally do not see it. It may well be that in order to preserve it it is necessary to stop anybody cleaning the sheep drains on the place. But there is a part of this area which I know is over the watershed, it is on the other side of the water table on a neighbour's ground. I know the watershed runs between this bog and the area of my neighbour's ground which is part of the SSSI. The mind boggles at the amount of protection that it seems has to be put upon an area in order to protect it from the possibility of development of any sort.

The Earl of Onslow

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, pointed out what could happen when a water authority lowered the water table and destroyed the habitat of the swallowtail butterfly. There are reasons on both sides of this argument. His could have been better protected by bigger SSSIs. The noble Viscount's one may be unnecessary, but it is not all as simple as he tends to make out.

Viscount Thurso

The noble Earl has got it wrong. Nobody can lower the water table by draining on the other side of a watershed. If the noble Earl can tell me how to drain a bog by making a ditch a mile away from the bog on flat peatland, I shall be very glad indeed of the information, because it would be vital information for the hill farmers in Scotland.

No; let us have a sense of proportion and let us in particular have a sense of proportion in relation to the SSSIs. They were a tool that was designed for the planning departments and not things that were designed to be nature reserves. I come back to that. If we want to protect a specific habitat, then that habitat should be looked at carefully, and if it requires preservation in order to ensure the continuance of the species it ought to be made a nature reserve and properly and fully protected and properly and fully managed by co-operation between everybody who is interested in it.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said he would be delighted if he was paid not to plough up land. But the fact is that if this goes through there will be thousands of places where people will be prohibited from getting grants to which they were previously entitled—thereby being able to carry out farming operations which previously had been urged upon them by the country in the interests of food production—by the fact that these places are declared to be SSSIs. Whether it is right to prevent people getting grants in perpetuity because they have some special scientific interest should surely be questionable.

Lord Melchett

The noble Viscount said that people could be stopped from getting grants simply because the ground had some special scientific interest. But surely that seems to be misleading the Committee as to the nature of these amendments. The noble Viscount seems to be entangled with my own amendment rather than these. Under these amendments it is the Secretary of State who decides whether the grants are given or whether the area is protected. It has nothing to do at that stage with a decision of the NCC. If you are to be stopped from doing something under these amendments, it has to be by a decision taken by the Secretary of State.

Viscount Thurso

I would be glad if I was sure that was so; but it seems to me you may well find that you are unable to get your drainage grant, and so on, because a place is declared an SSSI. Now at the—

Lord Melchett

I really do not think—

Viscount Thurso

I wish the noble Lord would allow me to finish my sentence. What I was going to say was that a place is declared an SSSI without consultation—because on none of the existing sites that I know of has there been any form of consultation or discussion before the label "site of special scientific interest" has been imposed. Does the noble Lord wish to come in now?

Lord Melchett

If I may. I apologise for interrupting the noble Viscount in the middle of a sentence. I was simply going to point out that what he is describing is already the position and it is not affected at all by these amendments. Under the changes in the farm capital grants scheme which the Government introduced last year, anyone who wants to apply for a capital grant on a site of special scientific interest has to give the NCC prior notice. That is already the position. All these amendments do, as I understand it, is to give the Secretary of State the decision-making power, if the NCC go and ask the Secretary of State to make a decision in order to stop a landowner doing something. It is the Secretary of State and not the NCC. The question of capital grants was decided last year.

Viscount Thurso

The noble Lord may have described it more accurately than I have, but certainly it becomes a very difficult procedure to go ahead with a normal farming operation and I do feel there are anomalies. Many of the SSSIs which exist should be examined, if they are to be given greater status, because many of them are extremely awkwardly shaped from the point of view of the farmer and the owner of the ground. I think that just to make it an obligation on everybody to notify their intention to carry out farming operations is placing a greater restriction on the farmer than already exists, because at the moment all that happens if he applies for a grant is that the grant may be withheld, but if he has to notify every farming operation which he is going to carry out in or near an SSSI, that is a greater imposition upon him than exists at the present moment.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

I am extremely sorry to keep on interrupting, but it is rather misleading. If the noble Viscount looks at Amendment No. 376, Lord Craigton's amendment, he will see that the Nature Conservancy Council can serve a notice, and in it can say whether it is an area of special interest and say what is the special interest—in other words, if it is a particular butterfly, or something, they will know what it is—and mention any operations which in the council's opinion are likely to destroy or damage such an interest. To describe this as meaning that you have to get permission before you attempt any farming operation, is really not serious discussion at all.

Viscount Thurso

If I have over-stressed the case, apologise to your Lordships' Committee; but certainly it does make it more difficult to get on with many common farming operations, and the reason for declaring the area to be an SSSI will have been to prevent those operations taking place, in all probability.

Finally, I should like to say that, in looking at the number of SSSIs which now exist, I think we must bear in mind that merely to carry out afforestation and so on in the hills or highlands is not necessarily to damage wildlife. In fact, in many areas where afforestation has taken place there has been a great increase in the wildlife able to live in the newly afforested area than lived there before, and indeed they are able to live there in much greater variety. So that the activities of people who wish to afforest and to drain are not always harmful—and during this debate there has been a tendency for the impression to get abroad that the activities of farmers are always harmful to nature. This is definitely not so.

Lord Foot

I should like to make three comments; if I may, and also to make one thing clear, if it is not clear already to the Committee, which is that this is possibly the only matter in the world on which my noble friends on these Benches are not absolutely united. They are almost united. It is arguable whether "almost united" is or is not a grammatical error. However, I will leave that on one side; and I think I speak now on behalf of the great majority of my colleagues. I very much welcome both amendments and I should like to ask a question of both the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, in order to clear my mind somewhat. I am in favour of both amendments. I think there is great virtue in the proposal that the Nature Conservancy Council shall serve this notice upon people, telling them that it is a site of special scientific interest and stating also what the interest is. There is great virtue in that. I also think that there is considerable virtue, if it were to follow upon that, in attaching the terms of this section of the Bill to all SSSIs and then leaving it to the Secretary of State, if he thinks fit, to make exclusions. I should have thought that that would go a very long way to overcoming any of the administrative difficulties about which we have been hearing this afternoon. I should like to know if I could, from both the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, whether the two amendments can be combined together.

Lord Craigton

I do not think so. The noble Lord will have heard his noble friend Lord Thurso behind him, who made a case which the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite answered. But my amendment goes a long way towards meeting that case. I believe that the original amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, would give the Secretary of State dictatorial powers which would be unacceptable to the farming community and which the conservation bodies that I represent do not think is essential.

Earl De La Warr

I suppose that this debate will have to come to an end in due course, and I hope that it does so before it becomes either more complicated or more colourful. To me it is certainly very complicated. But in an endeavour to try to simplify what has been said, I should like to suggest that there is a quantitative element in what we are talking about, as well as a qualitative one. Certain noble Lords have said that 3,900 SSSIs is far too many for the Nature Conservancy Council, at its present size, to deal with. Others have said—and the noble Baroness, Lady White, said it very trenchantly—that to go as low as 40 is quite ludicrous. I agree with both statements.

But what occurs to me—and this point was originally made by my noble friend Lord Middleton and, subsequently, by my noble friend Lord Caithness—is that, with the new amendments which the Government have tabled, it is perfectly easy for them, if they so wish, to continue to designate up to a point where it can be said that all the really important SSSIs are covered, so that the Nature Conservancy Council can gradually build up its forces and its contacts in an orderly way. We can surely satisfy practically all parties in this House, by asking my noble friend Lord Avon to say that that is the intention of the Government. If that be his intention, then I, for one, will find myself wholly satisfied by the Government's clause as it stands.

Lord Sandford

I wonder whether I could say a brief word in support of my noble friend Lord Craigton. There seem to me to be two compelling reasons why his amendment, or something very like it, must be accepted. The first is that it is quite clear, from abundant evidence in this debate alone, that the Nature Conservancy Council have not been serving notices on the owners and occupiers of land for which they want the title SSSI. That is obviously very desirable. The second reason is because of what my noble friend Lord Mansfield said in this House on 6th August, in connection with farm capital grants. I quote from col. 1572 of Hansard. He said: I leave your Lordships with the following point so far as conservation is concerned"— we are concerned with conservation here— The obligation on the farmer will be exactly the same as it has been previously. Before he makes his application for grant"— and I should have thought that this was important for all of them— he will have to certify that he has informed and consulted the appropriate body". That is about what he can do and cannot do. Unless we have the amendment of my noble friend Lord Craigton, and particularly that part of it which reads, …a notice specifying— (b) any operations appearing to the Council to be likely to destroy or damage such interest", neither the farmer, nor those advising him, will know where they stand.

Lord Melchett

May I make one point before the noble Earl on the Government Front Bench comes in? It seems to me that there is a misunderstanding—at least, compared to how I understand it—of what the Government are proposing. The Government's proposals do not protect any sites at all. All they do, in the Bill as it stands, is provide for a notification procedure on a small number of sites. The only way that those sites can be protected is if the Nature Conservancy Council compulsorily purchases them. That is clear from Clause 26(5) which deals with compulsory purchase.

But there is no protection in notification procedures. All that notification procedures do is to ensure that people know that something is going to be destroyed. They do not lead to anything more than that. So the Government's proposals, if they were to be extended, would lead to a massive extension of compulsory purchase, if that was to be the procedure. I suppose that some of us would like to see a lot more land going out of private ownership and into the ownership of the Nature Conservancy Council. But I cannot believe that is really the intention of the Government.

Lord Burton

The noble Lord accused me of misleading the Committee. I think that he is misleading the Committee now. He said that it is only a matter of serving a notice. In fact, if you have to get planning permission, the planners must look at the SSSI. Therefore, there is a control.

Lord Melchett

Yes, but we are not talking about planning permission at this stage. We are talking about operations which are not covered by planning control—

Lord Burton

I would not say so.

Lord Melchett

I am sorry, but the whole debate has been about operations not covered by planning control. I apologise if it was misleading for me not to make the point in what was intended to be a brief intervention. The Government's proposals do not cover operations covered by planning control. They cover other operations. They would allow the Secretary of State to put an order on a site which would lead to the landowner or farmer giving notifications on that site—this is one of the 40 or 50—if they intended to do something which would damage the site. Then there would be a period for negotiation. At the end of that, the only thing that the Nature Conservancy Council could do, if the farmer or landowner continued wanting to destroy one of these 40 or 50 sites, would be to purchase it compulsorily. It is important to be clear about that, if anyone is to suggest that the Government's proposals in the Bill are capable of extension, because they are clearly not.

Lord Middleton

I shall not pre-empt what my noble friend Lord Avon is going to say, but the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, really has not read Clause 26.

Lord Underhill

The noble Lord, Lord Foot, asked whether I thought the two amendments could be combined. As they stand, the answer is, no. There are exceptional points in the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, but the amendment which I moved reverses the situation. Whether or not they could be amalgamated, if the Committee is unwise in not taking a decision, we may see as we go along.

The Earl of Avon

We have had a very good innings at the start of Part II. I should like to start by saying to the noble Baroness, Lady White, that I am sorry if I gave a wrong impression to start with that I was not worried about the state of conservation. I am, of course, worried and the Government are very worried. That is surely why we are now at our fifth day of discussion of a very comprehensive Bill, which the Government themselves have brought forward. Perhaps I may say the same to my noble friend Lord Onslow that we would not be discussing this Bill in such detail unless we were concerned about it—and we really are.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, raised a number of points about the Nature Conservancy Council, which I feel I should put right. No specific sites are, at the moment, under consideration for designation. That will happen after the passage of the Bill. There have been lots of rumours about what will be and what might not be, but no decisions have been made. It is not true that the NCC have been over-enthusiastic in notification of SSSIs. They are selected on the basis of strict criteria and future notifications of SSSIs will be on the same basis as they are now. The noble Viscount referred to his bog, and I am delighted to know that it is such a good one. It is recognised by the NCC as an internationally important site and, according to them, it is necessary to conserve the whole hydrological unit to ensure its survival. I am sure the Nature Conservancy Council will read what the noble Viscount has said and will come back to him on any points, other than that, which he may have raised. The noble Baroness, Lady White, said that the Berwyn Mountains had been notified. I do not think that they have been notified. I am informed that the Nature Conservancy Council deferred notification to allow further consultation.

Baroness White

I am sorry if I was misunderstood. The procedure has been going on for quite some time. It has not yet reached finality.

The Earl of Avon

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for confirming that. The Nature Conservancy Council accepts that the afforestation of certain kinds of ground can increase its wildlife content, but where afforestation affects sites of special scientific interest it invariably reduces the scientific interest.

May I examine the list of amendments referred to by my noble friend Lord Craigton? I need not list all the numbers. Perhaps your Lordships will forgive me if I outline, as I understand it, the essence of the proposals. First, they recognise the need and retain the Government's own proposals for giving extra protection—perhaps I should say super protection—to certain sites of special scientific interest. May I correct an impression which may be gaining ground? These sites are not super; it is the protection that is super. Of the present total of some 3,800 sites of special scientific interest which the Nature Conservancy Council consider to be areas of special scientific interest, there are some which are of special quality, for one reason or another. Many of them are of international as well as national value. At present these have ultimately no statutory protection, other than where they are owned by the Nature Conservancy Council itself, or a conservation body, or where the owner is willing to reach agreement with the Nature Conservancy Council.

Not all these sites are threatened, but the Government consider it vital that some means should be available to ensure that, where it is merited, either because of the value of a site which is particularly threatened or because the Government has entered into a specific international obligation, full protection could be given. Clause 26 for the first time offers the opportunity of total statutory protection to such sites. Sites are not super, except to the extent that they would invariably be one of the sites listed in the Nature Conservation Review. But the protection afforded, I think we can all agree, can fairly be described as super.

Lord Melchett

The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, accused me of not having read Clause 26. As the noble Earl is dealing with Clause 26, can he explain—if I have misunderstood it I apologise—what happens under subsection 3(c), which deals with a site which is protected and where the notice has expired? As I understand it, this super protection at that stage involves compulsory purchase and nothing else. I hope that the noble Earl will be able to agree with me and not with his noble friend behind him.

The Earl of Avon

I agree with the noble Lord, but I think he muddled the Committee by the use of the word "notification" instead of "designation".

Lord Melchett

To be absolutely clear, the protection which the Government offer in the Bill at the end of the day if the owner wants to go ahead is compulsory purchase and nothing else, is it not? I want to be absolutely clear about that.

The Earl of Avon

That is correct—after all agreements and everything else has been discussed. My noble friend's amendments seek to deal with the rest of the sites of special scienctific interest which would not be covered by such super protection. My noble friends Lord Middleton, Lord Sandford and Lord Burton spoke on this, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. First, the amendments impose a duty upon the Nature Conservancy Council to notify all owners and occupiers of such land that the land is of special interest. Secondly, the landowner is to be told precisely why. Thirdly, he is to be told what operations will be damaging to that interest. The amendments also require owners and occupiers to give 28 days' notice of any of the potentially damaging operations, during which time the Nature Conservancy Council must either reach agreement with the owner or ask the Secretary of State to impose super protection, which he must also do within the period of 28 days, otherwise the owner is free to proceed. Finally, they propose that all sites of special scientific interest should be a land charge.

I hope my noble friend will forgive me if he feels that I have unduly condensed these proposals. As your Lordships will be aware, the Government's aim is to keep to a minimum the extent to which the state applies restrictions not only to landowners but to the public at large. At the same time, we seek to encourage positive conservation measures by landowners and the general public so as to avoid the need for Government intervention. Let there be no doubt that there is a large body of landowners and the public who willingly respond to such appeals. However, all too often I hear the plea from concerned parties, "How can I protect my site of special scientific interest if I do not know that I have one, or why, or what would damage it?"

So far as the Nature Conservancy Council's role is concerned, the Government accept the general burden of the first part of my noble friend's amendments. It is common ground therefore that the Nature Conservancy Council should have a statutory duty to inform all owners of land which is of special scientific interest why it is of interest and what operations might damage the land. Accordingly, the Government will be tabling amendments. I should like to make it clear that, whatever happens, it would not be possible for the Nature Conservancy Council to notify everybody of all these things the day after the Act is passed.

One of the problems with sites of special scientific interest is how to ensure that subsequent owners are aware of their existence. It was clearly for this reason that my noble friend and others have proposed that sites of special scientific interest should be made a land charge. The Government are attracted to this idea. The sites designated by the Secretary of State for super protection will automatically constitute local land charges, as will any land subject to agreements which have a binding effect on successors. This will not be the case in relation to the generality of sites of special scientific interest.

Lord Craigton

Am I right in understanding that my noble friend is accepting in principle Amendment No. 376, which allows the Nature Conservancy Council to advise all landowners, and that he is also accepting Amendment No. 413 which says that the land charge is an acceptable policy?

Baroness White

Before the noble Earl replies, may I ask him about his remarks concerning Amendment No. 376? He said that it would be unreasonable for the notice to be effective from the day on which the Bill becomes operative. That is not what the Amendment says. It says: "from the day on which [the notice] is served". There are situations where, if you are served with a notice which is not immediately operative you then proceed rapidly to destroy, if you are so minded.

The Earl of Avon

To take first the points raised by my noble friend, yes. To take next the point raised by the noble Baroness, I probably went into that sentence too quickly. The Government will be tabling amendments for the three facts which cover my noble friend's amendment. I then said, after a long full stop: "I should make it clear, however, that, whatever happens, it will not be possible for the Nature Conservancy Council to notify everybody of all these things the day after the Act is passed."

May I now refer to the Government's attitude to landowners being required to notify the Nature Conservancy Council of these operations which the Nature Conservancy Council have told them might risk damaging the site. The Government consider that most landowners would quite voluntarily wish to protect the scientific value of the land, provided they knew what operations would place it at risk. They would do so, either because of a genuine interest in the aims of conservation or perhaps to ensure that they could achieve the not inconsiderable benefits accruing from capital transfer tax exemption, about which I shall say more in a moment. In addition, for any more substantial land developments for which a landowner would require a grant from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food he is now required to consult the Nature Conservancy Council beforehand, unless he wishes to risk forfeiting that grant, and in such cases the Nature Conservancy Council have two months in which to reply.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kings-bridge, has mentioned already that of approximately 3,800 sites, about one-third are not, by their very nature, susceptible to such damage or disruption.

Lord Craigton

Before my noble friend leaves that point, is he accepting four weeks instead of three months?

The Earl of Avon

I am not quite sure to which amendment my noble friend is referring.

Lord Craigton

No. 399.

The Earl of Avon

Perhaps I could come back to that in a minute. With regard to capital transfer tax, as your Lordships have been made aware by my noble friend Lord Caithness, there is a provision for the Treasury to agree exemption from the application of capital transfer tax in relation to a site of special scientific interest. I can assure the Committee that an SSSI can be expected to satisfy the criteria under Section 77 of the Finance Act.

This provision can be of considerable value to an owner, and the Treasury will grant exemption only if they can be satisfied that adequate measures have been taken by the landowner to secure the scientific interest of a site for posterity. May I give an example. Without an agreement, an area of land valued at £200,000 would normally be liable on lifetime transfer or bequest to a sum of about £45,000 to £75,000 of tax, approximately, depending upon whether the transfer took place during or after a person's lifetime. This, of course, would be exempt. I will add that of course the NCC will be only too willing to discuss with landowners how best to maintain that interest for posterity in order to satisfy the Treasury in relation to capital transfer tax exemption. In fact, this is a three-way partnership between the Treasury, the NCC and the landowner.

In these circumstances, the Government do not consider that they are justified in placing a statutory obligation on all landowners of SSSIs to notify the NCC of all operations which might damage the site. However, the Government are prepared to urge the farming and landowning communities through the NFU and the CLA and Government officials voluntarily to notify such operations, and I am sure that the bodies will do their best to co-operate. As to the question of informing people of the existence of SSSIs, as I have said the Government are totally behind this and will table amendments accordingly.

Lord Melchett

The noble Earl said that the local land charge would only apply to the 40 or 50 SSSIs on which the Government envisage having an order placed, rather than the 3,800 which are in existence; so successors in title to land will not know about SSSIs unless they happen to be one of the 40 or 50. Is that right?

The Earl of Avon

The land charges will affect any restriction which is placed on the land for future use; in other words, it would be the 40 and also the CTT. What it does not affect is where there is an agreement which does not bind one's successors. Of course, there is no land charge then.

Lord Melchett

If I may say so, the noble Earl was, in a somewhat convoluted way, agreeing with me that the local land charge would not apply to almost all SSSIs, except the very few where these alternating powers or some other agreement were in force.

The Earl of Avon

The noble Lord is correct, although quantifying these things is slightly difficult, as we have already discovered once or twice.

Lord Chelwood

If I may intervene, the noble Earl has been extremely patient with the Committee, but on this subject he will remember that at Second Reading I raised the question of the conditional exemption from capital transfer tax. Does it not go a little further than that, and is this not another advantage of which owners of SSSIs ought to be made aware? Are there not certain capital gains tax benefits also associated with this conditional exemption under Section 77 of the Finance Act 1976? If that is the case, which I believe it is, may I ask my noble friend whether the Treasury will look at this question of the douceur, which is 25 per cent. where objects are concerned and only 10 per cent. where land is concerned? That seems to be quite illogical. I would be extremely grateful if, perhaps even during the Report stage, my noble friend would be good enough to comment on that as well, and also assure the Committee that what he has just said will be made widely known to all owners of SSSIs, bearing in mind that in the first four years after the 1976 Finance Act only seven owners took advantage of the fiscal reliefs which were available.

The Earl of Avon

It is a little difficult with questions coming left and right. My noble friend Lord Chelwood asked for clarification on CTT. I was not aware of the douceur that he mentioned and I will indeed look into it. I am sure that it will come up in the House later and I shall be able to clarify it to the House anyway. My noble friend Lord Craigton asked me about the days. We are not accepting the notification by the landowner, but we are accepting notification by the NCC, so actually I think his question about the 28 days does not really apply.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, mentioned the question of imprisonment, and I think I said in Committee on the last occasion that I hoped to be able to inform him by today what the answer is. The answer is that the departments are still talking and it is still under consideration, but directly I know the answer I will of course inform the Committee.

My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard, in his interesting speech, mentioned quite a lot about trees and afforestation. I should tell him that there is, of course, a tree preservation order which should cope with the problems he mentioned. Of course, afforestation is carried on by the Forestry Commission, where they pay a lot of attention to wildlife and conservation. My noble friend Lord Renton mentioned hedgerows. This is a difficult topic which I feel sure will come up again. They are not, of course, affected by anything that has been mentioned so far on SSSIs, but I have always said that there is no earthly reason why hedgerows should not be an SSSI in a certain area if the NCC so wished.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, kindly spoke to his amendment. Nature reserves declared by the NCC, which are generally known as national nature reserves, are reserves owned or managed by organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust or any of the county naturalists' trusts. I understand that there may be about 1,000 of these. They have been regarded as being safe from damaging development and would not normally be regarded as candidates for a Section 26 order. Having said that, my noble friend Lord Chelwood has tabled an amendment which removes the anomaly created by the 1949 Act that a nature reserve shall not be notified as an area of special scientific interest. The Government are pleased to accept the thought behind this amendment and are tabling their own amendment to the same effect. The result will be that SSSIs, henceforward, will not artificially exclude areas of land which are managed by nature reserves.

I have tried to cover most of the points which have been raised. I have indicated those areas in which the Government are prepared to table amendments; that is, NCC notification of sites, of what is of particular interest and of the area of damage which could be done in that site. I have tried to meet my noble friend's aims and the extent to which the Government consider that we should rely on voluntary co-operation and the provision of incentives; that is to say, MAFF grants and the CTT agreements. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, might like to know that we have produced some incentives as well—incentives to landowners to protect the generality of SSSIs. With these assurances and the obvious consideration that we have given to this, I hope my noble friend Lord Craigton will feel able to withdraw his amendments.

Lord Melchett

I have listened very carefully and I am astonished at the inadequacy of the noble Earl's reply. I cannot believe that I have understood it correctly. He seems to be saying that we shall end with a position where there is no notification of SSSIs in general, so there is no way of knowing when damage is going to occur, unless somebody happens to volunteer the fact that they are about to destroy a site of special scientific interest. If there is no notification, we shall continue to be faced with figures, as we have been in this debate, of what happened in 1980, when we had 10 per cent. lost or damaged; but we shall have no way of knowing what is going on at the moment, except, of course, for the 40 or 50 sites where there will be notification provisions, which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and I now agree upon. Those 40 or 50 sites will only be able to be protected through compulsory purchase powers and by no other means at all. All the rest of the SSSIs will be left totally unprotected, as they are now.

The Earl of Avon

Once again the noble Lord is using the word "notification" rather haphazardly. As I have just informed the Committee, we are progressing because we are doing notification by the NCC to landowners on three different points. When it comes to designation orders that is somthing different. Designation orders are new in this Bill and they are the basis of Clause 26; and those orders which we are bandying about as being 40 or 50 can be any number. There is no reason why it should not be more, and, as my noble friend Lord De La Warr has said, we do not know how many more. If the Government turn the economic corner by October, we may have a lot of money and be able to expand the NCC and we may be able to designate more, but at the moment this is our plan. We think it is a good plan and we think it goes a long way to meet most of the points which have been raised today.

Lord Melchett

I am not misunderstanding; the noble Earl interrupted me before I had finished. As I understand it, "notification" means the landowner or farmer notifying the NCC when he intends to do something which will damage or destroy the SSSI. That does not happen at the moment. It will only happen under the Bill on 40 or 50, or however many there may be, sites. That is what I mean by notification. The noble Earl is saying notification is the NCC telling owners they have an SSSI and what is important about it. Thatis certainly helpful to the landowners. It is of no help at all towards conserving the SSSI, unless owners simply say, "All right, we will not destroy it". There is no element even of ensuring that there might be negotiation about it. Unless landowners are required to notify the NCC that they are going to damage the site, you do not have any assurance even that there will be voluntary negotiations. At the end of the day you are still left with the designation order. All that does is to ensure that landowners have to notify the NCC that they intend to damage or destroy the site. The only thing the NCC can then do is to compulsorily purchase the site. In other words, the noble Earl's very mild sounding response has not changed at all the position as it currently stands in the Bill.

Viscount Thurso

Before the noble Lord, Lord Craig-ton, replies, I should like to say that I have been thinking very carefully about what has been said, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, on this side of the Committee, and my noble colleagues. I think I may have been mistaken about the effect of this amendment and that I am not really so far from the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, in what I would like to see done, as I said earlier. I hope that I may now be able to support him if he wishes to push this matter any further.

Lord Underhill

Before Lord Craigton replies, could the noble Earl comment upon the principle contained in the amendment which I have not yet moved, or would he prefer me formally to move it and then make his observations?

The Earl of Avon

Rather than protracting this argument, I would prefer the noble Lord to move the amendment.

Lord Craigton

I am a little bewildered. I am in the hands of the Committee, but as I understand it I am grateful to my noble friend and safe in withdrawing Amendment No. 376, the first amendment, because he has undertaken to comply with the spirit behind it without any reservation: that is, that every owner will be notified of what is worth keeping on his site. If that is so, and if it covers my points, I should be very glad to withdraw the amendment if none of my colleagues wishes otherwise. I should like my noble friend's assurance that that is so.

The Earl of Avon

I can assure my noble friend that those three points which I made in my speech do cover that first amendment, and the Government will be tabling amendments to that effect.

Lord Craigton

I thank my noble friend and I have pleasure in begging leave to withdraw Amendment No. 376.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Wootton of Abinger)

Amendment No. 376A. I have to call the attention of the Committee to the fact that if this amendment is agreed to I will not be able to call Amendments Nos. 377 to 383.

5.54 p.m.

The Earl of Avon moved Amendment No. 376A:

Page 23, line 37, leave out from beginning to end of line 3 on page 24 and insert— ("(1) Where it appears to the Secretary of State expedient to do so—

  1. (a) in the case of any land to which this paragraph applies, for the purpose of securing the survival in Great Britain of any kind of animal or plant or of complying with an international obligation; or
  2. (b) in the case of any land to which this paragraph applies, for the purpose of conserving any of its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features,").

The noble Earl said: I did not mean to stop the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, speaking, and if this amendment is carried I suppose I shall. Perhaps I could clarify his point later.

The purpose of this amendment is to make clear the three conditions, one of which would need to be satisfied before the Secretary of State could make an order requiring notification of destructive or damaging operations. The effect would be to restrict the order-making power to those situations where, first, it was necessary to secure the survival in Great Britian of any kind of species of animal or plant; secondly, to comply with an international obligation; or, thirdly, to conserve any flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical feature of land of national importance.

It would be an offence if any person carried out on land which had been made the subject of an order any operation which appeared to the Secretary of State to be likely to destroy or damage the fauna, flora, or geolo- gical or physiographical features which led to the land being designated and which are specified in the order.

A number of noble Lords have spoken to or have tabled amendments relating to the points covered by this amendment. I hope they will be happy to support the Government's new wording. I beg to move.

Baroness David

We are not very happy about this Government amendment. It seems to redefine the criteria by which sites are selected for the order process, and paragraphs (a) and (b) are later qualified by Amendment No. 387A. In the case of paragraph (b), which is supposed to be a more generous interpretation, Amendment No. 387A deliberately restricts this to sites which are "of national importance". The words in the Bill are, of course, "in the national interest". "Of national importance" is not defined, but we suspect the Government has in mind only the 735 sites published in the Nature Conservation Review, leaving 3,000 SSSIs excluded from the order-making process. We want to have a definition of "national importance", and we feel we must challenge the Government on this point and draw from them the commitment, or not, as the case may be, that all SSSIs are eligible. There does not seem to be any gain from this except that instead of the owner-occupier all persons are now prohibited from carrying out operations under subsection (2)(a).

I was interested, as it happens, to read last night a letter which my noble friend Lady Stedman was sent from the Country Landowners' Association, and which she passed on to me, in which it says: It can be said that the present proposals go too far in that the criterion of the national interest as a reason for designation is very vague and questionable. The Government has indicated that only a tiny minority of existing SSSIs would receive the special treatment under this clause. But the national interest could justify a very considerable number of designations in the future. So, rather naturally, we look on this with a certain amount of suspicion. The Government appear to be narrowing and making the clause worse rather than better; and after all that has been said in the Committee this evening on the previous amendment, rather naturally we are not happy about this one.

Lord Underhill

As has been made quite clear, if this amendment is carried I shall not be able to move Amendment No. 377, on which I said a few brief words earlier. I hope the Government amendment will not be approved; it is only a slight improvement on the proposals in the Bill and in no way moves towards Amendment No. 377, because the Secretary of State will determine which land shall come within the provisions of the clause. We have already heard from the noble Earl that it is a question of selecting the areas of land to be given special protection. What we want to ensure is that the overwhelming majority of these sites will be given some protection. After having designated the limited areas of land, the Secretary of State has the decision—admittedly, after consultation with the NCC—as to whether or not he shall apply protection to that number.

The amendment I tabled, in which a number of noble Lords declared some interest, reverses the whole situation. The provisions of subsection (2) would apply to all sites unless the Secretary of State, after consultation with the NCC, believes that they should be exempted. That seems to be a very sensible way. Therefore, I hope the Government's amendment is not carried, so that I can proceed to move mine.

6 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

First, I should like to respond to the noble Baroness. We were really trying to tidy up this section and not in any way trying to restrict it. She mentioned the words "national interest". Those words were difficult to define and I hope that the words "national importance" give, as it were, a little more flavour. Certainly all SSSIs are eligible for it. Your Lordships may remember that during earlier discussions in the Committee stage we had some arguments about "owners" and "occupiers". For that reason we have put in at present the word "persons". We have no wish whatever to narrow the definition. The aim was to tie it in with conservation.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned his Amendment No. 377. I think that the noble Lords who have put down this amendment and the Government are at one with the aim of Clause 26. We are aware that our precious nature conservation reserve is being eroded. We want to halt that erosion so far as is reasonable. It is on the method, the mechanics where we differ.

The effect of the noble Lord's amendment would be to apply subsection (2) to all areas of special scientific interest, which have been notified to the local planning authority, I am advised that "notified" is a correct term as the NCC is not required by the 1949 Act to designate, but only to "notify"—except for those which the Secretary of State, after consulting the NCC, has decided should be scheduled. Subsection (2) would also apply to nature reserves declared by the NCC.

The amendment also extends to land declared by the NCC to be a nature reserve. Although I have spoken to this matter once before, it may be helpful if I dispose of the point. Your Lordships will recall that my noble friend Lord Chelwood has put down an amendment which removes the anomaly created in the 1949 Act. The Government are pleased to accept the thought behind the amendment and will be tabling their own amendment to the same effect.

I come back to the amendment in hand. The noble Baroness was kind enough to bring in Amendment No. 387A and I hope that she will not call me to order if I say that I was speaking to Amendment No. 387A as well, and also the consequential Amendments Nos. 402A and 405A. We think that this is a tidying up amendment which has made the clause easier to understand and, therefore, I beg to move.

Lord Middleton

I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady David, that there was nothing sinister about my Amendment No. 381. It was simply to get better drafting, which has now been achieved. I am grateful to the Government.

Baroness David

I think that we are still a little suspicious about the narrowing effects of this Government amendment and we are not satisfied about it. Therefore we shall oppose the amendment.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

I do not know whether I am allowed to speak at this stage, but I should like to make one point to the noble Baroness. This amendment describes the conditions that are needed to become what I call a super site of special scientific interest, and I think we are right in that respect. As regards the point that I think the noble Baroness has made, I understand that the NCC grade their sites: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. I think that there are about 600 Grade I sites. They would in fact fall into this category of a super SSSI. The point that I am trying to make—and I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett knows this—is that there are only 50 of those at risk; the other 550 are not at risk—may I say, thank God!—because of farmers and landowners who are not putting them at risk. So when it is said that there are only 50 that will be covered by the clause, we are, in fact, talking about 600, which is a rather different story. I hope that that encourages the noble Baroness.

Lord Melchett

It certainly does not encourage me. We are talking about 50 or 60 out of the 1,800 SSSIs which we agree are capable of being altered by agriculture, forestry or similar operations. I must say that I find that the amendment imposes a very considerable restriction and I cannot think why the Government have found it necessary to change the words in the Bill if it is not for the purpose of restricting this. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, went a long way towards confirming my fears by saying that this would allow these provisions to apply to the Grade 1 SSSIs—in other words, not to the rest—which contradicted what his noble friend on the Front Bench said. I must say that I prefer the interpretation of the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley.

In the Bill, the criteria to which the provisions can apply are set out as (a), (b) and (c), with no proviso. In the amendment the same or similar words apply, but the reference to the special scientific interest of the land at the beginning of Amendment No. 377 is qualified by the Secretary of State needing to be convinced that it is applicable for various reasons—(a), (b) and (c). In other words, there is a considerable qualification compared to the original wording in the Bill, which we much prefer and which we hope the Committee will agree to retain.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, loves twisting my words a little. Of course these provisions could apply to all the sites of special scientific interest. I was just trying to point out that we are talking about 600 and not 50.

Lord Winstanley

I, too, feel a little uneasy about acquiescing too precipitately in this particular course of action. Perhaps I am a little confused after the lengthy excursions that we made, some time ago into the noble Viscount's bog. I am trying to collect my thoughts. It seems to me that in acquiescing in this amendment we are immediately closing the door on a number of other possibilities on which I would have preferred to indicate my support, such as Amendment No. 377 and so on, which will not be able to be moved. Therefore, I am bound to say that I—and I think some of my noble friends on these Benches—would side with the noble Baroness in feeling a little uneasy about acquiescing in this particular amendment because it closes the door on other possiblities, and, like the noble Baroness, I think that it narrows things somewhat rather than the reverse.

The Earl of Avon

I can only say that it is certainly not the Government's intention to narrow it. Certainly all SSSIs are there, and obviously we prefer this amendment to what was in the Bill previously or we should not have tabled it. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, made a point about (a), (b) and (c). I agree that the older form looks more simple, and I am afraid the form of the present amendment is the work of the parliamentary draftsman.

6.8 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 376A) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 96; Not-Contents, 70.

Airey of Abingdon, B. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Auckland, L. Mancroft, L.
Avon, E. Margadale, L.
Balerno, L. Marley, L.
Bellwin, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Belstead, L. Mersey, V.
Bolton, L. Middleton, L.
Burton, L. Milverton, L.
Caccia, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Caithness, E. Monson, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Montagu of Beaulieu, L.
Cathcart, E. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Chelwood, L. Morris, L.
Colwyn, L. Moyola, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Cottesloe, L. Newall, L.
Craigavon, V. Noel-Buxton, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Northchurch, B.
Dacre of Glanton, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
de Clifford, L. Onslow, E.
De La Warr, E. Orkney, E.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Penrhyn, L.
Elibank, L. Portland, D.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Radnor, E.
Enniskillen, E. Renton, L.
Faithfull, B. Ridley, V.
Ferrier, L. St. Aldwyn, E.
Fortescue, E. St. Just, L.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Sandford, L.
Gainford, L. Sandys, L. [Teller.]
Gibson-Watt, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Gormanston, V. Soames, L.
Gridley, L. Spens, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Stanley of Alderley, L.
Strathclyde, L.
Hanworth, V. Swansea, L.
Henley, L. Swinfen, L.
Hives, L. Terrington, L.
Hornsby-Smith, B. Teynham, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Tollemache, L.
Inglewood, L. Trefgarne, L.
Ironside, L. Trumpington, B.
Kemsley, V. Vickers, B.
Kinloss, Ly. Waldegrave, E.
Lauderdale, E. Westbury, L.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Windlesham, L.
Long, V. Wise, L.
Lucas of Chilworth, L. Yarborough, E.
Lyell, L.
Ampthill, L. Hughes, L.
Avebury, L. Hunt, L.
Aylestone, L. Jacobson, L.
Bacon, B. Jacques, L.
Banks, L. Jeger, B.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Kaldor, L.
Beswick, L. Kennet, L.
Birk, B. Kilbracken, L.
Blease, L. Kirkhill, L.
Blyton, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Boothby, L. Longford, E.
Boston of Faversham, L. Lovell-Davis, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Melchett, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Northfield, L.
Chorley, L. Peart, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Phillips, B.
Collison, L. Robbins, L.
Cooper of Stockton Heath, L. Rochester, L.
Craigton, L. Ross of Marnock, L.
Crowther-Hunt, L. Rugby, L.
Cudlipp, L. St. Davids, V.
David, B. Seear, B.
Davies of Leek, L. Segal, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Shinwell, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Stone, L.
Foot, L. Strabolgi, L. [Teller.]
Galpern, L. Underhill, L.
Garner, L. Wallace of Coslany, L. [Teller.]
Gibson, L.
Goronwy-Roberts, L. Whaddon, L.
Gosford, E. White, B.
Greenwood of Rossendale, L. Wigoder, L.
Gregson, L. Winstanley, L.
Hale, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Hampton, L. Young of Darlington, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly.

[Amendment No. 375 and not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

we pass to Amendment No. 384.

Lord Craigton

Do we not discuss Amendment No. 378?

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Amendment No. 378 is obliterated by what we have just done.

Lord Craigton

Amendment No. 378 is on an entirely different subject; it is about marine reserves.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

The instructions are that if Amendment No. 376A is carried, it deletes everything down to Amendment No. 383.

Lord Craigton

I believe the instructions must be wrong because I was proposing to move Amendments Nos. 378, 380, 382, 392, 394 and 470, which are all about marine reserves.

The Earl of Avon

With the leave of the Committee, perhaps I might suggest to my noble friend that he could speak to these amendments when we come to Amendment No. 392, and then he can either retable them or withdraw them.

[Amendments Nos. 378 to 383 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

We pass to Amendment No. 384.

[Amendment No. 384 not moved.]

6.16 p.m.

Lord Renton moved Amendment No. 385: Page 24, line 5, after ("land") insert ("and such areas shall be known as "sites of special scientific interest"").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 385. It is rather extraordinary that although we are talking about sites of special scientific interest all the time and Clause 26 deals with them, as we see from the side note, there is in fact no reference to such sites in the clause itself. It seemed that we should have some kind of reference to them there, more especially as we are told that they are to become registrable land charges, and I should have thought that when they reach that stage it would be an advantage for the term of art to have been introduced to the statute law.

Therefore, I must confess that this is a rather poor attempt on my part to deal with the matter. I would not expect my drafting to be accepted on this occasion, but at least it gives us an opportunity to consider whether we should not have a reference to such sites, and it gives the Government an opportunity to say whether they will, in the light of what I say, perhaps at the next stage of this Bill introduce even a definition. However, I would just remind your Lordships that in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, Section 23, and the Countryside Act 1968, Section 15, there is reference to areas of special scientific interest—not "sites", but "areas". It is strange but nobody has called them that in real life, I suppose because the abbreviation would amount to ASSIs. But they are always therefore euphemistically referred to as SSSIs. Let us try to get this right for the sake of clarity. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

There is an amendment to this amendment to which we immediately pass.

Lord Melchett

moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 385, Amendment No. 385A: Leave out (""sites of special scientific interest"") and insert (""wildlife conservation areas""). The noble Lord said. This is a simple amendment. I have much sympathy with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, had to say about clarifying the position, but I hope that we might be able to clarify it without continuing to use the term "sites of special scientific interest". We have already had in your Lordships' debates on this Bill a varying number of S's applied to these particular sites. They are either SSIs or SSSIs, or what have you. I think all of us find the nomenclature extremely confusing. Those outside your Lordships' Committee who might not be quite so familiar with the terminology find the name SSSI even more confusing maybe than some of us do.

My amendment is to suggest that we get rid of the triple SIs and call them "wildlife conservation areas". This Bill, as the Government have reminded us on numerous occasions, is about conservation. It is about the conservation of wildlife as its title says, and I should have thought that this description of the area would be much more readily understood by all those concerned. Certainly the landowners and the farmers who have this designation placed on some of their land might more readily understand what the Nature Conservancy Council was about, and I should have thought that members of the public, when they heard this name rather than SSSI, would have a clearer understanding of the designation.

May I stress that I am not suggesting any change in the scientific criteria—and nor would that follow from my amendment—which the NCC use to select these sites. The noble Earl described those to us earlier and gave an assurance that they would continue to apply, as I think all of us would want them to. This is trying to make life a little simpler for everyone. I beg to move.

Baroness White

May I ask my noble friend if he can tell me what happens then to the sites of geological or physiographical features of which there are about seven or eight?

Lord Melchett

I must confess that that was not a point I had thought of, and I apologise to my noble friend for not having done so. A simple description might be applied to those sites similar to what I am suggesting for wildlife areas. In other words, we might get rid of the SSGI, or whatever the nomenclature is for those sites, and have something like a geological conservation area, which would be fairly straightforward. It would not need a large amendment when we come to Report stage.

The Earl of Avon

May I say a word about the amendment of my noble friend before moving on to Lord Melchett's amendment? The difficulty about "site of special scientific interest" is that it is a term used by, among others, local planning authorities, water authorities, and conservation movements. To use the term solely for those areas which have been designated by an order made by my right honourable friend would, we think, cause considerable confusion.

Moving on to what the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said, we are happy with the noble Lord's general suggestion and we think it would be helpful to have some easily recognisable term to identify these areas. We did not think that "wildlife" was sufficiently embracing, as it conjures up pictures of animals and plants. But for orders to cover areas which are important not for wildlife in that sense but perhaps for geological features as well, the name that the Government want to put forward—and it is no more than what we are putting forward—is "nature conservation order", which might fit this particular term. We should like to give this further consideration, and I hope that, with that undertaking, the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Renton

I am much obliged to my noble friend. What he has in mind may well produce a fruitful result, and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Lord Melchett

I am not sure that I do not have to withdraw my amendment to the amendment first. I was delighted with what the noble Earl said. It seems a pity that the Government are prepared to be so accommodating on these points of little substance while we are going to continue to preside over the destruction of whatever we call these sites at the rate of at least 10 per cent. a year. Still, I must not be churlish. I am grateful to the noble Earl. I take it that he meant to say "wildlife nature conservation area" rather than "nature conservation order", which was what I heard him say, but I hope he may be able to confirm that before I withdraw my amendment so that I have it on the record.

The Earl of Avon

I actually said "order", but I think "area" would be much better.

Lord Melchett

I am grateful to the noble Earl. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment to amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Renton

I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 386 not moved.]

Baroness David had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 387:

Page 24, line 9, at end insert— ("( ) In the case of any land which in the opinion of the Council is of special interest by reason of its flora, fauna,or geological or physiographical features the Council shall notify the owner or occupier of the scientific criteria used for selecting such areas of special interest.").

The noble Baroness said: As Amendment No. 376 was accepted, it will cover this, so I shall not move my amendment.

[Amendment No. 387 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Amendment No. 387A. If Amendment No. 387A is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendments Nos. 388 and 389.

6.25 p.m.

The Earl of Avon moved Amendment No. 387A:

Page 24, line 10, leave out from beginning to end of line 15 and insert— ("(1A) Paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (1) apply to any land which in the opinion of the Secretary of State is—

  1. (a) of special interest; and
  2. (b) in the case of paragraph (b) of that subsection, of national importance,
by reason of any of its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features.

(2) Subject to subsection (2A), no person shall carry out on any land to which this subsection applies any operation which—

  1. (a) appears to the Secretary of State to be likely to destroy or damage the flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features by reason of which the land is land to which paragraph (a) or, as the case may be, paragraph (b) of subsection (1) applies; and
  2. (b) is specified in the order applying this subsection to the land.

(2A) Subsection (2) shall not apply in relation to any operation carried out, or caused or permitted to be carried out, by the owner or occupier of the land if—").

The noble Earl said: I have already spoken to this amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Melchett

Would it be wise for me to speak to Amendment No. 389 while we debate Amendment No. 387A? If the Committee is agreeable, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 389. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, or the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, or their colleagues wish to speak to Amendment No. 388. If we are going to cover those two amendments with this one, it might be sensible to take them in numerical order.

Lord Middleton

I was not going to speak at any length to Amendment No. 388, simply to say that the point raised by that amendment and Amendments Nos. 392, 395 and 396 would all be met by the Government's amendment because it is a redrafting which would take them all into account.

Lord Melchett

I should like to say a word about Amendment No. 389, which raises an important point of principle but it is by nature of a probing amendment, and with it goes Amendment No. 436. It has been brought to my attention that there are major problems in some areas, rather in contradiction to what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said earlier, where areas have been declared sites of special scientific interest, or indeed are nature reserves owned by local naturalist trusts. The trust that has brought this to my attention is the Norfolk Naturalist Trust, of which I am a member of the council, and to that extent I should declare an interest in the problem.

I have in mind particularly Brayden Marshes and Martham Broad in North-East Norfolk, which are probably the finest wetland sites in the whole of England, and indeed one of England's seven sites designated as a wetland area of international importance under the Ramsar Convention; but despite that rather resounding title these sites are being dramatically ruined by drainage schemes which are carried out by local internal drainage boards and financed by the Ministry of Agriculture.

The problem is that the drainage schemes are not on these internationally important sites themselves but on adjoining land. The Martham Broad has a scheme near it which is currently discharging large quantities of silt and fertilisers into one of the few broads left, or lakes and broadland left, which have relatively pure water, and tenders for a second pump, which would increase the flow into the broad, have just been sent out.

Brayden Marshes, which is criss-crossed with a number of ditches and a particularly good haunt for bitterns—one of our rarest birds—is more or less completely destroyed. The ditches are filled with silt and the bitterns will probably starve this year. That has happened in the space of three years from a pump which could easily have had its output diverted into safer waters had anybody been consulted on the conservation side. Again the Ramsar site is probably destroyed, or very largely destroyed, from a wild life point of view.

Both those cases are illustrations of the problems which arise when works are carried out adjoining a nature reserve, in this case two of our most important wetland sites. This is not any sort of conservation versus farmer dispute. In one, if not both, of these cases a number of local farmers have been extremely upset at what has happened, and particularly the farming tenants of the Norfolk Naturalist Trust feel that their farming activities have been severely jeopardised by the actions of neighbours without any consultation and certainly without any agreement. In a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley (at column 1280 on 18th December of last year) the noble Earl, Lord Avon, said that 11 of the key sites—that is, the sites listed in the Nature Conservation Review—had been damaged as an indirect consequence of other agricultural or forestry activities.

I hope I have said enough to describe the sort of problems the amendment is aimed at. The objective is to ensure that people should not carry out operations near a site designated under Clause 26 in a way that would destroy it. The amendment is accompanied by a necessary amendment to the schedule to ensure that orders were served and neighbouring landowners were informed that they should not carry out operations which would affect a designated site. I hope the amendment will commend itself to the Government, even though I will not be in a position to move it in Committee and will have to return to it on Report.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

I should point out that Amendment No. 387A pre-empts everything down to No. 395A. If any noble Lord wishes to say a word arising out of those, as we have already strayed into Amendments Nos. 388 and 389, an opportunity should be left to do so, otherwise I will put the Question.

The Earl of Avon

Perhaps I might just say in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, that we accept this in principal and will consider tabling an amendment along the lines of this point.

Lord Melchett

I am grateful to the noble Earl. We are making marvellous progress, a little late in the day, I am afraid, for some of us, and I look forward to seeing the Government's amendment on that point.

Lord Craigton

I am wondering whether I will be in order, bearing in mind my Amendments Nos. 462 and 470, to raise the subject of marine reserves.

The Earl of Avon

From the Government's point of view, that would be perfectly in order, if the Committee so agrees.

Amendment No. 387A agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 396 to 400 not moved.]

6.35 p.m.

Lord Underhill moved Amendment No. 401:

For galley 52—

Page 24, line 30, at end insert—

("( ) Where the Council receives notice of a proposal to carry out an operation and paragraph (b) of the previous subsection does not apply, the Council shall—

  1. (a) publish notice of the proposal in two successive weeks in a newspaper or newspapers circulating in the area in which the land is situated on which it is proposed in the notice to carry out the operation, and, not earlier than the day following that on which the first publication of the notice is completed in pursuance of the preceding provisions of this paragraph, to publish such a notice in the London Gazette; and
  2. (b) consider any written representations relating to the proposal which are made to the Council by any person within the period of three weeks beginning with the date on which the notice of the proposal is published in the London Gazette, and the Council shall not give consent in pursuance of paragraph (a) of the previous subsection before expiration of such period.").

The noble Lord said: The operations which may be proposed to be carried out in SSSIs and nature reserves are matters of concern not only to the owner or occupier and the NCC but to the general public as well. On Second Reading a number of noble Lords expressed concern at the fact that the designation of sites did not receive sufficient publicity, and that is true not only of proposed alterations to an SSSI or NNR as a result of any operations that may be carried out. The amendment seeks to rectify that situation and says that where the condition of subsection (3)(b) does not apply—that is, where there is an agreement, the terms of which cover the proposed operations—the NCC must publish notice of the proposal in two successive weeks in a local newspaper and must also publish the proposal in the London Gazette. If the NCC is considering giving consent to the operations, it must not do so until after a period of three weeks from the date the notice is published in the London Gazette, and the NCC must then give serious consideration to any representations that may be received during that period of three weeks.

This is a small but important amendment because the publication of the notice and the opportunity for any person to make representations will enable the fullest consideration to be given to proposals which may involve the damage or destruction of these important sites to us nationally, and I hope the Government will accept the spirit of the amendment.

Lord Burton

Does the noble Lord want this to apply to Scotland? If so, is he aware that it should also be published in the Edinburgh Gazette?

The Earl of Avon

The intention of the amendment is to give publicity locally and nationally to an individual's intention to change the way in which he is currently using his land. It will become a requirement for the Nature Conservancy Council to publish notices in the local papers on two successive weeks and in the London Gazette—or, should it be applicable the Edinburgh Gazette—once they receive notice of the owner's or occupier's intention. Effectively, they would not be able to give the owner their written consent to the operations until three weeks had elapsed from the date that the London Gazette carried the notice of the proposal, which at the earliest would be three weeks and one day after the date when the notice first appeared in the local papers.

We may argue that a delay of three weeks is neither here nor there when we are talking about actions which could materially affect the scientific interest of a site which has already been recognised as of considerable importance to the country and requiring protection, and I think we would agree. But the purpose of a notice is presumably to alert local people or national organisations to what is proposed. They would have the opportunity to make written representations to the Nature Conservancy Council and the council would have a duty to consider them. I am not convinced that this duty is necessary or that the amendment strengthens in any way the protection of an important site.

An order covered by Clause 26 will be made by the Secretary of State after he has consulted the council. The council will have provided the advice on which his action is based and will have included details about the operations which could prove damaging. They will have a very good idea about what can be done without detriment to the scientific interest. If they are in doubt once they had been notified of its owner's intentions, I am sure that they would in the normal course of affairs actively seek outside expert advice and move quickly to do so. I do not think their actions, unless they are sure the proposal will have no adverse effect, should be circumscribed by a requirement to wait for written representations, which may or may not materialise Such a delay, even such a slight one as threee weeks, if it can be considered, should be. As the noble Lord will be aware from my reply, we hope he will not feel it necessary to press the amendment.

Lord Melchett

May I, without urging my noble friend to press the amendment at this stage, press the noble Earl to go a little further? I take his point about the possibility of delay, particularly if the NCC is required to wait for written replies which do not come. However, would the Minister address himself to the principle of the matter a little further?

It seems to me important that the NCC should maintain at least a public register of notifications. Regional offices would possibly be the best places for that, so that people who were interested locally would be able to find out what was happening. Perhaps going as far as inserting advertisements in the London Gazette, or the Edinburgh Gazette—I certainly take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Burton, about the Edinburgh Gazette; what an important omission that was from our amendment!—would not be the best way of achieving the result that we want. However, I should have thought that it would be possible for the NCC in its regional offices to keep a list of notifications that it has received under the clause.

At a regional level the NCC would be in very close touch with regional representatives of the major voluntary organisations, such as the RSPB, and with the local county trusts, as well as the major national voluntary organisations that would be taking an interest in the matter. It does not seem to me that the proposal would involve a great deal of work. It would not involve any delay—which seemed to be the noble Earl's major problem about the current amendment. If my noble friend is disposed to withdraw the amendment, will the noble Earl agree to take away that particular point, look at it, and perhaps write to us in due course?

The Earl of Avon

I very much take the point that the noble Lord has made. Thinking through the matter as he was speaking, I wondered whether the Nature Conservancy Council itself might read about it and take it on board. Perhaps the point does not require legislation in this particular Bill, but I shall certainly think about it.

Lord Melchett

I am sure that if the Nature Conservancy Council gave an assurance that such registers would be kept, that would be an ideal solution, and it would save us all some time.

Lord Underhill

I am grateful to the noble Earl for his proposal, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 402 not moved.]

The Earl of Avon moved Amendment No. 402A: Page 24, line 34, leave out ("(2)") and insert ("(2A)").

The noble Earl said: I have already spoken to this amendment, which is consequential. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 403 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Jacques)

I now call Amendment No. 404. If this amendment is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendments Nos. 405 and 405A.

6.42 p.m.

Lord Craigton moved Amendment No. 404:

Page 24, line 43, leave out subsection (5) and insert— ("(5) If it appears to the Council that any agreement specified in subsection (4) is unlikely to be reached before the expiration of the period mentioned in paragraph (c) of subsection (3), or that paragraph as it has effect by virtue of subsection (4), the Council may make application to the Secretary of State for an order under subsection (1) to be made on the day upon which that period expires which may prohibit the operations specified in the notice under subsection (2).").

The noble Lord said. This amendment is an improvement on the present paragraph. With my wording, if an agreement is hanging fire, the Nature Conservancy Council can have an order made by the Secretary of State to prohibit work on a permanent basis with compensation, but the order can be revoked. Under the present clause, if the agreement is hanging fire, the only recourse is to invoke compulsory purchase, or to let the site be destroyed. I believe that this proposal might find some approval in the noble Earl's mind. I should be very glad to know what he has to say, and I beg to move.

The Earl of Avon

The Government have not really considered this particular proposition in isolation from the package originally presented by my noble friend. However, I undertake to consider this addition as a separate matter and then let my noble friend know the solution.

Lord Craigton

I am very grateful to the noble Earl, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Craigton moved Amendment No. 405: Page 24, line 45, after ("subsection (4)") insert ("and only in relation to land more than 10 acres in extent").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 405 I wish at the same time to speak to Amendments Nos. 406, 408 and 461. We have here a very important point, bearing in mind that we have not really made the progress that we had hoped to make on the whole question of SSSIs. Had we had a more co-operative reply from the Front Bench, I would have had to con- sider whether to move this amendment, but now I am quite certain that it must be moved.

I have twice raised this point in your Lordships' Chamber. Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, Part IV, the Secretary of State compiles a list of buildings of special architectural and historic interest—just the same as SSSIs. Upon including such a building in the list, he serves on the owner or occupier a notice, and then if the person responsible executes any work that would in any manner affect the character of the building, and the work was not authorised, that person is guilty of an offence.

Under Section 2 of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 the same provisions apply. The Secretary of State compiles a list and informs the owner that his monument is on the list—and for "monument" or "ancient building" read "SSSI". Thereafter, the owner is guilty of an offence if he carries out any unauthorised work on the monument or ancient building or undertakes any flooding or tipping operations in, or under, the land.

There are many SSSIs that are equally worth preserving as ancient monuments or historic buildings. They would not be SSSIs at all unless they concerned something of great value to the nation. As we have heard this evening, many, though by no means all, SSSIs occupy comparatively large plots of land. They compete, in greater or lesser degree, with claims of agriculture, forestry, planning and recreation. Those are completely excluded from my amendment, which covers only an SSSI of an area of 10 acres or less. I have suggested 10 acres, but even that may be too big an area.

I cannot for the life of me see the difference in common sense between an SSSI, an historic building, or an ancient monument. The owner of an SSSI has part of our heritage which should be preserved, and he is as proud of, or as annoyed about, having been asked to preserve it as he now is in regard to his historic building or ancient monument. He can ask no more and no less restriction or compensation. The Acts of 1971 and 1979 already demonstrate that their provisions, which I have copied in my Amendment No. 461, are workable. These are Acts that are on the statute book and are working. Certainly I create two classes of SSSIs, but why not?—there are five schedules of them now. They are easily distinguished by size, which is the only limiting factor. Certainly I create an arbitrary maximum size, but what would matter would be the actual size within that limit.

We have in the amendment a simple, workable alternative, and it would be cheaper, too, because there would be no recourse to compulsory purchase. I do not believe that the Minister is going to accept this proposal, but I would ask the Committee to decide whether it is not completely workable and whether we should not treat the smallest SSSIs as ancient monuments or historic buildings. I beg to move.

Viscount Thurso

I do not think that this proposal will be received with enthusiasm in the crofting counties. There are hundreds and thousands of crofts of 10 acres or less. If people felt that the whole of their croft might suddenly be adversely affected by an SSSI and that their extra livelihood as a crofter was going to be affected, they would be very upset—

Lord Craigton

Will the noble Viscount tell me whether there are now SSSIs on crofts?

Viscount Thurso

There is a croft at Newlands of Geise just outside Thurso, and through the bottom half of the three arable fields on that croft there runs the main drainage from Thurso golf course. There is an area there of less than 10 acres which has been declared an SSSI in order to preserve such rare species as ragged robin and meadowsweet. If one looks at the Ordnance Survey map, one sees running through the middle two parallel lines with the word "drain" written alongside. This area has been declared the Newlands of Geise mire. That land really ought to be drained, and that drain ought to be in course of being cleared in the national interest and in the interest of everybody else. Indeed, the crofter in question has been trying to improve this land from an agricultural point of view, and when I objected to this site I discovered that the boundary had in fact been drawn round an area which the crofter had previously reseeded. So in the first instance they were proposing to designate as an SSSI an area which had already been reseeded.

Lord Craigton

The noble Viscount is a great purveyor of red herrings. By the same rule, I believe—I am almost sure—that many of the crofts are historic buildings already; and they are not allowed to alter them without permission. That does not cause any trouble but preserves them for what they are—part of the history of Britain. I am wanting to do the same thing in regard to SSSIs.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My crofters, provided they get enough money, are prepared to do anything.

Lord Melchett

I must say that our initial feeling on this side of the Committee was not to agree with the amendment set down in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, because it seemed to us that it would cause a difficulty and would exclude some of the most important sites of special scientific interest that we have in this country. But the Government's extraordinarily unsatisfactory reply to the amendment moved earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, has left me feeling that anything we can get from them we must take, because theyclearly have absolutely no intention, off their own bat, unless your Lordships can persuade them on Report, of doing anything to protect most of the sites of special scientific interest in this country. We are, therefore, in the words of the Nature Conservancy Council's chief scientist, going to see large-scale extinction of British species by the end of this century. That seems to me the sum result of what the Government have said on Clause 26 so far—large-scale extinction of British species.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, has told us about another SSSI on his land and the circumstances, as he sees them, in which it has been declared. I would simply make one point to him. The faster that landowners destroy the best sites—the raised bogs and other things which he has mentioned on earlier amendments—the faster those things which are left which are of special scientific interest will be areas which were, for example, once drained but are now no longer. They should not, in any country which has any pride in its wildlife, be sites of special scientific interest; but if we succeed in destroying these sites at the rate at which we are destroying them now, we are inevitably going to be a country of second best sites of special scientific interest. But that is the fault of the people who destroy the top tier of sites, not that of the Nature Conservancy Council.

But, as I have said, I think that the response to any proposals to improve Clause 26 has been so abysmal up to this stage that the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, has a great deal of merit and we shall certainly support him to the full.

The Earl of Avon

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has behaved a little like a chameleon, because a little while ago he was pleased with me but now he has changed. However, I should like to bring the Committee back to discuss this particular amendment slightly more dispassionately than the whole of Clause 26, because what we do not want to do is to put on the NCC a task which it would be difficult for them to carry out. I take my noble friend's point that some things happen to ancient monuments and historic buildings, and, therefore, why should not small SSSIs be treated in the same way? The answer is that they have got to become an SSSI at some time, and I think they ought to become it directly they are not an ancient monument. This may sound a strange remark, but later on, in the case of some of the amendments set down, I shall be referring to the ancient monuments in regard to some of the points raised. We honestly believe that it is difficult to justify one mechanism for large areas and another for small areas, because our aim is to protect all areas of special scientific interest, whether large or small.

However, we also think that the amendments might not quite have the effect that the noble Lord intends. The proposed subsection (5)(a) does not state that subsection (2) is not to have effect in relation to land of less than 10 acres until notice has been served by the Secretary of State. Also, the amendment to subsection (5) would, assuming that Amendment No. 461 was carried, appear to have no effect, because that amendment would prevent compulsory purchase orders relating to land measuring less than 10 acres from being made by the council.

I fully sympathise with what my noble friend is trying to do, but I do not believe that this will be very easy for the Nature Conservancy Council to handle, and I would rather wish that my noble friend Lord Chelwood was here to give me little support on that. Having so said, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw this amendment.

Lord Melchett

The noble Earl puts a lot of stress on what the Nature Conservancy Council could or could not do.

The Earl of Avon

What they would want to do.

Lord Melchett

I think the noble Earl said it was whether or not they would be able to carry out the effect of the amendment, and as I heard him from a sedentary position he added, "What they would like to do". I just wonder why it is that the noble Earl has not told your Lordships at any stage yet in our debate what the chariman of the Nature Conservancy Council said yesterday, when he said: In order to protect these increasingly threatened wildlife habitats"— that is, sites of special scientific interest— the NCC is calling for prior notification of activities inimical to nature conservation for all SSSIs". That is what the Nature Conservancy Council are asking for, and the Government, as I understand it, have turned us down flat on that. It therefore seems to me very right and proper that the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, should press this amendment.

Lord Craigton

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, that this gives complete protection at the least possible cost, which is very important. I believe the Nature Conservancy Council would be able to administer it, and I shall press this amendment.

6.56 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 405) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 55; Not-Contents, 84.

Avebury, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Aylestone, L. Irving of Dartford, L.
Bacon, B. Jacques, L.
Banks, L. Jeger, B.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Kinloss, Ly.
Beswick, L. Kirkhill, L.
Birk, B. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Blease, L. Melchett, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Milverton, L.
Collison, L. Northfield, L.
Craigton, L. [Teller.] Peart, L.
David, B. Phillips, B.
Davies of Leek, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Rochester, L.
Foot, L. Ross of Marnock, L.
Galpern, L. Seear, B.
Gibson, L. Stone, L.
Gosford, E. Thurso, V.
Greenwood of Rossendale, L. Tryon, L.
Gregson, L. Underhill, L. [Teller.]
Hale, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Hampton, L. White, B.
Hanworth, V. Wigoder, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Winstanley, L.
Hooson, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Young of Dartington, L.
Hunt, L.
Airey of Abingdon, B. Craigavon, V.
Auckland, L. Craigmyle, L.
Avon, E. Cullen of Ashbourne, L.
Balerno, L. Dacre of Glanton, L.
Bellwin, L. de Clifford, L.
Belstead, L. De La Warr, E.
Bolton, L. De L'Isle, V.
Boston, L. Denham, L. [Teller.]
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Elibank, L.
Burton, L. Enniskillen, E.
Caithness, E. Faithfull, B.
Campbell of Croy, L. Ferrier, L.
Cathcart, E. Fortescue, E.
Chelwood, L. Gainford, L.
Colwyn, L. Gibson-Watt, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Gormanston, V.
Gridley, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Onslow, E.
Orkney, E.
Henley, L. Penrhyn, L.
Hives, L. Radnor, E.
Hornsby-Smith, B. Renton, L.
Inglewood, L. Ridley, V.
Ironside, L. St. Aldwyn, E.
Kemsley, V. St. Just, L.
Killearn, L. Sandys, L. [Teller.]
Kinnaird, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Lauderdale, E. Soames, L.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Stanley of Alderley, L.
Long, V. Strathclyde, L.
Lucas of Chilworth, L. Swansea, L.
Lyell, L. Swinfen, L.
Mancroft, L. Tollemache, L.
Margadale, L. Trefgarne, L.
Marley, L. Trenchard, V.
Massereene and Ferrard, V. Trumpington, B.
Mersey, V. Waldegrave, E.
Middleton, L. Westbury, L.
Monk Bretton, L. Windlesham, L.
Montgomery of Alamein, V. Wise, L.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L. Yarborough, E.
Napier and Ettrick, L. Young, B.
Northchurch, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

House resumed.