§ 3.7 p.m.
§ The Earl of Avon rose to move, That the Code of Guidance laid before the House on 5th July be approved.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Code of Guidance for sites of special scientific interest, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved. The code is the joint responsibility of my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment, for Scotland and for Wales and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It has been prepared in accordance with Section 33 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and is intended to assist all those who exercise functions under Sections 28 to 32 of the Act or who are affected by the exercise of those functions. The code will apply to England, Scotland and Wales, and will be published in Welsh as well as in English.
§ The idea of publishing such a code of practice, conduct or guidance, as it was variously called, first arose at a stage during the debates on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill when it was envisaged that notification by landowners of intended operations should he voluntary. The code was to make it clear exactly what sort of co-operation was desired.
§ As a result of later changes in the Bill, including obligations on landowners, the function of the code was extended to include, first, an explanation of the various statutory provisions relating to SSSIs embodied in the Act as well as giving guidance on procedures; secondly, on the way in which voluntary co-operation would still be very valuable over and above compliance with the legal obligations: and, thirdly, on the importance of conservation of special habitats. The consultation draft of the code was prepared in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy Council, the National Farmers' Union, the Country Landowners' Association and Timber Growers (Great Britain) Limited, and perhaps I may take this opportunity to repeat the expression of the Government's gratitude, which was made by my honourable friend in another place last week, to these from outside Government who gave their time so readily in putting the document together. The public consultation exercise on the basis of this draft took place from February to April this year. About 150 organisations were consulted and as a result of it we received a number of helpful and constructive suggestions which enabled us to produce the improved text now before the House, which was finally laid on 5th July. The Government regret that pressure of other 326 parliamentary business prevented this debate from taking place before the summer Recess as we had originally hoped.
The content of the code follows closely the indication given during the Committee debates on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, particularly by my right honourable friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services. He then said:
The code will govern procedure. It will stress the importance of SSSIs and the need for conservation and outline the consultation procedures that owners and occupiers will be urged to respect…. The code would govern NCC's duty to notify sites of special scientific interest, the ways in which sites of special scientific interest are selected, the relationship between the code and existing consultation procedures, agricultural and forestry activities, agricultural and horticultural capital grant schemes, forestry grants, stressing the presumption that grants are put at risk if prior consultation and agreement with the NCC is not reached before work is started, and the financial advantage that might accrue from SSSI ownership and management.
§ The result is, I am afraid, not easy reading. While we have done our best to avoid unnecessary complexity, the inescapable fact is that the statutory provisions in the Act and the various related grant arrangements are themselves complex and it was essential to explain them comprehensively. I believe that the text we now have is as concise and as straightforward as is consistent with this requirement, and I trust that all those who use it will find that the effort of concentration it will call for is repaid by a clear understanding of the role they are expected to play.
§ The code begins by emphasising the importance of SSSIs and the fact that their conservation and proper management is vital to the maintenance of Britain's diverse wildlife. Government departments have been specifically mentioned at this point because the private sector co-operation with the voluntary spirit which is essential to the proper working of the SSSI provisions in the Act cannot be expected if Government do not set the example.
§ The code goes on to set out the procedure by which the NCC notifies SSSIs to all those concerned. It deals separately with the provisions which apply to SSSIs already in existence before the passing of the Act and those which apply to "new" SSSIs. SSSIs notified before the passing of the Act—of which there are about 4,000—remain extant, but as a basis for the new requirements on notification by owners and occupiers of intended operations the NCC is now required to inform every owner and occupier of the whole or a part of an SSSI of its location, the nature of its scientific interest and the operations which could cause damage to it and may not, therefore, be carried out without prior notice. This exercise of re-notification has already begun but it involves a great deal of detailed work and will take some time to complete. I understand that most notifications should be made during the course of this financial year, but in some cases where survey work cannot be carried out before the spring, it will take somewhat longer. The code contains advice to owners and occupiers on how to proceed in the period before they receive formal notification.
§ In the case of new SSSIs, the Act requires the NCC to give notice of its intention to notify a site and to consider any representations or objections before making a final decision. This is the essential difference between "old" and "new" SSSIs. The code tells 327 owners and occupiers that they should not carry out any potentially damaging operation during the proposal period without consulting the NCC.
§ The code then describes how the NCC will go about listing potentially damaging operations, the registration of SSSIs as a land charge and the procedures to be adopted where owners and occupiers cannot be traced and when SSSI status is to be removed. A separate paragraph is devoted to statutory undertakers, whom the NCC will inform of all SSSI details that may concern their operations.
§ Once the NCC has notified an owner or occupier of the particulars of a site, he is then obliged to consult the council if he wishes to carry out any operation that has been specified in the notification. Section III of the code sets out the procedures for such consultation and also those which apply when farm capital grant or forestry grant is to be claimed. The farm capital grant procedures dovetail with the arrangements which have been successfully operated by the agriculture departments since October 1980 and which have resulted in a large number of cases being satisfactorily resolved at the local level without the need for formal objection.
§ Two aspects of this part of the code deserve special mention. First, the Act specifies, in Section 32, that the NCC must offer to enter into a management agreement where agricultural grants made under Section 29 of the Agriculture Act 1970 are refused in consequence of their objection. The point to be made on this is that there are other similar farm capital grants (for example, under EEC arrangements) not covered by that Act; and that because the essential features of grant applications to which there is a conservation objection are the same whatever type of grant is involved, the NCC have agreed that they will offer a management agreement where any kind of farm capital grant is refused in consequence of their objection. The same applies to crofting grants and, as my noble friend Lord Mansfield explained to the House last Wednesday, to grants that may be applied for under the integrated development programme for the Western Isles of Scotland.
§ Secondly, the procedures reflect a greater involvement for the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS) in the process, which is in line with their commitment to further conservation. The ADAS service has regular contacts with farmers, whose confidence it enjoys, and its co-operation with the NCC will he of very great assistance. In forestry cases also, although under no legal obligation to do so, the NCC has said that it will normally offer to enter into a management agreement where forestry grant and/or felling permission is refused on conservation grounds. The next section of the code, on information helpful to the NCC, has been included to encourage owners and occupiers to assist in the NCC's need to have up-to-date information on the scientific interest of a site, on ownership details or on operations undertaken by third parties.
§ Section 5 deals with conservation options. It explains the purpose of management agreements and the circumstances in which the NCC will offer them. The Act also requires Ministers to prepare financial guidelines on which the compensation provided by management agreements must be based in certain 328 circumstances. A public consultation exercise has been undertaken on a draft of these financial guidelines. The closing date for receipt of comments was last Friday. We have received a number of important comments, which we shall need to consider carefully. However, we recognise the need to finalise the guidelines as speedily as possible. When this has been done Sections 32 and 41 of the Act will be brought into force. For any management agreements that may be made in the period before the guidelines are settled the NCC is including appropriate provision for the financial terms to be reviewed when the final version is available.
§ The last section of the code deals with the provisions for special protection for certain areas. Section 29 of the Act provides in specified circumstances for my right honourable friend to make orders, which we are calling Nature Conservation Orders. These orders, which come into operation immediately they are made, prolong the period during which specified operations may not be carried out without the consent of the NCC. The House will be interested to know that my right honourable friend has just made the first such order, on the recommendation of the Nature Conservancy Council, to safeguard a heathland SSSI at Baddesley Common in Hampshire, which contains a unique combination of plants and related fauna. The code explains the procedures related to such orders and to the compensation to which they may give rise. It also covers the circumstances in which compulsory purchase may be used—very much a last resort—and the matter of offences and penalties.
§ That then, in brief, is what the code is about. It is a comprehensive procedural guide to that part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act which deals with SSSIs, to the various associated administrative processes and to the role for voluntary co-operation. Once it is approved the code will be printed and distributed free to all owners and occupiers of SSSIs by the NCC as part of their re-notification exercise. It will also be available through HMSO at a price of about £2.
§ Perhaps I may at this point refer to a matter which goes beyond the text of the code, but which is doubtless in the minds of many noble Lords today. That is the question of the resources, both of money and of staff, which are required by the NCC to ensure that its functions under the new Act and under the code are carried out. These are not easy questions. We live in times when it is imperative to scrutinise very closely all claims on the public purse and to ensure the maximum economy and efficiency in the use of resources. Decisions as to future years remain to be made and I cannot anticipate them today. Nevertheless, there are a few comments which it may be useful for me to make.
§ First, reference has often been made to a figure of £600,000 which is said to have been allocated to the NCC this year for the consequences of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. That is rather misleading. It is true that this year's allocation to the NCC, at £11¼ million, was some £600,000 more than last year's in real terms. But the Government have not said that £600,000 is the maximum that can be spent by the NCC on matters arising from the Act. It is up to the council to deploy its total allocation as it thinks best; and it is worth noting that it already had an ongoing programme of site protection.329
§ The extent of financial commitments arising from the Act is notably difficult to predict. Reference has been made to the fact that 8,700 hectares of SSSIs were damaged in 1980—about half of that was agricultural—but there are indications that the situation has greatly improved. Much of what was done was doubtless due to ignorance, which it is the purpose of the Act and of this code to remove. Nevertheless, the best estimates possible must be made and these estimates and all available evidence will be carefully considered by my right honourable friend when he determines the council's allocation for the coming year.
§ The staff of the NCC is also heavily involved in implementing the Act. In that connection I should like to remove the impression, which seems to have gained some currency, that the recently announced Rayner review of the NCC is aimed at cutting its staff. The terms of reference require the staff needs of the NCC to be examined but they in no way prejudge whether the number of staff should be cut or increased. The review is in fact aimed at increasing efficiency and it is particularly apposite at this time that such a review should be made to ensure that the staff resources of the council are used to the best possible effect.
§ To conclude, and to come back to the Code of Guidance, the willingness of owners and occupiers of SSSIs to operate the voluntary arrangements set out in the code, as well as to comply with the legal obligations which it explains, is critical to the protection of our national heritage of wildlife sites. I am sure that most of those who have such a site on their land and who are clearly told of its importance will feel privileged and will be readily disposed to co-operate in preserving it from harm. Failure to do so, whether deliberately or by inadvertence will, I hope, be rare and should certainly be minimised by the code, which I commend to the House, as well as to all those whom it will concern. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Code of Guidance laid before the House on 5th July be approved.—(The Earl of Avon.)
§ 3.22 p.m.
§ Lord Melchett
My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Avon, for his explanation of the code and its provision—somewhat shorter and clearer than the code itself, I think it is fair to say—and I wish to raise a number of points with him, in particular the question of resources, which he mentioned in some detail. At the outset I would like to comment briefly on the Wildlife and Countryside Act itself. Your Lordships will not need reminding, any more than the Minister will, that it was a controversial measure; it was controversial when we debated it in this House at great length and it is continuing to be so now that it is passed into law. I have been concerned, as I am sure some other noble Lords have, about attempts, as I see them, to some extent to rewrite the history of the Act.
It is common for Ministers, once they leave office, to rewrite the history of what they did when they were in office, and I am sure all of us are guilty of that. But it seems a little soon to start rewriting the history of this Act. By "rewriting its history" what I mean is that the Government and some other interest groups have been 330 attempting to say that, because it was so thoroughly debated—because 1,200 amendments to it were tabled in your Lordships' House and because it took so long to go through Parliament—therefore it is a thoroughly agreed measure and nobody should subject it to any further criticism. In fact, of course, the reverse is the case. It was subject to so many amendments, it took so long to go through Parliament and it was changed to such a great extent in both Houses, because there was so much all-party disagreement to its provisions; and that all-party opposition to the measure's provisions continued right up to the very last votes in your Lordships' House.
I suggest that many of the criticisms—I shall touch on a few of them—that were made in all parts of the House when the measure was going through are already proving amply justified. It is therefore unfortunate, to say the least, that people should attempt, so soon after that very controversial series of debates, to suggest that the Act should be considered as being quite beyond and above party controversy simply because it is the law of the land and that those who hold different views about what provisions are needed to protect wildlife sites, as certainly noble Lords on this side do, should in some way not express that opinion. Indeed, it has even been suggested that to express the opinion that greater controls are needed—as the Labour Party believes; we have said in our party policy that greater controls are necessary to protect wildlife sites—in some way puts the whole Act in jeopardy. That seems almost to amount to saying that any other political party which expresses a contrary view to the Government, just by expressing that view, will wreck the Government's legislation. If their legislation is that fragile, it is hardly worth having. A number of us—as I say, certainly in the Labour Party—believe that quite different legislation is needed to protect the countryside heritage, and we shall continue to press to see that legislation implemented.
Having said that, we welcome the arrival of this voluntary code. As the Minister himself suggested, it is a little legalistic and rather late, which we very much regret, and it is certainly not firm enough in places. But I hope very much that the House will approve it today.
Like the voluntary conservation organisations, who also opposed many of the provisions in the Act when it was proceeding through Parliament, the Opposition want the code of practice to work. But whether or not it does is largely in the Governments's hands, because the key to the success of the Government's system, although it is referred to by the Government—the noble Earl used the word several times—as a voluntary system, is that it is in fact a system based on the payment of large sums of money. It is voluntary in the sense that at the end of the day, unless the Nature Conservancy Council uses its powers of compulsory purchase—which it has had for a great many years, since well before the Act—a landowner or farmer is still free to destroy a site of special scientific interest. But if the "voluntary" system works, they will be given very expensive payments worked out by a very complicated system, to which the noble Earl referred in relation to the financial guidelines which are still under consideration. I hope he will impress on all his colleagues in the Government who are involved in the 331 mattter the importance of getting those guidelines completed and finalised in the very near future.
Before returning to the question of resources, I wish to consider one other problem which is covered by the code and which the Minister also touched on, and that is the question of new sites of special scientific interest where the Wildlife and Countryside Act introduced the new procedure of a three months' consultation or warning period, as it has been called, and owners and occupiers are given a notice by the NCC that they intend to designate their land as an SSSI. In another place the Minister, at column 303 on 19th October, said that the code "urged" owners and occupiers not to carry out any potentially damaging operation during the proposal period. In fact, the code is a great deal weaker than that, and paragraph 7 of it says:Owners and occupiers who have received notice of a proposed notification should not, in advance of the NCC's final decision, carry out any operation specified in it without consulting the NCC"."Should not" does not seem to me to amount to a very strong urging. The code adds insult to injury by at least leaving the door open for somebody actually receiving a grant from the Ministry of Agriculture after destroying a proposed SSSI during this three-month period, and it seems to me to he a scandal that the code does not make it perfectly clear that no grant aid will be available if a site is destroyed during this three-month period. As some noble Lords will remember, this matter was raised in the debates on the Act. In another place the Minister, Mr. King, spoke on 13th July last year, at column 922, to an amendment which attempted to close the loophole by ensuring that in the three-month consultation period operations on the site were banned, so that things were frozen. He said that the amendment,
seeks to prevent a situation whereby the moment the NCC even hints that it is thinking of having an SSSI, out come the bulldozers and the drainage equipment and away we go".The Minister went on:there is no evidence that immediately any farmer or landowner is approached his worst instincts are aroused".I think that it is worth looking at what has actually happened at a number of sites since July last year. I refer first to West Sedgemoor, in Somerset, an area of a proposed SSSI which has received considerable publicity, and which a number of noble Lords, including some who are to speak today, have visited and taken a personal interest in. In the spring of this year under the new procedures in the Act the NCC notified the area as a proposed SSSI, and the three months' consultation period came into effect. Well, contrary to what the Minister said would not happen, out did come the drainage equipment, and away they went. At least away went three landowners, who started a damaging pump drainage scheme, affecting 40 to 50 acres in the heart of the moor. It was not illegal, because of the loophole. Nevertheless away they went.
Next, I refer to a site in Dyfed, in Wales. A valley mire with old grazing meadows, rich in wild flowers, including orchids, was identified by the NCC before the Wildlife and Countryside Act came into force, but notification awaited the new procedures under the Act. The owner of the land had actually agreed with the NCC that it should be a SSSI. But unfortunately he died, and his heirs called in the Farmers' Union of 332 Wales. Quite sensibly, a meeting was arranged between the various parties, including the Farmers' Union of Wales and the NCC. However, the Farmers' Union of Wales subsequently cancelled the meeting. Contrary to the Minister's assurances, somebody's worst instincts had in fact become thoroughly aroused, because the NCC discovered that most of the 26-acre site had been ploughed and harrowed.
Another site, also in Wales, comprising an area of acid heath and marsh, was notified, using the new procedures, on 31st July this year, without any consultation. Again during the three-month warning period the landowner burnt and rotivated an area of three to four acres. That was at the end of August, and just before the three-month consultation period had elapsed.
It may be that the noble Earl can reassure me that those three cases are simply 0.1 per cent of all the new SSSIs notified under the Act, that I am talking about the tip of an iceberg, and that in fact the vast majority of new SSSIs have gone through without any problems of this kind arising. In fact I think the reverse is the case, and the problem has arisen on nearly all the new SSSIs that have been notified. It really is a scandal: and I should like to give your Lordships an example of some of the "nearly missed" cases. There is a proposed SSSI which was on the market in Shropshire—an important area—and after the local county naturalists' trust had managed to buy it, it was discovered that a solicitor, acting for another potential owner, apparently had given them legal advice that the sensible thing to do, if they managed to buy it—as they could well have done—would be to spray off the whole area immediately to avoid what were called complications regarding SSSI status.
It is clear to me and, after what I have said. I hope to the noble Earl and to your Lordships generally, that an amending Bill is needed to close this loophole. It is an absurdity, and it will bring the procedures under the Act into total disrepute if the NCC finds itself unable to create any new SSSIs without sites being destroyed in the three-month period. I really think it regrettable that the Minister should have been quite so ready 12 months ago to dismiss as a fantasy what in fact has since happened all too frequently.
Turning to the question of finance and staff for the NCC, I move into an area—if I have not already been in one—where there is very widespread agreement. I dare say that the NFU has provided a number of your Lordships with a brief, and the union as well as a number of conservation organisations all agree that the NCC is seriously under-financed and needs more money if the Wildlife and Countryside Act is to have any chance of working.
I should like to give your Lordships an example of what I have in mind. The noble Earl mentioned the £600,000 that the Nature Conservancy Council received for the current financial year. I do not think that he mentioned that the NCC actually asked for an additional sum of between £950,000 and £1,130,000. It received from the Government £600,000—around half of the maximum extra that it had asked for. The noble Earl says that that is not the total sum that the NCC can spend on the Act. I assume he means that it can switch resources from other operations to which it does not have to give the same kind of priority. It is of course also true that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 333 does not give the NCC new duties only so far as SSSIs are concerned. Your Lordships had a particular interest in marine nature reserves, which exist only due to a vote moved by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, which put into the Bill a provision, which was then accepted somewhat reluctantly by the Government in another place, that there should be such things as marine nature reserves.
The other day I discovered that the NCC is unable to finance a survey to find out where along areas of the coast there should be marine nature reserves, and without such a survey there is really no chance of our having a sensible network of marine nature reserves. A few might be created in sites that are already well known. But the NCC is actually unable to start such a survey for two years. The noble Earl may think that the NCC has swilling around plenty of money, which it can simply transfer from one place to another, but here is a new statutory obligation for which it cannot do the basic survey work for a further two years. To suggest that there is lots of money for use on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill is, frankly, a fantasy.
An extra £600,000 might sound quite a lot. But there is one voluntary agreement, a solitary one, which covers one quarter of one SSSI in the North Kent marshes, and that will cost one-sixth of the £600,000–4100,000 a year. So to save a quarter of one SSSI will take a sixth of the total extra income that the NCC has been given this year.
The NCC staff has already been cut by about 10 per cent. in the last two to three years. It has lost 55 members of staff, and now a review is being conducted by Sir Derek Rayner. The noble Earl introduced the interesting concept which I must say had not previously struck me, that Sir Derek Rayner had been appointed by the Prime Minister to go around lavishly distributing new civil servants, to increase numbers of staff available to quangos such as the NCC in order to carry out their tasks. I have really no evidence whatsoever of that. As I understand it, Sir Derek Rayner has been appointed by the Prime Minister to cut staff, and every review that he has conducted has had that consequence. If the noble Earl can point to precedents where Sir Derek has actually substantially increased the staff of quangos, I am sure that the NCC, among others, would be very relieved to hear of it. But that really is stretching a point, if the noble Earl does not mind my saying so. Sir Derek Rayner's review team has been set up to cut staff, and that is what it is going into the NCC to do.
For the noble Earl to say, "Well, the terms of reference leave it open", really is disingenuous, because he knows as well as I do that the terms of reference leave it open due only to an extremely stiff fight put up by the NCC and its chairman, to insist that the terms of reference were changed from the original ones which the Government intended to impose. From the original terms of reference imposed by the Government, it is clear that they had absolutely no intention of the review doing anything other than cut staff, and I hope that the noble Earl will have the honesty to admit that when he replies to the debate.
In another place the Minister, in discussing the Rayner review, said, again on 19th October, as reported at col. 333 of the Official Report: 334The NCC's morale and determination to implement urgently and competently the vital work for our countryside and inheritage is impressive".Morale in the NCC is at rock bottom as a result of the Government's decision to institute this Rayner review, and that is not surprising. They have lost 10 per cent. of their staff in the last couple of years: they have had a host anew obligations and duties placed upon them: and now they are obviously going to lose more staff. For a Government Minister to suggest that the morale is good is an absurdity, and it just shows, if the Government believe that, how out of touch with the NCC they really are.
The fact of the matter is that the NCC already have no money left this year, and they are already desperately short of staff where it is most important. They have no money left for land purchase. There are a number of cases where voluntary bodies need to buy land which has come on the market, sites of special scientific interest, because of the programme of renotification. The county naturalist trusts need to buy, to save them, 10 sites which have a total value of about £200,000. The RSPB has been offered between about 100 and 150 acres in West Sedgemoor, which I mentioned earlier. Again, the total cost might he around £200,000. In both these cases the Nature Conservancy Council, as I understand it, is unable to offer grant aid to the voluntary movement to help them make these purchases because the NCC has run out of money for land purchase—and that halfway through the current financial year.
For the noble Earl to say that he cannot give any commitment for next year is all very well, but what are the Government going to do about this year? The NCC are already out of money, and they are also out of staff in many areas, as I have said. They do not have people on the ground in a number of counties—in Warwickshire and Cheshire (in Cheshire, the nearest member of staff, an assistant regional officer, is in Shrewsbury). Lincolnshire, Kent and Norfolk are all short of assistant regional officers. These are the people without whom, on the ground, the Nature Conservancy Council have no chance of making personal contact with farmers and landowners, and without that personal contact everybody agrees—the NFU have confirmed this, and I think quite rightly—the Wildlife and Countryside Act, the procedures in the voluntary code and so on have really no chance whatsoever of working.
It is not just that the NCC cannot do the job on marine nature reserves, that they have run out of money for land purchase and that they are desperately short of staff on the ground. One of the most important aspects of the Wildlife and Countryside Act was the renotification of SSSIs: that everyone would be told again that they had an SSSI on their land, and they would be given details of operations which might damage it. We were assured in Parliament that this would be done quickly, within 12 months of the Act becoming law, and, obviously, this was a major factor in the debates that we had and the way that the votes went, indeed, on different amendments. If everyone was going to he renotified reasonably quickly and given the information, one of the criticisms, which came particularly from the farming and landowning side, would be answered.
335 Far from that being the case, the NCC are actually going to take 2½ years to renotify these sites. The noble Earl said that most of them were going to be renotified in this financial year. That is six months longer than we were told would be the case; and "most of them", as I understand it, is actually 60 per cent.—slightly over half. Forty per cent. will not be renotified in this financial year; and at current estimates—and estimates have already proved to be grossly over-optimistic—the last of them will not be renotified until March 1984. The Minister in another place appeared to contradict this when it was raised by one of his own supporters, Sir Hector Monro, and I hope the noble Earl will be able to correct what seems to me to be a rather misleading impression and confirm that with the current numbers of staff and resources that the NCC have renotification will in fact not be completed until March 1984.
There was a unanimous view expressed in another place that the NCC needed more resources, both in staff and in cash, to make this work, and I very much hope that that will he the unanimous view of those of your Lordships who are going to speak today. I hope that, even if the noble Earl cannot this afternoon commit his department or the Treasury to more money, the Government will go away with a very clear message that unless they do come up with the goods nobody can seriously expect their legislation to work in the way that they hope it will.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, I, too, should like to express my thanks to the noble Earl for the speedy and clear way in which he expounded the code of practice; and I should also like to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, because by covering the ground as thoroughly as he did I think he earned your Lordships' gratitude, if only for the fact that it will enable me to keep my speech down to a very short one indeed.
The bodies which are mainly concerned with nature conservation in this country—and at this stage I think I ought to emphasise that when we are talking about such bodies we are not just talking about the organisations which organise lobbies here, which issue pieces of paper and which bombard us with letters—in fact represent a very large proportion of the population of this country. Indeed, the membership of some of these bodies is quite enormous in itself; but the people of this country as a whole, I am quite sure, are on the side of the efforts to try to retain the beauty of our countryside and the treasures of nature which otherwise might disappear. One of the troubles that we face is that in so many cases we are dealing with problems which, if there is abuse by the people who are in charge of the countryside, will lead not just to damage but, in fact, to permanent harm. Damage is done to these sites which cannot be put into reverse, and day by day and year by year we lose some of the glories of our countryside.
There seems to be fairly general agreement about the problems which will arise from the Act and, therefore, to a certain extent, from the code of practice. There is first of all the loophole whereby owners and occupiers can, if they so wish, damage a site proposed as a new SSSI during the three-month 336 consultation period without committing an offence. We have had a number of examples of such sites, some of them given by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and I do not propose to go over them. I would merely say that there have been a sufficient number of them to show that any complacency about this field has no place at all.
Then, secondly, there is the problem of whether Section 29 can be used to deal with the loophole I have just mentioned. Section 29, dealing with the nature conservancy orders, is something for which we must be very grateful; and it is very timely for today's debate that only in the last few days, as the noble Earl, Lord Avon, said, there has been a Section 29 order put on Baddesley Common. But I think we need to know—and here we seek an assurance from the noble Earl which I hope he will he able to give us at the end of this debate—that Section 29 orders will be used promptly in a wide variety of situations; that is, not merely in the case of the so-called super sites, but anywhere where there obviously appears to be a real threat to an SSSI.
Thirdly, there is the matter of further funds for the Nature Conservancy Council, which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, went into in some detail. The NCC, as he made clear, is short of staff; and, indeeed, it has had to employ expensive contract staff over the last few months in order to supplement numbers. There is no real saving in the ceiling which is at the moment applying to the staff which the NCC can employ. The additional work which they are being given by this Act and by this code of practice will mean a hump of visits to 13,000 owners and occupiers over the next year or so. Then, after that, there is a grey area over the next few years when they start to receive responses to the notifications of changes on SSSIs.
The only people qualified to deal with these are the land agents, of whom there are about a dozen at the moment, which figure is already under strength. The NCC estimate that they will need double the number of land agents within two years. There will probably be four or five times the present number of management agreements which need to be drawn up and, as a result of all this, if we keep to the staff who are at present employed by the NCC it is quite clear that a growing number will be tied to desk work because there will be so much of it to be done. There will be a shortage of officers out in the field—which is a thing that none of us would like to see.
These are matters which are very disturbing and worrying to everyone on both sides of the House and in all the various camps connected with the countryside who want to see this Bill work and, particularly, to those who want to see it work by voluntary means. To those of us who have been dubious as to whether it ever would work by voluntary means it unfortunately fulfils our worst fears.
There is a basic flaw in this Bill and it is a flaw which is not in any way cured by this present code of practice. The fact remains that greed is a vice from which we all suffer to some extent. There is no gift of God which means that living a life in the open air, living a useful life and being a farmer ensures that you cannot suffer from that kind of greed. It is not farmers alone, it is all of us who have to be restrained from the danger that we can do to the environment that surrounds us.
But that environment is being damaged, and it is 337 being damaged because we have not got the enforcement that is needed to make certain that what Parliament wants and what the great majority of people in this country want is enforced. I think that at the moment it is clear that we are not in a situation on which we can change. We are lumbered with this Bill and we are lumbered with this code of practice. But there are things that the Government can do. They can enforce the Bill as we have it; they can produce the resources and, having really willed this particular end, they must, it seems to me, furnish this particular means. I hope that this afternoon they will say that they can do so.
§ 3.53 p.m.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, I would like to express my welcome for this code of practice, but for reasons very different from either of the two previous speakers. I would like, nevertheless, to share with them my admiration for the thoroughness and the painstaking way in which the departments involved and the voluntary bodies consulted have co-operated together to produce this code, and I would like to thank my noble friend for his comprehensive yet succinct explanation of it. I welcome it for two limited reasons. First, because it corrects the absurd defect in the 1949 legislation, for which Parliament must take the blame, of not requiring the Nature Conservancy Council to notify anybody other than the local planning authorities of their designation; and it rectifies the mistake which the NCC have compounded and continued ever since of not having the sense to see that if designated SSSIs were not notified to the land owners and occupiers of the land they can hardly expect the system to work. Both those defects are rectified in this legislation and, to that extent, it is a step forward.
I must say I was intrigued by the strenuous efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, to try and sustain, to continue or even to intensify the party political differences which he apprehends in this area. I believe he will be totally unsuccessful in that, for reasons which I will come to in a moment. But underlying those reasons is my hope that nothing like Section 29 will be used except on the rarest occasions, because what matters much more than this or any other legislation, and more than any other code—this code or the subsequent codes coming along on financial guidelines—is a voluntary approach, a commonsense approach through personal and local dialogue over the issues that are involved. I base my hope on this approach on the success that this approach is having and has had over the past two years or 18 months in the national parks where one might expect the conflict between access and conservation, on the one hand, and agriculture, on the other, to be at its most intense, and in the area of the administration of capital grants where the incentives to farmers to improve their land and engage in potentially damaging activities is at its strongest.
This system for the administration of capital grants in the national parks and the SSSIs is a system which was introduced before the Wildlife and Countryside Act and it is also the system which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, did his best to urge your Lordships to resist and to throw out. I quote now from the Annual Report of the Peak National Park as to the way this is 338 all working. Last week, when we were discussing the integrated development plan in the Highlands I quoted Dartmoor. The report reads:The end of the year marked 18 months of dealing with notifications of proposals for which farm grant will be claimed from the Ministry of Agriculture. During the year [the year of the report) about one third of the notification proposals"—and there were 534 in all—were modified by agreement"—not by management agreement but by verbal agreement—with the farmers to meet National Park interests".That is what has been known as an ADAS tea party—just ordinary, verbal, local, personal discussions.One of the most significant agreements was with a farmer whose original proposal was to fence across the middle of a moorland block to separate his flock from his neighbour's. The fence would have enabled him to increase his stocking to the probable detriment of a site of special scientific interest. Following long negotiations with the farmer, his landlord and the neighbouring farmer, it was agreed to complete a stock-proof boundary around the entire moorland block. Within this boundary both farmers would limit their stocking to an agreed level, consistent with maintaining the diverse and rich moorland flora. A small area of largely abandoned old inbye land would he improved allowing the farmer to keep the same number of animals as he had originally proposed, but managed in a different way.The events of the past year show how well co-operation with agriculture can work. Where necessary, most farm grant notifications were modified by agreement to meet National Park interests. No proposal has so far gone the full course of objection to the Minister of Agriculture."—that is with 18 months' experience, 534 proposals in the current year—Of the three objections raised in the 18 months since the new procedures came into effect, two were withdrawn by the farmer pending further discussions, while the third is currently with Ministry staff who are attempting to find a solution acceptable to all concerned.All that is before this legislation has come into force in the light of the farm grants administration system introduced for the national parks. Now we have this code of guidance to back it up, and we also have coming into force at the same time Section 41 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
There are two paragraphs in this report indicating reasons for doubt as to whether this works. It then goes on:However, Section 41 also requires the Ministry of Agriculture to use their farm capital grant scheme to further, so far as is consistent with agriculture, the conservation of the countryside and the promotion of its enjoyment. This offers [yet] greater scope. The next step will be the introduction by the Government of a 'Code of Practice' for these compulsory agreements. Its contents will determine the extent to which the board's fears are realised.This is the stage that we are now in, my Lords.
The Ministry of Agriculture's new duty under Section 41 which comes into force following the introduction of these guidelines, is to advise on conservation and diversification. Those are two aspects which have to be borne in mind, side by side with the main purpose of agriculture, food production, and on which the Ministry of Agriculture has now new duties.
This is satisfactory so far as it goes, but we have to pay a lot of attention in Parliament—at least as much as we do to the starting of the NCC, and I would say more—to the degree to which the Ministry of Agriculture develops its capability to exercise this statutory duty. I believe more depends on that than depends on 339 the starting of the NCC, because the Ministry of Agriculture's new responsibilities cover the whole of conservation, not just nature conservation—landscape conservation and all sorts of other conservation, field monuments, and also diversification by farmers on their farms. At the present moment, the staff within ADAS for the discharge of this duty consists of six regional socio-economic advisers. There are only six officers who have a full-time responsibility in this field. It is true that there is the whole of the rest of ADAS, some of whom can and will exercise functions in this field.
My question to my noble friend is: What can he tell us at this stage about the Ministry's plans for developing this capability? It is not good enough to say: "Yes, ADAS will take this on hand. ADAS are doing it". They certainly are, but they have to do very much more, and one wants to have some idea at this stage of what more they have in mind in the way of organising themselves, girding up their loins, to get on with this matter.
I think that they need three things: they need some additional assistance, some more staff to concentrate on this field of activity. They need some more leverage—that is to say, other bodies and organisations through which to work—and they need to have a local framework in which to operate. One of the reasons why the administration of farm capital grants and its reconciliation of conservation has gone so well so far, is that most of it has happened in national parks where there is a national park authority with staff of its own, there is a national park plan with a conservation policy spelt out, and a satisfactory framework.
The staff of ADAS can use the agricultural colleges. If they do, that brings in a responsibility for the counties. They can use local planning areas and local planning staff to co-operate with them. That will bring in the districts. They can—and I hope that they will—use the county secretaries of the NFU and the CLA. I hope that noble Lords who will speak later will have something to say about that. They can and are using the farming press. It is now quite customary for farmers to refer to wildlife habitat where in the past they would have been talking about rough shooting.
It is possible to use the farming and wildlife advisory group. This is a voluntary organisation and there may be limits to the amount of weight that you can put on a body which does not have statutory foundations. Another alternative is to use the rural equivalent of local enterprise trusts, groupings of the private sector and the local authority, which are already being very successful in urban areas in promoting new jobs and generating fresh life into the local economy.
These are the questions which I should like my noble friend to deal with, perhaps in outline or summary, when he comes to wind up. They are the questions to which we must all be giving attention in the ensuing months. Meanwhile, I wish this admirable code, so far as it has something to contribute to this matter, every success when it is in force.
§ 4.6 p.m.
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, combined with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has raised all the 340 possible objections not so much to the code, as to the Act itself, so I shall not go through these again. I am concerned over one or two small points, but chiefly over the big ones. I think that we all share this concern. I think Rule 3 of the Prison Rules says that prison authorities shall turn their prisoners into better citizens as a result of prison. I have a feeling that paragraph 2 of the draft code, which is a very full and admirable paragraph, may end in the same disastrous way as Rule 3 of the Prison Rules has ended. It says:The conservation and proper management of SSSIs is vital to the maintenance of Britain's wildlife in all its forms"—it says "vital"—and owners, occupiers, Government Departments, statutory undertakers and others concerned are urged to co-operate by following the guidance contained in this code, in addition to complying with the legal obligations which it outlines.My Lords, one could not possibly ask for more. What is entirely absent is the machinery for monitoring this, for seeing that it is done. This point has been made repeatedly and I shall not make it again. If the code is to be operated as it is stated the Government intend it should be operated, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, was very grudging in his praise, because it will he a splendid result. The truth is that it is pretty clear that it is not going to be operated for a good long time.
If a responsible body, which is a quango of the most responsible kind, asks for £1,200,000 and is offered £600,000 and if, having cut its staff by 55, which is 10 per cent., it then has a further Rayner review, one only hopes that we shall not get recommendations of the kind that we had for the theatre museum which were rejected by everybody with any sense in this country. So one is left a little uncomfortable about the Government's real intention here. However, they have said everything for which anybody could ask in paragraph 2. I can assure the noble Earl that we shall hold him to that week by week as things go on. He will find himself apologising more and more often.
I am much less worried than some other colleagues about the voluntary principle. My own feeling is this. When I used to farm years ago, before many of the younger Members here were born, the National Agricultural Advisory Service—as ADAS was then known—was very much disliked by farmers and many farmers refused to have them on the farm, and the situation was very difficult. It is now perfectly all right; they are generally recognised as people who are there to help the farmers. It is very good, as the noble Earl has told us, that ADAS is going to be brought in closely with the NCC to help with monitoring and looking after the results of this Act.
A couple of small points. The NFU have asked—and I think that they are absolutely right—that not only should the notification, which is obligatory under this code, be made but also there should be personal visits. This, of course, depends on staff. However, this is probably as important a way of making sure something happens as any other, and if the Nature Conservancy Council have not enough staff to accompany their notifications by personal visits they are going to meet far more resistance than there is any reason for them to have.
The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, raised the question of Section 29, concerning a year's compulsory delay. We are a bit worried, because it has 341 been said that the Department of the Environment still holds the view that Section 29 orders should be used in only a small number of cases. I think Section 29 orders should be used in those cases where things are going wrong. One hopes that the number will be small but it is very important that there should not be a general ukase of this kind, saying, "You must be very careful about how you use it." We all know why that is—it costs a lot of money, and that is part of the old problem.
The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, mentioned the subject of the agricultural grant and the failure to obey an order. We say, as indeed I think most people concerned with this say, that in such a case the agricultural grant should be withdrawn. I should like to know what the noble Earl has to say about that, but I do not feel as gloomy as my quondam political and present social friend, the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, about the possibilities here. I think it can be made to work and I do not see why it should not go very well. Subject to the paragraph I have read out, which is in every way admirable, I think, we will do what we can to help the noble Lord enforce this.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I very much welcome this code and its encouragement of the voluntary approach, particularly in relation to landowners and farmers, as stated in paragraph 22 of the code. I have one question. My noble friend said that the Nature Conservancy Council is bound, under Section 32 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, to offer a management agreement when the agriculture grant is denied. My noble friend also confirmed that paragraph 17 of the code means that it is the intention of the Nature Conservancy Council to offer management agreements when the capital grants originate elsewhere, and particularly in the EEC. What I want to know is: What is the position of the National Park Authority? Will my noble friend encourage that authority to take a similar view to that of the Nature Conservancy Council?
There is also the vexed question of money. I hope and believe that the Government will do all in their power to make sufficient funds available for management agreements, but, as has been said before, I doubt whether enough can be made available to satisfy all demands for all sites of special scientific interest and particularly enough to satisfy—and here perhaps I tread on dangerous ground—the arch-conservationists. After all, the Government have to make a decision on priorities for spending their money. If it comes to a question between seagulls and old age pensioners, I have a feeling that most of us would come down on the side of the old age pensioner, although I am not quite so sure that some—and particularly perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Melchett—feel quite so strongly. So we come back to the hub of the matter that 90 per cent. of conservation must be done by voluntary help from farmers and landowners. Perhaps, in this context, my noble friend would say that he hopes that orders made under Section 29 will be few and far between, because I personally believe that the voluntary system will work perfectly satisfactorily in the very great majority of cases and the number of failures will be in direct proportion to the 342 financial state of the individual farmer concerned and also to the amount of stupid and, indeed, irrational criticism thrown at the industry by the irresponsible.
There will be mistakes; there have been mistakes; there always will be in any matter—I believe even the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, must have made a mistake at some time or other in his life—but the farming industry is determined to make the Act work through the voluntary approach.
The first essential to enable this to happen—this was brought out by my noble friend Lord Sandford—is that there must be these informal get-togethers or "tea parties" between the Nature Conservancy Council, ADAS and the farmers.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, must be so old as to remember when there was this criticism of NAAS, as I think it was then. As he probably tried to point out, he must be much older than I am, because, as he also pointed out, that certainly is not the case today. I cannot stress too much that the "clipboard approach", followed by statutory notices appearing on the farmer's desk is the worst possible thing that could happen. The best way, as I have said, is to get together informally so that this need never arise or arise only in very occasional circumstances. Therefore, I very much hope that we will have an absolute minimum of Section 29 orders.
Secondly, and almost as important, is a will and a determination on the part of not just farmers but all those who are engaged in the countryside to make sure that the Act will work. Nothing induces failure more than believing that it will fail, and I am sorry to say that this does seem to be the view of certain people and organisations (though I may have misinterpreted them) who have been trying to do this during the last year or two. Therefore, for the sake of our countryside, I ask that those who criticise would be occasionally a little more constructive. If they are as determined as we are in the farming industry to make the voluntary approach work, it will; and the nation will get reasonable conservation—even comparatively cheaply, dare I say. If the voluntary approach breaks down because of the incessant sniping by certain people and certain organisations—yes, even the media and even certain noble Lords—the result will be the expensive destruction of our countryside.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ Lord Middleton
My Lords, 18 months ago we debated at length Part II of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, and this is not the time to repeat the arguments. I am glad that this is the view of noble Lords today. Broadly speaking, however, as my noble friend Lord Stanley has just reminded us, owners and farmers agreed with the Government that cooperation rather than coercion would be more effective in achieving good conservation. After the enactment of the Bill the CLA was acutely aware that responsiblity for conservation lies, as it always has done, squarely on the shoulders of owners and occupiers. It has therefore addressed itself in the past year to informing its members and reminding them of their continuing responsibilities. My organisation was privileged to serve on the informal working party on this code of guidance and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Avon for his kind remarks about this 343 participation. We hope that, having been laid before Parliament, it will be a helpful contribution towards making the Act effective.
I welcome the intention of the Government to issue the code to owners and occupiers of SSSIs. The document, although perfectly clear to those who are familiar with Sections 28 to 32, is rather long and may not be in a form which is easily read; so the CLA have produced an advisory paper giving guidance to their members on the provisions of the Act. They are also preparing a short and simple document for wider distribution, giving the key points concerning SSSIs.
In addition to spreading the written word, I myself have taken every opportunity, in speaking to landowners, to remind them of their duty to make the Act work. I have visited some sites where difficulties have arisen or were envisaged. I know perfectly well, from these visits and from what I have heard, that there are a small number of cases which could be cited by opponents of the voluntary principle as evidence that it is failing.
It is quite like old times to hear the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, in such good voice. Only three weeks ago, he astonished the North of England by his performance in the role of the Macheath of the public highway network. Last Wednesday, he played Lammermuir, or, if it was not Lammermuir, it was some other uncultivable part of western Scotland, and today he returns in a part which he played with much ability 18 months ago. When it comes to the conservation of a special site, such as we are now discussing, I thought that the song he sang today was reasonable and helpful. It was agreeable to hear his constructive remarks, despite his disagreement about the basic principles of the Bill.
Noble Lords will remember that this disagreement was robustly expressed during the passage of the Bill, when he and the critics of voluntary conservation said that tampering with sites by farming and forestry operations was inevitable because the provisions in the Bill were not tough enough. They feared, too—and this has been reiterated today—that there would not be sufficient money to support the NCC and to finance management contracts. This criticism is being voiced over and over again in the press and through the medium of broadcasts and television programmes. The article on 17th October in the Sunday Times headed "Fiasco of the Wildlife Law" was typical. This kind of criticism is strident, it is unceasing and I believe it is also premature and defeatist.
I believe it is wrong to pass judgment on the Act before it has had a chance to prove itself, and I do so for the following reasons. First, for all that was said in last year's debate about the Act having no teeth, I believe that, if persuasion has not been successful, the escalating powers of the NCC to impose a conservation order and, in the last resort, to make a compulsory purchase order are sufficient. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, referred to destructive operations carried out during the three months' consultation period and I find myself in some sympathy with him about what he said. But let us not forget that Section 29 was brought into force only last month. If Section 29 could have been used—and here I do not seem to be on quite the same track as my noble friend Lord Stanley—as a deterrent against the odd instance of 344 what I might call pre-designation activity, which I think we agree is deplorable and against the spirit of the Act, then those who said that the section was not made effective soon enough may have been right.
Secondly, it is said with justification that none of the statutory powers to which I referred, and which are available to the NCC, can be used unless they have adequate financial support from Government. I am not aware that up to now the Secretary of State for the Environment has been asked for, and has refused, sufficient means to work the Act. It seems to me that a Government which set up an elaborate framework for voluntary conservation depending upon agreements and management contracts and which then refused to provide the finance to operate the system would be running into trouble. That, I do not believe is the intention of this Government. There is a widespread public concern about conservation which no politician can ignore.
Thirdly, I believe that the Nature Conservancy Council are becoming more aware that the new duties laid upon them by the Act demand a new expertise. I remember saying to your Lordships that you could lead a farmer in a sensible direction, but you could never push him anywhere, and the worst way to start to tell a farmer that his farming operations, and indeed his livelihood, possibly, may be restricted in the interests of conservation is to send the kind of daunting letter that I have seen. The NCC's duty to notify, which I remember demanding and which was embodied in the Act, must be performed sensibly. Where it is not, it seems that it is where the NCC's officers are under pressure. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, voiced his misgivings—and rightly—on this point.
Reference has been made this afternoon to NCC staff numbers. There are, I believe, no less than 535 on the NCC's staff and I sometimes wonder whether a reallocation to permit the employment of a few people who are used to talking to farmers, such as retired ADAS officers, might be worth considering. I welcome the code of guidance. As the document in front of us says on its front page, "Goodwill is necessary". Organisations such as the CLA will be untiring in ensuring the goodwill of farmers and owners. This is a good Act. It can work and it must be made to work. Its critics should give it a chance.
§ 4.26 p.m.
My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken. I, too, welcome the appearance of this Code of Guidance on SSSI's, with its detailed advice on ways in which the conservation of our natural heritage can be reconciled with the other legitimate interests of land ownership, management and good husbandry. I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Stanley regards me as an arch-conservationist. I do not think I really am one. But I certainly see no reason at all why there should be any fundamental clash between those who take a special interest in conservation and those who own or occupy SSSIs, with a little give and take on both sides.
Much has already been said in this Chamber and elsewhere about the new conservation responsibilities under the Act of owners and occupiers, agricultural departments and water authorities, and about the need 345 for adherence to the letter of the statutory provisions to be matched by an equal commitment to their spirit. This, surely, is what the code is all about. As we all know, the Act itself is far from perfect; of course it is. There are, naturally, loopholes and opportunities for exploitation by the unscrupulous and, unless this code is widely followed, I fear that more stringent controls on activities in SSSIs will surely need to be introduced. But I, for one, very much hope that that can be avoided and that the pessimists can be proved wrong.
My noble friend Lord Middleton said a word about the complexities of the code which we are discussing today, and which we shall no doubt pass, and I was very glad to hear that the CLA has already taken on the job of producing a simplified version of some of the more complicated parts of it. I strongly welcome that. My noble friend Lord Avon himself said that the code was not easy reading.
Some noble Lords already know that I am a member of the council of the NCC and, of course, the NCC bears the main brunt of the workload arising out of the new SSSI provisions in the Act. So I should like to draw the attention of the House to one very important area where the code is less than expansive. As the largest single landowner, the Government have the responsibility and the opportunity to set a good example in the way in which they manage their land. I welcome the fact that the Minister speaking in another place touched on this question and made some very helpful remarks about it. Nonetheless, I think that the code itself is less than forthright. For example, the absence from the code of a clear directive to public authorities on the conservation of SSSIs is disappointing and is surely an omission. And what is the reason for the lack of a positive response from the Forestry Commission to the NCC's extra-statutory commitment to the extension of the Sections 32 and 41 principles governing agricultural grants to forestry operations? This, I think, is disappointing, particularly when it is viewed in the light of the new and very constructive dimension to the relationship between the council's staff and those of the Ministry of Agriculture. That is something which I have noted and greatly welcomed.
May I say a brief word about something which has not been touched on; namely, what I might call the other side of the coin. Farmers who are prepared to forgo increased agricultural production in the national interest have certain advantages, of which very little has been said. That is what I mean by the other side of the coin. I am thinking of the capital transfer tax and capital gains tax concessions which are already available to the owners of land of high scientific, scenic or historic value. So far as scientifically important land is concerned, the main incentive at present is exemption from capital transfer tax on land notified by the Nature Conservancy Council as a site of special scientific interest or declared a national nature reserve, provided that certain management conditions are met. In addition, sales of such land to approved bodies such as the National Trust and the Nature Conservancy Council benefit from the capital gains tax concession. Land can be accepted in lieu of capital transfer tax, and maintenance funds created for the purpose of managing the land properly are now also exemptable.
346 Welcome as these incentives are, they do not go far enough. I think many noble Lords will agree with me. To date, only a very small number of owners of sites of special scientific interest have applied for capital transfer tax exemption. Perhaps many of them do not know about it. The more obviously attractive provisions for management agreements with the Nature Conservancy Council in the 1981 Act might well reduce the flow or stop it altogether.
The Nature Conservancy Council have recommended to the Treasury that improvements should include an increase in the capital gains tax concession—usually called the douceur—on land sales. This is only 10 per cent. at present, as opposed to 25 per cent. for works of art. They also recommend the expansion of the list of approved recipients of land to include the voluntary conservation bodies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the County Naturalists' Trusts. These are sensible suggestions which would be very inexpensive and very helpful. I do hope therefore that my noble friend will have a chance to comment on this, at least to the extent of saying that urgent thought is being given to it, and that, with luck, we may hear something about it in the next Budget.
Finally, I must, like everyone else who has spoken, say a word about the Nature Conservancy Council's resources. Here I express my own personal views. In seeing the Wildlife and Countryside Act through Parliament and accepting many of the changes proposed from all sides of the House, the Government have quite clearly demonstrated their absolute commitment to nature conservation. I recognise that. But the Act and the code together represent a commitment to the offer of funds to the Nature Conservancy Council which must be honoured if there is to be any hope for the future of a voluntary system based on the principles of co-operation and consent in the countryside.
These facts came out forcefully in another place—on all sides of the House and from almost everybody who spoke—when the code was being debated. The Government were criticised on all sides for their equivocal attitude towards the funding of the Nature Conservancy Council—as, indeed, they were in both Houses during the passage through Parliament of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. Not an extra penny piece has been made available to the Nature Conservancy Council to pay for staff shortages in the field, which are very serious indeed, or to cover the cost of management agreements into which we are hound by law to enter—beyond, that is, the £600,000 provided for in the Bill which is now an Act. This sum of £600,000 could take no account, of course, of the cost of all the extra duties imposed on the Nature Conservancy Council during the passage of the Bill through both Houses as a result of its amendment, yet the sum was not increased. This is very disappointing indeed and I think that it is already beginning to create quite serious problems for the Nature Conservancy Council, which is the subject of a great deal of criticism—some of it I think quite well justified.
I am glad none the less to note that in another place Mr. Neil Macfarlane stated that the Rayner exercise through which we are now going and to which I do not object in principle is not necessarily a cost-cutting exercise but would also review the Nature Conser 347 vancy Council's complement in the light of their present workload. It is surely just as important to find out whether the Nature Conservancy Council's present and anticipated resources match their statutory duties as to find out whether we can improve our efficiency and cut certain overheads.
So I say in conclusion that I hope my noble friend can give a positive assurance—a more positive one than he has been able to give yet—that the necessary funds will be made available to enable the Nature Conservancy Council to carry out their duties effectively and so avoid the present risk of destroying a national asset that can never he replaced.