HL Deb 25 October 1982 vol 435 cc349-54

Debate continued on the Motion.

4.43 p.m.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, if we have now finished with the Statement I will with the permission of your Lordships' House make my contribution for about three minutes to this very important little debate concerning sites of special scientific interest. I find it interesting that the National Farmers' Union, in the brief that it has sent out to many of us, states: The National Farmers' Union believes that the new system promises to be successful in protecting the nature conservation interests of the SSSIs whilst at the same time giving a fair deal to the farmers concerned. However, much will depend on the patience, goodwill and co-operation of all parties and the provision of adequate resources by Government. The approval of the code, the NFU says, is recommended. The noble Lords, Lord Middleton and Lord Chelwood, to whom the House owes quite a bit for the effort they have made and their assiduity in attending to the NCC meetings and helping to produce this code (and some of us are grateful to them for that) said that attention has been drawn to the need for the farming fraternity not merely to have peremptory notices by post but that they should be visited by people who are trained to understand the farming industry and even to understand landowners in some cases. We want to get rid of bureaucracy. There are no more telegrams, unfortunately, in rural Wales or rural Scotland and although intimation may be given by post, I believe this should be thought out in depth. Visits are necessary to create goodwill.

In the minute or so that is left I want to draw attention to paragraph 13 of the code on Section 28, which deals with the removal of SSSI status. It states: The NCC may decide that an SSSI or part of an SSSI, no longer merits that status because of a reduction in the scientific value of the land due to natural or other causes. In such cases the NCC will inform all owners and occupiers, the local planning authority, the Secretary of State and other relevant bodies that the land in question is no longer an SSSI and arrange for cancellation of the entry in the local land charges registry. That is an important caveat. We want to make sure that it is used fairly and squarely. We have not spoken about this, but the mining industry—it is open-castmining—and the new oil and gas pipelines going through Britain, Scotland and even Europe, could very well influence the application of this code and its practices to places of special scientific interest. I do not want to elaborate because this House understands very well. I could speak for 10 minutes on that one point, but having made the point, the House will see that there is a reality about this; when does the need for natural gas or the need for open-cast coal overwhelm the demand for places of special scientific interest? It is not an easy question to answer but it is a question about which the House could be alerted.

I will now sit down with just this tribute. I was fortunate enough to be brought up in different little mountainous parts of Wales. I want to pay tribute to the small landowner and small farmer who, over the years, by hedging, by ditching, and by cleaning streams which sing over the pebbles and the hills, have kept those places beautiful. It has created—particularly in parts of Wales, Scotland and the Pennines—places of beauty which have brought balance of payments money to this country. Much of the beauty of Britain today is due to the rough hands of the farmers of the past who have kept it beautiful.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

4.48 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, this has been a wide ranging debate on a document that will exercise a strong influence over the way in which the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act for the protection of habitats are implemented. I am grateful for the various kind remarks by noble Lords on my introduction. I believe I am right in concluding that so far as concerns the formal question of the approval of the draft Code of Guidance (while some noble Lords might have preferred to see something shorter or easier to understand, and I have already touched on the reasons for its complexity), I gather there is general agreement that the document should be approved. I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, did suggest that we have been "lumbered"with it, which I thought was, perhaps, less than generous. I also noted that Lord Middleton's organisationation has already produced a simpler guide, which may be of use to us all later.

In the course of the debate we have listened to a number of matters of concern to noble Lords about the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Cases have been mentioned in which despite these provisions, a site has been damaged—and concern has very rightly been voiced over these cases. I would like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that I agree absolutely there is absolutely no case at the moment for complacency. Indeed, it is a matter for great regret that some people, although acting within their legal rights, should refuse to extend the voluntary co-operation which underlies the provisions of the Act. Examples have been given, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and seen where, after the NCC has given notice of its intention to notify an SSSI, harmful work has been carried out on the land within the three-month period which must elapse before the formal notification can take place.

The code, as noble Lords will be aware, comes out firmly against such action, and I hope that its publication will help to stamp it out. Paragraph 7 of the code states that owners and occupiers should not carry out any specified operations during this period without consulting the NCC. Both the NFU and the CLA have pledged their support for the code and the voluntary principle and have a vested interest in seeing that the Act works, since they do not want even stricter controls. Both my noble friend Lord Stanley and the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, touched on this point.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, mentioned West Sedgemoor. Perhaps I may just say that although three farmers in West Sedgemoor have indeed damaged 40 to 50 acres, some 70 owners and occupiers are involved altogether in some 2,500 acres. While, of course, we much regret the damage, it is clear that the great majority of those concerned have voluntarily cooperated. In Wales, notice of over 20 new sites has been given and only in two cases has there been any trouble.

So far as grant is concerned, the only sanction an agriculture minister has is the right to refuse grant. The Minister of Agriculture has made it clear in the context of West Sedgemoor that if a claim is received for works carried out in this period he will carry out the agreed consultation procedure with the NCC and consult the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Agriculture Minister's decision will be based on the situation before the work was carried out. I agree that the sort of action of which we have given examples does need to be most vigorously discouraged, and I am sure that the Government can look to all responsible organisations to support the plea for voluntary restraint in such situations.

But we should not he too alarmed, nor conclude too readily that the Act is failing. The number of such cases is small and, what is more, very few cases of damage to existing SSSIs have been reported since the Act came into force. The NCC advised during the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill that in 1980 some 15 per cent. of all SSSIs—and that was several hundred sites—were damaged, although it amounted to only 0.7 per cent. of the total land area which was affected. While we have no comparable study for the past year, the number of cases reported has been no more than a handful. Maybe there are some which have not come to light, but there are many people on the lookout for damage to SSSIs, and unless I am much mistaken the position is already greatly improved. This is no doubt due in large measure to the greater awareness which already exists as a consequence of the Act; it will be further increased by the publication of the code. I do also know that a number of cases are being resolved satisfactorily at the local level.

A different kind of situation which has also caused anxiety is that in which after consideration by Ministers a conservation objection is not sustained. I do not believe that this is the time to discuss individual cases, but I want to make it clear that, in all cases where such an objection is raised by the NCC, my noble and honourable friends in the Department of the Environment and the Agriculture Department do consult together and give the fullest consideration to the Council's views. I will not undertake that the conservation case will invariably predominate over all other interests, since that would be to prejudge the ministerial consideration of the merits of individual cases; and it so happens that in two recent cases the objection has not been upheld. But there has already been one decision the other way, and there will surely be others; each case will be very carefully considered on its merits.

The question of finance for the NCC has also been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. I made some remarks on this subject in my opening speech. May I now repeat that my right honourable friends will consider carefully all available evidence and information and the best estimates that can be made of the likely scale of activity under the Wildlife and Countryside Act in reaching a decision on the financial allocation for the coming year, and in particular we will take note of the points that have been made in this connection in today's debate by the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, with his great knowledge of this particular matter. So far in this financial year, the NCC have not had to withdraw any objection to a damaging proposal on resource grounds. Although the NCC's funds for this financial year are now fully committed, this is, I am led to believe, a normal state of affairs, because it is by this time of year the only way in which the NCC can ensure that they spend the available monies. However, they are willing to consider further cases as they arise and if necessary to approach Ministers for funds. As my colleague Mr. Macfarlane said in another place, we are always willing to consider approaches from the NCC. This, of course, still holds. We shall look forward to the bid, which should be coming forward any moment now, for the next financial year from the Nature Conservancy Council.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, mentioned the Rayner Review. It is true that the original draft of the terms of reference would have required the scope of staff reduction to be considered. However, these terms were put to the NCC for consideration and were changed in the light of their comments. I must reject the imputation that although the Government agreed to make this change they intend to proceed as if they had not done so. The Rayner studies have, indeed, resulted in staff cuts where inefficiences and scope for economies have been found, but it is not right to assume in advance that this will be the case with the NCC. Not even the original terms of reference made that assumption.

May I say a word here on renotification? The NCC hope to complete the exercise as soon as possible after the start of the next field season, when the remaining surveys will be completed. The NCC had to strike a balance between immediate impersonal renotification, with the possibility of misconceptions and unnecessary anxiety, and full consultation with all owners and occupiers. To draw up meaningful lists of potentially damaging operations the NCC has had to take a personal contact in most cases. This, I know, will please the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek. This has proved to be a very time-consuming operation, and I am led to understand has no doubt taken a lot more work than the NCC originally envisaged. I am told that the NCC are slightly below complement in the assistant regional officer and land agent cadres. The problem cannot be resolved overnight, since most of the work arising out of the Act demands experience and knowledge of the sites. In making their bid for additional resources, the NCC will be taking into account a probable increase in workload, but the level of response to the SSSI notification exercise is still an unknown factor. I am sure that the current review of NCC staffing will suggest ways in which their problems may be eased.

My noble friend Lord Sandford talked about the role of ADAS. Over the past two years there has been a great commitment of ADAS resources on conservation and an increase in training in conservation matters. This has been reflected in the farming community by greatly increased requests for advice on habitat management and other conservation matters, including socio-economic advice. There is good liaison between ADAS and NCC officers on the ground, and ADAS plays a major role in the farming and wildlife advisory groups. The MAFF advisory literature increasingly includes conservation advice and some booklets are entirely devoted to this subject. Their wildlife and countryside conservation committee meets under ADAS chairmanship. The committee, which consists of representatives of Government departments and conservation bodies, meets about twice a year to discuss subjects of mutual interest.

My noble friend Lord Sandford mentioned the six socio-economic advisers. These are specialists in this type of advice on which a front line officer can fall. There are also other specialists in a variety of conservation, landscape and other matters who are responsible for training and for responding to requests for guidance. This advice is available not only to other Ministry officers but also to any local government or other body which seeks advice or guidance.

My noble friend Lord Stanley asked about the national park authorities. It is a condition of the farm capital grant schemes that a farmer in a national park must seek the agreement of the NPA before starting work. This applies whether or not the grant is sought under Section 29 of the Agriculture Act 1970 or Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act. The consultation procedure therefore applies to all capital grants. It is for the national park authority to decide whether it will apply Section 41(4) of the Wildlife arid Countryside Act to grants other than those sought under Section 29 of the Agriculture Act 1970. I am sure that if they listened to my noble friend they would be encouraged so to do. I should also like to say to my noble friend Lord Sandford that I will of course read with care his other comments and see that they are brought to the attention of the appropriate authorities.

A word on capital grants. It should be remembered that eligibility for a management agreement for an SSSI does not depend on a refusal of proposals which will be eligible for capital grant. As is made clear in paragraph 25 of the Code of Guidance, owners or occupiers may seek an agreement at any time. Most capital works eligible for grant have no implication for damage to SSSIs. Only about 4 per cent. of agricultural holdings have an SSSI on any part of the land.

I am advised that since October 1980, in the few cases where the NCC has had reservations about capital grant proposals, there has been a willingness by the farmers concerned to discuss the issues involved and as a rule, either to drop the proposals which could cause significant damage or to accept NCC suggestions for modifications of the agricultural works to avoid damage without recourse to management agreement. I hope, as do many other noble Lords, that this spirit of co-operation will continue.

There were some comments made about Section 29. I believe that the way forward on the use of Section 29 is being developed in consultation with the NCC in the light of recent discussions. It is likely to stress the fact that on very many SSSIs no threats will arise, but where they do they should normally be dealt with on a voluntarily agreed basis, and that consideration of the use of Section 29 will be a last resort. It is expected to avoid specifying any category of SSSI for which Section 29 will, or will not, he considered appropriate or giving any generalised commitment in advance of individual proposals from the NCC, which in each case will be considered on its merits.

My noble friend Lord Chelwood raised a point on taxes. I can assure him that my right honourable and learned friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is aware of the position. I believe that the Wildlife and Countryside Act is a good Act and that the protection of SSSIs is a fundamental part of that Act. I recommend this Code of Guidance to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.