§ 7.53 p.m.
§ The Earl of Onslow rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the workings of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, from both an environmental and an agricultural point of view, and whether they can see any further ways of improving the quality of the countryside.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, three years ago we had a full, detailed and interesting discussion on the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Since then the subject of conservation has never been far from the headlines. So, I took it upon myself to pose this Question to Her Majesty's Government.
§ Before compiling these remarks I talked to the Chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council, the Chairman of the Country Landowners' Association and the Chairman of the Countryside Commission; I have met senior officers in the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and conversed with national park officers from several national parks: I 1194 have talked to senior and regional members of the National Farmers' Union; I have talked to the RSPB, whose chairman is my noble friend Viscount Blakenham, and he is to make his maiden speech today. His father, who many of us knew, was a distinguished Minister of Agriculture in other times and my noble friend looked absolutely marvellous in Onslow livery as my father's page at the Coronation! Therefore, I look forward with especial pleasure to what he has to say.
§ What have emerged from these discussions are some criticisms of the workings of the Act, but also the possibility of future intra-conservationist squabbles which could be brought about by the difference of emphasis between the generalist and the specialist conservationist. Conservation is both very scientific and very precise and is also very subjective when it comes to judgments of landscape beauty and countryside matters. I will embroider this possibility with two illustrations. The first is the story of the Greystoke Tunnel on the Basingstoke Canal, of whose preservation society I am president. The society wishes to restore the tunnel—an 18th century one which collapsed in the 1930s. Excellent, one would think, hut, say the bat lovers, several species of bats have made this tunnel their dwelling place and if it is restored they will no longer have a home there.
§ The next example is illustrated by a painting of Bletchworth House which shows the North Surrey hills as treeless grazing down. If a farmer applied for a grant to remove the trees from Leith Hill and restore it to grazing down, every single conservationist—and I can promise you that there are very many of them in Surrey—would be up in arms; there would be an outcry. But there is also an outcry that grazing down is disappearing at the rate that it is. Those are snags that I foresee. The criticism over the Act's workings I will come to later.
§ The second of my impressions is much more satisfactory. It is that for the first time for a long time there is an enormous amount of agreement as to what needs doing and a general consensus on the problems that we all have to face. A sea change has come about in the attitude of the NFU. They have shown that change in the brief for the debate which they have sent to several of your Lordships. They have said that there must be a change from the end price agricultural support system to a country management system. That is a Damascene conversion; it is a change which could have a splendid effect on the countryside. I think it could produce a few more jobs in the countryside. After all, conservation is a labour intensive occupation and farming is a resource intensive occupation. It could result in the lowering of energy use in farming; it could produce less strain on the common agricultural policy and, consequently, less strain on the British budget contribution. Of course, it must be Community-wide.
§ These are immensely inmportant results. They follow through, in that MAFF must be persuaded to use the common agricultural policy and agricultural funds for the countryside and conservation as well as agriculture. It follow that the present row between agriculturalists and conservationists will be greatly reduced and the source of friction will be removed if this change of attitude comes about. Mr. Holbeche of 1195 the NFU said to me only the day before yesterday on the telephone that it was up to the industry and politicians to educate MAFF civil servants. MAFF is already using agricultural funds in the Peak District National Park to help a constructive programme of paying farmers to farm in a way that encourages flower-rich meadows surrounded by stone walls instead of paying them to increase the grazing and to remove the stone walls.
§ In passing, it is worth noting that the Cecils have not missed a trick in 400 years, and one could not expect them to pass up an opportunity to help themselves liberally to public funds which we, the public, in spite of warnings about the dottiness of the system, so generously proffer. I refer of course to the £20,000 a year being given to my honourable friend Lord Cranborne. I did tell him I was going to say this, and he did not seem to mind, so I am not going behind his back. All I can say, is that I wish I had such a singularly spectacular pheasant drive which could be subsidised so generously.
§ The danger of these large amounts of management payments seems to be that it increases the expectations of the small farmer and then raises his consequent disappointment. This is particularly noticeable in some of the SSSIs which are being formed in the Hebrides.
§ Through talks to both agricultural Ministers and DOE Ministers, together with reading Kenneth Carlisle's excellent CPC publication concerning the countryside, I think there is a move to pay people to do something rather than pay people not to do something which they really had no intention of doing in the first place, and above all to stop abuse of the system such as that by Fountain Forestry. Here again, I underline that they are doing nothing wrong because only three years ago we set up the system which encourages them so to do. They bought an SSSI with a complicated Scottish name which I cannot pronounce—and applied for a grant of £300,000 to plant it with acid rain-producing conifers. The NCC objected and now they want £20,000 for not having £300,000 to which they hoped they were entitled, thus leaving the SSSI in the state in which we all want it.
§ This is not a correct use of taxpayers' money. It is very nice for the shareholders of Fountain Farming and it is totally and utterly correct for the directors of Fountain Farming to have taken that attitude. There is no criticism of them.
§ Also forecast here and in another place was the three-month loophole in the Act which must now be closed. I believe that both the NFU and the CLA would back legislation so to do, as would the conservation bodies. During the three-month period, 11 SSSIs have either been damaged or destroyed following service of a notice under Section 28(2) of the Act. This loophole can be closed by amending Section 28(5) of the Act, the constraint on owners and occupiers to carry out specified instructions, to include reference to Section 28(2) (the prenotification consultation letter) as well as subsection (1)(b) (the formal notification). The effect would be to require owners and occupiers to give notice to the NCC of intended operations during the consultation period as well as after notification of the SSSI.1196
§ While a Section 29 order can be made to extend the period of consultation on a potentially damaging operation, called a PDO, the administrative procedures inevitably take time. If this is after the expiry of the statutory three-month period of notice of intention to carry out a PDO, there is no legal constraint on that operation. An additional "stop" power should be introduced to cover the, say, four-week period in which the Secretary of State could reasonably be expected to reach his decision on the order. Tealham and Tadham Moor would probably not have been damaged if the Act had read as I recommend.
§ One or two minor amendments' would be helpful. The period of notification allowed in Section 28(6)(c) should be extended from three months to a minimum of six months to give a more realistic time for discussion between the NCC and owners. The Section 29 timetable should commence from the date of the order and not the date of the original notice to carry out a PDO. This would require minor changes to Section 29(4)(a), Section 29(5)(c), Section 29(6)(a) and Section 29(6)(b).
§ Certain national parks, notably North Yorkshire, have refrained from objection to improvement out of financial nervousness. This financial nervousness extends to county councils. One shire county council chairman said to Mr. Derek Barber of the Countryside Commission, "I would love you to have more money but this morning I had to make several teachers redundant". Some farmers are saying that the bureaucracy is too complicated for them to accept management agreements so they go ahead and carry out the improvement without grant. While we are on grants, surely the headage payments should now make way for some other form of hill farmer support: large veterinary incomes are earned by keeping hordes of black faced sheep alive until counting day, when they can all drop down dead because they have had the subsidy.
§ MSC changes have seriously damaged the conservation programmes of Hereford and Worcester County Council. Section 25 of the Act imposes duties upon these county councils which are eminently suitable for MSC schemes, especially as Whitehall produces no funds for these duties to be carried out. Similar withdrawals have harmed the Glamorgan Heritage Coast project and also the coastal resources unit of the Polytechnic of Wales.
§ There is concern in the bird world about the different attitude to culling licences of the English and Scottish departments concerned. It is felt that the Scots are still showing the attitude of 19th century gamekeepers, as, I regret to say from the press report it appears, is the noble Lord, Lord Burton. Mergansers, goosanders and cormorants are still being shot in large numbers under licence. The RSPB is unaware if any research has shown serious damage to fish stocks by these birds.
§ When the noble Lord, Lord Rayner, reviewed the NCC he said that it was understaffed. Thus the notification system of SSSIs is far behindhand. Not surprisingly, as the NCC has only ten field agents, this causes delay in notification and delay in processing management agreements, and consequently an anti- 1197 NCC and conservation attitude among the farmers concerned because they say that incompetent bureaucrats are in charge of the scheme.
§ There is the anomaly that it is an offence to dig up certain plants unless one is a farmer. The classic example of this is the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust digging up a few sundews on a footpath. They were photographed committing an offence, and within the next few days, the owner not only destroyed the whole lot but was also eligible for grant so to do.
§ To conclude, I hope that we can move to a system of melding the countryside activities into one by proper financial signals which, in turn, will minimise the conflict between conservationist and farmer. Probably one will have to have an extension of the tree preservation order or building order system: after all, I cannot pull down my 17th century tithe barn without permission.
William Marshall said in the 18th century:
No spot on this island can he said to be in a state of nature. There is not a tree, perhaps not a bush, now standing upon the face of the countryside which is in an identical state to nature alone".
§ That quotation is the first in the United Kingdom pavilion at the Liverpool Garden Festival. We countrymen owe it to our fellow citizens not only to be farmers, but to be gardeners and gamekeepers as well. So, my Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.
§ 8.7 p.m.
My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for introducing this subject this evening, and particularly for the obviously detailed consultations that he has had with the relevant bodies and the detailed information and criticism which he has put before your Lordships this evening. In view of the long and detailed examination of the Act when it was a Bill before your Lordships' House, I think it is important that from time to time we should take an opportunity of this kind to review the working of the Act. My justification for intervening briefly in this debate this evening is that I am president of the Society of Sussex Downsmen. I am glad to see that my predecessor in that office, the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, is also proposing to speak in this debate this evening, from his much wider knowledge than mine. For that reason, I shall be anxious to hear what he has to say.
Understandably, the references that I shall make in my remarks are from, and pertaining to, the area of our country which I know best, though I believe that the points that I shall make arising from the Sussex area are not untypical of the rest of the country. A main purpose of the Society of Sussex Downsmen is to preserve the beauty of the Sussex Downs and to ensure that walkers and horseriders can continue to enjoy that beautiful countryside. In doing this, the society has over many years been concerned with just that range of problems with which the Wildlife and Countryside Act deals. For instance, the noble Earl has been referring to the compensation payments to farmers who forgo development. We recall that that particular section of the Act was most controversial in your Lordships' House. Some years before the passing of the Act our society was concerned, in one instance that 1198 I recall, with the preservation of a threatened area of fine landscape. But it came up against the problem of the cost of the compensation which would be involved.
I refer to the particular society to which I belong, but many other organisations are deeply concerned about the need to preserve the South Downs. For instance, I have recently received correspondence from the Sussex Federation of Women's Institutes, which has expressed deep worries about some examples of recent intrusions of commercial industrialisation into that area of outstanding natural beauty. All this means that constant vigilance on the part of such volunteer organisations is necessary to avoid encroachment into the downland by, perhaps, motorways, housing estates, industrial development and unsuitable farming activities.
During the course of the last two years or so, we have had to deal with two major threats of particular concern to us. The first was the threat of drilling for oil. Application for permission to do so was being considered. I recall that we had a very useful debate on that subject which was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. I do not propose to go over that same ground again. The other threat to our downland was a proposed Brighton by-pass which threatened huge stretches of beautiful downland country. We were one of the leading organisations in protesting against that proposal.
I realise that some of the problems that I have been referring to lie outside the strict provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, but since the Unstarred Question of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, goes broader than the particular working of the Act and he asks the Government about their broader intentions. I suggest that the two incursions to which I have referred are subjects worthy of consideration in this evening's discussion.
In both those cases, battles have been fought by mobilising public opinion and making representations—very detailed and extensive representations—to the appropriate authority. Although in both cases the protesters have, unfortunately, failed in their major objectives, it is worth noting that their protests have had some minor, but useful, effects on the ultimate decisions. In the case of oil drilling, for instance, conditions have been laid down which, it is hoped, will constrain the developers from causing undue damage to the environment. In the case of the by-pass, though no major changes in the plan have been achieved, some of our members were very diligent in ensuring that the plans enabled, or will enable, pedestrians to have access to the downlands behind the by-pass. But for their action of this kind, whole districts north of Brighton would have been prevented from having access to the downland.
My Lords, I make these points simply to show that vigilance and protests can have minor, though worthwhile, results even when the major decisions are of an adverse kind. This vigilance in our society is exercised by a team of district officers. Their annual reports make most interesting reading for those who, like me, love the Sussex Downs.
Two points emerge from a perusal of their annual reports. The first is that there are many problems which can be tackled not in a negative, protesting way, 1199 but in a positive, collaborative way. They can be solved, and are solved, after consultation and collaboration between the downsmen and local authorities, the landowners, farmers and other developers. This I think is worth hearing in mind because sometimes the issues of conservation become unduly emotional and develop into matters of confrontation between farmers and conservationists whereas, very often, it is a question of balancing conflicting considerations and seeking by consultation to reach a solution satisfactory to both sides of the argument. We have proved in a number of cases that that is a possibility.
The second problem that is revealed by the work of our district officers concerns the maintenance of rights of way, which is a matter with which the Act is very much concerned. It is our society's experience that in the area of the South Downs there is a very considerable backlog of problems concerning footpaths and bridle paths which need official investigation and action. What is holding up things in clearing the backlog is not any lack of interest or will on the part of the local authorities whose responsibility it is, but rather the fact that they do not have sufficient staff to cope with the problem. I believe it is true—and, if it is not, I hope that the Minister who will reply will explain the situation—that the Department of the Environment has issued a circular to the local authorities insisting that no extra staff should be taken on for this purpose. If that is so, then I think it is much to be deplored in the light of the backlog in this matter.
It is because of my concern for the maintenance of rights of way that I have a great deal of sympathy with Mr. Tony Baldry, the Member of Parliament for Banbury, and my honourable friend Mr. Andrew Bennet, who are both seeking to promote in another place Bills providing for greater access to the countryside. Mr. Baldry makes the case that there is a confusing number of authorities concerned with footpaths and that the Wildlife and Countryside Act places a variety of duties on individual landowners and upon the various tiers of local authority. He suggests—and I think that it is a sensible suggestion—that there should be a consolidation of the relevant legislation and a simplification of the procedures and responsibilities. It is only a Ten-Minute-Rule Bill that he is proposing and we know that the likelihood of success with a Ten-Minute-Rule Bill is minimal, indeed. But if, through consistent action, he, Mr. Bennet, or any others (or, indeed, the Government, if they propose to take an initiative in this matter) were to succeed in bringing about such proposals, then, as I see it, many of the problems about which our vigilant downsmen in Sussex are constantly worried would find a much readier solution—and, indeed, would not arise at all.
The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, towards the end of his speech raised the question of sites of special scientific interest, and I should like to say a few words about that before I sit down. I heard not long ago that the number of occupiers of land involved in such SSSIs was 30,000. Each one of them has to have a formal document calling his or her attention to the situation. I am told that in two years it has been possible to issue the appropriate document to only 10 per cent. of those occupiers. This must surely mean that it will take years 1200 before that particular part of the Act can be properly implemented.
The reason for that backlog is the same as the one I instanced in relation to footpaths, which is that there is a limit on the staff available for carrying out this work. So when the Minister comes to comment, as I hope he will, on the last phrase of the Question of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, namely that which asks whether the Government have in mind,any further ways of improving the quality of the countryside".I hope we shall hear not only about new proposals, if indeed there are any, but about new resources which it seems to me are necessary in order to implement what has already been agreed under existing proposals contained in legislation which Parliament has already approved and is on the statute book. I hope we shall hear of new resources for preserving Britain's countryside.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Viscount Blakenham
My Lords, in keeping with the traditions of this House. I ask for your Lordships' indulgence as this is the first time I have had the honour of addressing your Lordships. What I am going to say is intended to give support and encouragement to those involved in the difficult task of coping with the different pressures brought to bear on our countryside.
May I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Onslow for his reference to my father who, in this and another House, was fully exposed to these types of pressures, understood them and worked wholeheartedly and resolutely to resolve them. My noble friend also mentioned my connection with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I have another non-financial interest in conservation as president of the Sussex Trust for Nature Conservation, and should declare a financial interest in agriculture in that I am fortunate enough to farm in Suffolk, a county which has seen its fair share of the debate on the difficulties of integrating modern farming methods with the needs of wildlife and conservation.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was a major step forward. It provided immediate protection for individually threatened species of flora and fauna and promised long-term protection for sites of special scientific interest, the key wildlife habitats. It did so against a background of voluntary co-operation and reasonableness of spirit, and all the principal interests pledged their best efforts to make it work. However, a number of problems have arisen in the implementation of the Act. The first is that it is taking far longer than anyone envisaged for the Nature Conservancy Council, whose task it is, to renotify existing special sites and notify potential new sites. This has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Oram.
At the moment, only about a quarter of these sites are protected under the Act and the job of notification and renotification will not be completed until the end of 1986 at the earliest. Meanwhile, damage to a number of these sites is occurring. To how many is not clear, and I believe that the NCC should be encouraged to publish a list of this damage on a regular basis, so that any future debate can take place against an informed background.
1201 The second problem is that Section 28 of the Act allows for three months' consultation before a site can be notified. Whatever the good intentions of the NFU or the CLA, they can have no direct control over the actions of individual members. Some owners or occupiers are taking advantage of this period of grace to undertake damaging operations before they are legally bound by the Act. So far, the RSPB knows 12 sites where damage has occurred in this way and there are others under investigation.
A third problem is that when sites have been duly notified, potentially damaging operations are sometimes being undertaken without informing the NCC, as required by law. The NCC now knows of 17 such cases. A fourth problem is the potentially large amounts of regular compensation that will have to be paid out of public funds if the Act is to work as it stands without planning controls. It was always known that this would be costly, but the sums involved in a few years' time are likely to be very large indeed, particularly if the Ministry of Agriculture continues to provide incentives to "improve" marginal land and wildlife habitats.
So these appear to be the main problems. What are the solutions? First, the solution to the slow speed of notification is to make additional manpower available to the NCC as the noble Lord, Lord Rayner, has recommended. There was a moment, not so long ago, when the NCC said that it could not handle more staff, but its administration has been strengthened and this is no longer the case.
The solution to the second problem is to close the three-month loophole, when damage can occur while consultation is taking place. A Bill to this effect has been introduced in another place and should be supported as a matter of urgency. In addition, I believe that Section 29 of the Act, which gives the Secretary of State the power to impose an immediate stop order on damaging operations, should he broadened to allow the NCC temporary stop order powers of their own; for at the moment it is taking the NCC two to three weeks to prepare their case and by the time the Secretary of State grants the stop order, the damaging operation may already have been completed.
The solution to the third problem of deliberately flouting the law is to increase the comparatively low level of fines involved and to provide for different levels of fine according to the size and importance of the area affected.
The fourth problem, the question of compensation, is altogether more difficult. For reasons too long to go into now, the financial guidelines have, I am sure, to be reviewed, and further thought should be given to part grant aiding voluntary bodies to acquire and subsequently manage positively some of the important wildlife sites, rather than permanently pay out large slices in compensation to farmers for not doing something. This is not only more positive but can actually be more cost-effective.
I would give as an example the fact that on West Sedgemore over a period of years the RSPB has spent nearly £1 million on acquiring 700 acres which leaves 1,800 acres of the SSSI still outstanding over which the NCC are going to attempt to reach management agreements. If they are successful it will cost them 1202 anything between £150,000 and £200,000 a year to reach these management agreements. They might be better off giving a substantial sum to the RSPB to help them buy more of the sites and then the cost would no longer be a continuing one.
But, perhaps more important than that, I believe that on countryside matters some integration in terms of both responsibility and budget should take place between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment. I think it is only in this way that a shift from a surplus of foodstuffs to sensible conservation measures should take place without additional cost to the taxpayer, and I would ask Her Majesty's Government to examine the mechanisms by which this may be achieved.
Finally, now that the problems of wildlife and conservation are much more fully understood by the farming community, I think that a considerable responsibility lies with the many conservation bodies to avoid the use of emotive language and to ensure that they are seeking co-operation rather than confrontation. If this can be achieved and the improvements I have mentioned made, then I believe that in due course we may all be pleasantly surprised.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Lord Walston
My Lords, although I cannot claim to have had the father of the noble Viscount as a close friend, I was acquainted with him and had a great respect and admiration for him. I am quite certain that he would have been indeed proud to have listened to the noble Viscount make his maiden speech this evening. It is rare indeed to find somebody who has such a close knowledge of the subject of which he is speaking, who has the ability to marshall his thoughts in such an orderly and concise manner, and, on top of that, is able to express those thoughts in the manner displayed by the noble Viscount. We are very fortunate to have him with us, and I hope that we shall hear him frequently. I should like to think that some at least of his qualities stem from his Suffolk agricultural background—or even his foreground!
My Lords, conservation is a difficult, complicated and emotional subject. There are so many aspects to it. There are, of course, the aesthetic aspects of conservation, which are probably what affect most people. They want to see the countryside as they have known it and as they have loved it; and this is entirely a subjective matter which, as in the case of architecture, can give rise to many arguments and differences of opinion. Then you have the scientific aspect of it, and you find those who wish to preserve the habitat of certain rare species of flora and fauna, unnoticed by the great majority of people and unknown to very many people, but still of enormous significance and importance in our national heritage.
Thirdly, you have the historic aspect of it: the canal tunnels, for example, to which the noble Earl has referred, and various matters of that kind, such as ancient British remains and such matters. Those, too, must be preserved. Finally, and perhaps most difficult of all, you have the problem of' access to the countryside. It is most difficult because so often allowing access to the countryside in itself may destroy or damage those other things which the aesthetes, the historians and the scientists want preserved. So it is a 1203 highly complex problem, and I do not think we can criticise too much if we find that the Act which we are now discussing has not fulfilled all the hopes of those of us who are concerned in these matters.
How has it worked during the three years that it has been in existence? It certainly has many things to its credit. Above all, it has increased the consciousness of all people about the need for conservation in one form or another and about the threat that exists to many of the things about which we are concerned; and it has made not only the rural people conscious of this but has also increased the consciousness of the urban dwellers possibly even more. Particularly, it has made farmers far more conscious of what their duties are. It has helped in this gradual shift which is taking place, and to which the noble Earl has referred, from food production at all costs to another aspect of the duty of those who have the privilege of owning or occupying the land. It has made them conscious of it, and conscious not only of their duty on this but also of the cost of doing it.
Similarly, it has brought consciousness to the urban dwellers as well. It has made them realise that the countryside is not just something which happens, which is there for their enjoyment—and occasionally. I am afraid, for their vandalism—but something which has to be cherished and looked after, and, above all, which has to be paid for.
I think those are very great achievements by an Act in a relatively short space of time, and I myself have no regrets that it became an Act in the form that it did. But undoubtedly there have been abuses. How widespread those abuses are it is impossible to know. We read about them in the newspapers, and undoubtedly they have taken place; but it may be that if one were able to have a complete statistical analysis of these abuses—and possibly the Minister, in his reply, can give us some figures which it would be very valuable to have—we may find that in fact they are very small. Certainly, in that case we should not condemn the Act because of them, although we should seek to minimise and, if' possible, abolish altogether such abuses.
My own feeling is that it is ony right and proper that those who are going to enjoy the results of conservation should be prepared to pay for them. After all, there is not very much difference between conservation in the countryside, and the various matters to which I have referred, and the provision in the towns and cities of open spaces and of public parks. They are places for the enjoyment and recreation of those who live in the surrounding areas, or for the enjoyment of visitors who come from farther afield. Nobody would expect that a public park in a city should he provided free of charge. Somebody has to pay for it; somebody has to pay for the use of the land on which these public parks are situated, for the care of the gardens, for the cultivation of the flowers, for the absence of weeds and all the other things which lead to one's enjoyment when one goes into a public park.
That is a principle which I think should be applied equally to the countryside. Those who are going to enjoy these amenities should be prepared to pay for them; but that does not mean to say that they should pay more than the actual cost of providing those 1204 amenities. They should not be expected to pay for the theoretical and hypothetical profit which the owner of that land might have made had he done something different with it. I do not think it is right, and I do not think it is equitable or fair to the taxpayer at large, that a farmer or a landowner should come along and say: "Here we have some wetland, here we have some moorland, here we have some woodland. I was thinking of doing something with it which would have enabled me to earn a very large income from growing daffodil bulbs or any other form of profitable crop"—possibly some of the things that the noble Earl himself grows—"and, therefore, I am being denied a profit of £100 an acre, index-linked for the next 20 years, and you, the Government and the taxpayer, must pay me for it". That seems to me entirely wrong, just as it is entirely wrong for the owner of a listed building to say: "If I were able to pull this down, I could put up a tower block and have an enormous income from it. Therefore, for the privilege of maintaining this building you must pay me the profit I would have got had I put it to some other use".
Whether this Act as it is at present gives an absolute right to farmers and landowners to claim the loss of profit which they might have had, I do not know. If it does, I believe that that should be altered. But I also believe that the farmer or the landowner who owns land which is classified as an SSSI, a site of outstanding natural beauty or anything of that kind, should be compensated to a modest extent for the loss of its present-use value—not its potential-use value—and should also, if necessary, be paid for maintaining it in whatever form of cultivation the experts in this field think is right.
I know that in many cases the conservation societies, the local bodies, do their own maintenance with free volunteers, and that is a far better system if it can be done. But if, for some reason or other, they would prefer to have the farmer do it, then by all means enter into a managment agreement and pay him for the work that he does, but not for the potential profit that he might have earned.
That is my main criticism of the Act as it has operated over the past few years. The objective was right and the means that it adopted were, broadly speaking, right. It has been subject to some abuse, and we must look very carefully to see how great that abuse is and how great it is likely to be in the future. If it is more than a very insignificant amount, steps should be taken to right that particular wrong which has become apparent.
§ 8.43 p.m.
My Lords, I am very happy both be the first on this side of the House to have an opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lord Blakenham on a delightful speech and to have been able to hear him following with such a firm tread in his father's footsteps. I, too, have the happiest memories of his father, as do so many of us in both Houses. We certainly heard today a very well-informed and very well-delivered speech, and we lock forward to many others.
Perhaps I may also add that, by an odd fluke. I was at one time president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and was also at one time president 1205 of the Sussex Trust for Nature Conservation. I did none of the work, but took all of the credit, as presidents usually do. So I feel that I can speak for the members of both bodies—one very small, and one quite large—and say how very glad they will be that their president. and their chairman, in the case of the RSPB, has made such an excellent speech.
I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Onslow has asked this Question at this time. The timing was very good, because I feel that fresh winds are blowing. What I present this evening—and I shall be as brief as I possibly can—will be entirely, my own views though, as some noble Lords know, I happen to be a member of the Nature Conservancy Council, whose long-term strategy is to be launched on the 26th of this month.
When in the course of my few remarks I speak about nature conservancy, I am, of course, speaking of the whole countryside and not just of SSSIs or nature reserves. The area outside the reserves and the SSSIs is all too often ignored, and great damage can be done to it. There is a great deal of habitat loss. It has sometimes been exaggerated, but it is, I am convinced, very serious indeed. There is damage to the whole ecosystem and I see a high risk of unacceptable and irreversible damage occuring if nothing is done to stop it.
So far as the resources of the Nature Conservancy Council are concerned, or perhaps I should say of nature conservancy as a whole, I cannot help feeling that successive Governments have failed to provide sufficient resources. The Wildlife and Countryside Act placed costly added responsibilities on the shoulders of the NCC and other conservancy bodies. But today the NCC's duties are only roughly half matched by their resources and the annual cost, in terms of each person in the population, is rather less than one bottle of Coca-Cola. That is all we are able to spare for nature conservation as a whole in this country, which seems rather ridiculous.
I estimate that nature conservation as a whole needs another £10 million a year—and I have done my sums very carefully—for each of the next five years. That would exclude the cost of land purchase or compensation, which is likely to amount to just about the same annual sum of £10 million. But in that same period of five years, looking forward, agriculture is set to receive over £1,000 million in capital grants and, roundly, £500 million in headage payments.
If 6p or 7p in every pound that farmers can expect over the next five years were paid to them not to "improve" their land or farm it in ways that would damage its scientific value, the farmers would be perfectly happy. Not a penny extra would be needed in taxes and the Nature Conservancy Council, and indeed, all who care about our marvellous countryside —which practically everybody does—would applaud. What are we waiting for, and why are we waiting? I feel almost like asking your Lordships to burst into song and sing "Why are we waiting?" but I shall not.
I should now like to say a very few words about agriculture. The Minister of Agriculture appears to think that we are still living in a siege economy. Grants and subsidies to farmers are largely indisciminate. They cost the taxpayer a great deal of money and they distort the pattern of agriculture in a way which is very 1206 hard, if not impossible, to justify. It is not only the common agricultural policy which does that; it is our own pattern of support, too.
Yet over the years, under successive Governments, other industries—steel, coal, textiles, aircraft, railways, and so on—have all been under very careful scrutiny and have had to shape themselves accordingly. In spite of this great outpouring of grants and subsidies, a great many farmers are not a whit better off and are in the hands of the banks. So there must be something very wrong somewhere. It is time to question in a radical way all our assumptions about farming and all our assumptions about forestry.
I think, too, that it is time that there was a new White Paper about growing our own food. Over the last six months or so I have put down to the Government a series of Questions for Written Answer on the general subject of producing various commodities here at home, how much we import, and so on. I had a bit of a flea in my ear—a very polite flea, of course—in the replies that I had, because I kept on being told that Her Majesty's Government would continue to encourage the production of barley, wheat, and so on as long as it is "economic so to do." I had the same answer to practically every Question—which did not really answer the Question. I felt that I was almost being told to mind my own business, but I am sure I was not.
But barley and wheat are running out of our ears. We have to sell it at about half the world price to the Soviet Union, while at the same time millions, perhaps tens of millions, of Africans are starving because their Governments have no foreign currency; and even if they could purchase this grain, they have no means of transporting it when it gets there. So I ask again: Why are we waiting?
I said that I felt that fresh winds are blowing. I really do believe I am right in saying that. I believe that my Government will tackle and solve the urgent problems of habitat loss, to which I have referred, the Nature Conservancy Council's resources, and the resources of conservancy bodies as a whole, and that they will look with great care at the proper balance between agriculture and nature conservation and do their utmost to get the balance right. Nothing will be gained by waiting any longer, and a lot would be lost by doing so.
I want to refer to a much broader and complicated question which follows directly from the question that has been asked today by my noble friend. How much easier it would be to solve all these questions, upon which, in the longer term, the success or failure of the Nature Conservancy Council's strategy depends, in an entirely new structure at national and local level, in which land use and land management were never considered without full account being taken, as a matter of course, of their possible environmental and social impacts. How much easier it would be. How easy it is to say that without knowing precisely what the answers are. I appreciate that fact also. But it needs to be, said and it needs to be said a great deal.
If we were to do this, it would mean an end to the sectoral approach. This was the wise advice given in the world conservation strategy, which the Government welcomed. The advice was that economic, social, ecological and cultural questions are 1207 inseparable, interlocked and interdependent. But to approach the question of nature conservation in this way would mean adopting a completely new philosophy and completely new policies. It would mean a radical re-think of what many people regard as outdated policies. But we have a radical Conservative Government, rooted in the countryside. So I ask for the third time: Why are we waiting?
I make no apology for my serious criticisms of the failure of past governments to face up to these questions. The Nature Conservancy Council—here I speak for my chairman—applauds this Government for introducing the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, much the most far-reaching measure of nature conservation of all time. We value highly the good relations that we have with the Department of the Environment. Especially do we value our relations with my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, who will be replying to this debate, and with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr. William Waldegrave. We value equally highly the advice and help that we have from their senior advisers. But the job is only half finished. So I ask for the fourth time: Why are we waiting?
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ Lord Middleton
My Lords, because the happening on the North Yorkshire Moors to which my noble friend Lord Onslow referred was in my part of the world, I am unable to resist the temptation to begin my speech by referring to it. The story makes good copy. I was amused to see it in Kenneth Rose's column in the Sunday Telegraph, where he summarised this horror story.
I am not quite sure what lessons my noble friend would like us to draw from it. The lesson I draw from it is that when you hear a conservation horror story it is well worth looking into it to see what actually happened. Things are very seldom what they seem. Plants are, regrettably, destroyed under most forms of development, whether it be because of the building of a motorway or because of the building of new headquarters for Green Peace. It happens every year when farmers do their routine autumn ploughing. The plants that have grown up in the crop are turned in.
If a site which has got to be developed contains plants which, because of their rarity of their scientific value, should be preserved, the Nature Conservancy Council can intervene. In this case they did not do so because they judged that there was no great scientific value in this site. The developer went through all the procedures correctly. The National Parks Authority acted correctly. When they thought that some rather scrubby conifers required protection they offered a management agreement, which was accepted.
The National Parks Authority, after taking scientific advice from the NCC and from their own ecologists, presumably judged that the value to the community of a developed piece of moorland—in this case the development was to be grass for livestock and a caravan site—was greater than the value of the moorland as it stood. The local naturalists trust, of which I am a member, took a different view, though this view was not backed by the experts. They picked a plant in order to make a point. The only point, it 1208 seems to me, that they made was that Section 13 of the Act which we are discussing should be either altered or repealed. Section 13 says that you may pick flowers but that if you do so you can be prosecuted, because under that section it is an offence, but that if you do it as part of a lawful operation it is not an offence. As I remember it, that clause received the full approval of your Lordships when the Bill was discussed in 1981. I see absolutely no reason to alter it.
The outstanding effect of the passing of the 1981 Act has been the new climate of opinion which has arisen. I am very glad that my noble friends Lord Onslow and Lord Chelwood and the noble Lord, Lord Walston, have referred to it. Farmers were very quick, if they had not already done so, to take on board the message that most farming operations have a conservation aspect. As the Act came to be administered the NCC also came to understand that most conservation projects have a human aspect. Unless those two basic facts had been understood, the whole purpose of the Act would have been frustrated.
This brings me straight to the matter of cost. Those who criticised the Act said, even before it became effective, that the cost of operating the system could not be met by the Government; therefore the Act could never work. Subsequently it has been alleged that on occasions the NCC has been prevented from carrying out its function of protecting certain sites because funds would not be available. Neither of those things has happened. In no case, I believe, have the Government failed to produce the money that is needed for conservation. For a government to devise a whole system of protection that depended upon voluntary conservation by private individuals, backed up by management payments, and then to fail to produce the funds would be ludicrous—and not only ludicrous but politically foolish.
In Mr. Carlisle's pamphlet Conserving the Countryside—a Tory View, he says in the summary that the compensation offered for management agreements is excessive and that funds will run out. The latest figure we have been given, which was quoted in The Times agricultural correspondent's piece yesterday, is that since the Act has been in operation there has been paid out for the management of SSSIs, in capital sums, £1 million and in recurring payments about £ ¾ million. That is hardly excessive. I know that this is only a beginning. The process of making management agreements, as we have heard tonight, is slow and many sites have still to be notified and considered. My noble friend Lord Chelwood gave the figure of £10 million as the likely cost in five years' time. I have been told that it may well be realistic to suppose that in time the cost of management agreements will be running at about £12 million a year. Is that excessive?
As Mr. Carlisle points out in his pamphlet, this year it is expected that the Arts Council alone will receive over £100 million, and £12 million is about the size of the budget needed to keep the Royal Opera House going. Will NCC funds for conservation be allowed to run out? I doubt it, for the reasons I have given.
With my noble friend Lord Onslow, I think there is evidence that national park authorities may be inhibited from operating Section 42 of the Act. The 1209 cost of management agreements offered by national parks—except Exmoor, which is a special case—is funded as to 75 per cent. by the Government. There may be unwillingness on the part of the local authority to incur the other 25 per cent. It may make them reluctant to lodge an objection where there is a MAFF grant-aided project on which they are asked to make a comment or object as necessary. It has been suggested that the Government should consider funding of the Section 42 management agreements.
My noble friend Lord Onslow and the noble Lord, Lord Walston. have made much of the need to pay people for managing land when called upon to do so for conservation purposes, and of the undesirability of paying compensation to people for not doing things. I sympathise with them but I must confess that I find it difficult to make any practical recommendation. The whole philosophy behind the treatment of SSSIs is that the owner or occupier will be persuaded by the NCC, on the one hand, to undertake management of a positive kind that will maintain the land's conservation value; on the other hand, to refrain from embarking upon more intensive operations.
By way of encouragement, owners and occupiers were to be offered payment in line with the NCCs statement which was published on 10th August 1982. It was said that the Nature Conservancy Council was comitted to the principle:that owners and occupiers should not be unreasonably disadvantaged by any constraints resulting from the notification of their land as an SSSI.I do not believe that anybody could quarrel with that. The level of payment appropriate in agreements arising out of the Act are set out in the Government's financial guidelines—under which the NCC operates. If noble Lords are unhappy about the result of working under those guidelines, then no doubt the guidelines could be modified in the kind of way that has been suggested—but I am sure the general principles are sound.
My noble friend has spoken also about compensation. I remember very well that when I was presiding over the CLA one of my more agreeable duties was to visit our members and branches in Wales. When I asked how they were getting on and about what problems they had, they would reply, "We had a terrible winter, and have the sheep scab and SSSIs". I quote that not to indicate that our Welsh farmer members were less enlightened than their English colleagues, because very much the opposite is the case. What it illustrates is that restraints on production can be very keenly felt when one is operating on the margin.
It is also a reminder that in Wales one can have very large areas with SSSI status which can engulf numbers of complete farming units. The same type of pressure was felt by some of the small farmers on West Sedgemoor. These are the people who will be most affected by milk quotas, which in turn will affect levels of management payment. These are the people who will need all the encouragement they can be given if they are to restrict their farming for conservation reasons.
My noble friend Lord Onslow referred to the complicated procedures surrounding management 1210 agreements, but there must be safeguards against abuse. If one wants safeguards, then one must accept a fairly rigorus system of control. My noble friend referred also to the role of MAFF. I am sure that the wider role of MAFF as embodied in Sections 42 and 31 is fully accepted, but if it is the case that ADAS should he strengthened on the conservation side, then I would support that; but I thought they were functioning effectively.
It may be desirable to ask the Minister of Agriculture to consider the matter of notification and prior approval for a limited number of grant-aided schemes—certainly for schemes involving new land drainage. It is very difficult for the NCC to know what is going on, now that the existing power has been scrapped. On the subject of drainage, more attention probably needs to be paid to Section 48, which lays down the duties of water authorities with regard to nature conservation and the countryside. Too much is being heard about controversial drainage schemes affecting our diminishing wetlands.
Nothing I have so far mentioned could not be improved by administrative means. However, there are two specific areas where legislation is called for and to which reference has been made already tonight. I fully agree with my noble friend about the need to tighten up protection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest from the very small number of occupiers who knowingly and deliberately damage them during the notification process. That kind of action is wholly inexcusable.
It is a measure of the new climate of opinion that the severest condemnation of those offending farmers comes from their fellows. I remember very well sending out from the CLA during my presidency our own instructions to site owners, which included these words:It is crucial, if the spirit of the Act is to he honoured, that this consultation period should not be abused and that no listed operations he carried out during it".1 stumped around the country telling farmers that if they disregard this guidance they would be subject to tighter control. We have heard of the 11 sites, out of the 222 notified, that have been damaged or destroyed. Some of the damage has been serious and some less so—but any damage in these circumstances is unacceptable. I, too, support the new legislation of the kind embodied in Mr. Peter Hardy's one clause Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill.
Secondly, I follow my noble friend Lord Blakenham and others in believing that the gap that exists when a Section 29 order is being contemplated should be closed. I believe that there should be statutory backing for an extension period in that case; or, better still, a standstill order while the Section 29 order is being prepared. Experience has shown that these orders take time to formulate.
It is sad that these two legislative measures seem necessary, but while there remain a small minority of people who are oblivious of their duties towards the countryside we must have them. I would be interested to hear from my noble friend when he replies from the Front Bench what, if anything, the Government intend to do to improve this situation, which I think is serious.
1211 It is getting late, and there is enormous scope for discussion on a subject which I know is very dear to the heart of my noble friend Lord Onslow, so I confine myself to these few matters which seem to me to be most in need of attention. Perhaps I should add this proviso to my reference to the possible need for legislation. If the powers of the NCC are to be strengthened, measures will also have to be taken to make it possible on occasion to move aside the shield of infallibility under which NCC works in order to see what lies behind it. I am thinking of some kind of review procedure for particularly contentious cases.
We must be grateful to my noble friend for putting this Question, not least because it has provided, if I may say so, the occasion for an impressive maiden speech from my noble friend Lord Blakenham. I hope we shall hear a great deal more from him in the future.
§ 9.9 p.m.
§ Lord Gibson
My Lords, I should like, if I may, to add my voice to those already raised in congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, on a very fine maiden speech. I think the conventions of your Lordships' House prevent me from referring to him as my noble friend, which he certainly is. Perhaps I may call him my noble kinsman by marriage, which he also is. He is also a colleague. We have been together in business for many years, and I can tell your Lordships that the wisdom, experience and perspicacity which he brings to that he will bring also to your Lordships' House. I hope that his major responsibilities in business will not prevent him from addressing us frequently.
Like every other noble Lord, I am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for giving us this opportunity to review the working of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I think that what most people feel, and what I find as I go round the country—which I do quite a lot in my capacity as chairman of the National Trust—is that the Act, so far as it goes and in spite of its imperfections and inadequacies, has done a great deal to change the atmosphere, as so many noble Lords have said, and has been a great step forward. Everyone wants to give the voluntary principle on which the Act is based a chance to work. It still has some way to go; hut the voluntary principle is, of course, backed up by reserve powers. The Nature Conservancy Council can ask the Secretary of State to make a nature conservation order, and then the land can be compulsorily acquired. It is rather a complex business, but basically the Act relies a great deal on management agreements, voluntarily entered into and buttressed by these compensation payments.
The main concern is whether the resources are available to underwrite these agreements. Relatively few have been entered into because they take such a long time to process and because the NCC, as has been said, does not have the staff to process them faster. I am told—and noble Lords will correct me if I am wrong—that there are 536 such agreements in the pipeline but that there are only 12 land agents to negotiate them and only about 20 per cent. of those in the pipeline have come through. No doubt there are adequate resources to meet the cost of that 20 per 1212 cent., but if they had the staff to go faster—at a minimum desirable rate of progress—I dare say the funds would not be there to back up these agreements with the compensation payments necessary. Therefore, one wants to see the resources increased both in manpower and in money if this system is to work. If the resources are not available one must fall back on mere prevention.
I, for one, should like to see the Act given a chance to work, but it needs money to support it. Noble Lords referred to the projects on which we spend money. The noble Lord. Lord Middleton, mentioned the Arts Council, of which I used to be chairman. I am not going to say that I think the Arts Council get too much, but in relation to the needs of the countryside it is absurd that the NCC should be short of £10 million, if that is what it needs to do the job properly. When one considers how dear the countryside is to the hearts of millions of people who do not care about the arts at all, it does seem that we have our priorities strangely mixed up. But for heaven's sake do no let it be thought that I am suggesting that less money should go to the Arts Council—far from it.
The first point, I think, is that the spirit of the Act requires that these voluntary agreements be entered into. In the National Trust we are party to a number of them. I have every reason to think that they will work very well. We do not of course get any compensation. That would be quite wrong; we ought not to—in spite of the principle which, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, pointed out, has been adopted. I do not think that it is the fault of this Act that it has been adopted—the principle that you pay people for doing things that they never really intended to do, and that you pay them for loss of potential profit instead of actual profit. I agree with him that that is quite wrong. But I do not think that it is the fault of the Act.
My only other point is this. However much the nation should or can afford to pay for conservation, it ought to he seen as part of a single exercise. It seems to me that the care of the countryside, for what it can produce, for the pleasure that it gives and as a habitat for plants and wildlife, is all one exercise, because these things have to he kept in balance with one another. We ought not to separate, as we do administratively, the twin objectives of conservation and food production. It seems to me to follow that we ought to make one Ministry responsible for both objectives. I should have thought that it ought to be MAFF which dispensed such subsidies as may be necessary for food production and compensation for limiting food production in the interests of conservation.
All questions of balance in any undertaking have to be resolved by some one authority responsible for holding that balance. In my opinion, MAFF would do it very well. It is already recognised in statute that the Minister of Agriculture has some duties towards conservation. The 1968 Act enjoined him to exercise his functions with regard for natural beauty and the amenity of the countryside. The 1981 Act, which we have been discussing, says that if he is asked for a grant in respect of land in an SSSI or a national park, he must consider and further the conservation of flora, fauna and other features of interest before responding; and if the Nature Conservancy Council or the National Parks Authority object to a grant being 1213 made, he must consult with the Secretary of State for the Environment before making a grant. It is not clear who decides.
It seems to me that both in practical and psychological terms we should get better results by making the Minister of Agriculture decide whether to make a grant or whether instead to make a compensation payment for a management agreement. Of course MAFF will not be keen to take on that responsibility. It now has a straightforward job. It is an economic ministry. The people in the ministry are human, and they will not fancy having to perform a controversial balancing act such as that which I have suggested. Nevertheless, in this populous island, conservation is here to stay. To my mind, the logical consequence is an integrated approach to food production and conservation—I say integrated in the hands of MAFF, and I am sure that it would respond.
I have one last point which has not been mentioned this evening. The Question of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, refers to what else the Government have in mind for improving the amenities of the countryside. I forget the exact wording. There is one thing which to my mind does more harm to the countryside than almost anything else, and that is litter. We are becoming the dirtiest people in Europe under the influence of the packaging industry and of our own filthy habits. I do not think that one should always ask the Government to do everything, and I do not quite know what the Government can do about this, but I have absolutely no doubt that we should try to think of ways in which money can usefully be spent in educating people about litter and doing something in schools. I know that something is done already, but perhaps much more could he done. Perhaps something can be done by way of fines (fiendish fines, I would hope) and by way of rewards, if they can be thought of. I am afraid I have no sensible suggestions to make. But when we are talking about amenity, beauty, and so on, I do not think that we should forget that litter is nowadays disfiguring our countryside in a way that was absolutely unthought of 50 years ago. I hope that noble Lords may be able to come forward with suggestions as to how this awful situation can be improved.
§ 9.18 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, it seems more than three years ago since many of us were here trying to unscramble the numerous problems we were faced with during the course of the consideration of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. It was during the passage of that Bill that I had the honour of addressing your Lordships for the first time. I therefore have particular pleasure in welcoming the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, to the House and congratulating him on his maiden speech. I agree with everything that he said. I know that we very much look forward to hearing him in the future.
I should also like to thank my noble friend Lord Onslow for asking this very important Question. It is perhaps in some respects a little too early to be making accurate assessments as to how the Act is working, but I think it is fair to say that, unfortunately, there are 1214 obvious problems which I fear are unlikely to rectify themselves without a change in legislation.
I think that on the whole the Bill has been a major step forward in protecting the countryside and helping us better to understand and appreciate the countryside, as other noble Lords have said. I think it has also served to make landowners and farmers better realise the enormous interest and concern that the general public have for the countryside at large. But I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Walston, who said that these problems are complex; indeed they are. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and long may it be so. However, I believe that a great deal more should, and could, be done, not simply through legislation, but by a basic change in attitude, and financial direction, by the Government.
The voluntary approach must be seen to work through a responsible lead from Government, with controls where necessary. However, for this to be effective, I believe more information is required as to what is actually happening on the land itself through modern farming techniques—something about which I feel we do not know much. A far greater co-operation in this particular field is I think needed between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture—so often, I fear, seen pulling in opposite directions. Above all, we need to see a greater personal liaison between those government bodies responsible for the well-being of the countryside and the farmers themselves. There is no substitute at all for this personal contact.
Moving on to the Act itself, it did of course commendably strengthen the role of the Nature Conservancy Council, but the additional work load imposed upon that organisation, and in particular the notification process of the SSSIs, has simply not been matched, I fear, with the necessary increase in staff, as, indeed, other noble Lords have said. Apart from the notifications taking so long, the result is that the remainder of the countryside is being neglected. This position must be rectified.
Furthermore, the fact that sites are still being destroyed during the three-month consultation period demonstrates to me, and I know to other noble Lords, the need to strengthen Sections 28 and 29 of the Act and allow a statutory period of similar length to be imposed on all potential sites where no operation which would damage the area can take place. I think it is important to note that this will not impede in the long-term, the basic voluntary approach which we on this side of the House believe is so fundamental to the workings of the countryside.
However, I am bound to say that some of the lists of damaging operations which I have seen are what I might describe as somewhat imposing and not necessarily conducive to co-operation between the NCC and the farmers and landowners. In fact, they do not always seem to relate to the reasons for the original designation.
Moving on to Section 32, to which other noble Lords have referred, my own personal feeling is that the way it is being carried out at the moment is politically uacceptable. I know it is difficult to work out, as my noble friend Lord Middleton has said, a practical suggestion as to how these levels of 1215 compensation should be paid, but they cannot go on being paid to people for doing nothing or in respect of something which they may do in the future, with the use of public funds. I therefore ask Her Majesty's Government to look at this urgently and to come forward with a much more equitable solution.
Moving away from the Act itself, but still on the question of legislation I must confess that since I have had the privilege of sitting on the Yorkshire Dales national park committee I have become increasingly impressed by the system of prior notification of agricultural grants and the consultation process which follows. In certain circumstances I think it is fair to say that MAFF have perhaps been a little slow in overcoming the problem of retrospective grants. This is something which I think should be stopped as soon as possible. However. I believe that the system should be extended to the country as a whole. That is a view that I am sure will not be shared by certain noble Lords on this side of the House. I am thinking in particular of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, and I am interested in hearing what he has to say on that matter.
However, I have been told that the NFU would be in favour of this extension, though I do not know whether or not that is true. I hope it is, because I do not think it would impede sensible farmers in any way whatsoever, and it would bring to our attention more effectively those who are inclined to behave in what I shall describe as an irresponsible fashion.
I have mentioned my concern about the inability of the NCC to involve itself as effectively as it might in the countryside. This brings me to the second half, and in some respects, I believe, the more important part of my noble friend's Question, namely, whether the Government can see any further ways of improving the quality of the countryside. I believe that we are in real danger of having two distinct types of countryside. My noble friend Lord Chelwood referred to this. They are those areas of sufficient scientific importance to warrant SSSI status and the rest. Obviously, this is far too simplistic a view. There are endless examples of where caring landowners and farmers—the majority, in fact—are doing their level best to look after the countryside in a caring and sensible way while at the same time attempting to make a living—a point that is sometimes forgotten.
What is required above all else is necessary information and guidance to carry out these obligations in an effective manner. There is far too much going on agriculturally that we do not fully understand. I feel that more must he done to reconcile the needs of food production and the consequential damaging results on the countryside. Despite the vast increase in the use of chemicals, hardly any work appears to have been done on their effects on the natural environment. We know what they do for agriculture. But that is only half the story. The total reliance on them is frightening, although I suppose that it is fair to say that as we see changes in the common agricultural policy, we may well see a change in the input of this type of operation.
I should like to give an example of one very important project in which I am personally involved as a game conservancy. We have a project known as Cereals and Game Birds, totally funded by farmers. We are monitoring the effects of agro-chemical sprays 1216 on hedgerows. Blocks of unsprayed headlands six metres from the hedge are being compared to similar sprayed areas. The yield difference between the two areas has proved negligible as, obviously, the growth rate around the hedge tends to be greatly reduced. The weed build-up has been slow. This has been monitored. The results are encouraging. Related to the whole farm—the farm concerned is 2,200 acres—this represents 2 per cent. and an equivalent saving in chemicals of around £1,500 for the farm a year.
After one year, on the sprayed areas, there are five species of butterflies. On the unsprayed areas, there are 21. Partridge chick survival rate has increased by three times on the unsprayed area. It is fair to say that we expect increases in all forms of flora and fauna. Indeed, the British Trust for Ornithology will be monitoring the effect on song-birds. It is extremely optimistic that it will show the same results.
In addition, the scope for the protection of the cereal aphid predators, which of course live in the hedgerows, could be of immense importance in the consequential reduction in reliance on sprays. The production of food and the ecological effects can no longer be regarded in isolation. Research of this type is urgently required and a lead by Government is needed to give farmers and conservationists the right information. I sincerely hope to hear an assurance from my noble friend on the Front Bench that more is going to be done in this direction to serve the countryside as a whole.
In conjunction with this increased information which we require, as I have already said, the NCC must be encouraged to carry out in a more effective manner its role for the countryside at large. But on a budget of £ 1–5 million per annum, and a further £1–6 million for compensation and capital projects, et cetera, I do not believe that it is likely to succeed. We all know that money could be made available; indeed, we have had examples from noble Lords as to where it could come from. If I may, I should like to mention my particular baby: that is, that last year, on drainage grants alone, MAFF spent £35–1 million in England and Wales. Ten per cent. of that figure is greater than the combined figures available at the moment to the NCC. I think that speaks for itself.
We need more useful research, greater financial assistance to the NCC and also a greater encouragement by Government of management agreements, which again is something that has been mentioned by noble Lords. My experience is that many authorities are reluctant to proceed with management agreements because they have no confidence that money will be available. I say to them that there is only one way to find out, and that is to go ahead and do it. The onus is on the Government to come up with the necessary funds.
I should like to refer briefly to the uplands, which is the part of the world from which I come. I know much has been done in trying to prevent the erosion of many of the features in the countryside, but it is no good. Hay meadows, heather and dry stone walls are still disappearing, and in some cases they are disappearing at a very alarming rate. I was delighted to hear my noble friend Lord Onslow say that MAFF were actually giving money for protection of this sort in Derbyshire. All I can say is that I wish to goodness they 1217 would come to Yorkshire. I am afraid I can see no evidence that MAFF are advising farmers to take heed of conservation matters.
A point my noble friend Lord Middleton made was that things were improving as far as ADAS are concerned. I am sorry, but I cannot agree with him on this because I have seen no evidence at all that ADAS have strengthened their hold over conservation matters. How nice it would be if they could start giving farmers the sort of advice on agriculture and conservation combined for which I believe the Act was attempting to provide. In fact, I would go a stage further. I should like very much to see an ADAS officer attached to each national park authority in the hope of trying to bring together these two conflicting interests. It is a problem that certainly we have in our part of the country, and I know that others have it as well.
I should like to give your Lordships an example concerning MAFF. A tenant farmer of mine and I attempted to get through the Ministry of Agriculture a grant for the reduction of mollinia grass which was coming into an area. The aim behind our application was to try to get heather back—a good conservation move. Unfortunately, this did not work, for the simple reason that we could not demonstrate to MAFF that we were going to produce an increase in stock numbers. I think that sums up the big problem we have at the moment, particularly in the uplands. I would hope to see changes so that the conservation and the farming sides could come much closer together.
1218 I hope that we shall soon have the opportunity to debate the report of the Countryside Commission on the uplands. As my noble friend Lord Onslow has said, a great deal must be said on that subject, and we cannot go on relying exclusively on the hill livestock compensatory allowance system. There has to be a closer integration of the agricultural, social and environmental sides. But I do not believe that now is the time to debate that particular point.
Finally, the care of the countryside is largely a question of attitude, plus the necessary finance. I believe that even a modest switch in emphasis would go a very long way. I believe that, if we are to succeed, the Government's priorities will have to change and we must start thinking of the countryside as a whole and not just as isolated areas. It must not be neglected. The Act has gone far, of that there is no doubt, but in my opinion not far enough.
Noble Lords have referred to the excellent booklet written by Mr. Kenneth Carlisle, which somehow preempts everything that conservationists would like to say about the countryside. I should like to refer to the foreword, which is by William Waldegrave, the Under-Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment. It says:I am absolutely delighted to provide a foreword to this first-rate pamphlet. As usual there is a middle way, and Conservatives who are not johnny-come-latelies in their concern for and knowledge of the countryside in Britain are the only party in a position to find it".I hope to goodness that they do, and quickly.
§ 9.37 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, first, I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, that if we could pursuade the Government to encourage local authorities to place skips in advantageous places around the countryside, it would help the litter problem enormously. It has certainly helped in my village.
Perhaps I may suggest to my noble friend Lord Onslow that he rephrase his Question to read:Do Her Majesty's Government consider that all those involved in the countryside are actively encouraging and helping the 1981 Act to work?For it is not the Government who make legislation work; it is we in the sticks who make or break this operation, a point that was made by my noble friend Lord Onslow in a slightly different way. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will reply that there is absolutely nothing wrong, or very little wrong, with the 1981 Act and that the great majority of organisations —particularly the Ministry of Agriculture and the Countryside Commission—and farmers improve the quality of the countryside and actively support the 1981 Act.
Certainly, for a change, John Young in last Saturday's Times thought so and I was delighted to hear my noble friend Lord Blakenham, in an excellent maiden speech. plead for reasonableness between us all. However, I shall try not to he anodyne, and I shall suggest two areas that my noble friend on the Front Bench might care to look at with a view to further improvement. They are of course, first, farmers and, secondly, the Nature Conservancy Council.
All individuals make mistakes and because farming is so open to the public eye, our mistakes—my mistakes—are seen by all, and most of all by the farmer himself. However. I would ask your Lordships to look at the recorded mistakes which some noble Lords have already mentioned. According to my figures, there have been 22 reported cases of damage to sites of special scientific interest—abuses, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, called them. By no means all were damage by farmers; one, for instance, was by a golf club. But most important, 11 of those 22 cases were offences against the 1981 Act and prosecutions will no doubt, I hope, follow.
These figures prove the futility of those who want more legislation and planning. They demonstrate that we can make laws and regulations, but that it is the will of those who live under them that matters. Everyone knows, or should know, that the carrot is better than the stick. The 1981 Act, thank God, relies on the carrot.
However, as your Lordships know, and many have mentioned. there is a three-month loophole in the Act so far as sites of special scientific interest are concerned. Although the number of farmers exploiting this loophole has been very small. I should be happy. in common with my noble friend Lord Middleton, to see it closed, if possible. Perhaps again my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale would comment on this in his reply. So much for the farmers' sins.
During the passage of the 1981 Act whenever anyone got into a muddle, or had a problem, the cry 1220 went up, "Let the NCC deal with it". I therefore have much sympathy for the plight in which the NCC find themselves, and if I now utter some hard words I trust that your Lordships will take them as being constructive rather than destructive of the NCC and, in my noble friend Lord Onslow's words, aimed at minimising conflict between the farmers and the conservationists.
The NCC are not capable of doing the job they have been given. They have neither the quantity nor the quality of staff to do it. My reasons for such a statement are as follows, and not because I am suffering, as perhaps my noble friend Lord Middleton would suggest, from either sheep scab or sites of special scientific interest. Far from it; I believe I am less favoured.
The NCC officers come in contact with farmers, and not just those with sites of special scientific interest. It is important therefore for them to appreciate that their appearance on the farm, sometimes preceded by a horrific statutory notice, may cause suspicion, alarm and even hostility, and of course the fear of compulsory purchase. It may not be their intention to do so, but certainly that comes over. I think that when my noble friend Lord Middleton was joking about sheep scab and sites of special scientific interest, that is what my Welsh neighbour was more or less saying.
The NCC staff are usually young, with little local knowledge, and not trained, as ADAS men have been for many years, in getting farmers to co-operate. This attitude can cause a chain of non co-operation—a situation which can be further inflamed if the farmer finds that the NCC have not even bothered to read his case. I can give your Lordships examples of that.
I would reinforce these criticisms by asking your Lordships to look at the series of questions put to the Chief Scientist and his assistant by Sub-Committee 1 of your Lordships' House on 16th May this year, terminating with question 328, which asked whether there had been close co-operation between agricultural and conservation interests. The reply was:The relationships 10 years ago were not at all good. They have improved that and particularly at local level. There seem to be problems that, as it goes up the scale in the different levels, then the extent of the breakdown in communication tends to become greater.I think personally that that was quite an admission, though at least it was honest.
I would therefore ask my noble friend on the Front Bench to look at this problem and also to ascertain whether some members of the NCC really want the 1981 Act to work. I should like to see a statement that all members of the NCC, council and staff—and I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Chelwood is not here—are determined to make the voluntary approach, as epitomised in the 1981 Act, work. I have read encouraging articles by their chairman, but I have grave doubts about some of his council and staff.
I should also like to ask, what is the NCC's attitude to a changing agricultural and rural scene? It appears to me that they want to stop the environmental clock in 1984. Is this really so? Are they not interested in looking forward to a new and perhaps altered environment? I noted with great interest the remarks of the 1221 noble Lord, Lord Oram, about a forward-looking approach, and I hope that the NCC do too. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale can tell me whether my attitude or view is wrong over this, because, if my reservations on their present attitude are anywhere near correct, I am afraid I would ask my noble friend not to give the NCC a farthing more money until he can assure me that they have put their house in order—my noble friend Lord Blakenham assures me they have—despite the Rayner Report and pleas by other noble Lords.
It is my job, and that of those of us who live in the country, to make the 1981 Act work through the voluntary approach. Any other method is far too expensive and impractical, and I hope my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale can assure me that the Government and the NCC in particular have similar objectives.
§ 9.46 p.m.
§ Baroness White
My Lords. I should like to add my thanks to those already tendered to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for asking this Question, although frankly I wish it had been a Motion moved at three o'clock in the afternoon. It is quite clear from the gravamen of the speeches we have already heard that this is a matter of the most intense interest to a great many Members of the House, and, personally. I have already benefited very much from the very substantial contributions, not least that made by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, who I think has given us an extremely interesting insight into his own direct experience as a landowner, a farmer and a member of the Parks Authority. But it is too late tonight, with other speakers still to come, to go into too great detail.
I begin by saying how delighted I was that the noble Earl. Lord Onslow, quoted from the brilliant satirical article by Lord Bruce-Gardyne in The Times newspaper of 21st March. If any noble Lord has not had the pleasure of reading it. I suggest he goes to the library, perhaps tomorrow, and does so. I am only sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Gardyne, is not here to make an equally brilliant oral contribution to the debate tonight.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, who is replying to the debate tonight, may be relieved to hear that although I gave notice to his department earlier on I am not in fact going into the detail of the Halvergate Marshes, which are regarded by a large number of conservation bodies in this country, if not by the farming community, as the touchstone of whether or not this Act can be made to work. I understand that the noble Lord. Lord Renton, who is much better informed than I am on the matter, is going to do so, so I will not take up the time of the House in asking what exactly did happen in the other place this afternoon beyond just reminding your Lordships that as recently as 4th April the Minister. William Waldegrave—for whom I think we all have a very warm regard--stated in another place that he could assure Members that Halvergate was safe for a year. I am hoping that with the encouragement of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, the noble Lord the Minister will be able to tell us that that assurance is still valid.
1222 I was much entertained to hear about the sheep scab and the SSSIs' affliction in my native country. I suggest that one of the reasons why Welsh farmers have considered that they have had perhaps rather frequent visits from the Nature Conservancy Council in Wales is that I believe we have been much more rapid in Wales than in either England or Scotland in proceeding with notification, or particularly renotification, of sites of scientific interest. But I am now told that the officers of the NCC in Wales have been called to heel and told that they must adopt the more elaborate procedures which are now current in England and Scotland. If the Minister can enlighten me on that I should be grateful, because I understand that we have in Wales already been able to undertake about half of the notification procedures, which is a higher proportion than that quoted for either England or Scotland. I wonder whether it is necessary that in England and Scotland more elaborate procedures should be followed. If I can be enlightened on that, I shall be interested.
Nevertheless, of the sites where damage has been done either three or four are in Wales. The reason that I am dubious about the precise number is that I have details from the Nature Conservancy Council of four sites, but it says of one of them that consultation began on a 10½-hectare proposed site of special scientific interest. Before the consultation period was over three of the 10½-hectares had been ploughed up. This was the key part of the site and therefore the NCC has not proceeded to notify the remainder. In those circumstances, it may not even he a statistic.
There are other sites, not large in number I grant you, which have aroused public concern. For example. I have here details of one of the sites in Cardiganshire. In May this year—this was widely notified in the local press—the landowner had ploughed up 20 acres of water meadow, felled seven acres of trees, thereby destroying over 50 species of plants, some of them rare, and the breeding grounds of curlew's, lapwings and butterflies. I am afraid it did the image of the farming community in the eyes of conservationists no good at all.
Having said that, I should like to echo some of the positive things which were said particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and also by other noble Lords, about how we can make this kind of incident virtually impossible by tightening up a relatively small area of legislation—that is, the three months' gap. Most people observe this entirely honourably and conscientiously, but the publicity given to one conspicuous rogue farmer, if I may call him that (he may not have been, and all kinds of circumstances may have made him do it), for one serious and disturbing incident of this kind, may be blow's up by the press beyond justification; nevertheless it does great damage to relationships. If one felt that this gap was stopped and that people could not take advantage of the possible loophole, I think a great deal of good would be done. There is also the question of a shorter stop notice when application is being made to the Secretary of State, which can also be evaded by anybody who for one reason or another is determined to do it. Someone may have a grudge against being approached at all. There are all kinds of psychological 1223 as well as financial and commercial reasons for doing this kind of thing.
It would be more satisfactory altogether, if we mean the procedure to work, to make it as watertight as possible. I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, appeared to me to be in sympathy with that point of view. I hope very much that the Government will accept that this is a perfectly genuine situation where we believe that some relatively minor legislative action could make the situation sure beyond peradventure and avoid these very disturbing incidents which receive considerable publicity and spoil the atmosphere, probably to a much greater degree than the extent of the damage justifies.
I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, referred to the difficulties of drainage and prior notification. I gave notice to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that I intended to ask him some questions about this, arising out of a response which he made in your Lordships' House on 25th April last year, when we were debating the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on the water industry, which, among its various recommendations, referred specifically to Section 48 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
We received what appeared to be very satisfactory assurances at that time that the Government were proposing—in relation to land drainage, on the one hand, and to river corridors and proper surveys of the natural resources thereof—to develop a common approach to the carrying out of surveys and to agree funding arrangements and to arrange for coordination between the Natural Environment Research Council, the Nature Conservancy Council and the various water authorities concerned. My informants, who were engaged in these various bodies, tell me that, as far as they can make out, except for a small grant from the NCC, nothing has really happened. This may be incorrect; but, if something really substantial has happened, then I should be grateful if we might be publicly informed thereof.
The drainage situation is one which causes very considerable concern in various parts of the country. I normally refer to the Principality of Wales because that is the area with which I am personally most familiar, but I have friends in Oxfordshire, for example, who were telling me only a couple of days ago of the absolutely disastrous exercise by engineers on a tributary of the River Thames in North Oxfordshire which had utterly destroyed the angling interests in that area: because the engineers had come along, had virtually canalised part of the river, had straightened it all out, had smoothed the gradient, cut down trees, cleared the weeds—everything in order to get better flow, which was all that they were concerned about. My friends said to me: "There were no pools, no shade: there were no holds for the fish and angling had been ruined". The only comforting thing, they said, was that a similar proposition has recently been called in by the Thames Water Authority for further consideration because of the protests of local interests at the insensitive way in which some of the drainage operations are carried out. They are an engineers' dream and an anglers' nightmare.
1224 This leads me to ask the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, what has happened to the interdepartmental committee which has been sitting for an interminable time examining the internal drainage system? When may we receive the report? When is it going to be published? Is it going to be in the form of consultation? Can he please reassure us about some of these drainage operations which really are among the most damaging and insensitive from the environmental point of view. The water authorities, with the best will in the world, have only very limited control over what can be done by the land drainage authorities which are attached to them.
Finally—there are a great many other points that one could raise—I think that one must, in all of this, emphasise the problem of the inadequate number of staff available both at NCC and with ADAS to carry out adequately the propositions which were contained in the Act. I was very much interested to hear the noble Earl, Lord Peel, say that in his part of the world there are not enough ADAS staff—who most of us believe are the absolutely crucial intermediaries in all this; those of us who years ago gave evidence to the Strutt Committee, and so on, have always said that they are the people who work best with the farmers, who understand the farmers' problems and who, many of them, are already knowledgeable in environ-mental matters and, where not, they could well be further trained in that direction. I know that in Wales there are not enough to carry out the functions in the way that they themselves would wish to carry them out. I was interested to hear from a different part of the country that this also appears to be the case there.
I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, regarding what he said about some, at least, of the NCC officers. Again, many of them are relatively young people who have had good scientific training, good laboratory training, but they do not know how to talk in the sort of language which will persuade farmers that what they are trying to do is important to the farmers as well as to them. This is where ADAS, if only there are enough ADAS officers available, can usually be more successful working hand in glove with the NCC people who have perhaps more detailed scientific knowledge of what is required.
Those of us who are concerned with the Countryside Commission were very glad to learn that they at least have been allocated five new posts, two of which I think are to be devoted especially to work in national parks, but they have been given no extra money whatever for these five appointments. The money has to be taken from other activities in order to appoint five new members to their headquarters staff.
I will not weary the House at this late hour by proceeding further on this, but if the Government will the way, they really must will the means. This applies most of all, I think, in providing adequate staff resources to carry out the admirable intentions, particularly of the voluntary system which is the philosophy of the 1981 Act.
§ 10.1 p.m.
The Earl of Dundee
My Lords, I should like to begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord 1225 Blakenham on an excellent maiden speech in which he pointed out so succinctly some of the deficiencies of the 1981 Act and proposed solutions to them. My noble friend has a great deal of experience in business and in administration, and in countryside with wildlife committees. The House has therefore been fortunate to have his advice tonight and it is hoped that we shall be able to look forward to many future contributions from him on all matters.
I should also like to join with other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Onslow on introducing this debate. Clearly, a little time needs to pass before the effects of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 can be properly noted—and from the present date it is certainly fitting to attempt to look at these effects.
With any countryside legislation which is recent, it may, however, be cautioned that since different aspects of the land set their own pace, care should always be taken when subjecting them to the same time cycle for the purpose of analysis. While developments such as those in commercial timber can be clearly seen every five years, changes in certain geological features of course may well be noticeable only every 5,000 years. In regard to wildlife and conservation in general, the probable effects of certain plans and measures may often take many years to materialise.
But those measures contained in the 1981 Act are certainly of the type that can, and should, be checked fairly frequently. Although the workings and methods of the Act have been criticised on several grounds, its particular aims retain general approval. These aims were, first, to preserve and protect from damage the 4,000 sites of special scientific interest identified in the United Kingdom and, secondly, to align to the EEC directive concerned and to bring up to date legislation to protect birds, other animals, and plants.
The criticisms of the Act which have arisen have done so on practical grounds and as a result of its voluntary basis. It has been claimed that the procedure for renotification of sites is inefficient, since it takes a long time to carry out and may be disregarded without penalty by the owner. It is further claimed that the level of compensation to which an owner is entitled is too high and the principle of compensation itself even anomalous, since the owner may not have a genuine alternative use for the area of land where he has been compensated.
Following from this, it has also been alleged that the reputation of the countryside is suffering owing to an unfair advantage which is seen to have been given to land occupants as a result of the workings of the Act.
Allegations such as these are always difficult to prove, but I think there is a need in this case for their investigation, where possible, and hence also for the consideration of remedial action, where necessary.
In view of that, and when he comes to reply, I wonder whether my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale will indicate what plans the Government may have to reduce costs of administration and compensation and to increase protection for sites of special scientific interest, while maintaining the present voluntary basis of the scheme.
1226 Another area of investigation is the use of tax incentives to encourage the sale and hence also affect the management of SSSIs. In this regard I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister can say whether the Government consider that there is a case to improve the existing sales inducement by increasing the tax concession on sales beyond its present level of 10 per cent. Secondly, I wonder whether he can say whether the Government are considering extending this concession to sales agreed between an owner and the Nature Conservancy Council (to which cases it is currently limited) to those sales between an owner and other conservation bodies.
In spite of the present voluntary methods under the 1981 Act, it has also come up against a certain level of mistrust. In Scotland this is particularly so among crofters and other owners in the Highlands and Islands. However, on the credit side much good will has developed between owners and the NCC, and I have some knowledge of the work of its Scottish branch. Therefore I believe that quite a lot of credit should be given to the work of the very small staff of the NCC, as well as to other organisations, such as the forestry, farming and wildlife advisory groups whose voluntary work has recently contributed much useful advice to farmers on the subject of conservation.
But to look further from the protection of SSSIs, with which the 1981 Act deals, to the conservation needs of the rest of the countryside, there is of course a more comprehensive role which any new measures made now might well adopt. Under this heading I wonder whether my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale can indicate whether the Government are planning incentives to achieve better integrated land use by owners and occupiers and, if so, whether he would consider tax incentives related either to income or to capital, to be more effective in achieving this purpose than grant aid.
In this context there is perhaps the comparative advantage which the reward of a tax incentive has over the reward of a grant or compensation payment. If the latter may give rise to the allegation that an owner has been paid public money for doing nothing, conversely, a tax incentive by definition has to affect the level of money an owner pays the Revenue instead; and he qualifies for the benefit of paying tax at a lesser rate only if he can show that he has carried out a useful function on the land. By this, I do not mean to criticise at all the principle in general of grant aid and compensation, but simply to inquire what balance of incentives the Government would propose in any future scheme of land integration. Can my noble friend also say what type of body or joint bodies might be planned to administer any such schemes, so that the potential conflict between the demands of agriculture and those of conservation are kept to a minimum?
In summary, my Lords, in spite of alleged deficiencies in the workings of the 1981 Act, its conservation aims retain national approval, and there is surely scope for correcting any evident deficiencies without altering the co-operative and voluntary nature of its basis. If, in so doing, the Government were at the same time to introduce further conservation measures beyond the remit of the 1981 Act, there could then be encouraging prospects of better integration of land use, 1227 better relations between Government agencies and owners, and a greater level of confidence and trust between those who work in the towns and those who work on the land.
§ 10.9 p.m.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, in his excellent maiden speech my noble friend Lord Blakenham said that the 1981 Act was a major step forward. Indeed, I think that the debate we have had tonight is of itself some evidence of that. It was a major step forward at the time, in spite of misgivings expressed on both sides of your Lordships' House. But, as my noble friend Lord Onslow said, there is a new climate of opinion, and several examples of it have been given. I should like to add the further example of the establishment of the Farming and Wildlife Trust, and I hope that it will receive very wide support from farmers and landowners.
This debate is, perhaps, itself a yet further step forward. It is both a progress report and, alas!, a report of lack of progress in some respects. At this late hour, I will exercise unusual self-restraint and refer simply to one particular matter, to which the noble Baroness, Lady White, referred and said that I would deal with. I want to deal with a serious East Anglian conservation problem—the threat to the Norfolk Broads and especially to 750 acres of Halvergate grazing marshes, in particular, all of which are classified as being of grade one landscape value by the Broads conservation authority. A number of farmers want to drain those 750 acres and to plough them up for growing cereals.
Perhaps I should just mention the background to that urge. It affects the Ministry of Agriculture, whose responsibility in these matters has been mentioned by the noble Lord. Lord Gibson, and other noble Lords. It is a responsibility which we should not forget. because the compensation that is paid at present through the Department of the Environment and the local authorities is really compensation in relation to agricultural policy. Therefore, the Minister of Agriculture should bear his share of the responsibility: indeed, it is arguable that he should bear the whole of it.
The fact is that this, the largest single block of classic open grazing marsh, is of exceptional significance from the wildlife point of view. I will not go into details; it is so well-known. The threat comes from the fact that cereal prices are, and have been for several years, very high. That has transformed the farming economy of a great part of East Anglia from the mixed farming that it was until about ten years ago to essentially one based primarily on cereal production—and very good incomes are being made from it. This has the result that the compensation payments which are paid to prevent conversion to agricultural production have to be proportionately high, because of the requirements of the Act and because of the income from growing cereals that the farmers would receive if they could develop their land in that way.
The other background feature follows from the one I have just mentioned, and it is this. There are 20,000 acres of Broads marshland, and nearly all of them are potentially at risk of arable conversion—conversion to 1228 growing cereals. But to prevent conversion of only one-quarter of those 20,000 acres would cost no less than £1 million a year of public funds in compensation to individual farmers.
So much for the background. May I now explain to your Lordships—although the facts are not easy to get hold of and are a little befogged—what is actually happening? So far it affects only 750 acres, where I think five farmers gave notice that they wanted to change the traditional marsh drainage—but it is grazing marsh; it is not entirely lacking in drainage —and to convert it into thorough drainage, with pipes, tile drains and properly dug ditches on very level land.
They were approached with a view to compensation agreements being made. I understand that negotiations are still continuing over most of the 750 acres and that the cost will be quite considerable. In the case of 92 acres, the Norfolk Broads Authority, who do not have this sort of money, have made it clear that they are not prepared, owing to their lack of funds, to enter into a management agreement with the farmer concerned over the 92 acres. There is, therefore, an impasse over those 92 acres as well as uncertainty over the rest of the acreage.
This brings me to what I have been asked to say by the CPRE. Perhaps I may make three points. The first is a general point: that if compensation payments are to be offered to farmers at Halvergate. 100 per cent. of the money should he paid either by the Ministry of Agriculture or, failing that, by the Department of the Environment, because the Broadlands authority does not have the money with which to do the job. Indeed, it seems wrong that it should have to bear the cost of what is essentially the support of agricultural policy.
My second point is that I understand that the Countryside Commission has in being an experimental scheme for the management of the Broads for conservation purposes. One would hope that both the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture would declare their support for this scheme. It would very much help if that were to happen and it would go some way towards integrating environmental considerations and agricultural policy.
So much for those two general points in relation to the Broads. I now turn to an immediate problem with regard to the 92 acres. We were told by the noble Baroness, Lady White—I did not know this—that in another place my honourable friend Mr. Waldegrave said as recently as April last that the Halvergate Marshes were safe for a year. I do not find that to be a very encouraging prediction for the future.
I would have hoped that, somehow, the Government could get their heads together and make them safe forever, with the help of all these various bodies, whose duty it is to do these things. The 92 acres will certainly not be safe for very long, unless the Secretary of State for the Environment uses a power, which he has the right to use, to remove the permitted development rights for the under-field drainage which the farmer concerned is preparing to carry out. This means that action must be taken very quickly. We all know that there are times when, if a minister expresses the will to do so, the great bureaucratic machines, upon which so much depends in this country, can move quickly. I hope that, even if he cannot give me 1229 a specific answer this evening, my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale will take that point on board and will tomorrow take immediate action to see that it is passed on.
§ 10.20 p.m.
§ Lord Grimond
My Lords, I must apologise for rising to speak at this hour. I thought that I had my name down on the list of speakers but I am told that my request did not reach the appropriate authority. I know that there is nothing more depressing than an extra speaker at twenty minutes past 10 o'clock.
However, the part of the world in which I live has been deeply affected by this Act, to which, owing to the excellent initiative of the mover of the Question, we can give some attention tonight. I perhaps take a slightly different view from that which has so far been expressed.
Before I speak about that view, I should certainly like to join in the congratulations to the noble Viscount. Lord Blakenham, who made an admirable speech and reminded us all of his charming father. I should also like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for giving us this opportunity for debate.
There are very considerable misgivings about this Act in my part of the world; and I refer to the far north of Scotland and to the islands. They are felt not only by farmers but by the population in general. We hold some misgivings as to the principle of the Act. It appears to us that the Nature Conservancy Council is a non-elected body which is perhaps insufficiently accountable to anyone. Secondly, it seems to us that its officials promote orders which sometimes interfere gravely with private rights, that their reasons for doing so are secret, and that there is no appeal against them. Thirdly, when orders are made, this results in absentee control by people who know little or nothing about the area concerned.
So much for questions of principle. As to the way in which the Act has been administered—and I refer entirely and purely to Orkney—I am told that between 12 per cent. and 16 per cent. of the land area of Orkney has been designated. I am told that in other parts of the Highlands the figure is as high as 24 per cent. I think that that is excessive. It seems to me to devalue the whole purpose of the Act.
When orders have been made under the Act, there has been very considerable interference with rights long-established; rights held by crofters and by udal landowners for which they have fought for generations. I refer to such matters as the right to open new peat banks and the right to make peat roads. I understand that these are now subject to approval by this remote Nature Conservancy Council. Candidly, to my constituents that appears to be entirely wrong.
I know that a lot of the council's work is quite excellent, but some of its officials do seem to be somewhat tactless and forget that they must proceed by goodwill. I should like to point out that least in Orkney and the Shetlands, the farmers and the crofters are not in the least antipathetic to conservation. Many of them are very good naturalists or keen ornithologists. One is astonished to hear that there is inevitably a conflict between all types of agriculture and conservation.
1230 Furthermore, my ex-constituents are extremely non-destructive people. I can remember one man who was trying to recruit seamen in the Shetlands saying. "It is a peculiarity of the Shetlanders that they never fight with one another and they never throw coal at the seabirds". This is quite astonishing to the English. The divers which nest in Orkney have used the same lochs, owned by the same crofters and their ancestors, for generations. Neither the divers nor my constituents feel that they need a Nature Conservancy Council to come along and remind them of their mutual obligations.
In my own house three years ago, swallows turned up and built a nest in the coalhole. They soon discovered that a more salubrious habitat would be the local farmer's barn. The local farmer had never seen a swallow, but he was perfectly willing to open his barn all summer. But if a man in a bowler hat from Glasgow had turned up and told him, "We've made an order on your barn and you must keep it open, and you must not remove your machinery without our permission", then reluctantly, excellent man though he is, he might have been rather annoyed. They must exercise tact.
I then come to this question of compensation. I was deeply interested in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. I have read something about this. It seems quite incredible that we are paying £1.25 million compensation for breaking in, as I understood him, a marshland for the purpose of producing more grain. I understand that there is a vast surplus of grain in Europe. That appears to be the economics of Alice in Wonderland. Furthermore, I do not think that my ex-constituents want compensation for behaving in a decent way to the animals, flowers, and so on, which are around them. But they are getting interested in this whole business. When they hear what the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said about a large landlord getting £20,000 a year for not cutting down a wood I can assure noble Lords that they will prick up their ears. What do they get? I am not aware that small crofters and farmers have been paid any large sums in compensation. I hope that the noble Lord. Lord Skelmersdale, will assure us that the same principles of compensation apply in Scotland as they do in England and apply to the small landowner and crofter as they do to the big chap. There will be a lot of interest in this and I do not remember anything of this sort so far taking place in Orkney.
When we come to the question of what we can do, to my mind the legislation needs to be looked at again, but that will be a lengthy process and nearly all revision of legislation only makes matters worse. But there are a few things which can be done right away. I am sure that the NCC does admirable work, but I ask it to stop designating areas in Orkney and take a look at what has happened and how existing areas are getting on. This may be true of other areas in the Highlands, too. Secondly, we should look at this question of compensation to see that the same rules are applied to the small man as are applied to the big man and in Scotland as in England. Thirdly, some appeal system, even if it is unofficial, should be initiated. Fourthly, the NCC should ensure that its officials know that all this should proceed voluntarily, as has been said, by agreement and that they should exercise tact, remembering that ultimately it all 1231 depends on the goodwill of the local people, which in my part of the world is too readily forthcoming.
I wholly agree with the noble Earl who tabled the Question that the type of agricultural legislation which we have had should be altered and should take account of conservation. The public authorities should also take care when they are every year taking over acre upon acre of good land. No doubt some of it is essential for housing, and so on, but they are still going on taking more land than they need. They are still cutting the verges quite unnecessarily in many parts of the country.
I want to conclude by saying a word about the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds. This society is now the biggest landowner in Orkney. Furthermore I want to pay them a compliment. Their local staff are quite excellent and they did a most remarkable job on Fair Isle, where they benefited not only the birds but also human beings. That was largely due to the genius of George Waterston who, alas, is dead, and to some extent to Ian Pitman. However. I must say that absentee landlords are to my mind a little dangerous. While we may admire the RSPB, it should give up, for the time being, acquiring land in Orkney. I also say to it that I think it is time it promoted a change in the schedule of birds attached to the Act we are discussing. The great skua of Bonxa is becoming an absolute menace in Orkney and Shetland. It has driven Richardson's skua out of Foula and it is a plague upon the mainland of Orkney. If people are worrying about duck and divers it is the great skua which is going to finish them off, not the Orcadian crofter.
Conservation is vital but, not unnaturally, it must be tackled in different ways in different places. We are not suffering from vast industrial developments. We are not suffering from the iniquities of the local farmers. I am afraid it is the enthusiastic bird watchers, and so on, who trample all over the place who are, if anything, damaging the environment. Different treatment is required in different places and I hope that that will he realised and that we shall go from strength to strength, learning from our experiences up to date.
§ 10.29 p.m.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Grimond having had a good go from this Bench, it necessarily behoves me to be as brief as possible, though I think I should make it absolutely clear that the fact that his name was inadvertently missed from the speakers' list was due to no fault of his. I agree entirely with my noble friend. I have grave suspicions of non-elected bodies exercising unaccountable power without adequate scrutiny. But that is one rather general matter. I am sorry to hear from him that the harmonious spirit of co-operation which has begun to develop between the Nature Conservancy Council and landowners, farmers and others in the countryside in England and Wales has not yet crossed the Pentland Firth. I think we must hope that that mood of co-operation finally arises within the Orkneys, and. indeed, in Shetland, too.
Like other noble Lords, I must thank the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for bringing us back to a subject on which we spent so very many long hours. I think, some 1232 years ago. Some noble Lords will recollect that at that time I had the honour to be chairman of the Countryside Commission, a position which is now held with very great distinction by Mr. Derek Barber, with whom I had a discussion about this debate earlier today. It necessarily follows that I took an active part in those debates, as did many noble Lords who are here with us today, and thus, like other noble Lords, I am very interested in the outcome of the very hard work which we did those many years ago.
As a former chairman of the Countryside Commission, my interest has necessarily been rather more towards the countryside than the wildlife aspect of this Act. I think it is right to say that the two are not entirely the same. In that connection, I would say that I very much agreed with Mr. Heseltine, who was, Secretary of State at the time, when he took the decision not to amalgamate the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission. It seemed to me that in order to discharge its statutory duties the Nature Conservancy Council has necessarily from time to time to keep people out of the countryside, whereas the statutory duty of the Countryside Commission is to promote access to the countryside: in other words, to get people in. It has always seemed to me that it is rather better for these two bodies to act harmoniously, but separately, in partnership, as they now do, rather than their being amalgamated, which I think perhaps could have resulted in certain difficulties.
In general, I think it is perhaps a little too soon for us to say whether the Act is right or wrong, or whether it requires altering this way or that way. I understand that the Countryside Commission is going to present a full and considered report on the workings of the Act at the end of three years of its existence. I have no doubt that the Nature Conservancy Council will be doing likewise. Possibly at that time in your Lordships' House we might very well have a much fuller debate, rather than just a debate on an Unstarred Question, although I am sure that we are all grateful for this.
Having said that I think it is too soon to make final judgments, we can in the meantime make preliminary assessments. My assessment, like that of most noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, is, I would say, broadly optimistic. I appear to have detected a change in mood. This has been referred to by many noble Lords in their speeches. I think that there is an increasing realisation by people in the countryside —both those who work in it and those who merely visit and use it—that the productive use of land, whether agricultural land for producing food, forestry land for timber, water production, or whatever else, can go hand in hand in harmony with conservation and recreational use. We have seen that develop over the years.
If we look at the history of the Forestry Commission, there was a time when people certainly could not picnic on Forestry Commission land. To talk to forestry commissioners now, you would almost think that they had actually invented picnic sites and not that they were something in which they had reluctantly acquiesced. They knew perfectly well that people were going to come to the forests, and, if they were, it was much better that they should be provided for and that they should come to those places which 1233 were best for them. That has happened. We have seen the same development with the water authorities. Noble Lords will remember the time when we were not allowed anywhere near reservoirs. We might do objectionable things in the water, or perhaps our dogs might! Now we are able to fish in them, swim in them, sail on them and in fact visit and walk round them.
There is an increasing realisation by those who manage land productively in the countryside that land management and production can go hand in hand with recreational use and with conservation. The realisation by those involved in agriculture that conservation is not necessarily antagonistic to profitable agricultural productivity has certainly grown apace. I think more and more farmers are realising that conservation itself can perhaps be profitable and enjoyable and can form a very proper part of farming, and can, indeed, be properly integrated with farming in the more usual and customary sense.
One particular matter upon which I would comment is this. As some noble Lords may remember, I was fortunate enough to persuade your Lordships to introduce an amendment into the Bill (as it then was) to protect areas of limestone pavement from the point of view of their being very unusual landscape features of immense attraction and as well as immense importance in conservation terms. At the time that I used to visit those particular areas, in North Yorkshire, I found this fascinating area of limestone pavement, which many noble Lords will have seen. I found that lumps of limestone from those pavements were being carted away, mostly by people with lorries, in order to deposit them in rockeries in towns throughout the length and breadth of the country. When I visited the same area recently I could see no further signs of that kind of devastation. Therefore that is one part of the Act which, from my own observation, I can say appears to be working very satisfactorily.
As noble Lords have said, there are of course difficulties. As has been said over and over again, the main difficulty is that of funding—a point very clearly made in the admirable speech of the noble Earl, Lord Peel. He made a very similar point in his maiden speech, when we were discussing the Bill (as it then was) at a very much earlier stage. The point was made very effectively, too, in an outstanding speech by the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood. Personally, I should like to endorse very heartily his plea that sooner or later we should establish a carefully thought out, long-term integrated land use strategy for the whole of Britain. That is an immensely important matter, which I think would justify a full-scale debate in your Lordships' House, rather than merely a few remarks in this particular debate. It was a very important point in a very important speech.
The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, made the point about the 25 per cent. required from the national park authorities for the funding of management agreements. He expressed the view that that was too much for the national park authorities to bear at the moment, unless they are to be financed in a very different way, and he suggested that perhaps the percentages should he changed and that central resources should bear a much bigger proportion of the funding agreements.
1234 Many noble Lords referred to the time factor. Indeed, the noble Viscount, in his admirable maiden speech, referred to this matter. It is the matter which the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, referred to as the 3-month loophole. As was said, there is no doubt that damage can be done to areas during the consultation process before notification. That is something about which we might like to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, when he comes to reply. So there are two points—funding, and the question of the time factor.
There are a couple of minor points which have been brought to the attention of more or less all noble Lords. Noble Lords will recollect that five years ago we spent a great deal of time on the Bill discussing the whole question of bulls and the running of bulls in fields through which rights of way exist, and so on. It is my view that the Act, as we finally got it, was right. However, it would appear from the information we are now being given by the Ramblers' Association, that either the Act is not always fully understood by those who own the hulls and run them in the particular areas, or perhaps it is not being operated properly. I do not think that there is much that is defective in the Act, but it seems, from what the Ramblers' Association tells us, that it is not working very effectively at the moment in this regard.
The association also makes the point about the ploughing up of footpaths on rights of way and states that though the law requires restoration of those footpaths after they have been ploughed up, many are not being restored. However, those are minor matters.
We have a very difficult task ahead of us. Somehow or other we must reconcile two conflicting national policies, both of which are of immense importance. Land in general and countryside land, in particular, in this country is in very short supply. Indeed, there are few parts of the world where it is in shorter supply. Not only is land and countryside land in short supply but it is also coming under ever increasingly heavy demands. Somehow or other, we have to reconcile two conflicting national policies; first, the need to maximise the productivity of our land be it for food, forestry or whatever, and secondly, to preserve outstanding areas of landscape or natural habitat at the same time. There is a conflict, and it is my view that all conflicts can be resolved at a price. I hope that we shall hear that we are prepared to pay the price for resolving this particular conflict.
§ 10.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, at this hour, with so much said, I shall try not to repeat any of the major points that have been made. We are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for bringing forward this debate. It is particularly timely in view of the Halvergate discussion that I, too, had come well briefed to cover. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for saving me the task of going through it all again. I could perhaps say, however, that the reference by the Minister in another place appears in column 954 of the Qfficial Report of 4th April. I have little further information. At this moment work has begun on the 92 acres. Excavators are on site and are preparing, if they have not already begun, to deepen 1235 the ditches. If, therefore, the noble Lord the Minister is to make any impact on the situation, he must do so quickly. If there is to be an Article 4 direction, which I hope there will be, it will need to be made immediately.
I should like to offer congratulations to the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, on his excellent speech. In another part of this House in another context, the chairman referred to the leaders of the RSPB as being descended directly from Saint Francis. We therefore treat him with great respect, and I am sure that that respect is carried on in the House this evening.
The debate has been extremely valuable. Since the Act was passed, there is no doubt that concern for conservation of the environment and the protection of wildlife has continued to grow. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, said that the Act has caused this, and I too am sure that the Act has been largely responsible. However, we must give credit to the BBC for its very sympathetic, informative and sometimes exciting programmes on wildlife which have reached wide audiences and which have heightened public awareness of the value of our natural heritage and the need to be vigilant in its protection. We should give credit, too, to the responsible press reporting of particular issues that have brought environmental problems increasingly to public notice. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley, pulls a face. I did refer to the responsible reporting that takes place, and not to the more exciting press that is not always fair in its descriptions.
We must now examine whether the Act needs to be amended. Part I has not received a great deal of attention except from the noble Earl who opened the debate and from the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham. Two main problems seem to arise from Part I. The provision to obtain a licence to kill birds that are causing serious damage to agriculture or fisheries is being used responsibly in many cases. But there is evidence that in some cases, especially in Scotland, licences are being issued almost on demand and the subsequent shoots are being used as sporting events, very often profitably. This is prohibited by the Act and by the EEC directive on bird conservation. The proper management of birds causing damage to crops is well established and is being operated successfully in some areas. There is no need for mass killing and DAFS in particular should be called upon to prove the need for their generous issuing of licences. These licences should be issued as a last resort.
The second item in Part I is the important new provision in the Act for the register of birds of prey in captivity. It is now over 20 months since registration started, but no statistics have been issued to show how many birds have been registered, how many are held illegally or how many illegally-held ones have been discovered. Thefts are continuing, and we need to know what progress is being made. Perhaps the Minister can provide answers for those questions.
I turn now to Part II, which has had a great deal of attention from most speakers tonight. I will not dwell on the three-month loophole, though later on I will mention it once more. Obviously it is something that needs to be plugged, and this needs to be done before 1236 much longer. I have a letter from the National Farmers' Union which draws attention to this very point. It says:The NFU understands that eleven new sites"—I believe the RSPB think it is 12, but we will not quibble over that—have suffered some damage during the consultation period before notification, and before the legal requirements to notify operations can apply. In order to prevent this occurring, the NFU had indicated that it would support a short amending bill to require occupiers to follow the procedures presently applicable to notified SSSIs during this period".The letter goes on to say:The NFU believes that the Act should be properly enforced, for example through the prosecution of deliberate offenders".I understand that there has not been a single prosecution of offenders under this Act, and I think one must ask, "Why?"
I believe the NCC are so worried about the effects of the loophole that we have just discussed that many sites which await notification are being left on ice purely because the NCC fear they will be destroyed if they notify them formally. Surely that is the very opposite effect from what the Act intended, and it is a great pity if that is happening. Therefore, we need to see stronger action taken against people who are offending and in favour of plugging the loophole.
The majority of the existing SSSIs are still not renotified and thus are not protected by the Act. I understand that the NCC estimate that they will not complete the task until the end of 1986 at the earliest. Here I can give noble Lords one example of what is happening for lack of renotification. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, for one, will be relieved to hear that this is not the act of a farmer. In a village in Cambridgeshire there is a chalk quarry in which a rare man orchid was growing. It has been a nature reserve since 1948 but has not been renotified, for the usual reasons of pressure on time and because everyone supposed it to be safe because it was so well known.
This quarry was let to a rifle club which has now bulldozed the site—not simply ploughed it or pruned it in any other way, but bulldozed it. Although the local authority in question is to take action against the club, that does nothing to lessen the plight of the orchid, which is unlikely to survive. There are a growing number of incidents, even on renotified sites, of owner-occupiers carrying out damaging operations without consulting the NCC as they are required to do. I understand that, to date, the NCC know of 17 of these, but still there are no prosecutions.
During the Second Reading of the Bill there were a number of questions raised on Part II. Some of them included the SSSIs, and I think it might be useful to refresh our memories on these and to see how they have fared. I understand that at that time there were in the country 4,000 SSSIs, of which 2.000 were considered to he at risk. My noble friend Lord Melchett, who, incidentally, very much regrets that he cannot be here this evening because he is out of the country, made a calculation that with 4 per cent. to 5 per cent. being destroyed or damaged each year at that time, by the end of four years—that is, now—25 per cent. would have gone. I must ask the Minister: has this fear proved correct? Do we have the figure for 1237 this? Can he say how many have been destroyed or damaged in the last four years?
Much has been said about the philosophy of continuing compensation and, indeed, about the grant system generally. I was interested to see that it was during the Second Reading debate at col. 1050 that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, himself asked this question. He is now in the happy position of being able to answer his own question. I hope that when he replies he will be able to give us a well-considered answer on the value of continuing compensation.
One other point which arose on Second Reading which is worth mentioning, which did not find its way into the Act and on which perhaps we could also be informed, was the question of marine reserves. They were excluded from the Act. We should ask whether that exclusion is still justified. Perhaps I may remind the House that the Berne Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Habitats and the Bonn Convention on the Protection of Migratory Species make it a duty to protect marine environments as well as those on land. Are the Government satisfied that we are not in breach of these conventions? Perhaps 1 may remind the Minister that of the 30 estuaries in Europe and North Africa that harbour wintering birds, half are British, and it seems to me that we have a great responsibility.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, I believe that marine reserves were included in the Act in Committee.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I beg your pardon. I failed to find this in spite of my search. However, my question still stands. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that too is working. There is no need to say any more on the question of compensation, so I should like to touch very briefly on Part III of the Act, which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, mentioned.
The Ramblers' Association has raised the point about hulls. I trust that we shall receive an answer from the Minister on that matter. However, I should like to go a little further on the question of reinstatement of ploughed footpaths and suggest that, in fact, the law needs to be strengthened, and that it is not simply a question of the existing law. I think that the law should be strengthened to the extent that members of the public should have a right to prosecute those who unlawfully plough up rights of way. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that.
I shall conclude my remarks fairly briefly. The question was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, about the need to bring all these policies under one hat, and he suggested that it should be that of MAFF. I think that environmentalists may be forgiven if their blood runs a little cold at this suggestion, because the approach of MAFF so far has been patchy, to say the least. There would need to be a distinct change of MAFF policy and a much greater understanding of the needs of conservation before that would be an acceptable solution. Indeed, reference has been made to the Forestry Commission. Although Forestry Commission policies may have become more enlightened in regard to picnic places, they are anything but enlightened in regard, for example, to the replanting of broad-leafed trees and the selling off of particular 1238 pieces of land, though I know that that was under Government direction. However, I do not think that we should take too kindly to bringing all those responsibilities under one hat without a very distinct policy being spelt out.
There appears to be no doubt at the end of this discussion that amending legislation is needed—first, for the three-month loophole and secondly, to give power to the NCC to obtain an injunction restraining activity pending negotiations on a Section 29 conservation order. I think that that is too urgent to wait for the results of trials, because damage is being done. Indeed, this particular protection should apply to national parks as well, which I understand are not covered by it at the moment.
Thirdly, there is the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, that increases in penalties for offenders need to be very much greater than they are now. They were peanuts even in 1980 and they are certainly not worth considering now. There needs to be a considerable increase in penalties. We need to strengthen the law in relation to ploughed-in rights of way, and no doubt if we were to embark on the path of amending legislation there would be many other suggestions forthcoming.
I am assured by the official Opposition in another place that it is willing to make some of its parliamentary time available for the introduction of amending legislation, and is willing to co-operate with the Government in every way to speed the process of an agreed Bill. This is a generous and unusual offer, and we hope it will be acted upon by the Minister, and with the urgency that this evening's debate has shown to he necessary.
§ 10.56 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I hope I can speak for the whole House and say that it seems strange to be speaking in a debate on this subject without the advice from behind me of the late Lord Glenkinglas, an acknowledged expert in this as in so many other fields. He is sadly missed by your Lordships. However, I am delighted to welcome the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Blakenham, with his experience as chairman of the RSPB. I hope we shall hear him again soon and often when he feels he can spread his wings but still refrain from the controversy on this regrettably most controversial of subjects.
In welcoming my noble friend Lord Onslow's Question this evening I am particularly pleased that it refers both to the environmental and the agricultural point of view. Under normal circumstances my noble friend Lord Belstead would be on the Bench beside me to hear, for example, the interesting and rather firm, almost radical, speech of my noble friend Lord Chelwood. He has asked me to apologise to the House that a long-standing ministry engagement outside London prevents this. However, he agrees with me that the Government's job must be to examine the matter in a balanced way and also to prevent those involved from taking up entrenched positions.
Conservation at all costs can no more be right than defending to the last the farmer's right to do what he will with his fields and hedgerows wherever he may farm. Neither attitude is helpful to constructive 1239 discussion; nor, indeed, is the fact that hardly a day goes by without an article attacking the Wildlife and Countryside Act being published. That being said, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that there are many balanced and informative programmes on the television, and articles in the press. We in Government also seek a fair balance. The Government yield to none in the strength of their commitment to conservation of the countryside. Our efforts to bring the Wildlife and Countryside Act onto the statute book are ample proof of that.
At the same time—and I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Walston—we have responsibility for the continued prosperity of the farming industry, and that responsibility cannot be dismissed lightly, as some of our critics would, it seems, have us do. Farming is as much a business as, say, making ball-bearings. Safeguarding the means for farmers to achieve high productivity and earn a decent living is important, and it is unreasonable to say otherwise. The Government firmly believe that these two objectives need not be irreconcilable.
The 1981 Act represented the best safeguards for the countryside which could at the time practicably be achieved. It emerged, a 4-winged imago, from a chrysalis matured in your Lordships' House by my noble friend Lord Avon, who was the best possible (I might almost say fortuitous) choice: a man who was neither a farmer nor identified with the conservation lobby. He was therefore in the best position to weigh arguments dispassionately and to present them to colleagues. It would not be untrue to say that he did this often overburdened with ideas for improvements from all sides of the House.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, I think that in justice my noble friend should mention that my noble friend Lord Onslow farms a great deal of his own land as well as being a keen conservationist, and therefore perhaps he was an ideal person to introduce this debate.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I take my noble friend's point, but I think I ought to get on with my speech. It would not be untrue to say that my noble friend Lord Avon—or, indeed, anybody speaking from this Box at that time—was often overburdened with ideas for improvements from all sides of this House: ideas which were not practical at that time because the agreement of all those involved—conservationists, farmers, Government departments, your Lordships and Members of another place, not necessarily in that order—was not forthcoming.
Many of the disagreements which arose during the passage of the Bill have resurfaced since and were, I thought, exemplified by the two adjacent speeches of my noble friends Lord Chelwood and Lord Middleton. But there is no doubt in my mind that we could not have had this balanced debate which we have had today during the passing of that Bill or, indeed, at any time up to the present day. The message I have received tonight is that your Lordships have a general desire to make the Act work. At least, I confess 1240 I had drawn this conclusion until I heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, which rather threw me.
The most often perceived failing of the Act is not actually in the Act at all. I refer to the vexed question of management agreements and the money for them. I answered a Starred Question from my noble friend Lord Bruce-Gardyne on this subject last month. I was able to explode the myth that they were already too expensive. But the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and other noble Lords, made the point this evening that a vast queue of these agreements is building up.
We are, of course, well aware of the situation and undoubtedly the annual financial burden under the present arrangements will increase significantly. We shall, incidentally, need to review the financial guidelines for compensation in due course—it was always understood that we would. But there is no sign vet that management agreements will present an impossible burden. Such scare stories can only erode confidence in management agreements. Let us have no more of it, my Lords.
Nor should we give credence to the myth that farmers have conservationists over a barrel. The argument runs that a management agreement is nothing more than an ill-disguised grant to a farmer for not doing something which he in any case had no intention of doing. Or to put it another way, it is the farmer trying it on. That is to under-rate the know-how of the conservation agencies which have the job of making these agreements. Their staff—for example at the Nature Conservancy Council—have a good deal of experience in dealing with farmers. They have the job of making a management agreement to further the interests of conservation when, and only when, they consider it necessary. They may feel that some other way is better—possibly a straight purchase of the land, or possibly, though I understand this to be rare, a non-financial understanding. And one should not forget Section 39 of the Act, which gives local planning authorities generally the power to make management agreements for conservation and amenity purposes anywhere in the country.
Going hack a sentence or two, I think the case of Troutsdale Moor, to which my noble friend Lord Middleton referred, was in fact an unfortunate example of a speculative application for grant, because in January 1982 a prospective tenant consulted the National Parks Authority over a proposal to plough and reseed 200 acres of moorland, and from that single application a big brouhaha (I think that perhaps is the expression) erupted in the press. It subsequently transpired that the owner of the moor had never had any intention of letting his land in the first place, so the improvement never took place. So although the National Parks Authority turned down the management agreement, or did not pursue it—and they did this, as I understand it, before they had contacted the owner of the land—they were in this case perfectly correct.
Now critics can fairly say that it is risky to call a farmer's bluff, because it would be disastrous if one got it wrong. I acknowledge the point—there are risks in this—but let us not exaggerate the situation. Are we to suppose that all over the country there are farmers who would have no intention of farming their land 1241 more profitably if denied a management agreement? In individual cases, inertia might prevail. In the generality of cases, it would be against nature. Moreover, the farming community is well aware that the voluntary approach to conservation is very much on trial. They know full well the adverse publicity which would follow if cases went adrift because signals were wrongly given or wrongly interpreted during negotiations. They know that the likely consequences would be the introduction of compulsory controls through fresh legislation. It is not in the interests of the farming community itself that the voluntary approach should fail.
To believe otherwise is merely to give substance to that other myth, the big bad ogre of popular imagination, the farmer. It is almost a truism that before the public in general became aware of the problems of conserving the countryside, it was the farmer who produced the countryside as we know it today. The countryside has not taken care of itself, at least since the enclosure Acts. Putting it in a glass case has never been an option, and it is not now. The fears of my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley regarding the Nature Conservancy Council's attitude are unfounded.
If this glass case were an option, it would force me, at least, to emigrate from the country. Farming practices of the past have produced important elements in what is now regarded as our heritage—dry stone walls, spectacular moorland, the Norfolk Broads, to name just a few. I wonder, in parenthesis, what would have been the attitude of conservationists had grants been available for dry stone walls at the time of the enclosures. I wonder what future generations will regard as the equivalent contribution of current farming methods. Change has a habit of spawning new traditions, new likes. Whether this is an improvement of the countryside is a matter for individual taste. The Government—any government—are not the arbiters of taste. Let us not be complacent about changes to the countryside, but, equally, let us not be too fixed in our ideas. Let us try to be practical about what can be achieved.
The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, still appears to misunderstand the Act. The objectives of SSSIs are not to turn the clock back, nor to prevent any change of use. They are to prevent damaging new operations in sensitive areas. I would tell the noble Lord and the House that the Nature Conservancy Council is accountable because under paragraph 17(1) of Schedule 3 to the Nature Conservancy Council Act 1973 the NCC is required to present an annual report to the Secretary of State for the Environment. This is then laid before Parliament under paragraph 17(2). So there is double protection and double responsibility of the NCC. I agree with the noble Lord that it is only right that that should be so.
My noble friend Lord Chelwood produced a further myth which sent shudders through my soul. "MAFF lives in a siege economy", he said. I believe that the contrary is true. While the ministry does an excellent job in promoting an efficient and competitive British farming industry, it also commits substantial resources to the promotion of conservation and the protection of the environment, through both the Agricultural 1242 Development and Advisory Service and its capital grants scheme.
I take great pride in being a member of a Government who have reduced the rate of inflation from 22 per cent. to 5.2 per cent. and interest rates from 18 per cent. to around 9 per cent. Even with a comparatively low retail price index, any proposal for change in management agreements has to fit in with one's general ideas on the economy. Every penny that the Government raise has to come either from borrowing, which puts up interest rates, or the taxpayer, which puts up personal taxation. Both, as a last resort, increase the rate of inflation.
Anything which calls for large sums of new money is not an option. But let us be quite clear on this point: conservation has a cost. It also has a priority which must be balanced against other priorities, though I was interested by the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Gibson. I think he would be a brave man who would distinguish between priorities as regards grants for the arts and grants for the environment.
Any money taken from elsewhere in the economy for conservation or anything else will inevitably reduce the share of the cake of those who are currently getting it. However, I agree with my noble friend Lord Middleton that if Parliament wills the ends, it must also will the means. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, that the Government have every intention that it shall.
There is no way that I can satisfactorily answer all the points that have been mentioned in this debate this evening. Indeed, I could make a complete speech in answer to each of your Lordships, so deeply do I feel about this subject. However, I shall carefully comb through the Official Report tomorrow and, with permission, will write to those noble Lords who I have treated less well than I might have done in other circumstances.
But there are one or two important points which I must speak about. Like my noble friend Lord Onslow, I recognise the immense value of the Manpower Services Commission schemes for environmental improvement. Indeed, both the Brecon Beacons and the Peak District National Parks have benefited very substantially from the availability of Manpower Services Commission labour. However, the schemes are managed by local area manpower pools comprising representatives of local industry and trade unions. It is for them to decide on the allocation of resources in their areas. Re-allocation of the MSC labour pool on Offa's Dyke or anywhere else is a matter for them.
But the most pressing case of today is undoubtedly that of Halvergate Marshes, which was mentioned by both my noble friend Lord Renton and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. I can tell the House that there is no question of a breakdown in the arrangements whereby a standstill has been negotiated with certain landowners for a year pending consideration of a more permanent arrangement for protection of the Broads now being considered by Ministers. Notification was originally given of intention to plough 784 acres this year, of which 475 acres were regarded as of high landscape value. Of the latter, 383 acres have been safeguarded. This leaves 92 acres, which, it appears, 1243 will soon be ploughed. The landscape policy of this area has been marred by the previous ploughing of adjacent land, and the Broads authority have taken the view that, in these circumstances, it will be totally unreasonable to conclude a management agreement at a higher price than in neighbouring areas.
On the subject of conservation vis-à-vis the water industry—a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady White—I can tell her that a series of research studies relating to the methodology of surveying aspects of river corridor wildlife has recently reached reporting stage. The time is now ripe for my department to set up a meeting with the interested parties. Although no agenda has yet been circulated, papers developed from the research reports received are in preparation to provide guidance for the committee at its first meeting, which is planned to take place in the early autumn. A linked but separate question of the noble Baroness concerned the outcome of the review by the interdepartmental committee on land drainage. I can tell her that this outcome is a consultation paper which the Government intend to publish during the summer.
My noble friend Lord Onslow mentioned the problem in Creag Meagaidh (if that is the way to pronounce it). The application made by Fountain Forestry Limited for grant aid for their proposal to plant some 900 acres is before the Secretary of State for Scotland at present. I am sure that he will take into account—and I will make sure that he does—the points made by noble Lords in this debate before he advises the Forestry Commission of his decision.
The noble Lord, Lord Oram, will. I am sure, forgive me if I do not follow him too deeply into the subjects of national parks and the Access to the Countryside Act 1947, which first introduced areas of outstanding natural beauty. I am having quite enough trouble as it is with this particular Act this evening. I would say that on his question about the Department of Environment Circular 1/83 (which was issued when Part III of the Act, concerning footpaths. came into force) it contained the following words:The provisions described in this circular are not considered to necessitate any additional local authority manpower or increased expenditure".Before the noble Lord leaps to his feet, I would say that the Act introduced the system which has enabled some reviews started under the old system, but not completed because of the large number of objections received, to be amended. The new procedures will enable continuous progress to he made in keeping definitive maps up to date. No extra staff should therefore be needed by local authorities, although we recognise that surveying authorities may be faced by large numbers of applications for modification orders in the early years of a new system; but as an ongoing commitment I do not think that new staff are necessary.
My noble friend Lord Peel spoke about extending prior notification arrangements for grant to the whole countryside. He will remember that prior approval for capital grants through the whole country was abolished in 1980. One reason for this was to save manpower, and indeed it has—400 man years. However, prior notification does still apply in SSSIs and, as he said, in national parks. My noble friend 1244 Lord Dundee suggested changes in the tax structure, which I shall certainly look at and compare with grant aid. I would not, however, like to follow him down the road of yet more official bodies in the countryside.
My noble friend Lord Peel asked about renotification and notification of sites of special scientific interest. The Nature Conservancy Council tells me that in terms of actual work done the programme of notification is about half finished and is on schedule to be substantially complete throughout Great Britain by the end of 1986. I believe that the programme in Scotland is running ahead of that in England and may be completed earlier, perhaps by the end of next year.
The noble Baroness, Lady White, spoke about the renotification of SSSIs in Wales. I do not have the figures, so perhaps I might be allowed to write to her on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was I think the only Member of your Lordships' House to bring up the subject of court proceedings. I must confess that it was getting rather late at night and I did not follow her completely. I shall read with great interest what she said. My first reaction is that if any damage was done during the three-month period, which I think she may have been talking about, but I am not sure, there would of course be no prosecutions as it is not illegal. The noble Baroness also talked about marine nature reserves. Provision for marine nature reserves (my noble friend Lord Onslow was quite right; they were included: my memory said Report stage, but I am sure that he is right and it was Committee stage) is in Section 36 of the Act. Orders are made by the Secretary of State on an application by the Nature Conservancy Council. No applications have yet been made, but I understand that the Nature Conservancy Council has at least one under consideration, that for the Isles of Scilly.
I cannot leave this debate without saying what is the Government's attitude to the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I would say initially it is much the same as that of most noble Lords who have spoken this evening. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and other noble Lords that it is rather early to be passing definitive judgment on the success or failure of the Act, because it came fully into effect only a little over a year ago with the publication of the statutory financial guidelines. But I believe that we have seen enough to indicate that the present system is not fundamentally flawed as some would have us think, but management agreements are coping with the pressures placed upon them and will continue to do so, particularly if we can continue to foster mutual understanding between conservationists and farmers; and this, I believe, we are now beginning to see happen.
Conditions are now better than they were three years ago. Indeed, at Question Time in another place today my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary offered to meet the official Opposition spokesman, Dr. David Clark, on this particular subject. I could not have seen that taking place even three years ago. I hope that this invitation, which was genuinely and generously meant, will be taken up as soon as possible.
1245 I believe that there is a genuine will among everyone involved to break the logjam between the needs of conservation and of agriculture. As well as persuading farmers to be more aware of what they can do for conservation, we need to do more to educate conservationists in the requirements of the farmer. A great advance in this respect—I agree with my noble friend who made the point—are the inelegantly named FWAGs—Farming and Wildlife Advisory Groups—which from comparatively modest beginnings are now in most counties, and recently the group formed its own trust to further its objectives.
The formation of these FWAGs is an expression of confidence in the future. But if that is the encouraging side of the coin, I would be naïve in the extreme not to acknowledge that there have been conservation losses since the passing of the Act. Having said that, I should have to be very sure, before pointing a finger, that the losses I have been talking about have happened since the commencement of the Act.
It is no good talking in this context about losses over the last 10, 20 or 30 years or indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, did (as I think she said, on the inspiration of her noble friend Lord Melchett), about the losses of the last four years. What we are talking about is whether this Act is actually working to reduce conservation losses and whether it can be further strengthened and amended to prevent those losses which are still going on and which have been identified.
I shall not try to pretend that the workings of the Act are wholly without their problems. For instance, we recognise that one immediate cause for concern is the so-called three-month loophole in the arrangements for notifying SSSIs. I am most concerned about the way the loophole has been exploited, as my noble friend Lord Stanley has admitted, albeit by an extremely small number of people. Indeed, it is more than significant, as my noble friend Lord Onslow has said, that agreement on closing it is now closer by a million miles than it was only three years ago.
In this connection, like other noble Lords, I note that the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill to amend Section 28 of the Act we are discussing has been introduced and is due to have its Second Reading in another place on 6th July. It would be quite improper for me to pre-empt that debate by an announcement tonight of the Government's position in your Lordships' House.
My Lords, may I put one very quick point to my noble friend? I feel sure I am right, from my experience of another place, that a Private Member's Bill, even if it is not particularly controversial, introduced at this stage, even if it were to gain a Second Reading (which is perhaps unlikely) has little chance at all of getting on to the statute book. If I am right in thinking that the Government would like to see quite minor, but very important, amendments made, would my noble friend at any rate give me an assurance that the Government will give thought to providing Government time for this Bill or even taking the Bill over?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, as I sought to say—and of course I bow to my noble friend's superior knowledge of proceedings in another place-1 do not think it would be proper to make an announcement before the Second Reading of that Bill, which I am assured will be happening on 6th July.
I do not think that, at this time of night, the House would appreciate my going into the third part of the enormous subject of further ways of improving the countryside. But I would sum up by saying that the Government will continue to keep a close watch on the way the Act is working as a whole, while recognising that many of the present worries can be solved by administrative means. I can assure your Lordships that we shall not hesitate to take further measures if these are shown to be necessary. If our monitoring of the working of the Act should lead at any time to the view that there is a case for amending legislation, we should of course take into account the eloquent pleas made by noble Lords this evening.
§ Baroness Nicol
Before the noble Lord sits down, did I understand him to say that the 92 acres at Halvergate are in fact to be sacrificed on the grounds that they are peripheral and adjoin land which is already ploughed and that they are therefore not to be sold?—because does he not see that, if that is so, there will be a domino effect and they in turn will become the periphery of the next piece, and that could be the end of the Halvergate?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the noble Baroness did understand me correctly, but I disagree with her that there will be a domino effect, for the simple reason that on one side of this land there is ploughed land and on the other side there is a railway line. I think my noble friend Lord Renton, who obviously knows the area, would confirm this. Therefore I see this as a totally isolated piece of land.