HL Deb 07 May 1985 vol 463 cc532-50

3.2 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Elton)

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

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Elton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 6 [National Parks and countryside functions]:

Lord Chelwood moved Amendment No. 55:

[Printed 2/5/85; col. 456.]

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 55. We can no doubt, by agreement, discuss this together with Amendment No. 58, as we did on Thursday night.

[Printed 2/5/85; col. 456.]

The adjournment at eleven o'clock on Thursday night cut short our discussion of these two amendments, which went with Amendment No. 54, to which we may have to return on Report. All three amendments were strongly supported on both sides of the Committee, but it was late, the Committee was thin, so may I briefly summarise my arguments.

The purpose of these amendments is to establish schemes in Greater London and the metropolitan counties so that ecological advice will continue to be available as an essential part of the planning processes. The suggested mechanism is through a lead authority, nominated with its consent, in precisely the same way as in the Government draft of Clause 47—that is a new clause—which allows for similar schemes for making grants for voluntary organisations.

I think that I showed convincingly that it was now accepted practice, enshrined in numerous statutes and not only in the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, that ecological and nature conservation evidence is now a material consideration in formulating structure and local plans, hence the "shall" in these three amendments. They do not, in my view, and after most careful consideration, create any new functions but merely formalise the present position. The latest example of this is Clause 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Bill which has passed through another place and which will be coming to us on 17th May, which puts a duty, using the word "shall", on the Forestry Commission with regard to nature conservation.

I went on to give high praise—praise that I know the Government share—to the ecological work of the GLC in particular and the metropolitan counties, among which I singled out for special mention the Greater Manchester Council and the West Midlands County Council for their far-reaching practical work. I described this work as cost-effective, good value for money and thoroughly professional. I went on to suggest that it would be costly, inefficient and irresponsible not to ensure that this work continued without interruption on a centralised basis exactly as it is at present, or broadly as it is at present, and as indeed it is in all the shire counties.

To leave it simply to the whim of boroughs and districts would, I think, be ecologically and socially damaging because some of them would be bound to contract out of this work, for obvious reasons. I stressed the outright and enthusiastic support for these three amendments given by all the significant voluntary organisations nationally and focally, and I asked my noble friend to be good enough, when he came to reply to these amendments, to tell the Committee what advice the Government have had from the Nature Conservancy Council. I was a council member for six years, so I have some idea of the thinking on this subject, though I have no idea what advice they have given, but I felt sure that their advice would favour these proposals.

Finally, I reminded the Government that the Bill ignores this question altogether and makes no mention of it, and that the onus must surely therefore be on the Government themselves to make sure that the necessary funding is continued and that the small staffs are transferred to the new schemes, together of course with the existing data systems, and so on. I was encouraged over the weekend—and this is my final word—when I re-read the speech made by my noble friend Lord Whitelaw, the Leader of the House, in winding up the Second Reading debate. He was referring to the Science and Technology Committee's report, chaired by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, which we have all read with so much interest, when he said that the Government agree that valuable expertise should not and must not be lost".—[Official Report, 15/4/84; col. 587.]

I feel therefore that I am pressing at an open door and that I am doing the right thing, with my noble friend, to put down this amendment. I look to the Government to either accept these amendments or to suggest a better way of achieving the same object. I beg to move.

Lord Elton

The matters raised by my noble friend Lord Chelwood on his Amendment No. 54 last week, and spoken to by many noble Lords opposite, and which are touched on again in this amendment, may be small in geographical area but they clearly bulk large in your Lordships' concern. In fact the degree of your Lordships' interest was borne in on me as I listened to Thursday's debate. Your Lordships had far from finished all that you wanted to say on the subject, and that is why we agreed to continue with the same debate today on my noble friend's next amendment and others associated with it. I am most grateful to my noble friend for allowing this to happen.

My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale did not have the opportunity before we adjourned to comment on the amendment which my noble friend withdrew. Since it touches also on matters that we are about to discuss, it may be appropriate if I start by saying a little about that. First, we share my noble friend's view of consultation. We believe that the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission are important centres of expertise, that their influence and help should be brought to bear wherever possible and appropriate, and that the resources of other specialist bodies should not be left untapped.

That is not only our view; it has been the official view for a long time and it is embodied in statute. My noble friend referred in particular to certain consultation requirements imposed on planning authorities under the town and country legislation and on water authorities under both the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Water Act 1973.

Paragraphs 3 and 4 of Schedule 1 to this Bill transfer planning authority powers and duties to the borough and district councils. Water authority powers and duties are of course not transferred by this Bill. The GLC's and the MCC's existing functions in relations to national parks and the countryside are transferred, as they stand, in Schedule 3. Moreover, the most important powers to which my noble friend specifically referred are those in Section 71 of the London Government Act 1963. It is under this provision that the GLC now collects ecological information and carries out research into the natural environment. The G1,C's existing powers are effectively transferred to the London borough councils under Clause 86. I can assure my noble friend that he did not withdraw his amendment prematurely. All the existing consultation requirements, and the powers under which the GLC operates its ecology unit, will be covered in this Bill.

May I refer briefly to Lord Melchett's points when he raised Amendment No. 53B. Again I am conscious that we are looking backwards in debate, which one does not normally do, but this is an unusual occasion, in that we agreed at the end of the last debate that this is what we would do.

In moving that amendment the noble Lord sought details of the arrangements for the continued management of a number of areas within the GLC area following abolition. We were in a little difficulty over this in that while I think the noble Lord was talking of successor bodies, our difficult} is in establishing what is already being done. Before we can identify any specific problems in individual areas or undertake consultations on them, we are dependent on the information provided by the GLC, which now has the responsibility and is discharging it. We have asked for this information on properties, parks, open spaces, including details of ownership, management, application of local acts, covenants, trusts, et cetera; and we have had to do so, I regret to tell your Lordships, under the powers in the paving Act, since the information was not forthcoming voluntarily. But to date no information has yet been forthcoming. I do not doubt that the GLC will comply with the request as it has a statutory force, and when we get the information we can deal better with the points that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, raised.

Your Lordships will have much more to say on all these amendments and I will leave further points for reply by my noble friend. I return to where I started by saying that I have been much impressed by the closeness and degree of your Lordships' interest in these matters. We shall have that very much in mind between now and Report, when we consider the transactions this afternoon.

Lord Melchett

It might also be convenient if with this group of amendments we also discuss my Amendment No. 58ZA, which covers very much the same ground. It would save our having separate debates on that later.

Amendment No. 58ZA: After Clause 6, insert the following new clause:

("Countryside and Nature Conservation Authority.

.—(1) If it appears to the Secretary of State in the case of Greater London or of any metropolitan county, necessary or expedient for the effective discharge of functions to which this Act relates, he may, after consulting the constituent councils concerned, by order establish for that area a body corporate to be known by the name of the London Countryside and Nature Conservation Authority or by the name of the county with the addition of the words "Countryside and Nature Conservation Authority", as the case may be.

(2) Each authority shall consist of members of the constituent councils appointed by them to be members of the authority.

(3) The constituent councils in relation to the London Countryside and Nature Conservation Authority shall be the London borough councils and the Common Council.

(4) The constituent councils in relation to a metropolitan Countryside and Nature Conservation Authority shall be the councils for the metropolitan districts comprised in that county.

(5) An authority established in pursuance of this section shall provide an ecological service in the area of the authority.

(6) In subsection (5) above, the provision of an ecological service shall include the employment of staff engaged in and the provision of facilities for ecological research and development, including data handling, or the application of ecological knowledge in the management of country parks, nature reserves and other land of natural character; the rehabilitation and management of derelict land; the application of ecological knowledge in support of any function of the London boroughs or metropolitan district councils, or in support of any function of an authority established under this Part of this Act; and in London the management of land within the green belt owned by the Greater London Council.

(7) An order under this section may contain such supplementary and transitional provisions as the Secretary of State thinks necessary or expedient, including provisions for the transfer of property, staff, rights and liabilities and provisions amending any enactments or any instrument made under any enactment.")

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for what he said about the amendments that we discussed on Thursday night. I now appreciate that we were involved in a misunderstanding on that occasion. I had hoped that my amendment would have served to give the Government some information about the areas of national wildlife importance, which I and other Members of your Lordships' House are concerned about, if abolition of the GLC goes ahead. In any event, I caution the noble Lord that the GLC is not the only source of advice and information on Sites of Special Scientific Interest. These are declared, not by the GLC or any other local autthority, but by the Nature Conservancy Council, the Government's advisers. So far as I know, the NCC and the Government are talking readily and I should have thought that it would have been possible for the Government to go to the NCC to ask about Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the GLC area and to discuss their future with the NCC. I had hoped that my amendment might have encouraged the Government to do that and if, at the end of the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, can confirm that, it would be a step forward.

3.15 p.m.

My Amendment No. 58ZA goes a little wider than the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, and others. I think a problem on which it would be worth spending a brief moment is that it will be difficult to draw a line between the various subjects we shall be discussing today and those we discussed on Thursday; namely, the nature conservation and ecology aspects of the GLC and the metropolitan counties; secondly, the farmland which they own and which will be discussed under an amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley; and thirdly, the parks which we discussed at some length in respect of Holland Park, also on Thursday.

I shall give an example of why I believe that these three things should be taken together. It is always worth looking on the ground when discussing the countryside, nature conservation and farming, to see what happens there rather than what may be thought to happen in theory. In the Denham-Harefield area in the Colne Valley Park the GLC owns a large amount of land. Some of this land is let to tenant farmers and provides an important area of agricultural activity in a part of the GLC which is under intense pressure from development. It is near Heathrow airport and it is extremely important that that area should continue to be farmed as it has been under GLC ownership. But that estate also includes an historic house which the GLC has been doing-up with a view to making it part of the countryside management and countryside interpretation of the estate. It includes one of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which we discussed on Thursday, Frays Farm Meadows at Hillingdon; and also some land which the GLC has restored using a revolutionary new technique, so I am informed, which involves earthworms. That does not sound all that revolutionary or new to me, but I think it is in the context in which the GLC has been restoring land in this way. It includes an area where intensive management has been used to restore and improve the environment. It also includes a farm interpretation centre at Park Lodge Farm, where farming is interpreted and explained to the general public and to many thousands of school children every year.

There is a whole range of activities from parkland and farmland to interpretation, countryside management, improvement and scientific nature conservation on one site, and also maintenance of an historic building and finding a purpose for that building. I do not see how it will be possible to manage that site effectively without a single body carrying out all those functions; being the landlord to the tenant farmers, having the ecological expertise to manage Sites of Special Scientific Interest and so on. That may be one of the larger examples, but there are others. Hampstead Heath has a Site of Special Scientific Interest; it has Kenwood House, an historic building; it has a large area of parkland and semi-natural habitation and also an area where the GLC has been attempting greatly to improve the environment by re-seeding a meadow with native wild flowers, cutting it for hay and restoring and improving wildlife habitats. A whole range of activities takes place just on that site; and there are many others in London which I will not go into at this stage.

It seems to me that in considering the future of ecological work in London we may need to take it with the countryside management work, with the role of the GLC as landlord to farmers and with the role of interpreting and giving advice on the countryside. There are a number of other aspects of the work that the GLC and the metropolitan counties are involved in apart from the land that they own and manage themselves. There is the strategic planning role where ecology, the Importance of farming and a number of factors need to be taken together. There is the grant aid function, which we shall come to later in the Bill. There is the giving of advice to district councils, to statutory undertakers, to voluntary bodies and to many other organisations. It has been helpful in the GLC to have not only the ecological and the nature conservation expertise but the expertise that resides in the parks department and so on. There is education and countryside management in which the metropolitan counties particularly have been involved with other organisations, in such matters as Operation Groundwork.

My amendment was aimed to see whether the Government saw some merit in this argument, that if we are considering the countryside—there is much very important countryside, much of it very beautiful, rich in wildlife, very intensively used for recreation—it is important that we continue to see much of it farmed as it has been. In protecting those acres by continuing to manage them it would be good if a number of functions were brought together under a single body. For that reason, I put down this amendment and I hope that the Government will see merit in my arguments.

Baroness Nicol

I will try not to cover any of the ground that has already been covered because I know that there is pressure on time today. I am reminded of the justices' clerk's advice to his magistrates on the way into court, "Be just if you can, be merciful if you must, but, for Heaven's sake, finish your list". We did not finish our list on Thursday and therefore we are under a little pressure today. I will not be too specific about the issues which have been nobly covered by the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, and by my noble friend Lord Melchett, in giving some excellent illustrations of the need for a county-wide planning body.

The Minister gave a very good answer to the debate that took place on Thursday night, having had the weekend to reflect on it. But the fact still remains that without the impetus of a county-wide planning authority we are likely to lose sight of many of the issues now being dealt with because they become fragmented among the various bodies, each perhaps feeling that it is not their responsibility to cover it. Some of the work done is of national importance, and not simply of local importance. We have heard of a number of small specific local sites and of some larger ones.

In order to give your Lordships' Committee some idea of the background to what we are talking about I shall briefly mention some of the projects that have been undertaken, first of all, in the areas of the metropolitan counties. Nearly 20 million trees have been planted since 1974, under the direct responsibility of the county councils; 6,000 hectares of derelict land have been reclaimed by the county councils, much of it in urban areas. In Greater Manchester the county council has taken a leading role in improving the river valleys of the county. Obviously, this covers very much more than one area. It has been instrumental in the provision of a very long list of new footpaths, cycle tracks and bridleways.

On Merseyside the Sefton Coastal Management Scheme has protected the ecological value of the dune coast line, and dunes have been stabilised and nature reserves established. In South Yorkshire the Rother Valley Park Scheme, a major recreational facility covering 700 acres, has been attempted and is succeeding. The Tyne and Wear Urban Fringe Area Management Scheme was launched covering 35 square miles to improve landscape, woodlands and hedgerows.

I am cutting down the list dramatically; but there are many, many examples more on it. In the West Midlands there is the Beacon Regional Park. In West Yorkshire there have been a number of canal restorations and improvement works, covering a wide area. These are just a few of the kind of schemes which in future are likely not to be initiated. This is the problem. I think that under the new proposals smaller schemes may be thought up by local authorities, but these bigger schemes will not, and even with the provisions of the new Amendment No. 58, if it is accepted, or Amendment No. 58ZA, if that is accepted, we shall be left without the initiative which has to be taken.

The other very dangerous aspect of what is happening is that the expertise which has been so painfully assembled over the years in these authorities—in the GLC, in particular, and, to a lesser extent perhaps, in the metropolitan counties—will be dissipated. It is unlikely that, even if they want to, these smaller authorities will be able to afford to employ the necessary team of experts to run any one of these projects, because it is not a one-man job, or even a two-man job. You need a wide range of expertise in order to see that they succeed.

In Amendment No. 58 we are suggesting that a body be set up between three borough councils or more which will require a two-thirds majority before it can go ahead. Having had some experience of cross-boundary attempts to implement parts of a structure plan, I know how difficult it is to get a simple majority, let alone a two-thirds majority. My very informed guess is that it will not come off and that nothing will happen.

We have turned down on earlier amendments the idea of a strategic planning body which would have given us the necessary control over these projects. We have even turned down the idea of an inquiry which would have given the experts who are presently concerned with these projects, as well as experts on the outside who know about it, a chance to tell us what kind of scheme would have worked and still have met the Government's plan. We have not had the benefit of that advice.

I think that we are taking another step in the dark on what is a very important aspect of public life. More and more people are concerned about conservation and about the protection of our urban environment, particularly. It is not any longer a lunatic fringe, if it ever was, and young people particularly are concerned. I think that to show the kind of disregard for planning which the Government have shown so far—and I hope that they are going to withdraw from that position—is not acceptable. I hope that at least some of these amendments, or something which does the job which these amendments want to do, will be acceptable to the Government before the end of this Bill.

The Earl of Onslow

As somebody who has his name to this amendment, I was very encouraged by the noises which came from my noble friend Lord Elton. What I should very much like to do is to underline, if I can, what the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, has just been saying on the importance of not losing expertise. The very small ecology unit of the GLC has done some very special work, at very low cost indeed. If we allow it to be dissipated or provide that it should become the duty of each borough to provide something for itself, each borough itself will provide something at a quarter of the cost, if it can; and in regard to the 32 boroughs it will end up at eight times the cost and about a quarter as effective as keeping in being the things which already exist.

One must underline also the little things that the unit does. For instance, it ensures that the hay on Hampstead Heath is cut once a year, and the hay is then fed to police horses. This may sound a rather naïve thing to do. The unit also preserves the flowers on Hampstead Heath. What it does not do is what has been done in Richmond Park, which has been to put sewage sludge on to Richmond Park to increase the grass for the deer. Consequently, the grass has become too rich and the wild flowers have been swamped by grass. It is in regard to all these little things that an ecology unit of sensitivity and intelligence can contribute towards making sure that matters do not go wrong. Furthermore, if the ecology unit remains in existence, its educational value will I think be so important. People are now more conscious of ecology and more conscious of conservation in the truest and best sense than ever before. For that, we must all be very thankful. To make sure that that small unit stays in being is very important.

Furthermore, it is important that during the hiatus of dissolution of the GLC the unit knows what its future is going to be. If it does not, it will become demoralised and then things will slip through its fingers and it will be interested solely in internal politics and in finding out what its next job is going to be, and so on. We will then have destroyed something of very great value. I am not asking for the Government to spend any money. I am asking the Government actually to save ratepayers' money. I am not asking them to be anything other than I know they can be, which is intelligent and sensitive Ministers. They are represented on the Front Bench now and I am sure they will not let me down.

Lord Winstanley

I, too, was most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for the reply he gave to those of us who spoke on these amendments last week. I was reassured up to a point, but I hope the noble Lord will accept that I was not, let us say, sufficiently reassured to feel that we can allow this subject to go without further words from the Government or perhaps without certain further assurances.

I think that my present anxiety is whether the Government really understand what it is we are worried about. So often when we talk about this Bill in its various forms, people seem to think that all that we are worried about is money. Indeed, quite often noble Lords opposite seem to worry only about money. But in terms of resources so far as countryside and conservation is concerned, we are nothing like so worried about money as we are worried about expertise and experience in the highly trained and very dedicated staffs of the metropolitan counties, the GLC and all the others who have been doing all this work for a very long time. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, has outlined some of the things that have been done in the different metropolitan areas, and so on. I accept that it has been argued that it is not really a statutory function. But it has been done, and nobody is suggesting that what the counties have done was ultra vires in any way; it certainly was not.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, in his reply just now, talked about the transfer of powers to the districts. I am a little more interested in obligations. If they understood that by having the powers there was an expectation that they would use those powers, that I think would perhaps be slightly different. What I am particularly anxious to receive is some assurance that the expertise which has grown over the years in the county councils among staff dedicated to this kind of work, with a great deal of experience and ability, will continue to be available to whoever goes on doing this work.

3.30 p.m.

I accept that as and when the Bill goes through the counties will have disappeared, but those people will not have disappeared. Of course, there would perhaps be a greater expectation that they could be recruited to continue the work they have been doing over the years if there had been some kind of overall successor body to take over these various functions, rather than their being taken over individually by different districts. I think we shall need some kind of assurance on that point.

My worry, I repeat, is not so much about whether the districts will have the resources in terms of money to do this kind of work or whether they will realise that there is an implied obligation to do it. It goes along with the transfer of the powers. What I am particularly worried about is: will they have the expertise and ability which is at present contained in the employees who have been doing the work for years in different counties? In saying that, I do not for a moment wish to belittle the quite excellent work which I know has been done already and is being done by many of the metropolitan districts, both in London and in different parts of the country. They have done excellent work. It has been of a slightly different order, but from my own personal experience in this field I have found in a number of the areas that the major contribution has come from the counties and the staff in the counties. It is not a matter of money; it is the input in terms of staff resources.

I think that is what we want to hear a little more about—what kind of machinery will exist after this Bill has been enacted which will be able to attract to its ranks the people who have been doing this work for years in the counties. Or will they merely be lost and shall we just hope that somebody else who is already in the districts will develop the same kind of ability? It would be a tragedy if all that experience and expertise were lost now. I am quite sure there are ways of ensuring that it is not lost, and I hope that before we leave these various amendments we will receive assurances on that point from Ministers opposite.

Lord Sandford

I share the view of those who have been speaking on this group of amendments that it is important that the countryside in the metropolitan areas and on the fringes of the metropolitan areas is properly and comprehensively managed and that the flora and fauna in them are looked after carefully and well.

However, I do not share all the misgivings that have been expressed about the inability or unwillingness of the metropolitan boroughs to discharge these functions adequately. They have not been doing so up to now because the metropolitan counties have been there to do it for them. But noble Lords who were listening to this debate last Thursday heard the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, say that, for example, in the Operation Groundwork project in Merseyside the initiative and a lot of the drive came from the metropolitan boroughs of Knowsley and St. Helens. There are plenty of other districts up and down the country—urban areas—with resources far less than those of a metropolitan borough, who are discharging these functions of countryside management as skilfully as anybody else.

However, it is a fact—and this is a concern I share—that there is now available in these metropolitan counties a body of expertise which ought not to be lost. I should like to suggest one solution to my noble friend Lord Chelwood. When my noble friend on the Front Bench, Lord Elton, and I are discussing the way in which an amendment similar to the one I tabled as No. 19 is tabled by the Government, as I hope it will be, at the Report stage, both in respect of London and of the metropolitan counties, we should consider ways and means (I hope the Government will do some preliminary work on this) in which the agenda of this matter—which is to say, how to supply the expertise to the metropolitan boroughs which will be discharging countryside management functions—can be made available from the strategic planning conferences. I hope it is the Government's intention to set up these conferences and put them on a firm basis. This is just another way of handling the matter if that solution of a lead metropolitan authority does not seem in every case to be the most suitable way forward.

Lord Birkett

I shall not detain your Lordships more than a moment, but I cannot resist adding my voice to these small comments, from my privileged position of being Director of Recreation and Parks at the GLC, where I have responsibility for so much of London's open space.

I should just like to add my voice to those of many noble Lords who have expressed worries about the continuation of expertise, experience and, above all, dedication. I do so because many of these areas come within my own personal control within the GLC. There are many examples, though I will not go through too long a list. For instance, there is the whole question of landscape architecture. Within my department comes probably the biggest group of landscape architects in the world—certainly in Europe. They are a very expert and dedicated body. Also within my control comes a whole team of itinerant tree pruners. That may seem a small and slightly irrelevant issue, but it is in fact an economic way of going about the business of conserving London's trees, and it works exceedingly well. They are in themselves very expert.

There are teams of play leaders who look after the one o'clock clubs, the adventure playgrounds and all the extras to the parks of London. There is the entertainment division which looks after all the entertainments, not simply the great big ones which one hears a lot about but little entertainments for children in the parks every afternoon all through the summer. There are countless bodies of experience, expertise and dedication that one fears will not survive, not because anybody would wish them anything but well but simply because the borough structure is not capable of looking after them.

I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said on this subject. It is not a matter of will but a matter of capability. It is indeed possible that everybody would make their contribution either by employing a little bit of such expertise or by joining in with some wider expert body. I do not see the structure at the moment for doing this. I fear that either a ramshackle edifice will be put together at twice the expense or nothing will happen. In between, which is exactly where it is at the moment, I do not see it happening.

I hope your Lordships will forgive me for a rather circuitous exercise. Funnily enough, within my department the one thing that does not happen is exactly what we are debating this afternoon. I do not look after the ecology unit, but I admire it and work very closely with it. It co-operates with my landscape architects, park managers and everyone else. It would be a tragedy if that body of expertise were to be lost.

I am sorry not to have been here earlier in the debate to hear what were described as the most encouraging words from the noble Lord the Minister. I hope he will make even more encouraging noises at the end of the debate.

Lord Elton

If the noble Lord will forgive me, I was not intending to wind up. I was most interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, had to say. Our sources of information in the GLC are not very generous and I just hope he might prevail upon his friend who is responsible for the ecological unit to be similarly forthcoming, if his employers would permit it.

Lord Birkett

I am most interested in and even embarrassed at what the noble Lord has to say.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Very briefly, I support the spirit of the amendments moved by my noble friend Lord Chelwood. I understand that his intention is that both amendments should enter the Bill and supplement each other. I totally accept that expertise should not be lost—the point made by my noble friend Lord Sandford—but I rise to distinguish between advice and consultation on ecology, which is the hallmark of Amendments Nos. 55 and 58, and the creation of a formalised body with executive functions, with ecological service and staff, under subsection (6) of Amendment No. 58ZA. I support the spirit of the former, but not that of the latter, to which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has spoken.

The Earl of Onslow

I should like briefly to comment on something the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, said. It seems to me that there is a difference between people who are there to advise on ecology and conservation which is quintessentially non-money making and cannot, under any circumstances, go to the private sector, whereas it would be perfectly reasonable to employ outside private landscape architects. Repton and Capability Brown did not work for the GLC. One of them worked for my forebear.

What one is talking about here is the very important part which I think can be played only by some form of Government body or quasi-Government body like the Nature Conservancy Council, which is concerned with conserving and looking after something and which is essentially non-financially productive.

Lord Shinwell

May I, without any knowledge of the subject at all—I make my confession to begin with—add my word to some of the speeches to which we have listened this afternoon and to some of the speeches we heard last week? As this debate has proceeded—I have listened to most of it, and what I have failed to listen to I have read in the reports that are available to us almost every day—I have come to the conclusion that there is a general desire which applies to every Member of your Lordships' Chamber that something should emerge as a result of our debates which is devoid of anything in the nature of bias, prejudice or distasteful features that exist in our minds because of what has been happening for some years now under the GLC. Occasionally there has been a kind of arrogance—I would not put it higher than that—on the part of those associated with the GLC in their advertisements and in the manner in which they have availed themselves of their finances, and so on, about which some of us, perhaps because of a lack of knowledge or expertise of the subject, have felt there is something wrong and that something ought to be done to correct the situation and remove the defects which appear to be obvious.

As the debate proceeds, I find that submissions and presentations of the case are being made which are very much more intelligent as the days go on, and also, if I may say so, that there is on the part of members of the Government an endeavour to change their approach, to some extent, to the submissions made by Members of your Lordships' Committee, who at the beginning appeared to be, in the language of some people (although I think it was mistaken), indulging in wrecking amendments. I do not believe there was any intention on the part of anybody on any side of the Committee to indulge in anything of that sort. After all, an election has taken place in a democratic fashion and we have to accept the consequences of that election; otherwise, we cannot claim to be democrats. Whether or not we like it, there it is. It is a decision taken by the general public, by the electors, and also by what may be regarded as a referendum. That is the position as I see it.

Therefore, it would seem to me that we are now approaching a stage when, because of some of the speeches we have listened to and which appear to have been taken notice of by members of the Government, and also because of the reassuring statements made by members of the Government, it is possible that something creative may emerge which will be to the advantage of London and to all those who have been associated with this problem. That is how I see it, and I would therefore recommend that we proceed along those lines.

There is one further thing I should like to say. I am concerned about how your Lordships' Chamber works. I have often thought that it could work much better to the advantage of the nation and rather less in the interests of certain bodies, who appear to use our Chamber to their own advantage, who have a self-interest and who are self-opinionated about it. For example, we have had to listen for some time now to speeches made on certain amendments, only to discover immediately after the arguments have been presented and briefs have been furnished to those who have addressed your Lordships that the amendments are withdrawn one after the other. We have had amendments moved and amendments withdrawn. It seems to me to be all wrong. Amendments should not be produced at all if there is the slightest thought in the minds of those associated with the amendments that there are some defects in them. They should not be presented to your Lordships; and there have been far too many of these amendments.

3.45 p.m.

I should also like to see rather more Members of the official Opposition taking part in the debates. After all, very largely they have been left in the hands of just a few Members of your Lordships' Committee; and although I have no doubt that they have all the expertise that is necessary about matters of this sort—perhaps more expertise than anybody else, and certainly more expertise than I have—it nevertheless worries me a bit. They go on talking and talking and talking, and withdrawing and withdrawing and withdrawing. What is it all about? I am sick and tired of it.

That is why the other day I ventured to intervene as I did, and I got the impression that my intervention might have been of some value—not because I happen to be who I am, but rather because I said something that many others of your Lordships would like to have said but did not dare to say because they might be accused of seeking to wreck the Government's proposals. Certainly that is not my intention. I want to see your Lordships' Chamber making a good job of this, in the interests of London and in the interests of all those associated with local government. Local government is of the highest importance. It is democratic; it is not something we can afford to lose. We have to develop it and make it more effective, and if that were being done I would support it 100 per cent.

I hope that your Lordships do not mind my speaking in this fashion, but I do it because I have a great conviction about the ability that exists in your Lordships' Chamber and about what we are capable of doing if only we use our resources perhaps a little more wisely and more correctively than we do at times. There are so many things I should like to see done in the interests of the nation, and which are so necessary for the nation's future. Anything I have said is intended in that direction, and in that direction alone.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Skelmersdale

I am not sure that I can answer the major part of the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell; I do not think that is for me. But what I can do is attempt to answer the various speeches that have been made on this very important series of amendments.

I should like to preface my remarks by saying that, having reading Hansard this morning, I think that in my efforts to answer the debate on Amendment No. 53B at our last sitting I over-pruned the points that I wished to make. Listening to what the Committee had to say both last Thursday and today, I detect that there are two separate but related issues contained in the amendments we have been discussing. The first concerns the future ownership of specific sites and the second concerns the maintenance of specialist expertise available to assist in the management of each site.

On the former point, I hope I made clear that all the existing sites named in the amendment would continue in being and would remain subject to exactly the same statutory controls as now, albeit under different ownership. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, just now mentioned Frays Farm Meadows, and that is of course a case in point. It is currently owned partly by the GLC and partly by the local authority, and it is managed by a tenant farmer under the CLC. This management of the land will continue, no matter who holds the (shall I say?) head lease, or whoever owns the land. Both he and the owner, as I have just said, will be just as bound by statute as he and the previous owner were. However, it is to the latter point—the maintenance of specialist expertise to assist in the management of sites, with proper regard to conservation and ecological factors—that this second group of amendments is addressed and on which I shall concentrate my remarks.

The speech of my noble friend the Leader of the House, to which my noble friend Lord Chelwood made reference, has not been overtaken by events and we stand by it. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, drew our attention to the fact that, first, the subject covers more than the GLC area and extends to the metropolitan areas. Secondly, she and my noble friend Lord Onslow drew attention, as did the noble Lord Lord Birkett, to ecology units as a centre of expertise. This is not in doubt.

However, the first point on which we need to be clear is the powers; about which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley talked, under which ecological work is carried out. It is under Section 71 of the Local Government Act 1963 that the GLC has collected ecological information and carried out research into the natural environment. We have already provided in Clause 86 of the Bill, and we have tabled an amendment to strengthen it, that the London borough councils should have virtually the same powers as the GLC now has under Section 71 of the 1963 Act to collect research and information. Indeed, one can readily see that the wording of Clause 86 has quite deliberately been very closely modelled on the existing wording of Section 71 of the 1963 Act.

I agree that Clause 86 does not mention ecological information specifically, but then neither does Section 71. In fact, both provisions are drawn in the widest possible terms and refer to "any matters". I should be reluctant to try to write into Clause 86 specific reference to ecology, because if we did so, we should risk narrowing the scope of the powers which it now provides. I hope therefore that my noble friend will recognise that we are giving the successor authorities—the London boroughs and the metropolitan districts—all the powers that they need to carry on the sort of work that the GLC and the metropolitan county councils have done in the field of ecology.

My noble friend's Amendment No. 58 goes further in seeking to place a new duty on the boroughs and districts to draw up a collective scheme for urban nature conservation. The wording of his amendment is very closely modelled on that of Clause 47 of the Bill and the improved version of Clause 86 which we have tabled as an amendment for later discussion. As I have explained, Clause 86 does not specifically mention ecology, but that is because it has been deliberately drawn very much wider.

We could, of course, attempt to draw up a specific list of things which we all agree should be covered, but in doing that we should run the serious risk of narrowing the scope of the provision and unintentionally ruling out desirable things that we had failed to think of when we drew up our list. We are quite satisfied that the words "any matters" include ecological work. I can therefore assure noble Lords that our revised Clause 86 will enable the boroughs and districts to set up such a collective scheme where a majority agree and to fund expenditure approved by two-thirds of them. Such a scheme could provide for a lead borough or district to employ a specialist unit providing expertise to all.

The Committee clearly feels that there is a problem in ensuring that existing specialist units are kept together. The Government appreciate that concern. So what are we doing about it? My noble friend Lord Chelwood addressed to me a direct point which was: have we been in discussion with the Nature Conservancy Council? The answer is that Ministers have been, and are still, in discussion with the NCC on these matters. The chairman of the NCC has expressed concern on the need for boroughs and districts to have appropriate strategies for ecology. The NCC itself considers that it can help best by providing encouragement and advice to locally employed ecologists. We have assured the Nature Conservancy Council that the Government are keenly aware of their concern and welcome their constructive approach.

Further than this, I can offer the Committee a simple assurance; that is, that the residuary bodies will be able to provide such units with a temporary home if permanent arrangements cannot be made by the abolition date. This prevents out and out and immediate disaster. After that, we would have breathing space in which we would seek to operate a new Clause 86 solution or something similar to it, but I should point out that this can be decided only by the successor authorities themselves. Like my noble friend Lord Sandford, I am confident that the boroughs will be able to make such arrangements in due course.

It should not be thought that effective conservation management is the sole province of the GLC and the metropolitan counties. At present there are, indeed, some very good examples of sites well managed by boroughs and districts. For example, the London Borough of Hillingdon already manages the largest ancient woodland in London, Ruislip Woods, and, in the West Midlands, Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council owns and manages Saltwells local nature reserve, which is an important geological SSSI.

Further to that, my noble friend and I have listened very carefully to what has been said today and I hope that what we have been able to say to the Committee will have provided some reassurance. I believe that the provisions we are making in the Bill itself, and what I have said about the use of the residuary body, will enable a satisfactory resolution to be devised.

However, I accept that the Committee has made important points and it may be that the Bill's provisions need strengthening in some respects to ensure that the objective, which we all share, can be achieved. We shall look very carefully at this in the light of the points made in what I think everybody will agree has been a quite excellent and brief discussion on these amendments. If on further examination we find that some improvement can be made to the Bill, my noble friend and I undertake to come back to this at Report. I hope that in the light of those very concrete assurances that I have given to the Committee noble Lords will not seek to press these amendments.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

I listened very patiently to what the noble Lord has just said, but I did not hear him say anything about derelict land sites, though most of the metropolitan counties have quite a large acreage of these at the present moment. If we are to have restoration in the metropolitan counties, something must be done about derelict sites. Those are the sites which have old industrial buildings on them, and if we are to attract industry to the metropolitan areas, we must compete with the green-field sites. The metropolitan counties have, to a great extent, been getting rid of derelict land sites. So will the noble Lord explain how the districts will be able to do this in the future, when many of them will be very much smaller than towns in the shire counties?

Lord Skelmersdale

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, for directing our minds to that point. In the speech which I have just made I assumed that the expertise of these ecology units would go on, and I said that I thought that their expertise was directly relevant to the problems, as has been expressed from all corners of the Committee. As regards derelict land sites in inner city areas, they may very well have—and, indeed, already have—an input into the consideration of what that land should finally be used for. For example, there are very often temporary nature reserves set up, and that is an idea which the ecology units would obviously pursue with the various councils. But the other point, which is slightly away from what we are discussing at the moment, is that the urban development grant, with which money so many of these sites have been reclaimed in the past, will go on.

Baroness White

I do not wish to delay the Committee, but will the Minister enlighten us? He has been making great play with Clause 86 which, as I understand it, refers exclusively to research and collection of information, whereas Amendment No. 58, which we are considering, refers to services and schemes. Those are not entirely the same. I am absolutely in favour of collecting information and undertaking research, but I understood Amendment No. 58 to refer to something implementing some of the advice given. Am I in error in this?

4 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

No, not in total. The point is, I think, that you cannot have the one without the other. Basically anybody can do the job if they are once told what to do. I suggest that at this moment we should concentrate our minds on the centres of expertise which can provide basic back-up and basic knowledge for the carrying out of the work on the ground, which, incidentally, need not necessarily, and already is not necessarily, done by employees of any local authority. One knows, for example, of the inestimable value of the work being done by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, to name but one.

Lord Winstanley

Since we are on that particular point, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, in reply to the noble Baroness, said that we could not have the one without the other. Are we to assume from that that if we do have the one, we will inevitably and ipso facto have the other as well?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, exactly the opposite. If we do not have the one, we will not have the other. That is the point I am seeking to address to the Committee.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

Since my noble friend has said that in the light of the debate he is going to look at this again to see which words will figure at Report stage, I cross swords with the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, when she suggests that district councils and, indeed, the smaller authorities generally are not capable of dealing with the re-establishment of derelict land—

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

I did not say that they were not capable of re-establishing derelict land, but that it was financially impossible.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

There is nothing new in this. They were perfectly capable of doing this before we had the metropolitan boroughs; they did it and we have much evidence that they did. My noble friend ought to bear in mind that we must not have bigger, extra tiers to carry out something that was done most effectively and satisfactorily by the smaller authorities before the bigger one was put in their place.

Lord Melchett

As I will not be moving Amendment No. 58ZA, perhaps I may make one or two remarks before the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, withdraws this amendment. All of us will be grateful for the positive way that the noble Lord looked at the future of the ecology unit. I did not say anything about that in my own speech because it was touched on by others. All of us very greatly admire the expertise built up in the Greater London Council ecology unit and the magnificent work done in practice not only in giving advice, but also in many other ways. Indeed, I believe that the noble Lord mentioned the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, a recipient of grant aid from the GLC, whose work in London will be decimated if that grant aid does not continue. That is something we will have a chance of debating later in the Bill.

The noble Lord drew a distinction between "duties" and "powers" in the earlier part of his speech. We are all concerned about reality; we are concerned not as to whether it happens to be the duty or the power of some successor body, but whether or not the excellent work done now actually continues and, if so, who will do it.

The noble Lord went some way to say that we will make sure that somebody does this work, but for my part before the Bill leaves this House I want to see something more definite on that. It is too important for it simply to be left to saying, "Someone will do it and we will work out what later". The noble Lord said he will look at that, too, and we will come back to it on Report.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, raised the question of borough councils and their abilities. Nobody will deny that borough councils in many parts of the country have been able, on the nature conservation side, to own and manage nature reserves, but it is fair to say that their record is not as good overall as that of the metropolitan counties and the Greater London Council. They have not done as much or have not done it as quickly in recent years as the metropolitan authorities.

I was lucky enough this morning to be at Camley Street, a GLC site created into a nature reserve just north of King's Cross. That was done jointly by a voluntary body, the London Wildlife Trust, the borough council, Camden Council, and the GLC. Camden Council made it clear, as did the London Wildlife Trust, that they would not have been able to do this without the support of the GLC, not just from the point of view of the expertise drawn from the ecology unit, which was vital, but also in terms of the financial support, the provision of the site itself and support in the planning process which enabled the site to be rescued from being a lorry park and turned into a wildlife park. I believe that the input from the metropolitan county and at GLC level has been very important. It is not just the advice which has been given which has been so important; there are many other factors as well.

Finally, it was fascinating at Camley Street to see the large number of schoolchildren from London; incidentally, from all over London. This site will not serve people from Camden borough area only, which is why a wider view is necessary, and it was fascinating to see the pleasure those children were getting from dipping in the water, looking at the birds, and enjoying the wildlife. It is something of great importance to people living in urban areas and I hope that when we come to Report stage the Government will give this matter further consideration than they have done today, welcome though that is.

Lord Chelwood

I am very much encouraged by the intervention of my noble friend Lord Elton. What he said was extremely helpful and I am grateful to him for his intervention in our discussion. We have had a good debate. I cannot help feeling that what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said was rather vague, to put it no higher. It was not very positive. It showed the Government have an open mind on this question—and we all welcome that—but surely we need ecological advice and advice on nature conservation to be part of the planning process, which it really is at present. The mere collation of data under Clause 86 is not the same as giving advice for planning, and no one can say that it is. We need to be sure, too, that the cost-effective teams continue. They are multi-disciplinary. It is true that some of the boroughs and districts have done excellent work in this sphere and will continue so to do; but it is equally true that some are not interested, and that others who will be under severe financial stringency simply will not be able to afford to do it in a cost-effective way.

So I am not completely reassured by what was said by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale. I shall want to study his words—and the speeches of those who have put their names to the amendment, and others who have spoken—with very great care indeed, in particular his suggestion that if a permanent solution cannot be found to keep the teams in being, perhaps the residuary body might be used as a temporary holding place. However, despite what I have said about the noble Lord's words being somewhat vague, I feel reasonably confident that between now and Report stage a sensible way can be found to keep the ecological advisory expertise in being on a Greater London Council and county-wide basis. It is for those reasons that I think the right thing to do is to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Skelmersdale

This is a suitable moment to adjourn the Committee, and therefore I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.