HL Deb 11 July 1988 vol 499 cc681-97

8.49 p.m.

Lord Hesketh rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14th June be approved [31st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. It may be for the convenience of the House if at the same time I speak to the other Motions standing in my name.

All these regulations implement the EC Council Directive 85/337—the Environmental Assessment or EA Directive. This directive's thoroughly commendable objective is to ensure that the environmental effects of a major development project are taken into consideration in a systematic way before the project is approved. The directive requires developers to assemble information about the likely environmental effects of projects including information which public authorities must make available. The decision-making body must consult bodies with relevant environmental responsibilities and also the general public, and take all the information into consideration in deciding whether to approve the project.

These provisions are similar to those of our system of development control. The effect of the directive will be to systematise the provision and consideration of environmental information a little more in the case of those development proposals to which it applies. Moreover, the types of project to which it applies go a little wider than those controlled by our planning system and include matters which we control under other systems. Hence the different sets of regulations before the House.

There has been concern about the United Kingdom's intentions on this directive. But we have never been opposed to its underlying principles. Our concern is to avoid imposing unnecessary burdens on developers and public authorities. These various regulations are designed to minimise the burdens while implementing the directive properly and improving the way in which environmental considerations are brought to hear on development decisions in those cases where it does apply.

I turn, first, to the common features of the sets of regulations. All require a developer to provide, in appropriate circumstances, an "environmental statement"; that is, a statement of the expected environmental effects of a proposed project. The information to be provided is set out in each set of regulations in terms reflecting the provisions of the directive.

All the regulations make provision for consultations. These are of three types. First, specified public bodies which have environmental information in their possession must make that information available to developers. Secondly, public bodies with environmental responsibilities may comment on the project to which an environmental statement relates. Thirdly, the public are enabled to comment on the project and its likely environmental effects. The environmental statement and the consultation responses must be taken into account in the decision-making process.

A further common element relates to the identification of the projects which are to be subject to environmental assessment. The directive requires all projects listed in its Annex I to be so subject. For those projects listed in Annex II the directive requires environmental assessment where member states consider that their characteristics so require. This provision does not give member states unfettered discretion: the directive makes clear that its purpose is to ensure that projects which are likely to have significant environmental effects shall be subject to an assessment of those effects. However, as far as Annex II projects are concerned, we do have to make a judgment in each case on whether the project is likely to have significant environmental effects.

The various regulations therefore provide procedures for deciding which individual Annex II projects require environmental assessment. It would be possible, under the terms of the directive, to specify thresholds or criteria for identifying such projects in the regulations, but they could not certainly catch all projects which are environmentally significant without also catching many which are not. We have therefore provided in the rgulations for procedures under which the decision about likely environmental significance can be taken; and we propose to back them up with guidance about what environmental effects are likely to be significant including some indicative thresholds.

I now refer briefly to the individual instruments, beginning with the town and country planning regulations. Since most of the types of project listed in Annexes I and II to the directive require planning permission, this is the most important of the instruments implementing the directive. The scope of its coverage may be gathered from Schedules 1 and 2 which respectively include all Annex I and II projects which may be the subject of a planning application.

The initial view on whether environmental assessment is required for any project will normally be taken by the local planning authority, but the developer may appeal to the Secretary of State. Local planning authorities and the Secretary of State will be able to take representations from third parties into consideration.

The regulations provide that a developer may, at any stage before submitting a planning application, ask the local planning authority for its view on whether environmental assessment is required. It will be desirable for it to know at any early stage whether environmental assessment is needed, but the procedure will not be compulsory. A developer may conclude, without consulting the local planning authority, that a project requires environmental assessment; or he may submit a planning application without an environmental statement so that the local planning authority must consider at that stage whether environmental assessment is necessary. Where it thinks it is it must notify the developer within three weeks of receiving the application and, as I have said, he may then ask the Secretary of State for his direction on the matter—which, again, must be given within three weeks if possible.

When considering whether a particular project requires environmental assessment, an authority or the Secretary of State will have to decide whether or not the project is likely to have significant environmental effects. Each case must be considered on its merits but authorities will be advised to have regard to guidance to be included in a joint DoE/Welsh Office circular. This guidance will include detailed thresholds and criteria to which I have already referred.

A draft of this circular was included in last January's consultation document. Predictably some consultees argued that the thresholds should be lower so that the environmental assessment process applies to more projects while others argued that they should be higher so that fewer developments have to go through the environmental assessment process. In the light of the consultation responses as a whole we are not proposing major changes in the thresholds. We will, however, keep them under review in the light of experience in implementing the regulations.

The procedure where environmental assessment is required is that the developer provides an environmental statement containing information as specified in Schedule 3. Certain bodies are required to provide information for this purpose. These are those bodies which would be statutory consultees for any related planning application together with the Nature Conservancy Council and Countryside Commission in all cases, and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution in industrial cases. These bodies will all be consulted when the local planning authority considers the statement and related planning application. Applications and environmental statements must be advertised and publicised. Finally, partly because of these consultation requirements, the regulations provide for a decision period of 16 weeks rather than the usual eight weeks for planning applications. None of these procedural requirements is far removed from what is already required for major planning applications. To an extent we are codifying what happens already with many major development proposals.

I turn now to the other regulations which I will discuss very briefly in the order in which they appear in the Order Paper. To avoid repeating myself I should say here that guidance on each of these regulations will be issued to those concerned.

The Scottish regulations implement the directive in respect of those categories of development covered by the directive which fall within the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Scotland. The afforestation regulations will prohibit the forestry commissioners from making any grant for an afforestation project where in their opinion the project will be likely to have significant effects on the environment and may lead to adverse ecological changes by reason of such factors as its nature, size or location unless they have first taken into consideration information as to the project's environmental impact. The commissioners' opinion may be over-ruled by the responsible Minister who may direct that an environmental statement should be prepared or that environmental assessment is not required.

Where environmental assessment is required the applicant for grant must provide an environmental statement which must be publicised. The commissioners will seek representations from the public and from appropriate public authorities, before any decision is made on the application.

These provisions will in practice cover all significant new planning schemes in the private sector. While in theory an owner could plant without the benefit of grant aid, this has rarely happened in the past on any significant scale and, as a result of the recent phasing out of tax concessions for forestry and the substantial increases in the level of grant aid, it is now even less likely. Although the Forestry Commission enjoys Crown exemption, I can give an undertaking that it will operate similar arrangements in respect of its own afforestation proposals. Thus the procedures proposed will cover all significant afforestation.

I turn now to the salmon farming regulations. The establishment of a salmon farm in territorial waters requires a lease from the Crown Estate commissiones and the regulations require the commissioners, before granting such a lease in circumstances where the development may have significant effects on the environment, to consider an environmental statement provided by the developer and comments in it from consultees and the general public. The commissioners will issue guidance indicating the broad criteria against which they will determine whether to require the provision of an environmental statement. Although the regulations will be made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, in recognition of the fact that most salmon farming development has so far taken place off the Scottish coast, they apply to England and Wales as well.

The Land Drainage (Improvement) Regulations concern proposals by drainage bodies to improve existing land drainage works, including flood defence works and defences against the sea. Unlike new works, such improvements are permitted development and so will not be covered by the planning regulations. However, I think we have to recognise that such improvements may sometimes have significant environmental effects and we concluded, following consultation, that we should make these separate regulations to provide appropriate procedures.

The highways regulations formalise and adapt existing procedures for trunk roads, under which the department concerned consults widely at all stages of a road proposal and prepares a detailed environmental analysis for consideration at any public inquiry. The regulations will amend the Highways Act and make the minor changes necessary to ensure that environmental statements comply with the directive. Statements will be published with draft line orders rather than immediately prior to inquiries. They will always be prepared for new motorways and for other new trunk roads which are over 10 kilometres in length or which are longer than one kilometre where the route passes through or within 100 metres of a sensitive area. They will also often be prepared for other schemes particularly in urban areas. Ministers will take into account the guidance on local road schemes in the forthcoming joint circular on the planning regulations.

Finally, the harbour works regulations amend the procedure for examining harbour revision and empowerment orders under the Harbours Act 1964 which give authority for carrying out specific works. Under the regulations the Minister will consider whether works proposed in a harbour order require assessment under the directive. If so, he will require the sponsor to submit an environmental statement. This will be mentioned in advertisements which give the opportunity to object to the proposals. The subsequent procedure, under which the Minister concerned may make the order if there are no outstanding objections but the proposal goes to special parliamentary procedure if objections remain, is essentially unchanged.

In all these regulations we are trying to strike a balance. On the one hand we need to comply with the directive in a way which will lead to a real improvement in the quality of decisions on projects which have significant effects on the environment. On the other hand, we must avoid the dangers of over-elaboration of the planning process and of adding to disputes and delays within it. These arrangements seek to guard against this danger by incorporating environmental assessment requirements into existing procedures; giving full and detailed guidance; giving developers the right of appeal to the appropriate Minister; and incorporating tight timetables for decisions.

I hope that, given these safeguards, all concerned with the planning and development process will he able to take a positive view of these regulations. As I said in opening, the objective of the directive is thoroughly commendable and I commend these regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14th June be approved. [31st Report front the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Hesketh.)

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I formally thank the noble Lord for introducing these regulations in this House. I say "formally" because we are far from satisfied either with some of the regulations themselves or with the brief which has been given to the noble Lord in introducing them. In at least two respects it is positively misleading. I believe that the fundamental difference between us and the Government as regards these regulations is that they seem to think of the regulations as being a burden on developers and on the authorities concerned; whereas we see them, as I believe the European Community also sees them, as possibly being benefits not only to the environment but to all of us living in it.

In order to understand the regulations we have to go back and look, first, at the EC directive of 1985. I note that the implementation date was 3rd July and that the Government have not achieved that implementation date. Then we have to look at the draft consultation document and orders which were issued earlier this year. The first point to note about the European Communities' directive and the orders relates to Annex I and the list of projects which have to be subject to an environmental assessment without any question or any certificate from the Secretary of State. It has been altered; the noble Lord did not refer to that in his speech, and he should have done.

According to the Official Journal of the European Community Item 2 includes: … nuclear power stations and other nuclear reactors (except research installations for the production and conversion of fissionable and fertile materials, whose maximum power does not exceed 1 kilowatt continuous thermal load). The Government's Annex I excludes nuclear power stations. The Government should not make that change without notifying that fact to the House. It should not be necessary for us to refer to the Official Journal in order to find out this very important fact. I shall expect an apology from someone responsible for this in due course.

The second matter concerns Annex II, where there may be a significant effect upon the environment. This is to be determined either by agreement between the applicant and the local authority concerned or by direction of the Secretary of State. In the consultation document the Secretary of State says that he will consider an environmental assessment to he necessary, first, when there is a major effect covering more than one local authority; secondly, when it is a smaller effect but in a sensitive location; and, thirdly, when there could be complex adverse environmental effects.

The major point we can pass over because it is clearly not to be questioned. As regards the second matter we are looking at consideration being given to a significant effect. I ask the noble Lord what is his definition of a "sensitive location"? I wish him to confirm specifically that it refers to a national park; an area of outstanding natural beauty; a site of special scientific importance; an SPA under the European Community's birds directive; wetlands covered by the RAMSAP convention; a national nature reserve; an area of archaeological importance or any green belt. In presenting these regulations to Parliament the Government should have been quite explicit as to what is meant by a sensitive location. Without it we cannot understand what is meant and we cannot accept the assurance that the Government's own provisions for sensitive locations are being adequately reflected in these regulations.

As regards the third item, namely, complex adverse environmental effects, I assume that the Government are in good faith implementing the EC directives. What worries me about all these matters is the Government's statement in their consultation document that there will be: possibly no more than a Few dozen projects per year". The number of local authorities concerned and the number of sensitive locations, quite apart from the number of potential applicants, mean that the vast majority of major projects coming within Annex II of the EC directive will not be assessed by the Secretary of State as being necessarily subject to an environmental assessment. I must confess that that fills me with dread.

I turn now to the individual regulations. The town and country planning regulations, as the noble Lord said, are the most important of the regulations. He said specifically that the town and country planning regulations implement the directive. They do no such thing. They do not claim to do any such thing. The town and country planning regulations are concerned with the implementation of the directive and this is in contrast to all the other regulations which say that they are implementing the directives. Again, I must say to the House that the noble Lord's brief misled the House. I hope that appropriate action will be taken about that. It is not enough to say that they are concerned with the implementation. We are under an obligation to implement these directives and the wording used in the town and country planning regulations is simply not good enough.

I turn to the forestry regulations. The Minister gave an assurance that similar arrangements will be applied to the development by the Forestry Commission of the projects which come under these regulations. However, I have to say that the Minister's statement—although I have no doubt about its sincerity—is not the same thing as putting these assurances in regulations. As it stands, the regulation is totally unsatisfactory. The Forestry Commission regional advisiory committees are not impartial in this matter. Indeed they cannot be because the Forestry Commission is charged in its statutes with the duty of promoting the interests of forestry and developing afforestation, which is quite a different thing from being charged with the duty of protecting the environment. The regulations only refer to initial planting and they only refer to applications to the commissioners. There is no provision for publicity for projects whch are either deemed not to necessitate environmental assessment or which the commissioners do not themselves publicise. The regulations only apply to grant-aided projects. They exclude the Forestry Commission's own developments and they exclude any projects which do not seek grant aid. That simply does not meet with the requirements of the directive.

There is no reference in the directive to grant aid being a qualification for consideration for an environmental impact assessment. The afforestation regulations, for that reason alone, ought to be withdrawn for further consideration.

I do not have any particular difficulty with the land drain regulations. However, the highways regulation is equally unsatisfactory; it is significantly worse than the draft directive which was issued by the department earlier. In Annex II, where it deals with highway works, there is a list of types of highway development which should he considered under Article 4.2 of the directive. That was what the original draft said. Now it is only the Secretary of State who decides whether a project necessitates an environmental assessment. We are given no indication of the basis upon which the Secretary of State will make that assessment, or indeed whether there will be a significant number of highway projects which will be subject to environmental assessment. In that respect the highways regulation is quite unsatisfactory. There is also no provision to notify the Nature Conservancy Council or the Countryside Commission about any projects other than designated landscapes. That ought to be corrected.

I think that I have taken as much time as even this restricted House would wish me to take on these matters. It will be quite clear that in our view—although the convention is that we do not vote against these matters—certainly the afforestation and highways regulations ought to be withdrawn for further consideration. There ought to be further action taken to remedy the inadequacy of those regulations and the inadequacy of the way in which they were introduced.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, I have more than a passing interest in these regulations. I was interested in what my noble friend Lord McIntosh pointed out as the inadequacy of the documents before us. My interest arises, first, because, as special adviser to the commission on environmental matters for many years, I worked more on the drafts concerning environmental impact assessment than on anything else. Indeed, I had to overcome as best I could the initial hostility of the Department of Industry in the United Kingdom to any form of directive.

So it was a long battle, first, to turn the Government's hostility into grudging acquiesence, and then, finally, to get the Government to accept the drafts. We went through at least 20 drafts in the working parties before they were put before the Ministers, and we went through goodness knows how many more drafts after that in order to get the text of the directive finally agreed. It was a long battle. It has taken 10 years to bring this to fruition, and that is a very long time to deal with a matter like this.

It is important to understand the significance of the directive and to say that if this had been a piece of statute law coming before the House of Commons and then going through this place there would have been quite long debates. This is another example of very significant law indeed coming in from Europe, but meriting only passing consideration here in both Houses of Parliament and, indeed, as my noble friend has said, a very inadequate response by the Government, by way of drafting to the actual directive.

I feel almost as angry as my noble friend obviously appeared. I can tell him that, nevertheless, the strength of this directive is understood abroad in the other countries of the European Community, as is its importance. Indeed this document is a standing monument to one man, Michel Carpentier, who was then the director-general of the Environmental Directorate in Brussels. It was his persistence, his skill, his good sense and indeed his dedication and enthusiasm that brought this through, despite initial British hostility, to the quite strong directive that we have today.

I must say that I am very much inclined to suggest that, if the Government's last answers are what are in this document, it will not be too long before the Government are taken to the European Court by the Commission for inadequacy of operation of the directive. Indeed, I was tempted, as the noble Lord on the opposite Front Bench knows, because I told him about it, to put down a Motion tonight to reject these orders, because they are very unsatisfactory.

Let me just make two further points before I come to the inadequacies. The importance of the directive is that it means that throughout Europe now—and I ask your Lordships to think of the impact in the Mediterranean area where great desecration of the environment has taken place—industrial siting and industrial effects will be known, will be argued about and will have to be taken into account before the industries build their installations or plant. Secondly, there will now be greater equality of competition between industries, because they will all go through similar hoops with costs and restraints more equal as a result of care for the environment.

Those are the two main aims, but there were subsidiary aims which have come out in the directive. The first was to try to make the directive able to be absorbed into present law in the member states. I think that we achieved that. Certainly the fact t hat we do not have any primary legislation here tonight, that we are doing this by directive, shows that we have done our best in Brussels to put this through in a form that can be absorbed, certainly into British law and I hope into the laws of the other member states as well.

Secondly, we drafted it, in particular anxiety to meet the views of the British Government, as well as other governments, in a way that stopped the fear of litigation which has given environmental impact assessment a had name in the United States. All the way through, draft after draft, we took out points where there could he litigation which would foul up the development process and, indeed, slow it down as well, on the lines of the kind of thing one sees in the United States.

Before I come to the omissions, it is worth noting that when the specialist committee of your Lordships' House, the European Affairs Committee, took evidence on this draft directive, there was at least one big utility—I cannot remember whether it was the gas industry or the electricity industry—which took a very different view from the Government. It said that its experience from planning inquiries was that a good environmental impact assessment statement prepared in advance shortened the public inquiry, let everybody clearly know what were the issues and enabled the public inquiry to go along at a much better pace and with much better results. So there are some people in this country who are more forward than the Government were at that time on this matter.

On the differences about the contents of the annex to which my noble friend referred, I am absolutely puzzled by the omission of the nuclear power stations. I am puzzled not because, apparently, they are omitted from the English regulations—I am sure that there must he some explanation for that—but because if one turns to the Scottish regulations that are before us they clearly include nuclear power stations under Annex I . How they were included in the Scottish regulations and were left out of the English ones, I do not know. There must be some explanation somewhere. Perhaps it is hidden somewhere in the text and we have not been able to find it as regards England.

When we come to Annex II the situation is very murky indeed. An example of what is missing from the British regulations but which appears in the draft directive occurs in Annex II 1(a) under "Projects for the restructuring of rural land holdings". Where is that in the British regulations? If there are big plans, for example, to break up holdings into small units or to amalgamate units and carry out vast changes in agriculture, which could well occur, they must be subject to Annex II if they are likely to have an environmental impact. The Government cannot just leave them out. All the Government are entitled to do under the directive is to exempt particular projects, not whole classes of projects. How they could leave whole classes out is completely beyond me.

Let me turn to a second example: "Projects for the use of uncultivated land or semi-natural areas for intensive agricultural purposes". That is the whole business of land reclamation and turning wild areas into cultivated areas, which should be done privately. It may well have the most significant effect on the environment, the natural environment in particular. Where is that in the British regulations? I cannot find it anywhere. It is just dropped, lost somewhere in the Department of the Environment.

The directive also deals with "Initial afforestation where this may lead to adverse ecological changes". It is not good enough to say that only those applying for a grant will be caught. We must cover the situation for the people acting privately who do not want a grant. They want to go ahead without government money; they may want to do significant afforestation.

I could go on. There is no excuse that I can find in these documents for excluding the most significant matters concerning agriculture, the natural environment and afforestation, all of which are in the first part of Annex II of the directive. When I add my list to that which my noble friend has made, I do not wonder that I was sorely tempted to put down a formal Motion to reject these regulations.

The noble Lord has a good deal of explaining to do—not just to this House. What will now have to happen is that the Commission must be alerted. I might say that those of us who have worked for the Commission in the past are very likely to mention it in Brussels. The Commission must be alerted to the fact that apparently the British Government are deliberately not carrying out the directive. As well as explaining to us tonight why all these things have been left out, it is very important that the noble Lord should tell us what explanation the Government are offering to Brussels. We are entitled to know what is being said on behalf of Britain to the Commission of the European Community about an apparent failure by the British Government to carry out critical parts of the directive.

I feel almost as anguished as my noble friend. I have not shown it quite as strongly as he did; he obviously felt it very strongly indeed.

Lord Rees

My Lords, I shall address my brief remarks to an environmental assessment of the afforestation regulations. My noble friend the Minister has moved the regulations with his customary lucidity and charm and I cannot say that I am moved to anger as noble Lords opposite appear to have been. I have however been a little anxious on a variety of scores.

First, as the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments remarked, to debate these subjects in a serious vein it would have been necessary, I believe, to have had the benefit of the Forestry Commission's guidance notes. Obviously any statutory instrument is drafted in a rather hare, sparse form. As I shall attempt to develop, perhaps a little help is required for the layman or the ordinary forester who may be compelled to look at the provision critically and carefully before embarking on a project. I have no doubt that when my noble friend the Minister comes to wind up the debate, he will summarise for us the guidance notes and reassure us that they will quite soon be in the Library so that we can penetrate the obscurity in parts of these regulations.

Beyond that my concern, unlike that of noble Lords opposite, is with the very wide scope and the huge burden that may be placed on the embryonic forester embarking, as he may hope, on a project of initial afforestation. No doubt noble Lords will have read as carefully as I have the draft regulations under the schedule that set out what must be embodied in the statement. In the regulation to Schedule 2, paragraph C states: a description of the likely significant effects of the project, direct and indirect, on the environment, explained by reference to its possible impact on—human beings; flora; fauna; soil; water; air; climate; the landscape; the interaction between any of the foregoing; material assets (including the architectural and archaeological heritage); the cultural heritage". The mind boggles at the scope of a statement that might have to be submitted as regards even quite a simple operation. The schedule goes on to mention, almost with a touch of naivety, that together with a full statement there must be: a summary in non-technical language of the information specified above. The mind recoils from what the technical and fuller statement might amount to. I hope that my noble friend can give some comfort to those who may be embarked on this rather doubtful course. I studied the schedule to see who might have to receive a copy of the environmental statement, and who must be consulted. On that point the regulations state that the commissioners shall consult the Nature Conservancy Council. I understand that of course. We have indeed in this House already debated the 13th report, I believe, of the Nature Conservancy Council that dealt in a considerable measure with the impact of forestry on the environment. The regulations continue on the point of who shall be consulted: the Countryside Commission or the Countryside Commission for Scotland, as appropriate; and any local authority, any other public authority and any statutory body which appears to them to have an interest in the afforestation project in question. That requirement could bring in a huge number of bodies which may have to be involved in this whole process.

I hope that when my noble friend winds up he will deal a little more fully with the matter of appeals. This is not in form a planning application; it is an application for a grant. Will the Minister elaborate on whether the vast corpus of law on planning applications will be incorporated in this matter? If so, I recoil with horror from that prospect. Any of us who have been at all involved in planning matters will know how time-consuming and expensive they can be.

There is also the question of delay. Here I come to my final and fundamental point. The Government have reaffirmed their planning targets, not only generally but those under the new farmland scheme. Many of us who are involved as I am—I have declared my interest in forestry on various occasions—are worried that these planning targets are most unlikely to be met.

I must say that I listened with a certain incredulity to noble Lords opposite who said that the regulations do not cover those who might be tempted to plant without grants. If one considers the economics of forestry, one can see that that is extremely unlikely to happen. I must part company with noble Lords opposite there. My concern, and it may be the concern of my noble friends too, is that if all taxation relief is withdrawn, even with the system of grants that is proposed, the Government have very little chance in the medium and long-term of achieving the targets that are set out. If these additional planning or quasi-planning burdens are to be imposed on foresters, I can see new planting in this country grinding to a halt. However, that may not be the purpose of tonight's debate. I hope that my noble friend, when he comes to wind up, will be able to give the House some reassurance about how the potentially huge scope for environmental statements will be operated in practice and that they are not to be as wide as the ambitious draftsman has set out in the schedule. Perhaps he will also give us some reassurance concerning the appeal procedures and tell us that delays will not be as significant as they are under existing planning law.

I hope that my noble friend will be able to meet those points. I would not be so brash as to suggest that the instrument should be withdrawn and reconsidered. However, we shall have to look with a very critical eye at the way in which it is implemented in practice and the practical impact that it will have on forestry in this country.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I hope that I have said enough to show that we see real potential benefits in environmental assessment. We are also aware of the down-side. In particular, we recognise the risks of delay and over-elaboration. Our provisions are designed to minimise those risks. We also recognise that environmental considerations cannot in all circumstances be paramount. There are economic and social considerations to be taken into account as well. Environmental assessment does not remove the need for those factors to be balanced against one another. It does not provide a ready-made answer to the question of whether a development should be permitted. It is an input into the decision-making process.

Having said that, I hope that the response of all concerned in the implementation of the directive—industry, authorities and environmental interests—will be positive. Environmental concerns are not going to go away. A developer who promotes a major project without seriously addressing those concerns is simply asking for trouble. Environmental assessment is the opportunity for him to demonstrate to the world that he has done his environmental homework efficiently.

I believe that there can be clear benefits for industry. The study of environmental assessment in the United States, to which the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, referred, suggested that careful prior consideration and mitigation of impact has quite often led to savings in the costs of projects. Those savings have outweighed the cost of preparing the environmental statement. For example, there is evidence that the level of objection to projects is greater where an environmental statement is not published.

There can also be savings in time. For example, the quality of environmental assessment carried out by British Petroleum for the Wytch Farm oilfield in Dorset and the consultation which went into it was a key factor in the decision by the Secretary of State not to call the application in and not to hold a public inquiry. Even where an inquiry is necessary, an enviromental statement which assembles objective information about a project which is available to all participants can help to speed things up by clarifying areas of agreement and disagreement.

Perhaps I may attempt to answer some of the questions which have been raised. The first point which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and partially cleared up by the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, referred to nuclear power stations and annexes. The noble Lord, Lord Northfield, drew to our attention the fact that those exist in Scotland. The CEGB and area board power stations and overhead electric lines are approved by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy under the electric lighting legislation, which includes all nuclear power stations. That is why those stations are excluded from the planning regulations, although normal planning applications for other power stations are possible. My right honourable friend's department is preparing new regulations to implement the directive for those kinds of projects.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to sensitive locations. The relationship between a project and the location proposed for it will often be a crucial consideration. For any given development proposals, the more environmentally sensitive the location, the more likely it is that environmental effects will be significant and will warrant assessment. Consideration should be given to the need for environmental assessement where a scheduled new project is likely to have a significant effect on the special character of a protected area or site such as a national park, an area of outstanding natural beauty, a site of special scientific interest, a national nature reserve or an area of monument or major archaeological importance. Any views expressed by the Nature Conservancy Council, the Countryside Commission or the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission should be taken into account.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was not entirely happy that only grant-aided schemes should be covered in respect of forestry. The system of grant aid implemented by the Forestry Commission under Section 1 of the Forestry Act 1979 operates de facto as a control system. While it is theoretically possible, the history of the existing scheme supports the view that planting other than on a very small scale will not proceed without an application for grant aid. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the changes in the tax treatment of forestry contained in the current Finance Bill, coupled with the recent substantial increases in the level of grant aid introduced through the new woodland grant scheme, have further strengthened the controls operating through the grant system. It is therefore now even less likely that planting would proceed without an application for grant aid.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, also referred to the application of regulations to the Forestry Commission. I can draw his attention once more to what I said earlier: the Forestry Commission is a government department subject to ministerial direction. I can assure your Lordships' House that it will implement the environmental assessment directive in relation to its own planting in exactly the same way as it will for private sector cases falling under the regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, drew our attention to the changes over consultation with the Secretary of State with regard to highways. We believe that that is no change of substance. The highways order has been brought into line with the planning regulations. It does not include formal criteria. Instead guidance will be given in a circular. Similarly, the Department of Transport will use the 10 kilometre or 1 kilometre criteria near a sensitive area as guidelines. We shall always follow the assessment procedure for roads which meet those criteria and for other roads where environmental effects seem to be likely to be significant. That will be especially true with regard to urban roads.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, also referred to his concern in relation to the phrasing of the town and country planning regulations as regards implementation. The wording appears in the explanatory note, which has no legal effect by itself. By itself no regulation could implement the directive; they are all concerned with its implementation. The Department of the Environment was just rather fussier about the wording.

The noble Lord, Lord Northfield, referred forcefully to the inadequacy of implementation and the risk of European Court action. We have consulted the European Commission. Their comments do not suggest that they criticise our general scheme of implementation. On the contrary, they have been quite complimentary while other states, for example Italy, are much further behind us.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. Of course the Commission is glad that everyone is carrying out the directive in a general way. I am asking whether the Government have put to the Commission its exclusions from the annexes. Those are particular matters on which we should like the Commission to comment.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am just coming to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. He referred in particular to the restructuring of rural land holdings and land reclamation. Although it was not our intention when the directive was adopted in 1985, the Government arc now implementing the directive for all agricultural products in Annex II which may be of the scale and environmental significance referred to in the directive. That is permitted by the environmental assessment directive which says in Article 4(2): Projects of the classes listed in Annex II shall he made subject to an assessment…where Member States consider that their chracteristics so require". With regard to the restructuring of rural land holdings, the short answer would be to refer your Lordships to the Code Napoléon, which was the main reason for the creation of very small land holdings round French villages which are now being restructured. That is not something which is generally in existence in this country. Projects for the conversion of uncultivated or semi-natural areas to intensive agricultural use have been omitted because the changed agricultural situation and our emphasis on diversification out of agriculture also make this unlikely on any significant scale in the current circumstances.

My noble friend Lord Rees drew attention to the Forestry Commission's guidance notes. They will be issued within the next week or so and copies will be placed in the Library. We shall build on existing, procedures for consultation which are well understood. My noble friend also was concerned about the form of an environmental statement. Environmental statements need concentrate only on the significant environmental facts. As I said in my opening remarks, I hope that statements will be crisp and to the point.

My noble friend also referred to the fact that there may be a fall in the amount of planting taking place in the United Kingdom. There may be a dip in planting following the tax changes, but the woodland grants scheme is attractive and should encourage a reasonable level of planting in the future. We, for our part, shall be monitoring the new provisions closely and any evidence of costs and delays to industry. We have no wish to impose unnecessary burdens on industry or local government.

I hope that I have said enough to persuade your Lordships that these regulations are a serious and positive response to the directive which will lead to an improvement in the quality of decision-making and I commend them to the House.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, before the Question is put, perhaps I may say that I have been considering very carefully what the noble Lord has said in response to our criticisms. I think that on mature consideration the noble Lord may feel that he would do better to have an opportunity to consider them in more detail. After all, my noble friend Lord Northfield only started with the first section of projects under Annex II. I am sure that he could have continued. I do not believe that it would be right for the House to allow these regulations to proceed without further consideration. Accordingly, I beg to move that further consideration of these regulations be now adjourned.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion. That the Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1988 (draft regulations laid before the House on 14th June) be approved, That further consideration of these regulations be now adjourned.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

9.44 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Renton)

My Lords, the Question is that further consideration of these regulations be now adjourned. As many as are of that opinion will say, "Content"; to the contrary, "Not-Content"? I think the Not-Contents have it. Clear the Bar.

Division called.

The Deputy Speaker

My Lords, Tellers for the Contents have not been appointed pursuant to Standing Order No. 51. A Division therefore cannot take place, and I declare that the "Not-Contents" have it.

The Question is that the Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1988 be approved. As many as are of that opinion will say, "Content".

Noble Lords


The Deputy Speaker

To the contrary, "Not-Content"? The "Contents" have it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker

My Lords, I now have to take each of the remaining Motions separately.