§ 7.48 p.m.
§ Lord Moran rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they propose to halt the depletion of the national peat resource and what role they intend to play in the development of a peatlands conservation strategy.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am very grateful to those of your Lordships who have decided to take part in this debate at this relatively late hour. I imagine that until very recently few of us thought there was any need to worry about peat. Many people are dimly aware that there is a lot of peat in Britain. They are right. Over 10 per cent. of the land area in Scotland and 5.8 per cent. of that of Britain as a whole has peat soils. We have been using peat for centuries. Why then the current fuss? To begin with, many of our peatlands have been drained or planted over. The resource is dwindling fast and less and less untouched bog remains. There are particular areas where irreplaceable habitats are being destroyed. That is especially true of lowland peat.
§ It was, as is so often the case, the Nature Conservancy Council which sounded the alarm bell about what it describes as this largely ignored Cinderella habitat. The council conducted a survey in 1978 which showed that there has been a 96 per cent. loss of lowland peat mire since 1850 and that only 4 per cent. is now left. The NCC estimates that less than 10,000 hectares of living lowland bog now remain.
§ So, though there is still a great deal of peat soil, some valuable peatlands are fast disappearing and urgent action needs to be taken if we are not to lose an important part of our now scarce wetlands and of our national heritage.
As your Lordships may know, bog peat is mainly formed from sphagnum moss in waterlogged, acidic bogs where there is no oxygen and few bacteria can live. Consequently there is no normal decomposition and dead moss accumulates as peat at the rate of some two millimetres a year. We have three different types of peat. Blanket peat, or wet heather moor, is formed in areas with high rainfall, mostly the Highlands of Scotland, upland Wales and the Pennines. It is of this that the flow country in Caithness and Sutherland is formed. I do not propose to say much about blanket bog tonight except that two years ago the International Mire Conservation Group, the main expert body, passed a resolution declaring that the flow country "merits protection in its entirety" and that it was,
with some astonishment that the IMCG has learned of the British Government's recent approval for a further 1,000 hectares of state afforestation in the Flow Country".
§ The second type is lowland fen peat, the peat remaining where raised bogs and swamps have disappeared, as in East Anglia and part of the Somerset Levels. Lastly, there are lowland raised bogs. These are isolated domes of acidic rain-fed peat in a non-peat landscape, like drops of water on a flat surface, which may rise up to 10 metres above the surrounding land. The best remaining intact examples are in Wales—at Cors Goch on the Teifi, inland from Borth, and Cors Fochno near 1438 Aberystwyth—and in Scotland at Flanders Moss. All of our raised bogs are of conservation and wildlife importance. They contain perfectly preserved records of post-glacial history—from early man to pollen—and are valuable habitats for plants, birds and insects. They are of international significance.
For thousands of years we have been using up our peat reserves. Essentially, because of the enormous time-scale, they are a finite, non-renewable resource. In East Anglia we long ago drained the Fens and the same process has now dried out the Somerset Levels. According to the NCC,
forestry remains one of the largest threats to all bog habitats".
§ Forestry Commission figures show that in Scotland half to three-quarters and in England and Wales a quarter, of all afforestation up to 1978 was carried out on peat soils. Since time immemorial peat has been cut by hand for fuel, as it still is, for example, in the Hebrides.
§ Since the 1960s there has been a new threat to the valuable lowland raised bogs. They produce the peat suitable for horticulture. Instead of being cut out slowly by hand this peat can now be extracted far more efficiently and thoroughly by huge machines by processes known as sausage extrusion and surface milling. This is accompanied by the digging of deep drainage ditches—15 miles of them in Yorkshire and Humberside last year—which dries out the bog, reduces the surface to a bare desert and makes the prospect of regeneration remote.
What this means was described in an article by Jeremy Purseglove in Landscape Design last year. He wrote:
the unforgettable spectacle which Hatfield Chase presents … a sight which makes visitors' jaws sag …… is not so much its natural splendour as the ruin which man is inflicting upon it. Behind a discreet screen of wind-scorched Leyland's cypress are the shabby huts, tramlines, and stacked bales of the peat works: and beyond them extends 2,000 acres of totally stripped-out, black, gleaming peat; an area equivalent to that of a sizeable town. The remaining 1,000 acres of vegetation … is also scheduled for destruction … machines, looming out on the moor like space-age dinosaurs, pick over the raised mire, systematically dismembering it until there is nothing left. Hatfield Chase took 3,000 years to evolve … Now, in perhaps ten years or less, it will be gone, taken away bag by bag … for brief summer crops of tomatoes in our greenhouses, and to be scattered on people's rockeries".
§ This industrial extraction of peat has gone hand in hand with a horticultural revolution—the replacement of the sale of bare-rooted plants to be put in in the late autumn or winter by that of container plants grown in peat which can be planted at any time of the year, and the development of garden centres selling these container plants, growing bags, peat pots, and so on. Peat is highly convenient for such a trade, being light, clean, consistent and, with nutrients added, an excellent growing medium. So, all over Britain, pieces torn out of a unique, shrinking habitat, bundled up in plastic, are being sold to the public Peat is also much used for propagating vegetables, growing mushrooms and tree planting. Horticulture probably now accounts for three-quarters of the peat we use.
§ The result has been catastrophic for the lowland bogs. Of the 10 best raised bogs, only four have not been partially or completely cut over. The firms which supply the garden trade often operate, in England, on old planning consents with no 1439 conditions imposed which were granted in the 1940s before conservation was much understood and before high-tech extraction was thought of. In Scotland, it is mainly newly-granted consents which are causing loss. Peat is defined as a mineral and the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 overrides wildlife legislation and SSSI designation so that there is little protection.
§ The largest lowland raised mire system in Britain, Thorne Waste and Hatfield Moors near Doncaster, is being cut extensively, mainly by Fisons, the market leaders, whose horticultural division, however, provided only about 4 per cent. of the company's profits in 1988. I believe that 90 per cent. of Fisons peat holdings are in SSSIs. The Sunday Times reported last year that Fisons was so sensitive about its operations in Yorkshire that a photographer from the paper investigating its activities had to be rescued by police after he had been held against his will by the company's employees, who blocked his car for 45 minutes and demanded unsuccessfully, that he hand over his film. That does not sound as though Fisons was particularly proud of what it was doing there. Fisons is also cutting another important SSSI on the Solway Firth.
§ Another company, curiously named the Land Improvement Group, which owns a subsidiary called Croxdens, is cutting the mires on the Shropshire-Clwyd border where it has acquired three-quarters of an outstanding SSSI and intends, I believe, to quadruple production from 15,000 to 60,000 tonnes a year.
§ Little thought seems to have been given by the firms concerned to what can be done when the horticultural grade peat runs out, as it will, if nothing is done, in 20 to 30 years. It seems, moreover, very doubtful whether a raised bog, once destroyed, can ever be recreated. Dutch attempts to reconstitute peatlands have cost the almost unbelievable amount of £2 million per square metre.
§ Not only are we using up our own peat but we import large quantities, much of it from the Irish Republic, where vast quantities have been used to burn in power stations and vast quantities exported. Their unprotected raised bogs are likely all to be gone in about seven years' time.
At the eleventh hour serious public concern has become apparent. Ten conservation groups have joined forces to organise a peatlands campaign. They have commissioned research into alternatives from Sheffield University. The Royal Society for Nature Conservation in particular is doing a great deal to make the facts widely known. The Prince of Wales, patron of that society, recently put out a statement saying:
I am most concerned to learn that 96% of the lowland peat bog in this country has already disappeared. The campaign by a number of respected conservation bodies, with over two million supporters, to attempt to secure the continued existence of the remaining 4% has my full support.
§ The use of peat in gardening and landscaping schemes seems to me to be causing quite unnecessary destruction of a richly varied and scarce wildlife habitat. Most of us who love our gardens care deeply about the natural environment … we would do well to set an example by not treating our peatland habitat as 'useless bog' to be drained, dug up and scattered about in our 1440 gardens. I have therefore decided to stop using peat on my garden at Highgrove and contracts for landscaping schemes for the Duchy of Cornwall will now specify that peat is not to be used".
§ Both Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley are using less and less peat and experimenting with alternatives. Others—for example, the Severn-Trent region of the National Rivers Authority—have banned the use of peat in their gardening and landscaping activities. I hope that their lead will be widely followed.
§ What else can be done? The public can, and I hope will, build up consumer resistance to the unnecessary use of peat. If enough people stop buying peat products and demand alternatives, that will influence the market. There are alternatives. No single product replaces peat but a whole range covers different uses—bark, wood chips, leaf mould, spent mushroom compost, processed refuse and waste, coconut coir, rock wool, vermiculite, perlite and, last but not least, home-made garden compost.
§ I recognise that gardeners may not initially be enthusiastic if encouraged to use sewage sludge mixed with straw in place of peat, but with a real effort by the industry, the horticultural trade and the public, the use of satisfactory alternatives can become general. After all, Australia has a thriving horticultural and landscape industry which does not rely on peat. The media can also help to publicise the problem and the solutions. I am thinking of programmes such as the fascinating "Gardeners' Question Time". The use of peat in landscaping should stop now.
§ What can the Government do? It would be too much to expect them to react with the speed and decisiveness of the Prince of Wales, but I am moderately encouraged by the answer that the Minister for the environment gave to a question by Ms. Walley in another place on 30th April. I believe that our Government can and should devise a national peat conservation policy, as Finland and Canada have done or are doing. That means protecting those peatlands of conservation importance and conducting and encouraging more effective research into substitutes. We must also ensure—this is perhaps the key—that the planning machinery is used to conserve our peat heritage by refusing new planning permissions for extraction; reviewing and if necessary revoking existing planning permissions and providing funds for compensation; preventing the afforestation of peatlands of conservation importance; fully implementing relevant international conventions such as the Berne and Ramsar conventions and Community directives; ensuring that government departments stop using peat themselves or in contracts that they let; banning the import and export of peat; stopping the research into the use of peat as an energy source at present conducted by the Department of Energy; and providing the NCC with more resources for peatland survey, for too little is still known about the resource and we must know what exactly we still have.
§ Incidentally, the NCC has at present just two peat experts—one, Mr. Richard Lindsay, on bogs and another on fens. What, I wonder, will happen if the Government go ahead with their plans to dismember 1441 the NCC? There are quite different problems with peat in England, Scotland and Wales. How do you divide two into three; or is each country to have its own peat experts? Perhaps we shall hear about that when we discuss the Environmental Protection Bill.
§ Meanwhile, I hope that the Minister can tell us tonight whether the Government regard the rapid disappearance of our peatlands, and particularly of lowland peat, as serious, and if so what they propose to do about it.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for having tabled this Question. I congratulate him on the elegant and comprehensive way in which he described the grave problem that we are discussing this evening. I should start by declaring a double interest. First, I am a member of the Nature Conservancy Council and, secondly, I have recently become president of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. I should add that I was not in any way involved in the situation when the photographer has his troubles on Thome and Hatfield Mosses.
I have long marvelled at the properties of peat, one of the reasons being that above my fireplace at home I have a giant elk's head with a span of nine feet six inches which is purported to be between 7,000 and 14,000 years old. That says much for the preservation powers of peat, but perhaps rather less for the sentiments of the people of Ireland towards my forebear, Sir Robert Peel, to whom it was presented when he was Secretary of State for that country. That was despite his granting of Catholic emancipation.
Living as I do in the Yorkshire Dales, I am surrounded by peat, but it is different from the raised peat bogs to which the noble Lord, Lord Moran, referred. He gave a comprehensive review of the difference between the two types of peat. In fact, he mentioned three types of peat.
I do not wish to concentrate my remarks on the uplands. Although I have strong feelings about them and could go on for many hours about them, I shall not bore noble Lords with those comments tonight. However, I do not wish to underestimate the problems. The noble Lord referred to the flow country. There is a serious problem there which I sincerely hope will be redressed as quickly and efficiently as possible. The two types of bog are very different. They have different characteristics and different ecosystems. The other main difference between them is that one is still relatively intact while the other is disappearing, as the noble Lord said, at a fast and worrying rate.
There is nothing wrong in the exploitation of a natural resource if it is sustainable or if it is of no importance. However, lowland bogs are an important wildlife resource and a most important indicator as regards environmental change. We should all be deeply concerned. Unfortunately, the modern methods of peat extraction make that resource unsustainable. There is no doubt that we need positive steps to secure the remaining bogs and a management strategy to ensure an acceptable 1442 conservation policy over the areas which have been and will be exploited. Sir William Wilkinson, the chairman of the NCC, recently said that peat extraction is the major cause of long-term damage to SSSIs in Great Britain.
The first thing that we do not want to do is overcriticise and thus lose the good will of those companies involved in peat extraction. However, there are strong feelings in Yorkshire, not just among the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust members but among others, about the illegal activities that took place at Thorne Moss—the exploitation of peat where no planning permission was held. I hope that, in view of that, particulary generous efforts will be made by that company in working towards a rewarding conservation strategy for the future.
We must remember that planning permission was granted on many of those bogs before SSSIs were designated. There is nothing untoward in the commercial extraction of peat on those sites. With hindsight, many more SSSIs should have been granted and many more areas protected, but we must work with the present and not hark back to what has been if we are to salvage the best conservation package for the future.
Furthermore, it would be counter-productive to buy out most of those areas—never mind the cost—as any degree of restoration would be virtually impossible to achieve without the co-operation of the peat industry. It has the machines and the know-how. It knows how to work the peat and, perhaps above all, it is the expert in hydrology. That is vital in trying to retain the peat bogs for the future.
Any strategy for our lowland peat bogs should be achieved by a strong partnership between the Government, the NCC and the companies concerned. However, one thing is absolutely sacrosanct; namely, that we must prevent any further exploitation of the pristine bogs—those that have not as yet been touched. If compensation is required from the Government where planning permission exists, those firms must be compensated. It is the last resort. For heaven's sake, let us not use them. David Bellamy said that, if we do not protect those bogs, we are in no position to comment on tropical rain forests.
I should also like to see the Government and the NCC negotiate to buy out the extraction rights on selected areas of SSSIs where damage has to date been limited in nature conservation terms. Thorne and Hatfield are examples. I speak of limited areas; I do not for one moment suggest that we can buy out all the areas that we should like to have. We have carefully to select areas and try to conserve them.
I believe that we should also negotiate for the maintenance of what are known as refugia—those areas which should be left as resource areas so that the bogs in question have some chance of recovery. There should be small areas left unexploited and to provide a base for rebuilding. Also, I am informed that the combined traditional last cut methods which are so important to the rehabilitation of peat bogs are expensive and probably would require some degree of compensation. I believe that that should be done again in selected areas.
1443 There should also be the re-introduction of sphagnum moss, which is so vital to the survival of the peat. I realise that Fisons, among other companies, is already doing that. I welcome it and congratulate the company. There should be management strategy to secure, as I mentioned before, the hydrological integrity of these sites, which is so crucial to their survival.
I am advocating the building and continuation of a working partnership between the NCC and the companies concerned. That must comprise a commitment from the Government, financial if necessary, with the expertise of the Nature Conservancy Council, and a commitment from the companies to accept their nature conservation responsibilities. They have taken a lot out; they have to put back in a certain amount of it. Then we can work toward an acceptable future for the sites when they have been finally exploited. The question of what will happen to those sites at the end of the day has not been addressed. I hope that the NCC and the operators will discuss fully the future management of the sites in the very near future.
The noble Lord, Lord Moran, has already referred to the importance of peat to the horticultural business. I realise that that is a difficulty. In this country we are rapidly reaching the end of this finite resource. Therefore I believe that it is the responsibility of the companies concerned to find an alternative to it. The noble Lord was quite right to draw attention to what is undoubtedly a complex situation which needs a strategy to ensure that we can at least hold on to a little of this highly prized and valuable resource in the shape of both pristine bog and the best of the exploited areas.
§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for raising this important environmental issue to which I think not nearly enough attention has been paid. I hope that this debate will raise awareness. I might just repeat one or two of the points made by the noble Lord and the noble Earl. I apologise if I do but I believe that they are important and could well be re-emphasised.
I imagine that most people—certainly those noble Lords who are present tonight—know something about the special qualities of peat. It is a fossil fuel which is readily available to those living in a peat area. It is easily and cheaply extracted and processed. Because of its texture, water-holding properties and relative sterility, it is a very useful medium in horticulture, especially for encouraging seedlings. Peat bogs provide a specialised habitat for some of the rarest species of bird, insect and plant. Peat absorbs and imprisons carbon dioxide, thus helping to control one of the most potent causes of the greenhouse effect—that is until the peat bogs are drained.
When peat dries out it oxidises to carbon dioxide, water and a tiny amount of mineral salts. Each 40 kg bag of peat that is sold represents up to 58 kg of carbon dioxide, which is eventually released into the 1444 atmosphere. The shrinkage of soils in the Fens is produced by the same effect. Here the ground level has sunk by more than 15 ft. since 1850 and has released more carbon dioxide (I am told about 734 million tonnes) than the United Kingdom's entire annual output of carbon dioxide from coal, gas and oil. That information was given by Chris Rose at the Disappearing Peat Conference last December.
Peat can act as both a reservoir and purifier of water supplies. Because it excludes air it has a fantastic preservation power and so can act as an historical index. In 1850 the perfectly preserved and fully clothed body of a Romano-British person was found in a bog on the Grewelthorpe Moors in Yorkshire. So Victorian man was able to see with his own eyes exactly how his counterpart of perhaps 1,500 years earlier would dress—in a green cloak, an undergarment of scarlet cloth, yellow stockings and leather shoes. We hear a great deal about "Pete Marsh", the Lindow man. But only half of him was found and apparently he is now in the British Museum. However, there was a whole man on Grewelthorpe. Even more usefully one can discover by the techniques of pollen analysis exactly which plants have grown in a bog over millenia and so deduce the whole climate and weather pattern of the area.
What has now sharpened our appreciation of those qualities is the sudden discovery that this unique resource is being exhausted at a horrifyingly rapid rate. One statistic out of many will suffice, which is probably one that the noble Lord, Lord Moran, has given. Of the 10 best raised peat bogs in the United Kingdom only four have not been partially or completely cut over for peat. There are two main causes for that devastation.
First, the means of extracting peat has become enormously more efficient. What was once patient cutting by human hand tools is now a mechanical and often completely automated operation on a vast scale. Secondly, the operators, with a much bigger product to sell, have succeeded in persuading many more customers that they cannot do without it. The use of peat in gardening has become a fad and a fetish. The fact that the boom cannot last is cynically disregarded. Whereas the old-fashioned peat cutting gave the bog some chance of regeneration, the new, mechanical extraction cleans out all the peat and removes any chance of eventual recovery. But those who see a way to maximise a short-term profit are careless of posterity: after them, the deluge.
Something must be done to restore peat to the state of being a renewable resource. The obstacles in the way of that are serious. Peat is defined as a mineral. Its extraction is governed by planning law—the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. Thus, especially in the lowlands, protection is usually dependent on the decisions of the planning authority. Even though the site may be of international importance for nature conservation, the Nature Conservancy Council under the 1981 wildlife legislation can only advise the planning authority. The system therefore depends on the wildlife and commercial arguments being weighed objectively by the local authority and whether the case goes to inquiry by the Secretary of State. In 1445 Scotland, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation's review of the peat issue discovered that the general attitude of local authorities to peat was that it was an exploitable mineral. New applications are thus tending to be approved even on SSSIs.
In England the position is different because the majority of surviving sites are either nature reserves or have planning permission going back many years. The Peat Report published last year shows 5,711 hectares in England with planning permission. Those old consents have no associated planning conditions and not even an expiry date. Modification or revocation of such consents is possible only through the local authorities under the provision of the 1981 minerals legislation. That Act asks local authorities to review consents in order to assess whether they are appropriate. However, no timescale is given for the review; nor is it mandatory. The ceiling or compensation (£100,000) is totally inadequate for most peat operations.
I should like to quote another Answer on 30th April in another place. Ms. Walley asked how many orders modifying the planning permission for mineral and peat extraction or requiring the use of land to be discontinued or continued subject to conditions had been granted since 1981. Mr. Moynihan replied:According to our records, since 1981 no orders have been made which relate to peat extraction. Six orders have been made relating to other minerals".—[Official Report, Commons, 30/4/90: col. 380.]The peat producers can sit on their assets and resist any offers of conservation management agreements from the NCC or inadequate, as they think, compensation from local authorities. Local authorities, squeezed for cash, are not in a good position to offer compensation. The Peat Producers' Association has produced a code of practice. However, it does not tackle any of the basic problems but instead relies on the concept of restoring bogs after working. Bogs take 7,000 years to develop. As the noble Lord, Lord Moran, has said, the Dutch have experimented with one of their last, severely damaged, bogs. The cost was £2-5 million per square metre. That is not therefore a practical proposition. The code does not address the point that peat bogs are a living archive.
Only new legislation revoking licences issued before a certain date and laying down much stricter conditions for new ones can stop the rot that looks likely to finish our peat by the middle of the decade. Are the Government alive to that and actively proposing to do anything about it, as Germany has done? In Germany in 1972 a federal law withdrew all existing licences for mineral extraction, including peat. Companies were obliged to apply for new ones when conditions were imposed over working methods and restoration. No compensation was payable for any losses that companies might suffer as a result of introducing the new provisions. We should go for as tough a measure as that. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, suggested that compensation should be offered. I believe that we could be a little tougher than that.
A second course of action is highly desirable in the shape of education. Peat is not essential for 1446 gardeners. I quote from an article which appeared in the Daily Telegraph today:Mr. Ian Richardson, spokesman for the Peat Producers' Association said: 'There is no economic alternative to peat at the moment, and the industry has an unparalelled record on nature conservation.'But Mr. David Border, of Hensby Biotech, a company jointly owned by Anglian Water and Hensby Holdings, a leading producer of mushroom compost, said substitutes existed for 70 per cent. of gardening and horticultural applications".I believe that many alternatives of equally effective products are now, or are shortly to be, available. Some of them make use of materials such as straw or household waste or sewage sludge for which a harmless means of disposal is urgently sought. Who will put that message across? We must emphasise that there are alternatives to the 2-5 million cubic metres of peat that we use every year that will not cause the destruction of some of the most important sites of special scientific interest in the country.
I read in a local paper last week that a primary school in Bluntisham, in my county, has gone into business selling bags of peat substitute donated by a local firm, Hensby Compost, to raise money for school funds and gardeners were hurrying to buy them; so there is a good example. But what we wish to hear from the Minister tonight is what the Government's intentions are. Will they encourage more research into peat substitutes? Are they seized of the seriousness of the situation? The arrival of the Environmental Protection Bill in the House may provide an opportunity for legislation.
§ 8.26 p.m.
§ Lord Addington
My Lords, after four such excellent speeches, I find that half of what I was going to say is superfluous. I should merely be repeating what has already been said. I could not do so with the degree of clarity that has so far been expressed. The main aspect that strikes me is one that runs through the entire environmental debate. We go through stages of awareness of what we are doing to our environment. We start by regarding anything that is part of the natural world as something to be used. We then go through a period of regarding it as something purely to be looked at in aesthetic terms. We then start to appreciate its constituent parts, its entity value.
The rain forests are an excellent example. The rain forests were considered as jungles that one had to conquer and exploit for their timber and so on. There followed a period of saying, "Don't they look nice." We know that they have economic value. We now realise that they will not last for ever and we shall be doing ourselves a favour by helping people to maintain them.
The same is true of the peat bogs in our environment. For instance, the marsh or fen country had a very bad press in our history and folklore. Anyone who comes from East Anglia, as I do, will be able to dig around for a few of the local stories about the fen country. They inevitably refer to an evil smelling place with many unpleasant things coming out of deep holes in the ground and invariably going down to hell. One then has the idea that one should drain the place, remove it, and use it for something useful. In other words, one regards 1447 it as totally wasteful. That is patent rubbish. We then have the stage of saying, "It doesn't look very nice," or, "It does look nice, so we'll leave it alone." Either way one can argue around that by saying that it should be put to some use. Thus in East Anglia all the fen country was put to the plough. As the noble Baroness, Lady David, has pointed out, that has resulted in the shrinkage of the land and a great release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
When we talk about the environment, it is virtually impossible to talk about a single part of it. Each question interrelates with dozens of others.
As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said, morality is involved. The only piece of primaeval landscape left to us is the peat bogs. They are left over from the last Ice Age. We cannot replace them. Yet we are destroying them at a rate of knots. We then tell very much poorer, less developed countries with less resources available to them to stop felling trees because it will harm the atmosphere. They can tell us that either thousands of years ago or very recently we felled all our trees, and that we too are attacking our own wild environment. They could say, "You have no right to speak to us like that. Why should we worry if your sea levels rise?" A moral question is involved.
We are beginning now to discover the value of peat lands for their own scientific worth. As the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, they provide an excellent record of life in earlier times, of temperature and climatic changes—again coming back to the greenhouse effect—and archaeological finds.
I am interested in the archaeological finds because only half of "Pete Marsh", or Lindow man, was found. One wonders what happened to the other half. Does someone have a potted plant with the other half of him sitting in it? People should not be too squeamish about using a mulch made from sewage sludge and straw if they have such a decaying piece of animal—be it elk or man—sitting in their garden pots.
We must try to convince the general public that peat should not be regarded as the amazingly convenient plant potting material which it now serves as. Other substances can do the job just as well in the vast majority of cases. When I began to research the subject I was overawed by the number of other substances that can be used instead of peat; for example, wood shavings, straw, sewage, sludge and bark. Almost anything that is biodegradable can be formed into some form of compost. The leaves currently collected from out public parks and inner cities to be thrown away could make a vast amount of compost. There is no reason why in the vast majority of cases we should use peat. Its removal destroys our natural environment. No matter how ill one thinks of peat bogs and marshes they look a great deal better than a series of fields which have been ploughed and churned up to look like a filmset for the battle of the Somme.
We must try to look at the problem in the same way as we are looking at all other environmental problems; as part of our culture and history. The 1448 areas provide vitally important habitat for many different kinds of wildlife. It has been pointed out to me on many occasions that if one wants to preserve a species one must first ensure that its habitat is kept. There is no better way of destroying a wild animal than to destroy its habitat. That is far more efficient than shooting it with guns.
We must look at the problem on many different levels. Peat is not essential to us. It is an inefficient fuel. It is running out rapidly; it is forecast to run out in 10 years' time. Therefore, I suggest that all the companies now making money out of it will soon be out of business unless they rapidly involve themselves in finding alternatives. I humbly suggest that the marketplace should be encouraged to deal as heavy a blow as possible to them. The depletion of the peat resources also damages our heritage.
Taking all that into consideration, surely the Government should be looking at helping the public to provide a series of sticks and carrots. Undoubtedly this debate and others like it will make people think twice about peat before using it for potted plants. The Government should at least bring forward planning controls so that people cannot attack the areas of virgin wilderness left in this country. That is the least that they should be doing. That may mean offending certain of the interests which are digging up areas of our national heritage but they should be stopped forthwith. If the Government decide to give them some form of compensation so be it, though I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady David, that they do not deserve compensation because they have already had their pound of flesh. If they have not looked far enough into the future, as I have outlined, they deserve what is coming to them.
Finally, we must look at the overall question when considering the environment; we cannot look at only one issue. We must consider our moral standpoint, the scientific value and the right of the public to preserve the country in the state that it wants and deserves. That is not as one huge agricultural or industrial wasteland.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ Lord Blease
My Lords, I too compliment the noble Lord, Lord Moran, on tabling this timely Unstarred Question about the future of United Kingdom peatlands. I also compliment all those who have spoken on the subject with such clarity, interest and challenge. There is an urgent need to question the continuing destruction and accelerated depletion of our peatlands. The Government must surely have a positive answer to the request for a realistic conservation strategy, especially in the light of their Environmental Protection Bill currently being enacted by Parliament.
During my early boyhood in Ireland the mention of boglands inevitably gave rise to solemn faces. It usually meant a journey into the dreary wasteland bogs where one strenuously laboured in wet, cold and windy conditions, cutting and stacking sodden peat. Weeks later one returned to transport the dried turf for use as domestic fuel. The Irish emigrants' lament, "The Auld Bog Road", with its 20 verses, did little to romanticise or make popular the wild 1449 and wonderful habitat of the boglands, no matter how well it was sung. At the same time I have pleasant memories of the delightful hours I spent at the Gerry Boag in Country Antrim. I watched the skylarks and listened to their glorious song as they rose higher and higher into the heavens.
Until recently I had given little serious thought to the peatlands of Northern Ireland. However, while motoring through some of the more remote areas of County Antrim and County Tyrone I was saddened by the sight of large tracts of peatland. They are stripped of their surface vegetation and had large open drains made ready for the machinery of the commercial peat extractors. I am sorry to say that a lack of awareness of the environmental importance of peatlands remains widespread throughout Northern Ireland. It is evident that any programme designed to conserve our peatlands and such parts of our natural heritage will require a range of concerted measures including legislation, land management, scientific research and programmes of relevant public information and education as part of a government-sponsored strategy.
I am glad that the debate is taking place so soon after the recent launch of the peatlands conservation campaign. The Royal Society for Nature Conservation and a number of other well known conservation groups joined that concerted campaign to end the commercial extraction of peat and to work for the development of an effective national peatlands conservation strategy. It is worth noting that a number of other countries have adopted national peatlands conservation policies. They include Canada, Finland, Switzerland, West Germany, Sweden and the United States of America. Indeed, many international bodies interested in the development of a worldwide peatlands conservation strategy are looking to the United Kingdom for leadership in achieving those objectives. That has been stressed at many international conferences.
I am pleased to add that the Dublin-based Irish Peatlands Conservation Council is associated with the campaign. I am also pleased that at an international conference on peatlands held last year in Dundee, the countryside and wildlife branch of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland presented a positive and encouraging discussion paper on conservation strategy for peatlands in Northern Ireland.
There is already an international responsibility to protect peatlands. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the Berne and Ramsar conventions, both of which emphasise the importance of the need for concerted governmental conservation measures, as does the EC directive. The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 for Great Britain and the Planning Order 1972 for Northern Ireland have in practice only limited control over peat extraction. Notification of a bog to the Nature Conservancy Council as a site of special scientific interest in Britain (SSSI) or an area of special scientific interest in Northern Ireland (ASSI) does not provide protection. Planning consents override conservation needs and designations. There is no compulsion to take the advice of a statutory conservation agency for Great Britain or of the newly established 1450 semi-autonomous body in Northern Ireland—the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside. As already mentioned by my noble friend Lady David, the law and planning rules override nature conservation.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, as I understand it, it is quite clear that under the 1981 Act the Secretary of State for the Environment has the power to intervene and stop if he so wishes. This may require some degree of compulsory powers but I believe that the Secretary of State has those powers and could use them if he so wished.
§ Lord Blease
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl. That is reinforced to some degree by another point which I wish to make. As regards environmental powers of control over peat extraction and the establishment of effective conservation measures, perhaps the more recent EC directive No. 85/337 will prove to be more objective and encouraging. I await the Minister's response to those two aspects of the matter. The directive relates to environmental assessment regulations introduced in 1988. Among other relevant matters, the regulations require activities concerning peat extraction to be subject to assessment of the effect of the particular project on the environment.
I should be grateful if the Minister will reply to those points. Perhaps he can also indicate how the Government propose to encourage representatives of voluntary and community groups to make suitable applications for assessment of a particular project. It is from such groups that there comes the dynamism at community level. What research have the Government undertaken into the existence of procedures under the directive and the legislation which the noble Earl, Lord Peel, has mentioned? How effective has the directive been in its implementation?
There are two principal organisations in Northern Ireland with a direct remit concerning peatlands in the Province. The first is the countryside and wildlife branch of the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment; the other is the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside. The latter was appointed by the Northern Ireland Office to advise, assist and critically examine the work of government departments in the discharge of their statutory functions and the promotion of conservation services.
In general conservation and wildlife matters, I am glad that we in Northern Ireland have a considerable number of lively and active, voluntary bodies. The Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside is highly committed and professional in the exercise of its role and functions and is widely representative of nature conservation voluntary bodies in the Province.
Both the council and the departmental branch are in dire need of adequate financial resources to carry out their functions effectively. I understand that of 10 selected bogs in Northern Ireland, five have been declared areas of special scientific interest and three more may soon be similarly designated. It is obvious that more requires to be done. Some of the more 1451 important peatlands in conservation terms are the subject of planning consent and covered by planning requests for commercial and horticultural exploitation.
The real threat is the small peat extrusion machine which can irreparably damage large areas in a short time. Where peat is extracted for personal use, no planning permission is required under the system of turbary rights. Those are well known rights which have existed for perhaps two centuries. But there appears to be a large grey area where the law is not enforced and where difficulties often arise in tracing rightful ownership.
To heighten public awareness of the cultural and ecological values of the peatlands—and I add their economic benefits from the point of view of tourism—the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment and the Council for the NCC have co-operated in the development and construction of a peatland park. That is a major feature and unique, I understand, in the United Kingdom. Specially developed attractions include pools and a bog garden for demonstrating bogland plants which can be viewed from a boarded walkway. The visitors centre will house exhibits concerned with both the cultural and natural history of peatlands. It is designed with the special interests of school and further educational establishments in mind. The centre is to be formally opened on 9th June. All in Northern Ireland who are directly concerned with the peatlands should be proud of that first step on the way towards promoting information and new approaches to conservation.
There can be no doubt that the future of the peatlands and any real impact on the scale of depletion will depend on at least three factors. First, there needs to be the growth of a lively and sympathetic public attitude towards the cultural and ecological values of the peatlands. Secondly, the proposed new statutory nature conservancy councils for England and Scotland and the Countryside Council for Wales, together with the council in Northern Ireland, should be given genuine government support and the necessary resources effectively to carry out their full role and functions. Those matters will arise when we debate the Environmental Protection Bill in this House. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Government should produce a strategy to save our precious peatlands in consultation with the statutory bodies and representative voluntary groups together with commercial and horticultural interests.
Peatlands are not dull and barren places but are valuable and delicate resources. Urgent attention and careful thought must be given to their use so that the resource is not lost and wasted forever. I await with interest the Minister's reply to the debate.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, like other noble Lords I wish to express my debt to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for drawing our attention to this important problem. He will not be surprised to discover that I cannot follow him in some of the propositions he made in the course of his submissions this evening.
1452 The noble Lord, Lord Moran, returned to one of his favourite themes. In a recent forestry debate he wished to impose on Scotland the same prohibition on planting which now exists throughout England and Wales. That is what is wrong with the argument of the environmentalists. They make blanket assumptions on all sorts of cases, irrespective of the impact which they have on other land use activities or on individuals who earn their living in the countryside.
I want to introduce a note of caution into this debate on the conservation of the peatlands. I subscribe to the general proposition and idea that sensitive areas which are important to the wildlife habitat of our country should be protected. However, I am sorry to say that sometimes the good and worthy cause is not promoted by individuals who are sensitive to other interests in the countryside. I quote the interesting case of David Bellamy, who descended on the island of Islay and a public meeting was called to invite the people to stop cutting peat.
Anyone who has calculated the cost of bringing other fuels into that island will readily appreciate why for centuries people have heated their homes by cutting peat. In addition, Islay has nine distilleries. It contributes more to the national Exchequer than any other comparable area in the United Kingdom. For generations the distillers have used peat, their native resource, in keeping the distilleries going. I am not sure whether that influences the taste of the product.
However, David Bellamy addressed the people of Islay, who rapidly escorted him to the pier and sent him home.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
I know that, but people in Ireland also have an interest in peat.
The point is that David Bellamy had a case concerning the conversion of other fuel resources for use in the distilleries. But the case should have been negotiated and discussed and a balanced programme developed so that his impact might have been more rational and acceptable. Similarly, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and others trot out the case of the flow country. The flow country has a nice sound, but very few people in this House have seen it. It is a great marshy swamp in Sutherland. Some people find it possible to make a living there by planting trees, caring for them, and marketing and delivering them to the pulp mills where they are used. The noble Lord and others would say, "Let us just blanket the entire flow country and have no economic activity whatever because we must protect some aspect of wildlife habitat". It is that unreasonable approach which has prejudiced the case for the environmentalist.
§ Lord Addington
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. Most of us object to the planting of trees or the churning up of the 1453 environment because we now realise that there is a value in the natural habitat as it exists. We are not totally against economic activity in these places. But if it destroys the country, which ultimately it will by such a huge change in its form, some other form of economic activity must be found elsewhere because we cannot replace the countryside.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, the noble Lord has already stated his case and has made that point. With all due respect, I presume he knows the flow country. The Secretary of State for Scotland quite rightly said that there is sufficient land in the flow country to protect the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and other environmentalists and at the same time provide a degree of economic activity in which people will be able to earn their living.
One of the most attractive aspects is a living countryside in which people find it possible to earn their living, send their children to school and develop a rural economy. They will not be able to do that if we blanket great areas of Scotland and say that they are to be protected exclusively for wildlife habitat and people must keep out, or alternatively it must be kept for the tourists. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, said that the Nature Conservancy Council must not be split. Most of the protests with regard to the splitting of the NCC have come from south of the Border.
There are important judgments to be made regarding land use in which it is vital that people who are close to the local situation should be involved and should understand. Decentralisation of the Nature Conservancy Council certainly provides that and will have wholehearted support.
We are not doing too badly in Scotland, working alongside the Nature Conservancy Council, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Forestry Commission and local authorities. We are developing what is called an indicative strategy as the result of negotiation, discussion and balancing the various interests. We are developing that indicative strategy and having it accepted by all involved in community activity. We are designating preferred sites for development and sensitive areas so that there will be guidance in an intelligent land use policy. It is by that careful balance and negotiation, weighing up the interests of all the various people involved in the countryside, that we will arrive at sensible conclusions.
This is an important debate and I fully subscribe to the alarm bells which the noble Lord, Lord Moran, started ringing about the depletion of our peatlands. But at the same time let us consider all the elements in the countryside.
§ Lord Blease
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he read Hansard tomorrow and see that every noble Lord tonight spoke in terms of consultation and prosperity with regard to the land? There is no question of land simply being allowed to lie idle in a blanket situation.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, with due respect, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, said that he wants the whole of the flow country designated as a 1454 non-development area for any commercial purpose. That is a fairly common theme. I am sure that if we read Hansard it will be realised that what I am calling for is a balanced approach to land use.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Baroness White
My Lords, I hope that I may be excused if I intervene to refer to a Welsh interest which has caused considerable local concern. I do not tonight propose to make the speech I hope to make Friday week.
I have just received a faxed message from the director of planning for Clwyd County Council regarding the large area of peat at Fenn's Moss in what was once part of my constituency. It lies on the edge of the Shropshire border where a similar but smaller area may also be affected. In all, in 1953 the Nature Conservancy Council designated around 1,700 acres—a considerable area—as a site of special scientific interest. That was reconfirmed, as was required, in 1983.
As was explained so clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and other noble Lords, that designation has not nullified the planning permission to work the peat granted by Shropshire in 1949 and by what was then the Overton Rural District Council in 1950. The recent alarm which has been touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, has arisen because a new company employing modern methods is now in a position vastly to increase the output of that very significant peat area.
At a meeting yesterday of the appropriate committee of Clwyd County Council it was reported that active discussions are proceeding with the NCC either as to purchase by it of the site or as to the enactment of a satisfactory management agreement. I am not so much against some element of compensation or recompense for a company which has taken a property on the understanding that it can be worked and then finds that for good reason it cannot be to anything like the extent it reasonably expected. Nevertheless, it is extremely important that the discussions should be proceeded with as rapidly as possible.
I understand that officials from the Department of the Environment have been involved in discussions with the local authorities concerned. Several Members of the other place have taken the matter up, as have a number of environmental pressure groups in Wales and across the Border. One can only hope that those pressures will succeed, and quickly, otherwise an important SSSI is likely to be irretrievably damaged. My apprehension is that the Nature Conservancy Council in Wales may be so preoccupied with its own domestic reorganisation that precious time may elapse before positive action is taken. I can only hope that I may be proved wrong.
§ 9 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, as other speakers have said, we owe a great debt to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for introducing this very topical and important subject. I believe that this matter has been brought more sharply to the notice of the average person because of a recent publicity campaign and 1455 exposure in various sections of the media. Probably the most important exposure of all was on television. I have seen television programmes depicting what is going on.
It would be remiss of me to try to introduce any new facet into the debate, because almost everything that can be said has been said. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, regarding a particular area which has a specific interest. I concur with his approach; namely, that there should be the closest consultation so that an agreed programme can be carried out in that unique area.
However, that is not what is frightening us. We are frightened by the rapid ripping out of peat which has taken thousands of years to form and without there being any possibility of it being replaced. I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who mentioned the astronomical cost to the Dutch who became involved in the programme of replacement.
We have to be very understanding about what man has done in the past. He does not emerge very well when one considers his past actions. I have in mind some of the species which have disappeared from the earth and some of the areas of the earth which have been ripped apart for no other purpose that to make money. Certain groups of people have populated the earth and then disappeared. Man exploited such people and he should take a great deal of the blame. However, man was allowed to get on with the problem.
Even today there are people who want to start hunting the whale despite all the campaigns that have taken place to try to preserve that magnificent creature. The people involved in peat extraction on a commerical scale should not be too surprised if the public, including the noble Lords who have spoken tonight, view them with great suspicion. I do.
I would not offer compensation. Why should the peat extractors be offered compensation? They did not put the peat there: that was done by time and history. I see no particular reason to compensate people for something which was not theirs in the first place. As regards co-operation with some of the people involved in large-scale peat extraction, during this debate one noble Lord referred to the fact that there had been a rather unfortunate experience somewhere in Yorkshire. A representative of the media went there to take some pictures and he was roughly, and in some respects illegally, handled by employees of the large private company involved in extracting peat from that area.
Noble Lords who have already spoken have given some idea of some of the measures that can be brought in to deal with the situation. More than one noble Lord has referred to the fact that a good deal of the peat is being extracted under legislation which has become out of date and which should be modernised. I believe I heard one speaker correctly when he said that the NCC was making recommendations in connection with particular areas but was being overruled because of local planning permission which had been given in the past. That seems rather odd.
1456 During an intervention the noble Earl, Lord Peel, expressed the opinion that the Secretary of State for the Environment already had within his control sufficient powers to issue directives to deal with the problem. If that is so, then that is a condemnation of successive Secretaries of State, because they have never invoked those powers. They have never used them.
Your Lordships' House is asking the Government to look now at this problem in a comprehensive way and as a matter of urgency. A difficult situation has emerged. If a great deal of time is taken in evolving an acceptable policy the damage which could be done in the interim by machines of juggernaut size would be of enormous dimensions and difficult to calculate. In the intervening period work undertaken on a large scale in a particular area would result in irreparable damage.
Noble Lords have already spoken about a variety of substitutes that can be used to reduce the reliance on peat. I believe the figures have been given by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and by my noble friends Lady David and Lord Blease concerning Northern Ireland. There has been a tremendous growth in the use of peat because of its greatly increased use in horticulture. I understand, however, that a large number of substitutes could be used for the purpose. Will the Government commission a programme of research with a view to producing speedy progress on different substitutes?
Is the Minister aware of the research programme being undertaken at Wye College with the support of the Shell company? I understand that it is primarily aimed at encouraging farmers to use for compost materials for which at present there is no suitable use. Does the research have government support? If they are not supporting it, I ask them to do so as a matter of urgency. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned substitutes such as sewage and the animal by-products of farming which are lying about in abundance in some areas but are not being used. They are not being used because people are able to get their hands on a ready-made commodity without recourse to anything else.
I hope that the debate, which was superbly opened by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who presented his case and the facts for his argument in great detail, will indicate the need for an urgent preservation programme. If the Minister cannot give noble Lords answers to specific questions today, I trust that the debate will have served the purpose of making the Government understand that, in this important problem as in many others, time is not on our side. We do not want action tomorrow. We want it today or as quickly as is humanly possible in the national interest. I hope that the noble Lord will convey those sentiments as quickly as possible to his colleague the Secretary of State.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Lord Reay
My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in expressing my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for introducing this most illuminating debate and for giving me the opportunity to give an account of the Government's thinking on and approach to the important issue of 1457 the measures needed to safeguard one of this country's most important natural habitats. The noble Lord made a powerful case. I shall endeavour to meet his request that I should tell the House what the Govenment are proposing to do and I shall return throughout my speech to points which he raised.
Although in the field of nature conservation as a whole we believe that we have policies and a record of which we can be justly proud, we are not complacent. Our recognition of the dynamism of the subject area with which we are dealing precludes it. New difficulties continually emerge as a result of economic growth and technological advance. We therefore value highly the dialogue with various voluntary conservation bodies. We greatly appreciate, for example, the work put into the Peat Report by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and all he other voluntary bodies. The Peat Report expresses persuasively legitimate concerns about the exploitation and loss of our peatlands.
The extraction of peat for sale is a mineral working operation which in Great Britain requires planning permission under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 for England and Wales, and the equivalent 1972 Act in Scotland. The noble Lord suggested that the commercial peatlands should be brought within the planning law. That is already the case.
One of the Government's policy objectives for minerals planning control, as stated in our series of minerals planning guidance notes, is,to ensure that land taken for mineral operations is reclaimed at the earliest opportunity and is capable of an acceptable use after working has come to an end".The after use for an individual mineral site may be its former use or a new, different and acceptable use. To achieve this objective we would now expect permissions for mineral workings of all types to include conditions on restoration and aftercare which are appropriate to the site in question.
However, the Government recognise that in many cases the permissions governing the existing peat workings, particularly in England and Wales, were given a considerable time ago, mainly by predecessors of the present mineral planning authorities in the early years after the first Town and Country Planning Act in 1947. They contain few, if any, controls on the method of working and lack even basic requirements for restoration and aftercare. Many of the permissions were given before the nature conservation importance of the peat areas had been fully appreciated. Moreover, technological advance, as several noble Lords pointed out, has transformed the techniques for peat extraction. New techniques mean that the peat is drained—and no speaker explained this more graphically than the noble Lord, Lord Moran—and worked more rapidly to a greater depth. The effect of this is that in many cases regeneration of the peat is not possible or would take a very considerable time.
Several noble Lords referred to the 1981 minerals Act. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, suggested that a major review of planning consents should take place, that consents should be withdrawn pending the review and that compensation should be available from public funds.
1458 The Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act 1981 introduced new powers and duties for mineral planning authorities. They have a duty to review, though not within any specific time limit, the workings and permissions in their areas. The purpose of the review is to monitor all recently active sites or sites authorised but not yet started to ensure, where practicable, that conditions are consistent with current minerals planning practice. Following this review, the authority will then wish to establish priorities for action. The legislation requires authorities to make formal orders to achieve their objectives where they consider this appropriate. These orders enable planning authorities to revoke or modify permissions and thus raise environmental standards.
Under legislation stretching back to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, if a planning consent is revoked or amended, compensation is payable by the local planning authority. We recognise that the terms of many of the peat extraction permissions which have been highlighted in today's debate are such that if a mineral planning authority were to seek to revoke or substantially modify them, substantial compensation is likely to be payable by the authority to the mineral company. However, the solution to the planning problems may not always be a formal order. Other measures, such as voluntary agreements between the parties about, for example, working methods may be appropriate.
In cases where the NCC judges that nature conservation is particularly important, the council may enter into a management agreement with a mineral company and pay compensation for the profit it forgoes by modifying its working practices for the benefit of nature conservation. As a very last resort, direct purchase may be agreed. Either course of action can be extremely expensive and the NCC must consider such options against other expenditure priorities for the benefit of nature conservation.
As I said, the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act 1981 places a duty on MPAs to review sites in thier areas and I understand that some review work is in hand. The Government believe that this approach will enable the issues to be considered fully by the parties. They are also always ready to consider proposals for management agreements or purchase that may be put forward by the NCC.
But the Government are not content to leave matters as they are. Discussions have been held with the mineral planning authorities, which have responsibilities for the major areas of workings, and the NCC, and we intend to hold discussions with the industry. We are therefore convinced of the need for the kind of co-operation with industry, the NCC and the MPAs for which my noble friend Lord Peel is hoping. We believe that this will enable us to obtain a clearer idea of the scale of the problem from all viewpoints and will help to keep the Government fully informed on the issues. Further, the Nature Conservancy Council is preparing a peatland resource date inventory which for the first time will bring together in a coherent form the best available information on the extent of our peatlands, their characteristics and their significance for wildlife. We 1459 shall also wish to consider whether there is a need to commission research, in conjunction with other interested parties, into working and restoration techniques. We shall then be in a position to consider what further planning guidance may be required about nature conservation and land-use matters affecting peatlands.
In addition, the Department of the Environment is already committed to assessing the practical operation and implementation of the powers contained in the 1981 Act during the next year to 18 months. In this assessment we will wish to consider the special problems with regard to peat extraction. It is already clear, however, that many of the remaining lowland areas in England are important for nature conservation and are under severe threat from mineral extraction. The noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Moran, and other noble Lords, made that point. We have therefore asked officials to report to us on the key areas under immediate threat and on the available options to balance nature conservation against legitimate mineral extraction interests. Your Lordships will of course be kept informed of the decisions we take on these matters.
The noble Lord, Lord Moran, and the noble Baroness, Lady David, raised the question of alternatives to peat. Whenever possible alternatives to peat are already used by government departments and we shall consider carefully extending their use. The noble Baroness asked whether we were encouraging research into alternatives for peat. Work is being carried out by the Ministery of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the use of alternatives. ADAS is at present closely involved in the re-evaluation of alternatives and is working with commercial firms in those areas, We are greatly encouraged by the potential of some of those materials of providing an acceptable alternative to peat for the horicultural industry, although their main application thus far has been in landscaping projects. In deciding our research priorities, we shall be taking into account the need to replace peat with acceptable alternatives while meeting the specialist needs of the horticultural industry.
The noble Lord, Lord Blease, asked about environmental impact assessment. The EC directive applies only to applications made after the directive came into force in July 1988. Permissions granted before that date are not affected.
My noble friend Lord Peel also contributed to the discussion about whether the Secretary of State has power to intervene once planning permission has been granted. The Town and Country Planning Act 1971 contains reserve powers for the Secretary of State to direct the revocation or modification of planning permission. However, I am not aware of those powers being used. It would probably be 1460 undesirable in the present context. Such action would still mean that compensation would be payable by the local authority. It would destroy the co-operation between the parties to which my noble friend referred.
The noble Baroness, Lady White, mentioned Fenn's Moss. We are aware of the anxiety being expressed about the future of that site. I understand that a number of proposals have been considered, including one that some peat extraction on previously worked areas could take place without destroying the scientific interest of the site. Other proposals involve the possible purchase or lease of areas of the moss. I cannot comment further at this stage, but I can assure the noble Baroness that we shall take into account the many views being expressed should firm proposals be put to the department by the NCC and/or the county councils involved.
The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, asked whether I was aware of research into alternatives to peat being conducted by Wye College. I was not aware of that research, and am pleased to know of it. I am aware of the other work being done by ADAS and the Department of Transport.
The noble Lords, Lord Moran and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, raised in different senses the question of forestry in Caithness and Sutherland. The Highlands Regional Council has produced an indicative forestry strategy which has been agreed by the NCC and the Forestry Commission which indicates areas where forestry can proceed without significant damage to the overall nature conservation interests of the flow country. The Secretary of State for Scotland has endorsed the strategy and any permissions for afforestation will be granted in accordance with it. The HRC report in our view points a sensible way forward that we hope will result in the reconciliation of opposing interests.
To conclude, the Peat Report has usefully highlighted important questions about the conservation of our peatlands and the urgency for action to preserve an important part of our natural heritage. The Government are well seized of those issues and, as I hope I have explained, they have a number of actions in hand which will inform the consideration of the problems and illuminate the development of their policies. It will be a little while before that work is concluded and therefore my remarks this evening have necessarily been in the nature of a progress report. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for giving me this opportunity to demonstrate that the Government are seriously concerned about those matters. I look forward to keeping your Lordships' House informed as further progress is made.
House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past nine o'clock.