HL Deb 07 May 1991 vol 528 cc979-81

2.48 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made towards designation of the third marine nature reserve.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as the noble Baroness is aware, the Nature Conservancy Council identified five sites as suitable for marine nature reserves in addition to those already designated at Lundy and Skomer Island. Consultations to resolve the objections received in the case of the proposed reserves at Menai Strait and Loch Sween are continuing.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, as it has taken 10 years to designate two of the seven sites identified in 1981, is it not obvious that the formula is not working? Surely we must either assume that we need a different formula or that the Government are not behind the present one. Therefore, is it not time to seek a better way of saving our very precious marine conservation sites? If they were at risk 10 years ago, the situation must be much worse by now.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I understand the frustration and concern of the noble Baroness. Indeed, she has posed such Questions many times across the Dispatch Box. However, I must say, first, that the Government's commitment to marine nature reserves is absolute. We intend to achieve success, and some success has been achieved thus far. But, secondly, a high degree of co-operation is absolutely paramount, not just in establishing designation of reserves but in operating them successfully following designation. We aim to achieve that high degree of consensus and think that early imposition would be counter-productive.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if we are to make progress in relation to marine nature reserves such as the Menai Strait, in which many parties are interested, the provisions of the 1981 Act are impractical, as the noble Baroness said, and cause a great deal of aggravation? Will she consider whether management agreements could be enacted in such cases, especially the Menai Strait, where the foreshore is owned down to half mean low water mark as opposed to the high water mark?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. The possibility of introducing in England some of the management agreements on marine waters that exist in Scotland is under active consideration. We are talking about areas of the sea, and short of having policemen running around in little boats, control would be difficult to operate in any way other than with a high degree of consensus among local interests to preserve marine life, which of course is the subject of the Question.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a Select Committee of another place reporting in 1985 recommended in recommendation No. 18 that Sections 36 and 37 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 should be amended so as to give the Secretary of State power to set up a marine nature reserve if all efforts to achieve one on a voluntary basis have failed to produce results? In view of the fact that protracted consultations throughout the last decade have produced only two MNRs out of the seven selected by the NCC and that her noble friend Lord Belstead speaking from the Dispatch Box on 7th July 1987 gave the House an assurance that the Menai Strait and Loch Sween would probably be designated during that year—three and a half years ago—has the time not come to implement the recommendation of the Select Committee of the other place?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the success should be recorded. We are talking about seven sites. Two, Lundy and Skomer, have already been designated. On the Menai Strait, my understanding is that the Countryside Commission for Wales is already producing a second plan to try to establish a degree of consensus. The power exists for the Countryside Council for Wales to go to the Secretary of State for Wales and ask to go down the road that the noble Lord outlined. Voluntary agreements are operating in the Isles of Scilly and St. Abbs Head. We hope that a voluntary management agreement can be established for Loch Sween.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is there evidence that the reserves which have not been designated have come to a great deal of harm during the waiting period?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there will he different opinions about that point. It is important that we work to achieve co-operation at all the places mentioned because, as I keep having to repeat, it would be difficult to establish a high degree of co-operation if designation were imposed.

Baroness White

My Lords, is it not right that further thought should be given to this matter? The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was right. The NCC, as it was, and the Countryside Council for Wales, which as the Minister rightly said is the body now concerned, have put in a great deal of time, energy and man hours with no visible sign of progress. That means that second thoughts are required. It is clear from the long interval that has elapsed, and after the promises made in 1987—four years age—that the present system does not work. Are we to understand that the Secretary of State for Wales has some powers which the Secretary of State for the Environment does not possess and will be able to solve the problem independently?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. The work is painstaking and time-consuming but it is important that consensus should be achieved. The Menai Strait is the case most likely to end up on the Secretary of State's desk. That means that the Secretary of State could instigate a public inquiry, and the weight of a public inquiry behind public opinion would be an important marker as to what the Secretary of State would do next.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, was not the designation of the Skomer marine reserve held up for years and years by an organisation called the Sub-Aqua Divers' Federation? One wants 100 per cent. consultation, but one organisation can hold out and stop the whole thing. Who is stopping the designation in the case of the Menai Strait? We understand that it is the yachtsmen. Is that so?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the yachtsmen are the predominant interest. I believe that we established that point last time this Question was asked. Nevertheless, Skomer is now designated. All that work is now behind us and a successful marine nature reserve is established there.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the local inhabitants of Loch Sween have great reservations about the effect the proposed marine nature reserve would have on their lives and livelihoods?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes the point for me. Different interests will be involved in different places. The local people at Loch Sween feel a great deal of anxiety and disquiet. That anxiety needs to be addressed and properly accommodated. To achieve voluntary agreements with local interests would be a better way forward than for the Government to impose on the people a solution that they clearly do not want.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the best way to obtain a voluntary agreement is to see that as far as possible people are not financially hurt by the marine nature reserve? Therefore the suggestion made by her noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley is well worth considering.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall take the points made by the noble Baroness and my noble friend back to my department.