HL Deb 02 May 1995 vol 563 cc1321-4

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made towards designation of further marine nature reserves.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales is currently considering a draft order made by the Countryside Council for Wales proposing the designation of the Menai Straits. He will announce his decision at the earliest opportunity. Objectors to the proposed marine nature reserve at Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland, were heard on 25th April. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will announce his decision at the earliest opportunity.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. However, has not the discussion (if that is the right word) been continuing since 1988? So far as I can ascertain, the Welsh Office has been sitting on the result for the past year without coming to a conclusion.

Is the noble Viscount aware that, of the seven sites identified in 1981, only two have so far been designated as marine nature reserves? In the interval a great deal of damage is being done to what are almost irreplaceable sites. Can he give any assurance that the process is to be speeded up?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. Two sites have been designated, at Lundy and Skomer. However, the Government consider that marine nature reserves should be established only after full consultation. Before designation, efforts should be made to ensure that there is agreement with those with a legitimate interest in the area concerned. As the noble Baroness indicated, that process can take longer than many of us would wish. But we remain of the view that time spent in gaining local support is worth while.

Of the list proposed, a number of voluntary reserves are operating successfully, including St. Abb's Head; and others are being considered for that voluntary status, including the Isles of Scilly and Loch Sween in Scotland.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the most important action that the Government can take towards restoring the marine flora and fauna around our coasts is further steps for the prevention of pollution, which still takes place on too large a scale?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. That is a problem about which we are indeed concerned. My honourable friend the Minister of State for the Environment and Countryside, Mr. Atkins, announced four coastal policy initiatives in July 1994. Those included a standing forum on coastal zone management. I believe that that will go some way towards dealing with that problem.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the people of Gwynedd are baffled and dismayed by the failure of the Government to reach a conclusion on this important issue? A delay of seven years or more is unforgiveable. I should be grateful if the noble Viscount could tell the House the reason for it, especially as a clear promise was given that a conclusion would be reached by 1st April last. People in North Wales are wondering whether the Government are waiting for the Menai Straits to run dry before they reach a conclusion.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I must repeat that some objections are still outstanding and those objections from interested parties are now being considered by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales. A decision on them will be made shortly. I understand that there will be a form of non-statutory public inquiry and that a decision on the timing will be taken soon.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, what is the main objection?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I understand that it comes partly from the yachting community.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, is it not in keeping with your Lordships' wishes during the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 that interested parties should be kept informed and their views listened to before a marine nature reserve is created? If the Menai Straits are made a marine nature reserve, is it not also a fact that further regulations could be added, with no right for anyone to appeal or even be consulted about the further regulations?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. When the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was passing through another place, undertakings were given that marine nature reserves would be designated only after important differences of opinion had been resolved. However, that does not mean that everyone must agree with the proposal. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will obviously take account of the views of all those who expressed an interest. I believe that in due course all marine nature reserves will be designated as special areas of conservation under the Habitats Directive.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, will the Minister agree that several types of sea bird which have been common around our shores for centuries are under threat? They are in particular the guillemot, the puffin and the gannet. The most important is the Manx shearwater; 90 per cent. of the world's breeding grounds for that bird are within British waters and the species is severely threatened.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, under the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc.) Regulations which have just been enacted, such areas will be taken into account. A number of areas have been identified as possible special areas of conservation and the list published for consultation.

Baroness David

My Lords, the Minister mentioned Loch Sween. Can he tell us whether Scottish Natural Heritage is making efforts to hurry the process along?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, indeed, it is on the basis of recommendations by Scottish Natural Heritage that the proposal was put forward. Also, the concept that it should be run on a voluntary basis is being considered.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the special areas of conservation under the habitats directive. Are we now to assume that all marine nature reserves are to be subsumed under that rubric of "special areas of conservation"? If so, is the noble Viscount aware that the Menai Straits are not a proposed SAC? Is he further aware that the Welsh Office publication The Environment in Wales—Third Report included a commitment to reach a decision on the Menai Straits, as my noble friend Lord Cledwyn mentioned, in the financial year 1994–95? Is the noble Viscount therefore saying that the Welsh Office wishes to push the whole matter into touch until special areas of conservation have been decided?

Viscount Ullswater

No, my Lords, I do not believe that to be an entirely correct interpretation. Some 36 marine sites have been included in the recently published list of possible SACs. The noble Lord is quite right that the Menai Straits is not one of those; it is being pursued under the marine nature reserve policy. At the moment it is subject to a draft order, subject to a non-statutory inquiry. A decision will be taken very soon.