HL Deb 27 March 1996 vol 570 cc1702-4

3.2 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon asked Her Majesty's Government:

In view of the proposed destruction of the habitat at Selar Farm in the Vale of Neath, what is their policy on sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the Government remain committed to the conservation of our natural heritage. We believe that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 continues to provide an effective and flexible framework which protects wildlife and habitats.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, that Answer makes no reference to what has happened in this specific habitat where, without a public inquiry, permission has been given for open-cast mining. Are the Government satisfied that there has been an adequate environmental impact assessment in this case? It threatens particularly the marsh fritillary butterfly. We have already lost 100 species in this country this year and this is yet another example of neglect of the environment.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness's attitude is born of long periods in opposition and not having to deal with the practicalities of life where one must balance the needs of the local population, their employment and their industry, with that of the local nature. There will always be occasions when some SSSIs are damaged or destroyed because of the economic needs of the people living in the area. It is up to the Government and local authorities to balance those needs. We believe that they have done so properly in this case and that the conservation of the marsh fritillary butterfly is dealt with extensively in the biodiversity initiative documents we published. We are doing a great deal nationwide not only to preserve that butterfly, but to help it to increase and spread and make sure that it has a firm position in our natural fauna.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, is the Minister aware that English Nature admits to damage to 104 sites last year? In Wales, of 899 sites, 20 per cent. suffered damage last year. That is an extremely large number. Scotland reports damage to 23 sites and reports that damage due to insufficient management is not recorded. What is special about damage due to mismanagement that results in it not being recorded? Surely damage to an SSSI, by any means, should be recorded and taken seriously by the Government. Is it government policy to accept all that without protest?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the nature conservation bodies concerned take damage seriously. They try to pursue each case and make sure it is remedied. Their record in that respect is excellent.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me when it was, in recent history, that the SSSI designation became the equivalent of a glass case?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, never.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, is there any proposal under present consideration for denotification of this SSSI? How many new, permanent local jobs will be provided as a result of the open-cast development? How does that figure compare with the figure of lost jobs in the mining industry over the past 17 years which has seen the devastation of that once proud and productive workforce?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, this has nothing whatever to do with the history of mining in Wales, though one can note that mining provided some wonderful wildlife sites on the old waste tips of the mines which have by now had time to develop wildlife which would otherwise be extremely rare in Wales. In relation to this development, I understand that in due course it will provide in excess of 100 jobs locally—and that, in an area where jobs are hard to come by, weighed heavily with the local council when it gave its support to the scheme. We feel that it got the decision right.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hilton speaks not so much from a few years' experience in opposition but after many years of distinguished service in public service.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not doubt that.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does my noble friend think it may be helpful if the Government considered introducing the Scottish system for SSSIs into England and Wales? That is a system whereby there is a separate advisory committee which advises on contentious issues. Since its introduction in 1991 it has proved to be a great success in Scotland.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I shall certainly draw the attention of my colleagues in Wales to the Scottish SSSI system.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, notwithstanding the merits of this specific application, there is a need also to balance the requirements of the present generation against those of posterity? Will there not come a point, with the loss of the SSSIs referred to, where that balance is struck improperly in favour of the present generation? How do the Government propose to address that question?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we are addressing it by an extensive and extremely well-funded series of initiatives to improve the environment as a whole. The emphasis surely must be on increasing the wildlife value and the natural habitat available to species in this country, which we are doing through a large number of farm-based schemes as well as other environmental efforts. Occasional damage will be caused to some parts of that environment, but the countryside is not a museum; it is a living and developing system. As the noble Lord is doubtless aware, 10,000 years ago Wales was just a glacier. All that has appeared has done so since then. Sites of special scientific interest can be created and appear naturally as well as disappear.

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