HL Deb 20 March 1997 vol 579 cc1169-76

8.40 p.m.

Earl Ferrers rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 3rd March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, where I come from in Norfolk, in the days when harvesting was done by binder and the last sheaf of corn was thrown onto the trailer, people used to say, "That is the one we have been looking for". As this Parliament draws to a close and as these regulations are the last of all the business to be transacted, not just in this Session but in this Parliament, one could say that, "This is the one we have been looking for".

Some of your Lordships may consider it slightly ironic that the distinction of being the last business of Parliament should fall to the Hedgerows Regulations and the distinction of being the last of all the government business which, over the years, I have had the privilege of presenting to your Lordships should be the Hedgerows Regulations. However, as they say, that is the way that the cookie has crumbled.

I should declare an interest in that I am, in the current departmental jargon a "land manager", which, in normal parlance, means a farmer. I should confess, without any regret, that over the years I have removed some hedges which have resulted in the farm for which I have some responsibility both looking and operating better.

Having made such a confession to your Lordships, I have the remarkable privilege of inviting the Houses to approve the Hedgerows Regulations 1997. In seeking the approval of the House for these draft regulations, I should acknowledge at the outset that there is a certain sensitivity on the subject matter of which I am only too well aware. Hedgerow protection is an issue which provokes strong emotions, and very different reactions. This was evident in the variety of views which we received in response to the public consultation which we carried out. We have considered carefully the views which have been expressed and have adjusted our proposals accordingly.

The changes which we have made do not alter the fundamental notification scheme on which we consulted. We have responded to the views which were expressed, increasing the time which was allowed for local planning authorities to give or to refuse consent to the removal of a hedgerow. Authorities will also be required to consult parish councils before giving consent. Moreover, we are requiring local authorities to take into account the reasons which are given for wishing to remove a hedge.

We have also taken some steps to try to simplify the criteria on which a hedge is considered to be important. That may surprise noble Lords when they look at the regulations; nevertheless, we have done so by removing some of the criteria which were generally considered to have been difficult to work. The regulations recognise the importance of hedgerows alongside public rights of way. We have also made clear that the regulations will be subject to review and that they may be amended in the light of practical experience.

There is clearly a difficult balance to keep between those who wish to see the countryside remain as they know it and those whose life and livelihood depends on the proper tending of the countryside. The countryside cannot be fossilised. It changes; indeed, it always will. It alters—the conditions in which it has to operate change.

The Government think that the draft Hedgerows Regulations now before the House strike a reasonable balance between the wishes of those in favour of widespread protection, and the concerns of those who have regard to some aspects of the tending of the countryside and who consider our proposals to be unnecessarily burdensome.

I shall conclude my introduction to the regulations by reminding your Lordships that among all the brouhaha surrounding hedgerows, some 400 miles more of hedgerows are planted each year than are removed.

Moved, That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 3rd March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Earl Ferrers.)

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, we are grateful that, at long last, some regulations on hedgerows have been produced. This was a manifesto commitment of the Conservative Party back in 1992 and was a topic which we discussed extensively during the proceedings on the Environment Act. At this very late hour in this Parliament the regulations have been produced; but we are deeply disappointed by the content. It is not only my party that is deeply disappointed; English Nature, which is an emanation of the Government, has also expressed its disappointment at the weakness of the regulations. Moreover, the Council for the Protection of Rural England is also deeply disappointed with the content of the regulations and, indeed, has said that it is as bad as having no regulations at all.

One of the great problems about hedgerows—and under these regulations only 10 per cent. will be protected—is the deterioration in their quality. There is no support for farmers to keep hedgerows up and, as they decline, they no longer fall within the definition of important hedgerows. Similarly, there is no protection for young hedgerows. There is no opportunity for up-to-date research on hedgerows. The regulations only provide that their status at the time when the regulations are passed will count. Therefore, no future research can be allowed. Only four weeks is allowed for local authorities to designate hedges. Almost inevitably farmers will apply for planning permission to have their hedges rooted up during the winter when it is much harder to show the considerable bio- diversity of plants, birds, animals, and so on, which are preserved by hedgerows. As I said, we are deeply disappointed with the regulations. The Labour Party has a long standing commitment to give proper protection to hedgerows. We shall, therefore, bring forward at the earliest possible moment in the new Parliament effective measures to protect hedgerows in future.

Lord Stanley of Alderney

My Lords, I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Ferrers will remember it, but he was the government Minister when, on the 16th January 1974, he had to congratulate me on my maiden speech which dealt with fencing and hedgerows. I do not think that he will do the same this evening. Indeed, I am sorry to say that I cannot recall my noble friend ever congratulating me again since that time. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal.

I hope that I will not embarrass my noble friend and I also hope that he will not be too irate with me but, as your Lordships may realise, this is his last appearance on the Front Bench. After all these years—and, as noble Lords know, I have known him for quite a time—perhaps I may say how much I shall miss him. In fact, more than that, I should stress how much all of us will miss him. Apart from being an excellent Minister who listens, my noble friend has a very strong sense of humour; indeed, I have often cried with laughter at his replies to stupid questions, some of which I fear may have come from me.

I have but three questions to ask my noble friend the Minister before he giggles again. First, will the guidance notes which are to accompany the regulations be consulted on very soon and be in place by 1st June? Secondly, will those who apply to remove a hedgerow have to pay a fee? Thirdly, if a hedgerow becomes an important hedgerow, does it incur a land charge?

As my noble friend said, I know about the struggle that the Government experience when trying to get any form of agreement between the various parties. There is little love lost between certain so-called "countryside organisations", many farmers and landowners—that, of course, includes me. Therefore I congratulate the Government on managing to issue the regulations and for bringing the organisations, farmers and landowners together. I also congratulate them on meeting the guidelines laid down by Parliament in the Environment Act 1995, much as I wish they had not been laid down.

I take the view that we should have the absolute minimum of regulation in the countryside. I also take the view that those who live and work in the countryside should be allowed as free a hand as possible. However, these regulations do the opposite. Sadly the majority do not have the privilege of working in the country. As we are a democracy, I have to listen and obey the rules laid down by Parliament, although I may find some of them to be stupid. I believe and hope that paragraph 5(b) will enable a reasonable and rational discussion to take place that will allow the economic case for the removal of a hedgerow to be considered. I wish my noble friend well.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be relieved to know that I have no intention whatsoever of talking about hedgerows as there is no one less qualified than I to do so. However, it is my understanding that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is proposing to retire from the Front Bench, whatever the result of the election. As one who has faced him across the Table from the other Dispatch Box on many occasions, I wish to pay tribute to him for all the work he has done for his party but even more for the House as a whole.

I was going to say that the noble Earl has always been courteous, but he has not actually; he is quite capable of being very rude indeed, and indeed being personally rude on occasion. However, he gets away with it because he has a wonderful aura of authority which he carries around with him and which is the subject of great admiration on all sides of the House. He has been a most distinguished servant of the House and of his party. We wish him well in whatever he chooses to do.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I associate myself totally with everything that has been said about my noble friend, who is also almost my neighbour. However, I wish to say a few words about hedgerows. I declare two interests: one as chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, and, secondly, as a Suffolk fanner.

I suppose in declaring the second interest I should also say one or two things about hedgerows. First, in my early days of farming I behaved in rather a vandalistic way and took out hedgerows. I now much regret having done that. That was 25 years ago. Since that time I have tried to replace them. I have planted a large number of them and they have done extremely well. The only reason for saying that is that I think it shows that sinners can be brought to repentance in these matters.

I know the difficulties which my noble friend and my right honourable friend have had in bringing forward this legislation, which has been controversial. However, I believe that much of the controversy which inhibited my noble friend and our right honourable friend from bringing forward legislation which I should have liked to have been able to welcome wholeheartedly has been the idea that the conflicts between farming and the land-owning interests, on the one side, and the conservation interests, on the other, cannot be reconciled. I think that is a misapprehension. I believe that it is perfectly possible to farm economically, profitably, sensibly and in an environmentally acceptable way. Furthermore, I believe there are increasing numbers of farmers who are farming in that way, so the trend is in the right direction.

In fact most of the damage that has been done to our landscape in the past has not been done by ordinary working farmers. In the early 1970s it became fashionable for institutional investors to buy land for which they paid absurd prices. They did so because it was fashionable to have land in their portfolios. They would then set targets for a rate of return on the land which meant that the managers they employed to achieve the rate of return massacred the landscape. That was tragic and it is much regretted by all of us.

Of course I welcome the fact that there are some regulations because there is a big difference between having some and having none, but I cannot say that they make an awful lot of sense as they are drafted at the moment. They have some good aspects. I shall mention first the good aspects. The fact that parish councils are to be consulted is a big plus. I hope very much that active parish councils will take a close interest—using this legislation and their right to be consulted—in urging local authorities to scrutinise the applications, which in general there will have to be, for the destruction of hedgerows.

However, as has been pointed out by the noble Baroness opposite, unfortunately only a small proportion of hedgerows are covered by the legislation. It astonishes me that the regulations refer to hedgerows which have existed for 30 years or more. However, young hedgerows are every bit as important and often—as my own newly planted hedgerows have been—have been planted with public money. It seems to me quite wrong to frame regulations for the protection of hedgerows which do not prevent the destruction of hedgerows, for which the taxpayer has helped to pay. That does not make sense to me.

I do not understand the penalties for illegally pulling up hedgerows. The maximum fine for defying a pre-preservation order is £20,000. The maximum fine for illegally and wilfully taking out a hedgerow which is protected is only £5,000. I simply do not understand that. The important point is that hedgerows are a crucial part of the landscape of this country. We cannot afford to make the landscape less attractive for our children and our children's children. Although the intention behind these regulations is moving in the right direction—and I would even go as far as to say that my right honourable friend's heart is in the right place, although I suspect I risk a tremendous reproof for saying that, and perhaps my noble friend's heart is also in the right place—the regulations are disappointing. I hope that whoever wins the election—obviously I hope very much it will be my party—will have another look at these regulations and will ensure that they are made much more satisfactory in terms of achieving the objectives which I believe we all share.

Earl Peel

My Lords, at the outset I had no intention of making any comment on these regulations, which I welcome. However, having heard today that my noble friend Lord Ferrers will no longer speak from the Front Bench, I wish to add to the tribute which has already been paid to him. I describe myself as an ordinary Conservative Back-Bencher who has been involved with environmental matters, and thus I am closely connected with the interests of my noble friend. I wish to pay tribute to the enormous care he has taken in listening to what those on his Back-Benches have said to him over the years. I am sure he would be the first to agree that he has not always listened as closely as perhaps we would have liked, but he has always shown a great deal of interest in what we have had to say—sometimes that has been fruitful and sometimes it has not. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for the considerable interest that he has shown in the concerns that have been expressed from these Benches.

I suppose I had to look for an excuse to comment on the regulations. My excuse runs something along these lines. Whereas I broadly welcome the regulations, hedgerows in themselves are not necessarily a conduit for wildlife. Hedgerows must be properly managed. I wonder whether there will be guidelines or some sort of encouragement for people to look after hedgerows in a constructive fashion. I hope this question is not a "fast ball" because I would not wish our relationship to end on that note. But what sort of assurances can he give the House that hedgerows will not only exist—I welcome that—but will be managed properly?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am deeply grateful for what your Lordships have said about these regulations, and for the kind remarks by my noble friend Lord Peel and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and I crossed swords periodically on a number of occasions when I had the privilege of being in the Home Office. I always enjoyed those occasions. If I may say so, the noble Lord always treated me totally fairly, straightforwardly and courteously, even if at times it was savagely. I am grateful to him for that. I look forward to seeing him sitting on those Benches again—and having the same problems as he has had recently. I watched the noble Lord deal with my noble friend Lady Blatch. I have never forgotten the courtesy that he displayed to me. I am grateful to him for that and for his kind words.

The noble Lord said that I had an air of authority. I did not know that. One does not know these things. I sometimes think that if one brought a skunk into the room, everyone would know it because a skunk gives off an awful smell; but the skunk does not know that because it is natural to him. All I can say is that I am not aware of all these wonderful things that the noble Lord said. I think that it is a figment of his imagination. I am sure that he would not say it at two o'clock in the afternoon.

Dare I come to the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton? The noble Baroness was deeply disappointed. My goodness, my Lords! She does not realise how lucky she is to have these regulations. They appeared like a whale out of the water yesterday afternoon. No one thought that they would appear. It was thought that they were lost down the pipe as a result of the forthcoming general election. But they have come. And what does the noble Baroness say? She says, "We are deeply disappointed. They only cover 10 per cent". The noble Baroness has not done her homework properly: the regulations will cover 20 per cent. She said, "There is no encouragement for maintaining the hedges". My goodness me, my Lords—what does the noble Baroness want? Does she want to pay people grants to maintain the hedges?

The noble Baroness said that there is no support for young hedgerows. As I explained to her, 400 more miles of hedgerows are planted than are grubbed up. I do not see why we have to encourage that support. Then she said that there are only four weeks for the local authorities to give their views. The noble Baroness is wrong on that: there are six weeks. If she cared to read all 25 pages of the regulations she would understand a little more about them.

My noble friend Lord Stanley did not declare an interest! He is a farmer. I bet that he has grubbed out some hedges in his time; but he did not say anything about that.

Noble Lords


Earl Ferrers

My Lords, he said that I had congratulated him on his maiden speech. But we all make errors of judgment. The noble Lord has never stopped talking since, and after some of the comments he has made subsequently, I might have been more modest in my congratulations. However, he has been a great and loyal supporter of the Conservative Party and in your Lordships' House that is a good thing. He, too, said some nice words to which I listened with pleasure. He said—I regarded it as a great compliment—that sometimes he had listened to my answers to some of the stupid questions that I was asked and cried with laughter. And then he asked me three stupid questions. He might just as well start crying with laughter now because I shall give him the answers to them.

The noble Lord kindly let me know the questions that he would ask. First, will the guidance notes accompany the regulations and will they be consulted on very soon? The answer is yes, that is the intention. Secondly, will those who apply to remove the hedgerow have to pay a fee? The answer is no. Thirdly, if a hedgerow becomes an important hedgerow does it incur a land charge? The answer to that is no.

My noble friend Lord Peel said that he did not wart to end a relationship on a sour note. But no relationship is ended. Nothing from my noble friend would ever be on a sour note. I have forgotten the question that he asked. All I have written down is "hedgerows". I presume that he asked a question on hedgerows. I shall read Hansard and ensure that he has a reply.

My noble friend Lord Marlesford is sitting there, the chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I was not quite certain whether he welcomed the regulations. He said that my heart was in the right place. Of course it is in the right place—he should know that. He said that he had made some mistakes when he was young. The only trouble is that he continues to make them and he has no regrets. Then he made an absurd suggestion. He asked why on earth should hedgerows be allowed to be pulled out after having been planted only 30 years because they had been planted with public money. Of course they have not been planted with public money. Farmers who have planted hedgerows have had the benefit of grants, as they have had for a number of things. If my noble friend suggests that any hedge ever planted must stay there sacrosanct, he has much to consider and understand.

But the thing that really distresses me about my noble friend is that there he is, the head of this great institution, badgering on that we must have hedgerow regulations. He has been running around like a headless chicken asking, "When are we going to have these regulations?" Now we have produced them. And what does the Council for the Protection of Rural England say? I shall tell your Lordships. The council issued a press release. And what was the press release headed? It is headed, CPRE slates hedgerows S.I.". I quote the council's own press release. It states: CPRE has slammed the statutory instrument … for protecting 'important' hedgerows which the Government laid before Parliament today…Sir Angus Stirling, Chairman of CPRE's Policy Committee said: 'These regulations are almost worse than having no regulations at all'. Yet my noble friend Lord Marlesford runs around saying, "We must have these regulations". And when we produce them that is all that his council can say. I just wish that his council and his chairman spoke with a single tongue. My noble friend has some odd ideas. He said that he would rather have nuclear reactors in the countryside than wind farms. Whether that represents the views of the CPRE, I do not know. But the CPRE and my noble friend seem to walk out of step with each other. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has gone out of his way to meet the views of the CPRE and others. I think that they might have given him more acclamation than that.

Having said that, my noble friend lives close to me. I know him well. I am delighted to see him smiling away. I hope that he will talk to me after this. But I think he talks a lot of rubbish sometimes and this evening was one such time.

I am grateful for the enthusiastic welcome that your Lordships have given to these hedgerow regulations. I commend the regulations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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