HL Deb 17 November 1997 vol 583 cc364-7

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to protect Thorne and Hatfield Moors SSSI from denotification, and to remove the current planning permission on the site.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Government have no statutory role in requiring or preventing the notification or denotification of individual sites. That is a matter for scientific judgment by the council of English Nature.

The decision on whether to revoke or modify a planning permission is the responsibility of the relevant mineral planning authority, in this case Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that not unexpected Answer. Is my noble friend aware that Thorne and Hatfield Moors are two of the most important wildlife sites in the United Kingdom—they provide habitat for 25 of our most endangered species—and that raised bogs, of which these are two examples, are of the highest priority under the European Union habitats directive? Is it not time that the Government looked seriously at the working of the 1981 Act with a view to updating the legislation so that a more considered approach could be taken on these important sites? Is my noble friend aware that Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, to which she referred, is against the denotification and has said so, as is the Environment Agency? The situation is very unsatisfactory.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend has a long-standing interest in this area. The Government are considering currently the options for strengthening the protection given to special sites. We hope to consult on that issue in the new year.

However, because of the well known concerns about Thorne and Hatfield SSSIs, my honourable friend the Minister for the Environment recently invited English Nature to make a presentation. That was attended by local MPs who have an interest in the area and by Friends of the Earth. At that meeting Mr. Meacher asked English Nature to look again at all the evidence for denotification. The council of English Nature will be considering that evidence carefully at its meeting on 2nd December.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, will the Government support the wildlife charter launched today by a wide-ranging group of NGOs? It calls for planning laws to reflect the national importance of all SSSIs and to prevent their damage in future from such activities as peat extraction.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, the wildlife charter was launched today. We believe that it is a useful document. As I said earlier, we are already considering how best to improve the protection and management of SSSIs in the context of our commitment to improve the protection for wildlife. Officials have already held discussions with a wide range of bodies. We welcome the views of the wildlife organisations, which provide positive and useful ideas which will be considered carefully. In the new year there will be a full public consultation on a range of options.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, will my noble friend consider that in this century 95 per cent. of the peat bogs in this country have disappeared? Those referred to in the Question are the most important areas which remain. The issue needs consideration at the highest possible level.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is because of the concerns raised over possible denotification of parts—I should stress that it is only parts—of the Thorne and Hatfield Moors SSSIs, to which my noble friend referred, that we have asked English Nature to look carefully at this area. Following a major voluntary transfer of sites with planning permission from the peat operator to English Nature, peat is now worked only from those sites within Hatfield and Thorne Moors which have already been damaged by previous extraction over many decades.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, perhaps I may offer the Minister one further thought. Almost 19 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest—it is one of our strongest designations—are either destroyed or damaged each year. That has continued since 1981. Can the Minister explain to English Nature that unless we are seen to protect our own most valuable sites our exhortations to other countries, especially in Europe, to protect their sites are not helped?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I take note of what my noble friend says. As she is aware, a number of candidate special areas of conservation under the habitats directive have been submitted to the European Commission. Parts of Thorne and Hatfield Moors have been included as candidate special areas of conservation although not the parts currently being considered for denotification, as I understand it.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, while I may be pushing at a partially open door, the matter bears emphasis. In an area where the public have not been convinced by the scientific evidence so far presented, does the Minister accept that it is important that evidence is of the highest order and totally convincing? The Minister stated that peat is being extracted now only where the land has already suffered from extraction and has been damaged. By definition, to remain a peat bog, a peat bog has to be wet. By definition, the scientific views seem to be those which are challenged by a wide number of people.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. Work is being undertaken only at sites which have been damaged. In the context of peat bogs, it is sensible to do that since it is only by continuing extraction to groundwater level that bogs will be re-established allowing the regeneration of the conservation interest. But it is precisely because of the concerns raised about the quality of the scientific evidence that my honourable friend asked English Nature to look again at that evidence and consult with some of the people who are challenging it. However, eventually the responsibility lies with the council of English Nature.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, the Question relates to sites of special scientific interest. However, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, the Minister referred to wildlife. In view of the concern about the countryside and sites of special scientific interest, will the Minister take the opportunity in the context of the protection of wildlife to tell the House that she will look carefully at planning policy vis-à-vis the green belt? That has an important role to play as well.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I admire the noble Lord's ability to involve green belt policy in SSSI questions. Issues of the green belt are important. We are looking at planning policy in a variety of contexts, in particular as regards regeneration of town centres.