HL Deb 11 October 2000 vol 617 cc453-5 (" . It shall be a principal aim of the Nature Conservancy Council in discharging its functions of protecting and enhancing biodiversity and physiographic features also to make such contribution to sustainable development as is required by guidance issued by Ministers from time to time.").

The noble Baroness said: The Committee will be pleased that the issues of conservation and protection of SSSIs will be considerably strengthened by the Bill; and that English Nature will continue to be the champion of those sites. The amendment seeks to establish the Government's thinking on the relationship between such championship, and the duties of English Nature.

The amendment would come into play when there was a conflict of interests. For example, as a result of the Government's policies on climate change, local communities might wish to devise local energy solutions. A community with a good river flowing through it might choose to sink a turbine into the bed of the river to produce a considerable amount of energy. However, if the river came within English Nature's area of responsibility, it might recommend against the scheme. The amendment would enable Ministers to issue guidance to clarify such debates. It would not lessen the authority of English Nature. The aim is to ascertain the Government's view on how strictly applied local policy advice from English Nature might fit in with wider national objectives. I beg to move.

Baroness Byford

We have reached Part III. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has said, this is a probing amendment to establish the Government's line. I shall not delay the Committee at length. We have a number of important amendments coming up on protecting and enhancing diversity and looking to the future. I thank the noble Baroness for giving us an opportunity to speak on those issues.

Lord Whitty

Having at last reached Part III, we are directly addressing the nature conservancy and wildlife protection aspects of the Bill. Addressing issues of sustainable development is central to my department's strategy. The Liberal Democrats have tried to insert references to sustainable development in various Bills on the subject. Sometimes I have agreed with them and sometimes I have not. In most cases, they have argued that bodies that are primarily concerned with economic developments should take a longer-term, more sustainable and more environmentally oriented view.

Everyone has to pay attention to sustainable developments, but the conservation authorities have specific requirements relating to their conservation responsibilities, which could be diverted by writing in sustainable development on the same basis. English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales are already under a duty to have regard to the needs of agriculture, forestry and the economic and social interests of rural areas when carrying out their statutory functions. They take those responsibilities seriously. English Nature has recently issued a position statement on sustainable development.

A sustainable development duty as outlined in the amendment may not be entirely appropriate, because the conservation agencies are under a duty to notify SSSIs based on a scientific assessment of whether the site is of special interest by virtue of its flora and fauna and its physiographical and geological features. Once it has decided that that is the case, the agency has a statutory duty to notify the land, but it must ensure that only the land that is of special interest: is so covered. Once the assessment has been made, other authorities are responsible for looking at the wider sustainable development arguments.

I accept the aim of the amendment, but writing such a duty in as equivalent to other requirements and duties of English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales could blur matters unhelpfully. I hope that the noble Baroness will not pursue the amendment.

10.30 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. Although I understand that English Nature would in many ways be an advisory body in this area, if its advice was negative that would often be a body-blow to a particular scheme. However, given its statement on sustainable development, which I have read carefully, I believe that its heart is in the right place and I thank the Minister for his reassurance.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

While brandishing my copy of the Addison rules, I wonder whether I may add something which may help the Committee to understand the difficulty which has arisen in relation to this issue. The noble Baroness gave examples of where laudable sustainable green energy schemes might come into conflict with the nature conservation interest of a particular piece of land. I believe that English Nature's primary objective in this area is the conservation of biodiversity. That is very much a key test of sustainability. If biodiversity is going down the tubes, one can be fairly certain that, as a nation, we are not making decisions that are sustainable. Therefore, it is a valuable touchstone for whether the decisions that are being made in economic and social areas are indeed sustainable.

I believe that conflict will arise in areas where sites are protected. The sites of special scientific interest in this country cover approximately only 7 per cent of the land surface. They are special for their nature conservation interest and I believe that it is not unreasonable for them to be seen as having conservation as their primary purpose. In many cases, economic activities are perfectly compatible with that. If a green energy scheme is not compatible with that, then I believe that we must look for schemes which do not impact on that very small proportion of land surface designated as special because they are genuinely the jewels in the crown for nature conservation.

As I continue to brandish my copy of the Addison rules, I hope that that explanation has been of value to the Committee.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

I feel doubly reassured and look forward to returning to the debate, which may widen under Amendment No. 536AA to which I shall add my name. That amendment may extend the issue to cover marine areas. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 452: Before Clause 66, insert the following new clause—

("The Nature Conservancy Council for England