HL Deb 23 June 2004 vol 662 cc1237-41

2.54 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What increases in the budgets of protected landscapes they will make available in light of the emphasis on biodiversity and environmentally friendly agriculture in the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, CAP reform will not of itself provide additional funds for protecting landscapes. However, the CAP reform agreement does enable us to transfer funds to support rural development and agri-environment schemes, including using additional national modulation to fund an entry level scheme to deliver real environmental benefits. Those measures, along with the cross-compliance conditions attaching to the new single payment, will deliver those benefits across the board, including to protected areas.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and remind your Lordships of my interest in this matter as the chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, which is a protected landscape. However, with the rather complicated detail that the Minister has just given us, is this not a golden opportunity for protected landscapes to be used as a test-bed for biodiversity and environmentally friendly schemes that will be required under the common agricultural policy review?

In preparation for that, many AONBs are now turning themselves into conservation boards—such as the Cotswolds, Chilterns and North Wessex Downs—encouraged by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. They do not have any secure budgets for themselves. Will the Minister look further into that matter and make certain that Defra does not miss this opportunity?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, Defra does fund AONBs via the Countryside Agency. The Countryside Agency contributes 75 per cent of their funding and the rest comes from local authorities. That situation will not be altered by the reform of the CAP. The exact structure may be altered by the other reforms in Defra's rural delivery, but the CAP itself will not provide for that. However, the noble Lord is right that the type of landscape within the AONBs should benefit greatly from the entry level scheme and from the type of the higher-level schemes that we hope to introduce under pillar two of the CAP, which will be expanded under this reform.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, is there not some inconsistency in government policy? The new CAP is heavily weighted in favour of improving the environment and the landscape, yet the Minister's colleagues in energy and planning are doing their level best to ruin the landscape of the United Kingdom by building thousands of 300-foot-high wind towers with transmission lines and access roads. The Government cannot have it both ways. What is the Minister's answer?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, having dealt with the Energy Bill, I see that the noble Lord is moving forcefully into well trodden territory. We disagree. Frankly, the future environment of the planet requires wind farms, both offshore—from where the bulk of wind farm energy will come—and onshore. I will be controversial. In certain circumstances, wind farms actually enhance the landscape, although not everywhere.

Noble Lords


Lord Whitty

My Lords, I know that this is a matter of disagreement, but I can tell noble Lords that there are many parts of the country where they are welcome additions to the landscape. In a number of others, people locally are taking a very short-sighted view of what is necessary for our energy requirements and, essentially, for the environment.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, does the Minister agree that improvements in biodiversity do not always mean more money being spent? Very often it is a question of different ways of working. What is the noble Lord doing to encourage other government departments to work in different ways to encourage habitat retention and creation for threatened species as well as our common species?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree. Indeed, part of the reform of the common agricultural policy and the shift to agri-environment schemes will enable us to focus on improving the biodiversity and habitats of many parts of our countryside. As for other departments, those involved in planning and transport are beginning to mainstream requirements on biodiversity. For example, the Highways Agency now takes its obligations in that regard very seriously.

Lord Walpole

My Lords, I am surprised that the Minister did not take advantage of this opportunity to advertise the extremely good publication that he put out recently called Plant Diversity Challenge, which is not available in the Printed Paper Office and we do not seem to be able to get hold of copies of it. It is a remarkably good document not only to read but to tell one what to do.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I certainly endorse that view. It is one of the many publications produced in this area to improve the environment in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and our landscapes in general.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, which sites did the Minister have in mind when he said that there were some places where the environment would be improved by having a windmill or two? Perhaps he would also tell us how many windmills it takes to replace a nuclear power station.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on the last point, I suspect that some of those who are objecting to wind farms would not be particularly pleased were we to build a nuclear power station on their hillside. As far as the first question is concerned, the noble Lord knows better. He will be aware that Ministers are in a quasi-judicial position so I cannot comment on a particular planning decision. However, I assure him that what I said earlier was correct in many parts of the country.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether the Government still expect farmers to produce food?

Lord Whitty

Of course, my Lords; the whole point of the common agricultural policy reform is to free farmers to produce what the market needs, but in an environmentally sensitive way. In this country, we still produce the vast majority of our food. Even in a liberalised trading system, British agriculture can still produce most of the high quality, high value food that we need.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that in 17th century Dutch landscape painting, windmills were considered to be a feature of beauty? Indeed, Jacob van Ruisdael's view of Haarlem contains no fewer than 11 depictions of working windmills.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend's knowledge of Dutch landscape painting is unparalleled in this House. That is an interesting and important point. Many of those who are now objecting to windfarms were, 50 years ago, strongly opposing the closedown and destruction of windmills—and rightly so.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, on protecting the landscape, does the Minister recognise the importance of orchards to the landscape of Somerset? Can he confirm that the intervention of English Nature and the recognition of their importance in the field of biodiversity has led to some better news for the smaller orchards of Somerset?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords, I am glad to do that. Clearly there has been some anxiety among the orchards, particularly in the south-west, about the implications of CAP reform and the apparent perverse incentive to scrub out orchards. Moving into countryside stewardship with the help of English Nature is a solution that has already worked for a lot of orchards and could work for many more.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is quite a lot of rumour that the Deputy Prime Minister sees the designation and hierarchy of protected landscapes as an obstacle to his planning ambitions? I refer particularly to the conservation areas and the special landscape areas. There are even rumours that it is intended to remove the English Heritage listing system and keep only one and two stars. Can the Minister assure us that there is no intention of reducing the long-established and extremely valuable protection given by the various statutory designations?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have no idea where the noble Lord gets his rumours from. There is absolutely no intention of us abandoning the protection that we have stood by. Indeed, I used to work for the Deputy Prime Minister; he was adamant that areas of outstanding natural beauty and other such areas were an important part of the planning system and should be as far as possible respected in all regards. As for other developments in the country, there are plenty of other areas in which to build roads, without impinging on areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, if we could stop tilting at windmills for a moment—

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the Minister did not answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. He asked how many windmills would be required to be comparable with a 1,200 megawatt nuclear power station. The answer is at least 600 windmills. They would occupy many square miles of British countryside whereas a 1,200 megawatt nuclear power station—or any other sort of power station—would occupy comparatively few acres.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the point is that there would be objections to a nuclear power station. The fact is that we do have to get our energy from somewhere, albeit we are making huge efforts to reduce the demand for energy though energy efficiency. The noble Lord is right in saying that hundreds of windfarms would be needed to replace a single nuclear power station. However, what he fails to recognise is that those large-scale windfarm installations will be offshore and not in the kind of location about which the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, was expressing anxiety.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer. Will the controlling boards of the AONBs have powers to lay down or influence the schemes that are likely to receive assistance at farm level in their area, under the proposed environmental schemes of modulation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, not directly, any more than they do under current agri-environment schemes. However, the agencies conducting and approving those schemes will need to take into account the nature of the area and the views of the conservation boards, national parks and local authorities.