HC Deb 27 July 1979 vol 971 cc703-4W
Mr. du Cann

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is yet able to approve the applications, of which he is aware, for the approval of grant toward the drainage of land at Stoke St. Gregory in Somerset.

Mr. Wiggin

I regret that it has taken so long to decide these applications, which were lodged in 1978 and I am grateful to the farmers concerned for the forbearance they have shown.

The land in question is situated in an area of great wildlife interest. In such cases the Minister is required by section 11 of the Countryside Act 1968 to have regard to the desirability of conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside including its flora and fauna when exercising his statutory powers in connection with land. The Nature Conservancy Council was brought into consultation with the farmers concerned and consideration of the application has been deferred to allow time for discussions on the possibility of maintaining the present system of husbandry by agreement.

This has proved impracticable. We have therefore had to consider whether the changes in existing flora and fauna due to field drainage operations, which farmers have every right to undertake, outweigh in these specific cases the agri- cultural purposes for which the statutory powers of grant aid are provided.

Since 1944 when the land was largely under water the ecology has continued to evolve under the influence of arterial drainage provided at public cost with a view to the agricultural improvement of the surrounding area. When the fields are drained this land will be of a high quality shared by only a small proportion of our agricultural land. Taking into account the circumstances of farms concerned, we have reached the conclusion that grant aid ought not to be refused in these cases and the applications have accordingly been approved.

Concern has been expressed that the drainage of these fields may unwittingly drain nearby bird sanctuaries. Having visited the area and consutled my experts, I believe that the effects can be confined to the fields and ditches directly concerned. However, I am concerned by this environmental consideration and I have therefore commissioned an independent expert to advise me on the technical aspects of maintaining undrained areas within drained areas both in this district and elsewhere.