HC Deb 31 March 1995 vol 257 cc832-4W
Mr. Waterson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he will commence consultations on special areas of conservation to be designated under the EU habitats directive; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Gummer

I am pleased to announce today that the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland and I are launching a wide-ranging public consultation on a list of areas which have been proposed as qualifying for designation as special areas of conservation under the EU habitats directive. The proposals constitute the advice of English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales and the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland, co-ordinated through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to ensure UK-wide consistency.

The habitats directive requires member states to submit national lists to the European Commission by 5 June 1995. The SACs will build on our existing framework of designations. I am looking at a simplification of that framework in preparing the rural White Paper. In Scotland, the Government have asked Scottish Natural Heritage to carry out a review of designations and look forward to receiving its advice.

The Government are committed to full and effective public consultation before deciding which areas to include in the United Kingdom national list. The consultation will be at both national and local level. My colleagues are writing today to national organisations inviting comments on the proposals. At the same time, site-by-site consultations of landowners and occupiers and other interests, including local authorities, are being undertaken at local level by the appropriate country nature conservation agency and DOE(NI). The views expressed in the consultation will be considered fully before any decisions are made about the list of sites to be put to the Commission.

The habitats directive, adopted in 1992, was one of the most important milestones for nature conservation in Europe. The Government played an active part in its negotiation and we have pursued implementation in accordance with its requirements. This latest step is the next phase of implementation which identifies those sites considered by the nature conservation agencies and DOE(NI) to represent an appropriate contribution from the UK to the Union-wide Natura 2000 network.

The consultation package, which I am making available in the Library of the House, includes a document which explains the way the scientific advice has been formulated. The directive requires that sites selected as SACs should be significant in terms of the biogeographical region. The habitat types and species listed for site protection are among the rarest or most threatened in Europe. The aim of the SAC network is to maintain or restore these habitat types and species at a favourable conservation status. The sites eventually selected will be those which make a significant contribution to that aim, to the coherence of the network or to the maintenance of biological diversity. The Natura 2000 network will therefore consist of sites which are the most precious in the European Union and these proposals should be considered in that context.

The sites on the list cover both land and marine areas. All land-based sites in Great Britain which are included in the consultation are already notified as sites of special scientific interest and in Northern Ireland all land-based sites are, or shortly will be, declared areas of special scientific interest. The nature conservation agencies advise that there are some habitat types and species for which SACs will, in due course, be recommended which are not yet SSSI. Further SSSI notifications are planned to cover, in particular, certain rivers and riverine species, active raised bogs and blanket bogs and some inter-tidal areas. This notification work will be undertaken before consultation on possible SAC designation for them takes place. The consultation list is also incomplete for certain species. Further scientific information is being sought on the freshwater pearl mussel, the great crested newt and the otter before a full range of possible sites is proposed and consulted on for these species. The Government also await further scientific advice on an additional estuarial site.

I look forward to receiving comments on the proposals. There is already a constructive dialogue between landholders on the one hand and the country agencies and DOE(NI) on the other. There is similar discussion between these statutory bodies and users of the marine environment. This present consultation continues and reinforces the dialogue which is fundamental to the co-operation and consensus we must have to secure effective and lasting conservation.