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Several hon. Members rose--

Ms Ruddock: Conservative Members are anxious to speak, and rightly so. I just hope that they will share my numerous criticisms.

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Another glaring hole in the criteria is the omission of landscape value as a separately specified criterion. Although it involves some qualitative judgment, so, of course, do tree preservation orders, landscape assessments and the Department of the Environment's good practice guide to environmental appraisals.

It is a further failing of the regulations that they require local authorities to consult only parish councils. Of course they should consult parish councils, but many conservation and heritage bodies in Britain have built up great expertise during many years on local hedgerows. Why have the Government decided to exclude such groups? Surely it would be right for such bodies to be made statutory consultees.

The Minister will be aware that much wider public consultation procedures are required under other planning legislation, including the tree preservation orders, which surely bear some similarity to the regulations. If the planning process is to be truly more democratic, we need to increase the scope for public consultation.

It is a telling indictment of the low priority that the Government give to hedgerow legislation--

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Will my hon. Friend give a clear undertaking that when she is sitting on the Treasury Bench she will bring forward regulations that will really work at the earliest opportunity?

Ms Ruddock: I am delighted to respond positively to my hon. Friend on that point.

I was pointing to the low priority that is signalled in the regulations by the maximum fine for illegally removing a hedgerow--just £5,000, compared with £20,000 for breaking tree protection orders.

The Government have promised to produce guidance on the regulations for local authorities, but they have given hedgerow protection such low priority, and left it so late in the day, that we shall never set eyes on it.

However, a number of conservation bodies are anxious to see on the record for this afternoon a commitment from whoever forms the next Government to consult environmental interests before producing any such guidance, especially on how local authorities should evaluate the landowner's reason for removing a hedge.

I am happy to give the House today the commitment that, if Labour forms the next Government, we shall certainly hold those consultations. Will the Minister give such a commitment? Does he accept that only in extreme circumstances should a landowner's private interest be allowed to override a hedgerow protection order made in the wider public interest?

The regulations are perhaps unique in being roundly criticised by all the major environmental groups in Britain. On Monday this week, the umbrella organisation Wildlife and Countryside Link, representing 11 leading organisations and more that 3.5 million members, wrote to the Secretary of State urging him to withdraw and redraft the regulation.

The Government have chosen to fly in the face of that expert advice by insisting on squeezing in the regulations even when they are being forced to drop key clauses from their flagship Bills to get them through before the imminent end of this discredited Parliament.

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I can confirm that, should Labour form the next Government, we shall consult all the interested parties and take urgent steps to strengthen the regulations in the interests of all our people and of our biodiversity and our countryside.

4.13 pm

Sir Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln): I am delighted to have this last opportunity to speak as a Member of Parliament and on the environment and countryside.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) was a little curmudgeonly in her welcome of the measure. After all, this is the first statutory instrument on hedgerows, and it is a fulfilment of our commitment in the Environment Act 1995 to take action to protect hedgerows. This is the first time that any Government of any political persuasion have introduced such a measure.

The statutory instrument should be seen in the wider context of what we have done for the environment and to promote conservation within the countryside. I am delighted to have joined the countryside stewardship scheme. It was only two or three weeks ago that, under that scheme, I planted 300 m of new hedgerow on my farm. I have a programme to plant about that amount of new hedgerow on our land in Suffolk in each of the next five years. Hundreds of farmers throughout the country have benefited from that scheme to increase hedgerows. Once a hedgerow has been planted, one cannot plough up to it: one undertakes to leave at least 6 m of good tussocky grassland on each side.

The Government have encouraged the planting of more hedgerows. It is wrong for the hon. Lady to suggest that we have not done that.

Ms Ruddock: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite the good efforts of people like him, who are to be applauded, there are more hedgerows disappearing than there are kilometres of hedgerows being planted?

Sir Kenneth Carlisle: I do not have the facts to hand, but in the countryside in East Anglia very few hedgerows are pulled up, and I see miles of new hedgerow. Attitudes to the countryside have changed. The Government have introduced this statutory instrument to protect older hedgerows, which are the most valuable, because they recognise that change in mood. This action was promised, and this legislation is a valuable first step. I welcome the measure, and I applaud the Government on their action.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, when he returns to the Front Bench after the general election, to monitor carefully the way in which the statutory instrument develops. Legislation is a learning curve, and new arrangements can be improved upon, so we should monitor carefully what happens. If necessary, we should take pragmatic steps to ensure that this legislation protects the most valuable ancient hedgerows.

I join the hon. Lady in asking the Minister to consult environmental interests before producing guidance for local authorities. One of the great successes of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been to come on board with those voluntary bodies. He is widely regarded as outstanding, because he consults those bodies widely on matters affecting the countryside, and listens carefully to them.

Ms Ruddock: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way. I acknowledge what he said about

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the Secretary of State. He should also acknowledge that every major conservation body in this country is opposed to the regulations in this form, and they told the Secretary of State so on Monday.

Sir Kenneth Carlisle: The important thing is to get the statutory instrument on the statute book before Parliament is dissolved. This is a step forward, because it is the first time that such legislation has been introduced. I am sure that, when my right hon. Friend is again in government as Secretary of State for the Environment, he will carry these measures forward. This is not a one-off: conservation measures have progressed throughout my 18 years in Parliament. They are now more pragmatic and more in tune with the wishes of those of us who have a great regard for the countryside, and who want to secure the environment for future generations.

4.18 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): The hon. Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle) gave the game away when he said that the important thing was to get the regulations on to the statute book in order to fulfil a promise. It is one of the few promises made by the Conservatives in their 1992 manifesto of which they will be able to say, "Well, we did it"--and people will not discover until after the election that the regulations will not work.

In fact, it is worse than that. We pass regulations time after time: the Government introduce some 2,500 each year. I see a role for regulations, but only for regulations that work; regulations that do not work create the bureaucracy that so many people dislike. As far as I can see, once the farmers have worked their way through these regulations, 80 per cent. of them will be able to find a way out of them. They will be able to do exactly what they want, unhindered by the regulations. The only hindrance is the fact that, rather than protecting hedgerows, the regulations merely confront the farmers with bureaucracy.

If the Government had come up with regulations that worked, I would be praising them, but it is surely absurd to construct a hurdle for farmers that will not protect 80 per cent. of hedgerows. Far from fulfilling an election promise, the Government have fudged their way out of it, claiming to be doing something for hedgerows but, in reality, doing very little.

I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what the regulations do to maintain hedgerows. The vast majority of the hedgerows that are now disappearing are not disappearing because someone is coming along with a bulldozer and pushing them out of the way, although that may have been the case 10 or 15 years ago. The majority are disappearing because of neglect. Farmers no longer prune hedges--I believe that "brush" is the technical term--and very few hedges are laid and maintained other than by voluntary groups and conservation volunteers. In large parts of countryside, traditional hedges are growing out to form a line of straggly hawthorn trees. When that happens, nearly all the biodiversity at the bottom of the hedge disappears. The berries on the trees may be useful to some birds, but many will lose out, especially those that live on the insects in hedgerows.

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The regulations do not seem to do anything to maintain hedgerows--at least those in my constituency, where some attractive hedges remain along the river valley between Denton and Brinnington. Those that are disappearing are disappearing because of neglect. The Minister should take these regulations away, and return with regulations that will protect at least 90 per cent. of hedgerows. If the Government must produce bureaucracy, they should design it to ensure that farmers do not deliberately destroy hedgerows, rather than presenting a cosmetic proposal that will merely generate bureaucracy and will make very little change to the countryside. They should include in the regulations powers to ensure that neglected hedgerows are protected, as well as hedgerows that people deliberately try to remove.

I hope that we have seen the back of the present Government, and that I shall soon see my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) at that Dispatch Box, introducing regulations that will protect hedgerows into the next century.

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