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House of Commons

Friday 15 March 2002

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Sustainable development

' In the exercise of any function under this Act a person or body must have regard to the desirability of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development.'.—[Mr. Meacher.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.35 am

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It genuinely gives me great pleasure to be present for the Report stage of this Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I offer him my congratulations—as I did on Second Reading and in Committee—on bringing the Bill so far.

As I outlined in Committee, legislation for the marine environment is a complex matter. In addition to the important issues of conserving nationally important species and habitats, a wide range of other interests need to be taken into account in any legislation. The amendments proposed by the Government strike the right balance; they will protect the marine environment while taking into account other legitimate interests and users of the sea.

It is thus appropriate that the new clause concerns the application of the principles of sustainable development. The provision sets out a responsibility for the nature conservation bodies, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the National Assembly for Wales and any other bodies exercising functions under the Bill to take proper account of the need to achieve sustainable development.

The need for sustainable development is central to all Government policy. In May 1999, the Government published "A better quality of life: a strategy for sustainable development for the United Kingdom", which brought the environment, social progress and the economy alongside each other at the heart of policy making.

Achieving sustainable development is all about recognising, evaluating and taking into account the costs and benefits of actions on the economy, the environment

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and people's livelihoods. The application can sometimes be fraught, but that is the principle. The new clause would ensure that such a balance was struck when any bodies exercising functions under the Bill made decisions that could affect nationally important species and habitats.

Many activities, such as shipping, fishing, offshore minerals exploitation, sustainable energy and coastal zone development make use of our seas and shores. The new clause would ensure that, where those activities affect protected sites, Departments and other bodies carrying out their functions under the Bill—such as establishing management schemes or confirming site notifications—will have regard to the benefits of permitting sustainable use of marine resources and other social and economic uses of the site, as well as securing the conservation of the marine environment.

The new clause would help to ensure that protected sites will not lead to a series of no-go areas for development. In the confirmation of sites, in giving advice to competent marine authorities about potentially damaging operations, in making byelaws and in establishing management schemes, it is important to act proportionately. I realise that not every measure to protect marine sites will be justifiable when all sustainable development objectives are taken into account. However, in the marine environment we are dealing with risks in areas where our knowledge of the likelihood of impact is limited or where there is continuing scientific uncertainty. Therefore, we will need to adopt a precautionary approach that is consistent and in line with the Nice European Council resolution on the precautionary principle. That is very important.

We believe that the inclusion of the clause would introduce a degree of consistency between the process of selection for sites under the Bill and that for sites of special scientific interest on land. I shall repeat those words several times this morning, if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the confirmation of sites on land, the conservation agency is placed under a duty by section 37 of the Countryside Act 1968 to have

The clause would ensure that similar concerns relating to the marine environment are taken into account.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I thank the Minister and his Department for the constructive way in which they have examined the Bill and tabled helpful amendments and new clauses. However, I require confirmation of a few matters relating to one or two of them. On the new clause, can the Minister confirm that the proposed duty to have regard to the desirability of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development would not lead to nature conservation interests' being overridden by other interests? Secondly, if a marine site of special interest was notified and a development issue subsequently arose on that site, would the proposed development influence the decision whether to confirm the marine site of special interest?

If the Minister would satisfy me on those two points, I should be happy to accept the new clause.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): I, too, welcome the new clause because, as the Minister says, it

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places on all competent marine authorities, when carrying out any function under the Bill, a duty to have regard to the desirability of achieving sustainable development.

I have a long-standing interest in the potential of the renewable energy industries to contribute to our nation's efforts to achieve sustainable development. I have had some concerns about the Bill's potential for creating an extra hoop for the wind industry to jump through. I believe that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) recognised the concerns of the wind energy industry and I know that since Second Reading he has met the British Wind Energy Association to seek to provide additional reassurance, but I believe that the clause will assist, in that it will help to ensure that genuine, sensible economic development can still take place in the right circumstances, in suitably protected marine sites of special interest.

I did not hear the Minister make any specific reference to the offshore wind industry and I hope that when he replies to the debate he might allude in a little more detail to how the clause would provide additional protection against further delays in considering consents for offshore wind farms to go ahead. I say that against a backdrop of some concern in our country about whether we shall meet our CO 2 reduction targets for 2010.

I know that the Minister has heard of the survey by Cambridge Econometrics, published on 4 February, which implied that if current trends from 2000-01 were to continue, by 2010 CO 2 emissions would be only about 6.5 per cent. below 1990 levels. There is a concern that if the sustainable energy industry, such as offshore wind generation, is not helped to grow, our wider CO 2 emission targets might not be achieved. I am sure that the whole House would recognise that that would be a tragedy. The potential for the Bill to place that extra hoop—that extra delay—on the consents process for offshore wind sites is a concern of the industry and should be addressed.

9.45 am

Will the Minister be able to guarantee that when the sites are being designated there will be a consultation process with the offshore wind industry? When sites of special scientific interest—the land-based equivalent of MSSIs—are designated, the selected area must contain more than 1 per cent. of the British population of a specific species. On Second Reading I flagged up the concern of the British Wind Energy Association that many of the identified 18 offshore wind farm sites—the list was compiled just before the last general election—fall within areas that could conceivably be designated as marine sites of scientific interest. Members of the wind energy industry will have to collect data on much of the marine environment before a bid for an offshore farm can be granted and they are concerned that, because of the lack of data about the wider marine environment, a site might be deemed to be a very important marine site of scientific interest and therefore an application for a offshore wind farm would be denied.

Can the Minister tell me what the clause could do to help on carbon capture and sequestration? He will know from his involvement in the recently published energy review that there is growing industrial interest in removing carbon dioxide from fossil fuels before they are

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released into the atmosphere—sequestering the carbon in deep repositories so that it is locked up and is not released into the atmosphere. That process offers a series of benefits to the coal industry and other fossil fuel industries, enabling them to continue to produce and to provide jobs for this country while not continuing to damage the environment.

Two necessary steps have been identified for carbon capture and sequestration. First, the carbon dioxide must be captured; then it must be transported to a geologically appropriate repository. I raise that issue at this stage because the United Kingdom has many potential CO 2 repositories under the bed of the North sea, so there is a concern that the Bill might, down the line, stop sensible development of carbon capture and sequestration. I realise that there is a need for research and investigation in other forums on whether carbon capture and sequestration can genuinely help the achievement of our carbon dioxide targets, but I hope that the Minister can give some reassurance that the Bill will not build that additional delay into the system. That would cause problems.

I welcome the new clause; it is a sensible addition to the Bill. I believe that much further work is necessary by the Minister's Department and the Department of Trade and Industry to reduce the time that the planning system requires for consideration of wind energy sites both on land and offshore, and I seek an assurance that, just as we have begun to shorten the likely time scales for granting an application, the consents process for offshore wind energy sites will not suddenly be extended by the Bill. I believe that the clause may help in that regard but I seek reassurance from the Minister to that effect.

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