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Mr. Swayne: Will the Minister elaborate on the nature of the criteria being developed: for example, will he confirm that they will be based purely on the site's scientific interest?

10.15 am

Mr. Meacher: That is so, and I will say more soon. The hon. Gentleman is on to an important point and I am able to give assurances in that respect.

While the work of the review is ongoing, I would nevertheless expect English Nature to start looking more closely at the mechanisms for site notification, identifying the costs involved and mapping out new procedures that can be put in place in advance of the outcome of the review. I assure the House that the Government regard protection of the marine environment as a priority: we will give it due consideration in the appropriate allocation of resources to English Nature. I expect English Nature to give the implementation of the Bill's provisions similar emphasis in its corporate plan, and to use its power to notify sites wherever it has identified areas that fully comply with the criteria. I hope that that demonstrates the extent to which we are putting Government resources wholly behind implementation of the Bill.

New clause 6(2) deals with the publication of criteria for site selection by the confirming authority, after consultation with the appropriate conservation agency. New Clause 5 would provide that the confirming authority would be the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in England, and the National Assembly for Wales in Wales. I think it wise to introduce criteria to ensure that sites are notified on a sound and consistent basis, and that they add value and do not duplicate existing designations.

To answer the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), I confirm that the criteria will be scientific and will not take account of socioeconomic considerations. I expect the site selection criteria for England to be based on the JNCC's work under the review. There will be full consultation with the appropriate nature conservation agencies, enabling us to work together to understand the features that merit notification and the likely size of sites. There will be public consultation on the criteria, and before publishing them the Secretary of State will take full account of the views of colleagues. Subsection (3) would allow revision of the criteria after further consultation.

Subsections (4) to (6) deal with the practicalities of notifying a site, clarifying whom the conservation agencies should advise of a site notification and where the notification should be published. The use in subsection (4)(b) of the phrase

acknowledges the difficulties the agency might have in identifying all competent marine authorities who have or could have functions within the area. It is not meant to suggest that the agency will not take account of the views of all those that are known, or do its best to reach them all, merely that certainty is not always possible.

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Subsection (5) stipulates the effective date of a notification under the new clause. Protection applies from the date the notification is first published. A similar provision applies to land-based SSSIs. The purpose is to prevent any deliberate action to destroy the special interest while representations are being considered.

The provisions of new clause 7 would replace those in clause 1(3) to (8) and deal with the options open to the confirming authority in considering a notification made by the conservation agency. The notification should specify the features by reason of which the site is of special interest, and contain a statement that sets out both the conservation agency's objectives for the conservation of those features and its views about the management necessary to secure those objectives. Subsection (1) proposes a period of three months, not one, for the submission of representations, and subsection (3) states that the confirming authority should make a decision on the notification within nine months of the notification having first been published. That is a longer period than the one proposed in the Bill, but it matches the timetable for the consideration of a site of special scientific interest on land under the 1981 Act. To ensure that there is a full opportunity for representations to be made, the longer period based on that precedent is right. I give an assurance to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). As a notification takes effect as soon as it is advertised, the longer period allows better decision making but poses no threat to the conservation of the proposed site. I hope that we can get the best of both worlds.

The statement of views about management of the site is likely to include an indication of the operations which, in the agency's view, would be likely to cause damage to the special features. Representations may be made about this statement, including the listed operations. The statement is likely to prove extremely helpful in, for example, taking decisions under clause 3 in relation to the carrying out of or consenting to operations. It will be important that the competent authority is fully aware, in advance, of the operations that the conservation agency considers are likely to damage the site, and takes full account of these in making its own careful and informed assessment.

Subsection (3) would provide that the powers of the confirming authority extended to modifying the notification, as well as to confirming it as made, or withdrawing it. I should make it clear that the modification may only reduce—not increase—the size of the site, so it may not cover a new and previously not notified area; and it may only remove, not add, features of interest. It may also amend the conservation objectives. If it is not satisfied that the case has been made, the confirming authority may withdraw a notification. However, there must be a notice giving a clear statement of the reasons for the decision.

In considering a notification, the most important issue is the special interest, and whether the conservation agency has demonstrated its existence. Representations may question the scientific basis, but in exercising its functions the confirming authority will also be under the duty, set out in new clause 1, to have regard to the desirability of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development. Environmental sustainability requires the highest level of protection for irreplaceable natural assets, but this cannot be addressed in isolation from proper consideration of economic and social needs,

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and the wider environmental agenda. We shall consider these issues on a case-by-case basis, carefully balancing all the benefits and costs. That is the only way forward.

New clause 8—the House will be glad to know that I am gradually coming to the end of my remarks—addresses circumstances in which the conservation agency wishes to vary the confirmed notification, perhaps because of increased scientific knowledge about the special features or changes in the marine environment.

Notification of a marine site of special interest includes a number of different features. It marks a boundary within which the marine area is of special interest, identifies features of special interest, and includes conservation objectives and a statement of views about how the site should be managed to conserve the features. The provision allows any of these components to be modified and, at subsection (2), power for the conservation body to propose the cancellation of the MSSI, but only if it believes that the area is no longer of special interest. The procedure for varying a notification is the same as that which applies when a site is first notified. There are restrictions on the confirming authority's capacity to modify in subsections (8) and (9).

These provisions are modelled on those that already apply to notification of SSSIs under section 28 of the 1981 Act, as amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. They provide a necessary degree of flexibility so that the conservation agencies can ensure that notifications remain accurate and take account of new information and knowledge.

Where the conservation body proposes to cancel a notification it may do so only if it is satisfied that the area is no longer of special interest. The site will continue to be protected until such a notification is confirmed, and the confirming authority will consider the arguments, and any representations made, extremely carefully. I believe that I should mention that for the sake of completeness and thoroughness. In my view, the procedure will be used only exceptionally. If we are to provide a means of identifying and protecting nationally important sites, it would be inappropriate to include sites which we recognised were not, or no longer, of special interest.

Amendment No. 38 deletes clause 7, and new clause 5 would replace it with provisions that clarified the definitions used in the Bill. They are technical in nature and place the definitions in alphabetical order, for ease of reference.

As the only function of relevant marine authorities is the establishment of management schemes, the list of authorities permitted to establish management schemes is proposed in amendment No. 2. The definition of "relevant marine authority" is therefore deleted as this term is no longer used.

The definition of a "European marine site" has been clarified to ensure that it has the same meaning as the 1994 habitats regulations. The definition of "competent marine authority" is now much closer to the definition of "competent authority" in the habitats regulations. I am sure that that has been done to make things simpler and easier to understand and administer. As with the habitats regulations, bodies such as the Crown Estate Commissioners and sea fisheries committees are competent marine authorities.

Subsections (2) and (3) would enable the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales, as appropriate, to amend the definition of "competent marine authority"

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by statutory instrument in respect of sites that have been notified by English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales.

New clause 2 replaces clause 1(9). It merely clarifies procedures on the installation of markers indicating the boundaries of MSSIs. The nature conservation agencies must seek the permission of the owner of the land or sea bed on which the markers are to be placed, and must remove markers if the site is denotified. We expect English Nature to forward a copy of site boundaries to the Hydrographic Office, which will consider whether to mark these on Admiralty charts.

I apologise to the House for the extreme detail and the length of my remarks. However, it is extremely important that there should be no dubiety about the operation of the Bill. I hope that my remarks have been positive towards that end. On that basis, I commend the new clauses and the amendments to the House.

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