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Experience has shown that deadlines do slip. In that event, such a serious consequence as the removal of a valuable property right would not be acceptable without being based on transparent and robust examination of the facts. Any removal of the right of abstraction must be supported by robust scientific evidence, and not driven merely by the precautionary principle or a looming deadline.
The revocation of a licence is a serious matter, especially when the continuation of a producer's business depends on access to water. It is clearly not in the abstractor's interest to cause serious environmental damage, and it must be a minority of licences that fall into this category. Sustainable abstraction is the goal that the Environment Agency, farmers and growers work towards, and should not be jeopardised by a last-minute administrative panic by the regulator, who is bound by a rigid end-date. Our proposal would allow the flexibility that is reasonable.
I am grateful to the Government for tabling the programme motion last week. That helped a little. I am bound to say, however, that a day and a half for discussion would have been more appropriate than a day, which is why my colleagues and I voted against the motion.
The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) was right to raise the presumption of renewal of licences. New clause 12, tabled by me and by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), seeks to achieve approximately the same end. It takes its wording from the Environment Agency's guidelines on the presumption of renewal. Many industries requiring licences have expressed a fear that it will be difficult to obtain investment with time-limited licences. That
We should strike a balance between environmental protection and the necessary limiting of licences, and providing a degree of certainty for businesses so that they can plan ahead. That means legislating for a presumption of renewal such as that in new clause 12. Such a move would go a long way towards satisfying industries that have rightly and understandably expressed concern, while also protecting the Government's agenda.
Amendment No. 26 seeks to increase the maximum penalty for those who fail to deal properly with enforcement notices served on them. There is a great deal of money to be made in many industries, and it is wrong for people to be able to calculate that failing to reply to a notice is more beneficial financially than replying. Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 simply seek to tie down the issue of when the Secretary of State should be able to exercise what is, in the Bill, a wide discretion by limiting the matters in question to those involving national security. In Committee the Minister indicated that national security was the reason for the provision in the Bill, and no one dissented at the time. The amendments seek to prevent it from being interpreted too widely.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I want to say a little about quarry de-watering, in which, as the Minister knows, I take some interest. I know that the Minister and his colleagues have been very active in trying to discuss it with the industry, and to find a way out of the impasse that has developed.
The issue is simply stated. The difference between the lifetime of a de-watering licence and the lifetime of a permission for mineral extraction means that there can be no certainty, which is a necessary component if investment is to be made in a quarrying undertaking. That has a knock-on effect on the company's profitability and on the more general environmental interests of the type of community that I represent. The Minister will know that probably the highest concentration of limestone extraction workings in the country is found in the east Mendips. I accept some of the reasons why the Minister would reject establishing a linkI realise that it would set a precedent for other industriesbut if there is no link and no clear presumption in favour of renewal, certain problems will arise.
First, as I said, it will be difficult for companies to make the investment decisions that they need to make when approaching a new permission, which will have a knock-on effect on the profitability and viability of the
The issue harks back to interim development orders and the regime with which the Minister is familiar, which has produced difficulties over the years. I vividly recall the long debate that we in Somerset had before giving permission for the first sub-water table working. We had difficulty identifying the hydrogeology of the east Mendips and determining whether we would destroy aquifers and what the long-term consequences would be. It seems to me that, despite the undoubted difficulties of sub-water table undertakings, managing them in an environmentally sensible way is probably preferable to the alternative, which is opportunistic use of existing planning permissions balanced by neither a compensatory regime nor a control regime.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): As one who represents another part of the country with quarrying interests, I strongly support my hon. Friend's views. Does he agree that this is a classic case of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? The Environment Agency is happy with the way in which the regimes are working, and the lack of synchronisation between the existing regimes and the proposed new regimes in terms of time scale is extremely worrying from the point of view of effective planning.
Mr. Heath: I agree. That is the difficulty we face. We do not want to throw the doors wide open to anyone to abstract water over any period simply because they have a planning permission. I understand the Government's position, which is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). However, there are differences between the quarrying industry and other industries that might seek abstraction licences. Essentially, quarrying is a non-consumptive industry. First, it does not take the water away, which would be a clear potential environmental threat, but stores it and replaces it in a manner determined via the licence and permission. Secondly, a quarrying company has few alternatives. If a company that wants to abstract water for its use cannot do so because of an environmental licensing argument, it can go elsewhere, but a quarry cannot go elsewhere. It remains where it is and it has to be de-watered; otherwise, it is a large hole with water at the bottom and is of no use to anyone. There is a case for individual treatment of the quarrying industry.
I have examined the amendments and new clauses carefully. I can understand the argument of the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) in support of new clause 2, but I also understand why the Government may not be entirely satisfied with it. I must tell the hon.
I am certainly taken by the Liberal Democrat new clause 12, which is very simple and states what we believe to be the policy of the agency, on which the Minister has provided assurances, and we would like it to be incorporated in the Bill. I enthusiastically support new clause 12, not only in the interests of the industry, which is important in my constituency, but in the interests of the local environment.
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I wish to speak briefly to amendment No. 126, which was tabled by me and by my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Guildford (Sue Doughty). It is similar to an amendment that was moved in Committee, but it has been reworked to reflect the ensuing debate.
The amendment is designed to draw attention to the fact that loss or damage is not defined in the clause, and that consequently it could become a charter for claims against long-established and ecologically valuable businesses such as watercress growers. Special natural conditions have led to the bulk of UK watercress growing occurring in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset. In Dorset, watercress is grown in Bere Regis. It is a long-established and sustainable activity, but the Bill has created concerns about its future.
I thank the Minister for meeting representatives from the industry, me and hon. Members with constituencies in Hampshire. However, concerns remain about clause 24, which provides a new means for persons who suffer loss or damage arising from the abstraction of water to bring a claim against the extractor. Previously, the grant of a licence by the Environment Agency was a defence, and any action had to be taken against the Environment Agency for issuing the licence in the first place. The National Farmers Union is concerned that watercress growers might be exposed to unreasonable claims from those who might perceive that their property value has been adversely affected by variations in the flow of watercourses and winterbournes.
Officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have agreed that there was no intention for the legislation to provide a means of prosecution of business by residents in an area where the change of watercourses or winterbournes was felt to affect the amenity value of properties by removing a desirable characteristic such as the noise of a babbling brook in the garden. By their very nature, many watercourses on chalk down land are intermittent and the extraction of ground water by a watercress farm will not be the only factor in determining how long and how high such a stream will run.