Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

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Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am warming to Sheffield, not least because the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) says that she stays in a lovely farmhouse only 15 minutes from the centre. If one is 15 minutes from the centre in Cambridge, one is in the next street. Traffic must move more easily in Sheffield than it does in Cambridge. Be that as it may, Members on both sides of the Committee have made a great many important points. Like other hon. Members, I am a member of a local wildlife trust—in my case, the Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire wildlife trust—and I strongly support the work that they do.

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The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) has just crossed swords with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) about the word “otiose”. We do not have a problem with the desirability of biodiversity, and I am absolutely four-square with the hon. Members for Bury, North, for Bridgend and for South-East Cornwall, who clearly explained why it is desirable for local authorities to further biodiversity.

Moreover, the hon. Member for Bury, North is absolutely right about urban and suburban areas and the fact that biodiversity applies to us all. I merely flag up the slight concern as to whether it is right to push another duty on to local authorities rather than let them decide for themselves. I am taking a step back from biodiversity and looking at it from the wider perspective of letting local authorities make their own judgments and take their own decisions on all sorts of issues, which is something I feel strongly about.

I shall move an amendment later that also relates to the relationship between central Government and Parliament and the decision-making process of local government. I am a little wary of moving away from consolidating the duty to have regard to biodiversity to a duty to further the cause of biodiversity, not because I do not want biodiversity—I do—but because I am not sure that we should constantly push more definitive responsibilities on to local authorities.

Hon. Members on both sides have taken the opportunity to refer to projects and activities in their constituencies that show where local authorities are already furthering the cause of biodiversity. Like everyone else, I have my own examples. All hon. Members have probably received Wildlife Trust briefings, including one about the great fen project, which is close to my constituency and is restoring 3,700 hectares—almost 10,000 acres—of fenland from arable land to traditional fen.

The project involves Huntingdonshire district council working with the Wildlife Trust, English Nature and the Environment Agency. People often take the long way round when they are trying to restore the fen, rather than simply turning off the pumps and letting it all happen naturally, which they could do quite easily, because most of the fen is naturally drained. The only problem is that not a small number of my constituents could become homeless quite quickly, given the number of houses that are now below sea level.

The great fen project is a clear example of district councils working well and doing the job properly. I understand the impetus behind the amendment, and support the desire for local authorities to further biodiversity, but I am hesitant about Parliament imposing another duty on them and extending it further, rather than the quite proper way in which the Government are setting out to further biodiversity, which is simply to say that they must have regard to it. Beyond that, it should be a matter for local decision makers.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I start by saying that I am the vice-president of the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, a privilege that I share with the right
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hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who knows a great deal more about bird life than I do. Perhaps I know more about wildlife than he does.

Clause 40 is an important new clause. I do not think that we should pass it without appreciating its significance. It builds on the work of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and places a new duty on local authorities to have regard to biodiversity. It is the first time that such a duty has existed. That duty applies not just to local authorities but to public bodies.

Will the Minister confirm that regional development agencies are public bodies? I am sure that they are. If so, the new duty will apply to regional development agencies. A duty of sustainable development has already been placed on them, but I am not convinced that they always give that duty sufficient priority. Regional development agencies do good work. For example, the East Midlands Development Agency—EMDA—recently helped to fund the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s new visitor and entertainment centre at Attenborough nature reserve’s fine building. That is a specific project.

However, RDAs are particularly driven by economics and the notion of sustainability and biodiversity does not, to my mind, have high enough priority with the agencies. So I hope that the Minister will make it clear to RDAs that this new duty applies to them.

I join other hon. Members in commending the work of local authorities. There is a new vision and impetus in local authorities to consider biodiversity and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North said, to consider local wildlife sites in particular. Some local authorities are extremely good, but a survey of them all would find them to be patchy. The issue that the amendments address is straightforward. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire put it well. The question is whether the duty to conserve biodiversity is a passive duty that local authorities must have regard to, a thinking duty, or whether it is more action-oriented and the duty is to further biodiversity.

I will give some examples from my county, Nottinghamshire, in which the local authority should have done more. At North Muskham, Langold, Everton, North Leverton and in parts of Broxtowe, the bat population has declined because the local authorities have given planning permission for barn conversions and old buildings to become new residences without doing the necessary bat surveys. As a result, the mitigation that is necessary has not taken place. In each case, the local authorities would say that it did have regard to the issue of bats. That is the point of the amendment. Perhaps a duty to further biodiversity would have been helpful in those cases.

Another interesting example, and one that Parliament and all the parties in it have taken an interest in, is the removal of hedgerows. We are beginning to get a grip on that issue. When they are approved by local authorities, removal notices do not define the time of year in which such work should be done. A duty to further biodiversity would be
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extremely helpful in that regard; the local authority would be able to specify at what time of year the work should be done, so as to avoid bird-nesting seasons.

The duty of the local authority as land manager is also relevant. Most local authorities own substantial amounts of land. All the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have, rightly, spoken about their areas and about the beauty of them. I will talk for a moment about Sherwood forest, which has been degraded over the years. Far too much of Sherwood forest is wall-to-wall conifer. If we went back to the days of Robin Hood, real socialism and redistribution—

Mr. Chaytor: Why not?

11.15 am

Paddy Tipping: My hon. Friend asks why not. Colleagues 100 yd down the road do not wish to do so. If we were to return to those romantic times—I make the point that Robin Hood came from Nottinghamshire, not from Barnsley or elsewhere in Yorkshire—

Mr. Chaytor: Sheffield?

Paddy Tipping: Not even Sheffield. I will praise Sheffield, but I will not give it that one.

If we were to return to those days, we would reintroduce more heath land and grassland. There has been some remarkable work at some of the old pit sites, such as Blidworth and Bevercotes; a piece of alchemy has transformed those mud heaps into a new greenwood—a new Sherwood forest of deciduous native woodland, and a fair amount of heath land.

It is important that local authorities acknowledge the importance of the provisions of clause 40. I imagine that there will be further debate on the matter during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. However, I look forward to the Minister telling us that RDAs are covered; and I would like to know how he anticipates local authorities having a consistency of approach when implementing the provisions.

The debate on having regard to and furthering is an echo of an earlier debate on clause 2, the purpose clause. I suspect that there is some hesitance to further nature conservation and biodiversity because of the possibility of conflict between economic and social aims. As we acknowledged earlier, Mr. Forth, good practice and good land management would help resolve many of those issues. It is an important clause. Even though interesting amendments have been tabled, it is vital that we applaud the Government for bringing forward such legislation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): I declare at the outset, as did other hon. Members, that I am a member of the Dorset wildlife trust. Indeed, I even went so far as to raise money for it by walking from one end of my constituency to the other. I took a couple of days; it was most enjoyable and a fantastic opportunity to appreciate the biodiversity of my constituency. I enjoyed it again at the weekend when I helped to organise a horse-riding event, when I
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followed a hare that was running along the road in front of the car, and when I witnessed a couple of skylarks on the downland above the Weymouth white horse. I enjoyed myself considerably when admiring the biodiversity in Dorset.

It will help if I sketch out exactly what clause 40 does. It places a duty on all public bodies and statutory agencies to have regard to conserving biodiversity in the normal exercise of their functions. The definition of conservation in that instance includes restoring and enhancing habitats and the populations of living species. I can tell the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire—I am grateful for his supportive comments —that it is a duty. Its purpose is to clarify existing duties and to raise the profile of biodiversity. The generic nature of the duty allows complete flexibility in delivery, and it allows public bodies to implement it in the way that is most relevant to their functions and to the opportunities that are open to them—and local authorities are accountable for that to their electors. It is intended to encourage a culture shift, so that public bodies make biodiversity a natural and integral part of the decision-making process.

I am sure that the Committee will be pleased to hear that DEFRA will be supporting the implementation of the duty—for example, through the additional allocation of £850,000 per year to support regional and local biodiversity partnerships. That will assist partners such as local authorities better to integrate biodiversity into their policies and operations. The duty will apply to England and Wales, and I can tell the Committee, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, that it will apply to all public bodies—not only local authorities, but Government Departments and regional bodies, including regional development agencies.

The amendments, as we have heard, seek to strengthen the duty by requiring public bodies to aim to further the conservation of biodiversity. We are comfortable that the wording of the Bill goes far enough to encourage public bodies to integrate biodiversity into their functions. While the duty does not prejudge the outcomes for biodiversity—which, to some extent, the amendment seeks to do by using the word “further”—it should mean that decisions are more beneficial for the conservation of biodiversity than they might otherwise have been. I have had conversations with officers of English Nature, who would value the ability to go to local authorities or other public bodies—regional development agencies are a good example—to point out to them their statutory duty to have regard to the conservation of biodiversity.

We are, primarily, trying to tackle the instances in which biodiversity loses out because it is not taken into account. On that basis, this duty is sufficient. Local authorities have been much referred to by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall and by my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend and for Bury, North, and 67 per cent. of them do not include
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biodiversity questions on their planning application forms. The duty set out in the Bill would address that. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) waxed lyrical about the excellent performance of his local authority. I pay tribute to the many local authorities and councils throughout the country that work hard in the pursuit of biodiversity conservation. However, the fact that 67 per cent. do not include such questions suggests that we need to do a little more, as we have heard. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend that councils will have to worry about the newts; they will have to have due regard to them under the new duty.

Strengthening the “duty to further” would raise difficult questions for local authorities and other public bodies. The Committee is in agreement that it is desirable to further biodiversity. The question is whether stating that as a duty will cause difficulty. Let me give an example. A local authority could be faced with a decision between two projects, one that is good for biodiversity but bad in other ways, and another that is neutral for biodiversity, but furthers things economically and socially. I would not want to make that local authority subject to legal challenge for not opting for the plan that furthered biodiversity when it could have gone for the neutral one that did no damage to biodiversity but allowed it to further some of its other aims.

Mr. Breed: As mentioned, the measure will bring England and Wales into line with Scotland. Is the Minister aware of any problem, along the lines that he just described, in Scotland, which has been subject to this duty for some time?

Jim Knight: The issue of Scotland is one on which we celebrate devolution—the ability of each nation to decide for itself how to interpret things and which duties to apply. I do not want to comment unduly on the effect of that; I want to concentrate on what is right for England and Wales. To introduce an extra duty to further biodiversity has the potential to cause some difficulty, and to invite legal challenges on individual decisions of public bodies. In my constituency, the Ministry of Defence does an admirable job in furthering biodiversity on the ranges at Lulworth and around the camp at Bovington—for example, by taking extraordinary steps to protect sand lizards around the tank training tracks. There are excellent examples of Departments as well as local authorities furthering biodiversity, but there may be circumstances where the Ministry of Defence, for example, needs to take actions to further its own statutory aims. As long as those aims are neutral in relation to biodiversity, we should not be critical of them and make them subject to legal challenge because they did not further biodiversity.

Mr. Chaytor: On neutrality, would the Minister accept that it is in the nature of a duty that merely requires a body to have regard to something that the body could have regard to it and then choose to ignore it completely?

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Jim Knight: The body could have regard to biodiversity and choose to take another action, but it would have to be able to demonstrate that it had regard to the purpose of conserving biodiversity. If it were challenged, it would then be able to demonstrate that it had properly considered the biodiversity implications of its actions. That is the important aspect of what we are trying to introduce here, which I think all Committee members would agree is a positive step forward—although some may argue that we should go a little further.

In short, the duty to “have regard” is in my view the most appropriate approach. I have listened carefully to hon. Members and I say in passing to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood that tomorrow I shall be launching a new woodland policy, to which I am sure he will pay close attention. I think that we have the most appropriate approach regarding duties on public bodies in relation to biodiversity, and on that basis I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Breed: We have had nearly an hour of very good, honest and straightforward debate. At the end of the day, I feel that there is not a great deal of difference between the parties or many individuals.

When I considered the clause, I immediately felt the same way that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire felt about imposing another duty on local authorities. Local authorities have had enough duties imposed on them during the past few years and as a former councillor—as I suspect many hon. Members were—I recognise that many councils feel that they have become not much more than agents of central Government. I needed to be persuaded of the case to impose another duty on them.

I was persuaded because of two or three issues. It is rather ironic that those areas of the country that have for a long time protected the countryside through planning policies, protected biodiversity and taken the matter extremely seriously have become a magnet for people who wish to move. They have become places that people now want to go to and thus are subject to considerable pressure for more development.

The first reason that I felt that this duty was needed was that in future local authorities might value having an additional duty to give them the armoury and protection that they need to go into fights with developers over particular sites so that they can genuinely say, “I’m sorry, but we have a duty to conserve biodiversity rather than just have regard to it.” That would give them a stronger hand in dealing with development applications in sensitive places.

To a certain extent, it is a matter of value judgments, and I think that what the Minister is saying about having regard is all right, but what value do we attribute to the regard of biodiversity against what happens in a planning application, the management of an estate or whatever? Where is the value judgment? The value of biodiversity has moved from almost nowhere to way up the scale, but sometimes just having regard to it means that sites can deteriorate.
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They will not be maintained at their current level if planning applications are approved merely because the planning authority has had regard to biodiversity.

Then we come to those situations where local authorities, having had regard for biodiversity, properly refuse an application. In 99 cases out of 100, the applicant will immediately go to appeal. However, I suspect that if there were a duty to conserve biodiversity there would be little doubt that such applicants would not appeal and that if they did, the planning inspectors would have much more opportunity to give such value judgments the force that we all believe is right.

11.30 am

We have concentrated on local authorities but are talking about all public bodies, some of which have approached the situation much more proactively than others. I always smile a little when we talk about the Ministry of Defence. Having spoken on defence for a couple of years, I recognise that it does a fantastic public relations job of telling us how great it does on its ranges, while largely forgetting about the acres of land that it churns up with tanks and explosives on Dartmoor. The MOD does a great job on the margins, but in the middle, where it thunders around with huge tanks ripping up the soil, I am not quite so certain that it has regard for biodiversity.

There is a measure of agreement across the Committee that the issue is important. The clause is welcome, although even at this stage the Minister has not persuaded me that there are great difficulties. He could have given lots of examples of real conflict in Scotland, where similar proposals have been passed. My view is that many local authorities would welcome the protection that they would give in negotiations on developments in or close to sensitive sites, rather than opposing them as another duty. I would therefore like to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 9.

[Division No. 2]


Breed, Mr. Colin
Williams, Mr. Roger


Chaytor, Mr. David
Cunningham, Tony
Kidney, Mr. David
Knight, Jim
Mann, John
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Smith, Ms Angela C.
(Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Tipping, Paddy

Question accordingly negatived.

Jim Knight: I beg to move amendment No. 138, in clause 40, page 14, line 19, after ‘means’, insert ‘in relation to England,’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 139.

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Jim Knight: I shall not detain the Committee very long. The amendment makes a minor technical revision to subsection (5) to reflect the difference in practical interpretation of the term “authority” in England and Wales. I apologise that we had not recognised the difference, but it has come to our notice that we need to define local authorities in Wales properly. I apologise in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who I am sure noticed that and would have tabled an amendment if we had not done so.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 139, in clause 40, page 14, line 21, at end insert—

      ‘(b)   in relation to Wales, a county council, a county borough council or a community council;’.

      ‘(b)   in relation to Wales, a county council, a county borough council or a community council;’. —[Jim Knight.]

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 40, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 41

Biodiversity lists and action (England)

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 4, in clause 41, page 14, line 33, at end insert

    ‘and such other bodies as he sees fit’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 5, in clause 42, page 15, line 6, after ‘Wales’, insert

    ‘and such other bodies as the Assembly sees fit’.

Mr. Williams: I should point out that I have recorded in the Register of Members’ Interests ownership of and partnership in a farming business in Wales, as that may be reflected in my amendments.

When I first started farming, the Government paid me to drain, plough up and re-seed wetland. That was before the common agricultural policy had come into force, so we cannot even blame the Europeans. I am now paid to reverse the process and re-establish the wetlands, so in one generation I have seen a huge change in land use in this country.

I have not recorded in the register, although perhaps I should, the fact that I am a participant in a scheme run by the Welsh Assembly called Tir Gofal, which means the cared-for countryside or land. That scheme is equivalent to, but much better than, the countryside stewardship scheme in England. It is a very good whole-farm scheme, which takes in all land that is farmed and has an integrated and comprehensive approach to nature conservation.

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The intention behind amendments Nos. 4 and 5 is to be helpful to the Minister, although he rejects our advances, however much we try. The amendments would give him the opportunity to consult other people in England and the Assembly the opportunity to consult other bodies in Wales, rather than just Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales, because we believe that such consultation would benefit the drawing up of the list of species and habitats. The Minister will tell me that he will consult everyone and that the clause merely places a requirements on him to consult Natural England, but it is only fair that the amendment should be part of the legislation, because things change and organisations other than Natural England might come into force. It would therefore be appropriate for the Minister to consult such organisations.

Other factors might also be taken into consideration. Much of our wildlife, for instance, is not only important in this country; many migratory species spend only part of their time here, and it can be difficult to track where many bird species, several insect species and certainly marine wildlife spend some or most of their time. It is therefore important to consult nature conservation bodies not only in this country but in Europe and throughout the world if we are serious about ensuring that our approach to biodiversity is not only neutral, as the Minister says, but a way to promote it for ourselves and future generations.

Such things are not always obvious. A few weeks ago, I went walking with a group of schoolchildren in the hills around their school, and we came across a splendid, huge display of bluebells. I tried to get the children to show some enthusiasm, but they said, “Bluebells are bluebells; we see them all the time.” Britain has one third of all European bluebells, so although the species is common, this country is an important habitat for it, because we have so many areas where it can flourish and thrive.

I shall not pursue the matter, but my point applies not only to European and world bodies involved with nature conservation; on a lower level, many people and bodies with relevant expertise could be consulted.

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